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Too Good To Leaf

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Welcome one and all to another Mastication Monologues!  There isn’t much time to spare this summer in Chitown, so you must take advantage of the great weather before the deathly cold comes and the white walkers take over.  So, I’d like to tell you about a great restaurant we’ve been to before during the winter but could also be a wonderful hangout in the summer.  That place is called Hopleaf Bar.

This establishment is located in the quaint Andersonville neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago.  There are a ton of great brunch places up and down Clark Street, but Hopleaf is more of a lunch and dinner establishment.  There is only street parking, but expect plenty to be found.  Given the name of the restaurant, Hopleaf focuses intensely on the pursuit of the best and most unique brews around.  Due to the focus on alcohol, you have to be 21 or over to enter, and that means there are no children allowed (No offense, but huzzah!). IMG_4304 We were a bit surprised about this policy when we walked in, but we also found out that there are no reservations.  So, we had to wait a bit for a table.  Be prepared to wait for a table if it’s a very nice day/night out or if it’s a weekend. IMG_4303 Eventually, we were sat in the bustling back room that gave us a first hand look into the glass-walled kitchen.IMG_4292  We were first presented with a beer menu that was extremely varied in terms of craft beers, but I found one that really caught my eye.  It was called Etrusca Bronze from the Dogfish Head craft beer company ($9).  The description is below, IMG_4293

but basically it is part of a series of ancient ales that the company has brewed based on recipes from millenia ago found all over the world.  In this case, my drink was based on a 2,800 year old recipe that was synthesized from analyzing the resins inside drinking vessels found in Etruscan tombs.  I’ve been throwing around this term “Etruscan” like nobody’s business, but who exactly were these people?  Basically, they were the tribe of people who gave birth to Rome after settling on the Tibur, but it is still up for debate where exactly they originated from.

Gettin' crunk since 700 BC!

Gettin’ crunk since 700 BC!

Anyway, I’ll leave that for the history scholars to decide.  Back to the beer.  When it came out, it was served in a goblet, and it looked like a cup of warm cider.

Nectar o' the gods

Nectar o’ the gods

I gave it a sniff before imbibing, and I was taken aback by the aroma that overtook my nostrils.  It made more sense when I looked at the variety of sweet, savory, and aromatic ingredients it was brewed with like pomegranate, clover, wildflower, raisins, chestnuts, and even myrrh, an ancient tree sap that was used as perfume, incense, an embalming agent for Egyptian mummies, and even presented as a gift to Jesus by one of the three kings.  Clearly, I wasn’t in bland lager-land any more.  When I finally took a sip, it was one of the most unique and complex beers I’ve ever tried.  The honey notes were tempered by the pomegranate juice that had a very subtle nuttiness compliments of the chestnut.  This was further embellished by the wispy wildflowers still dancing in my nose that joined the flavor party on my tongue.  Long story short, this isn’t a drink to be pounded during a game of flip cup, but if you appreciate something super unique or are a historically obsessed weirdo, then you found your beer.  This distinguished beverage prefaced one of the most epic meals I’ve ever had.  Unfortunately, Hopleaf’s menu, both beer and food, changes with the seasons, so some of the options I talk about may or may not be served when you visit like my pastrami sandwich ($12), for example.  This was a straight old-school dish from the turn of the 20th Century New York deli culture. IMG_4299 From the rye to the thick layers of beet red meat, it was simple in form but exquisite in flavor. IMG_4302 The combo of herbal caraway with the saltiness of the meat was wonderful, but I would suggest finding a heartier form of rye since it was on the dryer side and crumbled under the pressure of my powerful jaws.  The fries were just my type since they were on the softer side with the occasional crunchy one, but I found their smoky taste intriguing.  Naturally, the pickle on the side was an homage to this deli staple, and it was large, crunchy, and sour.  Yes, please!  Janice’s choice, the duck Reuben ($13), upstaged its fellow New York sandwich.  The origin of the sandwich’s name is a point of contention.  Some parties state that it was named after Reuben Kulakofsky, a Lithuanian born grocer who held poker games at one of Omaha’s premier hotels in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other’s believe that this savory snack came from Arnold Reuben, the owner of the now closed Ruben’s Delicatessen in New York.  Arnold claimed to have come up with the “Reuben special” back in 1914.  Whoever invented it, I doff my proverbial cap to them.  It’s a wonderful combo of meat, bread, and condiments.  First, it was on toasted marble rye that was heartier than my basic brown rye.  IMG_4298Then we got to the heart of the matter.IMG_4300  Instead of finding the typical pastrami, we were greeted with thin slices of slightly fatty Peking duck breast that also possessed traces of caramelization due to its traditional preparation.  This sweetness was further garnished with a cranberry cream cheese spread that took the place of mustard or Russian dressing to give this typically savory sandwich a sweet side.  To top all of it off, there was a moderate helping of acidic sauerkraut to cut through the sweet elements, and the gooey melted Emmenthaler cheese held all of these mouth-watering ingredients together.  I highly recommend both sandwiches!

So if you’re looking for a laid back beer heaven or a date night without the kids, check out Hopleaf Bar!
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Number One Sun, Wah You So Good?

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In the beginning, there was meat.  Meat, meet fire.  Fire + meat = a dawn of a new culinary era.  Fast forward from the caveman days to today, and this elemental fixture of meat roasting over a fire drives our entire food industry.  It has been elaborated upon by different cultures and chefs to the delight of generations of eaters around the world.  Today’s entry focuses on a restaurant whose entire existence revolves around not only the glorification of roasted meat but the ceremony of serving said meat.  If you’ve new to Hong Kong style barbecue, then I highly recommend visiting Sun Wah BBQ located in the Little Vietnam/Edgewater neighborhood on the North side of Chicago.

