Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Another HDR attempt, Palazzo Fountains in Las Vegas. I think LV has a lot of great photo opportunities inside and outside the casinos.

This was an awesome trip due to the Expedia SAVE300 promotion... $80 for flight, hotel, 2 show tickets, spent $12 on car rental, and did a coupon run for the first time. Plenty of fun with friends as well.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Long time in waiting..

Received this hilarious email today.. (note today's date. Nov 30, 2010).. for an order I placed OVER 2 years ago!!!!

We are pleased to inform you that we have submitted 152 miles to your American Airlines AAdvantage® Account: 12345

These miles were provided to you for your order number 600KL081808 placed on 8/18/2008 11:25:12 AM.

Best regards,
Steven Lee, President

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My First attempt at HDR... NYC skyline from "Top of the Rock"


Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The magic of night markets

From Malaysia 2010

Night markets are very common across Asia, it seems like a cross between a state fair (where you get lots of street food), and a flea market (where you can buy almost everything). And it happens every day. And, every day, it can be different. And, given these tropical climates, once the sun sets, things get a lot cooler, and people start going outside to enjoy the cooler nighttime air.

I still remember the first night market I went to, in Taipei, as a young kid. I remember it being a really mysterious experience.. I was only in 2nd grade, brought there by an uncle who spoke only a little English (because I didn't speak any Chinese). There were all these vendors, with a bunch of toys, placed on blankets on the street, dimly lit under a few fluorescent or incandescent light bulb. Then, there are these games that you could play and win prizes, and places to get lots of snacks.

Even after all these years, night markets are still a mysterious but exciting place for me. In Malaysia, they're called pasar malam, (literally, night market), and it's a similar, but different process. Of course, there's always the food vendors there, but there's a lot more: you can buy groceries, household utensils, clothing, pirated DVDs / CD, toys. Only thing missing that they didn't have were the carnival games. And all of these vendors, literally, operate out of the back of their car. S asked if I've ever been to a pasar malam, and I thought I did, but she said the one behind her house was the best. So we went to go check it out...

From Malaysia 2010

When you arrived, it was PACKED. Imagine a few small streets, closed to traffic. The first section we walked into was full of food vendors. You could smell the cooking oil in the air, mixing with people lined up at various stalls. We saw apom (a crispy crepe, filled with peanuts and sugar), kuih (sweet and sticky desserts), fried campadak (looks like a jackfruit, but with a nuttier taste), zong zi (Chinese wrapped sticky rice dumplings).

From Malaysia 2010

From Malaysia 2010

From Malaysia 2010

While taking photos, I noticed a guy putting his hands to block photos of things each time I took them. And it wasn't even his stall!! Wasn't sure if he was trying to be annoying or what... so I just explained, with a smile, I'm just taking photos. But S, being so fast on her feet (especially in Chinese), started saying "Do you know who this is? He's a famous US photographer for a travel magazine!". This guy (who apparently was also a food vendor), was asking "which magazine?". Again, S, being much quicker on her feet, said "it's one of the biggest in the US".

Suddenly, this guy's behavior changed completely 180 degrees! He motioned for us to come towards his stall..... a motorcycle.
From Malaysia 2010

He was explaining how his stall is so famous, it was already out of food, and that I should take photos of his setup. (Note: famous has a particular meaning in Malaysia/Singapore. Once a stall becomes "famous", people suddenly become willing to wait over 30 minutes for your food, and to pay a premium. Problem is.. sometimes there are 'too many' famous places, some of which are just copycats of the original) Then he went on to explain what days he's at the PJ pasar malam, his particular speciality (cha shao, Chinese roast pork), and to come back some other time. Amazing how people sometimes will change their personality when they think somebody important is nearby. Hah... hope he doesn't read my blog. =)

