Saturday, June 15, 2019

Niseko: A Snowboarding Foodie's Dream Come True

We say that we went to Hokkaido to snowboard on our Ikon Pass, but we really just needed an excuse to go to Japan to eat the amazing food there.  Hokkaido may be detached from the main island and over 500 miles away from Tokyo, but the high standards for food here are no different.  The pride that the chefs, bakers, and bartenders take in their work is reflected every step of the way, from conception to execution.  For five full days, we enjoyed so much good food in between rounds of shredding the tree-lined slopes of the Niseko United ski area.  

Niseko is a small resort town on the huge island of Hokkaido.  While the area is indeed relegated to a lot of international tourism because of its popular ski resort, we were able to pick out some great authentic spots to eat, drink, and be merry.  The food of Hokkaido is, like most Japanese food, impeccable and at the same time, very comforting and nutritious--exactly the kind of stuff you'd crave after a day on the slopes.  There's nothing like unclipping your snowboard and sitting down to a big bowl of ramen or chirashi.  Local markets a few shuttle stops away in nearby Kutchan offer delicacies that are Hokkaido-renowned: hairy crab, sashimi, artisan cheese, and even those mysterious white strawberries.  A famous milk farm not far away churns out fresh dairy products, including ice cream and drinking yogurt.  We followed in Anthony Bourdain's footsteps to eat handmade soba noodles at a Michelin-recognized restaurant.  We also found our way to working-class comforts, like chanko hotpot tenderly prepared by a retired Sumo wrestler and his wife, and steaming bowls of oden served late at night over a bar by a lone cook.  Even the little coffeeshop and the bar that we stepped into were both uniquely curated by passionate owners, and supported by a diverse local community.  We enjoyed every one of these eating and drinking experiences because they brought us closer to the people who live there.  Essentially, we went to Niseko for the snow, but we stayed for the culture.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Tour Du Mont Blanc Self-Guided Trek: Survival Tips & Recap

If you have an insatiable appetite for mountain views, the energy and willpower to trek for 100 miles, and a passion for great food, the Tour du Mont Blanc is for you!  The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is the name of the 105-mile loop trek (or, "tour") that circumvents the Mont Blanc group of mountains in the Graian Alps, which is a section in the western part of the Alps that dips in and out of three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland (specifically, between the regions of Aosta Valley, Italy, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie, France).  This is a highly variegated geographical area that has around 400 summits and more than 40 glaciers, carved out by 7 distinct swooping valleys.  The accumulated elevation gain over the course of the trek is something like 32,000 feet, with an equally large elevation loss, and 10 or 11 passes to cross as the trek progresses from one valley to the next.  This trek was something that we wanted to do for the challenge, the food, the alpine views, and the multiculturalism. Our expectations were surpassed in all categories.

The thing that was most unnerving to us was venturing into the unknown on our own.  We researched as much as possible, but we still had no idea what it would all be like since we weren't going with an expert guide or an organized group.  Physically, the trek was demanding, but combining that with being on our own and not knowing what the trail conditions would be like was another beast to defeat.  Did I also mention that we also each have our share of joint issues? To be honest, though, that pesky patellar subluxation and threatening ankle tendonitis were far less of an obstacle than the volatility of the weather.  Fortunately, we totally lucked out with the weather, but we felt like we were gambling every day!  The upsides to DIY-ing this thing outweighed our insecurities, though.  Significantly lower costs, the freedom to go at our own pace, getting to stay where we wanted, and stopping to eat as much and as often as we wanted--that's how we wanted to roll.

We were exhausted and dripping in sweat by the end of each day.  But, much to our surprise, the ten days flew by.  Our packs felt lighter and lighter by the day, and there was more pep in each step, even as we approached those long, rocky descents.  Going through the three different countries and various types of terrain kept us on our toes mentally, and we never knew what to expect visually after cresting a hill or rounding a bend.  Socially, we were also constantly meeting fun fellow humans, who mostly were doing the trek on their own as well.  This trek has so many amazing things to offer, though what I can say for sure is that being prepared is the best way to guarantee a safe, and fun self-guided experience.

