Category Archives: Travel

Muffin Top gone underground

Muffin Tops!

Spotted at the Balham Tube stop in the London Underground: a Muffin Top (not the edible kind, but half the double entendre of our blog name) in a gym advert. Funnier still: check out the Oxfam ad to its right, an advert for Oxfam and world hunger.

Do they do this on PURPOSE?

I had a great time in London, Paris, Edinburgh, and then London again. A wonderful time of year, many sights, many sensations, and of course, the food. It was our umpteenth visit to London, and our love for that city (and its yummy goodness has not faded at all.

In Paris, we ate at L’as du Falafel in a late night, jetlagged, midnight run to the Marais. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen L’as du Falafel without a line.

l'as du falafel, falafel sandwich

I saw cakes that looked too good to eat at Fauchon. And bought a tin of Earl Grey with blue cornflowers at the shop upon recommendation from a friend. We’re going to do a taste test between Mariage Freres Earl Grey French Blue and Fauchon’s equivalent.


Ohhhhhh…and Pierre Herme macarons. My husband urged me to buy a whole box, but dummy me, I only bought one. I savored that rose macaron slowly, begging the synapses in my brain to remember the taste. I still remember it now. I was sitting on a bench next to St. Sulpice, my hair whipping in the wind, taking mini-bites of the rose cookie and then the buttercream….

Pierre Herme macarons

Back in London, we made our usual stop for martinis at Antonio’s (where I met fellow Muffin Top blogger Patrick of the famed homemade tortilla chips irl for the first time!)…and I resisted the urge to buy every piece of candy in the candy aisle…


And braved the Saturday afternoon crowds at Borough Market…


I visited Monmouth coffee in Covent Garden…

Monmouth Coffee

And made the mandatory stop at Neal’s Yard…

Neal's Yard

By the end of my trip, I wondered about the size of my muffin top.

Eating Silkworms

My friend, Cathy, the adventurous eater behind the Gastronomy Blog and the Vietnam entries on Serious Eats is leaving HCMC for points north (China for the Olympics) and west (Los Angeles). So for her final week of eating, she put together a food tour listing possible meals, so that we, her friends, could join in some of the chosen gastronomic delights. When I looked at the excel spreadsheet, my eyes alighted on the Wednesday entry: silkworms.

So, on a fine HCMC morning, I  arrived a few minutes early to a cơm trưa restaurant. With my rudimentary Vietnamese, I was able to convey that I was meeting friends. And sure enough, within minutes, Cathy and Vernon arrived via motorbike.

A northern Vietnamese dish it is interesting to note that the proprietess of the cơm trưa said that silkworms die after they finish making silk, so what we eat is their dead carcasses. Waste not, want not.

Cathy wisely ordered (only) one serving of fried con nhộng (silkworms) and rice for us to share.

Hmm, to describe the taste? It tastes a little like the dried shrimp used in Vietnamese cooking. Not, offensive, but not pleasurable. The hard part was the after texture that is, ah …unexpected. Like eating the texture of dried glue.

Cathy made me laugh at a comment she said in VN that was something akin to: “I can eat it, but I don’t really want to do it again…”


So, after consuming approximately 4 pieces, I can proudly say I’ve eaten silkworms.

Just eating and eating my way through the world

green tea farm

I know the last time I posted (well other than my recent post on tiffin tins–a very belated post on something I’d discovered months and months ago) I proposed a new project–that I’d discuss my Korean cooking adventures following the recipes in Hepinstall’s cookbook of Korean recipes.

But then–bleah. Nothing. You got nothing. You got a month-long silence from me. You see, right after that post, I decided I’d be blogging a lot less and writing fiction a whole lot more. So, I definitely blogged a lot less.

However quiet I was here on Muffin Top, I still had my share of culinary adventures…and what better than a pictorial?

