Let’s talk about… books: Coffee and Commutes Edition

I just got back from an incredible weekend trip to see Puerto Iguazu to see the breathtaking Iguazu Falls. They really do make you feel quite sorry for Niagra Falls… I’m currently working through a backlog of blog posts that I want to write about all my little excursions. More on Mendoza, Uruguay, and of course, Iguazu, to come! For now though, I’d like to write a little about something that I have recently welcomed back into my life with open arms: leisure reading.

I regret how little extra-curricular reading I do during the semester. It’s a damn shame that I only find the time to read for fun during breaks and the summer. That said, due to my lack of regular leisure reading, a good book has always been associated with travelling. In fact, I never travel without a handy paperback tucked into my carry-on. Now that I’m in Buenos Aires, reading has come to be associated with two other things: caffeine and commuting. I’ve loved finding a seat on a packed subway and hunkering down to read. And does anything really beat the tranquillity of settling down in a beautiful cafe with a rich cup of coffee and an even richer story?

Here’s what I’ve been reading so far:

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ft. An amazing crostini de salmon at El Gato Negro, one of the cities historic barres notables

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I picked this up because it was light and lying around my house the day I flew out. I’m glad that I wasn’t forced to read this in high school. Being forced to read anything sometimes has the adverse effect of making the material seem dry and arduous. My experience reading this classic was the opposite! I really liked how unlikeable Holden was and found it very relaxing to read about one boy’s experience of one great city while zipping around another. It may sound phoney but this is one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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ft. Colombian coffee and banana bread from Catoti, one of my favourite cafes

I bought this while browsing a beautiful bookstore in my neighbourhood. I knew I wanted an autobiography for my commute – something that I could easily pick up and put down in between subway stops. I was mistaken in thinking that this particular autobiography would be something easy to start and stop. Angelou’s raw account of her  difficult childhood growing up as a black girl in the deep south was incredibly powerful and engrossing. This is a fearless book. I know it will stay with me for a really long time.

Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal by JK Rowling

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ft. An incredible breakfast at Petit Colon, another bar notable in the heart of the theatre district.

Reading in a non-native language is always effortful… unless you happen to know the source material word for word. As exposed in this post, I am a huge Harry Potter nerd. I’ve always wished that I could experience reading the books for the first time again and reading them in Spanish is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to that experience! It’s so magical seeing the iconic lines from the first book in a new language. What’s even more magical is the degree to which I’ve surprised myself with how much I’m able to understand. Check out this video on the story behind Harry Potter translations. Interesting stuff!

The Pelican Brief by John Grisham

I found this gem lying around my host mom’s house. Having binge-watched Suits and The Good Wife, I knew I would enjoy this legal thriller. I devoured it on the plane rides to and from Iguazu. 10/10 would recommend.

Aside from what I’ve been reading, I’ve loved living in what is obviously a literary city. After all, Buenos Aires is the city of Cortázar and Borges. Avenida Corrientes, a road right next to my office, is famous for its many used book stores.

Speaking of book stores, no trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to El Grand Splendid Ateneo, hands down my favourite bookstore in the world. This old theatre turned libreria is a true paradise for book lovers. I could spend hours amongst the bookshelves dividing my time between staring at the titles and at the beautiful ceiling.

The undeniable truth, at least in Hong Kong and in the States, is that bookstore culture is slowly dying. I’ve slowly seen my favourite bookstores back home, bookstores in which I used to spend hours sitting on the floor reading, slowly get replaced by H&Ms and the like. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeonly old man, I sincerely think that there is still something so special about going to an actual store and weighing beautiful stacks of paper and ink in your hands.

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A staircase of books in Palermo.

Called me old fashioned but I am thankful that Buenos Aires has helped my reconnect with my love of reading and of bookstores. Here’s to more slow mornings spent in the company of a good book and a cafe con leche.

Mendoza, where wine is cheaper than water

“When in Mendoza, you really only need to know two words in Spanish: vino, y más. ‘Wine’, and ‘more’. Put them together, and you’re all set: más vino!”

This little phrase, courtesy of our wine tasting tour guide, pretty much sums up our trip to the wine capital of South America. Nat and I spent a whirlwind 48 hours in Mendoza and we made the most of every minute and every drop of wine.

We flew out of Buenos Aires at the ungodly hour of 4:00am. This resulted in pretty much no sleep the night before since we got to the airport at around 2:00am. Luckily, Dionysus (or someone up there) smiled upon us and blessed both of us with completely empty rows in an otherwise jam-packed plane. It seemed too good to be true and it would be just my luck to have been scammed into buy three seats after misinterpreting the Spanish ticketing website. But no matter, the two of us were immediately horizontal and slept during the hour-long flight to Mendoza.

