From A Foodie: California Dreamin’

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 
🍙
From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 
🍹

Before you start reading this post, first play this song: California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & the Papas.

Looking for, you guessed it, good food.

Los Angeles is like an idea. There’s Hollywood and its entire edifice (Disney franchises, Universal Pictures, Walk of Fame, the Academy Awards, and all that celebrity fanfare). And then the films I associate with all that: The Mummy, The Sound of Music, La La Land, Pretty Woman… The list goes on.

LA is supposedly the city of stars. The idea, I think, is lived out better in the imagination than in the concrete. The real Hollywood Boulevard is like a backwater town, with dusty streets and gaggles of tourists. The Dolby Theatre — without the red carpet, flashing lights, and yelling paparazzi — looks rather nondescript. The most powerful part of Hollywood is not what I can touch. It lies in its promise, which has had a hold on the global imagination for generations.

Selina Xu Hollywood Walk of Fame

Some of that creativity can be found in the food. On my last day in LA, my family wandered over to The Broad art museum from the Grand Central Market. On my first day in LA, we went to another food festival, Smorgasburg. The former had some tourists and the latter was almost filled with local crowds. Full of local vendors selling food presented with unique artistic flair, both were melting pots (side note: I can never use this phrase non-ironically since reading Israel Zangwill’s eponymous play) of cultures and cuisines all in one bustling place.

The Broad also featured some of the most famous and trendy names in contemporary art like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the one and only Yayoi Kusama (I remember when Kusama’s exhibition came to Singapore and suddenly her polka dots and yellow pumpkins were all over my feed; I ended up skipping her work this time since there was a two-hour wait).

So, here’s a look at some of the most interesting local foods I tasted in LA, interspersed with some cool art. 

Shrimp Daddy (Smorgasburg LA)

Hawaiian garlic butter shrimp inside a bright pineapple boat with macaroni and rice. Tasted good, but not as good as it looked. Sadly, since the pineapple was hollowed out, I couldn’t eat it. There was a tiny serving of some pineapple chunks at the head of the boat, which lightened the palate between bites of the crispy, heavy shrimp.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Shrimp Daddy

Lobsterdamus (Smorgasburg LA)

A whole lobster YUM! My mom and I cleaned it off every last scrap of meat. Grilled on the spot with Cajun sauce, it was hot and chewy just like good lobster meat. For my mom, who enjoys eating from the shell instead of prepared meat, the experience itself was a plus. Very fresh.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg Lobsterdamus

Blue Plate Oysterette (Santa Monica Pier)

Two lobster rolls, one with fries, one with macaroni and cheese. Fried calamari. Very good crab cake! SUPER FRESH SEAFOOD. Which made sense. That’s honestly all one asks for at a restaurant by the beach.

According to my parents, who each took care of a lobster roll, the bread was very delicious (and more unforgettable than the lobster meat?!).

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette

But, most of all, phenomenal key lime pie!!! However, I’m biased because I love lime/lemon-flavored desserts. Still, the BEST key lime pie I’ve eaten.

Selina Xu Blue Plate Oysterette Key Lime Pie

When I was looking at the Jeff Koons pieces at The Broad, which included huge balloon dogs that were made from stainless steel and then coated in translucent colors, I thought about his famous Lobster.

Jeff Koons Lobster.jpg

He said:

I’ve always enjoyed balloon animals because they’re like us. We’re balloons. You take a breath and you inhale, it’s an optimism. You exhale, and it’s kind of a symbol of death.

Isn’t that sort of like the entire affair of eating? The tension between interior life and exterior life, like an energy, like a dialogue. Open up two palms towards the sky: on one hand is what we consume; on the other hand, how long we’ve got to live.

Sari Sari Store (Grand Central Market)

A Filipino concept store. In Filipino, sari sari translates into ‘whatever.’ Out of the various savory rice bowls (silog) on the menu, I ordered the Pinoy BBQ bowl which features garlic pork ribs, garlic rice, atsara (pickled papaya), and a runny fried egg. The rice was SO GOOD. Almost as good as the Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, but not quite yet. So simple, but so filling. 😇

Selina Xu Sari Sari

Glad that the egg I ate was not the ones in the painting below. Presenting to you: Joe, who seems to be frying eggs innocuously. But, look at his eye sockets. What a startling resemblance. 👀

Eyes and Eggs JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT

Eyes and Eggs by JEAN‐MICHEL BASQUIAT.

I ended up seeing a lot of references to food hanging on the walls of the museum. (Possibly because I was hungry.)

Campbell's Soup Can ANDY WARHOL

Campbell’s Soup Can by ANDY WARHOL

Happiness Capsule by The Base (Smorgasburg LA)

Blueberry charcoal base with cold brewed tea in a huge jar that reads Bee Free (not a spelling mistake). No artificial sweeteners, so I was expecting something quite light. First sip and that was the case. After shaking the jar and almost dropping it, the drink got much more even in its sweetness. Would happily drink this every day.