In May, Connie and I had brunch at the Berkeley Thai Temple, where we had among other things, kanom krog:

kanom krog

The crowds were dense, the line was long (have I mentioned before how much I hate long lines?) but the experience was worth it. And they’ve got the process down to expedite that line, starting with tokens (you pay with tokens, and it bypasses the whole “making change” experience in the line)


And then family matters took me to Vegas, where I had Red Mango yogurt for the first time ever…

Red Mango

I haven’t had Pinkberry yet–just my own homemade frozen yogurt (courtesy of David Lebovitz whose Perfect Scoop is second to NONE)…but the Red Mango was pretty dang good!

Then I was off to China and London…

Where I had an anniversary dinner at Jade on 36, site of fusion Asian, molecular gastronomy-themed food in Shanghai. THAT is NOT a fried egg…

"Breakfast" at our marriage anniversary dinner

There was Communist Coca-Cola:

Chinese Coca Cola

And a feast at Lou Wai Lou restaurant in picturesque Hangzhou:

the feast at Lou Wai Lou in Hangzhou

Right outside of Lou Wai Lou were these boats–you can take a ride on them and have tea and snacks.


Then off to the Longjing Tea Village, where I procured some very elite longjing green tea…

green tea leaves

In Beijing, I found my sustenance at the various street markets. Our first night there, we ran into the concept of “food-on-sticks.” I kid you not–I’m talking meats-on-sticks, candied-fruits-on-sticks, and…insects on sticks:

seahorse and scorpions on sticks

If you could put it on a stick, it was on a stick:

various meats on sticks

The hubby dared to eat scorpions on sticks. I couldn’t do it, but it made me admire him even more. Me? I had some candied strawberries on sticks at the Dong Hua Men Market. They were oh so delicious–I had some every single night in Beijing.

Christine eats her candied strawberries on a stick

More meats on sticks at the night market!
meats on sticks

Hello? Here are some more foods-on-sticks (why doesn’t KFC have this)?

foods on sticks at Yoshinoya

I took a video of the market, too.

I was sooo hungry in Beijing…I went to the hotel desk and asked them where I could find a good bowl of “jia jiang myun,” my beloved Korean-Chinese hybrid food. It had to be good here, no? The lady smiled and scribbled “Lao Beijing Zha Jiang Bian” on a card and drew a map. “Best in Beijing,” she said. I ran out the door and handed it to the taxi driver.

Jia Jiang Myun in Beijing

The Jia Jiang Myun was not the same as in Korea, but I ate it all up anyway.

What better way to end the trip than to fly to London for an overnight stay and eat Indian food (no pictures there–we nearly slept through our entire meal we were so jetlagged)…and buy a pile of British candy?

pile o' british candy!

We came home to the Bay Area in full Spring. I’m talking about gorgeous fruit, like pluots.


And rhubarb…and strawberry. I made a crisp:

Strawberry Rhubarb crisp with cardamom and nutmeg

Recently, we went down to Los Angeles, and I went to the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market where I found the most delicious strawberries ever:

Gaviota strawberries from the Santa Monica Farmer's Market

They’re Gaviota strawberries. And though I’ve never been attracted to Los Angeles, I’d move down there just to have access to Gaviota strawberries, they are THAT good.

But then again, the Bay Area has these wonderful mango nectarines…

delicious, fragrant mango-nectarines!

Yes, I’m allergic to stone fruit, but I took a Benadryl and allowed myself a bite of these nectarines. Ohhhh heaven.

Road Food: The Mad Greek

road ahead

When you’re on a road trip, the day is punctuated by milestones–whether they be sights, destinations, or meals. I love road trips.

Being on the road is one of the few situations where I begin to relax and toss my “rules” out the window. There are no firm schedules, and we’re constantly hitting unknown territory. Oh yes, there may be a beginning and end point to the trip, but in between? Anything can happen, and we’re open to it.