Upon arriving, we cabbed through town to the Chill Inn Hostel in the city center. It was the first time staying in a hostel for both of us and we didn’t really know what to expect. We were greeted by a shaggy night manager who showed us to our dorm. We were pleasantly surprised to see a little alcove with a bunkbed just for the two of us. After a quick power nap, we were ready to take on Mendoza. Overall 10/10 would recommend the hostel vibes.

Mendoza is an autumn city with plazas lined with beautiful trees and boulevards covered by canopies of fall colors. We walked around the city centre for a couple of hours admiring what Nat dubbed “tree porn” in anticipation of the main event: our wine tour.

In Argentina, and several other wine obsessed countries, wine can literally be cheaper than bottled water. For just 400 pesos each (25USD), we had managed to book ourselves a tour of three bodegas (wineries) with an olive oil factory thrown in as well. As we sat on the bus with people from other hostels around the city, we saw the landscape change from urban to rural with vast fields of grapes on all sides. Unfortunately, everything was rather skeletal due to the time of year. I can only imagine what the vines looked like at the peak of bloom.

At every bodega, we were given the option of going on the tour in Spanish or English. Never ones to back down from a challenge, Nat and I opted for the Spanish tour. After all, the language of wine is universal, no? At the first tasting, we were given generous douses of intense and full-bodied Malbec, oaky cabernet sauvignon, and smooth shiraz. Nat, being the champ that she is, pretty much neglected the little bucket they provided for excess wine. I however did not, seeing as we still had two more bodegas to go!

At the second winery, we were treated to a selection of desert wines. There were a couple of sparkling varieties, a particularly feisty moscato, and a couple of rosés. I honestly couldn’t tell you too much about each variety. We had persisted with the Spanish tour and I struggled with comprehension what with the wine buzz and the sleep deprivation.

Luckily, our third stop was an extremely strategically timed visit to an olive oil and balsamic vinegar factory. God! I think I could survive off of good bread, oil, and vinegar for the rest of my life. I shamelessly scarfed down our samples and single-handedly demolished a plate of olive oil soaked sun-dried tomatoes. Carbo loaded, I was ready for our fourth and final stop.

At our last stop, we were treated to some white Torrontés in addition to the standard Malbec. It was the perfect dry and fruity wine to round of our Mendoza wine experience. Now, I’m typing all this as though I actually know quite a bit about wine and as though I haven’t been chugging bagged sauvignon blanc out of cardboard boxes for the past two years of college. But this isn’t all BS. Our guides did do a very good job explaining the different types of wine to us and I do have a better understand of what makes a wine dry instead of light, oaky instead of fruity.

Regardless of taste though, a red wine, be it bagged sangria or high-end Malbec, is enough to put me to sleep. I KO’d on the bus back to the hostel and had a profound siesta before Nat and I went out into the city in search of tacos (we wanted Mexican, ok?!). As we sat there shovelling down guacamole, we reflected on how much we had managed to accomplish in just our first day here: we did a full city tour, took a couple of power naps, ate my weight in olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes, and sipped on countless glasses of wine.

“¡Salud!” we said as we clinked our glasses together. Alas, they were filled with overpriced water since we wisely determined that we were wine-ed out for the day. Not only were we completely satisfied with our day, we were also proud of the fact that we had gotten through it mishap free. Here’s to doing Mendoza right!

The Intimacy of Home Cooking and the Importance of Motherhood

When I first applied for this internship in Buenos Aires, I greatly overlooked how significant the homestay experience would be. I was just so excited to be in Argentina, to see Iguazu, to drink wine in Mendoza, to see tango, and to fulfil any number of other Argentine stereotypes. I completely underestimated how a significant chunk of my experience would revolve around this concept of building a home in this city with my new Argentine family.

If you really think about it, the entire idea of a host family is actually quite amazing. A local family literally decides to adopt you for a prolonged amount of time based on nothing but the trust they have in the program coordinator. The family knows nothing about you other than your name and your university before letting you stomp all over their home upon arrival. For all they know, you could be a totally inconsiderate jerk and yet they’d still have to feed you and wash up after you. The generosity and trust that these host families possess is really quite astounding.

I completely lucked out with my host family. Strictly speaking, I just have a host mom, but I used to have a host sister as well (Olenka, another girl who just finished a semester abroad), and we were a lovely little family. Now, it’s just me and Ivonne, my host mom, but we still make a cozy family of two. Words cannot express how grateful I am for madre, as I call her.

