Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How to eat crawfish fast!

I was invited to a crawfish boil party during Memorial day long weekend.  According to my friend, I have crawfish special eating kongfu.  I eat twice or three times faster than my American friends. 

So here's how I eat crawfish.

P.S. Crawfish boil is also a popular Chinese dish and we eat quite often there.

Taipei - you touched my heart! - people and culture

I always have been curious about Taiwan, ever since I started school education.  Growing up in Shanghai I was taught that Taiwan is part of China, Nationalists are bad people, they did not care for people and did not fight against the Japanese, only Communists saved China, etc. Gradually our country opened its door in the 1980s.  We started meeting people from overseas, and heard different voices.  My perception of Taiwan changed a little bit, as I learned that people have real voting rights and meaningful political campaigns for elected office there.  Finally, in my early twenties, I made my conclusion, Taiwan is probably the most democratic country in Asia.

However the Taiwanese people I met in Shanghai were not so nice.  We usually associated them with farmers, (yes, they are!  They sold their land in Taiwan to the government and got the money and come to China to invest), and those men usually have one wife in Taiwan, several concubines in China (and yes, it is modern China, in 1980s and 1990s). 

So you see, I have mixed feelings about Taiwan.  I admired that country's economic development and social progress, but I didn't like the Taiwanese people I met in Shanghai. 

My husband Steve went to Taipei in early 1990s to study Mandarin. I always teased him he has a sissy boy Taiwanese Chinese accent.  After this trip, I eventually understand why and how he gets that accent, and I will tell you later. 

Once I arrived in Taipei, there are several events really changed my perception towards people in Taiwan.  They are civilized, nice, polite and soft spoken (yes, this is where Steve got his accent) and quiet.  I was so surprised, oh, there is a society of nice Chinese people.  There is a place in the world where Chinese people use Mandarin to say Please, Thank you, Excuse me!

1. On the train  we had a lot luggage, without paying too much attention, we entered the business class cart. A train attendant helped us move our luggage from cart to cart, throughout the whole way, she did not stop saying "bu hao yi si, ma fan le", excuse us, sorry)

2. in Starbucks

I want to order some iced tea.  However I forgot in Asian countries, unlike Texas, nobody buys iced tea.  So the shop boy told me, "Sorry, we don't have iced tea, how about hot tea and I will give you some ice, let's put the ice in a mug, and the tea in a paper cup.  Remember to soak the tea longer and it will taste better and please feel free to refill the hot water!"  OMG, everything was said in Mandarin, nice and soft! Even in America I don't receive service like that. 

3. On the subway, nobody eats or makes noise.  Everybody waits in line.  Shanghai is not orderly like that, and neither is New York.

4.  We went to Eslite Bookstore (an amazing place) and while I was there I saw a talk by two actors promoting an independent theater production.  These guys were actually talk about their feelings and emotions, in public!  When most people think of Chinese theater, they think of Beijing Opera, or emperor shows, that are either very stylized or very distant from the modern or the here-and-now.  There's really no such thing as independent theater in China, so this was really something special to me.

5. Reading the hotel brochure, I saw tons of Chinese cultural events, like how Chinese characters evolved over the last 5000 years - things I have never seen in mainland China.

6. We visited the National Palace Museum which was amazing.  I am not saying the museum has the best collection, because I don't know.  That said, they certainly have a world class exhibition and management system.  It seemed like they manage Chinese art like the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The most touching thing to me was the fact that, everywhere we went, people were polite, warm and friendly, whether they were taxi drivers, hotel staff, restaurant staff or strangers we need to ask directions from.  I never felt like I needed to worry if I was over paying, or getting screwed on a deal.

This is a totally different than I get in China.  In China, I always have to worry about whether someone is cheating, or try to steal money from me, or that I might get my pocket picked.  (Yes, that happened to me on a visit home a few years ago.)  People there are noisy, loud, don't have good sanitary habits and they still spit.

I was shocked!  These people in Taiwan have the same looks as we do - black eyes, yellow skin, black hair - and we speak the same language, and yet there seems to be a huge cultural difference

At the Eslite Bookstore mentioned above, I found a huge variety of books that I would not imagine to see in China. 

