A Gastro Safari in Japan’s Foodie City – Osaka

Osaka is known as the foodie capital of Japan so do not miss the opportunity to sample its local street foods, most popular ones being Okonomiyaki (frittata) and the famous Takoyaki which literally translates into Octopus (Tako) Fried (Yaki). Takoyaki is basically little round dashi flavoured pancake balls stuffed with pieces of octopus, tempura, green onions and pickled red ginger, they are smothered with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (similar to worcester sauce) and sprinkled with fried seaweed & dried bonito flakes. You can expect the texture to be crispy on the outside and gooey in the inside, if you like seafood and have an adventurous tongue then you must try these! Best ones can be found at street vendors, we stumbled upon one under a bridge opposite the Umeda train station for a quick lunch snack. I was comforted when I saw later that evening a long queue of locals in line for a portion Takoyaki – hopefully a sign that is was aunthetic place!

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That said if you are unsure on where to haunt down some good octopus balls I would recommend going to Dottonbori and having a browse around its fluorescent lively streets for some canal side delights. Yes its touristy but if you have limited time and want to get a feeling of Osaka’s love affair with food then Dottonbori will give you a great gastronomic introduction.

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Now for my favourite local find in Osaka. A 7 hour flight. First night in Japan. 11pm. Heizo Chicken. gem.  Forget the questionable exterior, non english speaking staff and limited Japanese menu – my golly this place was so up my alley. Quirky, tasty and above all super friendly. I got a feeling within about 5 mins that we had stumbled upon a local hidden gem that is very popular with mid night cool folks.

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The pictorial menu was kind of helpful –  as in what you saw you got, but what you got was still unclear (in a good way).

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All items ordered were presented in cute disposable banana shaped bamboo ships. I guess this was Japanese Tapas?! Mi gusta! From what I could make out we had; a brie type cheese croquette, japanese keema, a yummy potato salad and a cheese/potato/bacon ball in a creamy tomato salsa. All were delicious and perfect for late munchies!

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The only item we could not eat as we were “dining in” was the Heizo Fried Chicken! Apparently its only for “take-away” – all quite bizarre but I like the odd bit of obscurity! Take-Away diners seemed very chuffed with their big boxes of fried goodness. I reckon its worth coming back for.

The Hunt for Gyoza Morsels

Who doesn’t like sizzling meaty dumplings!? We tried gyoza all over Japan and honestly we didn’t have one bad dumpling, but if I was to rank those dumplings I would in-doubtly give the number one spot to a little corner cafe on the 5th floor of the Umetika dining building.

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The cafe specialised in gyoza with beer – one could say a rather limited menu but I say genius!

We had encore portions and would again and again.

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Digital Lunch

Lunch hosted by an efficient digital member of staff who only spoke in Japanese scripture.

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Again I was very unsure on the ingredients of my order but the digitised diagrams really helped make a decision on what to order. Once I paid the machine and received my token order slip I took a seat at the communal dining table. It had large green furry balls as an interesting centrepiece…..first time for everything….it actually looked quite cool!

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Now what did I order?! I think it was cold soba noodles in a white milky broth with a heaping of some kind of mince meat (maybe pork?) and a sprinkle of sprouts. Light, refreshing and oh so tasty! It came with a pourer of chilli oil which brought out the flavours of the milkly broth. Yum!

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I left Osaka with very flavourful memories. Not enough time to try all its delights but a great insight into its vibrant and fun eating scene. Sweetoothers look out for my dessert safari in Japan coming soon!

The Afternoon Tea Room @ Grand Front Osaka

Now for something quite different – afternoon tea in the centre of Osaka, Japan’s foodie capital – for those more interested in the local delicacies watch out for my next blog on our own Nippon food safari in Osaka.

Located in the new and vast Grand Front Osaka complex in the Umeda area which housed several great dining areas (Umekita cellar and Umekita dining) as well as some off-beat stores and cafes. There is one shop that immediately grabbed my attention, fittingly named Afternoon Tea. This store has both a retail and a cafe side to indulge in some high tea –  eating your cake and shopping concurrently – quite my dream day!

Upon entrance the store is full of tea time goodies which immediately gets you in the mood for a cup of brew and some teatime fancies.

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There is a great diversity of tea-related items including tea towels, mugs, other kitchen related bits and bobs and of course many many different types of teas! After browsing for quite a while I was no longer able to resist and filled my basket with a number of goodies from this wonderful shop.

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One of the highlights of the shopping spree was the superb precision gift wrapping   (which is fantastic in most Japanese stores). They have  seriously nailed all things art, craft and gift wrapping in Japan!

Shopping done. Now time for Tea & Cake!

We went for the traditional afternoon tea set priced at 1,400 yen. For this you get a pot of tea and a choice of 3 types of sweets presented in a beautifully weaved Japanese basket. I went for the traditional scone, an apple strudel and a berry mousse short cake that was the special of the week.