Selina Xu Smorgasburg The Base Happiness Capsule

Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner

On the road back to LA from Las Vegas, we turned off the freeway into Yermo — a town in the Mojave Desert — to stop by a small, 1950s-style diner with American classics such as meatloaf & chicken-fried steak on the menu. The waitresses were all dressed in turquoise and pink with vintage-looking white hats; there were a bunch of men in uniform munching on huge burgers at the table beside us; the walls were plastered with photos of Elvis (who also had a life-sized doll in a fortune-teller glass box). Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for a roadside diner near the Interstate 15.

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's 50's Diner

More interesting than the food was the nostalgic interior. The food was quite forgettable (I got cheeseburger and fries), so I didn’t even bother taking a photo. Loved the quirkiness, however. For instance, guess who I saw in the women’s bathroom? : )

Selina Xu Peggy Sue's Women's Bathroom

James Dean, how dare you!?

***

Out of everything I ate over my seven days in LA/Las Vegas/in between, these are some of the most curious or memorable. They light up my memories of Southern California. Therein lies the magic of good food. They soften your eyes in reminiscence, sharpen some hazy outline of a feeling, or illuminate an ordinary day with a silver lining. They are interwoven with the fabric of the city and how I taste the contours of its syllables on my tongue.

Finally, ending with this.

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains TAKASHI MURAKAMI

Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls, And Fountains by TAKASHI MURAKAMI.

From New York with Love,

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Beauty Diaries: My College Skincare Routine

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Today, I talk about one of the loves of my life: skincare. ✨

After more than a year of wanting to write this post, it finally gets written—yay! People have reacted with varying levels of curiosity and astonishment when they first hear about my daily skincare routine. I still remember my American roommates’ jaws dropping when they first saw the bevy of bottles on my shelf and my collection of sheet masks during Opening Days. 

How I Discovered Skincare 🙈

I began developing a semblance of a skincare routine only towards the end of 2016. Before that, for a good decade, all I did was wash my face with two towels (one hot, one cold) every morning before scrambling to school at 6.30 am. In secondary school, I started using a foam cleanser. After A-levels ended in 2016, I wandered into Kiehl’s with a skincare-loving friend (Junru!) and bought my first products. The journey started there and then. Subsequently, K-beauty aficionados like Xin Min and au naturel organic purists like my mother showed me the path. 

Since then, my routine has evolved with the season, with experimentation, and by trial and error. Many products have fallen in and out of favor, but I have found a go-to routine with a certain set of core products that I’m most comfortable with. One thing for sure: my skin and complexion have improved!

My Skincare Philosophy 💡

  1. Be kind to your skin and it will be kind to you.
  2. Though a routine might not make a big difference to your young dewy skin now, your future self will thank you for it.
  3. Expensive/cult products don’t always work. The best products are the ones that work for you.
  4. Skincare can be a good alternative to make-up. 
  5. Habit and routine is key. The length/complexity of a routine is less important than how regularly you do a routine. Tedious routines are not going to last. So keep the number of products at a level with which you’re most comfortable and can persist. 

My Current College Routine ⏰

I do 90% of these steps in college. In total, they take me roughly 10 minutes in the morning and 13 minutes at night (unless I do a sheet mask). 

If you’re new to skincare, I advise that you start with 3 core steps (don’t overload your skin): sunscreen, cleansing, and moisturizing — absolutely crucial to any and all skincare routines in the universe. 🌏

At home, I also steam my face, which has been transformative but quite impossible to do in college. 

 

Below, I’ve listed both past and present products I’ve used in each step of my routine, with ratings:

🌸: Stopped using it after the first few tries.

🌸🌸: While using it, I couldn’t wait to finish and replace it. Made little difference to my skin.

🌸🌸🌸: Nothing phenomenal, but at least it made my skin feel good.

🌸🌸🌸🌸: My skin improved markedly, and I would use it again (and again).

🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸: Holy Grail. I cannot do without this in my routine.


Step 1: Cleansing (ESSENTIAL)

I use a foam cleanser in the morning (just a tiny smear). At night, in the shower, I do “double cleansing” — an oil cleanser to remove my sunscreen and a foam cleanser afterwards. Choose low-pH cleansers that do not strip away essential layers from your skin.  

Sulwhasoo Gentle Cleansing Oil Ex 🌸🌸🌸🌸

AmorePacific Treatment Cleansing Foam 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

AmorePacific Treatment Cleansing Oil 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Illi Total Aging Care Cleansing Oil 🌸🌸🌸

Neutrogena Deep Clean Acne Foam Cleanser 🌸🌸

Step 2: Exfoliator (once in a while)

In my freshman year, I used the Cure Natural Aqua Gel about once every two weeks — it was very therapeutic rubbing away all the dead skin that has accumulated on my face (you’ll be surprised). I left my bottle at home this semester, so I occasionally use the Murad Skin Polish on my nose to prevent blackheads.

