Category Archives: Travel

Chowing Down in Chi-Town: A Visit to Slurping Turtle

It’s Foodie Tuesday!

Chicago is known for many things: incredible architecture, world-class museums, endless shopping. And food, don’t forget the food! Years ago I would have been referring to deep-dish pizza or massive steaks but lately big name chefs have been filling the city with hot spots that feature cuisine from around the globe.

Image: Slurping Turtle

I’m a huge fan of Top Chef and dream about visiting all the contestants’ restaurants in this town, including season four winner Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner) and fan-favourite  Fabio Vivani (Siena Tavern).  Top Chef Masters are also well represented: Tony Mantuan owns Spiaggia, while Rick Bayless has a plethora of Mexican restaurants in town. But the Master who really wins my heart is Takashi Yagihashi.

Image: Tracey Eckersley

This past weekend I finally got to eat at his place, Slurping Turtle. The Japanese-born, Chicago-based chef is best known for the French-Asian fusion cuisine of his other restaurant, Takashi but since it is a little pricey for my graduate student-budget I am happy that there is a more affordable option.

Image: Random Acts of Kelliness

Given the name, it is not surprising that this place is known for its udon and ramen bowls, full of meat and veggies waiting to be slurped up noisily with the flavourful broths they come in. But the real star of the menu is the izakaya, small plates meant to paired with drinks (and there is a wonderful selection of Japanese beers, sakes, and creative cocktails to do just that).

Image: Tracy Eckersley

Much of these little bites have an Asian-American flair to them. The Duck Fat Fried Chicken is more succulent and juicy than anything the Colonel offers, in small pieces that seem to come from some exotic miniature species. What really puts this dish over the top is the accompanying dipping sauce, a wonderfully creamy, slightly spicy siracha mayo.

Image: Tracy Eckersley

Pork Belly Snack features tender meat enrobed in a rich, sweet soy caramel ginger glaze atop pieces of flattened bao dough. The pickled cucumber and onions are reminiscent of traditional southern bbq sandwiches; a small arugula salad with sweet onion vinaigrette, Asian pear, and black sesame seeds replaces American slaw.  I would take this over a pulled pork sammy any day- and that’s saying a lot!

Image: Slurping Turtle

The Bincho menu also offers an impressive variety of meats, veggies, and seafood cooked over white charcoal (known as bincho-tan in Japanese). I wish I had been with a group so that I could order a bigger selection (enoki mushrooms wrapped in bacon, shishito peppers with benito flakes, Washugyu beef, fried tofu- it all sounds awesome).

Image: Tracy Eckersley

Unfortunately by this time I was pretty stuffed but the bartender suggested I get the octopus and it was the perfect ending to my meal. The flesh was a little toothsome but with a clean, slightly briny flavour enhanced by the smoky charcoal.

Image: Foodspotting

I only wish that I had thought to grab a raspberry-wasabi or yuzu macaroon to go.

If you are in Chicago and looking for a satisfying meal, you should definitely check out the simple, fun food on offer at Slurping Turtle!

Posted in Culture, Food, Travel

Korean Humor: Resolution Inspiration

Seosu, a cute and lazy bridge guard. Found in Young Jae Kyo bridge which crosses the Kum Cheon stream

Midori’s post about one-word resolutions a couple of years ago changed the way I approached new year’s resolutions. And as January rolls around again, I would like to take some inspiration from Korea, all because I came across this thesis by graduate student Sungmi Han about humor in Korean tradition, and was intrigued by it.

Asian culture is one steeped in history and tradition. We think emperors, dynasties, martial arts, silks and ceramics. The very idea of “Asian culture” seems serious, and exotic, and a tad highbrow. The last thing one would associate with it is humor.

Enter Korea. This country has taken influences from Japan, China and the Western world and put its own quirky spin on them. For all we know, fun and whimsy may be how Korea has weathered the storms of its history.

The country had a troubled past. There were conflicts to deal with, both external and internal. Geographically, it was stuck—sandwiched between China and Japan—and over the centuries it was bullied and battered incessantly one or other of these two neighbors. In the past 5 millennia, Korea was attacked and invaded a whopping 998 times! As if that wasn’t enough drama to grapple with, there were inner upheavals as well, which eventually broke and shattered the nation in two.

But laughter is cathartic. Throughout the centuries Koreans have used humor as a fortress to shelter their innate optimism, as an antidote to misery, and as a way to break free from what confines them.

A Korean king may have used a 14-faced die like this one to inject some comedy at work, probably in some version of truth-or-dare. Each side contained instructions for some kind of dare, like “make a funny face,” “dance silently” or “down three cups of liquor in one gulp.”