From Malaysia 2010

But one of the most interesting things I saw in the pasar malam, was the ability to buy clothes and kitchen utensils. S said that I should get some socks here, but I was a bit skeptical. I remember from previous experience that night market quality was quite poor, and didn't want to be wasting my money. It was clear that the socks were from generic Chinese manufacturers, but they were really cheap, I think 5 pairs for RM10, or about US$3.50. After much stubbornness on my side, S convinced me to buy a few. And, in hindsight, they're not bad. She even mentioned how all of her socks were from the pasar malam. I guess for < $1 per pair, who would ever want to buy socks in the US?? Similarly, her sister picked up some trash baskets and pots/pans from the household things vendors. The most interesting thing about these vendors is that they literally operate out of their cars. The sock vendor had a bunch of trays, and the van was parked behind their stall. Similarly, the household utensils guy had a small minivan completely full of pots, pans, baskets, silverware, almost anything you could find in a Wal-mart. I wondered how much money it took to start a business like this? Your overhead is practically $0, your working capital is tied up in whatever you could carry in your car, and your business is completely in cash. And, if you're a night market vendor, what do you do during the day? Did they just run a shop during the day, and packed things into a car for the night markets? S mentioned that vendors will often travel to different night markets every day... what system was there to make sure there weren't too many sock vendors in one market, and not enough in another? If you're the sock vendor, what do you do if your socks go out of fashion?

In any case, night markets still provide lots of entertainment for me... you go with a bunch of friends, share snacks as you walk down the aisles of stuff, take pictures of interesting things, and have a chance to observe a culture by how they spend their evenings...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gambling and roller-coasters in Genting

From Malaysia 2010
(wonder what the Hotel Third World looks like?)

If there's one thing that Chinese people love more than eating, it's probably gambling... and dangerously so.There's always stories you hear about old Chinatowns in the US, full of gambling dens, etc. That's for a reason.. it's because Chinese people really love to gamble. And we saw lots of it in Genting.

I'd never been to Genting before, but it's in the highlands of Malaysia, about 1-2 hours outside Kuala Lumpur, and its high enough in the mountains that the air is significantly cooler than KL... so cool that S had to wear a fleece jacket, and I (being from Minnesota), just had to put a t-shirt under my short sleeve polo shirt. It's amazingly refreshing to be such cool weather when it's 90+ degrees and humid in KL. It's so cool that there's no need for air conditioning in the hotel room. (probably the only place in Malaysia where that's possible)

Strangely, Genting caters to two very different groups of people.

From Malaysia 2010
Malaysia's first roller coaster...

Group 1 - Non-Gambling
First - there's an indoor and outdoor amusement park, shopping, games, and restaurants. You'll see lots of international tourists here, it was particularly crowded with Middle Eastern tourists, particularly those from Saudi Arabia, with some Indians and Malaysians. We met a funny couple from Saudi Arabia.. the husband's name was Mohammed, it was his first time to an amusement park, and he was scared of the rides (even the simple ones, like the swing that lifts up in the air goes in circles). His wife (we didn't get her name), was completely covered in black, but had some fashionable shoes on. She was scared of EVERY ride - even the swing, or go-karting. (maybe because women don't drive in Saudi Arabia?). Somehow, Mohammed convinced her to do the rocking pirate boat ride... which she was still shell-shocked after coming off. But she was a good sport, laughing as we tried to convince them to try other rides with us.

It's funny to see the amusement park, which could be easily mistaken for any amusement park in the US. But there are some odd things... like this space shuttle that looks a lot like the US one, except it has a Malaysian flag (granted, it looks like the US flag), but it says MASA on it. Yes - I know Malaysia has had their first astronaut, but it's strange to see a Malaysian flag and "MASA" on what is actually a US spacecraft.

MASA? on the US Space Shuttle?

The other odd thing is how any of the concession stands for snacks look like something you'd find at the state fair... except all the words appear to be in English, but not understandable. Instead of seeing "cotton candy, hot dogs, and pop", you have "Powerpop, Manjoo, and Mee Goreng". The only one I recognize there is Mee Goreng = fried noodles.

Group 2: - Gamblers
HUGE gambling halls, and you'll primarily see Chinese, with some Indians and international (primarily European or Australian) visitors. One of the halls we were in was decorated in a Chinese style.. huge open room, lanterns hanging from the ceiling, huge wall murals. And it's nothing like Las Vegas...

First, there's no waitress bringing you free alcohol. You have to get your own drinks.... as long as its hot tea, water, or Milo (hot chocolate).

