Brussels Christmas markets

We were so lucky with our trip timing to be in Brussels right when their annual Christmas markets begin — they were just as magical as we imagined. While they weren’t as intensely put together as the ones we’d seen in Germany or Austria, they had all the usual hallmarks we looked for: plenty of delicious food being freshly cooked in front of you, arts and crafts and vendors selling locally made goods, as well as gluhwein and other alcoholic seasonal Christmas delights. The vibe is always fun and festive: local friends and colleagues gathering for a night out to enjoy the Christmas spirit and entertainment, and tourists such as ourselves mingling into all of it. Alcohol is always consumed, but responsibly. It’s one of those aspects that is severely and sadly missing in wannabe Christmas markets in the U.S., whether that is the small ones in San Francisco or the Holiday Market at Union Square or Bryant Park in New York. There are always large signs everywhere noting “alcohol may not be consumed beyond this point” as though you are corrupting all the people who are under age around you simply by having mulled wine behind a certain rope. It’s so silly and ridiculous.

We also did a day trip from Brussels this week to Bruges, a beautiful little medieval town, which also had started its Christmas markets, as well, and we got to enjoy the daytime vibes there, enjoying freshly made waffles, Turkish food, and gluhwein. We also chanced upon a local vendor who was selling handmade Christmas homes, and we purchased a little pink one to add to our Christmas house and village collection at home. I was so excited to have another one to add to our collection: each one documents a different country that we’ve traveled to during our European Thanksgiving trips, and it’s always a beautiful memory to be able to look at our book shelf of European houses and reminisce on our adventures there during the beginning of the most wonderful time of the year. We don’t buy much (that isn’t edible, anyway) during our travels, but these houses are an exception to that. They make me so happy every time I see them in our apartment.

Choco-story Museum in Brussels

Belgium is a country known for a number of things. Brussels, its capital, is also the capital of the EU, a major government city that people oftentimes think is boring and “skippable” on a tourist trek through Benelux. What I realized after my research is that Belgium, for those truly in the know, is known for a number of things other than beer, waffles, chocolate, and being the home of the EU capital — it’s also known as having quite a peculiar sense of humor, given famous statues such as the Manneken Pis (the peeing boy) and being the origin of many famous international comics, such as The Adventures of Tintin and the Smurfs. Ed would have been so excited to hear that I was visiting the birth country of the Smurfs. Belgians don’t take themselves too seriously. Americans could learn a thing or two from them.

However, I will say that chocolate was very high on the list for me to learn and discover more about while in Belgium. We visited the Choco-story museum here in Brussels (they apparently have other locations, including in Brugges), and learned so much about the chocolate production process, how it’s grown and fermented, and ultimately made into the beautiful bars, truffles, pralines, and drinks we so love today. What was most surprising to me, as I’ve read quite a bit about chocolate production before this visit, was that different cacao fruits have many varieties in the same way that you can have different varieties of apples or mangoes; each of them has a very nuanced taste. So, sometimes, it’s not just the percentage of cacao in your chocolate that is the actual determinant of the difference in taste, nor is it the amount or type of milk, but rather the type of cacao used in the bar. I would LOVE to have a side by side taste of different types of cacao from different countries to see what the actual difference is and if I could notice it!

Surinamese food in Amsterdam

While planning our trip to Holland, I was already prepared for all the Indonesian restaurants because I was aware that the Dutch had colonized Indonesia. What I had forgotten about was that the Dutch had also colonized other areas of the world, including Suriname, so when my food research revealed that I could also expect Surinamese food, I got even more excited. So, while white-people colonization has clearly had deleterious effects both on people in their native lands as well as ongoing racism against people of color that sadly persists today, the one happy takeaway from all of this awful colonization and pillaging is that these cultures’ foods have fused, creating lots of delicious food to eat across the world. And I get to benefit from eating Surinamese food for the very first time in Amsterdam!

I wasn’t sure what to expect until I took a look at the menu of a spot we chose today. We tried to go to Roopram Roti, but it was unfortunately closed on our last full day in Amsterdam, so instead, we went to Warung Spang Makandra. The service was very friendly, fast, and efficient. We ordered the spang makandra special, which came with fried rice, noodle, chicken fillets, chicken satay, fried egg, potato sambel (almost like a latke), brekedel, and krupuk, a lamb curry with roti, and a large bowl of chicken soup. What all this food conjured up for me was a mix of Indian, African, and Asian cuisine. The curries were like Malaysian-Indian, and the rices and noodles were certainly a fusion of Asian cuisines.