Chinese stone lion

Korean stone lion

Take the mythical beasts that we would find standing on guard outside palaces. The ones in China look ferocious, kind of like the gargoyles in Medieval churches, with their glaring frowns. These figures are meant to inspire fright. But the Korean versions are actually quite… cute. They’ve got gentle eyes and goofy toothy smiles.

They’re so round and adorable that we’d actually want to hug them, despite the fact that they’re made of stone.

Monument for a king's umbilical cord

It’s is probably only in Korea that one would find a monument built for a King’s umbilical cord and placenta. It’s not so odd to find turtles in tomb markers (they’re as ubiquitous as crosses and angels in cemeteries in the west), but none have the gentle smile that the one here has.

Frog crawling out of a stone planter

In a garden in Changdeok palace, there are a lot of these stone planters, and in some of them, we’d see frogs coming in and out of a pot, probably in search of their princesses.

Common folk in Korea used to carve their own changsung or spirit posts to protect against bad spirits. It seems that scare tactics were replaced by bids to win over the evil by making them laugh with these funny faces.

Upside down house. By Julianne Eirich via Real Simple.

With its history, Koreans could have become a belligerent, hardened, jaded, joyless, and un-spontaneous people, but no! They rallied and fought to keep their naïveté, optimism, and sense of humor. And as they evolved as a people, they acquired certain qualities which developed into an aesthetic that spoke profoundly of their culture’s resilience and grace. This, I think, makes Korea a worthy inspiration for a New Year’s Eve post.

All images via Sungmi Han except where indicated.

Posted in Culture, Travel | Tagged ,

A Matter of Convenience: Wonderful, Wacky Vending Machines

As the holidays approach, I feel a mixture of excitement and dread. For as much as I love the numerous social gatherings that accompany them, there is also a lot more on my to-do lists for the next month. It’s times like these that I crave 24-hour conveniences.

Cupcake ATMImage: Tracey Eckersley

The Internet has certainly alleviated some stress by allowing me to shop at any time, day or night, from the comfort of my own home. But what about those cool boutiques that only sell their awesome products in the real world? I was in Chicago on the weekend and was thrilled to find that I can now indulge in my Sprinkles Cupcakes obsession whenever I want, thanks to their ingenious cupcake ATM. Simply make your selection on the touch screen, swipe a credit card, and pick up your individually boxed treat. Sweet!

biblio-matImage: Stephen Fowler via blogTO

Then yesterday, a friend posted a story on Facebook about the The Monkey’s Paw in Toronto. Owner Stephen Fowler recently installed his custom-made Biblio-Mat, a machine that dispenses a random book in exchange for $2. It reminds me of those vending machines at the grocery store when I was I kid, the ones filled with plastic globes that each contained a small toy. I used to beg my mom for a quarter in hopes that my little prize would contain something fun. It may not be available outside of the store’s regular hours but it’s pretty darn cool.

vending machines line the streetsImage: Kuriositas

North America has been slow to build vending machines for more than the standard sodas and candy bars. But in Japan, it seems that just about everything can be purchased from curbside machines.

fresh eggs from the vending machineImage: Farm & Agriculture

Have you ever stumbled home from your local watering hole after one too many beers, wishing you could have a greasy fry-up, only to come home to an egg-free fridge? No problem in Japan- just grab a dozen at the local vending machine (and make sure not to drop them in your drunken haze).

dog wash vending machineImage: Itsuo Inouye, Associated Press, via Chron

No one likes to have to bathe their dog but what if you can’t make it to the groomer during normal hours? Just drop by your neighbourhood pet washing centre and pop your pup in the machine, which bills itself as a “hydromassage cabin for washing and drying dogs and cats.” I don’t know about your furry friends but I figure that my cats would pee in every shoe I own as payback for this “spa treatment.”

car vending machineImage: Jetsetta

And is there any bigger hassle in life than trying to negotiate with a car salesman for a new vehicle? If you want a smart car in Asia, you can just pick up one from a vending machine. But I hate to think how long it would take to put in all those quarters!

What products would you like to see sold in vending machines where you live?

Posted in Culture, Travel

Real-Life Haunts

Image from Flickr user base10

Halloween is just around the corner, and celebration preparations are underway all around – pumpkins being sold and carved, candy being sold in bulk, costumes being dreamed up and made. Halloween imagery starts to pop up everywhere  this time, such as black and orange motifs, cobwebs, and of course, the haunted house.

Scene from "A Nightmare Before Christmas"

Over the years, the haunted house has become a part of the standard set of Halloween imagery, and around this time theme parks start to plan fancy schemes for their fright fests, haunted mansions, forests, and sometimes, the entire park as well. As we all know however, these are all fictitious performances, simulating the experience in an exaggerated fashion.

The Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland. Image from Wikimedia commons.

Haunted place attractions have a basis though – and many sites around the world are believed to be haunted, according to legends, urban and traditional. Here are a few of some of the famous scary sites in the world.

Balete Drive and the White Lady

Balete Dr

Image from Flickr user _gem_

Balete is the Filipino name for a large tree with sprawling roots. In traditional Filipino folklore this tree is believed to be the dwelling place of spirits and supernatural beings. In the capital city of Manila, there is a street called Balete drive, which is the setting for a popular urban legend. In one version of the legend, a young girl was assaulted, violated, and killed by a taxi driver before she was thrown and left by a Balete tree. The many versions of the story resulted in a film that became largely popular in the 1980’s.

Image from Flickr user Jet Rabe

Okiku’s Well, Himeji Castle

Image from Flickr user Jamie Barras

Ghost stories are a part of traditional Japanese culture, with the ghosts taking on different forms depending on the type of story. One famous ghost story and legend is that of Okiku’s well, in Himeji Castle. The story tells of a servant woman who served the lord of the castle, was betrayed, and put to death wrongly. She reached her demise when someone threw her in the well, which is why she haunts it particularly.

Okiku's Well. Image from Flickr user NelC.

Yoshitoshi Ogiku

Yoshitoshi Ogiku. Image from Wikimedia commons.

Catacombs of Paris

Image from Flickr user brothergrimm

The Catacombs of Paris is the underground cemetery that occupy the remains of what used to be Paris’ stone mines. The catacombs contain the remains of around six million people, and have been a popular tourist attraction since the late 19th century. The catacombs are a testament to the practice of mass inhumation. Walls of bones line the tunnels, giving it a completely real, incredibly eerie atmosphere.

Pillar of bones

Pillar of bones. Image via MFS Updates.

The White House

White House

Image from Wikimedia commons

Washington in DC is filled to the brim with classical architecture, which seems to be the perfect setting for any type of ghost story, given the extensive history of the city. It seems only fitting that the most famous house in the country — seems to be also the most haunted. Various ghosts of former first ladies such as Abigail Adams, and even president Lincoln himself — have been reported to be seen in certain areas of the premises.

Have a spooky Halloween everyone!

Posted in Culture, Travel | Tagged

Open House New York Weekend Recap

Last weekend I had the chance to attend a couple of events at Open House New York (OHNY), a weekend long series of events that celebrate the built environment of New York City. Based on the original  success of its predecessor Open House London, OHNY has been a huge success in educating the public about culturally and historically significant spaces and places in the built environment.

All weekend there are a large number of events, from exhibitions, visits and tours of design studios and historic sites, with some famous designers and architects opening their own homes to the public for a limited number of hours. While most events require a reservation, plenty of events are also free.

I was able to attend three events this weekend, two guided tours through parts of the city and a self guided tour along an abandoned railyard that will soon be converted into the newest portion of a public park.

Fading Ads of New York City (Chelsea) Tour

The first event on my weekend agenda was the Fading Ads tour in the Chelsea neighborhood of the city. While the tour area designated was Chelsea, it also stretched into the Flatiron district just north of it as well. Frank Jump, who does research on the ads and has written a book on the subject.

I’ve always been a fan of vintage typography and signage, and this tour certainly gave me the chance to see the city with a new perspective. The ads have a certain mystery to them, and proudly bear stories of times gone by above the street, holding them in reverence above the streets.

After the tour, we also had the chance to speak with Frank about his research on the ads and purchase a copy of his book, which he graciously signed too!

Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces Tour

This tour was an interesting take on the contemporary history of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. What was once a dangerous area has now become an extremely liveable and community-oriented neighborhood thanks to its committed residents, who by their own efforts had started and are continuing to reshape it.

The tour took us through the community gardens and apartment buildings that were once abandoned spaces and are now bustling centers of activity full of life, culture, and arts.

A Walk on the High Line Phase 3

Since its opening in Summer of 2011, the High Line park has become famous and can usually be found swarming with visitors during particularly pleasant days. The next phase of the park is set to start construction soon, and this self-guided tour was a chance to walk through the raw terrain for the last time before it is closed off.

There was definitely something hauntingly beautiful about the rail yards, as they’re called. The once active railways are now being overtaken by greenery and foliage, and the result is an almost perfect example of a true, urban landscape. The weather was a little damp that day, but the walk was definitely the highlight of my weekend.

I was definitely interested in seeing more places and possibly attending more tours, but due to limited time and the popularity of some events, reservations were sold out rather quickly. The only thing I would have wanted was that it lasted more than just a weekend!

All images by Renee Alfonso.

Posted in Culture, Design, Travel | Tagged