Apart from that, I’ve stopped physical exfoliation, i.e. scrubbing, (because of laziness) and now primarily use the COSRX Pimple Clear Pads as a substitute — the pads are pre-soaked in betaine salicylate and willow bark water to chemically exfoliate. 

COSRX One Step Original Clear Pads 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Murad Pore Reform™ Skin Smoothing Polish 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Cure Natural Aqua Gel 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Neogen Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine 🌸🌸🌸

Step 3: Toner / First Treatment Essence

Toner is not essential (it’s for balancing the pH of your skin), unless your cleanser is stripping. Any essence or serum that can boost the absorption of your subsequent steps will do the same work. 

Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Serum EX 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

Naruko La Creme Face Renewal Miracle Essence 🌸🌸🌸🌸

MISSHA Time Revolution The First Treatment Essence 🌸🌸🌸

Mizon AHA & BHA Daily Clean Toner 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Kiehl’s Calendula Herbal-Extract Alcohol-Free Toner 🌸🌸

Step 4: Sheet Masks (when you feel like it)

Pamper your skin, scare your roommates, and don’t leave it on for too long!! Usually, I just wear it and do my readings or read the news on my phone. I’ve tried many, but here are the memorable ones.

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For porecting: 

  • [Bubbling Charcoal Sheet Mask] Dr. Jart+ Porecting Solution 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • [Charcoal Sheet Mask] Dr. Jart+ Pore Minimalist 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

For hydration: 

  • [Rubber Mask] Dr. Jart+ Hydration Lover 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • [Bio-Cellulose Mask] FOR BELOVED ONE Extreme Hydration  🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • [Hydrogel Mask] Naruko Snail Essence Intense Hydra Repair Mask 🌸🌸🌸

  • Dr. Jart+ Vital Hydra Solution 🌸🌸🌸

  • Dr. Jart+ Soothing Hydra Solution 🌸🌸🌸

For clearing:

  • [Rubber Mask] Dr. Jart+ Clear Lover 🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • Dr. Jart+ Clearing Solution 🌸🌸🌸

For brightening:

  • My Beauty Diary Imperial Bird’s Nest Mask 🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • Dr. Jart+ V7 Toning Masks 🌸🌸🌸🌸
  • Sulwhasoo First Care Activating Mask 🌸🌸🌸
  • Freeset Donkey Milk Skin Gel Mask Pack Aqua 🌸🌸🌸
  • SK-II Facial Treatment Mask 🌸 (Cult-favorite, award-winning, but BEWARE! The leftover serum pilled and balled up on my face. This happened several times. And I had to wash my face again right after, which defeated the whole point of doing a sheet mask. I subsequently gave them away. What a waste of money. -_-)

Step 5: Oils / Essences / Serums

As many or as few as you like. I recommend going simple and not tiring your skin. I currently only use the Kiehl’s serum, which I’ve bought more than five times.

Kiehl’s Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸

COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence 🌸🌸🌸

Naruko Supreme Rejuvenating Elixir Oil 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Innisfree Green Tea Seed Serum 🌸🌸🌸

Step 6: Eye Serum / Eye Cream

Splurge on your eyes, darling.

Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Concentrate Matrix 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Supercharged Complex 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Step 7: Moisturizer / Night Cream

I currently use two moisturizers per routine (instead of one) since Boston’s wintry weather makes the skin around my nose really dry. In the morning, I will use the COSRX Snail Cream to touch up the sensitive skin around my nose and at the edges of my mouth, followed by AmorePacific’s Creme to seal in the moisture. At night, I will use the COSRX Snail Cream, followed by the Sulwhasoo Overnight Mask.

AmorePacific The Essential Creme Fluid 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Day)

Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask EX 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Night)

COSRX Advanced Snail 92 All In One Cream 🌸🌸🌸 (Winter)

COSRX Ultimate Nourishing Rice Overnight Spa Mask 🌸🌸🌸

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Oil-Free Gel-Cream 🌸🌸🌸

Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream 🌸🌸

Step 8: Sunscreen (ESSENTIAL)

The most essential step towards good skin. Uneven pigmentation? Dark spots? Premature wrinkles? Sun protection is the best anti-aging product out there. I used to hate sunscreen because the European products I tried always left my skin feeling greasy (which can be a real nightmare in Singapore’s sultry humidity).

In 2017, I started wearing sunscreen on a close to daily basis and it took me a while to change that into a daily habit. Now, it’s second nature and I put sunscreen on even if I’m just going to be indoors all day long. Depending on the season, I use different types of sunscreen. For instance, in the summer, I use the spray versions of the ANESSA and Biore sunscreens on my body.

