Taipei Day 1: Some Travel Tips for Taipei n00bs + Shilin Night Market

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This is one of the many reasons why I think my Grandpa is a crazy fella (but in a good way, of course!).

Last January, he gave me a heads-up that we might~ be going to Taiwan on March. Come its first week, nothing was happening. I assumed we weren’t pushing through, so I took it easy with my writing deadlines, moving things around since I perceived March to be a pretty chill working month. But on March 10, he told me to give him my passport, and with much urgency at that, because we were leaving in 10 freaking!!!! days (we haven’t applied for visas yet at this rate, and it takes around 3-4 days to process!). And he already booked tickets for me, him, and my Grandma. YOLO(lo) much.

Apart from scrambling to fix our papers and documents, I booked us a room for 4 nights at the Hotel Riverview located at Taipei’s Ximending District via Agoda. Though it’s a bit of a walk from the MRT, it received great reviews from former guests, claiming that the staff was very, very hospitable and the rooms were squeaky clean. And they were right! I highly recommend this place if you plan to visit Taipei. Yes, it takes around 10-15 minutes to walk from the hotel to the MRT, but you get to pass by the shopping areas and streets lined up with food (haha), so there’s really nothing to lose (except time, if you’re in a rush) because you get to explore more of the city in a very organic manner. You might even end up reaching the MRT in an hour because of all the window shopping. Hotel Riverview’s rates are very affordable especially if you’re traveling with your family or with a group of friends. I enjoyed their breakfast selection, too!

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If I weren’t a writer, I’d most probably be a tour guide or put up a local Contiki counterpart and be its only employee hahaha just so I could go around more and meet new people etc etc. I find travel planning oddly therapeutic, and though I’m not a stick-to-the-plan kind of traveler, I do my share of research on must-see places (and must-eat restaurants) in a country I’m visiting. I usually get recommendations from friends because hearing their personal stories and seeing the look on their faces as they recall the memory make things more special. Also, these conversations come with insider tips that you won’t find online! My Grandpa allowed me to plot down the places I wanted to visit so we could go together as a family. He also gave me a free day to explore Taiwan on my own despite his being verryyy overprotective, so that was pretty cool.

Touchdown Taiwan—Taoyuan International Airport. My Tita living in Taiwan told me that the weather wasn’t winter-level cold. “Just bring a jacket,” she advised. The Internet also said that the temperature was sunny at 24 degrees, so I packed shorts and sleeveless tops only to realize that I walked straight into a refrigerator once the exit doors of the airport opened. Internet, y u fail me. Just kidding. After asking around, I found out that Taiwan reaches its warmest season on June-July. On other months, expect the weather to be like Baguio x 5 or 7.

Given my shivering ass wardrobe malfunction and fear of turning into Olaf, I made it a priority to do a bit of “cold weather shopping” as soon as we got to the hotel. But before that, here’s a tourist tip: Taipei offers free Wi-Fi to its foreign visitors. Make sure to visit the information center at the airport upon landing. In my case, their system was down, so they redirected me to one of the Taipei MRT stations where I could avail of this service, so I took a mental note and that priority number 2.

We arrived at the hotel from Taoyuan around 4:00pm (it took us around an hour and a half via car because my Grandpa had arranged for someone to pick us up). After resting a bit, we headed out to get my free Wi-Fi at the Ximen Station (the MRT nearest our hotel), but stopped by 7-Eleven first to get a mobile sim card for my Grandpa. And also, my favorite part of any trip…can you guess?

Taiwan’s 7-Eleven shabu-shabu station is filled with tofu, corn, fish balls, meat balls, crab sticks, and other edibles of the same kin.

Soft-boiled eggs that come in plastic bags. A perfect booze buddy as advertised.

Tea Eggs, 6 of which my Grandpa, Grandma, and I inhaled in less than 5 minutes. Bring this to Manila PLZ.

En route the Ximen MRT station, we passed by the Ximending shopping area which was teeming with more food and stores. It was busy (but not packed) on a Thursday afternoon. Of course, I wanted to stop by and sample more of the Taiwanese fare. How could you not with all those delicious scents causing you to unconsciously gravitate towards their stalls?!?! Torture much. But I could wait (I think).

FREE WI-FI FOR TOURISTS! Just show your passport and you’ll be given access to their hotspots that are ever-so-present in their MRT stations. And it’s pretty darn fast, too. But please use it only when you have to and don’t let it (especially the sneaky little devil that is social media) distract you from enjoying your trip! They also have cute tourist-themed ink stamps that you can fill up your notebooks or travel journals with. I went wild with those as you could see.

We stopped by a military merchandise store located on the opposite side of the road, and we headed back to the hotel to rest up. On our way back from the MRT station, we passed by Ximending again and now, I didn’t hold back when it came to the grub.

Egg Pancakes! One of my favorite things in Taipei. It’s filled with scallions and you can have it also with cheese inside.

Luv u.

Edibles on sticks, innards, and various offal.

Roasted corn basted with barbecue sauce.

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There were three night markets I wanted to visit on our first evening (eager beaver). Wu Fen Pu for clothes, Raohe for food, and Shilin for more food. But hitting all three markets in one night was a bit of a stretch, so we settled for Shilin Night Market.