What was very surprising was the chicken soup: it had large pieces of shredded chicken, but what was most notable about it was the broth itself: it was almost smokey, a bit savory, sweet, salty, and umami. It was likely the closest match to Vietnamese pho that I’ve ever had that wasn’t actually pho. It definitely tasted like there were charred or smoked spices and onions used to flavor and sweeten this broth. It was piping hot and so delicious and comforting.

In addition, I was also very surprised by the roti. Surinamese roti, as I later discovered, initially appears to look just like the roti you get in Indian or Malaysian restaurants. Upon touching it and breaking it apart with your hands, though, it seems drier, and then these surprising yellow flakes start falling out of the center of it. Those yellow flakes are ground lentils that are used as filling to make the roti more substantial. They taste very dry, almost buttery when you are chewing them, and they are such a great surprise and touch to roti. It was addictive and a great complement to the lamb curry we had, which had strong similarities with Malaysian curries we’ve eaten before. This whole meal was so surprising and ultimately a learning experience.

Traveling and eating, I’ve learned so much about cultures and fusions and tastes. The overlap of all these cuisines and spices has been so amazing and delicious during this trip.

The real stroopwafel

I first heard of a stroopwafel in my early twenties when a colleague of mine went to The Netherlands for a work trip, and as a treat to bring back for the office, she presented us with bags and bags of these little flat waffle-like sandwich cookies with caramel filling. “Stroopwafels are the best!” she said. “You haven’t lived until you have eaten one of these!” I had one of them, and while I enjoyed it and how soft it was, I wasn’t particularly impressed. They were tasty, yes, caramelly, a bit gooey, soft and with a hint of crunch. But I didn’t find this life changing at all, nor did I think it was anything I would want to haul back to the U.S. with me after visiting Europe.

That was about 9-10 years ago. Now that the world is becoming more cosmopolitan and well, worldly, stroopwafels have already landed right here stateside. Gourmet and on-trend food vendors sourcing stroopwafel-like cookies are eagerly distributing to many American stores, so now, we can easily find these same stroopwafels in our local Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Markets — heck, some airport stand are even selling these individually packaged.

Fast forward to today, when I finally got to have a freshly made stroopwafel, and yes, this time, my life kind of was changed. Let’s just say right now that a freshly made stroopwafel CANNOT be compared to any old packaged stroopwafel We were at the Albert Cuyp Market in Amsterdam during our last morning before taking a train to Brussels, and we went to the cart that was marked as the original stroopwafel – Rudi’s Original Stroopwafels.

Stroopwafels (this literally means “syrup waffle” in Dutch) originated in Gouda (“HOW-da” the town, yes, of the same name as the famous and delectable cheese) around the late 18th century. They are made with a thick dough flatted in a waffle-like iron, cooked until crispy, then deftly sliced in half. A half is spread with a warm caramel-like filling made from syrup, brown sugar, butter, and a mixture of spices. Then, the caramel begins to cool and set, ultimately binding these two delicious halves together again. According to legend, bakers in Gouda didn’t know what to do with leftover cookie crumbs from their baking, so they would mix together leftover cookie crumbs to form a dough and then shape this mixture into waffles. To sweeten these treats, bakers glued the waffles together with sugar syrup, forming a sweet snack out of ingredients that would have otherwise been thrown away. Eventually, other bakers in the Netherlands jumped on the bandwagon, turning stroopwafels into a national staple.

This freshly made stroopwafel, literally right in front of my eyes, was amazing. Our vendor nearly burned his fingers slicing the thin waffle in half, and in goes the oozing gooey deliciousness that is the golden caramel filling. Served piping hot, the edges are slightly crisp and the wafers are super chewy. And the caramel filling is a true delight: it oozes and sticks and stretches like crazy. It was so much fun to eat and film. And to add to the overall experience, our vendor who sold it to us was so friendly and even agreed to be filmed for our vlog. He discussed his family recipe and business, which his dad started, and he talked about how he continues the family tradition. Others try to copy, but theirs is the original and the best. We were lucky to come during the current month when it’s not as busy because during the summer months, which of course, is high season in Amsterdam, the queues can become quite long.

I don’t have any other fresh stroopwafels to compare this one to, but this was certainly the best stroopwafel I’ve ever had. I’m ruined for the packaged ones forever… not that I ever really cared for them to begin with, especially back home.

Life-changing Appeltaart (Dutch apple tart)

Before coming to Holland, what I understood to be a “Dutch apple pie” was an American apple pie, just with a crumb topping. That is NOT what apple pie or appeltaart/”apple tart” is in Holland, nor did that picture in my head prepare me for the life-altering experience I had at Winkle 43 today, a cafe in the Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam that has a renowned appeltaart. Multiple local and tourist guides mentioned Winkle 43, not to mention several colleagues who have lived in/are from Amsterdam. They told me I absolutely could not leave Amsterdam without having this tart. And so we went yesterday.

