Vacationing on Vacation; A Market Visit in Phuket

I’m not much of a temple type of gal. Sure, there’s plenty of beauty in the decorative roofs, sculptures that aim to ward off evil spirits, and they tiny corridors scented with centuries of burnt incense in Asia’s finest temples. But to be completely honest, once I’ve seen one temple, I’ve seen them all.

When I was little, we would take family trips all over the world. I remember getting dragged around to the Smithsonian Museums in D.C., the Chang Kai Shek Memorial in Taipei, the Vienna Boys Choir in Austria, the Brandenberg Gate in Berlin, and the weird little Danish Shoppes in Solvang, California. Am I really complaining about doing all these amazing things? Of course.

My sis­ter and I pos­ing for our par­ents in front of a museum or memorial
Taipei, Tai­wan, sum­mer of.…1992?


I complain now, only because I can finally admit my parents were right. They, like they always have, knew what was best for me. Yes, I have finally come to appreciate all those family trips that interfered with my childhood summers at the community pool and with the “coolness” of my teenage years (or, so I’d like to think). Not only was I able to see some of the world and conquer decrease my fear no longer be mortally afraid of flying, but I began developing my appetite for travel on these family vacations. I heard different languages, experienced different cultures, and tasted different foods.

I learned how to go to bed at an early hour and wake up at the break of dawn, ready for a full day of activity. I learned how to sit in a car for 14 hours at a time, though I was never able to make my bladder do the same. I learned to prep a binder full of itineraries, maps, reservation confirmations, and emergency contact numbers (thanks, Dad). I learned how to make my hotel room bed and clean up before housekeeping arrived- something that though I think is completely crazy, I still do today (thanks, Mom). I learned that sometimes, people who love each other tremendously fight fiercely.

I know some friends who, like my parents, have these regimented styles of travel. They book trips far in advance and plan out every hour of their days. Other friends are all adventure, all the time. They scale mountains and cliffs and tackle rough oceans in kayaks. Then there are the fancier of our friends who like to stay at fancy resorts equipped with fancy infinity pools and fancy outdoor showers, those who lounge on white sand beaches and come home beautifully bronzed, not a sunburnt spot on their evenly tanned skins. Some friends have checklists they like to accomplish when they travel, while others have just one vow: to finish a book or two.

Since I’ve ventured out on my own, my travel styles have significantly relaxed from the jam-packed travel schedules from my youth. Admittedly, sometimes I feel guilty about this. I feel that I should be seeing more and doing more and getting up earlier. You know, seeing more temples and stuff. But in the least two years, with each trip that I’ve taken, I’ve come to realize that my own style of travel works to accomplish an important thing, and that’s to re-affirm a lifestyle filled with happy moments and simple pleasures.

When the DiploMan and I travel, we visit maybe one or two of the tourist sights, and spend the rest of our time seeing the city and experiencing the simple pleasures in life. Meaning, we walk around, exploring dark alleyways and popping into intriguing antique stores. We stop for a drink at a respectable-looking bar or a shanty local tea house. We eat snacks when we’re hungry and skip meals when we’re not. We rent cars or mopeds or bikes and speed around rice paddies and country backroads. We get lost- a lot. And given the location, we preferably squeeze in a snorkeling trip. We talk a lot about our hopes and ideas, about dreams of learning to sail, living in Africa, and turning writing into a career (one is his, one is mine, and one is ours- I’ll let you guess which is whose).

Many couples I know have similar travel styles- and the DiploMan and I are one of those couples. I’m lucky to have found a partner who I can see and eat and experience wonderful things with. After all, the couple that travels together stays together.

But there is one thing that I love to do that, though the DiploMan dutifully will tag along, isn’t on his travel radar. That one thing is to seek out a local market. Ideally, it’s an outdoor market, and ideally it will sell prepared foods as well as fresh produce and fruits. But really, I’m not too picky. Give me the supermarket; the equivalent of that country’s Safeway store, and I’d be happy combing through the baking aisle and seeing what intriguing potato chip flavors are stocked on the shelves. Or it could be the local corner store, where I can see what type of cheap instant coffee the locals like. The little fruit stand works for me too- this way, I can get a fresh juice while I take in the sweet smells of seasonal melons and lychees. Frankly, anywhere where the purveyance of fruits, vegetables, dried and canned goods, and weird local products are sold, those places are as good as gold. To me, this is where I experience my travel rush.

Recently on Cup of Jo I read about the idea of couples spending a day apart during travels, doing their own thing. I loved this idea. And while the timing and our similar interests won’t always allow us to do so, it worked out perfectly one morning in Phuket. On our last morning in town, the DiploMan slept in and caught up on some of his newspapers, while I set out to get a pedicure and visit the local market that I had been eyeing for some time.

The market was amazing. The Thai people have such an interesting array of fresh produce and chilis and curries. After being in China for so long, it was refreshing to see the produce of another country. There were stacks of limes- a rarity in China. There were more varieties of eggplants than I’ve ever seen before in my life, little round knobs of eggplant next to eggplants the size and shape of my fingers. Strings of flowers and sheets of banana leaf were being sold in the aisles, and crates of fresh shellfish- clams and shrimps- were being stacked on iced palettes.

The Thai like to use small air-filled plastic bags, tied with tiny rubber bands, to package much of their produce that had already been portioned out. I can’t say exactly why, but I was enamored with this.

I loved my morning at the market, and was thrilled to be able to take some time on vacation to do something I was genuinely happy to do. After all, that’s what travelling is all about, isn’t it? Ultimately, it’s not how many things you saw or being able to boast about how many places you’ve been. It’s about being able to satisfy the simplest of pleasures, see something enjoyable, and truly experiencing happiness within.