What a free country!  They have real people, you can just sense the freedom, openness and atmosphere of simplicity and sincerity. 

To my Chinese readers, I encourage you to pay a visit to Taiwan.  You will find, as a Chinese person, you can experience a Western level of cultural development and civilization, while still fully Chinese, in your native language.

To my Western readers, if you want to visit China, I encourage you to put Taiwan on your list as well.  Taiwan is certainly not a hot destination in the same way that Beijing, Shanghai, or even Hong Kong or Singapore are...and it probably never will be.  The media ignores it these unless there is political tension between Taiwan and China.  Because of the political situation, or at least until something changes, Taiwan won't be hosting an Olympics or similar event that would thrust it on the world stage.  But what Taiwan does offer like nowhere else I know, is a modern, developed Chinese society where people are warm and sincere.  And Taiwan has plenty going for it in terms of natural beauty, from hot springs to scenic national parks and beaches

Thank you Taiwan for showing me a real society, a free civilized Chinese society I never experienced or imagined.

Taipei - you touched my heart! - food!

After I went to Taipei, I finally understand how nice Chinese food can be!  The food here was not salty, was not oily and did not have MSG! As I mentioned in my Singapore food post, advanced foodies relentlessly debate whether Singapore or Taipei has better food.  Here is my take: Singapore has more variety, they offer Chinese, Malay, Indian and western food at a fairly high level.  But as far as Chinese food goes, Taipei definitely is the BEST! The soup dumpling restaurant Din Tai Fung is a Michelin star Chinese restaurant.

After I read all kinds of websites and travel books, I reached a conclusion, I need to try Taipei's night market food, this is where local people go!

Let me give you a food tour!

Freshly roasted potato stall

The owner is making a Chinese dessert. It usually contains chewy tapioca balls, super boiled red bean or green mung bean, and some corn syrup and shaved ice. It is light and tasty. 

Menu - 1 US Dollar equals to about 28 New Taiwan Dollar

Traditional Taiwanese food - Oyster Omelet 

My eyes were widely open - keep in mind, this was after 20 hours travel time, and it was past midnight local time

Traditional Chinese breakfast - congee  We had that in China too, but I found in Taipei, they usually offer more "add-ons", for example, shredded pork, grilled fish and seaweed is instead of just pickled vegetable. And also the "add-ons" are usually much fresher in Taiwan than those in China.  I ate this pretty much every morning when I was there, it was so delicious.

This is what they sell in 7-Eleven, various kinds of Oden .  I guess you know why Asian people are thin now, they eat oden instead of hot dogs .

Guess what Steve is waiting?

an order of wrap with special sauce marinated thin sliced beef.  This was one of his favorites from his English teacher days of twenty years ago.  It was worth cheating on the vegetarian diet for the delicious trip down memory lane!!

Here is the name of the restaurant - if you ever want to go, I can give you the address. 

24 hour restaurant - Yonghe Soy Milk King.  As super jet lagged as we were during the first couple days in Taipei, this place became a prefect choice.

We had - freshly made cold soy milk, warm soy milk, turnip cake, youtiao and shaobing.

"Chicken fried steak" - we did not eat there, but we found it funny.  In Texas, we have chicken fried steak too (but it's something very different!).  I ate what I guess we would call in Texas "chicken fried chicken" once in Taipei.  The chicken was marinated very well, a bit spicy, and a bit black peppery. 

Legendary Din Tai Fung - it was part of our midnight Taipei jet lag tour, we found its original location, not far from where Steve used to live.

Teppanyaki! It cost two of us about 250 NT$ including drinks, rice and soup, less than USD 10, we ate like queen and king there.

The asparagus is ours!
Cod fish

The real deal!

Taiwanese dessert place

You may think I am weird.  (Some of my friends who have seen me in action definitely do!)  I found this kind of Chinese dessert super delicious. It is called Yu Yuan Xian Cao Bing (ice).  Xian Cao means grass jelly -  which contains a clean, lightly sweet flavor, with just a hint of herbal aroma. Grass jelly is cooling and slippery, and gently dissolves in your mouth.  Yu Yuan are soft cubes of stewed taro.  The combination is mixed with shaved ice. It is light, sweet and tasty.

In KFC, we had egg tart.  It is also a kind of Portuguese dessert.