While there are plenty of top quality Vietnamese restaurants surrounding Sun Wah, this is the number one place to go for Hong Kong barbecue in the area. IMG_4700 I haven’t tried any places similar to Sun Wah in Chinatown, but I’m sure they’re out there.  However, I have tried actual Hong Kong barbecue while in Hong Kong along with some other more serpentine delights.  While Sun Wah doesn’t get as crazy as they do back in the homeland, they do offer plenty of quality plates to choose from.  Their crown jewel is their Peking duck service where you can get a full meal for $40.  Note:  Remember to call ahead to order it when making a reservation since they can run out of ducks!  After I tried Peking duck in its home city, Beijing, I can say that Sun Wah’s quality is the same as in China with a couple small differences that I’ll address later.  Now, I’ve been throwing around the word “barbecue” left and right in this article, but let’s not get American and Hong Kong barbecue conflated.  While American barbecue focuses on using savory/spicy sauces and different types of wood to smoke the meat, HK barbecue utilizes sweet and aromatic glazes to be rubbed on the meat before being placed on a fork and roasted over a fire.  Any way you slice it, I love them both!  Anyway, back to the meal.  Janice, I, and her whole family went there for her mom’s birthday.  It was very large and busy inside, and we could inspect the hanging ducks in the front window while we waited for our table to be ready. IMG_4681 IMG_4682 Once seated, we went ahead and ordered some starters like pan fried soft shell crab, butterfly shrimp, and stir fried Shanghai bok choi.  While I’m not a huge seafood fan, I enjoyed the soft shell crab. IMG_4684 It was crunchy yet soft on the inside, and the breading was light and buttery.  Just goes to show that deep-frying things improves food every time.  The butterfly shrimp were really decadent yet so so good.  IMG_4685Not only were they fried but wrapped with bacon.  *Cue the heavens opening*.  As for the bok choi, it was good but not great. IMG_4686 True, it wasn’t fried, but you can only do so much with greens.  Eventually, the pièce de résistance came out:  the Peking duck. IMG_4690 The preparation hasn’t changed much since 500 A.D., but as the old adage says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  With this meal, I wouldn’t change a thing.  First, they wheeled the roast duck to the side of our table to slice it in front of our eyes.IMG_4691  This was very different from my experience in Beijing.  Instead of being in a deserted open air courtyard in a small hutong, it was brightly lit and surrounded by friendly faces.  The duck in Beijing had the neck and head still attached while the Sun Wah duck had it chopped it off before it even came to our table.  Another key difference was the serving style.  While in Beijing, they brought each plate out with each component of the duck:  skin (the most coveted part of the meal) first, then a bit of meat, and then a connected meat and skin combo with a bisected roasted duck head that I ate.  At Sun Wah, time is money, so they just heaped it all on one plate even with drumsticks. IMG_4694 They then gave us warm and squishy bread buns, julienned carrots and onions, hoisin sauce, and fried rice on the side. IMG_4693 Beijing differed in the fact that they didn’t have carrots, but instead had onions, cucumber, and a thick sweet bean/hoisin sauce.  Also, instead of sliced buns, the Beijing Peking duck was eaten with steamed pancakes that were like rice tortillas.  Plus, they also gave me horseradish and sugar on the side that they didn’t at Sun Wah.  Even though Sun Wah was slightly different, it didn’t mean that it was inferior in any aspect.  When all of the aforementioned ingredients were combined in one of the fresh and fluffy buns, it was amazing!IMG_4698  From the crunchy sweet skin to the tender duck and fresh vegetables jazzed up with the sweet soy notes, it was a parade of flavors and textures that resulted in culinary perfection.  Finally, they took the remaining bones and residual meat into the back to make a thin but rich duck broth filled with crunchy winter melon.IMG_4695IMG_4696  It was a warming end to a sumptuous dinner, and a wonderful way to celebrate with Janice’s family.  Plus, for a dinner for five, it was less than 100 bucks!  Not a bad bill for the duck (pun totally intended).

So if you want to get some of the best Peking duck in Chicago or perhaps the country, visit Sun Wah BBQ!

Sun Wah Bar-B-Q Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Getting My Goat On

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Welcome to another chapter in the Mastication Monologues saga!  Today’s restaurant review takes us to one of the newer but highly regarded eateries in Chicago in the West Loop:  Girl and the Goat.  I had heard so many great things about famed chef, Stephanie Izard.  According to the website, “Izard is name of goat in the Pyrenees”; hence the name of the restaurant.  Looking beyond their rustic take on English on their website, their food was king or perhaps queen of the mountain.IMG_4035

The interior was bumping when I went there around dinnertime for a double date.IMG_4030  Servers were buzzing by as we checked in for our reservation.  There was a bit of a wait, so we grabbed drinks and took in the entire experience.  From the sleekly designed interior to the open cook line, it was like poetry in motion everywhere I looked.  IMG_4037IMG_4036IMG_4034It only whetted my appetite even more for the upcoming meal.  Eventually we were seated and the madness began.  With a tumbler of whiskey in hand, we looked over the menu to see some common items like olives or steak tartare, but then there were crazy things like duck tongues or pig face. IMG_4039 Mind you, the menu is on a rotating basis, so you might be privy to some dishes I never saw on the menu.  We went crazy ordering once our server came over however.  The journey began with a sun-dried tomato bread boule that came with a side of vinegar seasoned corn relish and savory butter with a garlic infusion. IMG_4042 This typical carb starter got us off on the right foot as it was warm, oh-so-soft, and bursting with the taste of fresh tomatoes.IMG_4044  Then for actual dishes, the Girl and the Goat focus on more tapas-esque presentation and portion sizes which means that each selection is meant to be shared amongst all the people at the table.  Ergo, we ordered things that everyone wanted to try.  First, seafood.  We got the raw kusshi oysters with muscatel mignonette and tarrgon along with the wood fired blue point oysters with horseradish, bacon, and preserved lemon.

Kusshi oysters

Kusshi oysters

This was a historical foodie moment for me since it was the first time trying oysters.  While I heard from some people that they tasted like snot going down, I found them to slide right down without any sort of trepidation from my palate.  They didn’t need to be chewed or anything, so I don’t know what those other diners’ problems were.  I personally preferred the wood fired oysters because they were slightly warm along with a nice sinus-tickling horseradish kick.

