Thursday, December 12, 2013

Barcelona - Part 2 - Eating around town, beginning with tapas

Cervecería Catalana – was a hidden gem of a tapas recommendation from a friend who often travelled to Barcelona. We were already walking near the Passieg de Garcia area, near the Ramblas, and my colleagues hadn’t set any plans for dinner, so I suggested that we try this place, based on my friend's recommendation. 

If you’re not already familiar with tapas, they are Spanish “small plates”, almost like appetizers. There’s some debate on the origins of Spanish tapas, when literally translated means “covers” but one commonly held belief is that in the olden days, in order to prevent flies or other insects from getting into one’s drink, you could place an edible “cover” that would go over your drink, and these small appetizers would be placed over that cover. There are both warm and cold dishes, like patatas bravas, thinly shredded pan-friend potatoes, the incredibly tasty jamon Iberico – cured Spanish ham served with toastpoints, or cold dishes like calamari, tossed in olive oil. 

Jamon Iberico - best ham ever!

Set on a side street of one of the main tourist avenues, it’s a difficult to miss tapas restaurant. As we arrived for a typical late Spanish dinner around 8pm, there was already a long line of people waiting for tables in this tightly packed bar/restaurant, with the tables spilling onto the sidewalk for al fresco dining. There was this strong energy to the place – waiters moving quickly to serve their customers, a noisy bar where smaller groups were chatting and enjoying their drinks and tapas, all amid a very modern sleek décor.

There was about a 30 minute wait for a table for the four of us, so we took our drinks outside and were chatting, when we suddenly became the magnet for other Americans who were either ordering or considering eating at this place! Quite funny – as our group consisted of two Americans (including myself), and a Belgian and German colleague. Somehow, our group must have looked like some kind of eating experts, as one of the diners sitting outside near us started to ask us which dishes they should order!! (patatas bravas and the jamon Iberico were our recommendations). At nearly the same time, a couple from New York, who probably stumbled upon the place when hearing us talking about waiting for a table, and we struck up a great conversation with them, which made our waiting time go by very quickly!

Ordering here is quite easy – if you’re eating at the bar, the various plates are set on top of the bar, and you can just point at any of the dishes, or if you decide to eat at the restaurant, you get a proper menu. Note: if you want a table, make your way past the busy entrance and bar, until you see the restaurant manager who has the waiting list.

Cervecería Catalana
Carrer de Mallorca, 236, 
08008 Barcelona, Spain ‎ 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Barcelona - Part 1 - Architecture

I recently had the opportunity to re-visit Barcelona, a city that I've had little background, other than a few hours in passing about 9 years ago. Back then, my only memory of Barcelona was the Sagrada Familia, the modern cathedral that was still being built 80 years later, and some paella.

Now, 9 years later, what a difference! First, the Sagrada Familia, the final masterpiece of Spanish architect Gaudi, while still under construction, is now actual working functional cathedral. I still remember hearing the sounds of drilling and hammering on the cathedral floor when I visited in 2004, but that sound has been replaced by hushed voices with a background of choral music.
Chapel under construction in 2004
Chapel in Sept 2013

There are some interesting architectural details from Gaudi - they are sometimes a bit surreal and odd, but quite clever. From my visit in 2004, I remember the tops of the cathedral towers were crowned with brightly colored pieces of fruit - like an apple, cherry, pineapples. Those same fruits were already showing their age, with their colors now muted by dust and age. In this trip, I continued to discover some interesting details. A colleague pointed out that the columns weren't the usual columns, but were designed to appear like trees, including some "corrugation" around the columns to look like bark, as well as the columns branching above to look like tree limbs. Even the branching patterns sometime appear random. Gaudi was able to combine the appearance of nature's randomness while maintaining architectural support into these columns.
Treetops and (a)symmetrical beauty

Sometimes, there are whimsical elements in the architecture, including these buildings near the front entrance of the cathedral. They share the Gaudi influence of "waviness" (I'm sure there's a more technical term for this), but at first glance, it appears like something out of the Smurfs!
Smurf village? or Gaudi masterpiece?

The cathedral is expected to be completed in 13 years, 2026, for the 100th year anniversary of Gaudi's death. Tragically, he was struck by a tram during the construction of the Sagrada Familia.

Barcelona is a living monument to Gaudi's archtectural style, as his buildings are scattered throughout the city. And despite the age of the buildings, nearly a 100 years old, the style remains quite modern to this writer's eyes.

Part 2... Spanish food and restaurant recommendations for future reference...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spring in Amsterdam, return of terraces and bikes

Spring in Amsterdam is always one of my favorite times of the year - usually marked by Queen's Day on April 30th. With the beginning of spring, this means the days are finally getting longer, people can stay and linger on the terraces, and the weather is warm enough for people to bike throughout the city.

As any visitor has experienced, bikes rule the roads in Amsterdam, and much of the Netherlands. The entire transit system is optimized for bike traffic: there are dedicated bike paths that run next to major roads, and if not, there are separately marked bike lanes on the streets. For the most part, bikes and cars share the road, although in my opinion, I think you'd be crazy to drive in Amsterdam given the volume of bike traffic. In fact, along some of the major intersections, because of the volume of bikes going with traffic, cars that are making a left or right turn often have to wait several cycles of the stoplight before being able to turn, due to all the bikes crossing. It's almost like the cars need a protected left/right arrow from the bikes!

Dutch bikes are built very differently from the styles normally seen in the US, and they're quite practical in design for weather and utility. For the wet/rainy weather, there's always a splash guard behind the front and back wheels, and there's also a covered chain so that you can bike into work in your suit without worrying about your pants getting stained by oil. For the brakes, instead of a disc brake along the wheelrim, there's an integrated brake hub that's connected to the axle. I assume this is to provide better braking performance when the wheels are wet, since the braking mechanism is sealed instead of exposed.