Second - it's amazingly QUIET. There's no ruckus from slot machines, mainly because there aren't any. People are playing card games... and VERY seriously, and very superstitiously. I sat down at a table to play Pontoon (a blackjack variant). The bet size is more my style... RM25 = $7. As soon as I put my chips down, there's a middle aged auntie next to me who takes my chips (!!) and moves them to another player's spot. I say (in Chinese) - "you can't do that!", then she starts spouting off (good thing I didn't understand everything), that she didn't want to open up another position, it would be unlucky, the cards are bad etc. After my bonus hunting experience, I know it's all statistics. I move my chips back to my spot.

Ironically, my "spot" actually becomes "hot", and she starts putting her money into my spot. So much for unluckiness of opening a new "spot". By the end of the night, I win RM 100 (about USD30). Probably the first time I've won anything ever in a casino. Good thing my blackjack training came in handy. Amazing to see how many people don't know how to play perfect strategy... and taking really bad side bets too.

We saw some very interesting people while gambling. First - there was this older man (80's probably) at our table who was literally falling asleep AT THE TABLE. The dealer had to slap his hand in front of his cards to wake him up. Probably a sign of too much gambling. Second - while playing, we kept on hearing this guy shout out "picture! picture! GOOD-BYE!" at the Baccarat tables. Then we realized he was doing it at really random times, and probably had Tourette's syndrome. I went over to investigate.. with all that shouting, you'd think he'd be playing for big stakes. Nope.. just RM10! (US$3!)

Genting was great fun.. although a bit constraining. It's a lot like Vegas - food is expensive (by Malaysian standards), but usually good, although it's satisfying to get a KFC snack after a late night of playing pontoon. You can do the rides during the day, but non-gambling entertainment is limited at night.

Oh - and the funniest part of my Genting story... We went to do this bumper boat ride, it's a bit like bumper cars, except you're on a floating raft with a small motor. As we're in line, an employee takes out a scale and ruler (like the kind you see in a doctor's office). I thought he was going to measure the kid in front of me, but he points to me and says:

"Can you please stand on the scale?"

I stand on the scale.. and it reads... 76.5 kg

"I'm sorry sir, you can't take this ride. Maximum weight is 75 kg"

I was absolutely embarrassed. I'm too heavy for this ride?! 75 kgs is nothing! (apparently he hasn't been to the US yet). There seemed to be other people in front of us who were clearly above 75 kgs, except I was the one targeted. I think S was laughing all the way back to the hotel... she totally wanted to do the ride, but I was "too heavy"

That was definitely a first.. I'm too overweight for the ride. I explained to S, once you take out my shoes, my wallet, and the two phones I'm carrying, that's probably 1 kg already. Sure enough, 1 wk later in Singapore, I weighed myself without all that stuff. 74.5 kgs. End of story.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Why breakfast is the most important meal...

There's something special about getting breakfast while traveling in Asia, especially in Malaysia or Singapore. I'm not normally a breakfast guy, nor do I normally get breakfast in the hotels (I prefer street food, as explained by this postfrom EatingAsia) , but sometimes, just sometimes, while travelling in Asia, you can find some fantastic breakfast buffets in the hotel, especially "local" ones

(although you have to be careful about not eating too much, because a combination of a overloaded stomach and hot tropical weather makes for an uncomfortable day... not to mention making you so full that you miss out on other snacking opportunities throughout the day)

While in KT, S and I stayed at the Felda Residence Hotel, which is one of the newer hotels in Kuala Terengganu, and its architecture seems to be inspired by the "Sail" Burj Dubai hotel in Dubai (but not nearly as grand). Interestingly, the Felda group is actually a Malaysian conglomerate that's better known for its palm oil plantations, but I guess they're strangely trying to diversify by going into the hotel business?)

It's one of the few times we didn't book anything in advance, and we just showed up to see what we could negotiate, as anything is negotiable in Malaysia. They had a promotion going on, RM200 per night, and it came with a free buffet breakfast!