Woodpoint fired oysters

Woodpoint fired oysters

While we were partying under the sea with the super shellfish, the steak tartare wraps came out.  If you just saw “steak” and “wrap”, the “tartare” part means that the meat was raw inside.IMG_4047  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe to eat.  In fact, these nibbles were quite light at delicious.  The lettuce leaves were super fresh, and the pieces of red meat were accompanied by some tempura flakes and another corn relish that provided a texture contrast to the tender steak and crunchy tempura batter. IMG_4048 Along with this hands-on dish, we got an order of squash blossom rangoon with wasabi garlic chive yogurt and sliced almonds ($13). IMG_4049IMG_4050 I think these fried gourds were a bit over the top with their cheesy interiors.  IMG_4051It seemed to simply be a high-falutin version of common jalapeno poppers, and they were quite primitive in comparison to the other dishes we tried before.  The duck tongues ($16) that came next were anything but ordinary. IMG_4052 While everyone at the table was disgusted yet slightly curious when I ordered this dish, I was curious to see if it was going to be different from my experiences with duck tongues in Taiwan and China.  Lo and behold, it was since they were neither simply cooked nor still sticking in a duck’s head.  Instead, they were fried and arranged into a mini-mountain over a tuna and black bean poke that was negligible, but the spicy piri-piri bird’s eye pepper (similar to the one at Nando’s in the UK) from Mozambique really kicked these tongues up a notch in terms of flavor.  Plus, my formerly squeamish dining companions found them to be quite pleasant since they melted in your mouth and didn’t feel like you were making out with Donald Duck.  After that bizarre treat, we came back to reality with an order of ham frites ($7) with sides of smoked tomato aioli (literally: “garlic oil” in Catalan) and cheddar beer sauce.  IMG_4053These smoky, savory taters were finger licking good especially with the cheddar beer sauce and powdered ham that took these common bar items to a new level of haute cuisine.  If this redesigned ‘Murikan favorite got my palate amped up, the spring onion potstickers ($15) were a Far East fusion creation to cool it down.  IMG_4054It was served at room temperature, and the fried dough was extra delicate.IMG_4058  Along with that, the dandelion greens and sunflower seeds created many earthy tones as I took down each one.  All of these were leading up to the piece de resistance, the crisped braised pork shank ($25). IMG_4057 Not only was this thing monstrous, but it also came with sides I would have never expected:  Indian naan bread, buttermilk dressing, peach kimchi, and a pepper sauce.  I almost felt like young King Arthur with the sword in the stone, and I took my Excalibur with great aplomb. IMG_4063 The meat fell off the bone, and it was mind-blowingly succulent.  Each strand combined with the golden crispy skin to create a legendary dish that I will never forget.  The naan was fresh, but I didn’t think it really fit in with the other ingredients.  The kimchi peaches somewhat made sense since it was a sour/sweet element to cut through the savory and slightly greasy meat.  The pepper sauce was good but not great.

It gone!

It gone!

As if you thought this was the end to the food madness, the pork belly and scallops came out.  I tried a minuscule portion of the pork belly, and it would have been great if my stomach wasn’t stretched to bursting.IMG_4066  Perhaps for next time.  The lobster was quite sweet while the crab seemed to be a better compliment to the lean pork.  As for the scallops, I can’t really comment on them because I was absolutely stuffed, but their presentation was pleasing to the eye.  Plus, the scallops were quite hefty for the price.IMG_4068

So in closing, if you want to try one of Chicago’s most highly vaunted restaurant, bring your piggy bank and then some because it isn’t cheap.  However, it is high quality food with moderately large portions compared to other similarly prestigious eateries.   Ergo, you should get down to Girl and the Goat ASAP.

Girl & the Goat on UrbanspoonIz

Throwback Post: Drop and Rijstaffel in Amsterdam

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Howdy, Mastication Monologues readers!  I’ve been finding it harder as of late to keep up with my posts due to all of the fun happenings with the girlfriend and the job hunt.  It seems like my inbox has been filling up with new places to write about, and I’m not even done with this throwback Europe series.  It is nearing the end though, so I will have plenty of new restaurants to talk about in the near future.  Anyway, back to the throwback vein of things.  Today’s post brings us to the old but vibrant port city of Amsterdam.

I visited this city twice while living in Spain, but I found the second time around a lot more enjoyable.  The first time I went there, for my birthday, it was deathly cold and windy.  Northern Europe in the beginning of winter, go figure.

So. cold.

So. cold.

As we walked around the city, we were almost run over by the prodigious hordes of bikes that are all over the city.  If you go there, keep your wits about you because you will get cracked if you’re too engrossed in a guide book or your smart phone.  I found Amsterdam to be a quaint city that would have been more enchanting in the summer since I was more focused on not having my hands and nose fall off due to the chilly arctic winds. HPIM2076 HPIM2072The canals and narrow houses harken back to the golden era of trade for the Dutch trading companies in global trade led by their innovated flat bottom barges that were useful in the canals of the city and the rest of the Netherlands.  We managed to see the Rijksmuseum, Anne Frank House, and the infamous Red Light District and a few coffeehouses while we were there.

Rijksmuseum

Oude Kerk (Old Church)

The latter two are the most notorious parts of Amsterdam for different reasons.  The Red Light District since the canals are lined with full sized glass doors with each one sporting a lady one could spend time with for a fee.  However, contrary to popular belief that an area filled with prostitutes is extremely dangerous, it was one of the safest places in Amsterdam we walked in as there were men, women, and even old couples strolling past the sex shops.

I don't think sex AIDS would be easy to sell

I don’t think sex AIDS would be easy to sell

There were even police on almost every corner, taking pictures of any of the working girls is prohibited in the Red Light District (you will get your camera confiscated by the authorities), and CCTV cameras watch out for troublemakers.  The Dutch government, being liberal leaning since the 1400s, deems these window sex workers legal, collect taxes from them, and even require the girls to get regular medical exams to identify and prevent the spread of communicable diseases.  As for the coffeehouses, not only do they serve caffeine-laden beverages but also marijuana if they have the proper license.  The smell is inescapable if you walk down the street in some areas, but it is nothing that is out of control in terms of people overindulging in public.  The Dutch government is also cracking down on foreigners coming into the coffeehouses due to drug tourism and gangs attempting to sell hard drugs to coffeehouse customers.  While these two aspects of Amsterdam seem to be the most popular in the collective imagination, I’d like to talk about two unique Dutch foods I tried while there:  drop and rijstaffel.