We took a cab going there, but if you want to take the MRT, take the red line to Jiantan Station and not Shilin Station. Leave Exit 1 and cross the street diagonally to the left. It’s not hard to miss. Shilin is known for its food, but thankfully, there were also clothing stores, so I was able stock up on pants and coats to keep me warm for the rest of the trip. Most of the clothes and other non-edible items (lol) sold in Taipei come at fixed prices that are a bit expensive (even in night markets), so keep an eye out for vendors with flexible price tags you can haggle with. The Taiwanese folk, from my experience, are very kind, helpful, and easy communicate with. Even in crowded night markets such as Shilin, you’ll feel safe.

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I Got It from My Grandpa

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Today is my Grandpa’s 75th birthday. I know his age because I have a photo of his passport in my phone, and I subtracted his birth year with 2014 some five seconds ago. Being my Grandpa, he has always been the wrinkly family figure (like if there was a Grandfather Willow, I suppose). He demands the most respect in the clan simply because he was the oldest—the father of my father.

I remember my first beach trip when he drove us to Subic when I was three and barely higher than his knee. I wondered why the sand was grey, but still jumped in the water. Most of my memories of him would always revolve around eating Chinese food, Binondo, the smell of the pomade on his slicked back hair, Aristocrat Chicken Barbecue, and airplanes.

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I won’t go out telling the whole world what a perfect man because he is far from that. Just like all of us, my Grandpa’s got his own share of flaws and issues. But he is a good Grandpa. He and my Grandma were my first travel buddies. I remember them joking in a not-very-child-friendly way that they would pack me inside the luggage if I wouldn’t stop crying when I said goodbye to my parents in the airport.

My Grandpa also loves taking photos. Despite the Digital Age, he still prefers to do it old-school, taking his rickety decade-old digital camera to Quiapo to have the photos inside it printed out. And mind you, he doesn’t choose the photos; he just goes and tells the clerk to print them all out. Whenever I try to convince him that he should at least delete those that aren’t really print-worthy, he just tells me to go out and buy ice cream. Because to him, every click of the shutter is important. It’s as if he wanted to frame the arbitrary in the milliseconds of his day.

I guess, if there’s one thing I admire about my Grandpa the most, it’s the way he views everything with so much wonder and meaning. And of course, his undying love for travel. At age 75, he still climbs mountains, walks wayyy longer than I can, and he’s got that thirst of exploring new places despite his age. Sometimes we lose him in narrow, crowded marketplaces, which can get a bit frustrating and I feel I need to play the grown-up card when I am but a grand total of 50 years younger. That’s just the way he is and who he has always been.

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Understanding that he is a wide-eyed wondered soul in a 75-year-old body makes me more understanding of his very spontaneous habits and sometimes fickle decision-making. There’s a special way he looks at the world. I know he sees it through rose-colored glasses, like a child gaining consciousness about his surroundings for the very first time. He’s a well-traveled man, but he has always been very humble about his adventures coupled with that glowing zeal to take us, his grandchildren, along with him. He’s the one who’s immediately game for adventure, game to book that ticket, and would do everything in his power to make sure that we got to see the world with him whenever we could.
So, Grandpa, thanks for your fondness of travel and appreciation for every moment you have. Though you can be a tough nut to crack, I want to let you know that I love you loads and that you will always and forever be one of the most important men in my life.

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Happy birthday, wanderlust. I’m glad to know I got my itchy feet from you.

Wanderlusting—Supertramp Style (a repost)

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I wrote this entry about Sean Penn’s Into the Wild last January 2012, and I thought of going through it again since I’m planning to see the movie for the fourth (or fifth) time tonight.

Same movie, always a different revelation.

After my first viewing of Into the Wild, I was hooked. I spent most of my time researching about Christopher McCandless, ordered a copy of the paperback by Jon Krakauer online, and devoured it once it came in the mail. It has become one of my favorite books since.

I’ve always been an advocate of adventure and travel, but there are moments that I simply forget the core of why I love what I love. Having an encounter of the paperback sitting on the El Union Coffee bookshelf brought me back to my reason; my WHY for adventure, dropping everything, and simply getting lost. Along with it came a bit of Walden and Thoreau’s “sucking the marrow out of life”. I was also reading Donald Miller’s Through Painted Deserts that day and the stain these kinds of books leave on me is like indelible ink on a perfectly white shirt.

So tonight, I again rediscover what it means to live on the road that leads west. Hopefully, someday, I get to experience it for myself.

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Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ’cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.

- Alexander Supertramp, May 1992

Today’s devotion talks about the Book of Nature, followed by a mini-story about the life of John Muir, leader of the forest conservation movement, and developer of some national parks in the US such as Sequoia, Mount Rainier, and Yosemite. According to the story, Muir would literally explore and indulge himself in the wilderness. And while doing so, he began to realize that the true beauty of this world, uncorrupted by domestication and civilization, could come from no one else but from the hand of God.

This topic, the wilderness, takes me back to last Friday’s movie viewing where I was able to watch Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. The movie revolves around the story of Christopher McCandless and how he decided to abandon everything—his college diploma, his privileged lifestyle, his family, his life—in the pursuit of finding himself. He also dropped his old name and took up a new one: Alexander Supertramp.