Shiseido ANESSA Perfect UV Sunscreen Skincare Gel SPF50+ PA++++ 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Face) (All seasons) (Waterproof)

Shiseido ANESSA Perfect UV Sunscreen Skincare Milk SPF50+ PA++++ 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Face) (All seasons) (Waterproof)

Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence SPF 50+ PA++++ 🌸🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Face) (Indoors) (Not waterproof)

Nivea Sun Protect Water Gel SPF 50 PA+++ 🌸🌸🌸

Dr. Jart+ Every Sun Day UV Sun Fluid Broad Spectrum SPF 30 🌸🌸🌸🌸

Avène Ultra-Light Hydrating Sunscreen Lotion Spray SPF 50+ 🌸🌸

Others (throughout the day)

Kiehl’s Cactus Flower & Tibetan Ginseng Hydrating Mist 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Good for flights and after exercising) (Portable)

Crabtree & Evelyn Soothing Hand Cream Therapy, Goatmilk and Oat 🌸🌸🌸🌸  (Winter)

L’Occitane Cherry Blossom Hand Cream 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Winter) (Portable)

L’Occitane Verbena Cooling Hand Cream Gel 🌸🌸🌸🌸 (Summer) (Portable)


If you’ve read all the way till here, I applaud you for your dedication!!!

So, what’s next?

I’m definitely no expert and my choice of products is limited to my skin type, my budget, and the weather I have to surrender myself to. If you are hungry for more, Fifty Shades of Snail (one of the only beauty blogs I read) will be a great portal to the world of Asian skincare and the infinite options (product formulations) available for customizing your own routine. Delve right in!  

Do you do skincare? What are your favorite products? 💖

Wishing you all healthy, glowing skin, 

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From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely

Read other From A Foodie installments:
From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit 🍙
From A Foodie: California Dreamin’ 🌴

I ushered in 2019 in Taipei with my parents — the three of us were there on family vacation for nine joyful, tummy-filled days.

Taipei is a place where the best foods are found in the street-side stalls with no air-conditioning, or nestled in an obscure alley, or at its thronging night markets (which I didn’t thoroughly experience because we were dieting as a family -__-). The meals we had at the hotel or in upscale restaurants were all less satisfactory than the intimate hole-in-the-wall eateries, overflowing with customers by word of mouth.

For fellow bubble tea lovers, I’ve highlighted all the bubble tea I tried at various places with a pink flower. 🌸 A new milestone has finally emerged in my study of the art of bubble tea-drinking. I finally figured out the difference between pearls (珍珠) and boba (波霸). I would like to share this important category distinction with all of you:

Pearls (珍珠): small
Boba (波霸): big

Ta-da!

Shilin 士林

Breakfast 早餐

Since we stayed at The Grand Hotel near the Jiantan and Yuanshan stations, and considering how hungry my parents were when we headed out of the hotel at 11am every day, we mostly had breakfast nearby. There was an abundance of options though! I did my research well under the limitations of proximity.

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  • Man Jia Ziang 满佳香

A nook in the alleys that come to life by nighttime. By day, all the Shilin Night Market stalls were closed or kept, but this all-day breakfast store was bustling. Order the warm milk tea with fresh milk and their egg pancakes with fillings ranging from tuna to steak to hash brown. Also, order the fried dumplings and scallion pancakes! Prices are incredibly down-to-earth.

  • Fong Sheng Hao 丰盛号

Called one of Taipei’s top 10 must-eat breakfasts, it pairs charcoal-grilled toast with milk tea. Both my dad and I ordered the classic meat, egg, and cheese toast while my mom got hers with spicy meat. Easy to eat and oh so delicious when downed with milk tea.

  • Lin‘s Chinese Pizza 林家葱油饼

A stall right outside the Shilin station. Always a long queue. We had this three times throughout the trip since it was located close to our hotel. Many combinations for your picking. My favorite is the original with chili and cheese. My mom likes hers with egg. My dad likes his with pickles.

Shilin Night Market 士林夜市

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  • Hot-Star Large Fried Chicken 豪大大鸡排

Bigger than my face. No picture to show because I was so hungry that I ate it without first taking a photo. Not any different (other than atmosphere-wise) from the branches it has opened in Singapore. But here’s a picture of me posing with happiness above.

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  • Smoothie House 思慕昔

We were too full to try this CNN-endorsed dessert at its original store at Yong Kang Street (read below: because we dined at Kao Chi), so we tried it at the one at Shilin instead. We got the Super Fruits Mix Mango Snowflake Iced with Sorbet, which was just okay. And that’s disappointing. 😦 At least it looked pretty.

  • GomanMango

Better than Smoothie House! Not too sweet, not too sour. As it happens with all good food encountered at the peak of hunger, I forgot to take a photo.

  • 🌸 TP Tea 茶汤会 🌸

Tieguanyin latte is quite good. Would have been better without pearls! Middle of the pack in Taipei but still better than any bubble tea I’ve had in the U.S. T_T I’m going to be impossible to satisfy. Argh.

Ximen 西门町

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  • 🌸 Tiger Sugar 老虎堂 🌸

OMG. The first time I’ve had brown sugar with my milk and it was LIFE-CHANGING. Unlike at other places, the sugar level, amount of ice, or toppings aren’t customizable here. Everything is perfectly balanced!!! They know what they are doing, trust me.