Of all the amazing experiences I have had so far in Argentina, I’d say the one I value the most is building my relationship with her. This happens primarily over the dinner table where madre and I break bread and work on my equally broken Spanish. I love it though! It makes such a difference that I have someone to ask me how my day was every time I come home.

I don’t think I really realised how intimate cooking is until I started eating with madre. I could see that she was concerned with whether or not I enjoyed her cooking which made me extremely aware that every bite I was taking was not only a bite of her hard work, but also a bite of her culture. And while I was tempted to just nod and say that I loved everything, madre was thick-skinned and insisted on honesty. Luckily, we do have very similar tastes and she is a fantastic cook so I genuinely loved most of what she cooked the first week. But after I told her that I didn’t like mayonnaise, coleslaw disappeared from the table and was replaced by a green salad. After I told her I was meh about bananas, apples and oranges suddenly filled the kitchen drawers and the bananas were banished.

After the first week, it’s really just been hit after hit from madre. In particular, I genuinely appreciate how seriously she has taken my request to eat healthy. You are what you eat which is what makes cooking for someone else so intimate. What you cook directly impacts someone else’s health. For the most part, madre and I eat incredibly delicious yet nutritious and light food. Madre really moved me one night when she made a healthy chop suey (veggie stir-fry) with rice after asking me about food from back in Hong Kong. Other favourites of mine include her wonderful pea soup, her grilled vegetables, and her delicious steamed fish. She’s an artist by trade and you can tell that she loves working with her hands and puts care into everything she touches.

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Only an artist would have such an aesthetic cutlery organization system.

Sometimes though, we eat a little naughty (all in the name of cultural immersion though of course). Madre cooks a mean steak (this is Argentina after all), a banging milanesa, and great homemade gnocchi.

On the 29th last month, I walked into the kitchen to see a little ten peso note laid underneath my plate.

“Madre, ¿has perdido diez pesos?” (Mom, have you lost ten pesos?).

“No Rachel, es porque hoy es el día de ñoquis” (No Rachel, it’s because today is the Day of Gnocchi), while loading a mountain of gnocchi and tomato sauce on my plate.

Yeah, you heard that right, Argentina has a monthly gnocchi day. The story of the tradition is that the 29th of every month use to be the day before payday so money and supplies would always be low. Families usually only had potatoes left at that point so delicious little gnocchis, essentially small pillows of potato, was the obvious way to go. Now, families gather on the 29th to eat gnocchi together for good luck. For extra prosperity, the tradition is to put pesos underneath the plate.

Little stories like this have greatly enriched my experience here (at the expense of enriching my waistline as well). I’ve loved learning about my madre and her culture through the amazing food that she puts in front of me every night. After each meal, I wash the dishes while she drys. We’re a perfect team. I am so thankful for being let into this home and for being so welcomed. This experience has shown me the importance of home cooking. It has reminded me how linked home food is to motherhood (I don’t call her madre for nothing), to nourishment, to wellbeing, and to tradition. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but salivate a little at the thought of what madre is going to serve up tonight. Whatever it is, it is sure to be made with love and entirely mayonnaise free!

Red Herring: The Hidden History of Food in The Hague

The Hague is the third-largest city in the Netherlands and is the seat of the Dutch government, Parliament, the Supreme Court, and the Council of State, but is somehow not the capital of the country (that’s Amsterdam. Don’t ask me why. I’m confused too). Additionally, it is home to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. In other words, it is a MUN kid’s wet dream. Balim, Sunaina, and I all do some sort of international relations work and were very excited to go see what the fuss was all about.

The Hague is only a short train ride from Amsterdam (you can read about my love of Dutch infrastructure here). We got there bright and early and proceeded to explore this historic town.

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Stumbled upon The Hague’s Chinatown. I’m drawn to these things like a moth to a flame.

In a nod to the international spirit of the city, we soon found ourselves wandering on cobblestone streets flanked on either side with Greek (or is it Turkish?) gyro stalls, Indian (or is it really more British?) curry restaurants, and Chinese (or is it Singaporean?) chicken rice vendors.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring, one of my all-time favorites.

After stopping to say hi to Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis, we headed to an Indonesian restaurant for lunch. After all, the only Western city with better Indonesian food than Jakarta is Den Haag. The satay and nasi goreng did not disappoint us which is quite an achievement seeing as Balim grew up in Singapore, I grew up in Hong Kong, and Sunaina spent most summers in New Delhi. Our mini-United Nations panel of food critics came to the consensus that Dutch Indonesian food was certainly worth the hype.