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There are a couple of perspectives that weave the movie together: Chistopher McCandless himself and his sister, Carine’s. This combination of narratives is actually a striking mélange of experiences, viewing an adventure through the lenses of both the wanderlust and the eyes of a lost man’s sister. The movie has a magical capability of absorbing you into the story, allowing you to feel the heart and soul of Christopher McCandless. Once the credits start rolling, reality settles back in. You feel like you just woke up from a surreal dream or a mesmerizing trance. This movie will break you, it will mend you; it will unstitch you, and then it will sew you back together. This is definitely one of the most beautiful and riveting movies I have ever seen, peppered with lessons by Supertramp himself that will certainly last a lifetime.

1. The freedom that lies in simple beauty is too good to pass up.

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Sometimes, we forget to stop and smell the flowers. We forget to bask ourselves under the sun’s rays and be thankful for a sunny day. We have been so absorbed with the hustle and bustle of life, especially when new gadgets run over our already-good ones. We always want more and more of things, and we usually turn a blind eye on what beauty already exists. I read in Paulo Coelho’s Aleph that “the most sophisticated things in the world are precisely those within the reach of everyone.” Freedom is one, love is another. And the funny thing is that these things that make sense of our lives aren’t even material.

This also reminds me of Louis CK’s “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” interview on Conan.

‘Cause now we live in, in an amazing, amazing world and it’s wasted on the, on the crappiest generation of just spoiled idiots that don’t care because, this is what people are like now.

- Louis CK

2. God’s place is all around us; it is in everything and in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at things.

I needed to hear this.

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Lately, I’ve been feeling pretty jaded with life. There were moments when I’d feel boxed up and directionless, mulling over the question “what am I doing with my life?” over and over and over again. But it is true when McCandless mentioned that God is in everything we encounter. He wouldn’t put as where we are without a reason. Everything has meaning; God intended it. And if we look at things differently, we might just realize that we are where we are not by accident—we were all made for something bigger than anything we could’ve ever imagined.

3. If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.

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Taking risks can sometimes seem like the stupidest thing in the world, but sometimes, it’s the only way to make sense out of things. Living strictly by-the-book closes your mind to magical ideas and great inventions. When we close ourselves to the things that have always been familiar, we are being cowards. We can save ourselves from the hurt, but we also protect ourselves from happiness. Be vulnerable and allow life to consume you once in a while and take the free fall. Great things flow from open boxes, so don’t limit yourself to its corners. Sometimes, you just have stop overthinking and just go with your gut. It’ll always be worth it.

4. The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.

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Climb a mountain, dive in the ocean, take a hike. Visit a foreign land, eat a rare delicacy, make friends with a stranger. Make snow or sand angels, go rafting, fall in love. Adopt a pet, fly a kite, go bungee jumping. Kiss in the rain, dance in the moonlight, have a food fight. These rare and extraordinary experiences are the puzzle pieces that form a meaningful life. It’ll never hurt to try something new.

5. When you want something in life, you just got to reach out and grab it.

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Don’t let anything or anyone stop you from reaching your dreams. In a world where judgment is cast on everyone, it is sometimes difficult to fully express yourself one way or another. And though it is easily said than done, these things shouldn’t even be taken into account. More so, don’t let what others think about you define you. Let your character define who you are. Surround yourself with people who believe in you and constantly encourage you to achieve your goals in life. You can never go wrong with good company.

6. When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines through you.

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Ron Franz, one of the people McCandless meets along the way says, “There is some kind of bigger thing that we can all appreciate and it sounds to me you don’t mind calling it God. But when you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines through you.”

To forgive means to heal, and to heal means to love. People can hurt us and crush us, and sometimes, we are even the ones who bring the downfall onto ourselves. Forgiving is hard—whether it be others or ourselves. But allowing ourselves to heal from that pain unconditionally opens so many doors to let the light overflow from our hearts. Let love be our highest goal.

7. The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows, and occasionally the chance to feel strong.

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The sea’s only gifts are harsh blows, and occasionally the chance to feel strong. Now I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.

- Christopher McCandless

Detachment can sometimes be what you need to feel strong. Leaving behind what is unnecessary and preventive to your growth is hard, especially if you have been so familiar and comfortable with it. There are moments when it is necessary for us to think for ourselves alone and to use our head to make sense of what’s in our heart. Learning and finding the courage to stand on one’s two feet, especially after a harsh fall, can sometimes give us the strength we need the most.

And lastly…

8. Happiness is only real when shared.

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No man is an island. Men weren’t meant to live alone, and this I have been learning progressively. I have found happiness and joy in sharing my quirks and silly moments with my friends. When we reach some successes in life, we should celebrate with others because they helped us reach these goals and milestones. We shouldn’t be selfish with our joy, because happiness is meant to be shared. Seeing smiles and hearing laughs from the people we love only confirms that happiness is not only a concept, but also a real experience.

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Christopher McCandless’s story serves as a constant reminder for us to keep on exploring, to keep on going, and to keep on traveling. Embarking on adventures always gives us lessons that are unmatched by any price tag. Life has always been compared to a journey, and it is up to us to choose our mode of travel. We choose our stopovers; we determine the places that we want to explore on a deeper level. Life is fleeting and time is flying fast. While everything is uncertain but predestined, the things we choose to do with our lives and how we make each moment count are what matters. And just like any successful journey, reaching our destinations—our Great Perhaps—will always evoke fulfillment. Here’s to a life worth living.

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It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations. Absolute freedom. And the road has always led west.