So it goes with food as well. We’ve had bad road food, and terrific road food. Though we’ve mostly consumed predictable and consistent fast food from McD’s and Taco Bell, the longer the road trip, the more adventurous we become with our food choices. This is a consequence of longer road trips leading us into more remote locales, and the fact that we just become bored (and horrified) by eating McDonald’s meal after meal.

Food on the road, when it’s good, becomes the most memorable of meals. All of us have a story about a delicious meal eaten along a highway–I remember a guy I knew, he raved about “the best sandwiches ever” eaten along the I-5 somewhere as a child with his family. He couldn’t remember the place, alas, but that memory has been burned into his mind forever, and it still gave him an endorphin rush years later. And the great thing about road food surprises are that they truly are surprises.

We’ve been surprised by the perfect rice balls (onigiri) in Japan, by wonderful kim bap and other treats bought by the road in Korea, by prepackaged sandwiches at a gas station in France, and we’ve had plenty of nasty nondescript food at dozens of diners and cafes, all of which become a collective blur in our memory.

A Tuna, Ham, Tomato and Hardboiled Egg sandwich

Seriously–a “tuna, ham, tomato, and hardboiled egg sandwich”? Do you expect that to be good? It was good. The French can make most things taste delicious. The prepackaged sandwich you see above was more delicious than most sandwiches made to order. I’m not sure how they achieve that. Nevermind the fact that tuna, ham, tomato, and hardboiled egg is such a surprisingly tasty combo. (Seriously? Seriously.)

Also delicious are the gyros at The Mad Greek, housed in a delightful blue and white building that screams, “Greek food!” Literally AND figuratively. The billboards, which line the I-15 in California for miles leading up to and from The Mad Greek are almost as obvious as the Mad Greek Cafe itself, filled with neon signs welcoming you in over a dozen languages and blue booths. Yes–when you walk in, you’ll think the world has become duo-chromatic: blue and white.

Of course, you are going to order a gyro.


It is delicious, the best that road food has to offer. You can order it 24 hours a day–the place is open at all hours, and I’m sure a welcome treat in the middle of the night. It sure was a welcome treat for us, after eating horrific food throughout the California desert. And it was NOT a burger or a patty melt or any other all-too-common food found on the road.

Plus–it’s a gyro! Gyros are terrific and yummy! We didn’t try anything else (well, other than a strawberry shake)–but I gather the other food is great. The menu is large and ranges outside of Greek food (so if you’re traveling in a group and some of you want a burger, you can get a burger).

strawberry shake

It’s an oasis, delightfully kitschy, in the one road town of Baker along the I-15 in California, about 90 miles west of Vegas. While we were lunching, there was quite an eclectic crowd–teenage girls in shorts and flip flops (I don’t know why–it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit out), and couples and families of various sizes, ages, and ethnic backgrounds (all of them dressed appropriately for the weather). I quickly gathered this is a regular stop for many people making the drive to/from Vegas.

We’ve got a regular stop from now on too, if we should ever drive from San Francisco to Las Vegas again.

The Mad Greek

Voulez vous L’as du Falafel? Ordering falafel in French

L'as du Fallafel

I love falafel. A good falafel is crispy and savory and not dripping with oil, and an overwhelmingly wonderful comfort food. Who knew to transform chickpeas into such heavenly food?

A falafel, however good on its own, can take on phenomenal heights in a pita sandwich. A good falafel sandwich is just as much about the ingredients and accompaniments as it is about the falafel itself. I love a dash of hot sauce in mine,whether it’s Sriracha sauce (aka “rooster sauce” in our household for the rooster on the plastic bottle–or as one of my friends boldly named it, “cock sauce”), or some other piquante (but not salsa) sauce. Oh, and there must be cucumbers and tomatoes (ala “Israeli salad”) and tahini and even good old roasted eggplants. At home, because I favor making hummus, our falafel sandwiches like our chicken schnitzel sandwiches come with hummus instead of tahini.

