Sunrise along the Seine

The most peaceful time to see any city is the hour before sunrise, when it is just beginning to wake. On my final morning in Paris, I woke up early and headed to the River Seine to catch these views of the city.

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With the help of the internet, I was able to determine not only what time the sun would rise but also from what direction. Comparing that against a map of Paris, it was not difficult to figure out that I would need to be somewhere between the Jardins du Trocadero and the Pont de Bir-Hakeim to see the sun rise somewhere behind the Eiffel Tower. It was easy enough to flag down a taxi at 5:30 on a Saturday morning and within ten minutes I was walking down the terraced Trocadero gardens towards the river.

The most beautiful colors are actually in the hour before sunrise, I find. So as the sun neared the nearly clear horizon, I started walking east along the river, down on the footpath that lines the Right Bank.

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There are numerous houseboats moored along the river, beautifully maintained and many available to hire for river cruises. In the distance you can see the bridge (Pont de Bir-Hakeim) from which I shot the previous picture.

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The tower is so large that it dominates your view. It looks different from various perspectives and I enjoyed watching how this changes as I walked along the river. Eventually as the river curved, I crossed to the other bank to keep the sun across from me.

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About a kilometer along the river, just past the Pont de l’Alma, is Promenade des Berges de la Seine, a public park and promenade that includes five interesting floating gardens, barges that have been turned into public parks similar to the High Line in New York City.

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Nearby was La Boudeuse, a 100-year old three-mast ship built originally in Hollande but now moored in the River Seine after a renovation a few years ago. This photo appeared in Instagram and has been tampered with a bit for effect.

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Looking back at the Pond des Invalides, the lowest bridge crossing the River Seine.

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Another kilometer or so and I arrived at Musée d’Orsay, the beautiful former train station that is now a fine museum. The Beaux-Arts exterior was glowing in the morning sun.

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Another half-kilometer along the river there is another turn at the Île de la Cité comes into view, sitting smartly in the middle of the river. It is one of only two remaining islands in the river and is the site of the medieval city was.

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Finally, I reached the end of my nearly five-kilometer walk along the river, crossing over to snap this picture of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This beautiful walk gave me the chance to contemplate Paris on my own, watching as it went from a sleepy sunrise to a gradually awakening city.

 

A light lunch at La Cuisine de Bar

Fancy a soup and sandwich while exploring the Left Bank? For a light lunch, this narrow restaurant in the 6th arrondissement offers a simple menu built around bread from the acclaimed next-door bakery and Cuisine de Bar owner, Poilâne.

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We visited the location in the 6th arrondissement although there is another in the 3rd arrondissement as well as in Chelsea, London. The setting is cozy (read: tight) but also welcoming. The kitchen is a bar on the right, dining is along a banquet to the left and a small room in the back. The setting is bright but a bit warm from the open salamanders (broilers) in the kitchen.

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The menu is quite simple. Set menus or individual items. Sandwiches are all open-face slices of next-door bakery Poilâne’s beautiful loaves with a few simple toppings. The tomato, mozzarella and basil one was a delight.

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The smoke salmon was also nice. There were sets including the soup of the day and a glass of wine, reasonably priced.

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A view of the narrow kitchen. You can see where the heat was coming from! The staffing the day we visited was minimal: one person in the kitchen, two waiters and a person clearing and washing dishes. Based on how hectic and slow service was, I suspect they were short-handed at least one person. Who knows? Perhaps this is the way they normally run the show.

The service was polite but rushed. Trying to flag someone down to take our order was excruciating, until I realized that the waiter understood the order in which people had arrived and was taking the orders according to that. The wait was just something we had to deal with. It would have been nice to have been asked for some patience (the woman dining next to us seemed a bit put off) but we were on holiday, so why not just relax and enjoy the atmosphere?

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There were a few desserts including this very nice strawberry tart. As the rush was slowing near the end of the the lunch service, we took the time to enjoy a slice along with the coffee drinks that accompanied the set menu.

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With a cute cookie spoon with which to stir your coffee!

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The simple exterior of the restaurant on a sunny and warm Spring afternoon. Overall, I think La Cuisine de Bar is a worthwhile stop if you are on the Left Bank and are looking for a simple lunch. The bread is nice (buy a loaf next door!) and sometimes you want a simple lunch that still feels sophisticated.

La Cuisine de Bar
8 Rue du Cherche-Midi
Paris 75006
+33 1 45 48 45 69
Open daily

A classic French lunch at Le Soufflé

There is perhaps no dish more French than the soufflé. And one of the best places to have a soufflé at a reasonable price in Paris is Le Soufflé, an elegant dining room located a short walk from the Louvre and Tuileries Garden.