I am having pan fried big dumpling stuffed with garlic chives

Steve is having his last piece of shaobing youtiao

Singapore = Wonderland? - hotel, luxury retail and other miscellaneous thoughts

Not surprisingly, we relied on Trip Advisor to find our hotel in Singapore - Royal Plaza on Scotts.  I am not going to elaborate it more.  In general it is not bad, a standard 5 star hotel in a very good location.  It is clean, spacious, convenient and it met our needs.

Hotel lobby  

There was a flower arrangement art exhibition in our hotel when we were there.  I took a few pictures.

Orchard and Scotts = Luxury Retailing Ground Zero

In Singapore, because I stayed right on Orchard and Scotts (one of the premium shopping locations) in Singapore, I encountered one of the most overwhelming branded luxury experiences every time I walked out the front door.  Honestly, even Fifth Avenue in New York does not compare.  Orchard Road is like a luxury brand magnet.  France's Hermes is one of the world's premier luxury brands.  Within a 0.5 mile radius of my hotel, I saw 5 Hermes stores. (there are 3 more in the Changi airport).  I never seen so many luxury stores in such a small area in my life.  (OK, I had my game face on and didn't take as many photos as I probably should have done of the shops...but check out ION Orchard or other people's photos for a sense of what I'm talking about.)

Other observations from Singapore worth noting:

  • Singapore traffic relies on something called the ERP (electronic road pricing) system.  If you want to drive in restricted (high traffic) areas during peak demand periods, you pay a variable fee.  I know that Singapore is a very expensive place to own a car, and I'm sure Singaporeans have their own views about this, but one thing I noticed was the complete lack of traffic jams.  

  • Food court trust system - people leave their cell phones on the table to reserve a seat.

  • Nice and clean subway system with air conditioning that works!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Singapore = Wonderland? - Amazing Marina Bay Sands and Changi Airport

Of all the places I visited in Singapore, I was most impressed by the Marina Bay Sands hotel/casino/shopping complex and the Changi Airport.  Let's explore!

Marina Bay Sands

The complex is topped by a 340m-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people. The SkyPark is home to the world's longest elevated swimming pool, with a 146-metre (478 ft) vanishing edge, perched 191 meters above the ground. The pools are made up of 422,000 pounds of stainless steel and can hold 376,500 gallons (1424 cubic metres) of water.

Imagine yourself swimming in the pool and looking over the whole world! 

Outside the complex - This is the first time I see a palm tree with stem protection.

The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands also boast close to 1,000,000 square feet (93,000 m2) of retail space with over 300 stores and F&B outlets. This mall reminds of Houston Galleria but a cleaner, higher end and better food choices version. 

Beautiful jewelry design with Chinese elements

Hotel inside: The resort is designed by Moshe Safdie, who says it was initially inspired by card decks.

Architecture, investment and social fun facts

  • Marina Bay Sands is developed by Las Vegas Sands, it is billed as the world's most expensive standalone casino property at S$8 billion, including cost of the prime land. Las Vegas Sands declared the undertaking as "one of the world's most challenging construction projects and certainly the most expensive stand-alone integrated resort property ever built".
  • Singapore citizens and permanent residents have to pay a S$100 daily entry levy or S$2,000 for annual unlimited access fee to get into the casino.  As you can see, the government is more interested in making money from tourists and discourages their local people from spending too much time in casino.  Considering the history of Chinese opium war, I think this is a very effective public policy. Comparing with Las Vegas where 60% income is from American local guests, more than 60% income of Marina Bay Sands is from overseas guests.
  • After two years of operation, Marina Bay Sands already got its initial investment back, and made S$19 billion
  • Singapore is the world's second-biggest casino gambling market, behind Macau, in front of Las Vegas.  Let's look:
Las Vegas Sands - 2011 Casino Revenues (USD '000s)

Macao Venetian                      2,430,144
Macao Sands                          1,251,084
Macao Four Seasons               583,476
Total Macao                            4,264,704         57.3%
Marina Bay Sands                   2,364,922
Total Singapore                       2,364,922        31.8%
Las Vegas                                430,758
Sands Bethlehem                     376,618
Total U.S.                                807,376           10.9%
Total                                        7,437,002
Source: Company 10-K report