- Christopher McCandless

Backpacks and Baggage

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I took a writing break for almost a month to figure things out—things about myself that I feel I may have lost or have merely forgotten. There are moments when life seems to yank you out of the daily grind, sits you down, and forces you to have a long and hard conversation with God. A huge chunk of the talking part is strewn with questions that lead back to existentialism and the Creator. Why am I here? Is this where I am supposed to be? Have I been doing what makes me feel most fulfilled? Who am I becoming? Am I making a difference? 

These are hard questions to answer and they have been haunting me for quite a while now. It’s easy to generalize and say that most 20-somethings face this self-interrogation ever so often, but I know some grown-ups who ask themselves these questions, too. They are agonizing to think about, demanding your full honesty and humility; age isn’t really much of a factor.

Throughout the years, I’ve noticed that I connect with God best through nature and that I discover more of Him by venturing into the unfamiliar and in places where the only source of light comes from the stars. There is just so much magnificence in the world around us, it is impossible to ignore. And the mundaneness of everyday life creates blinders, shielding our vision of this wonderful earth. Life is about living it to the fullest, and how can we possibly do that when we’re so trapped within the confinements of our office dividers, with our brains crunching up numbers and business plans?

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I was in La Union last week to clear my mind. It was my first time there and I fell in love with it instantly. La Union is filled so much beauty—the quiet kind that you find in a lullaby or a sunset. My favorite part is the clear saltwater and the way the sunlight dances on the sand. I like the peace it beckons and the tranquil that fills me up when all sound is reduced to the crashing of the waves.

One of the things I’ve been learning about the beauty of travel is that the only baggage you carry is your backpack. Traveling is my way to break free from the routine and discover a new side of the world, while bringing only the things that matter. And I’ve been realizing lately that the same applies to life. You have to be wise about the things you bring with you. There are some things that are necessary to leave behind because they’ll only weigh you down as you climb your mountain.

Into the Wild is one of my favorite books. Seeing a copy of it in La Union’s El Union Coffee set my heart on fire and brought me back to a journal entry I wrote in 2012: Detachment can sometimes be what you need to feel strong. Leaving behind what is unnecessary and preventive to your growth is hard, especially if you have been so familiar and comfortable with it. There are moments when it is necessary for us to think for ourselves alone and to use our head to make sense of what’s in our heart. Learning and finding the courage to stand on one’s two feet, especially after a harsh fall, can sometimes give us the strength we need the most.

Sorting out what is necessary to take along this never-ending journey is, I think, a continuous practice that is mastered as we grow. Whenever we wake up, we get a chance to travel and coast through life, one day at a time. Every day, we bring out our backpack, but we have think twice about the stuff we place inside. Will it be useful? Will it weigh us down? There are days when we will have to unload the things we thought were so important, but they will no sooner be replaced with a lightness that’ll make the climb so much easier for us. And in it, I hope to find a quiet kind of beauty—the kind that you find in a lullaby or a sunset.

Back So Soon?: A 15-Course Affair at Sensei Sushi that Involved Cod Milt

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I didn’t realize how much I missed Sensei Sushi until Jason texted me about celebrating Patty’s 25th there. Specifically, by feasting on Bruce’s Degustation/Omakase. And how could I refuse? Imagine spending 3 hours in one of your favorite restaurants, munching on plate after plate of wondrous flavors that you never thought existed until that enlightening moment when the food as so much slightly glazed your tongue.

But then, the clincher.

“Oh, and Bruce just texed saying that he has some prime Chutoro coming in and can include it in the tasting for an extra fee per person. What you say, folks?” texted Jason.

Anti-sashimi me, clueless about Chutoro (I may have encountered the word while ignorantly flipping the pages of a Japanese menu), resorted to Google. My best friend in times of dire need such as this one.

Chūtoro is the name for medium fatty tuna when served in a sushi restaurant. A bluefin tuna yields akami (red meat), chūtoro, and ōtoro (pink fatty tuna). Chūtoro is usually found near the skin on the back and belly. It combines the lighter but deep, slightly bitter flavor of an akami with the sweet tenderness of an ōtoro. It is quite expensive and usually served only on special occasions. (Lifted from Wikipedia, obviously.)

Me to Jason: “I’m cool with any.”

Jason: “CHUTORO. God.”

Me: “You know that I don’t eat raw, but I will always make the exception for Sensei.”

And it was set.

My cousin Francis, Mr. Beerman.ph, also brought an eclectic selection of craft beer, which he paired excellently with each of the dishes. I know nothing about beer, so Francis is my guy when it comes to that. I am slowly learning.

SO. Enough with the chitchat. This post will function more as a photo-diary of our degustation just because! Also, if you’re wondering, I’m really bad at remembering things (especially Japanese ingredients), so I took note of each dish’s components by typing them hastily on my phone. :p #technology #notreally Anyways!

We were served a total of 15 plates (including palate cleansers and dessert!).

Dish #1: Chicken Skin, Roasted Tuna Belly, Mirin, Apple Purée, Katsuboshi, Mustard Seeds, Persimmon.

Dish #2: Hirame (Seasonal Fish), Ebiko, Malt, Salt, Olive Oil, Dashi, Matsutake Musrooms, Earl Grey Tea

Savory and floral.

Dish #3: A freaking huge (!!!) Oyster poached in its own juice, Japanese Butter, Pickled Mushrooms, Ikura, Breadcrumbs.