What is your travel style? Have you found YOUR travel nirvana yet?

The Spaghetti Chronicles, because it’s a long story.

As I may have mentioned before, I am still awaiting the shipment of my kitchen (andohyeah, the rest of my things too), which should arrive at my door sometime next week.  In the meantime I’ve made do with the DiploMan’s kitchen goods, which are fine but you know, they’re just not mine.  Plus the DiploMan doesn’t have crazy kitchen girl things, like a mandolin, a scraper, mini whisks and mini spatulas, and not even a French Press.  But he has lazy kitchen boy things, like an automatic wine opener.  Why?

Anyway lest I stray too far into gadget land, despite the lack of kitchen gear available as well as staple pantry items, I really wanted to make a big pot of spaghetti last week.  This weather has me looking for one-pot wonders, as the week before I made my mama’s chicken curry (which lasted us through the week).  I fully accept the fact that I am a food snob (and proud of it!) like to use the best, most authentic ingredients (particularly when cooking Italian food) and generally try to make everything out of scratch.  Because it’s always better that way.  Before I left Brooklyn I loaded up on essential spices, pastas, canned goods, salsas….my shipment looked like my 3rd grade earthquake kit on MAJOR STEROIDS.  But since none of this has arrived yet, I had no choice but to throw up my hands in defeat and head to the store to see what I could find.  And here are a few things I brought home:

I know, I grimaced in horror too when I was forced to use these “chopped peeled tomatoes” instead of the requisite San Marzano brand I’ve been spoiled with back home.  And, don’t even get me started on the “Spaghetti Bolognese” mixed dried spices.  The food snob inside of me is kicking my own arse.  But, spices Italian Spices are expensive here, and with some coming in the next week, I couldn’t afford to stock up on every spice in the store.  Right?

Aside from these dried goods and the parmesan cheese nabbed at the supermarket, I also went to my favorite wet market just across the island, where I was able to find the base for my ragu sauce: carrots, celery and onion for a mirepoix and lots of tomatoes, which I roasted to add in the sauce for extra flavor since I didn’t have any tomato paste available.  I took a cue from Smitten Kitchen and my friend Donna, and though I didn’t have beautiful summer baby tomatoes to slow roast, these turned out just the way I wanted.  Suddenly a little ray of sunshine shone on my mission to cook Italian with Chinese ingredients!

with garlic, ready to be peeled, chopped and tossed into basic tomato sauce

I also bought some ground beef, from a lady selling all sorts of ground meat and meat fillings to wrap in dumplings- a common sight to see in the markets here in Guangzhou.  There were two major differences with this meat, than with the meat I would have bought in an American Supermarket.  First, the grind was much finer, almost to a paste consistency, it was ground so thin.  I realized the Chinese most often use ground meat to make chinese meatballs, or stuff inside tofu or veggies, or wrap inside of buns- the Chinese would never be so blatant as to sautee their ground beef into a sauce!  Additionally, the fat to lean content was higher than I was used to, which was disturbing only because I knew it would affect the texture of the meat once cooked.  And with these two observations, I threw it into the pan.

As a sidenote, I was initially extremely wary of buying any meat in China, and am now only moderately wary but have marched on and even bought myself a whole chicken from the butcher the other week (more on that later)!  Buying the ground beef for this sauce spawned an inner debate with myself about how exactly to go about buying meat in China, especially ground meat.  Just because I am buying all my food at my local markets here doesn’t mean it comes from farmers with ethical and environmental practices, nor does it mean that the food is the freshest, untainted or unadulterated.  You can’t trust that the practices for raising or slaughtering these animals is regulated, and furthermore I am not in any place (in my language skills nor being in a host country) to raise these questions at the market.  It puts me, an ultimate omnivore, at the constant crux of a huge dilemma- one to be continued.

Anyway into my sauce eventually went mushrooms and zucchini, because my mom always put zucchini in our spaghetti sauce growing up.  It also got a hunk of salted dried ham, for flavor, while it simmered on the stovetop.  I sauteed a side of spinach, boiled the noodles al dente and voila!  A spaghetti dinner to warm our hearts and stomachs.  Pretty good for cooking out of my own comfort zone, if you ask me!

Noodle Soup

In New York, as soon as there was the slightest chill in the air, someone in the group would surely suggest a trip to Ippudo for dinner.  So salty, so noodly, so hot, so satisfying.
Leaving New York just as winter was approaching, I was sad that I didn’t get one last Ippudo season in the city.  When I moved to Guangzhou, however, the world of noodle soup exploded in my face.  Noodles in Asia are like coffee and bagels in New York.  They’re everywhere, they’re cheap, they’re delicious, and people eat them at anytime of day. Since moving here, I’ve certainly acquired a new obsession for noodle soup.
Although Thailand felt as hot as the Sun itself, here again were noodle carts on every corner, and I found myself craving these every single day despite the heat.  There was something exciting about sweating while you ate your meal, and it being totally acceptable.  Everytime B asked what I wanted to eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner, I would look at him from the corner of my eyes and ask, “noodles?”  This suggestion was usually countered by a more reasonable alternative, but I still managed to get a few bowls of noodles in during the course of my five days in Thailand.
These carts all offered the same thing, or if it wasn’t, there was very slight variation from vendor to vendor.  To me, it was always vermicelli glass noodles in a clear meat (pork?) broth with your choice of chicken, pork, or beef on top (no veg option, duh).  On the cart, or on little tables next to the cart were little bowls of condiments, including chili flakes, chili paste, a chili vinagrette, ground peanuts, and sugar(!).  Usually inside the soup, or else sitting on the table next to the condiments, were a basket of thai basil and bean sprouts.  Obviously I added everything that was available.