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  • Ay Chung Rice Noodles 阿宗面线

This feels more like a tourist experience than a tasting experience. Not because the noodles weren’t good, but because of the crowd that gathers on the curb collectively slurping from their paper containers.

Tamsui 淡水

  • 🌸 Bubble Lee 李圆圆 🌸

Best boba!!! The chewiness, the subtle sweetness, the heat that dissipates in the milk and on the tip of my tongue.

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  • Mochi99 麻吉奶奶鲜奶麻薯

Delicious. The mochi made from fresh milk leaves it with a creamier aftertaste. I ordered the classic peanut flavor. Mixing it in the peanut powder was really fun (could have been a messy affair).

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  • Kakigori 朝日夫妇

The line for sit-in was too long, but there were only limited flavors for takeaway. I chose the pineapple and dragonfruit flavor and it looked so cute! A bit too cold by the sea though. I was sniffling halfway through this.

Taipei Main Station 台北总站

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  • Zheng Pork Knuckle 郑记猪脚饭

We arrived right before the lunch hour crush. Best pork knuckles I’ve ever had (aside from my mom’s). My parents were initially quite put off by the sparse surroundings, but they were won over by the taste. The different types of pickles offset the heaviness of the pork skin (good for your skin!). A simple bowl of greatness. Right as we sat down to eat, a line of fifteen people formed at the counter. Phew.

Jiufen & Shifen 九份、十份

mde

  • A Mei Tea House 阿妹茶楼

The tea house that inspired Hayao Miyazaki. The building behind Yubaba’s Bathhouse in Spirited Away, a film that terrified me in my childhood and still moves me to tears with its heart, its touch of innocence, and its ethical complexity. The stairs leading to the tea house was so crowded that we moved about a step every half a minute. At 8pm, the teahouse was all lit up with red lanterns and thrumming with a flurry of voices, clinging of teacups, and waiters in black and white patiently demonstrating the traditional art of tea-making. A set includes four tiny bites — sesame and peanut crackers, one green bean cake, two sugared plums, and one mochi — and a pot of tea that can be refilled by the kettle bubbling beside the table. Ask for the top floor window seat if you can.

  • 🌸 Hanlin Tea Room 翰林茶馆 🌸

Love the white bubbles.

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  • 🌸 Xing Fu Tang 幸福堂 🌸

As good as Tiger Sugar! The ceremony of preparing the drink is more aesthetic — the server lights up the surface of the cup with a flame.

Yong Kang Street 永康街

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  • Kao Chi 高记

I’m going to say this three times: better than Din Tai Fung. Better than Din Tai Fung. Better than Din Tai Fung. Every dish we ordered was a pleasing aesthetic and gustatory experience. Must-orders include: the beef cubes (melt-in-your-mouth tender) and the Shen Jian Bao (pan-fried Pork Buns) served in a hot pan.

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  • 🌸 Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea-house 春水堂 🌸

The world’s original bubble tea!!! Its hot drinks — sesame milk tea, ginger milk tea, and milk tea with bubbles — are so good on a rainy, cold day. We ended up here by accident after touring the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. The original, iced milk tea with pearls is also quite stellar, but nothing innovative.

Others 小吃

Pineapple Tarts & Nougat 凤梨酥、牛轧糖

  • Chia Te 佳德

BEST PINEAPPLE TART OF MY LIFE. I recommend the pineapple tart with egg yolk most. It was melt-in-your-mouth kind of heavenly bliss.

***

Read this on a hungry day! Hee hee. Or as I currently am, sniffling and eating porridge in a hotel room in Beijing, but with a Happy Lemon strawberry milk tea within my reach. All delivered by Meituan. God Bless China.

Lots of love,

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From A Foodie: Tasting Japan & Its Shokunin Spirit

Read other From A Foodie installments: 
From A Foodie: Tasting Taipei — worn, but lovely 🍹
From A Foodie: California Dreamin’ 🌴

Although my two months in Japan were ostensibly for Summer School (note the emphasis on my liberal arts education), with the overarching agenda of weight loss (refer to my birthday post: From 20-year-old Me, With Love), it was in truth spent on eating, diligent planning of where to eat, and lovingly documenting every piece of food that went into my stomach. It was a glorious two months in a land that worshipped food as much as I did. I present to you the best food I’ve eaten—sadly, not an inexhaustible list and very much narrow in scope as I don’t eat raw fish (no sushi/sashimi etc.! I hear your cry of ‘travesty!!!’)—in Japan, with most of the places in Kyoto (which was where I was predominantly located). Some brief thoughts on the shokunin spirit at the end.

Dessert

Tokyo

  • Asakusa Suzukien Nanaya Gelato

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Eaten on my first full day in Japan, this was the unforeseen beginning of my two-month-long obsession with matcha ice cream. Located on a street behind the famous Sensōji Temple, this shop is famous for having the richest matcha gelato in the world (see the round blob below). It was overwhelmingly bitter (considering the fact that I have a huge sweet tooth) and I immediately wished that I had gone for one of the lower levels instead of the highest out of the seven levels of matcha. Instead, I took over my dad’s Hojicha (roasted green tea) and level 1 matcha gelato cup—it was heavenly.