Not-so-fun fact: I am allergic to oysters (IKR). The last time I had oysters was December of 2011 when I had Omakase’s Butteryaki version. Despite my tummy yelling in agony, I gulped oyster after oyster, then rushed to the bathroom and locked the door. Easily one of the worst evenings of my life, I vowed to never abuse my body’s (bodily?) chemistry and partake of the divine mollusk. BUT. After this evening, despite a split-second of anxiety, I have emerged victorious from the oyster battle. HURRAH! This calls for a celebration. More oysters, govnah. Preferably baked with butter, cheese, and garlic.

Also, this one of the plates I enjoyed the most! Actually, we were half-joking that we would buy tons of fresh oysters from the dampa (seafood market) and ask Bruce if he could cook them the way he did in this dish.

Dish #4: Kampachi (Yellowtail), Ebi, Garlic, Sesame, Ginger, Egg Purée, Radish, Wasabi

Dish #5: Twice-Grilled Baby Octopus, Pork Fat, Watermelon (that was thawed and dehydrated), Elderflower, Pickled Watermelon Juice Gazpacho with Pistacio Oil, Garlic Aioli

Another one of my favorites. Can’t stress my love for baby octopus! Eaten with the Watermelon Gazpacho brightened the dish so much and left such a refreshing aftertaste. I kept scraping the bottom of the bowl even though only the tiniest pink droplets remained.

Dish #6: Torched Salmon Belly, Grated Wasabi, Nori Powder, Sushi Vinegar

Dish #7: Seared Japanese Scallop with XO Butter (!!!!!!!!!!), Deadly Pork, Uni, Lobster Shell, Coconut Froth, Squash Purée, Chinese Wingbeans

The sweetness of the Scallop with the richness of the umami-packed XO Butter made me close my eyes and give off a satisfied exhale. DELICIOUS. The pork was fatty and crisp, which I thought was a bit overwhelming combined with the sauce. Or maybe I’m just not fond of fatty, lardy pork. But I enjoyed this soooo veryyyy much!

Dish #8: Ravioli made with Japanese Egg Flour, Dehydrated Miso Noodle, Lamb Confit (!!!!), Shiitake Mushrooms, Sesame Oil, Lamb Flakes (cooked adobo-flakes style, also deserves a multitude of exclamation points !!!!!), Katsuboshi, Corn, Edamame, Basil

Love at first sight. Very biscuity and with notes of caramel.

Dish #9: An immensely generous slab of Foie Gras (steamed then roasted), Caper Raisin Purée, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Grapes

This is a particularly odd combination that I thoroughly enjoyed! Move over, red onion marmalade.

Dish #10: This is the Chutoro I was talking about earlier! Not much of a description because it was pretty straightforward. I really appreciated its velvety feel on my palate (not slimy at all!). Clean fish flavor, check!

Dish #11: Cucumber Yogurt as a palate cleanser.

Dish #12: Shirako (aka Cod Milt aka Cod Sperm), Ponzu Butter, Sake, Soy Sauce, Potatoes, Mushroom

This exotic fare that holds some semblance to brains is a Japanese winter delicacy that I was fortunate enough to have sampled! Don’t let the name (or what it actually is) turn you off because it’s surprisingly very tasty. Imagine a super-rich egg with extra extra flavor depth. If poultry were a volume turned on to maximum loudness, it would taste exactly like this.

Dish #13: Saga Wagyu A6 with Eggplant Purée, etc. (It stops here because I was pretty tipsy already from the beer, sorry!)

BUT, what I do remember was that it was a brilliant melange of melt-in-your-mouth BEEF FAT (honestly, the best kind of fat, in my opinion. Also, lamb fat) countered with the smoky eggplant that induced a lot of lip-smacking and me, shamelessly spooning more of the sauce into my mouth. Even though there was no beef left.

Dish #14: A simple Coconut Sorbet to refresh our tastebuds

Dish #15: Mango Yuzu Curd, Seasme Shortbread, Matcha Powder

We also bumped into VASK’s Chef Chele Gonzalez and Michelin-star Chef Oscar Calleja of Annua.

Of course, how could I not ask for a photo? :D

Sensei Sushi
268 Aguirre Avenue, B.F. Homes, Parañaque City
0917 515 7018

An Attempt to Eat Healthy: Spiced Chicken Breasts, Hainanese Quinoa, and Gluten-Free Yogurt

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Earlier this year, my friends and I made a pact to make 2014 a healthier year. Which made me grimace for a second because everybody knows food is my homeboy.

Ever since I started working for Pepper last 2012, my weight has been a fickle mess. I reached my heaviest, and then lost a bit, gained a bit, and the rest has been a recurring tug-of-war between getting heavier and lighter. I also have a fear of working out too much because a) I bulk up easily and b) I am 5 feet tall, which will equate to c) I don’t want to look like a tiny she-hulk.

So in the meantime, while I’m figuring out which workout program would reap the best results for me, I’ve been experimenting on healthier meals that include ingredients that are acceptable for my blood type. Nope, I’m not going Cohen, but rather, I’m following this nutritionist-approved chart on what to eat and what not to eat. It’s a sad list, really. No one wants to see all their favorite meats, seafood, and fruits D-listed. Ughhhh! But it must be done.