Winkle 43 is a cafe with ample indoor and outdoor seating. Though there may be queues, they are quite efficient with ordering, paying, and giving you your order on a tray. We opted to sit outside since there were no seats available indoors, plus outside, though cold, we’d disturb people less with our filming of my apple pie eating.

Here is what I learned yesterday about a real Dutch Apple tart: it is NOT baked in a regular American pie pan; instead, it’s actually baked in a cake pan, rather a springform pan, to allow for a super high crust and even more apple filling. The filling is big hunks of apples, not slices like in American apple pie; plus the filling is really just sugar with a touch of cinnamon. The top, bottom, and side crusts could be compared more to a biscuit or cookie, very sweet and could even stand on its own. It’s thick, too. If you were to break off a chunk of that crust and give it to me with zero context, I’d be satisfied and think you gave me a really, really delicious shortbread cookie/biscuit. Again, what I just described = NOT American apple pie crust.

Chris and I shared a slice of this sky-high apple tart, and after a single bite, I really regretted getting only one slice to share. That single piece of pie alone could have made this entire trip worth it: I’d never been more blown away by any pie in my life. The crust was just astounding — it was far sweeter than I anticipated, but in a very pleasing way — it seemed like it was made with large granules of sugar, perhaps some variation of a muscovado sugar. Each bite of the crust in my mouth was like a separate little bite of a cookie. And the apple chunks were delicious — oozing with apple flavor, a hint of spice, likely cinnamon and maybe one or two other things. While the bite of the apple remained and had some give, at the same time, some of the apples were just so custardy. I’d never had a more noteworthy apple pie experience ever before this.

And to literally top this all off, Winkle 43 makes their own housemade whipped cream regularly (you can actually see them adding the fresh cream into the whipping machine), lightly sweetened, and you can ask for it either on top of your pie or on the side. This really could not have gotten any better than it was that day.

I’m still thinking about how delicious this pie was. I need to replicate that pie at home someday soon. I’m adding it to my list already.

Are there more bikes than pedestrians here?

Prior to even researching Holland, I already knew that The Netherlands is a very bike-friendly country, so much so that in any given city there, you will probably notice that bikers outnumber cars by a long shot. Countless articles I’ve read, not to mention people I’ve met who have either lived, visited, or are from Amsterdam have noted that Amsterdam is very likely the most bike-friendly city in the world, that it could even be stated that bikes outnumber pedestrians, which is mind-boggling to me. The city of Amsterdam has about 400 kilometers (249 miles) of bike lanes. They usually run alongside the streets, but sometimes, it can get confusing when the bike lanes look to cut into pedestrian walk paths. And while bikes are supposed to stay in bike lanes since that’s what they are designed for, very often, you can see bikers in walking paths and on sidewalks. And this is when I, as a first-time visitor to Amsterdam, get confused.

I am all for a bike-friendly city. I do not bike (nor do I have any desire at all to bike, especially in a city like New York), yet I was excited to see all the new bike lanes that have been created throughout Manhattan. But while pedestrians typically have right-of-way when it comes to vehicles, here in Amsterdam, it seems like bikers have right-of-way… against virtually everyone — cars and pedestrians. Maybe it’s just because I’m a foreigner and just don’t “get it,” but why should a biker have right-of-way over a pedestrian? And why would you, as a biker, want to go against a pedestrian when you are a) not wearing a helmet (I didn’t see a single biker wearing a helmet here) and b) likely to fall off your bike in the event that you hit a pedestrian and then get injured?

Looking both ways doesn’t always help either. Several articles I’ve read have said that tourists tend to cause bikers to get into accidents because they do not look. I would argue that we actually are looking, but given some of the bike lanes curve and are not always clearly outlined to someone who isn’t familiar with the roads here, it’s hard to just assume pedestrians will see and understand all of this.

I didn’t realize how much I like cars until I realized how aggressive bikers could be.

Friends in far places

The great thing about knowing people you like who live in places that are not your hometown is that when you visit these other places, you get a familiar and local face to spend time with. You can hear their perspective on the place you’ve chosen for your vacation/holiday. You can hear what they think about your “tourist” perspective on their city and get their feedback on whether you’re an idiot or not.

My colleague who is based in our Amsterdam office (who is also Dutch) and his girlfriend met us for dinner during our first night in their city, and it was a very warm welcome. After a red eye flight, a day of walking over 24,000 steps on streets, over bridges, and passing canals, Chris and I were both quite tired. It felt nice to sit in a warm restaurant over an Indonesian rice table and see a familiar friendly face and have familiar conversation. The food varied across the table from mild to very spicy, and they were not lying when they said it was hot!