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  • Dominique Ansel Bakery Omotesando Store

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Tucked in an alleyway behind Omotesando, the zelkova tree-lined avenue leading to Meiji Shrine, this bakery is slick, modern, with incredibly photogenic pastries. While everything looks pretty, the best of the bunch is the Tokyo-exclusive Paris-Tokyo Matcha Passionfruit Cake (top left), which tastes as good as it looks—it’s a spin on the classic Paris-Brest with passionfruit curd and matcha ganache. Other innovations include the Frozen S’mores which are burned before you as they are being served.

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Osaka

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios Japan

Butterbeer is a must-have! With a sweet, creamy layer of foam above the carbonated, bubbly drink (non-alcoholic), it tasted like an interesting mix of foam milk soda and butterscotch macchiato. The amber color (resembling beer) is beautiful, the mug is a souvenir to keep, and the taste is smooth. It also magically cured my motion sickness after the Final Fantasy XR Ride with the virtual reality headset.

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  • World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Dotonbori

Located in Dōtonbori, Osaka’s over-the-top food/entertainment/shopping district, the name of the food truck caught my eye: why proclaim itself as the world’s second best? (And, honestly, who’s the first??) The melon-pan was still warm and crispy, with a subtle sweetness, which lightened the richness of the vanilla ice cream. It was a larger, fatter version of Singapore’s iconic ice cream sandwich, and no less delicious. More points for the experience (rarely did I see melon-pan sold with ice cream throughout the rest of the trip) than for the actual taste.

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Kyoto

  • Kyo Cafe 

This cafe is operated by KYOBAUM, a famous brand of baumkuchen (a layered sponge cake, resembling a tree with concentric rings). The matcha and vanilla soft serve rests on several small, chewy pieces of baumkuchen (made with Uji green tea and soy milk). The sprinkled powder on top is a nice finishing touch. If you’re shopping along Shijo Avenue in Gion and need a pick-me-up, go for this different spin on soft serve.

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  • Gelato Pique Cafe Bio Concept

Since I was passing through Kyoto Station every day on my commute to school, I spent a lot of time exploring all the underground (and overhead) malls connected to the sprawling transportation hub. This newly opened cafe in the basement of the CUBE caught my eye due to its bright, minimalistic interior. I ordered a Rouge Smoothie and an assorted gelato set (I chose chocolate, matcha, and pistachio), which was surprisingly good with its granola bits and a butter cookie. It lasted me for more than an hour on my Kindle, reading Yuko Ogasawara’s Office Ladies and Salaried Men. ^_^

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  • Sir Thomas Lipton

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My absolute favorite dessert place. ❤ The white peach tart (pictured above) was love at first bite. I went back three more times—twice with friends and one last time by myself—to eat it. Everything else on the menu, from matcha tiramisu to matcha kakigōri (shaved ice) to hibiscus black milk tea was delectable. The pot of tea, however, was not a standout.

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  • Arashiyama Obuu

What a blessing on any swelteringly hot, sticky day. My friend and I ventured into Arashiyama (with its famous bamboo forests, scenic railways, and picturesque temples) on a 40 degree Celcius afternoon—the whole time, we were immersed in an inescapable outdoor sauna. After lining up for half an hour, we got seats by the counter facing the Togetsukyo Bridge. This was the only time I tried a Hojicha parfait throughout this trip. The slightly bitter, roasted taste of the ice cream perfectly complemented the doses of matcha.

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The tea room of this breathtakingly gorgeous museum (an architectural feat nestled in the mountains) offers a tasty Anmitsu. With natural sunlight streaming through the glass ceilings and metal beams, both this space and the food are meant to present a harmonious blend of natural beauty, architecture, art and food—this museum’s object, after all, is to use art (in its broadest sense) to bring about a religious experience. Founded by the Shinji Shumeikai religious organization, even the culinary experience of the museum’s restaurants adheres to its philosophy. This dessert item utilizes ingredients produced by the Shumei Natural Agriculture approach, free of any additives such as fertilizers and agrochemicals. The azuki beans are boiled to a soft texture while the round balls made of mochi rice flour are chewy and the matcha ice cream cold and soothing. Almost a transformative experience, but not quite yet.

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  • Ito Kyuemon Uji Honten

My host family brought me to this traditional tea-maker shop, now famous for its parfaits. Absolute matcha heaven! Although everyone at the table ordered a parfait, I really couldn’t help but order the matcha cheesecake option with the Hojicha jelly (because it looked so pretty on the menu). The chilled Hojicha jelly was bouncy and slightly bitter even after honey is poured, but it lightened the palate between bites of a rich, creamy cheesecake. I happily bought several boxes of matcha goods—sandwich cookies, chocolate, and warabimochi—from the shop before we left.