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We found Le Soufflé quite by accident, intending to have lunch at a recommended Asian restaurant just a few doors away. They were full, however, and we popped in at the upscale-looking Le Soufflé based on the charming exterior and the Zagat and other stickers posted by the front door.

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The young man greeting us was friendly and when we explained we had not reserved, he looked around the room and told us that if we could return in twenty minutes, he would have a table for us. After a short stroll around the block, we returned and were rewarded with a generously-sized table in the middle of the room.

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With a clientele that seems mostly made up of local office workers and older-school establishment types, I felt a little self-conscious. (“Look, the American!”) But the friendly and diverse staff made us feel welcome. In fact, the restaurant reminds me a bit of Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco, in that the staff can seem a bit stern from the outside but they take good care of their guests.

The menu is relatively simple with a limited selection of soups and salads, a selection of savory soufflés and a selection of sweet soufflés. We ordered a set that included a salad and two soufflés.

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The soufflés (mine with a black olive tapenade and Tawn’s with smoked salmon) arrive relatively quickly. You sense that they must be preparing the choux base in advance and then folding in freshly-whipped egg whites. The size looks large, of course, impressively puffed up – but remember that a soufflé is largely air so a person can consume one relatively easily.

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For dessert, I opted for a rhubarb soufflé. This is one of my favorite fruits and was just in season so it appeared on many menus. The tartness of the rhubarb cut through the richness of the soufflé and made for a pleasant end to the meal.

The set lunch including a glass of wine and a coffee to follow was only EUR 28, about US$ 32. For the quality and quantity of food, it was quite a bargain. Le Soufflé is on my must-visit list for a quintessential French experience.

Le Soufflé
36 Rue du Mont Thabor
75001 Paris
+33 1 4260 2719
Closed Sundays

 

Breton Galletes at Breizh Cafe

The crisp buttery crunch was followed by the nuttiness of the buckwheat. Every bite that followed was comforting and hearty until the last bite, after which I was left satisfied but a bit sad. Such was the story on both of our meals at Breizh Cafe, a popular cafe in the 3rd arrondissement that produces succulent galletes – buckwheat crepes from Brittany – in a cozy, international setting with friendly service and, somewhat unusual in Paris, nearly a “no reservations” policy.

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The branch of this cafe in Le Marais, a district full of beautiful buildings and charming restaurants and shops, is cozy with tightly-packed indoor seating and a handful of tables on the sidewalk.

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Reservations were accepted for the following day when we arrived late and could not wait, but for the most part it is a first-come, first-served basis. The service is efficient, though, so waits seem mostly tolerable. The staff is welcoming and is happy to speak English, although they were quite patient with my broken French.

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In addition to crepes, they offer a range of ciders (available in the traditional bowl) as well as smoked sausages of various types. These made a lovely appetizer and I badly wanted to buy some from the next-door shop to take home.

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The main courses, a fixed menu plus some seasonal specials, are all the galletes – the buckwheat crepes that are surprisingly filling. The portion size is enough for one person, although you will be hard-pressed not to share! What I particularly enjoyed about Breizh was that they make the crepes nice and crisp. The texture adds such a nice contrast to the cheesy fillings.

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Desserts are made from wheat flour so they are lighter. This was a pear with salted caramel sauce. The neighboring show sells the caramel sauce and homemade salted caramels from Brittany. (Several tins of which made it back with us to Bangkok!)

This is definitely a must-visit, so much so that I ate two meals there on this trip.

Breizh Cafe
109 Rue Vieille du Temple
75003 Paris
+33 1 42 72 13 77

 

Chinese food comes to Paris

While in Paris, we visited two Chinese restaurants, one that playfully combines flavors, ingredients and concepts and the other that tries to more faithfully represent X’ian style cooking. One is more successful than the other, based on our visits.

La Taverne de Zhao

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The first stop was La Tavern de Zhou, located in the 10th arrondissement near Place de Republique and Canal Saint-Martin. This tiny restaurant is reputed for its faithful recreation of Xi’an dishes. In fact, multiple websites and reviews crowned it one of the best Asian restaurants in the city.

We arrived without a reservation but were shown to a table. Service  was a bit haphazard – I don’t expect California-like friendliness but they did seem a bit dismissive. We worked our way through the French menu and selected just a few items, highlighted specialties.

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The first was the raojiamo, or griddled steamed bun with meat filling. In this case, the choices are pork, pork with chilies, or tofu and egg. We ordered one with the pork and one with the pork and chilies. They were tasty although we added more hot sauce to both as they were in need of more seasoning. Perhaps Parisian palettes are delicate.