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For those looking for a sweet little tea snack (post lunch) thats not going to stop you from your shopping spree – this is a perfect teatime pit stop!

The scones were a real highlight, warm, crunchy and with a great texture they were wonderful with the jam and the very whipped japanese cream which was to die for! The Apple Pie Cake was buttery and scrummy, the short cake was amazingly light and tasty, I would eat it all again.

We had the Earl Grey tea which was nothing to write home about, I would suggest trying something different, perhaps the matcha green tea next time, and maybe save space for a savoury main course too. Definitely pop in if you love your kitchen home ware!

Also check out their website for more info (in Japanese) or to ogle at the homeware goodies!

http://www.afternoon-tea.net

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Beyond Temples & Geishas – Real Ramen in Kyoto

First visit to Japan, two days in Kyoto, one quest. Authentic Ramen.

Thanks to the travel tips of long term Kyoto resident and Lonely Planet writer Chris Rowthorn we enjoyed some real delights of Kyoto cuisine. Kaiseki being a local haute cuisine his online guide provides some wonderful dining options across Kyoto. For first time visitors I highly recommend checking out his experiences @ http://www.insidekyoto.com

Being a spicy soup fan and having tried Ramen on multiple occasions in Singapore and London I felt a quest to find the best Ramen in Kyoto. I secretly hoped they would be far tastier in Japan. In conclusion, they were. Favourites were the Ramen at Ippudo and Karako.

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Ippudo having had many positive reviews on tripadvisor it took my fancy first in the thirst for spicetastic soup.  Once you manage to find Ippudo on the back streets of Nishiki Market you will enter to a communal table embedded with attractive condiments and pickles to spice up your Ramen.

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A great perk in most eateries in Japan is the visual menus full of pictures of what you might potentially eat. Fear not non-speaking Japanese folks I promise you will leave Japan full in the stomach, we most certainly did!

Ippudo had the plus of an english menu which enabled us to understand where the Ramen’s originated from in Japan which was great.

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Feeling the need for heat I opted for the Ippudo Karaka Ramen which had 5 levels of spiciness to choose from. If you can take the heat I recommend experimenting at level 4 or 5, I didn’t find it overly hot! The Ippudo Karaka Ramen has a classic Shiromaru Pork Soup as its base with a spicy Miso topping mixed with several herbs and spices. It was apparently created in 1989 and has gained a lot of popularity with Spice lovers. Till date I have not slurped on more tender noodles….

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The reviews were worthy and the Ramen really were sublime as were the accompanying gyoza which we ordered double portions of! We also had a side of Hakata Chikara Meshi (The most tender Braised Pork with Rice & Illuminos Pickled Ginger) which went down so fast with my husband that I only got about two bites. If I was to have the privilege of dining again at Ippudo Kyoto I would reorder everything we had plus an additional item of the Shiromuru Special Ramen which is the Ippudo Original a speciality of tonkotso broth served with pork belly and black fungus.

Do note that Ippudo has chains in other countries however I hear they are not all quite as great as the Kyoto joint.

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Being well located in the Temple district north east of Central Kyoto (Okazaki) was one of my favourite finds on our entire trip. Totally understated in its location and decor but so heart-warmingly tasty and welcoming in service I would shoot back to Kyoto just for a luncheon encore.

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As we sat down with about 6 other Japanese men on the busy lunch hour we ordered what they all seemed to be eating, the “Kotteri Noodles Ramen“. We opted for the “meal deal” a bowl of ramen, two pieces of fried chicken and some nibbles from the communal bar!

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The chashu pork slices were super tender and moist with a crumbly texture due to the patient slow cooking of the roast pork. The flavoursome ramen broth and vegetables had quite a refreshing taste to them, quite light to eat which enables you to snack on the mind blowing “Karaage” (boneless fried chicken). Though being on a hunt for the best Ramen this Karaage was an amazing discovery, it was and is the best fried chicken I have ever gnawed on. Crispy, crunchy, spicy, tender, moist and boneless but with all the flavour of what meat on the bone normally brings. I don’t know how they do it but I like it immensely. Amazing.

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Aside from the tips on where to grab a bowl of great Ramen I think its helpful to know that timing is key when planning a meal. Living in Asia has taught me well to avoid the midday rush. Get there 15mins before or you can expect to wait a heck of a time for a table at both these joints and many close at 2pm so don’t be late either. Below are some patient queuers’.

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Aside great Ramen, Kyoto packs a punch of cultural treats – full of beautiful hill risen temples, shrines and the most highly statute Geisha District in Japan. The history of Geisha’s is magnificent and you cannot help but be immersed into the gentle yet complex world that is hidden out of plain sight. Make sure you spend quality time in Gion to take in the atmosphere regardless of whether you spot a Geisha or not its a quaint and beautiful part of Kyoto.

