Monday, April 16, 2012

Lessons from Afghanistan

I learned many things from my month in Afghanistan and after a month of being home in Canada, I still find myself processing much of what I experienced. Here are a few things I definitely learned or was reminded of:

Things are not as they appear. I was constantly reminded to hold my assumptions and judgements at bay because there is so much that I do not yet understand about this fascinating country. I have much to learn about Afghanistan and was repeatedly reminded that I am definitely more ignorant than I am wise.

The human spirit is strong. The determination and pride the Afghan people exhibited was truly inspiring. They are amazingly strong, not to mention incredibly resourceful.

Even in desperate times and places, people can be at their warmest. Case in point, my colleagues in Kabul made me feel instantly welcomed and accepted into what I assumed would be a hostile and difficult environment. They proved me wrong. Even Bobbles felt at home.

I will go back to Afghanistan this fall and I look forward to it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Clear Winners.

Even though there was no contest or my usual food hunt, I must share some great food finds in NYC. I've spent the past few weeks feeling a bit aimless since I haven't been able to establish a food target that I could focus on and review.

It's probably a good thing.

I recall the Great Cupcake Hunt of 2010 and in hindsight, maybe visiting 48 cupcake shops/bakeries in 3 weeks was not one of the best decisions I've ever made. I mean what did I really accomplish by the end of it?

Yes, I may found the best Red Velvet Cupcake in NYC, but the added inches to my girth definitely offset any feelings of satisfaction. Oh, and let's not forget my 3-week sugar-induced belly-aching. And the sugar-crash crankiness. And feeling hangry (hungry + angry) all the time from not eating proper, real food.

But ironically, I just don't seem to learn.

So, despite the lessons not learned and not having a food focus, I've still somehow inadvertently managed to find what I believe might be the greatest pastry that ever lived. It is beyond description, so here are some photos to express what words cannot.

Meet the DKA. The outside:

And the lovely innards:

This little bad boy is from Dominque Ansel Bakery, a nice little cafe just up the street in Soho. The DKA is their signature item. The website describes the DKA as:

DKA: Dominque's Kouign Amann: tender, flaky, croissant-like dough with a caramelized crunchy crust.

I would suggest the description be re-written as:

DKA: Dominque Kicks Ass: with his heavenly, luscious, other-worldly pastry parcel made of layer after layer of sugar and butter.

So, what the heck is a kouign amann? And who cares? Well, you'll care after you've had one. Trust me.

I didn't know what it was either up until a few days ago, when my evil friend in NYC passed along an article from the New York Times. I love/hate this friend because he has this thoughtful/awful habit of clipping New York Times articles related to food, restaurant reviews, etc. and setting them aside. He then mails them to me, or better/worse, presents them to me when I arrive in the city. I then feel excited/cursed, because after reading them, I feel compelled to go and see (eat) for myself. I've recently retaliated by bringing back treats from my newspaper- inspired outings and hoisting them onto my evil friend. I'm taking him down with me. He now admits gaining weight during my visits and frantically hitting the gym immediately after my departure. Serves him right.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hunting in New York

I have one month in New York. As with every other trip to one of my favourite cities, I feel the need to go on a hunt. Previous trips have focused on hunting for the best pizza slice in NYC...

...hands-down, Artichoke in East Village on 14th Street was the clear winner and has proven its first-place status in subsequent trips. I noticed they've had a few more locations pop up, but I've yet to try them. I hope they're equally good.
If one of these master pie-makers asked me to run away with him, I'd live out the rest of my days fat and happy.

One of my past trips was dedicated to finding the best cupcake which has to be that of Sweet Revenge on Carmine Street. I used a Red Velvet as my benchmark, and Sweet Revenge nailed it. Their's is called Crimson and Cream and it's made with raspberry red velvet cake and topped with cream cheese frosting.

They also do wine and cupcake pairings. Interesting. If you find yourself there, I highly recommend the Dirty cupcake (Valrhona cake with dark chocolate truffle. It's like love.) and the Not So Dirty (Valrhona chocolate cake with milk chocolate ganache. I'm having a long-term adulterous love-affair with this one.).
I think Tanoreen in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn has the best Middle Eastern food. How can a meal go wrong when this arrives at your table once you sit down? And you haven't even ordered yet.

And then your order arrives, your jaw hits the floor and you have to lift it so you can fill it with goodness like this...the Eggplant Napolean. It's simply divine.

So, what should this trip focus on?
Should I hunt for the best nachos?
Pie? (For a while, I was convinced that I would happily be paid in pie instead of drawing a salary. That's how much I love pie.)
What about tacos?
Or dumplings?
Any ideas? What should the food focus be of this trip?
Leave me a comment if you come up with any brilliant food suggestions! I'll see if I can get some take-out for you.