Free breakfasts can be hit or miss, but this one... absolutely amazing. Given KT's predominant Malay population, there was a lot more Malay-influenced dishes there, such as roti jala (the lacy crepe seen in the picture), beef rendang, a chicken and fish curry, nasi lemak (my all time favorite breakfast food - coconut rice with some curry, fried peanuts and anchovies and an egg), char kway teow (another favorite), and a new dish I hadn't seen before, nasi kerabu (a blue-colored rice with small condiments, lower right corner in photo). I had to absolutely try everything on the menu!

Not only was this buffet amazing, but the next day.. they changed it all up! New dishes every day!! Including an amazing mackerel curry. Must be interesting to be the chef there, I think he/she just makes whatever he/she feels like, or whatever is fresh, which is a good philosophy for food.

There was a "western section" at this buffet, but it was pretty sad.. an omelette station, some "sausages" (really just chicken hot dogs, since Malays can't eat pork), and toast. I think everybody else was equally excited about all the curries.

Might seem strange to Americans to eat curry and rice for breakfast, but I think it should be eaten anytime! =)

S and I were really happy about the buffet, and as she put it "it was the best breakfast of the entire trip".

Monday, August 02, 2010

Relaxing, snorkeling, enjoying beaches in Pulau Redang

I'm not really a beach person.... but I had heard some amazing things about the beaches, sealife, and snorkeling in East Malaysia, so I thought I'd go see it firsthand. For our trip to Malaysia, S's sister was able to book a package for Pulau Redang, a common beach resort area, about 1 hr off the coast from Kuala Terengganu.

Most people in the US really don't know about Malaysia as a beach / snorkelling destination, but I was really surprised to see how well known it was by Australian and even European tourists! Pulau Redang is a fairly large island, and there are a number of resorts scattered across the beaches. Interestingly, each resort seems to cater to a different audience. The one that we were at had more Europeans and Chinese-Malaysians there. During one of the snorkelling runs to the marine park, we saw boats from other resorts that catered more for Malays. Very interesting...

S's sister chose the Coral Redang Resort, which was supposedly owned by one of Malaysia's sultans. A little far off from the main jetty, but there were porters to help carry (literally carry...) your bags to the hotel. It was a nice quiet place, with its own pool, beach access, and most importantly, clean rooms with cold air-conditioning. It was literally so cold - that my camera equipment would fog up the next day. Probably not the greenest thing to do....... but a nice break from the tropical heat.

During the day, there were only a few things you could do - lay on the beach, go snorkelling, take diving lesssons. Since we had heard about the amazing coral.. we went snorkelling. It was really amazing - the clearness of the water and the sheer abundance of the coral and fishes really reminded me of the first time snorkelling, in Pulau Tioman, also in Malaysia. But this place was HUGE! Unfortunately, with my vision so bad... I could only make out the large details of the corals, or the small fishes that would approach you. Unfortunately, I didn't find out until much later that there are such things as "powered" snorkel masks, that help correct your vision! Only if I had known earlier...

One of the other places we went to was a protected marine park... unfortunately, ALL of the resorts bring their people there to visit, and not too long after we arrived, it literally became a swimming pool, full of people. Some people even brought some bread to feed the fishes, with one couple literally bring a whole LOAF of bread with them. A German guy we met on the boat mentioned that this was really bad for the fish, that they'd explode after over-eating the bread. Not sure how true it was, but interesting to note...

Resorts are always interesting, because everything is somewhat "contained", including your meals. This place had a half-decent buffet every day, although nothing really special, which was a pity, because there's always so many good Malaysian dishes to eat elsewhere. One of my funniest memories is how S's family tried to cajole the chef into making barbeque lamb the next evening. Malaysians crack me up about how "forward" they can be about expressing what they want. I think it started out like this:

S's dad to staff: "I hear the kanbing (lamb) is really good, do you have it on weekends?"
Staff: "No lah, no lamb this weekend"
Dad: "Oh, but the lamb is really famous... we came all the way to this resort to have kanbing"
Staff: (looking a little indifferent... thinking why does this guy want lamb?)
Staff: "Kanbing is too expensive, have to get it from the ferry..."
Dad: "You see lah, we paid so much money for this resort, why can't you buy lamb?"

Another staff comes by..