Changi Airport

Between traveling in Singapore and Malaysia, I ended up spending a fair amount of time in Changi airport.  Before I came to Changi, I considered Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport to be the world's best airport.  It is clean, nice, highly efficient, and has lots of shops.  Now Changi airport just added another level of amazing fun to me.  While it's usually the threat of a long security line and missing my flight that makes me show up early to the airport most of the time, at Changi you'll want to arrive early!  Depending on how much time you have, here are some of the fun things I found that will make your travel experience so much better. 
  • Visit a butterfly garden in the airport (20 mins)
  • Get a FREE foot massage (15 mins)

  • Rediscover the beauty of nature at one of the themed gardens - Cactus garden, Orchid Garden, Fern Garden, Sunflower Garden and Koi fish ponds  (15 mins)
  • Try a fish micro-massage therapy at the Fish Spa & Reflexology (30 mins)
  • Refresh with a quick shower (20 mins)
  • Have a go at the FREE Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (30 mins)
  • Soak up the sun and take a refreshing dip in the rooftop swimming pool (30 mins)
  • Catch a blockbuster movie for FREE at the movie theater (2 hours)
  • Join a FREE Singapore tour and get a glimpse into Singapore's ethnic heritage and tourist attractions (2 hours)
  • Catch a nap at one of their FREE quiet rest areas or check into napping facility (60 mins)   
And let's not forget mentioning the various lounges, huge amount of food choices and business centers with Bloomberg terminals, free internet, hair and beauty services and airport hotels.  I bet I can live in Changi airport for a month without feeling too bored!

And have you ever seen this anywhere in the world?  Complete with name and photo of your "sanitation engineer"...

toilet seat sanitizer

Singapore = Wonderland? - food!

I love watching travel food shows, and I am a fan of Anthony Bourdain.  Most advanced foodies think Taipei and Singapore are the best food towns in Asia, and many of them relentlessly debate which city has better food.  I went to both places this trip.  I have my own views.  Let's look at food in Singapore first. 

As I mentioned before, Singapore hawker food has the world's best management and business model.  They are usually in large scale, and offer huge variety in a clean, orderly and convenient environment.  Not only there is competition between stall owners, but also there is cooperation and complementary services.

Vegetable and fruit market

Indian and muslim snacks - I did not have room to try

Vegetarian food - I did not have room to try either

Fresh fish market

Check out the desserts at McDonald's in Singapore!! They also sell TIRAMISU MCFLURRY! We had one, it was delicious!

Fresh handmade soup dumplings by Din Tai Fung

Steamed cupcakes! - less fat, better taste!

Cold Poached Chocolate - it looks beautiful, I did not have room to try

We had the following in Singpore!

Charcoal roasted chicken wings

Sambal veggie

This is Burmese food.  It is quite fresh, with a little bit spicy and peanut flavor

Famous Singaporean icecream sandwich. And yes, icecream with a slice of bread.  I was talked into getting the durian flavor by the owner (honestly I felt my mouth was kind of stinky afterwards).   I should have ordered taro flavor. 

Laska noodle! You know it is good when you see Steve's happy face.

My veggie noodle soup, fresh and light!

Steve's turnip cake, and my steamed chicken feet (well, I am Chinese indeed) .

We found this place nearby our hotel

Steve had Indonesian food

I had Hainan Chicken Rice, it was not as good as the one in Penang

Steve visited Singapore 20 years ago, and ate at this place.  He still remembered how good it was.

The best dosa I've ever had.  I felt like I had an aroma explosion. It has green, red, and yellow curry sauce, coconut sauce and yogurt.  All the spice and fresh ingridents blend in my mouth perfectly, I would not know how it would work otherwise. 

Since we visited Taipei, we are emotionally connected to food here.  We found this Taiwanese chain restaurant in Singapore.  I tried traditional Taiwanese food oyster noodle, it was delicious

Steve ordered rice cake soup.

Potato leaves stir fried with spicy sauce

We found another "old time good restaurant" Hong Kong Cafe - Xin Wang Cafe
Steve ordered peanut butter French toast - oh boy, it was good!

My shaved ice with coffee and grass jelly flavor (I know, it sounds very Chinesey! )