Where in the world is Bobbles?

I've been neglectful. Again. Many of you have emailed me over the past few months asking what Bobbles has been up to, and I've neglected to fill you in. It's been an exceptionally busy few months since the return from Vietnam. Yes, Bobbles is back from 'Nam though it appears he's trying to mislead you with the hat and map. Sneaky.

So, here's a quick run-down with a lot of photos and very little text. (I know that's the way you like it.)

Bobbles inadvertently ended up helping harvest cherries in the Okanagan in late July-early August.

Oddly, it was around the same time that he discovered his love for Late July cookies and crackers.
Summertime in the Okanagan was lovely, and Bobbles in his usual sociable way, made all sorts of this little guy.... well as a very international mix of fruit pickers that arrived from all over the world.

After all that hard work, Bobbles rewarded himself with his favourite thing - food. He got all snooty and attended a Chocolate Snobbery 101 class....

...and took a weekend trip to to very exotic Longview to enjoy the autumn colours.

The next three months were a whirlwind of three more trips to the Okanagan to check out the grapes, settling into a new job, and making 200 perogies in one over-ambitious day.

Oh, and add one trip to NYC in there, too.

Bobbles occupied Wall Street...
...hung out with Conan O'Brien...

...posed (nude) for an art class...

...and celebrated Halloween NYC-style.
I think that about covers it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sapa is Super!

A weekend get-away to Sapa was good for the mind, body and spirit.

I'd heard and read so much about Sapa and it was high on my list of must-sees for Vietnam. The descriptions of this small town set in the mountains of norther Vietnam seem to always include phrases like "mystical mountain tops," "valley views that will make you swoon," "stunning, towering peaks," etc.

After having spent a short 3 days there, I must say that Sapa lived up to all these descriptions, as well as my high expectations. It is simply the loveliest place I've seen in Vietnam. The mountains really were stunning, I literally did swoon from the valley views, and yes - the mountain peaks do stun and tower before you.

In some ways, it reminded me of past visits to the gorgeous terraced rice paddies of Bali and the endless tea estates carved into the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia...but I found the Sapa region to be more...serene. There is definitely a stillness that settles into you...maybe it's the fact you can finally hear yourself think after the craziness of Hanoi...or maybe it's finally being able to fill your lungs with fresh air. I'm not sure what it is, but it's left me feeling calm and alive.

I boarded the Pumpkin Express for a 10-hour overnight journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a small town on the China-Vietnam border.
Snug but very comfy quarters. I found myself sharing the berth with a woman from Spain and a couple from New Zealand who all proved to be good company.
I spent a bit of time in the townsite of Sapa, wandering around the streets and taking it all in. The town square:
I was surprised at the number of people from the neighbouring minority communities who were in town selling their goods, like this woman from the Dzao tribe.

It's the summer season in Sapa, which means that the peaches and apricots are out. Apparently, this past March, it actually snowed in Sapa - a rare event. The cold weather killed much of the livestock and the fruit crops have also suffered.

As in much of Vietnam, the tourist industry is booming in Sapa. Unfortunately, much the
development isn't regulated, so all the developers seem to be hell-bent on trying to out-do each other for
the best views.

I heard that the weekends can get a bit crazy with hoards of Vietnamese tourists from Hanoi flocking to see the Saturday market. It's off-season now, so it didn't seem too bad - but I can only imagine what it'll be like once summer holidays begin.

To the right is a photo of an old wooden home. It seems that in the immediate vicinity of Sapa, these are disappearing at an alarming rate and being replaced by rather hideous-looking mega-hotels (many of which are backed by Chinese investors). Photo below of a new one mid-construction.

One of the main streets in Sapa...

A Dzao woman...


Some images from my trip to Cat Cat village, home to about 600 Black H'Mong people.


Some images from my trip to Sin Chai village, home to about 300 Black H'Mong people.

The highlight of my trip was meeting and getting to know, Mah, a young Black H'Mong woman. I spent an entire day walking and chatting with her. She was so forthcoming, honest and willing to share her experiences. I hope to visit Sapa again, and I hope to meet Mah again.

And one final note...I've never been anywhere in the world that was so misty and foggy...I spent hours and hours just sitting in one place watching the incredible was absolutely magical and what I imagine the aurora borealis to be like, but in a misty reincarnation. At times it was such a thick fog that you could barely see 50 meters in front of you and at other times, it would suddenly lift and the sun would break through. The clouds and mist moved at an incredible speed and you could literally see it swooping down and then feel it across your body and then vanish...only to reappear a few minutes later in a completely new formation, swirling and dancing in front of you again. Amazing.