Like most, we had a lot of questions and uncertainty going into it, so I thought it would be good to put together a post like this to clear some things up that we hadn't known going in.  It's also another excuse to take a walk down memory lane!  I also wrote up little 3-sentence snapshots of each of the 10 days for a little taste of how it all went, before you go and tediously read all of the actual posts from each day.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

TMB Day 10: Argentière to La Flégère

Day Ten
July 26, 2018

Starting point: Argentière, France
Ending point: La Flégère, France
Distance: 6 miles
Height gain: 3747 feet
High point: Lac Blanc (7716 feet)
Lunch: Picnic at Lac Blanc
Accommodation: Hotel de l'Arve, Chamonix

Friday, March 29, 2019

TMB Day 9: Trient to Argentière

Day Nine
July 25, 2018

Starting point: Trient, Switzerland
Ending point: Argentière, France
Distance: 10 miles
Height gain: 3241 feet
High point: Col de Balme (7188 feet)
Lunch: Le Fournil Chamoniard Bakery, in Argentière
Accommodation: Hotel de la Couronne

Happy 3rd Anniversary to us!  We were officially married for three years on this day, and going on this trek has been the best way to celebrate.  So, we spoiled ourselves and booked an actual hotel, had dinner at an actual restaurant, and decided not to rush this stage.  Honestly, this was the least eventful day on the trail because it rained (finally).  We made it surprisingly quickly to the Col de Balme before the rain and got a peek of Mont Blanc, rising directly in front of us into the clouds.  Then, we walked down into civilization, bypassed the village of Le Tour, and strolled into Argentière, a charming village that does not get a lot of traffic and therefore retains a lot of authentic French charm.  It's usually busier in the winter due to skiing, but we weren't complaining about the peace and quiet.  We indulged at the bakery, checked out the little market, hung our laundry in the window of our fourth story room, ate classic French food with an American twist for dinner, and went off to bed!  All in all, a chill day back in France.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

TMB Day 8: Champex to Trient

Day Eight
July 24, 2018

Starting point: Champex, Switzerland
Ending point: Trient, Switzerland
Distance: 10 miles
Height gain: 3940 feet
High point: Fenetre d’Arpette (8743 feet)
Lunch: Picnic at Fenetre d’Arpette
Accommodation: Auberge Mont Blanc

This was by far the hardest day of the trek, even though every day had been truly hard.  We have to thank Mont Blanc (and Mother Nature) for keeping the impending storm at bay so that we could have the opportunity to reach the Fenetre d'Arpette (window into the glacier): the "highlight of the tour in every sense," a "true mountain pass," the "toughest of the whole route" -- honest words from Kev Reynolds, the writer of our guidebook.  Although we knew that it would be daunting, there was no way to fully prepare for what we were about to encounter.  This may also have been the most epic packed lunch, ever!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Sticky Rice ( 油飯 )

My Ah-Ma just turned 87 years old.  She lives independently and is a very determined woman.  She just got her knee replaced and she has dutifully done her therapy on her own and is back to chopping coconuts with her hammer and screwdriver.  In the summer of 2017, I made it a point to go and see her on my Fridays off, since those were the painful and lonely months leading up to her knee replacement.  On one of those visits, I asked her if she could teach me to make her delicious Taiwanese sticky rice (which we have always grown up calling 油飯 but may be more formally known as 糯米饭).  She was very happy that I asked, and she even walked a few blocks to Food 4 Less to get some ground meat, even though her knee was killing her.  I felt really badly because of that, but I knew that she was excited to do this because when I arrived, she already made a pot of piping hot plain sticky rice in her traditional rice steamer and she had pre-cut all of the ingredients and placed them in little bowls.  The dried shrimp was soaking and the ground meat was marinating.  It touched me to see this.  I always used to look forward to eating her sticky rice at family holiday gatherings, but it had been a while since she's made it because of her declining health.  Finally, I was going to learn the secret and revive this recipe!

It was really fun and she knew that I genuinely was there to learn.  She pointed out the bottles of spices and flavorings that she used and explained each one.  She didn't try to gloss over the information.  I asked lots of questions since I hadn't seen all of the prep work.  Also, I spotted a kabocha squash on her kitchen floor and asked if we could put some of that in, and she gladly allowed me to cut it up, laughing because she was surprised that I would remember that that was an option since she had only put kabocha in one time.