I have had a number of decent falafel sandwiches, and only a few excellent falafel sandwiches–the best ones in Israel a few months ago, and our “local” Falafel Drive In.

And, we were told, that the falafels at L’as du Falafels would soon join that pantheon.

Could a falafel (in Paris?!) beat the wonderful Falafel Drive In of San Jose? Falafel Drive In has the BEST falafel in the SF/Bay Area, and my husband and I will often make a 100 mile round trip drive just to grab some falafel. That’s how good the falafel sandwiches are. Plus they offer a great banana shake to eat that sandwich with.

Falafel Drive In

But there we were, in Paris, hunting down some falafel place. Falafel–in Paris? Land of baguettes and cream and cheese? Yup.

When I asked my friends for recommendations in Paris, nearly everyone cried, “L’as du Falafel in the Marais!” And David Lebovitz, not a personal friend but someone whose respect I hold high, even listed it as #2 on his aptly named list of “10 Insanely Delicious Things You Shouldn’t Miss in Paris. Number two. Behind the #1 item of macarons at Pierre Hermes (the same macarons that Connie told me that I must try because “they will change your life.”) Well drats. I didn’t have time to hunt down and try Pierre Hermes and change my life. My life was unchanged, my feet firmly planted on the cobblestones. I’ll try the falafel instead!

So hence, the pursuit of falafel in Paris. Not in Israel (where the falafels are delectable-I haven’t been anywhere else in the Middle East to try), but Paris.

The thought of a falafel place in Paris was incredibly intriguing to me. The Jews were all but eradicated from Paris during World War II–any close peek at memorial plaques in the Marais will play out a story–of great regret and grief, as Jews were handed over to the Nazis and subsequently murdered, after Paris’s rapid occupation. One plaque in particular touched my heart; carved on the stone was a story about how the principal, faculty, staff, and students of a Jewish school were sent to Auschwitz to die because they were Jews. There are very few Ashkenazi in Paris–but now, the Sephardim (Jews from outside Europe) have settled into the Jewish neighborhoods and made this a sort of falafel district.

So there we were–one Jew, grandson of a holocaust survivor and me, traipsing through the streets, my footsteps echoing deeply in my mind. This was not just a falafel trip, it was a trip of history and what the neighborhood had become once again.

The falafel corner (for there is a rival falafel eatery across the way from L’as du Falafel) is on the narrow street Rue des Rosiers that resembles Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter book series. At least, that’s what a friend told me when I pointed the picture of the alley and all the falafel eaters out to him. And it does look like Diagon Alley:

Crowd around L'as du Falafel

The street, quiet and gray, comes to life at this bustling corner. Falafel! Want some falafel? The proprietors cry, before guiding you over to the line and taking your order.

Here’s a fella that didn’t even bother to take off his motorcycle helmet before putting in his order:

L'as du Fallafel

The line can be long, but the line goes quickly–the workers at L’as du Falafel are well prepared in the wake of its popularity, facilitating orders in the long line and making sure things move efficiently.

And soon enough, you’re rewarded with a falafel, along with a dash of spicy hot sauce if you nod (vigorously, in our case).

L'as du Falafel

There are trash bags for you to dispose of the napkin in your hand (for you will eat the ENTIRE sandwich). I am thinking these are the ONLY public trash cans I ever saw in Paris or in France on the whole. Where DO the French throw away their garbage? Do they carry their trash all the home with them?

After days of decadent and wonderful French food, it began to wear on us. My husband and I live in a place where we can have different kinds of cuisines everyday–and in our multicultural household alone, we have the legacy of at least three different cuisines that inform our homecooking. So the falafel was a welcoming and surprising break between beouf bourguignon and cheeses and creams and souffle and steak (yes, poor us!).