The only downside of having friends in all these other places is that you will only see them sporadically, if at all. And he’s likely leaving the company soon, so who knows when I will see him again.

Rocket man

On our overnight flight tonight from New York to London en route to Amsterdam, I finally watched Rocket Man, the movie about Elton John’s life. I learned so many things about him that I had no idea about: his original real name wasn’t Elton John, but Reginald Dwight. He had a negligent father and a psychotic relationship with his mother. I also had no idea that “Your Song” dates all the way back to 1970 and was one of his very first hit songs. I also love the relationship between him and his lyrics writer; the idea that you can just take a bunch of words and “add music” to them without the two individuals, the lyrics writer and the music writer, being in the same room or agreeing to these things is amazing to me.

What really struck me about this film was the relationship, or nonexistent relationship, between Elton John and his father. His father wanted nothing to do with him, would constantly ignore him, talk down to him, criticize him. Disturbingly enough, it actually conjured up memories of how Ed and our dad would interact with each other. Ed always wanted our dad’s attention, approval, kindness, and he just never got it. Ed would be ignored or criticized constantly. Even as an adult when my dad would criticize Ed, I could tell how much it shook him; nothing else in the world made him feel worse than my dad’s yelling and criticizing. Despite everything he tried, Ed couldn’t shake my dad’s insults off. He internalized them. Remembering it now upsets me and made me tear up during the film. A couple of those times, I told Ed to ignore him, that none of those words meant anything and they obviously weren’t true. But Ed couldn’t hear me because all he could do was replay the insults over and over in his head. It was like someone was constantly beating him in the head with these awful thoughts over and over again.

I especially felt the similarities when in the film, Elton John comes to visit his dad after his dad has started a new family and had kids with his second wife. Elton sees how involved his dad his with these new kids and how he still doesn’t care about Elton despite making it big. He doesn’t even care about the generous Chopard watch Elton presents to him as a gift; it means nothing to him because Elton means nothing to him.

Shit that parents do really affects children for the rest of their lives. It’s too bad that parents don’t get it.

Influencing others to cook

We have “coffee klatch” meetings randomly scheduled at work so that colleagues have the opportunity to get to know other colleagues who they may not get the chance to work with day too day. I had one with a colleague who started about six months ago. Even though we’re technically on the same team, we really haven’t spoken much. It seems like it’s because I’m usually on the road, mostly for work, sometimes for pleasure, or one of us is working from home.

I told her about my YouTube channel a few months ago, and she was one of the very first people who not only followed and subscribed, but also watched my videos. She said that my videos have inspired her to start building her kitchen “staples,” such as rice, dried pasta, and spices. “Once I have all this stuff, I’ll be set for cooking!” she exclaimed.

That’s usually the biggest challenge of converting someone from a Seamless/food delivery devotee to a home cook: getting them to invest in the basics because it seems like a lot in the beginning. Well, it IS a lot in the beginning, but it certainly pays off. I’d really hate it if I had to run to the store just to pick up something as basic as olive oil or cumin. Those need to be on hand at all times.

The channel is still small, but the feedback I am getting has been quite positive. It only makes me want to continue and do more.

“You’re a New Yorker now”

A visit to any state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has zero possibility of either being fun or entertaining. It is inevitably long, painful, and excruciating. You cannot even really listen to audio books or watch movies to make the time pass because you could miss your number getting called. And who would want to be at the DMV any longer than absolutely needed?

The last time I went to the DMV was to renew my driver’s license early in November 2014. I was in San Francisco and still (wrongly) using my California license even though I technically should have had it switched over to New York when I moved… but I was lazy and always thought I would move back. Well, 11 years later, I still haven’t moved back, and with the Real ID laws going into effect next year along with the expiration of my California driver’s license on my upcoming birthday in less than two months, I figured I had better suck it up and switch over to New York state.

You know a governmental process is terrible and disgustingly inefficient when you come in without an appointment and somehow get out sooner than someone who actually made an appointment in advance (California, I do not miss that about you). Five years ago, I was advised NOT to make an appointment because I’d have a longer wait time. This time around, I had no appointment at the DMV in Manhattan, and I was able to get out after just over two hours. My mind was numbed, but I was finally free.

As I handed over my credit card to process the payment for my new New York state driver’s license and my Real ID, the worker processing all my paperwork took my California license away. “You won’t be needing this anymore,” she smiled. “You’re a New Yorker now.”

My gut twitched a little when she said this. With this step, I’ve fully relinquished my California identity. I am not sure how I feel about that.