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Other recommendations:

Nishiki Market – a huge buzzing local market know as ‘Kyoto’s Pantry”

Temple Tours – there are tons so pace yourself and do some research ahead to shortlist

Gion – Geisha District and high end Kyoto haute cuisine

Museum of Modern Art is a worthy morning spent and if you are really into art there is the Municipal Museum of Art across the road

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Meatless Monday @ Muriel’s Kitchen

My Meatless Monday’s usually involve an attempt at some healthy home-cooking but when in London I use Monday’s to eat my vegetables in the form of sticky desserts! One dessert in particular –  Muriel’s Kitchen’s Famous Carrot & Walnut Cake. Muriel’s Kitchen is an English “no-nonsense” inspired cafe meets restaurant serving healthy plates with locally sourced British ingredients at a reasonable price. The Chef’s change up the menus monthly at their 3 Kitchens (South Kensington, Soho & Leicester Square).  As you walk by their pretty window displays lined up with delectable cakes, salads and savouries you know you have to stop and enter to try some of their mouth-watering “healthy” treats.

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Having dropped into the South Kensington Kitchen several times in the past I took an opportunity when in Soho to give Muriel a visit. The Soho Kitchen is a wonderful large space with a gorgeous shabby chic interior; mosaic tiles, old leather sofas, velvet stools, bird-cage lamps and fun swinging garden chairs.

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We took a cosy seat at the back of the restaurant against the bric-a-brac adorned shed area – see if you can spot me!

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Now for the menu, breakfast is popular as is the all day dining menu which enables you to graze on some sharing plates and those yummy house bakes! We kicked off with an aperitif of British Bubbles and Rose Lemonade….they went down a treat!

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After deciding on our dessert choice we adjourned back to our selection of savoury plates, Gooey Baked Camembert served with Dipping Crostini’s & Cranberry & Cashew Crunch, Butternut Squash, Feta & Spinach Quiche and Super Greens Salad. When I next pop in I will definitely indulge in the Baked Camembert again!

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Now for the Piece de Resistance – The Famous Carrot and Walnut cake! If you are a Carrot Cake Fan then you should try this and stack it up against your favourites. I found it to be light and fluffy as well indulgent and nutty –  I would eat it on most Meatless Mondays should my waistline prohibit! As this was a special Monday I also indulged in their very generously sized Chocolate Bread & Butter Pudding with Custard.

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If I was poping into Muriel’s Kitchen tomorrow I would want to try their Chocolate & Guiness Mini Pint Cake and their Passion Fruit Cake Stack. The Dulche de Leche Brownie and Red Velvet Cupcake sound like the perfect Take-Away too! My advice – go with a large group and  try as much as you can from their dessert menu, its large and catered for all sweet tooth palates!

When in Doubt Eat Cake!

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Marrakesh Madness @ Sandro, Helsinki

Finland is famous for many fun things – Santa Claus, Angry Birds, Finlandia Vodka to name a few….but who knew Helsinki houses several Michelin *** restaurants and many local quaint cafe’s and bars that could keep a Foodie Traveller inspired for a summer break.

Trying the local cuisine is an obvious must and there are many restaurants to choose from but for travellers with limited time I would suggest a couple of laps around the local market in central Helsinki (“Kauppatori”). All things berries are worth a bag, and a snag of a sizzling sausage or Reindeer meatball is a Scandinavian must.

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A personal favourite was the “Lihapiirakka” (or ‘lihis’ for short), sort of a doughnut meets cornish pasty……I had two!!

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For those that want a go at Helsinki’s more alternative scene I would highly recommend a visit to the workers end of Helsinki – (Kallio) and hit up a popping Middle Eastern joint – Sandro! One look at the placemat and you know you want to come back again. The menu fusion is mouth-watering with ingredients sounding super fresh and authentic rich. Spoilt for choice we deliberated for 20 minutes on how much we could try to eat and then lent upon the friendly French waiter to assist upon portion size. Basically the portions are big, order a dish each! Humous and dips are accompanied with each meal so no need to order separates. Your challenge is whether to order from the “Bai Kan to Beirut Street Kitchen” end or ‘Garden of the God’s’.

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Here’s what we ordered… and… what we left.

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Garden of the Gods lost out this time. The Batbout Burgers from Marrakesh and Za’atar Man’Ouche from Beirut were winners. We chose the Confit Duck Batbout Burger and were not at all disappointed (as you can see) – served with Sweet Potato Crisps, Harissa Mayo, Tomato Pesto, Garden Red Onion Salad, Pomegranate & Carrot Yogurt & Hummus. The Za’atar Man’Ouche Merguez were equally as tasty, served with Tabbouleh, Grilled Aubergine, Goat Cheese & Pomegranate Yogurt.  Seriously refreshing and modern Middle Eastern grub at €18 per plate. I can’t wait to go back! We are in dire need in Singapore of creative Middle Eastern restaurants – Chef Enthusiasts please assist in our much required void!