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I sadly don’t have better photos of this amazing meal. Was frankly too busy enjoying it to properly document!

But let’s take a moment to unpack how something like “Dutch Indonesian”, or rijsttagel (literally meaning “rice table”) even came to be. The evolution of food has always been a political process. The origins of rijsttagel are entirely colonial. Over the course of the 18th century, the powerful Dutch East India Company was the dominant economic and political power on the island of Java. In 1800, the company was nationalised and the area came under the administration of the Dutch government. Many Dutch business people and ministers relocated to the island in order to oversee its governance. Rijsttagel was created as a feast to showcase cuisine from all over the archipelago to those Dutch officials. It traditionally consisted of many (up to 40) small dishes including gado-gado (vegetables in peanut sauce), krupuk (shrimp crackers), and everything in between. All of these small dishes were ceremonially paraded up to the table and served with rice.

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Rijsttagel in the 18th century. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Though this is a gross simplification, Dutch rule in the area had all the classic trappings of colonial life: a rigid and racially based social order, establishment of Western models of infrastructure, exploitation of natural resources, and a certain degree of violence.

The words colonialism and its uglier cousin, imperialism, often illicit strong reactions, and for good reason – as concepts, they tackle complicated themes of self-determination, race, history, and globalisation. My purpose in writing this is not to make some grand statement about the Age of Empire (I might write about that some day, but not today). Rather I’m trying to demonstrate that something as seemingly simple as deciding what to eat while on a trip to The Hague is actually a decision laden with historical circumstance.

But as messy and complicated as that hidden history is, isn’t our consumption (literally) of that history the beauty of travel? The idea that eating like a local can be a history lesson, more vivid and salient than anything in a textbook, is very moving to me.

Food is primal. And food is often, for better or worse, tied up with national identity. The Turks and Greeks fight over who owns yogurt. A classic South East Asian fish salad is called yusheng by the Singaporeans but yee sang by the Malaysians. Both have pointed fingers at the other for “hijacking” the dish. Even the Aussies and the Kiwis, two peas in a pod, have fought over who has claim to pavlova!

So what does it mean to consume food and history from all over the world? What do we make of amazing dishes like rijsttagel that wouldn’t have been possible without colonialization? I’m honestly still not sure (although I’m certainly not going to stop eating Hong Kong’s classic egg tarts, a result of British colonialism, any time soon). Perhaps the answer lies in another sight from The Hague – a collection of hopes and aspirations from around the world on a wishing tree outside the Peace Palace. Between the three of us, we were able to read messages in English, Spanish, French, Turkish, and Chinese. The majority of the messages simply wished for world peace and international cooperation.

As Hallmark-worthy as it sounds, people from all around the world just wanted the same things: an end to violence and a better life for their children. Similarly, people from all around the world just want to eat good food. Though food will always been historically complex, I think the best of our food should simultaneously be a celebration of what makes our cultures unique while also being an homage to the fact that the love of food is universal.

But argh, enough of that cheesy stuff. Bringing it back to the title of this post. I’m sure you’re all wondering if I worked up the nerve to try pickled herring. The answer is: yes, of course I did. And it’s honestly pretty normal. It’s just salty fish. I quite liked it actually. But really, I was just happy to be eating something that was definitively Dutch… or is it Nordic (inlagd sill)? German (Bismarckhering)? Estonian (marineeritud heeringas)? Ah! When will I learn!

Exploring the Feria de Mataderos

I’m a firm believer in delayed gratification. The longer you have to wait for something, the better it is when you eventually obtain it. At least, that’s what I told myself as I banged my head yet again against the window of the rickety collectivo (public bus) that I was standing on. It was one of Olenka’s, my amazing host sister here in Buenos Aires, last day in the city and she had invited me to tag along with her and her friends to the Feria de Mataderos, a Sunday fair in a working-class barrio (neighborhood) of the city. I instantly leaped at the opportunity to explore another part of the city and to indulge in some good street food.

However, as the six of us rattled around the inside of the collectivo like clothing in a washing machine for about an hour, I remember thinking to myself “damn, I hope this is worth it”. It. So. Was.

Here are some snapshots that I managed to take in between shamelessly asking for free samples and downing desserts:

Is there anything better than a fresh panqueque (crepe) smothered in dulce de leche? How bout this beautiful little chocolate covered churro, filled with, you guessed it, more dulce de leche? Olenka’s friend Isa also got this divine waffle (at this point, you can just assume that all the desserts have dulce de leche).