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The second dish was liangpi noodles. The making of this dish is interesting. I found this description on SeriousEats.com:

“…liangpi noodles are made by first washing a wheat or rice flour dough in water until its starches are completely rinsed off. This starchy water is then allowed to sit overnight until the starches collect at the bottom. The clear water above is poured off, and the ultra-starchy liquid below is steamed until it forms thin sheets with a uniquely crunchy-but-soft texture.”

The version here was dressed with a sesame oil and black vinegar sauce with cucumber and bean sprouts added. It was tasty but overall uninspiring. From what I’ve been told by friends who have visited, Xi’an offers a lot of really interesting, flavorful food. Based on what we tried (which was admittedly just a limited selection of the menu), it isn’t worth your time to eat here unless you live in Paris and are really desperate for Chinese food.

Address:49 Rue des Vinaigriers, 10eme arrondissement
Hours: daily except Monday
Telephone:01 40 37 16 21 (Reservations accepted, walk-ins welcome)

 

Siseng

The second place we visited was completely different. I would dub it the “Little Bao of Paris” in homage to my favorite restaurant in Hong Kong, which served steamed Taiwanese buns made into various types of burgers.

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Siseng, located adjacent to Canal Saint-Martin, has both a similar menu and a similar vibe. The space is small and cramped. The music is good. The energy is high. In short, it is a fun place to be.

IMG_0958Despite (or perhaps because of) the tight quarters and busy evening, the staff is extremely efficient while remaining friendly. Service in English was welcomed and they were patient when we tried our rusty French.

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The menu is much less bao-heavy than at Little Bao. In fact, there really are only two types of bao burgers. The rest of the menu has only about a dozen items plus a good selection of drinks and cocktails. We ordered these fried risotto balls that were made with coconut milk and lemongrass, which were spectacular. The flavor was rich and aromatic.

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We also enjoyed a vaguely Vietnamese dish called the “bo bun” – the menu says “don’t hesitate to eat it all!” – which are rice vermicelli with a chopped beef in curry sauce on top. Lots of fresh herbs and vegetables come with it. Authentic? Hardly. But tasty? Absolutely. This was a fun dish to eat and had great flavors.

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For the bao burgers, we had them both. This one, the Kaï, was a marinated chicken breast breaded and fried in katsu breadcrumbs and served with a basil and coconut milk pesto and a red pepper confit and homemade coleslaw.  The meat was tender and flavorful, the breading light and crunchy. It was a good bao burger.

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The second bao is the five spice burger, featuring a beef patty marinated in Chinese five spice mixture, served with a caramelized tamarind sauce, tempura fried onions, confit onions, rocket and spinach. It was nicely cooked and flavorful. The bao don’t seem to hold up quite as well as I would like, but that’s quibbling about details.

Overall, I think Siseng is a bit more “Asian-ish” versus Little Bao’s solid roots. Despite this, I think Siseng is one of the more interesting places we ate in Paris and is on the “visit again” list for our next trip.

Address: 82 Quai de Jemmapes, 10eme arrondissement
Hours: daily except Monday
Telephone: 06 68 89 77 88 (Reservations not accepted)

 

Inexpensive dining in Paris: La Kantine

For a less expensive meal while in Paris, La Kantine, a cafeteria on the top floor of Le BHV department store in the Marais district, offers a wide selection at reasonable prices plus a well-lit dining area with a rooftop view of the neighborhood surrounding Hôtel de Ville in the fourth arrondissement.

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The new, modern BHV Marais department store is an update of the old Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville created in 1856. It is a good place to shop for souvenirs – the selection of teas, confections, etc. is extensive so if you want to bring some relatively inexpensive gifts home that aren’t the tacky touristy items, this is a good place to find them.

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The restaurant is a buffet: grab a tray and help yourself to whatever food you like. There are stations on the left that prepare foods to order including pasta dishes. There are a selection of quiches, soups and meat platters. There are different cheeses and desserts, as you would expect. And prices are clearly marked.

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The seating is bright and airy, a combination of communal tables and some smaller tables. There is a good view and one that might feel a bit out of the movie “Ratatouille” – the rooftops of Paris. There is no feeling of being rushed, so you can also use this as a place to catch your breath and plan your attack for the next part of the day.

Information:

Address: 52, Rue de Rivoli
Telephone : 0977 401 400
Located near Métro station Hôtel de Ville (line 1)
Open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am until 8:00 pm (Wednesdays until 9:00 pm)

 

Two of the best croissants in Paris

France is known as a food-lover’s paradise and Paris is the capital. So it is expected that once in Paris, I would seek out many of “the best” food experiences. Of course, “the best” is an enigma, but I did turn to a number of resources including the excellent Paris by Mouth website. First on the list was to seek out some of the best croissants.

