“Oh, I know that hotel, it’s only about 5 minutes from here by taxi.”
“Or a 15 to 20 minute walk. Kyoto is so beautiful, so we’re trying to see as much as we can.”
“And taxis here are expensive.”
“Yeah. So we walk everywhere. And spend all our money on food instead.”
I had this conversation with a man I had just met, at a tiny restaurant with 3 chefs and only 10 seats, after my boyfriend and I had just eaten some of the best food we’d ever had, in Kyoto or anywhere else. I wasn’t just making small talk – I was espousing part of a philosophy that had been the undercurrent of our travel so far: let’s eat.
We did and saw a lot while we were away – four countries in five weeks makes for a lot of activity. But reviewing my travel notes (yes, I take notes. I don’t stop being a nerd just because I’m on holiday), all of my favourite memories seem to revolve around food.
Bridget (the very same from Empress Tea) and her husband took us out for our very first taste of roast goose in Hong Kong. There was a brief break in the rain, so we were able to take the ferry over to island side and enjoy the view. On the way there, we visited the fanciest supermarket in the fanciest mall I’ve ever seen and grabbed some fresh mango juice for the journey.
I was expecting roast goose to taste like duck, but it was more like the dark meat of a turkey – with a surprisingly dense texture and crispy skin. I remember briefly worrying that conversation might be slow, given it was the first time we’d all met, but it turned out that once we started talking we could barely stop. We talked while we ate century egg with deliciously soft yolks and garlicky strands of sauteed water spinach. We talked while we drank beer and ate shrimp and soft fried squares of tofu. We talked long after the meal was over and we decided to go and get drinks so we could keep talking. Even after we had to finally go home, I felt like the conversation could probably keep going forever if you just gave us somewhere to sit and something to snack on.
We read about Banana Joe’s in a food blog, written by an American student searching for cheap and delicious food in Copenhagen. We were checking the menu outside, to make sure we had the right place (it didn’t even have a sign) when a silver-haired man in an old overcoat standing outside the doorway turned to us and said, “Everything is good here. You won’t regret it!”
It turned out that Banana Joe knew the blog writer as a regular diner, and was delighted the article had sent two Australians his way. He served us up a couple of enormous, juicy cheeseburgers with crispy shoestring fries and explained that he works at a hospital during the day, but he makes burgers at night because he loves it. Additional entertainment was provided by Stuart, the gentleman from outside, who turned out to be from Manchester, but had settled in Copenhagen when his days of being a hard-partying singer for a psychedelic-tinged funk band in the 60’s were over. These days, he told us, he mostly settles for singing in church, but he still had plenty of stories of crazier times and a YouTube clip or two to show us.
I was in Amsterdam for the 30th birthday of my best friend. She explained she’d been dying to try a traditional Dutch-style spa for ages, but kept chickening out because it involved co-ed nudity. We both decided that since we’d done plenty of drunken skinny dipping together in our college years, we could certainly handle something more structured, provided we went together for moral support. It was a long and awkward 30 seconds after we first ditched our clothes and headed for the pool area, but the European attitude towards nudity has a way of rubbing off on you quickly. It wasn’t long before we were chilling in the hot tub, trying each of the eight different sauna rooms and throwing handfuls of shaved ice at each other in the Finnish sauna room. The only time we got dressed all day was to eat lunch, where everyone put on fluffy bathrobes and ate perfectly poached mackerel and the most velvety tomato soup I’ve ever had in my life, poured from a little silver jug. It was like the most civilised pyjama party you’ve ever seen.
Kim was the second Empress of Tea that I got to meet on my holiday. She explained that it was easy to choose a restaurant, since my boyfriend and I were super-keen on unagi, her husband’s favourite food. We met them both at the station and immediately began a conversation about how freshly killed we’d prefer the eel that we were about to eat to be, in order to choose the best place for lunch. We decided that “super fresh” was our best option, and headed for one of their favourite local unagi restaurants. My boyfriend and I quickly discovered that we knew nothing about unagi, having only just eaten the fillets before. Little did we know that the Japanese way of preparing unagi takes a nose to tip-of-the-tail approach to this kind of cuisine. With the ordering finesse of our new friends, we also tried crispy salted eel spines (great with beer) and fins, grilled until blackened and wrapped around a skewer, as well as the fleshy parts between the bones. We told Kim about our plans to go to Kyoto the next day, and she told us we had to get parfait while we were there, which gave us a new culinary mission. When we said goodbye at the train station, I felt as if we’d known each other for much longer than a few hours (again, we could’ve kept talking all afternoon, had the restaurant not very politely kicked us out at closing time).
It seems I’m not the only Empress Tea member who enjoys her food and a good conversation to go with it. So next time I travel – let’s meet up. I have no allergies and will try absolutely anything at least once. Sound good to you?