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Sandro’s Sunday brunch has won awards and is considered to be the best in town at the moment so make your reservations in advance for this modern North African fusion feast. They have a wonderful indoor lounge and outdoor terrace for those hanging Scandinavian summer nights when only a tipple will do.

Book here – http://sandro.fi  

Making a trip to Helsinki soon? A couple of other worthy pit stops:

Marimekko homeware and clothing – https://www.marimekko.com

Fazer Cafe – Finnish Chocoholics & Moomin Cupcakes

Iittala – glasswear & tablewear – https://www.iittala.com/home

Cafe Kukko – Coffee & Cake with sea views

One Stop Shop – Stockmann’s Department Store and Helsinki Design District

Boulevard Social – sharing plates great for lunch or dinner

Helsinki Senate Square

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36 hours in Penang!

Thinking of making a trip to Malaysia soon? Add Penang to your list. Its worth it.

Art, culture, food and history – its a gem on the Malaysian coastline. Depending on your holiday mood, wallet & stamina there are a range of things to see and a heap of local things to eat. If you only have a day no doubt you spend it in Georgetown. A UNESCO heritage spot that delivers on smoggy rustic beauty and Chinese heritage etching back to the trading times of the Ming dynasty and more recently the 1800’s Royal Britannials presence.

Strolling the old streets of Georgetown is the best way to depict the local culture. Beautiful shop houses and striking wall art relics its inhabitants, lifestyles and history, notably some famous strokes by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic are key features.

Below are some of my favourites.

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A stay or tipple at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (e&o) adds some real colonial air to the trip. Similar to that of the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, but a little lacking of Delhi’s dramatic grandure. E&O understands warm professional service, in keeping with the Malaysian relaxed style and beautiful vintage deco.

Greeted by a jumanji looking safari jetsetter sets the mood for Farquhar’s bar for a high glass cocktail or stiff whisky. Alternatively, for the teetotallers there is a vintage afternoon tea served in the1885 lounge. Quite Downton Abbey! The Planters lounge herds in very happy guests every evening for a free pre-dinner hour of unlimited booze and snacks. Its well situated next to the infinity rooftop pool which is a tranquil get away with a view of the Andaman Sea.

 

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No trip is complete without a bit of retail therapy. Mine normally involves some sort of paper goods. This trip was no different.  I nabbed some pretty ang pow envelopes and cards from the Bombay Store at E&O. Armenian Street was a good lane for pretty trinklets too.

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Now for food! Penang is notorious for its local delights and most of them look very tasty and worth the extra kg’s. I had one problem…only 36 hours! This equalled to one brekkie, one tea, two lunches and one dinner! Anything less would be disrespectful!

So we kicked off with a vintage afternoon tea at 1885. A good selection of teas, I opted for the soft peach which was peachy! The usual scones, sandwiches and sweet treats were portioned lightly but sufficiently, enabling space for a lovely Peranakan dinner at Kebaya restaurant. 

Housed in the refined Seven Terraces hotels, Kebaya hosts an Anglo-Chinese ambience in a beautiful shophouse. The character of the restaurant is one of the finest I have experienced in South East Asia. Beautiful china plates and antiques decorate the walls. The menu is well designed and requires you to choose 4 dishes per person @ about S$50pp. Appetiser – Meat/Fish – Greens – Dessert, which enables a group or couple to try a variety of plates. Standout dishes for us were the Crispy Joo Hoo Char Roll, Hong Bak Lamb and Pandan Creme brûlée. Only disappointing dish was the chocolate fondant, a bit flat and lumpy. Avoid it.

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Round 3 : Breakfast @ E&O’s Sarkies restaurant. A great buffet spread of local and international cuisines. You can’t go to Penang and not eat Char Qway Teow. So breakfast comprised of yummy greasy noodles & chicken curry with roti canai!

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Penultimate Round: FishnChips at Straits Quay Pier. It felt apt to hit up a chippy! Afterall, it is the first place in South East Asia the Brits colonised. The  ride to Straits Quay by water limo was worth it to cruise the Andaman Sea and wave at fellow skippers!

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Final Round: Surprisingly good Tapas in Georgetown @ El Faro! Communal dining, chilled atmosphere and friendly service. In usual tapas manner, sharing is caring! The pork knuckle served taco style was the highlight. Tender and crispy. Actually one of the best pork taco’s I have eaten. The Chistorra sausage & Guindilla peppers also very flavoursome. Potato bravas and chorizo very middle of the road. However, the churros provided on the house ended the meal very sweetly!

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Know more, do more http://www.timeout.com/penang/