The falafel was terrifically good. We demolished our sandwiches, our falafel eating experience and hunger helping us leave nary a stain on our clothes, spilling very little onto the sidewalk. I still stand by Falafel Drive in located in San Jose on San Carlos Blvd (close to Santana Row and Valley Fair Mall), but L’as du Falafel is a must when visiting in Paris. I’ll agree with the thousands of others who recommend this place with a big thumbs up.

And now–I must find a way to make falafel from scratch, here at home. Chickpeas, here I come!

Beaune and Loiseau de Vignes: happy lunches in Burgundy

Loiseau de Vignes gougeres!

We were in Beaune, the capital of France’s Burgundy wine country, for a friend’s wedding…and from a foodie point of view, that meant we had dinner plans. But what to do for lunch? We were staying in the Hotel Le Cep, where I heard Bernard Morillon, a lauded Michelin rated restaurant, was housed. But when we arrived on a beautiful day in wine country, there was no such restaurant–instead, there was a sign that said “Bernard Loiseau” and beneath that “Loiseau de Vignes.” Apparently, there had been a change.

Not sure of this new development, and having arrived in town too late for lunch, we meandered through the ancient city center of Beaune, marveling at architecture hundreds of years older than anything in the United States, let alone California. We always tend to marvel at architecture in other countries for this very fact, before also admiring the particularities of French Belle Epoque, for instance, or English Edwardian. Or in Beaune’s case, architecture from the Middle Ages.

Late in seeking lunch, we settled down at a crowded, nondescript brasserie full of European tourists and took our chances. I ordered a non-risky simple croque monsieur and the husband ordered a classic Burgundy dish.


Escargots. Otherwise known as snails, slathered in butter and cooked. He happily ate them, and he allowed me a taste. We were definitely in Burgundy, and this set off a food theme for the next day’s lunch. I was going to eat food indigenous to the wine region.

So the next day, having woken up late again (jet lag, jet lag!), we hurried out of our room, eyes on a clock that moved closer and closer to 2pm, closing time for all the “good restaurants” in town. No time to search for a place to eat–we looked at each other and thought, “Let’s try Loiseau de Vignes.”

Loiseau de Vignes for lunch

We checked out the menu, salivating at its classic mien–the rehearsal dinner had been replete with ornate cuisine. Standing there, our bodies a bit parched from the previous evening’s wine and still groggy from jetlag, we wanted nothing but simple and straightforward. The menu, a stark white reflecting the midday summer sun, and printed in equally stark block print, appealed to us in both its aesthetic and content. Simple and straightforward it was.

So we stepped in.

And commenced on a delicious lunch that helped lift the food of Burgundy in our eyes. This was–fabulous!

I have to admit, at this point, that I do not speak much French at all. In fact, I would say I could not speak French at all, if not for the words, “au revoir” and “bon jour” (I learned “bon soir” and “bon nuit” on this trip) and “merci.” Yes, it’s that bad. I know more culinary French than conversational French–but you see that that’s not such a high bar. (Thank goodness my hubby speaks a good amount of French–my pronunciation of the 5 phrase French phrases I knew, as well as French words on signs, drove him nuts).

So ordering was a delightful guessing game at times. What EXACTLY was my boeuf bourguignon on a bed of? What EXACTLY was my pate accompanied with? And what were the dishes I did overlook? Was I passing by something amazing in favor of dishes I could identify? It was a delightful escapade, at least at Loiseau de Vignes, where everything came out delicious…and simple…and straightforward. (Even the interior decor of the restaurant is carried on in that vein–medieval and unadorned stone walls, unadorned cutlery, white plates).

Our meal started off with the most gorgeous, hot out of the oven, poofy, gougeres. If you know about my one and only previous attempt to make gougeres, using a bad recipe out of Ruth Reichl’s otherwise brilliant book Garlic and Sapphires, then you know my ongoing fascination with perfect gougeres. Mine were such a miserable failure, that I am in utter admiration of perfect gougeres. Popping gougeres into my mouth, while peering at the menu at a table next to a window looking out over the hotel courtyard (complete with our friend the nervous bride in jeans and sweater pacing back and forth the morning of her wedding) was a wonderful start.