My meeting with drop or licorice in English came in the train station under Shiphol Airport as we were waiting for our train to the main train station in Amsterdam.  I had heard that drop was the most popular Dutch candy, and lo and behold I found some in a vending machine.  Turns out that the Dutch consume the most licorice in the world, but I heard that this drop was definitely an acquired taste.  This particular variety was half and half nibs where one half of the piece was fruit flavored while the other was the signature black drop. Dutch-drop The first bite of this Dutch candy left me greatly puzzled since it didn’t taste like normal black licorice.  After a bit of research, it turns out that it is flavored with ammonium chloride which gave it a salty yet stinging flavor.  Out of my group of friends, I was the only one who enjoyed the chewy, mystery chemical licorice.  Later on during our trip, we tried a Dutch specialty known as rijstaffel.  The word “rijstaffel” in Dutch literally means “rice table” since it is a style of dining that originated in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial period in the 1600s and continued through to 1945.  The Dutch traders wanted to eat elaborate meals that encompassed all of the interesting Indonesian dishes that existed throughout the archipelago, so the rijstaffel was born.

Land o' Pleny

Land o’ Plenty

First, the servers would bring out a large plate of rice, and put it in the middle of the table.  Then, anywhere from 10 to 100 smaller dishes, depending on how many diners there were, were brought out and combined with the rice.  Indonesia has done away mostly with the rijstaffel since their independence in 1945, but this Dutch colonial tradition still is going on strong in Amsterdam as we experienced a slice of history.tumblr_m16qwm2bCe1qczjobo1_500  I remember the chicken satay served with sambal kacang (peanut sauce) was particularly delicious along with the bebek betutu (duck roasted in banana leaves) that was extremely tender with an essence of banana baked into the meat.  Some of the other common dishes include nasi kuning (Indonesian yellow rice), nasi goreng (fried rice), lumpia (spring rolls), and babi kecap (pork belly in sweet soy sauce).  I could go on forever with the other small plates since we had about 20 different dishes for about 30 Euros, but I highly recommend the rijstaffel if you want a unique Amsterdam dining experience.

Thaied Me Over

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Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I’m bringing you a nice, little Thai eatery called altThai located in downtown Arlington Heights.IMG_2475

I was meeting two friends I lived with in Spain, so it was a bit of an adventure getting up there from my house.  Thankfully, there is a parking garage nearby as this restaurant doesn’t have a parking lot or street parking.  Upon entering the establishment, I noticed it was minimally furnished with Thai artifacts and painted with warm hues that reflected the amiability of the Thai people.  Little did I know that our waitress would be quite the opposite.  She immediately was hustling us to order drinks, so I went for a glass of pinot noir ($8) which was pedestrian.  I was somewhat disappointed with their wine menu as it was leaning heavily towards the white end of things, but I guess it makes sense in regard to a lot of the Thai fish dishes.  Eventually my friend Mita arrived, and we got chicken satay ($6) for an appetizer. IMG_2476 The all-white meat chicken skewers were quite good, and only improved with a peanut sauce that was equally nutty and sweet.  They went quickly as we transitioned to the main course.  I looked over the fried rice, curries, and specialty plates to eventually plump for a pineapple curry ($13).  I had the option of spice level (mild to very hot) along with a choice of roast duck or shrimp.  For my spice level, I picked very hot, and our Thai waitress hesitated while writing down my initial order.  She then warned me, “It’s not American spicy” to which I responded, “Bring it on!”.  It was a dance I’ve done many times sitting down to eat in any sort of ethnic eatery that prides itself in spicy food (read:  Mexican, Indian, Korean etc.).  Naturally, European cuisine and those from European stock are not known for being well acquainted for heavily seasoned and spiced food, but luckily I got a taste for fire from my dad.  Must be the hot Sicilian blood that doesn’t make the peppers seem too bad.  The bowl of steaming curry came out with a side of rice to possibly nullify the inferno to come.IMG_2477  It didn’t start off too well as I proceeded to scoop up what I thought was a cooked tomato slice, and it ended up being a cherry tomato that burst in my mouth like a shell full of napalm.  Even though my mouth was scalded, I sallied forth to actually try the curry once it cooled down.  I found large chunks of duck, green and red peppers, and an apricot yellow broth with specks of red floating on the surface like pieces of spicy algae.  It was a rich curry in the sense that I could taste the coconut milk with each spoonful, and the meat was very rich with an excellent fat to meat ratio.  As for the spiciness, it was roughly a jalapeno level.  Our waitress came by with a big smile seeing if my tongue was liquefied yet, and I informed her that it was barely even making me sweat.  Clearly they pulled punches for me even though I specified to have it as hot as possible.  She then offered more Thai chili peppers which I appreciated.  They came out quickly, and I proceeded to dump them all in my curry.  It ratcheted the heat index up from a 70 degree day to maybe a typical summer in Phoenix or the equivalent of a light habanero flavor.  I enjoyed the curry down to the last drop, and my waitress was so impressed that she didn’t charge me for my wine.  Lucky for me I have a lead stomach.  We finished our food and was once again hassled by our waitress to pay our bill as they were closing.  The owner though was quite cordial as he showered us with after dinner candies while walking out the door.

Overall, pushy service aside, I recommend altThai for a delicious dinner or lunch for a reasonable price.

altThai on Urbanspoon

Beijing (Day 2)- Go Duck Yourself!

