Taiwan, Day One

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Taiwan is the friendliest country in the world.

No, really. Year after year, Taiwan ranks as the friendliest place on earth for visitors. And when Nishan and I traveled to Taiwan last year, we found that to be true day in and day out. Whether we were in bustling Taipei or in sleepy Jiufen, the people of Taiwan left such an impression on us that it became our favorite part of the trip. Which is no small feat, because there’s lots to enjoy about Taiwan. Starting with the food, of course. (I mean, come on. It’s me. I travel for food.)

Tempura fried tea leaves with matcha and fish dumplings

Jill's to-eat list

Lunch with Jill

After a stellar breakfast at our hotel (yup, an outstanding hotel breakfast exists and it’s in Taiwan), we met up with my colleague and friend Jill, who lives in Taipei, for lunch at Cha for Tea. The fish dumplings were juicy but it was the tempura fried tea leaves with matcha that were a revelation. So creative, so subtle, and so unique. Jill armed us with a list of must-eats for the famed Shilin Market, where we’d be stopping by later in the day.

But first: the National Palace Museum.

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

National Palace Museum

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is the largest collection of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks in the world. I learned about the dramatic evacuation of these artworks from Beijing to Taiwan: In the 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek made the decision to evacuate the arts to Taiwan, which had been handed over to the ROC. When fighting worsened in 1948 between the Communist and Nationalist armies, the National Beiping Palace Museum and other five institutions made the decision to send some of the most prized items to Taiwan. Today, its sister museum holding the other half of the collection resides in Beijing.

Oromo Cafe

Beef noodle soup and stir-fried water spinach

It was pouring rain when we emerged from the museum hours later so we dipped into Oromo Cafe for a quick tea and coffee break before making our way to Shilin Night Market for a warming bowl of beef noodle soup and some stir-fried water spinach. (Water spinach, also known as morning glory, ong choy, kangkung, is one of my favorite vegetables. Shout out to my trip in Hanoi for putting me on.)

Hot Star Fried Chicken

Hot Star Fried Chicken

Carbon barbecue

But the real highlight of the evening was the infamous Hot Star Fried Chicken. (Jill, if you’re reading this, you’re right. One piece easily fed two!) I’ve tried to cook this dish at home since visiting Taiwan but it’s just not the same. I’ve been craving this giant, juicy, crispy, perfectly-seasoned piece of chicken for months now. Hot Star Fried Chicken has expanded to North America in the last couple of years, but sadly, not to the Bay Area. Have you been to the Southern California or Toronto locations? How does it compare? Let me know in the comments.

We finished out our evening by snacking on local specialties at Shilin Night Market, like carbon barbecue and green onion pancakes.

Not bad for our first day in Taipei. Not bad at all.

Singapore, Days Five and Six

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Did you think I was going to come all the way to Singapore and not eat at Ananda Bhavan a third time?

South Indian set meal

That’s right. Breakfast on the fifth day of our visit was rice, chapati, vegetables, parippu, sambar, puzikuzhambu, curd, pickle, rasam, thuvaiyal, appalam, vadai, and payasam. You know, a light meal.

Sultan Mosque


Sultan Mosque

We spent the rest of the day exploring Kampong Glam district, including Sultan Mosque. By complete coincidence, we got to witness a nikah (Muslim wedding ceremony) between a Malay-American couple during our visit. The volunteers at the mosque were super friendly and encouraged us to explore the colorful halls.

Arab Street

Haji Lane

Haji Lane

Fragrant Hot Pot

Speaking of colorful, how beautiful is Haji Lane and Arab Street? I only wish we had more time to explore Kampong Glam. A snack of Korean mango shaved ice and Sichuan-style dry hot pot capped off our afternoon. (Bay Area: where can I find dry hot pot? This flavor is what dreams are made of.)


Dinner was the best idli I’ve ever had at Murugan Idli Shop in Little India. Service was curt, but who cares when the food is delicious?

Vagabond bar

A nightcap at the creative, quirky, and super friendly Vagabond Bar ended our day perfectly. Shahrul, Kamilah, and Mauro, if you’re reading this: we miss the Vagabond!

And just like that, we were out with a melancholy goodbye to our hotel the next morning. But it wasn’t totally over yet.

La mian with minced meat and mushroom sauce

Curry puff

Goodbye Singapore

We had a few hours before our flight at Changi Airport, so we enjoyed a lunch of la mian with minced meat and mushroom sauce and stir-fried lettuce at Paradise Inn. And you can’t come to Singapore without trying a curry puff, so you know. One last snack for the road.