Dad: "You're going to make sure we have kanbing tomorrow, right?"
Staff: ??

Sure enough, the next day.. we saw the staff starting up the charcoal bbq. And guess what we had? Lamb! I was personally hoping for a whole lamb roasted on a spit, but no such luck.

The other interesting thing about the resort were the European families that were staying there. We got to know an interesting German-Iranian couple (husband was German, wife was Iranian), who was bringing wife's parents/brother/sister from Iran with them. You really don't see many Iranians in the US, and with all the anti-Iranian rhetoric in the US news, you'd think they would be "scary", anti-West, etc. But the "grandmother and grandfather" were so adorable! We were playing volleyball, and they were watching from the side, so we welcomed them in, including the "grandfather". This is what I really like about Malaysians, they're really inclusive of other people, always inviting others in. After the game, we find out that the "grandfather" used to play volleyball as a child in Iran. The family had been in the resort for over 2 weeks (!! wish I had German vacations!!), and they were going back to Kuala Lumpur. They left the resort the same time as we did, and amazingly, about 1 week later, when S and I were shopping at KLCC, guess who we ran into? The husband/wife, who were shopping at Zara for their daughter! Amazing - the chances of randomly meeting the same person twice?

After a few days in Redang, I think I was ready to get "plugged in" back into a more hectic life. It's really hard for me to lounge around and do nothing.. although it was fun to snorkel, learn some photography tricks from Charles, and generally chit-chat with everybody.

On the way back, the resort had included land transfer from the jetty back to the airport. The problem was, our flight was at 9pm, but we arrived back in KT around 3pm!! And the driver of the mini-bus was prepared to take us back to the airport! So, I saw this Malaysian "bargaining" mindset take hold again. S's family was able to convince the driver to drive us all around KT to visit places (like the Crystal mosque, the market, the Batik factory, etc), and we'd pay him extra for his time, although the fuel was the "company's". Luckily, he had nothing else to do, so we was willing .As they say.. "Malaysia, boleh (possible), Everything else also can" (with money - my addition). Can you imagine that? It was hilarious... I don't think it'd ever cross my mind in the US, to try to negotiate with the bus driver to take me someplace else! I'm glad we did it though, S and I were able to see a few more sites that we missed on the original KT rounds, and we had a chance to stop by the market to go crazy eating durians (ie, the last post)

And a list of what I ate (that was memorable..):

Nasi Lemak, coffee shop inside Kuala Terengganu Airport

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Exploring the east coast of Malaysia, starting with Kuala Terengganu (KT), land of sultans, mosques, and seafood

I've done a lot of travelling within Malaysia, but never have really explored the East Coast area, which is often difficult to access, but is home to some amazing beaches, snorkeling and diving. S and I planned this amazing Malaysia mega-trip back in Oct, and thanks to some cheap advance airfares from AirAsia (RM49 incl tax / US$15), I finally had a chance to explore KT!

KT is in the state of Terengganu, in northeast Malaysia. This area is supposedly where Islam was first introduced to the country, hundreds of years ago by Arab traders. As a result, the population here appears to be more Malay dominated, you see fewer Chinese and Indians, and more Malay is spoken here... Since I was travelling with S, I was in luck, but it was so strange to hear her speak in Malay (albeit a bit rusty). Can you imagine - somebody you've known for over 3 years, and suddenly they're speaking a language you don't really understand? And it seems that they're understanding all of the responses? It's probably as surprising as finding out your parents were spies for the Russians!

KT is normally a transit town, most people don't spend much time here, since they're usually on the way to the resort islands of Pulau Redang or Pulau Perhentian. We were actually on our way to Redang, but had to wait a few days in KT before S's family could meet us there. KT is actually well known for a couple things:

1. Turtles - given the location on the east coast of Malaysia, there are some famous sea turtles (some of whom are endangered) that are in the area, and come to lay their eggs on an nearby beach. Lots of tourists come here to watch them do that...