Last Christmas, Bebo and Nikki gifted us with their Chicken Spice Rub (which you can order here). I felt a ridiculous amount of joy once I received it, opened the lid, and sniffed all those amazing spices and aromatics. See, I never get this excited over signature bags and shoes. But with Chicken Spice Rub/food in general? Definitely.

I remembered Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection episode where he—well, perfected, a Chicken Masala. And though I have no patience to wait 48 hours just to eat my chicken, I do have the patience to wait an hour or two for it. I also recalled Heston’s use of Yogurt, and how he explained it to be such a useful catalyst in tenderizing and allowing the meat to absorb more flavor. To prove it, he did some fancy-schmancy x-ray scientific test shebang and it really did show.

And so I got to work. I went to the grocery and bought ¼ kilogram of Chicken Breast Fillets and a small container of yogurt. When I got home, I chopped up a head of garlic to ward off Edward and Bella, and pat the chicken breast fillets dry with a paper towel. Patting the chicken breasts helps the spice rub stick to the meat better.

Okay, so I’m not a fan of spicy, and this jar of Chicken Spice Rub is good for 1 whole chicken or 2 (for wimps, as explicitly stated). My tolerance for heat is that of an infant’s so I owned the wimpage and lightly used around a tablespoon of Bebo’s Chicken Spice Rub, added a bit of cumin, Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute (thanks, Barby!), threw in the garlic, dumped the yogurt, and gave it a good, satisfying massage.

Then I popped it in the fridge for an hour tops, took it out after, and heated the stove.

The non-stick skillets were in use, and because I was lazy, I got a cast-iron pan, heated some EVOO, and cooked the chicken over medium heat.

See, I knew this was bound to happen. Tsk tsk. Sorry for the very unflattering photo! Lesson learned: Non-stick pans win.

Finished product! (Don’t worry, those dark bits stuck to the pan and not on the chicken.)

Approximately 5-7 minutes per side is the rule I observe especially when cooking the breast part so it retains its juices and doesn’t toughen up. Chicken breasts are pretty tricky to work with, so when it comes down to the last 2 minutes, I turn off the heat and cover the pan with a lid to induce a bit of convection cooking, just so the chicken won’t dry out. I don’t have any background in the culinary arts, and this is, I suppose, a hodgepodge of things I’ve seen on The Lifestyle Network and The Asian Food Channel. It works, though!

The chicken turned out really tender and zesty with all that garlic, spices, and yogurt! Mmm mmmm.

If this is cheating, I don’t want to know.

For the carbs—what carbs! We’re talking healthy here. So I cooked up a batch of Organic Quinoa, but felt it was lacking so I added a pouch of Fragrant Hainanese Chicken Rice Paste. I just wanted to add more character to my quinoa, damn it! Eating healthy is a challenge.

Quinoa was never the photogenic kind.

Ditching my staple breakfast of Eggs, Spam, Bacon, Garlic Rice, and overly sweetened 3-in-1 coffee and replacing it with Gluten-Free Vanilla Yogurt and Fruit was an easy adjustment. I asked if we could buy an EasiYo Yogurt Machine because marketing works. I also added some Stevia along with a spritz of lemon juice, some Mangoes and Melons (which are discouraged for a Blood Type A person, but whatevs they’re still fruits!!!!).

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But they are, indeed, very delicious. I guess it just boils down to knowing what’s in your food. Like, the sodium content, carbohydrates, and other things that you need to watch out for. Remember, calories are not bad if taken in the proper ratio with your weight. Quinoa contains a lot of calories, but its benefits are truly great for your system. Eww I sound like such a health guru now, I feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so I’ll stop here. On the flip-side, let me humor you with the best meal I’ve had this week: a KFC (junior-sized) Double Down with white rice and Kewpie Japanese Mayonnaise. And guess what? It was fantastic.

Sensei Sushi has Successfully Convinced Me that Raw Fish is Indeed Delicious

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“Late Lunch at Sensei” was inked in my planner, two weeks in the making. Isa and I were supposed to take her cousin Gab (who was home for the holidays) to Bruce Ricketts’s restaurant, Sensei Sushi. But with holiday plans getting jumbled up, Gab not being able to make it, and a reservation already booked, we still carried on with the trip down South. Besides, we’ve been daydreaming about Sensei for quite a while already.

My competition for the last piece of sushi.

It was the day after Christmas, and because weight loss resolutions start on New Year’s anyway, we geared ourselves to order as many dishes as we pleased. But an earlier meal at Oody’s stifled our eating game plan, so we settled for five dishes instead of the possible ten…or twelve.

Isa was eyeing the Tijuana Maki (PHP 280) and I silently prayed that she would change her mind. If you know me, the idea of stuffing sashimi into my mouth is akin to shoving a greasy slab of steak down a vegan’s windpipe. I am aware that it is ironic for someone who works in the food industry to shun such precious Japanese fare, but I really cannot stomach a slimy, raw slab of fresh fish. Perhaps I could tolerate a sliver, but not a piece that would require some sort of mastication. I tried to convince her into ordering the one with prawn popcorn instead, but she was set on the Tijuana.

To my surprise, this beautiful roll put my favorite Omakase mayonnaise-soaked makimonos to shame. The delicately sliced snapper and tuna sashimi weren’t offensive (as I normally expect raw fish to be). After a few chomps and mmmms, a sneaky warmth crept down my throat (thanks to the green chili), but then the sweet burst of mango extinguished the flame just in time before the burn. It’s not the kind of spicy that made me want to reach out for a glass of tea (or milk), which I liked.