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Welcome to another installation of Mastication Monologues where today I will be bringing you day two of my food adventures in Beijing!  It was quite a happening day complete with a visit to the Forbidden City, and let me tell you that the only thing that is forbidden there is sitting down for a rest.  It was an immense sight to see, so we worked up quite an appetite by the time we found an exit.  Nearby, there was a large stretch of shopping malls and restaurants, so we decided to take a gander at what they had to offer.  We eventually ended up at this Muslim/Uyghur restaurant.IMG_1494 China, being the gargantuan country that it already is, encompasses a multitude of cultures and ethnic groups.  The Uyghur people are one of the most distinct groups in the mix as they mainly inhabit the far western part of the country, and a majority are Muslim instead of Buddist or Taoist.  In terms of food, you can definitely tell that they are not like the Han majority as they consume a lot more mutton, flatbreads, yogurt, and kebabs.  A little Middle East meets the Far East flavor for ya.  We were the only non-Asian people in this eatery, so the local clientele were very surprised to see us.  Upon sitting down, they insisted on covering our seat backs with protective covers and the table cover with an extra layer of plastic.  This was a signal that our meal was most likely going to be like Sea-World, i.e. the first three rows are going to get wet.  We plumped for the lunch special for two which involved a Beijing hotpot that was quite novel.  I say novel in the sense that the actual cooking device didn’t look like a typical pot used for this type of cuisine.  It looked more like the progeny that would arise 9 months later if a lava lamp, a smokestack, a fire pit, and a castle moat got together during one crazy weekend in Jamaica. IMG_1495 Inanimate object freakiness aside, the rolls of thinly sliced lamb had my mouth watering.IMG_1497   They also had scarlet bales of beef with plenty of vermicelli and wheat noodles on the side. IMG_1499 IMG_1498While the meat was delectable, I think that it was a bit of a disappointment with how much of it was boiled off in the water.  The shrimp were quite useless since they were frozen together in a clump to the plate the entire time…talk about fresh.  If you’re a veggie head, there was plenty of tofu, fungi, lettuce, cilantro, and onions to satisfy your cravings.IMG_1501IMG_1500  One of the more interesting dishes of ingredients we could throw into the boiling water were these cheese-filled, sea scallop balls and the mystery black balls. IMG_1502 The former were quite funky in a good way with their playful striped exteriors and piping hot cheese and seafood sauce innards.  The latter were a bit more unsettling since I couldn’t really tell what sort of meat I was eating, and it seemed like each meat orb had a piece of string in it.  I don’t know if that came from the preparation, but it didn’t bother me terribly.  All throughout the meal, I enjoyed watching the wait staff watch us eat since we were so proficient with chopsticks.  They were probably thanking the heavens they didn’t have to search for a fork.  It was an ok dining experience, but I prefer my previous Sichuan or Taiwanese hot pot dinners.  If my taste buds were snoozing on me after that lunch, I would give them a jolt they would never forget as we made our way to Wangfujing Snack Street (王府井小吃街; Wángfǔjǐngxiǎochī Jiē).IMG_1505  It was a lot more crowded than Donghuamen market, and it seemed more like a local place to get snack food which also meant the prices were a bit more reasonable.IMG_1508  I saw a lot of the usual weird food that they also had at Donghuamen, but one of the sticks was really calling my name:  the scorpions.IMG_2810  I don’t know if it’s just the fact that they are poisonous, or that they were still alive and squirming on the stick that made me want to eat them.  I got a stick, and it was the best bizarre food I tried in Beijing with the spider running a close second.IMG_2812  I’d have to say that it was a mix of the chef’s spicy dry rub, and him knowing not to burn the arachnids while frying.  Those two elements combined to create a snack that was crispy, piquant, with a bit of meat that didn’t taste like anything.  It seems that insects will taste like whatever you season them with, so I consider them the tofu of cheap proteins.  Another fun part of the experience was having other western tourists walk by with their Chinese friends and reel back in horror as I took down the creepy crawlies with no trepidation.  Naturally, the Chinese broke out the classic praise phrase in English, “You’re strong!” while their Western friends insisted on a raincheck when I offered them one.  Quick note on Asian cuisine I’ve noticed while traveling, the weirder it seems to Western palates, more often than not it can somehow increase strength (read:  male libido) in some fashion like dog soup in Korea.  Long story short, I’d eat the scorpions again if I had the chance, and I recommend you try them as well.  However, my day didn’t end there.  All of these brief excursions culminated at dinner where I had the signature dish of Beijing:  Peking duck.  While New York has its delis and Chicago its deep dish pizza, you would have to be a fool to go to Beijing and not try one of these succulent fowls.  The place we went to was called Lao Zhai Yuan 老宅院.IMG_1521  It was in a really small hutong or neighborhood and gave me the impression that I wasn’t at some touristy clip joint.  We ate in one of their courtyards which thankfully had plenty of heat lamps, but it just further added to the ambiance of it all.IMG_1519  We also enjoyed the menu descriptions of some of the items they had to offer, and the prices were extremely reasonable.  Our entire meal probably cost 10 bucks.  IMG_1512While we were waiting for our duck to be prepared, I got a bottle of baiju 白酒 which is like China’s version of Korea’s soju.  However, the difference is in the alcohol content. IMG_1514 While soju only has around 20% alcohol, baiju has a 40% minimum, so it’s more like vodka in that aspect.  I definitely felt that way when I took a small sip of it straight, but it got more interesting when I mixed it with Sprite.  It didn’t blend very well with the Sprite like vodka would, but it added a strangely pleasing berry twist to the citrus Sprite. IMG_1513 In the distance, I could smell a sweet fragrance wafting our way, and I saw our chef going to work on our duck with brain surgeon-like precision. IMG_2816 His craftsmanship showed with each plate they brought to our table of just the meat, the golden brown skin, and the meat with strands of the skin still attached with a thin layer of fat between both tissues.  It was hands down the best meal I had in Beijing.

Heaven in one meal.

Heaven in one meal.

The skin was not only crispy but had dulcet tones to every bite while the meat was tender and rich.  It doesn’t take a mathamagician to put one and one together to imagine how great the skin and meat bits were.  The meal was only further enhanced with the delivery method of the duck to your mouth which took the form of utilizing a paper thin pancake and smearing the plum sauce all over it first.  Then, you could either put horseradish, sugar, cucumber sticks, or onions before loading up on your duck.  Once you have it all piled up, you roll it taco style and enjoy.  It was a great combination of sweet, savory, and tangy to create the ultimate dining experience in Beijing.  The plat de résistance was the duck head that they served to us as the very last item.  It was cleaved in half still with everything inside like the brains, tongue, and eyeballs. IMG_1516IMG_1517 Naturally, my dining companion didn’t think I was going to eat it, but I ended up consuming it nevertheless much to her disgust.  It was worth it though, and not my first time doing so since I had it in Taiwan.  There wasn’t a lot of meat on it, but I’ll always say that the eyes are the best part since they have a buttery quality to them.  All’s well that end’s well as I went to sleep that night with a very happy stomach.  Long story short, find this restaurant, and you will not regret it.