The hubby ordered a Millefeuille d’Aubergine:

vegetable mille feuille

He was kind enough to let me have a bite of this dish that was quite a display of eggplant–fried pieces of crispy eggplant, with creamy eggplant puree in between. How decadent.

Because I heard that Bernard Loiseau (this restaurant is in homage to him, no?) is a stickler for French classicism, and because I was in Burgundy and was on a mission to eat all that was classic to Burgundy, I decided to go for a pate, Boeuf Bourguignon, and a Grand Marnier souffle.

My pate en croute:

I prefer foie gras pate (if you know me, you know this goes without saying)…but I rather enjoyed this!

But things got even better with the boeuf bourguignon. The day before, my hubby had ordered the same dish at the tourist-ridden brasserie, and he looked with envy at my plate of beef, so tender it fell apart, doused with an aromatic red wine sauce. Say it together, please: Mrmmmmmmm…..!
boeuf bourguignon

On a bed of pasta, mushrooms, and croutons. And yes, I did let my husband have some boeuf bourguignon.

He wasn’t starving, he was having a filet mignon de porc:
porc filet mignon

But the best was yet to come. We each ordered a grand marnier souffle–normally, if we’re both ordering the same dessert, we decide to share. Maybe we were starving, maybe we each just wanted a souffle to ourselves (I mean, really–isn’t it fun to take the first bite of a souffle? And who wants to fight over that privilege?)…but this time, we each ordered the souffle, which arrived like chiral images on our table.

They looked magnificent–even as I took this picture, it only deflated the slightest amount, holding its loft for the camera splendidly.

It was infused with grand marnier and vanilla beans were everywhere…and the ice cream accompaniment was a classic pairing. Oh, are you just not so jealous? You should be, we were in heaven!
grand marnier souffle

Lunch was a great deal at about 30 euros per person. The restaurant has an exceptional burgundy wine list–with a good selection of wines by the glass (something I find sorely missing in the U.S.)

I hear that the restaurant, just recently opened, was limited to guests of Hotel Le Cep until July 24th, when it opened to the public. By the time I got to Paris, where we had an internet connection again, I found very little information on Loiseau de Vignes–only word that it had a lot of promise, in the hands of Patrick Bertron, who was the late Loiseau’s second in command for 20 years, and Dominique Loiseau, Bernard Loiseau’s wife. I also hear that this is a bistro version of the restaurant Loiseau itself. All this, I read after the fact–which I think made our experience all the more unblemished and without prejudice.

We were just looking for a good simple meal. And we found one.

Berry berry good fun–berry picking

basket beginning to fill up with berries

While the rest of the world cracked open their Harry Potter books yesterday, we went berry picking!

We drove along the picturesque California coast to Phipps Country Farm in Pescadero, which at this time of year boasts strawberries, boysenberries, and olallieberries in season. We were hitting the very tail end of both the boysenberry and olallieberry seasons and wondered if we would even see any, preparing ourselves to only pick strawberries. When we got there, we headed straight over to the boysenberry vines that seemed to be withering away. Still, we got a few cups of boysenberries, after looking very closely at the vines for the black ripened ones.

Boysenberry vines

Picking berries reminded me of the time I went grape picking with a friend who made his own wine. The arrangements for grape picking were such that we were picking the remainder of the grapes after the winery had already gone through with their main harvest–my friend called it “second harvest.” While there were still plenty of grapes left on the vine, many of them perfect for harvest, we still had to look closely for those bunches, tasting the grapes for the proper sweetness as we went. By the end of the day, our bodies were aching and our tastebuds spent.

The berry farm reminded me of that experience. Except that this time, we were leisurely picking a basketful of berries to savor later, and not crates and crates of grapes that took hours and hours to pick and would be crushed that evening. Honestly, the grape picking was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life, with the great silence in the fields and the beauty of the October landscape…but it gave me a new respect for grapepickers because it was very very tiring.