Tout Autour du Pain

As we were staying in Le Marais, an historic district that straddles the third and fourth arrondisements in Paris, we chose a nearby top-10 winner: Tout Autour du Pain. A fifteen-minute walk from our apartment near Centre Pompidou, Tout Autour (formerly known as 134 RdT) was two locations around the corner from each other.

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The store front fits neatly into the row of buildings at a tiny roundabout composed of a single tree. Next to it sits the Hotel Americain. The inside of the shop has room for only a half-dozen customers at a time and there is no place to sit and linger: it is a functional place.

We ordered two regular croissants and one ham and cheese croissant, taking them outside to a bench facing the roundabout.

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There we enjoyed one of the finest, most complex croissants I’ve had. It was not as neatly shaped as most croissants, a bit lumpy to look at. The exterior was crisp, crunching underneath the weight of your bite. The layers were distinct but the interior was pillowy and slightly resistant. The flavor was a tad saltier than normal, which allowed me to appreciate its flavor without the need for butter, jam or any other accompaniment. In short, it was a great croissant.

 

Du Pain et Des Idées

We stopped by another of the award-winning croissant bakers after a breakfast choice in the Canal Saint-Martin neighborhood was closed due to a public holiday. Called Du Pain et Des Idées (the bread and the ideas), it is on another corner in a otherwise typical block of houses and shops.

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It is a far cuter shop, though, looking a bit like it was designed by central casting at a movie studio. Racks of freshly baked goods line the windows and you can smell the bread baking, luring you into the shop. One of their specialties are these huge loaves of bread, which are sliced into large blocks and sold individually.

The older gentleman running the shop is welcoming and was patient with those speaking English and with my poor French. I tested the limits of his patience, though, when I ordered two croissants (and an apple tart). He confirmed the order in French but I wasn’t listening closely… and he proceeded to load up two bags with a dozen croissants! (I forgot to deux and douze are similar…)

When I saw what he was doing, I apologized and clarified my order. There was the briefest roll of his eyes before he said “Pas de probleme” and set the large bags aside.

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Sitting on the bench outside in the cool but pleasant morning air, we had our first look at the comely croissants. The layers are very distinct as is the twisted, knot-like shape of the pastry. When you bite into these croissants, they shatter sending shards of crumbs about and attracting the attention of a particularly aggressive peg-legged pigeon. The inside is soft but not as much as at Tout Autour. I would argue that the croissants are also less salty.

Now, I understand that I am spoiled with riches to be nit-picking the differences between various Parisian croissants. But such is my lot in life.

We also picked up an apple tart, which was wonderfully caramelized and luscious. In short, both are worth a visit: Tout Autour for the croissants themselves but not for the atmosphere; Du Pain especially for the atmosphere.

 

Mon retour à Paris

Some fifteen years after my previous trip to Paris with Tawn, we are together here again. It wasn’t a planned trip for me. He was to be here as a tag-on to a work trip to Italy. In fact, I was supposed to be in Manila this week, delivering training. However, the fates intervened, my training was cancelled, and I decided to purchase an inexpensive ticket for five nights in Paris.

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Paris is different this time. I’ve lived abroad for more than a decade and have traveled much more, so am much more confident than on our first visit. That, combined with the twin miracles of Google maps and Google translate, combined with the convenience of smart phones, has made navigating so much easier.

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My French, which I thought completely lost, seems to be somewhat intact. A few days of cramming with the help of the Duolingo app restored enough of the synaptic connections to allow me to communicate in French to a passable degree. What shocked me, though, was how much more English-friendly Paris has become in fifteen years.

While my experiences had never confirmed the stereotype of the rude Parisians unwilling to speak English, fifteen years ago not speaking some French was a handicap. Today, though, I found that nearly everyone was tolerant of my shaky French and both willing and able to supplement with English when need be.

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The other difference I have observed is how much more diverse Paris has become. This is a city of color and it has been made all the more vibrant for it. Near our Air B-n-B rental across from Centre Pompidou, there are a number of great-smelling Middle Eastern restaurants. Asian and Asian-fusion restaurants are numerous. And the African diaspora is well-represented, too.

Funnily enough, two Parisian stereotypes were still in evidence aplenty: the horizontally-striped sailor shirts and the baguettes carried underarm on the way home at day’s end. These kept appearing with such frequency that I suspected we were victims of a ruse by central casting!

I will try to share more about the trip, along with my overnight stay in Istanbul on the way here, which was a magnificent experience.