On the other hand - lots of tourists (and locals) love to come to KT to eat... turtle eggs! I was shocked. We were exploring Pasar Panyang, the main market in KT, and nearly each stall had these small plastic bags filled with ping-pong ball shaped turtle eggs. I sure hoped they weren't the endangered ones. Sure enough, when S's family came into town, they bought some turtle eggs to try. And - like a good (but a bit scared) foodie, I tried one (again, praying that wasn't an endangered one). S's mom cooked them in the teapot in the resort hotel, and interestingly, no matter how long you cook it, the white part doesn't become completely hard. I tried one.. and it tasted like a salty potato, with a similar texture. Egh - not so sure why people like it so much.

2. Mosques - being the cradle of Islamic civilization in Malaysia, there were a number of mosques. Both of them were really beautiful buildings, but surprisingly, empty. Supposedly, the Saudis were involved in building the crystal mosque, but there's accusations of mishandling of the money. Something like RM300m (~USD100m) was spent on the project.

3. Food!

I have this theory that taxi drivers know where all the best food is. In fact, there's even been books written about this theory. We lucked out in having a great taxi driver (RM25/hr) take us around town, since much of KT's sites are inaccessible via foot or public transit. After sightseeing, he took us to this great seafood stall (or warung) near the airport, and right next to the beach. It was great - Malay style fried seafood - shrimp, small crabs, keropok (fish sausage), sotong (calamari). You knew it was fresh, and the location was completely random. Those dishes, plus a limau ais (iced lime juice) makes a perfect snack after a day of sightseeing.

Later on, when we returned to KT after visiting Pulau Redang, we went crazy eating durians at Pasar Payang. Durian is the "King of Fruits" that "stinks like hell but tastes like heaven". It's actually quite nice - the texture reminds me of butter, and it tastes like a sweet soft cheese. Since durians are in season, they were literally "falling off the truck", and at great prices too - RM5/kg! They're normally like RM15 in KL. I think S's whole family and I consumed something like 5-6 durians all at once.

After eating durian, one feels quite heaty - so conveniently, there was a cendol stall nearby, which is probably my most favorite drinks! Who can resist an iced drink with coconut milk, palm sugar, some sweet beans, corn and jellies? It's completely refreshing on a hot summers day.

Travelling with S was interesting - I learned about a lot of botany and things from her childhood... who knew that you could suck the nectar from a Hibiscus plant? And that crabs walk sideways, not forward? I was completely shocked! Despite my "small town roots", I was really sounding like a city boy. Guess that's what happens when you don't grow up in the tropics (or a developing country...)

Where I ate:
1. Malay Seafood Stall: Jalan Pantai

View Larger Map

2. Pasar Panyang - turtle eggs, durian, cendol, and whatever else fits your desires..
Jalan Sultan Zainal Abidin, near the main jetty

View Larger Map

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hong Kong Photos

From Hong Kong Mileage Run

Photos from my whirlwind trip through HK are now posted on Picasa. Unfortunately, the weather was extremely foggy for the two nights I was there, so no good pictures of the skyline. But - I do have pictures of some of the nice food I had!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

This is why I travel

I'm in Hong Kong over the Memorial Day Weekend, and this is a foodie's town to die for. How many places are there where you can eat up and down the entire food spectrum? Starting from outdoor street dining, where you can get homestyle classics like haam-yu chow fan (salted fish fried rice), to Hong Kong's typical dim sum, and going all the way to the growing private kitchen trend, secretive places in the most random locations, with innovative chefs serving in a small, cozy setting.

My trip started with meeting with my friends Abhilash and Prashanti, who are visiting Hong Kong for the first time, and we decided to go eat at Temple Street Night Market, just regular street food. I had just arrived off my flight, and as always, was looking for some good food for my arrival. We settled on the south end of Temple Street, where there's a concentration of open-air seafood restaurants. Interestingly, there's also a number of Indian/Nepali restaurant/food stall promoters. As we were looking for places, these Indian promoters would come up to my friends, speak to them in Hindi, and try to convince them to go eat in their restaurants. Abhi said it best "I'm not going to Hong Kong to eat Indian food!" Our meal: 1/2 roast duck, braised tofu, garlic fried bok choy, salted fish fried rice, and a bottle of San Miguel beer. Total price: HK$240, or about $10 per person.