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  • Saryo Suisen

Best parfait. With matcha waffle roll, dorayaki (red bean pancake), azuki paste, dango (sweet dumplings), mochi, cookie, baumkuchen, and jelly decorating the matcha soft serve, eating this parfait was like unearthing a seemingly bottomless treasure chest. I choose to disregard the number of calories contained in this beauty.

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***

Okonomiyaki

Tokyo 

  1. Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro

Delicious beyond words. Definitely make a trip here if you’re in Asakusa. This Japanese-style savory pancake is called okonomiyaki (literally ‘grill as you like’), with flour, eggs, tempura scraps (tenkasu), cabbage and some form of protein. The final pancake is topped with a variety of condiments like okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and dried bonito flakes. Seated on tatami mats around an iron griddle on the tabletop, everything is do-it-yourself (we also asked the friendly staff to help us flip the pancake). The rustic interior is charming.

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***

Unagi

Nagoya

  1. Atsuta Horaiken Main Restaurant

THE BEST UNADON I’VE EATEN IN MY LIFE. Nagoya’s hitsumabashi (hitsu = ‘wooden rice bowl’ and mabushi = ‘to scatter’) style entails eating the unagi in four steps: as it is; garnished with the served condiments such as spring onions, nori seaweed, pickles and wasabi (I gave wasabi a pass); mixed with lightly-flavored broth or tea; and lastly, whichever of the three ways one prefers. It was such an interesting way to eat unagi, apportioning the eel out of the bowl, but then I gave up halfway through since the second way was so delicious. Also, I recommend ordering the Umaki (omelet-wrapped eel) as a starter.

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***

Tempura

Nara

  • Tendon Makino

Golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth kind of buttery goodness. The huge bowl includes a generous assortment of tempura—conger eel, shrimp, egg with a soft center, green pepper, enoki mushrooms, seaweed, squid, and scallops all coated in a thick batter—overflowing above the rice (a second smaller bowl is used as a lid to keep the tempura from falling off). The order is done on the spot, so everything is fresh and piping hot. Incredibly, despite how unhealthy this looks, there was no oily aftertaste. Honestly, the best tendon I’ve had.

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Kyoto

  • Yoshikawa Tempura

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Compared to the tendon at Makino, this restaurant offers tempura almost as an artisanal experience—the batter is light, each item barely dipped into a cauldron of oil by the skilled chef before it is expertly placed onto the plate before my eyes. Consuming each item in the nine-course meal—two prawns, one fish and six vegetables—was a savor of the ingredient, the natural flavor brought out by the tempura coating. The different kinds of salt, dipping sauce and the slice of lemon also offered diverse ways to experiment with taste. So, so delicate.

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***

Wagyu

Kyoto

  • Hafuu Honten

I regretted going for the teriyaki sauce option, but it did not detract that much from the quality of the beef. I ordered the fillet steak medium to well-done, and it still retained its juicy texture, which was impressive. Slightly overrated as one of the best places for wagyu beef in Kyoto, but I can imagine how much better the steak would have been without the teriyaki sauce.

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  • Teppanyaki Gozanbo

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In terms of overall atmosphere, my best meal in Japan. On the fifteenth floor of Hotel Granvia, the restaurant had a gorgeous view of the mountains, the Kyoto Tower, and the city skyline. The chef prepares the meal from scratch before you—from preparing the raw ingredient to the final plate presentation. The eight-course meal hit all the right notes—particular highlights were the teppan-grilled fish with Manganji pepper puree and the dessert (coconut ice cream with passionfruit puree).

The beef cubes literally melted in my mouth. I used to read descriptions like this and immediately label them as hyperbole, but the beef actually did melt in the literal sense of the word! It was buttery, fatty in all the right amounts, freshly seared, and absolutely heavenly when dabbed with salt and eaten with garlic chips. Typing this right now at 10PM makes me so incredibly hungry. 😓 This is the kind of meal that compels you to close your eyes to etch the taste in your mind.

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***

Takoyaki

Osaka

  • Takoyaki Juhachiban Dotonbori

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Best Takoyaki I’ve eaten. Due to the constant line before the stall and the huge volume of orders, everything is made on the spot with a flurry of hands at almost inhuman speed. With crispy tempura scraps in the flour-based batter, the crunch in my mouth as I tried to eat each ball without burning my mouth was a great respite.

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***

Throughout all of these culinary experiences, as I traveled from Tokyo to Nagoya to Osaka to Kyoto, what struck me most was the level of devotion and diligence that goes into the craft of cooking—from roadside stalls to rustic inns to air-conditioned cafes to modern restaurants. What I deeply admire is not only the exquisite precision of its artisanal chefs or the decades spent specializing in a single category of food by generations in a family, but also the smiling salesperson painstakingly wrapping up my cake with an ice pack, the scruffy boy making Takoyaki in the hot sun with a tireless smile on his face, and the many other anonymous faces that deeply moved me with their immense sense of pride in feeding my stomach and delighting my palate.

The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.