 

From a Land Down Under

After several months of a gradual easing-in, my work travel has increased considerably. At turns wearying and exhilarating, the travel presents interesting opportunities for reflection. 
Today I am writing from Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, waiting to board a trans-Tasman flight to continue a two-week stint of training in the Southern Hemisphere. The first week in a suburb east of Melbourne was trying: first time delivering a pair of classes and faced with a more senior and more skeptical audience than I have previously faced. 

  
In the end, the senior most participant stood to thank me on behalf of the class, sharing that he had been especially resistant at the start of the week but had come to reassess his way of managing and would embrace new ideas to be more of a leader.  That thrilled me. 

Another nice part of this trip has been the opportunity to spend two weekends down here with friends and their families. The weather is perfectly autumnal, the crisp coolness contrasting with Bangkok’s peak heat. 

Over time, I will learn how to make these trips more effective so their impact on the home life isn’t as great. As with everything, their is a measure of good and bad in it, and what you make of it is more a matter of how you choose to view it. 

Visiting Tong Hua Night Market in Taipei

Last week I was in Taipei on business. One of my rules of business travel is, whenever possible, to explore the city and eat at least one meal out and about, so I come away with at least some sense of the city. Thankfully, Taipei is a familiar city and I was fortunate to have two friends join me for a trip to the Tong Hua Street Market in Da’an District.

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The objective of this visit was to locate a popular restaurant that serves gua bao, the steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and other goodies that I’ve previously tried making and have enjoyed at Little Bao in Hong Kong.

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Thankfully, one of the local HR team members did some research for me and found a helpful article on the Lauhound food blog. The target restaurant was Shi Jia Gua Bao, a local chain famous for their gua bao.

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The menu is limited: basically there are steamed gua bao with a few different types of fillings, a baked bagel-like bun with a more limited selection of fillings, and the Taiwanese version of xiao long bao, a steamed pork bun.

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The shop manager was friendly and more than happy for me to take pictures. Vats of steaming buns and all the ingredients sat at the ready, ensuring us of a freshly-made, high-quality meal.

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The basic gua bao features both slices of fatty belly and slices of leaner meat. The size of the bao is larger than I have seen at some places: about the size of a McDonald’s hamburger. While a little messy to eat, the flavor was rich and satisfying.

Prices range from 50-65 New Taiwan Dollars, or less than US$2. Quite a bargain for the quantity and quality of food.

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The baked version, somewhat akin to a bagel, was not as enjoyable. While filled with the same tasty ingredients, the baked bun was dry and brittle, leaving me thirsty. Better to stick with the steamed version.

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Another interesting item was the xiao long bao. The Shanghainese version with which I am familiar (think of the ones at Din Tai Fung restaurant) feature as paper-thin noodle skin and the filling includes not only pork but a cube of flavorful gelatinized stock that melts when the bun is steamed, producing hot soup that will gush all over if you do not eat it carefully.

In contrast, the traditional Taiwanese version is made with a thicker bread dough so there is no stock inside, as it would only be absorbed by the bread. This was much less satisfying, although the pork filling was tasty enough.

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Wandering through the rest of the market, we encountered a stinky tofu vendor. The tofu was stinky, not the vendor! Made by fermenting the tofu in a brine that can contain all manner of ingredients, the smell of stink tofu is as strong as that of blue cheese. It sparks similar responses, with some people loving it and others repulsed by it. Also similar to blue cheese, the flavor and the smell are different.

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Here, the tofu is served lightly deep fried with a healthy dose of chili oil and pickled cabbage as a garnish. It was a very satisfying dish to try, although the bottom pieces, thoroughly soaked in the chili oil, were blindingly spicy.

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My friends Nathan and Andrew (aka loserstepaside here in WordPress) join me at the Tong Hua night market. The stinky tofu was Andrew’s idea.

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At the far end of the market was a vendor selling sheng jian bao, a pan-fried bun that I fell in love with in Shanghai, where I ate several times at Yang’s Buns.

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The skins are moderately thick, not as much as the gua bao but not so thin as gyoza. However, like gyoza they are fried on a cast iron pan that is filled with a generous amount of water, covered, and allowed to steam. The cover is removed after about five minutes and the remained of the liquid boils off.

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The sheng jian bao are served in a box of ten or a bag of five, sprinkled with sesame seeds and, in some places, chopped green onions.

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The insides are still steaming hot and the pork, ginger, and green onion filling is juicy and salty. These are a mess to eat but worth it, as the combination of crunchy bottom, pillowy soft wides, and warm, juice filling is too much to resist.

All in all, the Tong Hua market will give you many great things to see, do, and eat!

Also known as the Linjiang Street Night Market, located near Xinyi Anhe MRT station.