There was also meat galore! I had a juicy empanada while also stealing some of Olenka’s boyfriends beef stew. Nothing like a warm guiso on a blustery day.

I highly recommend making the trip down to Mataderos if you find yourself in Buenos Aires. The fair has real character to it with elderly gauchos dressed in full gear dancing in the square and live music to match. Thank you so much to Olenka for inviting me and for also helping me adjust to life here in Argentina! Te extraño muchissimo! Besos!

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Bad lighting, great ~sisterhood~

Now this is real sushi

One day back in Cambridge, I was really craving some good raw fish. I decided to walk to Market and pick up some sushi before meeting my roommate Shawn on the steps of Widener Library. It was one of the approximately four days out of the semester where it was warm enough to eat outside and Shawn and I were certainly not going to let it go to waste. Now, I’ve been stung by American sushi before, so I picked out the simplest looking roll, salmon maki, and sauntered over to Widener.

However, to my HORROR, as I took my first bite, I was greeted with the distinct taste of a… bagel?

“Oh my god! There’s cream cheese in this!?” I said in disgust.

“Yeah, that’s a Philadelphia roll,” said Shawn with a shrug. A Philadelphia roll? Excuse me?

Now, I hate to come across as a food purist. I completely acknowledge that some of the world’s best food is fusion – a result of cross cultural exchange throughout the centuries. Give me a Poke bowl and I’ll happily eat it. But let me be clear about one thing: there is absolutely no room for cream cheese in any self-respecting sushi.

Now this is real sushi: 

I was lucky enough to have practically grown up in Japan due to my parent’s obsession with onsen hot springs, shabu shabu, Wagyu beef, and of course, sushi. We were (and are still) so obsessed that I was actually sent to Japanese Saturday school for a couple years in the hope that I would be fluent enough to facilitate our 20+ trips to Japan (honestly, they could do a My Strange Addiction episode about my family’s love affair with this country).

However, of all the meals l to choose from, one of my favourite Japanese food memories is eating sushi at a stall in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Market. Other contenders include that one time I thought I would die after eating pufferfish and that one time I accidentally ate horse, but, I digress. Yes, I know Tsukiji is kinda touristy but there’s a reason that locals and tourists alike keep going back.

The market itself is a giant maze of stalls and shops selling everything from fish, to tofu, to tamago, to dessert. The narrow alleyways are lined with street food stalls and tiny restaurants with around seven seats each all serving up the freshest catch of the day. The three of us had already downed a couple of uni-toro dons (sea urchin and fatty tuna bowls) between us and we were pushing our way through the rest of the market soaking in the atmosphere while trying not to get trampled by other tourists. Perhaps the bigger challenge though was finding the self-control to walk past all the other stalls without further indulging. The smell of grilled scallops, freshly opened oysters, and the sound of crab shells cracking and sellers yelling about their wares was incredibly hard to resist.

And so, as we reached the very outskirts of the market, we caved. We saw a nondescript little stall tucked in a corner on the perimeter of the market. The only thing that was visible was a set of legs peeking out from under a curtain that had the words sushi written on it. We ventured behind the curtain to see two old men dressed in their chefs whites crafting beautiful sushi for one customer who stood at the bar with her chopsticks at the ready.

With deft hands, the men shaped the rice, lovingly sliced the fish, and then painted on a thin layer of soy sauce on each piece before placing it directly on a leaf on the counter. The little sushi sat on the counter like a small piece of art for just a second before being picked up and consumed immediately. I love little holes in the wall like this – bare bones places with neither a chair to sit on nor a plate to eat off of. Nothing to separate the chef from the eater except a small wooden bar and nothing to separate the sushi from the eater except for a pair of chopsticks. No frills. Simply sushi.

The lady next to us obviously knew what she was doing. She kept ordering all the greatest hits: luxurious ikura (salmon roll), sweet succulent amaebi (sweet shrimp), perfectly charred unagi (eel), and o-so-fatty o-toro (fatty tuna). They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. And so, Mom would just gesture towards whatever the lady was eating and hold three fingers in the air: the universal sign for “damn! I want three of those!”. The chefs would get to work creating the beautiful parcels of rice and fish while we waited we baited breath. Each piece was immaculate. How could something so simple taste so good? As I popped the precious little ikura pearls in my mouth and wondered greedily about what we were going to get next, I remember thinking “ah, yes. This is real sushi”.

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A family that eats together, stays together ❤
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Here’s a pic of me and my roommate/best friend Shawn on Widener Steps for good measure. Admittedly, this pic was taken about a year after the Philadelphia roll incident. Look how happy I look sans cream cheese!