Overall, the recipe is straightforward, but as with making paella or risotto, getting the texture of the rice correct is the trickiest part.  The first time Ah-Ma showed me how to do it, she had pre-cooked a pot of glutinous rice in the rice cooker and separately stir-fried all of the other ingredients, then mixed it all together.  She says that this is sort of the lazy, foolproof way.  I used that method again three times for various potlucks and parties, and I still felt like I hadn't ever mastered it... something was always a little bit off.  A few days ago for Chinese New Year, I had the opportunity to make sticky rice again with Ah-Ma.  It is now a year and a half after she walked me through the process for the first time at her place.  She's standing up without a walker and still a pro in the kitchen, but her knee is still bothering her even though the scars from her surgery have lightened.  She also honestly seems less able to walk on stairs and more forgetful, but she still has that fiery spirit and can feel her way to making perfect sticky rice without any written recipe.  This time, she saw that we had a steamer and suggested that we try the other method...the less fool-proof method.

Also, Wes was able to be with us this time, and he took some wonderful photos of not only the finished product, but the process and the event.  He even stuck our Go Pro on the stove so that he could get photos of Ah-Ma schooling me (and us bickering, ha!).  Ah-Ma thought that it was so funny and weird that we kept taking pictures, but she played along.

So, I'm going to share this treasured recipe, including the two methods that it can be made!  I've been successful with both, but I think that I am still figuring out which one I like better, as they have their pros and cons.  I think there is also a third way: to cook the sticky rice directly in a heavy-bottomed pot.  So I'd have to try that in the future, too.  I might also try different kinds of glutinous rice to see if a shorter grain is preferable, since I have been using long grain glutinous rice... maybe I could soak it for less time...maybe try adding some garlic...anyway, it's something that one could easily obsess over!  As for Ah-Ma, she doesn't seem to prefer one method over the other, but she says that Method 2 is the "ancient" way.  I thought that that was a good thing, but that's open to interpretation.  You just have to try both and see for yourself.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

TMB Day 7: La Fouly to Champex

Day Seven
July 23, 2018

Starting point: La Fouly, Switzerland
Ending point: Champex, Switzerland
Distance: 9.9 miles
Height gain: 2192 feet
High point: Champex (4810 feet)
Lunch: Cafe du Chatelet, Issert
Accommodation: Hotel Mont Lac

The guidebook said that this stage was definitely the easiest day of the trek.  Even though there were still many miles to cover, we would not be going over any mountain passes or into any valleys. We were excited for an easy day, but by the middle of it I think that we were both really over how easy (and monotonous) it was. After an initial climb out of the Swiss Val Ferret, we walked along the mountain in the trees, gaining snatches of views of the river and the little Swiss houses to the right. We stopped into a random cave that was not mentioned in the guidebook with some Ukrainian trekkers, one of which really wanted to take a picture with us afterward.  After this little jolt of excitement, it was a mostly flat walk through three quiet Swiss hamlets until we came to a small refuge that was the only thing in operation at the end of Issert, the last of the three hamlets. A simple but hearty country lunch there gave us the energy to trudge up a steep ascent to Champex, a surprisingly idyllic lakeside resort town.  We had no idea how nice it was going to be, it felt a little bit indulgent for a trekking trip!  After ninja-ing the only market in town (like, making it in literally as they were closing), we soaked in those resort amenities and treated ourselves to a bomb lakeview dinner.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

TMB Day 6: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

Day Six
July 22, 2018

Starting point: Rifugio Bonatti, Italy
Ending point: La Fouly, Switzerland
Distance: 13 miles
Height gain: 3301 feet
High point: Grand Col Ferret (8323 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Elena
Accommodation: Maya Joie

Just as we were getting used to saying “Buon giorno” and “Grazie,” we realized that we needed to go back to saying “Bonjour” and “Merci.” Today we were crossing the Italian-Swiss border at the Grand Col Ferret. It was an exciting prospect, but we knew that we’d miss Italy so much. The views and the culinary scene were pretty much unparalleled, in retrospect. We made sure to budget some time to enjoy one last meal in Italy during lunch, though we had quite a long day ahead of us.