For utility, these bikes are designed for comfort and convenience. You'll first notice that the handlebars are curved, allowing the rider to sit straight upright, without "hunching". It increases drag, so definitely not good for sport racing, but it is comfortable for long bike rides of 20-30 minutes. Almost all bikes will have rear rack for carrying groceries, beer crates, or sometimes even crazier things like desks, computer monitors, even chest of drawers! With HS's help, we actually attached my heavy rollerbag onto my bike once, and successfully brought it from the train station to my house. Imagine, about 25 pounds of luggage strapped onto one side of my bike, and it was still balanceable!

For young mothers, there's also the baksfiets, which looks like something you'd expect on a farm, like a cross between a bike and a wheelbarrow. It's a bike with a huge "scoop" in the front (the bakje, or small container), where you can put the kids into the front. And in case of rain, there's a cover than can pull over their heads. If you're a young family living in the city, instead of a minivan, you get a bakfiets.

Besides the bikes, the nice spring weather makes for great walking-around weather. One of my favorite places to bike through is the huge Vondelpark, something like Central Park for Amsterdam. It's a huge open green space, surrounded by huge trees and amazing tall houses which are probably some of the most expensive addresses in Amsterdam. THe park is filled with huge paths for walking, biking, running, roller-blading. As the days get longer and the summer weather begins, the park gets filled with people enjoying a barbeque, playing cards, pick-up game of soccer, etc. I always enjoyed biking through the Vondelpark instead of taking the parallel streets when going between my old apartment and the center.. not only do you avoid traffic, but it's a great place to people watch, either from the park, or from the few cafes with terraces overlooking the park. Whether just enjoying a coffee and reading my Economist, or meeting up with friends for a drink, the Vondelpark is a great place just to relax and enjoy the outdoors.

The other advantage of the beginning of spring in Amsterdam is the long/late evenings.. this means that the sunsets start around 8pm and start to go later, and the city becomes very beautiful right around sunset, with the combination of the interior lights coming on just as dusk begins. Amsterdam houses (and maybe Europe in general) frequently have extremely large windows. I was never quite sure of the reason why, maybe because it allows as much light in as possible during the winter months where there's only 6-7 hours of sunlight? Or because the Dutch enjoy their openness, allowing everything inside to be seen from the outside? Or because the old canal houses have very narrow staircases, and thus having large windows are necessary to bring furniture in through the windows instead of the staircases? Either way, it makes for an amazing scene - seeing the warm glow from an interior room with ~15-20 foot ceilings just as sunset begins.

But of the best things about the spring and summer is the chance to enjoy a nice refreshing snack. In the Jordaan and throughout the city, there's a local chain of shops called "Yscupje", or "little ice cup", which sells excellent self-made ice creams and sorbets.
 The location in the Jordaan is particularly nice, as you can enjoy a cup of ice cream while sitting on the side of the canal surrounded by the canal houses, and watch the boats (and tourists) go by....

And for those looking for something less sweet, there's plenty of places to enjoy a drink - either going through the Heineken experience (not that I've ever done it, because it's too touristy), or finding a nice bier cafe (like Gollem on Overtoom), where you can enjoy a drink with a view of the street. And nothing better than meeting with friends and enjoying a drink from a local Amsterdam brewery "Brouwerij 't IJ". When are they going to start importing to the US?!

Monday, February 04, 2013

The future of Penang street hawkers?

On the way back from Georgetown, we happened across this friendly street hawker selling apong or apom, a Malaysian street snack that's similar to a filled crepe, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and in this case, filled with banana and sweet corn.

Run by a very friendly Mr. Guan (hence the name Apong Guan), he has been making apom for over 40 years, and apparently quite popular. While waiting for our order, there were already orders for around 50 pieces already in the queue, and several cars stopped by to place orders for 20 pieces! We ordered our minimum ten pieces, and watched Mr. Guan work while waiting for the order. While we waited, he was quite the entertainer, allowing us to "participate" in making our apom by having us try cooking a few pieces, and showed us an old photo, carefully wrapped in paper, of a much younger Mr. Guan, meeting one of the government ministers. He told us stories about various famous dignitaries, ordering apom from his non-descript cart, attached to a cycle, and parked in front of a schoolyard.

These street-side carts are quite common (and popular) in Penang, showing up at the same location, around the same time every day. It's quite a unique Penang tradition, as these street-side vendors are non-existent in Singapore, and nearly impossible in traffic-choked Kuala Lumpur.

After some time, I quickly noticed that most of these hawkers are quite old, especially in the case of Mr. Guan, who is probably in his 60's. These hawkers take their craft quite seriously, making each piece by hand, cooking with traditional methods, and avoiding most mechanization. In Mr. Guan's case, the only mechanization came from the gas tank heating his cooking plate, he still cut each banana by hand, and opened each can of corn by hand, mixed his apom batter by hand. It seems like a noble task, hand-making each of these snacks by traditional methods, shaded only by a tarp under the hot tropical heat.

I wonder what will happen to these vendors in the next 10 years. It's rare to find hawkers who are younger than 40, especially in the more famous stalls. Maybe this older generation don't want their children do be doing this type of difficult manual work. I do fear the loss of these old hawkers in the next 5 years... will these types of handmade snacks disappear? Will people lose the patience for waiting for these snacks? Will government regulate the street-side hawkers? Will this hawker generation retire without anybody following their footsteps?

In his case, and for all the other Penang street hawkers, I hope the tradition continues, and people realize what a unique place they have where these old food traditions are preserved.

Location: Apom Guan, opposite Sekolah Union, Jalan Burma, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.
Price: 10 pieces for RM4 (about $1.30)