Until next time, Singapore.

Singapore, Days Three and Four

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Teh-c. Kopi-o. Teh peng. Kopitiams are traditional coffee shops in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where coffee and tea are ordered with terms drawn from different languages. My favorite? Teh-c, or hot tea with evaporated milk.

Kaya toast and teh-c

A breakfast of teh-c and kaya (coconut jam) toast at Killiney Kopitiam was more than enough to get us started on our third day in Singapore.

Chicken biryani

But what I was really on the hunt for that morning was the chicken biryani at the famed Bismillah Biryani in Little India. It’d easy to miss this nondescript spot were it not for the crowd of businessmen and uncles packed in for lunch. This dum biryani is cooked Hyderabadi-style: fragrant, pillowy strands of basmati rice infused with the flavor of meat and spices and served with a yogurt sauce on the side.

Mustafa Centre

Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Mustafa Centre and Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. What’s Mustafa Centre, you ask? Mustafa Centre is a 24-hour shopping mall filled with literally everything you could ever think of: electronics, groceries, jewelry, books, apparel, sports equipment, restaurants. Really, everything. I may or may not have walked away with a few too many bags of murukku.

We slowly made our way to Chinatown in search of what may be Singapore’s most famous dish: chicken rice.

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is perhaps the most popular place to get chicken rice. Located in Maxwell Food Centre, there is always a lineup here. Service is fast, food is cheap, and the chicken is velvety. Ethereal, even. It’s comfort food.

Jin Hua Fish Head Bee Hoon

We also tried fish soup bee hoon at Jin Hua Fish Head Bee Hoon. How do they make the fish so tender? Why is everything so tender in Singapore? How does everyone cook so well?

Arab Street

We spent the rest of our evening in the Kampong Glam district near Sultan Mosque, exploring lively Arab Street and Haji Lane. The sounds of the azan blended with laughter and pop music and traffic to produce a vibrant, chaotic energy. Restaurants and boutiques line the streets: the food smells wonderful, people are impeccably dressed, and folks are all smiles. It’s hard to narrow it down, but I think this is my favorite neighborhood in Singapore.

Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant

Mutton murtabak

Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant

Naturally, we had to go for a second dinner. Singapore Zam Zam Restaurant is famous for its murtabak (here’s an explainer on murtabak for the uninitiated) and Nishan and I split a plate of the mutton murtabak. Murtabak is a meat-filled stuffed pancake originating in Yemen and its made its way through South Asia and Southeast Asia. This restaurant has perfected it.

Internet, this was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten in my life. Eggs, onions, and ground meat all came together in a super-thin encasing of dough. But you know what really made this magical? The fish curry-like sauce on the side. Together, this sauce and murtabak became next level. I probably think about this meal on a weekly basis since leaving Singapore.

Sungei Road Laksa

But here’s the problem with Singapore: I also tried one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life the next morning for breakfast. Sungei Road Laksa in Kampong Glam specializes in, well, laksa. The cockles, the fish cake, the spicy, coconuty broth, the noodles: together, they became the breakfast of champions. And all for three dollars. I will learn to cook you, laksa. Oh yes, I will.

Victoria Street

Victoria Street

Victoria Street

From there we made our way down Victoria Street and to the Sentosa Cable Car to head to Singapore’s playground, Sentosa Island.

Sentosa Cable Car

Sentosa Island

Tanjong Beach Club

Sentosa Cable Car

Major amusement park vibes here. It rained a ton for most of the day so we took refuge at Tanjong Beach Club and eventually headed back.

Teochew dumpling

For dinner, we headed to Chinatown, where my search for char kway teow and dim sum resulted in mediocrity. It’s okay; you can’t win ’em all. But you can come really, really close in Singapore.

Singapore, Days One and Two

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“Singapore is Disneyland with the death penalty.” “Singapore is too dull.” “Are you sure you want to visit Singapore? It’s so sterile.”

My experience in Singapore couldn’t be further from the truth. I know Singapore isn’t without its fair share of problems and its planned and regulated to a tee, but you know what? From the moment we entered customs until we checked out of our hotel, Nishan and I were smitten with Singapore’s vibrancy, from the diverse neighborhoods to the heavenly food at every corner. Our most dystopian experience was at a place that rhymes with Faffles, but we’ll get to that later.

First, let’s talk about the food. Singapore is heralded as one of the best places on earth for food. I concur, a million times over. When we landed, Nishan and I rushed to our hotel to check in and then quickly walked ran to our first stop to grab dinner before they closed.