My Glorious Food Revolution- Day 3 and 4 in N. Korea

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Hello to everyone out there in cyberspace!  I can tell that you have been enjoying my posts that have been offering you a brief glimpse into the mysterious land that is North Korea.  Today’s post is going to be a double feature since Day 3 really didn’t offer anything that spectacular in terms of food and drink yet my last day was filled with memorable meals.  So, I’ll begin with January 2nd (our third day).

Breakfast started off like any other even though they also had some delicious donkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) that actually had more of the texture of breaded sawdust along with the taste.  After hitting up some memorable sites like the Party Foundation Monument and took a ride on the Pyongyang metro, we ended up at another hokey foreigners-only restaurant in another anonymous building in the city.  The only highlights of lunch were plates of fried food along with a rather bland bibimbap with limp vegetables.

A lot of meh

A lot of meh

IMG_1681Weak sauce, North Korea (they didn’t even have enough gochujang or chili sauce for everyone).  However, I tried a new beer called Bonghak or 봉학멕주.  It was a little worse than the Taedonggang or perhaps on par with the common South Korean beers, i.e. an extremely watered-down lager.IMG_3049That was about it for day 3 which was kind of depressing from a culinary perspective, but day 4 more than made up for it.

Day 4 was the same old song and dance with breakfast, but it was going to be a unique day as we would head to the North Korean side of the DMZ along with visiting the city of Kaesong.  After a long bumpy ride through breathtaking mountain passes, we were introduced to the Korean soldier-guides at Panmumjeon, and we saw South Korea from the Joint Security Area.  Their armistice museums were quite eye-opening as well, but I’ll save that for my travel blog.  We rolled into Kaesong after the DMZ, and it was more like what I was expecting from North Korea in terms of a gloomy atmosphere.  However, this wouldn’t translate to the food as we were served a royal meal in a gaggle of small golden bowls with each container containing a new nugget of nom.  IMG_3137I didn’t know where to start once I un-capped all of the tiny basins.IMG_3140

However, most of the elements were not new to me since they have the same dishes in South Korean cuisine.  Go figure.  I’ll break down the picture above for those not in the know.  In the upper left hand corner, we have the dark green strips of dried and salted seaweed paper with a hint of sesame which makes the perfect encasement for making sushi rolls.  To the right in the white bowl are balls of tteok or sticky rice cake in a sweet red bean sauce.  I’m not the biggest fan of either red bean or rice cake due to the savory flavor and lack of flavor, respectively, but these two together somehow managed to pass my taste test.  Moving to the upper right hand corner is a simple piece of fried tofu.  No fuss no muss.  In the second row starting on the left, there is a bowl of random gelatinized eggs that were pedestrian in terms of taste, but the greens to the right of them were delectable and can be found in any bibimbap.  The same goes for the bean sprouts right next to them.  The last bowl in the second row is a bit different.  It’s filled with green bean cake which was kind of disgusting.  I don’t know why they feel the need to make regular and jelly versions of every food.  The last three bowls were a bit more normal with the stewed potato strands on the left and salted baby fish in the middle.  They’re very chewy and salty.  The last bowl is a meat and potato melange.  All of this was the backdrop to the star of the show:  bosingtang or dog soup.  IMG_3142I’ve had dog soup before in South Korea, so I wanted to see who could do it better.  In the end, the North won this battle because not only did they have more meat in the soup, but it was spicier which is a key element for me when it comes to savoring a great dish.  It definitely beat the cold that pervaded almost everywhere we went since effective indoor heating doesn’t really exist in either of the Koreas.  After leaving Kaesong, we ended up at the Taedonggang brewery bar which was extremely modern in decor, and could have been found in any major Western metropolis minus the wonderful Eastern European pop videos on the tvs from the 1990s. IMG_3168 They offered seven varieties of beer from 1 to 7.IMG_3169  1 being the most like an English bitter and 6 and 7 being like Guiness.  Everything between that was a terrible mix of rice and barley.  I decided to go with a 6 since they were out of 7, and I did not regret my choice.IMG_3172  For only two bucks I got a legitimate brew that would cost six times as much back in Seoul.  There were other North Koreans coming in to drink with us, and I could tell that they were higher-ups in the party based off their nicer clothes and shiny new Juche pins.  After downing our pints, we headed to our final dinner together.  They sent us off in style with duck bbq Korean style.IMG_1686  As with most other Korean barbecue, there was not much to it in terms of seasonings or anything like that.  Just throw meat on a grill and eat along with the usual pickled side dishes. IMG_1687 I did like their duck donkatsu which was a welcome change from the typical pork cutlet. IMG_1688 Their dumpling soup was pretty scrumptious as well. IMG_1689 ‘Twas a fitting meal and an excellent end to a wonderful trip to the most magical police state on earth.  Stay tuned for my Beijing eating adventures that involve me consuming some interesting animals and parts of animals.

Taiwan (Finale)- I Got Too Ducked Up/In the End, Everyone Pies

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Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  Today I am presenting the final chapter in my food travel series where I manage to go out in true foodie style with some very visceral cuisine.  I started the day with a pretty laid back lunch with Christie at the department store right by Taipei Main Station on the MTR.

While we were perusing the food court, I didn’t know where to turn first since everything looked so delicious, but I wanted to get something that I couldn’t get in Korea.  Having the sweet tooth that I do, I was drawn in by a lit up glass case that contained about 20 different kinds of pies at a stall called Rose Pie.IMG_0952  Trying to find legit bakery in Korea is quite hard to do, so I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip through my fingers while abroad.  I wanted to try them all, but I saw one that caught my eye that I thought was some sort of chocolate and peanut butter pie.  After Christie asked the girl behind the counter what kind it was, turns out it was my old nemesis:  red bean.  I shall never escape this crimson fiend!  So after I dodged that pitfall, we got a slice of lemon poundcake pie and plain cheesecake.IMG_0953IMG_0954  The pound cake was interesting because it was made like pie in a tin yet the contents were light and filled with tart lemon notes along with subtle sugar notes.  As for the cheesecake, it was heaven.  The body was softly whipped into a moderately sized slice of cream cheesy goodness.  The only downside from our dessert experience were the forks that were severely undersized to cut through the thick bottom crusts on the slices.  I also got a cup of classic iced boba tea with extra tapioca bubbles since Taiwan is the home to this refreshing beverage.