These Octopus Tostadas you won’t find on the menu, but can be ordered upon request. We were told that baby octopus was used in this serving. It was baby-butt-tender and echoed some hints of the sea. Eaten with the crisp kangkong and fried tortilla was a revelation of sorts. (I wonder if it would work the same way with squid?) The sauce—I forgot what was in it because I probably zoned out while eating. But from what I recall, it had a light cream base, which was perfect for tying all these textures together. I will take note next time and not let my appetite get the better of me! These were really good, by the way. I probably would’ve enjoyed it more with a bottle of beer.

Foie Gras Nigiri with Chocolate Bitters and Maple Syrup—another off-the-menu item. Like most people, I swoon over foie gras the same way a high school girl fawns over her varsity crush. Hard to say if I enjoyed this more than the Tijuana Maki. The fatty foie chased by the sweetness of the maple syrup, I assume, is like being swept off your lady feet by Prince Charming. Isa and I fell head over heels with this dish, we ordered another one.

Bruce asked if we wanted to try another rendition of the Foie Gras Nigiri, but this time, with pickled scallions, pineapples, and pink peppercorns. And of course, we said yes! This was an interesting take on the foie, with the juicy pineapple followed by spicy, mischievous cackles from the peppercorns. I liked this one, but the previous Foie Gras Nigiri, we loved.

Stuffed and happy, we worked our way towards dessert: Half-Baked Chocolate Cake (PHP 200). It looked so fragile from the outside, and a naughty poke from my fork made it collapse into a rich and gorgeous chocolate mess. Accompanied by the dulce de leche, vanilla ice cream, and mango induced more guilty afterthoughts once Isa and I inhaled the plate clean.

So, will I go back to Sensei Sushi? Damn right I will. This brilliant restaurant haunts my memories, piques my curiosity, and lures me to dig deeper into the hidden treasure which is Bruce Ricketts’s crazy-creative culinary mind. Now, I don’t mean to sound like a creeper in the sense that I’d go all Hannibal Lecter on his brain trying to dissect his food ideas. Simply put: this restaurant is amazeballs and everyone should try it out. To be honest, Sensei Sushi is one of the very few restaurants that was overhyped to me by my friends, but did not disappoint a single bit. Can’t wait to try the 3-hour degustation next week! Oh, I think my belly just made a happy-flip.

Sensei Sushi
268 Aguirre Avenue, B.F. Homes, Parañaque City
0917 515 7018

2014: What’s Your Word?

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My friends and I have an annual tradition of asking each other the question What’s your word for next year? upon the close of the year that was.

Last 2012, I couldn’t decide on my word, so I politely asked if I could have two: a cheesy tandem of float & fly. Life seemed to heed these words as I traced them with some glow-in-the-dark glue on a cylindrical piece of wax paper. We were making some D-I-Y lanterns in a café. Because that’s what 20-something year old girls do.

The epic cheese of my 2013.

The earlier half of 2013 was pretty chill. Much like floating, I basically breezed my way through January-May. I gave a workshop in Assumption, had a couple of wisdom teeth removed, got a perm… Oh, save for the part when we went camping (it was my first time to sleep in a tent!) and endured a wild wave ride in Anawangin. It was a matter of life or death given the raging waves. Our boat was ready to capsize any second—and I held on to the last pieces of Fruitips (blackcurrant flavor) in my pocket for dear life. Just in case it came to a point of living a Castaway life, I’d have a secret stash of candies I can secretly munch on while everyone was asleep.

May-December was a slew of flights. Like, literally. I am not sure how I was able to pull it off, but I had a #YOLO phase of sorts mid-June and booked trips like crazy. I flew to Hong Kong to clear my head last August-September and spent a weekend with Johna, making it my first-ever alone trip. I slept in a mixed-gender hostel and took a bath in the tiniest bathroom ever. Said bathroom was was cramped with my backpack and shopping bags, too. Imagine that.

I also got baptized last September. Yay! What a spiritual milestone that was.

Come November, Kaye and I went to Thailand, in which I was able to cross out my Bucket List item of witnessing the Festival of Lights in Chiang Mai. We also shopped too much in Bangkok and got into trouble with a Mama-san. This was such a crazy city adventure that’s definitely one for the books.

Then, there was surfing in Baler also last November. Gosh, I really REALLY do want to surf more. It feels like flying on water, and the rush you get is I-N-S-A-N-E. And given my sedentary lifestyle + laziness when it comes to working out, this sport definitely made me want to get my butt moving.

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Also, there was the new addition to the Wee family. This little critter who perpetually emanates of baby-smell.

And to cap off the year, we spent a weekend in Iloilo, which was the most fantastic nature experience E-V-E-R. Had some of the best seafood in my life! Not exaggerating this, I swear. Spent a day in an abandoned paradise and camped out in the mountains. The stars on the evening of December 28 were the biggest I’ve seen as we cooked hotdogs on a campfire and made homemade s’mores. Of course, this was before the rain came pouring, which made it even more fun and memorable. More on this story later.

2013 was a hard year to top. Despite my 23rd year not being the best, I turned 24, which is another fresh start. But boy, 2013 as a whole was the BOMB. As I rummaged through my head for my ultimate word this year, I fancied the idea of having Explore, but then I realized that 2014 would be a year of saving financially for Future Plans. YOLO is soooo 2010 or 2011 (I think), and like I said, I need to be mindful, so I had to cross that out. After giving it much thought, I have concluded that perhaps, the word that I would like to have as a guide this 2014 is MOVE.