— Tasio Odate

I was at first surprised and then intrigued by this shokunin spirit that surfaced in the most mundane of interactions and at places where I least expected to find craftsmanship (to put it bluntly). This assiduous focus on the smallest, most trivial of details and a relentless pursuit of perfection while cooking the same dish, preparing the same takeaway box, or even doing the same singular action at the grill over and over again moves me. I can’t begin to fathom what drives their dedication to this ‘craft’—or what many might not even perceive to be a craft—when I find myself faltering in persisting in a habit after mere days. There’s something special about each of these meals that I’ve eaten in Japan that has moved me beyond its sensory aspects. From my perspective, each of these meals is a singular life experience. Yet, for them, I am but only one customer in a sea of consumers who have come and gone. But, somehow, driven by perhaps what Odate calls a spiritual and material obligation, they hold themselves up to an invisible bar that cannot be found on such a wide scale in any other country I’ve been to.

I think that’s what lies at the heart of Japan for me this summer, beyond its cuisine, the earthquake and the flooding, the heat, its shrines and temples, its quaint alleyways and wooden buildings, its punctuality and the efficient transportation system. Amongst its people, are millions of dedicated shokunin, who are unnamed but not unnoticed.

Lots of love,

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Movie Review: Pride & Prejudice (2005)

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Pride & Prejudice | Starring Keira Knightley & Matthew Macfadyen | 2005

This review is full of spoilers.

Gloriously, hopelessly romantic.

Pride and Prejudice is the English novel that cemented my love for romance. It’s my initiation into romantic literature, the etchings of a lifelong silhouette of Mr. Darcy behind all contours of romantic aspirations henceforth, and the story that told my childhood self that there is someone out there who will respect and admire my mind for its worth.

Reading Austen and entering her world through film is akin to intoxication. It’s the giddy effect of a good love story told with incredible flair and finesse—the logic is impeccable, the witticisms offer both levity and plot-progression, and the motivations are ground in such human concerns and practicalities that they still reverberate in contemporary consciousness. Women are still trying to find a Mr. Darcy—why? After shifting structures, broken ceilings, and epochal milestones, something still rings true: bound to varying degrees by societal norms and the expectations of those around, is there not a voice within all that genuinely, forlornly, ardently yearns for someone who can simply see us as who we are—different and independent we may be—and love us? Two centuries later, the yearning endures: that is, to find a partner equal in mind. How ahead of her time Austen was.

This movie captures that evolution from affronted pride and conditioned prejudice to the amorous reconciliation of two souls underneath the cloak of first impressions (interestingly, Austen’s original title for the novel was “First Impressions”). A few scenes in particular stick out to me for constant revisiting:

At the ball, in the background of this frame, Darcy pronounces to Bingley: “Perfectly tolerable, I daresay, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” In the foreground, half of Elizabeth’s face is in the shadows of the alcove; the slight dimming of her bright eyes and the lingering remnants of a now-gone smile are evidence of a wounded pride.

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This really does set the stage for the rest of the story to unfold. As Elizabeth says,

I could more easily forgive his vanity had he not wounded mine.

Not long later in the movie, Darcy’s hand appears to help Elizabeth get onto her carriage and the camera zooms into that hand as he walks away, capturing its tense trembling and a flexing that is laden with inklings of a growing attraction. It was breathtaking to catch such a glimpse past the seemingly impenetrable, unflappable exterior of Darcy. In the 1995 BBC adaptation, Colin Firth’s Darcy while wearing hauteur like a second skin, never really does shed that facade to show the emotional ferment and vulnerabilities within. In contrast, Matthew Macfadyen’s sensitive portrayal has an immense tautness of character. The internal struggle that Darcy undergoes comes out movingly in such tiny moments of things unsaid that make his later articulated declaration in the rain, “I have struggled in vain and I can bear it no longer”, so much more poignant for the audience.

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The consummate scene of mutual romantic confession is one of pure cinematic magic. As the piano soundtrack suffuses the shot to dissipate the early morning mist (Your Hands Are Cold), Darcy emerges from blue landscape towards Elizabeth. He is without a cravat and she without a corset. He is walking, neither on carriage nor horseback, just as she did to Netherfield Park. As the warm golden sunlight shines through the silhouette of their touching foreheads, I felt something altogether wonderful. I felt almost incandescently happy.

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While there are some minor deviations from the novel, it was easy to surrender myself to their love as the Elizabeth and Darcy surrender to it themselves. The Austen concoction is absolutely there in generous doses. To embrace yourself and your ideals—especially when they transcend the conventions of your time—takes courage; to find someone who can appreciate and love you for that takes luck. That is what’s so moving about this Austen adaptation. Elizabeth and Darcy. Darcy and Elizabeth. What a lucky pair. Whilst Mr. Bennett lovingly tells Elizabeth towards the end of the movie, I cannot believe that anyone can deserve you, another softer, yet perennial message resounds, There is some person in this vast world who will deserve you as you are. So I offer this kernel to you, dear reader.

❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Lots of love,

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