Blast in a glass

Blast in a glass

I knew I came to the right place as the tea itself was milky yet sweet, and the bubbles were there in force and extra chewy.  I’m all about experiencing different textures, and this drink fit the bill.

Now, we were meeting up for lunch, and we started off with dessert.  Strange, don’t you think?  However, that didn’t stop us from eating in reverse order as Christie took me to another small hole-in-the-wall place that specialized in two Taiwanese specialities:  臭豆腐 or stinky tofu and  蚵仔麵線 or oyster vermicelli.

No frills dining at its finest

No frills dining at its finest.  We ate all the way in the back through the door on the right hand side.

First, there is the stinky tofu.  You don’t have to be a genius to wonder why it’s called “stinky”.  Just walking past restaurants or street vendors who were hawking small deep-fried nuggets of the bean curd made me wonder if I briefly fell into an open cesspool based on the smell.  I got a good whiff as soon as I walked in the door to the main part of the restaurant as its pungent odor attacked my nostrils.  We were led to a smaller back dining room that was enclosed with just some clear heavy-duty plastic sheets that could be found being used as butcher shop doors.  We ordered a plate of deep fried stinky tofu to share and our own bowls of the intestine vermicelli.  IMG_0955When the tofu came out, it didn’t smell as bad as when we first walked in, but with my first mouthful, I could taste the rank, semi-putrid funk of this overly ripened tofu.  However, it went great with the soy sauce.  As for the vermicelli, it was different since there were pieces of pig intestine in the soup instead of oysters which are normally served with this dish.  I found that I preferred the vermicelli over the tofu due to its heartiness and rich, meaty flavor from the intestines.  The thin noodles also were great because they snuggled into the gentle curves of my spoon quite easily which made chopsticks unnecessary, always a good day in my book.  It’s not that I can’t use them, but rather I just think the spoon is much more versatile in terms of eating a wide variety of foods both solid and liquid.  It was great sitting cheek to jowl with the locals and soaking in the atmosphere while the latest Pink single was bumping on the stereo.  Hooray for globalization!  After that filling lunch and a long afternoon of sightseeing, we went to my friend David’s and Christie’s grandparents’ house for one last meal together.

When I got there, it was a simple apartment, but I could already smell what Po-Po (grandma) was cookin’, and it only heightened my anticipation.  We were also graced with Mr. Wu’s presence; hence, we were being treated to Po-Po’s famous chicken soup among many other things.

A feast of the roundtable

A feast of the roundtable (going counterclockwise): cooked whole shrimp, stewed fish with marinade, duck and beef slices, a bowl of tripe and intestines, a plate of fresh bamboo, some mixed greens, and the cucumber segments.

She told me through Mrs. Wu interpreting that the whole chicken was prepared and stewed in the stock for over three days.  I helped myself to a bowl of this homemade blend, and it was hands down the best chicken soup I’ve ever had.  I mixed in some white rice to soak up more of the slightly salty but bursting with flavor broth, and I really liked the sliced potatoes because they were tender enough that you didn’t even need a knife to cut them.  They were like small white icebergs bobbing in a sea of delectable ambrosia.  In addition to a couple bowls of soup, I got my fair share of meat with slices of beef, duck, beef tripe, and pork intestines.  All of them were cooked to excellence, and the tripe was the most interesting just because it looked like it had little spines from the inside of the stomach.  I also had my first experience with eating whole shrimp.  I had to take the shell off with my hands and devour the sweet pink flesh inside.  Then the piece de resistance was sucking out the fat and brains from the shrimp head.  I could see why Mrs. Wu told me this was the best part since it was like taking a shot of butter to go along with your cooked shrimp.  Then there was the stewed red snapper that apparently was the object of desire when Mrs. Wu and Mr. Ni were kids.  They know good food because the flesh was extremely tender, but you had to be careful to de-bone each piece of its needle thin bones.  I managed to do it with chopsticks, so I think I’ve reached Mr. Miagi level of proficiency.  The flesh was only enhanced with the soupy gravy that surrounded the fish since it soaked up all of the extra flavors and spices from the cooked fish to create a hyper-concentrated marinade that could be considered a type of controlled substance it was that addictive.  Now I wasn’t a complete caveman with eating just meat this meal.  I actually enjoyed pickled fresh cucumber pieces that had a sweet, vinaigrette zing as I popped each crunchy segment into my maw.  I also saw a plate of what looked like cubes of potatoes or apples, but it turned out to be pieces of fresh chopped bamboo.  I didn’t know what to expect taste-wise, but I was greeted with a cool, crisp almost neutral taste that leaned ever so slightly towards a red delicious apple flavor.  It was Mr. Wu’s favorite dish, and he showed me that it went well with a dab of mayo.  He showed me the light as the eggy/semi-salty mayo balanced out the lighter pieces of bamboo.  They saw I was still a little hungry, so they brought out the big guns to really see what I could eat.  First, they gave me a dark piece of food that looked like a thick stick bent at a 45 degree angle, and it turned out to be a duck wing.  It had a smoky, bbq taste, but there wasn’t much meat on it.  Then they threw down the gauntlet when they gave me a thin, semi-elongated piece of meat that seemed to be filled with ridges, nooks, and crannies.

What is it?

What is it?

I started gnawing on it, and found this mystery food to be quite bony and filled with cartilage.  My hosts then informed me I was eating a duck’s head, and I should flip it over.  I  followed their instructions, and I was shocked to find my food starting back at me with one black glazed eye.

O hai!

O hai!

That didn’t stop me though from stripping it of the little tender meat still sticking to the cranium along with a piece of tongue.  The best part of the head was actually the eyeball since it was oddly creamy and had a decadent buttery flavor to it.  Once everyone was finished with their extravagant meals.  We had a simple dessert of Chinese and Korean pears and the more bizarre yet awesomely named dragon eyes.  They were similar to lychees, but the insides were clear and jelly-like minus the lychee red juice that stains your fingers when cracking through the outer shell.  The taste I could only liken to some sort of fruity version of a walnut which may have been influenced by the large pit in each small capsule.  With the last slice of pear gone and the final dragon eye cracked, I bid farewell to my lovely hosts.  I will never forget their hospitality as I was brought into their house as a guest and part of the family.  Looking back, my vacation was a hell of a ride, but I never forgot to stop and smell the roses and perhaps eat some if they were stinky or different enough.  Never stop traveling and pushing your own boundaries.