Yes, MOVE, because time will not wait for me. MOVE, because I’d like to see things move forward this year. I want to aim higher and achieve more, and being glued to this squeaky office chair won’t help a bit. MOVE because I do not want to decay or fade into social oblivion. MOVE, because I’d like to tone my body and say farewell to the icky flab. MOVE, because really, what else is there to do?

MOVE, I choose you. Because doing something is better than doing nothing. The pondering was worth it. So yes, dear 4-letter word, I am sticking to you this year. Please be nice and kind and generous and may each of these 365 days be marked with love and wonder (the unfathomable, stick-to-your-ribs kind).

I hope that 2014 has been good to you so far. :) Happy New Year!

Loi Krathong (ลอยกระทง): A Prelude to the New Year

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2013 has taken me on such a wild adventure packed with lots of mischief and tons of good madness. Despite the letting go of some particular things, there were a lot of unexpected surprises that lined up my year and filled those empty spaces with that certain kind of joy that sticks.

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These surprises came in the form of a food-related book I co-wrote, new beginnings, strengthened relationships, a brighter perspective, and a handful of spontaneous travels that kept me in a constant state of wonder.

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A little over a month ago, I traveled to Thailand specifically for Loi Krathong, or the Festival of Lights. During this time of the year, Yi Peng (a festival in Northern Thailand when floating lanterns are released into the sky) also coincides with the festival, making it such a treat for girls like me who are suckers for these kinds of dreamy events because, Tangled.

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Do you get that feeling whenever the opportunity arises for you to wish for something, there are just so many wishes that you couldn’t put your finger on just one??! That’s how I felt. My brain was just shuffling to and fro, and at the same time, butterflies kept flying non-stop in my gut because the sky was filled with so many lanterns, it was like my eyes were super-glued to the sky. I rarely brought my phone out because it’s one of those scenes wherein no form of technology (okay, maybe just iPhones) can capture.

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As my first lantern was being prepared, I thought of what to wish for. I lit the wick of the candle, and as my lantern was beginning to ascend, I rummaged through my head and heart of everything I wanted to wish for. But as the lantern left my hands, my mind suddenly went blank. What happened instead was that I was hypnotized by its subtle glow as it slowly drifted towards the sky, joining its other luminous friends.

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When I snapped back, the first thing I thought of was I wasted my wish!, which is pretty odd because I prepared for this particular moment of my life (!!!). And because of that, I went to another vendor and bought another lantern to fly. After I paid and headed back to the site where people were flying their lanterns, a thought occurred to me. Was it so bad that I wished for nothing, but was captured instead by the beauty that lay before me? That, instead of pouring out my deepest wish(es) to a floating paper lantern, I just lay witness to one of the most captivating views I’ve ever seen? I was simply filled with so much contentment and peace—like there was nothing more I needed in my life at that particular moment (well,maybe except a hand to hold loljk hahaha). So I lit my second lantern, wishless, and let it go. As I saw it getting smaller and smaller as it resided with the thousands of other lights in the sky, I couldn’t help but smile.

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With 2014 just around the corner, I think of all those floating lanterns in that surreal Thailand sky last November and how each one resembled a wish; how that sky on that particular evening was filled with so much hope and so much wonder and so much beauty. Perhaps I would like 2014 to be that year for me. The year where, after so much has happened in the previous one, it will be a new set of 365 days which will in hope and wonder and yes, beauty.

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2013 was a solid great year. But my one wish is for 2014 to be even greater. Sure, there will be changes (lots of them, eep!), but I hope that it’ll be filled with more magic, a bit more crazy, and tons more fun. Somewhere in the deepest part of my heart, despite all my cynical tendencies, I know this New Year is going to be an awesome one.

It might even just be the best one yet. Happy New Year!

A Shameless Plug: Eats 2014 (Your Ultimate Handy Guide to Your Next Gastronomic Adventure)

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Hooray! I have a book! The kind you can actually buy in bookstores.

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One of the top-notchers in my Grateful List this year is Eats 2014, a gastronomic guide for food lovers in Metro Manila. We celebrated its launch last week, and frankly, I am still quite thrilled AWASH WITH JOY OF EPIC PROPORTIONS (!!!!!) about this since I had so much fun working (and eating) with the Eats 2014 team. Now we just have to find a way to fit inside our pants again. Also, because my unmatched love for food and eating has been put to good (and helpful) use.

Plus I have a keepsake for my future kids!

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I was in charge of the dessert section, and I tried to be as diverse as possible without being too biased towards tart, citrusy, and berry-filled choices. So, I had to do a bit of stomach-searching as I retraced the best cupcakes, chocolate cakes, and other desserts that have left a remarkable impression on my tastebuds.

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It also comes with coupons inside so you can avail discounts from some of the featured restaurants in Eats 2014. A good reason to hoard since I’m going to use all of mine soon.

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Eats 2014 is under H.I.P. (Hinge Inquirer Publications), and you can grab a copy in leading bookstores for only PHP 150 (that’s relatively cheaper than a Starbucks drink). Isn’t food knowledge + restaurant deals a better purchase than 650 empty calories?

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Of course it is.

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