In contrast, this berry picking trip was pure delight, almost therapeutic, and definitely fun. Perhaps the grape picking, years ago, trained me for this experience–but it was a joy. “One of us” was very competitive and went off picking as many berries as he could, but why? We let him win.

the farm

Above is the strawberry patch, adjacent to the beans. We obliged ourselves to a few strawberries, but turned our focus to the boysenberries and olallieberries quickly.

But before we started picking, we examined a map of the farm, planning our attack upon the berries.

Map of the berry farm

Of course, we took a detour and visited the farm animals first, but nearly skipped towards the strawberries and then the boysenberries.


We quickly discovered, through a chorus of “ouch!” that the vines are thorny. Still, we giggled, as we popped the occasional berry into our mouths and watched our baskets fill. (Yes, I was able to overcome my OCD of popping berries covered with a fine film of dust and soil–the mood of the moment overcame any anxiety I may have had). The above is a closeup of a boysenberry, which is a cross between a loganberry and a dewberry, made famous by Knott’s Berry Farm.

Still, as we glanced over at the olallieberries, we got a bit confused–the boysenberries seemed to, at first, look exactly like olallieberries. We looked closer and noted some differences, and by the end of picking became adept at discerning between the two. The boysenberries are less densely packed and sweeter than the tangier olallieberries, again a blackberry hybrid of loganberry and youngberry:

olallieberries, close up

The olallieberries were aplenty, and our baskets readily filled after picking through one row. Now was the time, when we began thinking about how we would eat the berries, so fragrant and bursting. At this point, everyone’s fingers were stained with berries (except mine–mine were instead, pricked with thorns from picking the berries from the stem–leaving no berry juice but plenty of “ouchies”). Be forewarned. Next time we go berrypicking, we’re taking gloves!

Basket now filling up with olallieberries

Still, how could you resist this beauty? Our morning was full of smiles, the farm was beautiful, the skies began with cloudcover, with some wisps of fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean, making for a picturesque scene. By the time the sun broke out, it was lunchtime, and our baskets were full.

And–we came home to find my Harry Potter book delivered in our mailbox. 🙂

Next–stay tuned for berry usage recipes!


To the West, back home and then to the Middle

Carmel Market

I’ve been doing some bouncing around in the world these days–no sooner had I returned from England and its tasty treats, which included the venerable Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, that I found myself bound for the Middle East.

The purpose of my trip was not focused on pleasure, but still, a human being must eat.

So it was that I found myself in Israel, and while I did not explore the world of food wholeheartedly, I still knocked into some interesting and pleasant discoveries, none the least of which was Shouk HaCarmel…or Carmel Market. The market is the center of life in Tel Aviv, full of vendors selling their wares: clothes, music, trinkets, and food. The food was tremendous! There were candies and fruits, vegetables, meats (the butcher section is a fantastic display of carcasses–“Is that an EAR I see on the head?!” my husband at one point exclaimed), fish, piles of spices (ohhh! why oh why do we buy and sell spices inside sterile little bottles that hide the beauty of spices here?), and outside of Passover, many many pastries and breads.

I love outdoor markets, and so I found myself venturing down to the “shouk” as often as I could–in some ways, it served as a sanctuary for me as I browsed the stalls in blissful distraction.

One of the gorgeous finds was nougat–not the French nougat montelimar, or Italian torrone, but a beautiful white and airy, rosewater and cardamom flavored middle eastern nougat filled with pistachios or almonds. Here was the Real Thing! I quickly bought a handful to devour.

pistachio nougat

And devour them I did.

pistachio nougat

We loved them so much, exclaiming “This is the Real Thing!” that we went back to the stall and bought dozens more to take home (we still have them, nibbling one a day each). The vendor was an Iraqi Jew, it turned out, making a treat from his childhood. He offered us more items to taste: Turkish delight, and another nougat that melted in our mouths. Heaven.