The next day, I met with with my Hong Kong based INSEAD friends for a dim sum lunch, and joining me were Travis and Amy, and Travis's parents, who were traveling through Asia for the first time. This was a proper restaurant, on the 2nd floor of an office building in Wanchai, and ironically, a few blocks down from a building that my grandfather used to live back in the 50's. There's such a clear difference in dim sum from the US and Hong Kong! We had an amazing won-ton soup, with a great seafood flavor in the broth, beautifully wrapped har gow (shrimp dumplings, pictured left), with a translucent soft wrapper that actually stayed together when you picked it up. And the best part.... Shanghai xiu long bao, steamed dumplings that are designed to carry a bit of soup and ground pork inside a thin wrapper. It was so great to see my INSEAD friends again, and was a great experience for Travis's parents, who were trying dim sum for the first time. And finally, it was great practice my "food-level" Chinese. Unlike dim sum restaurants in the US, the food wasn't served on steam carts, which means you have to order from a paper ticket, with all the dish names in Chinese. I was trying to place our order (with some help) from my friends, but I really realized how much slower I am at reading than just ordering.

At the end of our dim sum lunch, I asked Nana, my INSEAD classmate and fellow HK foodie about what other place I should try. I had previously listed a number of things that I wanted to eat/try while was hear, and realized I probably had more things I wanted to try than meals in a day. Nana suggested going to a private kitchen. Private kitchens are a bit of a new trend in Hong Kong, I had first heard about them maybe 2-3 years ago. They sounded a bit like the old speakeasies in the Prohibition days, restaurants hidden inside housing estates, perhaps unlicensed, but with a gourmet dining experience meant to be only shared with a few people. Don't think shady, think something like a supposedly "private" clubs, but anybody is welcome to go in, only if you knew where to go! The first private kitchen I had heard about was a Sichuan style place, but that one was fully booked. My classmates recommended Xi Yan, and said that the location looks like an apartment building, without any signs on the outside, but I just had to trust the address (left). And so I went in, not knowing what to expect. I almost expected to be eating inside somebody's personal flat. But, when I arrived on the 3rd floor, I was pleasantly surprised. See the entrance photo on the left. It appeared that somebody had combined 2 apartment flats and turned them into a restaurant!

The restaurant was nicely decorated, and had some really great new interpretation for traditional Chinese dishes. There was a set menu, with about 5-7 courses. The first appetizer was a salmon sashimi, encrusted with ground green onion and ginger. It tasted a lot like a classic Chinese steamed fish dish with onion and ginger, but instead, it was a onion/ginger paste was encrusting the fish. The other amazing dish was a basil sorbet. Would have never thought of using Basil, but it was blended with a bit of an aniseed flavor that gave it a sweet herbal flavor (and maybe sometimes, reminded me a bit too much of a cough syrup). The best dish was a deep fried grouper, encrusted with shrimp paste and lemongrass, and served with a bit of peeled grapefruit on the side. Very clever combination of flavors, as the citrus flavor of the lemongrass and bit of grapefruit "juice" helped to cut down on the strong flavor of the shrimp paste, and the citrus I think also made the fried fish feel a little less greasy.

Definitely a great experience, totally by surprise, and had that element of surprise for each dish, not knowing exactly what you were going to get. And it seems the clientele was quite international, there were about 2-3 HK families there, a table of 20-30 year old American-born Chinese, and a table of young Britishers next to me. Because of a mix-up in the reservation, there was a chance that I wasn't going to be allowed to eat here because the reservation was for 6, but I was the only one there, but the waiter made an exception for me. And I'm so glad he did!

And so, this is why I travel. Exploring new places, enjoying nice food, re-visiting old friends, and always looking for unexpected new finds. The private kitchen was such a wonderful find, I can't wait to explore more next time!

And, here's some customary photos of the beautiful HK skyline...

Where I ate:
1. Temple Street Night market, south section has seafood, north section has claypot rice.
2. Fu Sing Restaurant, 1/F, 343 Lockhart Rd, Wanchai
3. Xi Yan Private Kitchen, 3/F, 83 Wan Chai Road, Wanchai, HK$500 for prix fixe meal