Taiwan (Part 2)- Delicious as the Dark Side of the Moon

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Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Mastication Monologues!  If this is your first time coming on the site, I’ve been writing about my adventures to Hong Kong and Taiwan, so check out the previous posts if you want to get caught up with all of my latest dietary adventures.  Today’s post will be focusing on my second day in Taiwan which was very hot, humid, and happy since I tried a crazy amount of foods that I’ve never tried before.  First, there was the National Palace Museum restaurant.

If there is one museum you need to check out in Taipei, it’s the National Palace Museum.  The only downside is that it is jam-packed with hordes of Chinese tour groups.  Nevertheless, it’s filled with priceless Chinese antiquities that are simply breathtaking especially some of the precious jade statues.  Walking around the giant complex caused me to work up an appetite, so I tried their restaurant which is by the second exhibition hall.  I ended up getting the beef noodle soup with a side of “rice with lard”. IMG_0903 The beef noodle soup was similar to the bowl I had back in Hong Kong at Din Tai Fung, i.e. a beefy ambrosia of sorts.  As for the rice, it was great ,but I suspect there was a problem with the translation on the menu because I think what they meant was that it was fried rice with a slice of sweet potato on the top along with a soupçon of soy sauce.  I was expecting rice mixed with chunky white shortening or something along those lines.  Then there was dessert which was a tofu soup with peanuts. IMG_0905 I’m normally not a huge tofu eater, but I commend them for making the bland bean paste edible.  Then again it was quite easy since it was soaking in cold sugary soup along with semi-soft peanuts.  Not my all time favorite dessert, but at least I tried something new.  As a whole, this restaurant was alright for Taiwanese food, but nothing compared to my dinner with the Wu/Ni family.

While I was eating lunch, Ms. Wu called me up to arrange dinner plans with the family for the Moon Cake festival.  After a few brief conversations, I found myself later that afternoon at the San Want Hotel.  I met my friend David’s cousins and grandparents.  We exchanged a few pleasantries before getting down to business with the food.  My plate was quickly filled as everyone was chucking food at me to try, and I didn’t know where to start since it was all new to me.  I’ll start with the flaky pork buns and pickled chicken feet. IMG_0909 The former consisted of a ball of lightly seasoned pork nestled within a multi-layered, flaky dumpling shell.  As for the latter, they were a bit rubbery and thankfully lacking the bones of their dim sum counterparts I had back in Chicago.  They just really tasted briny with a hint of chicken.  Moving on from there, we had the duck blood which I was really jonesing to try since I heard it was a Taiwanese delicacy. IMG_0910 When I first saw the duck blood cakes, I thought they were large pieces of liver due to the texture and color, but when I popped the piece in my mouth, it didn’t have the same granular texture of liver.  Instead I was greeted with a rich, mildly iron-tinged caress from the sanguineous specialty.  I liked it.  Next came the barbecue pork buns which were like heaven.IMG_0911  Imagine a pulled pork sandwich minus the risk of losing a single shred of piggy.  It was a sweet and savory nugget of glory.  The following two dishes continued the line of fantastic foods. IMG_0912 First, there was the ginger beef which kind of tasted like something you could find at a Chinese American restaurant back home in terms of the ingredients found in the bowl like marinated pieces of beef in a garlic ginger sauce along with sprigs of green onions. IMG_0913 The other bowl contained a similarly stewed tofu dish that once again proved my hate for the squishy soy product wrong with its beefy gravy and peppers.  IMG_0915After these somewhat heavier foods, I took a break with a lighter type of dumpling that I could only liken to a Chinese version of a croquette, but the dough was fried minus bread crumbs.  On the inside there was minced beef along with vegetables. IMG_0916 The next food won points in my book not just for the rich seaweed taste, but also for presentation points.  This Taoist inspired soup was an egg based broth with an infusion of seaweed.IMG_0917    The last dinner course was the stinky fish rice which pretty much was what it sounds like, but it wasn’t as odoriferous as I was anticipating.  Either way, it was a well made fried rice with fresh and juicy pieces of fish.

Dessert was just as varied as dinner where there were many things that were new to me. IMG_0919 First, there was a crunchy noodle pancake which you first had to put sugar on it and then pour some vinegar over the sugar.  It was a strange yet satisfying mixture of crunchy fried noodles along with a sweet and sour flavor profile that complimented the bold texture. IMG_0920 I then had a sweet egg dumpling that had a similar soft exterior like the bbq pork buns, and the inside was slightly runny but very sweet.  Then there were three bowls of goo that all were delicious.  I felt like Goldilocks in the three bears’ house minus the flaxen locks and risk of being eaten by wild animals.IMG_0924  First, there was the taro root pudding which tasted like a taro root which can only be likened to a less intense sweet potato.  IMG_0925The second bowl was filled with tofu pudding which didn’t leave any sort of impression on me, but the last bowl definitely did.IMG_0922  It was filled with turtle jelly.  It’s made from turtle shells and a bunch of Chinese herbs, and it’s used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of ailments like acne and muscle aches.  This was the most unique of the trio since it was like eating jello infused with a slightly salty and very herbal Jaegermeister.  The honey that came on the side cut through some of the intense medicinal ingredients though.  Finally, we ended the meal with the traditional foods of the Moon Cake festival:  the moon cakes and pomelo. IMG_0921 The moon cakes were delicious as the buttery, crumbly dough gave way to a chocolate interior for one, chestnut and orange for another, and red beans for a more traditional one.  As for the pomelo, I could only liken it to a love child between a lime and a grapefruit in appearance.  Po-po (grandma) told me I should wear the rind on my head as part of the moon cake tradition with their family, but I broke it to her that my head was too fat to accomplish such a feat. IMG_0923 Instead, I enjoyed the slices of this fruit which looked like slices of white grapefruit with a similar sweet and acidic taste profile, but it had smaller seeds than a regular grapefruit.  It was a bittersweet end to a wonderful meal with a very generous and caring family that I was grateful to be with on such a special occasion.  I really appreciated it.

Next post I will be eating random objects out of a bubbling cauldron of soup.

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