Still, there were other things that amused me. Such as the Caesar Salad as made in Israel.

Caesar salad

I ordered one at the hotel, looking very forward to the creamy parmesan and anchovy-based dressing on romaine lettuce. I was dismayed to find salad greens with a dijon dressing and olives. I hate dijon dressing. I hate olives. Later on in the week, we went to a restaurant that carried a caesar salad. “Salad with caesar salad dressing, complete with egg.” It sounded authentic to me–one of caesar salad dressing’s signature ingredients IS an egg.

Oh, I was dismayed again. Not a single piece of romaine lettuce. And a hard boiled egg drowning under what smelled very like–oh yes it was–dijon dressing.

Not to be discouraged, I ordered some “home fries” with the salad. Whoops.

“Home fries” in Israel is really potatoes dressed in a sweet chili sauce. Kind of like a cold potato stew type thing. Delicious enough, but nothing like the “home fries” at a decent breakfast place in Berkeley, cooked atop a hot grill with caramelized edges, often served with breakfast eggs.

It makes me wonder what kind of foods we Americans bastardize here–what do Italians feel about our pizza, for starters?

UK Montage

British cookbooks!

A few years ago, I went to England and practically starved (if not for afternoon tea and the fish and chips in between, I would literally have starved)–the good news was that I lost seven pounds during my four day stay. I came home and told my husband that “England is a miserable place!”

He didn’t believe me, being an Anglophile himself. “I’ll take you and you’ll love it.”

He was right. It is now one of my favorite places in the world, London one of my favorite cities that I have visited multiple times now. I love England–and not just for its culture and architecture and beautiful parks and its sights, either. I love England for its (get ready now) food. I think I now gain a few pounds when I visit London.

I thought I’d list a few of the food highlights of my visit…

cheese and onion pasty

Pasties! This delicious pastry/lunch-you-can-hold-in-your hand was a new discovery for me–found on a frantic search for lunch near the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center across the way from Westminster Abbey (talk about the incredible juxtaposition between a high tech conference and staring out the windows to an old historic church across the circle).

I loved them so much, we had pasties two days in a row for lunch–the first day, I fetched cheese and onion pasties at Stiles at Sutton Ground Market. The second day, I did a taste test, with Cornish pasties from Stiles, and cheese and onion pasties from West Cornwall Pasty Company further down the street. (Stiles won).

Now I am addicted to the suckers, and am secretly glad that no one makes pasties in the Bay Area. I did look up a few recipes and was horrified at the lard content–now I’m more than secretly glad that they aren’t as easily obtainable around here.

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F*cking good! (Restaurant Gordon Ramsay)

2nd course seared scallop

We went to Gordon Ramsay’s 3 Michelin star flagship restaurant on Royal Hospital Road–one of Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in the world. It consistently lands in the top 20, and in 2005 and 2004, it was one of the top 10 restaurants in the world, keeping good company with El Bulli, Fat Duck, French Laundry and Pierre Gagnaire.

Gordon Ramsay has a sort of cult status in Britain–he takes up considerable real estate in the cookbook section of Foyles bookstore, and his TV show, The F Word (haha, the very obvious play on his tendency to swear–a LOT) has a brilliant following. Plus, he has at least 9 restaurants in London alone; in a sense, Ramsay is the culinary beacon of England. He burns bright and sometimes, angry.

Americans may know him from his television show, “Hell’s Kitchen” and his new restaurant in New York.

We arrived at Restarant Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road nearly 45 minutes early for our seating–usually, a bit of an awkward situation at restaurants. Our plans included sitting at the bar and waiting for our seat. At Gordon Ramsay? No problem. We were seated IMMEDIATELY, to our great delight.  (Later, during our chat with the staff, we found that the restaurant normally only does one seating a night, holding that table for one party).

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