Lamb curry, papad, rice, dal, chicken curry

Gandhi Restaurant in Little India is a no-frills restaurant serving South Indian fare. Sit down, get a banana leaf, and they’ll serve you ladleful after ladelful of curry and dal. Say yes to it all because it is all delicious. My lamb curry, papad, rice, dal, and chicken curry brought me back to life after our flight from Thailand.

The next morning, we had lunch at what would become my favorite restaurant in Singapore: Ananda Bhavan. Specifically, the one on Syed Alwi Road in Little India. This casual vegetarian eatery is nearly always packed, and with good reason.

South Indian set meal

Mysore masala thosai

I got the Mysore masala thosai, served with sambar, dal, pickle, and chutney. Nishan got the South Indian set meal, served with rice, chapati, vegetables, parippu, sambar, puzikuzhambu, curd, pickle, rasam, thuvaiyal, appalam, vadai, and payasam. We struggled to finish our heavy breakfasts, but since then, nothing has come close to replicating the flavor of this meal. Believe me, I’ve tried. Consider this my love poem to the cooks at Ananda Bhavan. Ananda Bhavan, if you’re reading this, will you consider publishing a cookbook? Us plebeians outside of Singapore wistfully long for your sustenance.

Afterwards we walked it off at Singapore’s most famous attraction: the Gardens by the Bay. It really is larger than life and with views of the Marina Bay Sands and the entire city as you walk through the park.

Marina Bay Sands

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Gardens by the Bay

Next we headed to the iconic Raffles Hotel. You know, the home of the Singapore Sling yadda yadda yadda. We had a drink at their Long Bar but mostly we were creeped out by the hotel’s glorification of colonialism. To visit the Raffles Hotel is to encounter the colonial experience, complete with Sikh doormen and a discreet side door for those only dining at the hotel — after all, the lobby is for real (read: moneyed, largely European) guests.

Anyway, they’re really into this guy.

Raffles Hotel

Enough about that. For dinner, we headed to Momma Kong’s in Chinatown. Momma Kong’s specializes in crab which are flown in from Sri Lanka daily.

Chinatown, Singapore

Momma Kong's

Momma Kong's

Red chili crab, black pepper crab, mantou, garlic water spinach, and grilled squid.

Sands SkyPark

After a quick visit to the Sands SkyPark we headed back to our hotel (the wonderful Hotel Vagabond) for a nightcap.

The Vagabond Bar

The Vagabond Bar

Who said Singapore was bland again?

Thailand, Days Eight and Nine

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Our last couple of days in Thailand were mostly a mad dash to sample as much of Chiang Mai’s culinary specialities as we could. (Seriously, are you even surprised?)

Congee with egg and Chinese doughnut

Things started off healthily. A simple congee with egg and savory doughnut made for a solid breakfast.

SP Chicken

Lunch at SP Chicken

Even lunch was healthy. We stopped at SP Chicken, famous for their rotisserie, which we enjoyed with rice, water spinach/morning glory, and a bean thread noodle salad.

For dinner, we headed to the Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market, a sight so expansive, so busy, so bustling that you have to see it to believe it. And the street food! So much street food. And this, my friends, is where our healthy eating began to go downhill.

Fried golden needle mushrooms, banana blossoms, and morning glory

Fried golden needle mushrooms, banana blossoms, and morning glory. Always eat the morning glory.

Fresh vegetable spring rolls

Fresh vegetable spring rolls. Not pictured: the deep fried spring rolls we inhaled just before this.

Glass noodles with wild mushrooms and pepper

Glass noodles with wild mushrooms and pepper. Vegetables! Vegetables are healthy!

Gac fruit

We washed it all down with gac fruit juice, passion fruit juice, and sweet corn juice.

Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market

We were exhausted from all that eating walking so the next day we took it easy, strolling around the Old Quarter on our last day in Chiang Mai.

Lunch at Swan Burmese Cuisine

Because of its proximity to Myanmar, Chiang Mai has a large Burmese community. For lunch, we ate at Swan Burmese Cuisine. Fried fish, chicken with mint, chiles, and lemongrass, and of course a green tea leaf salad. Burmese tea leaf salad has got to be one of the best salads on earth, amirite?

Mango sticky rice

We couldn’t leave Chiang Mai without one last stop at our favorite Thai cafe: Fruiturday! One last mango sticky rice for the road.

Next stop: Singapore.