Shops


Heading to one of these Asian malls in Vancouver is the quickest way to immerse oneself into a totally different culture. Aberdeen Centre in Richmond feels very much like Hong Kong. My family have been visiting this place for years – the food court is excellent and there’s a great Asian supermarket and, best of all, there’s the largest Daiso in North America within. (Daiso’s a 100 yen shop chain in Japan; in Canada, everything’s $2. They sell amazing things and are as far removed from pound shops as is possible.)

Anyway, we first needed lunch. The restaurants all looked fantastic there and some even had ginormous queues that lunchtime but we headed to the popular food court on the top floor. Among the teppanyaki, noodles and juice stalls was this gem – Saboten, a cutlet chain from Japan.

Saboten Express

I immediately ordered a Saboten set, which included a bit of pork tenderloin (melted in the mouth), pork loin, and a prawn. Each had been crusted in the flakiest, crispiest panko crumbs and were fried beautifully. The only downside was the pre-ground sesame seeds (to be mixed into the tonkatsu sauce) – these had lost some of their flavour. But considering that it was from a food court, this was all excellent!

Saboten Set

From another stall, I ordered shengjianbao – the juicy pan fried pork buns that are a specialty of Shanghai. Many tables seemed to have an order of either these or the steamed xiaolongbao from the same stall.

Shengjianbao

Over to another Asian mall. If Aberdeen Centre was Hong Kong, The Crystal Mall in Burnaby (next to Metrotown) felt like mainland China. We headed there on New Year’s Day in search of a bit of adventure – neither of us had ever been but we’d heard good things about it.

Market

Again there were some restaurants (all packed and with queues outside) but we again headed straight for the food court. It may look empty below but be rest assured that you’ll be fighting for a seat close to midday.

Food Court

There were so many options that we ended up running around buying bits and pieces from various stalls. From a northern Chinese food stall, we had hand pulled noodles in soup with stewed pork ribs. The lady manning the stall pulled those noodles right there and then! They were wonderfully smooth and chewy – it’s a shame the broth was a little dull though.

Hand Pulled Noodles with Pork Ribs

From a Sichuan stall, dry wontons with chilli oil and fried peanuts. This was insanely good and burning hot and crunchy and tasty and yes, just excellent. They’re addictive – you can’t stop at one!

Dry Wontons with Chilli Oil and Peanuts

From a Xinjiang stall, we got a few skewers coated in chilli and cumin. There’s aubergine and the usual lamb/mutton and, quite interestingly and totally inauthentic, pork skewers too!

Skewers

We saw a woman walk by with bowls of hot tofufa (or dou hua) – extremely silky soft dessert tofu served hot and with syrup. That was it! We packed up the rest of the food that we couldn’t finish and my father ran over to the stall to order some. It was perfect – warm, silky, smooth, soft, and with just the right amount of sweetness.

Tofufa

The malls are certainly good fun and both are close to Skytrain stations, making them easy to access for the tourist who’s looking to see something a bit different in Vancouver and who’s depending on public transport. And you’ll eat very well!

I didn’t expect to be in Barcelona on our last trip, thinking we’d be in the village up until it was time to fly out. It was Blai’s mother who suggested a night in the city and who am I to turn down a visit to Barcelona?!

It was a friend in Barcelona who originally introduced me to Forn Mistral, a bakery with two locations near Universitat metro station in central Barcelona. There’s one bakery on Ronda de Sant Antoni and another nearby with a large cafe attached where I’d previously tried a delicious toasted flauta with sobrassada and cheese…

Flauta with Sobressada and Cheese

…and a slice of an excellent Galician tuna empanada, both coupled with a big milky coffee.

Galician Tuna Empanada Slice

Their main specialities though are their croissants and their Mallorcan ensaïmades and it was this past trip when I finally got it together and bought one of their ensaïmades. These large round flaky lardy pastries come in a number of different sizes, from bite-sized canape to giant wagon wheel. They’re also available plain, filled with the traditional cabell d’àngel (a candied pumpkin filling), marzipan, chocolate or sobrassada (the last three are new fillings to me!).

Not one to do things by halves, I ended up buying a medium-sized specimen (it was quite large!) filled with cabell d’àngel and between Blai and myself, we carried it all the way home to London!

From Forn Mistral

Opened

Ensaimada

Yes, it was as good as it looks! Thin layers of flaky lardy pastry, the sweet stringy jam in the middle…..we demolished this in two days (only because we controlled ourselves – it could have gone in one!). Next time, I reckon we could get 2, one on top of the other, into the same box!

Do stop by if you’re in the city though – those toasted sandwiches really are gorgeous.

Forn Mistral
Ronda de Sant Antoni, 96
El Raval, Barcelona, 08001

and

Carrer de Torres i Amat 7 (for the cafe)

On Little Newport Street in Chinatown, next to Baozi Inn (and owned by it too, I believe), there’s a tiny slip of a shop that sells chuan chaun xiang, a Sichuan spicy snack food. It also goes by the name mala tang and is not dissimilar to Sichuan hotpot, only the foods are on skewers and its the vendor who cooks your selection in their one gigantic communal pot. Jeanne and I stopped in one afternoon to try it out.

Chuan Chuan Xiang

The little place has a menu posted outside on the window and inside on the counter. Everything costs the same per skewer and there’s a good variety of meats (mainly processed) and vegetables available.

Menu

Inside, there’s just room for a few people to order over a counter. In the back, all the ingredients are lined up on skewers or awaiting skewering. A plexiglass window stands between you and a bubbling cauldron that seems to only be filled with chilli oil, chillies and Sichuan peppercorns. Don’t worry – it’s not too bad! That day, we split a pork luncheon meat (read: something similar to Spam) skewer and a fish ball skewer since we just had lunch.

Bubbling Pot

When your order has had its time in the jacuzzi from hell, your skewers are dumped into a foil takeaway container and sprinkled with chopped spring onions and coriander. There may have been a sesame based sauce available as well but I’m not entirely sure.

Skewers

The heat was a lot milder than I expected but they were still delicious. Can’t go wrong with Spam in chilli oil. Now, while I say that the heat wasn’t too bad, I did notice that the chilli oil doesn’t cling terribly well to Spam and fish balls. If you were to order the Chinese leaves, for example, my experience has been that those wrinkly leaves provides lots of little nooks and crannies for burning red oil to hide. It’s probably not clear yet but I love the skewers and I love the concept and I wish that there were more sunny days in London in which I may wander down to Chinatown and munch on street food like this.

In addition to the skewers, the little shop also sell massive baos which are also available to eat next door at Baozi Inn. While I believe this is the first chuan chuan xiang place in London’s Chinatown, a competitor has already opened around the corner on Gerrard Street so…time to try them too!

Chuan Chuan Xiang
(next to Baozi Inn)
Little Newport Street
Chinatown
London

It was with great excitement when I passed by a shop on Old Brompton Road a couple weeks ago – there was a big sign on the front announcing the imminent arrival of Aux Merveilleux de Fred to London. And it has indeed recently opened – the weekend before Valentine’s Day too.

This patisserie from Lille specialises in meringues covered in cream and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything else sold there (I lie, they also sell a sweet bread called a cramique). But their meringues! They’re quite simple – little mounds or big cakes constructed of layers of meringue and cream. I first encountered them in Lille, where a long queue out the door of the shop attracted my attention; I did want one then but we hadn’t the time to stand in the queue that day. Here was our chance to finally try their confections.

Meringues

This past Valentine’s Day, I purchased a small box of their smallest (two bite size) meringues for dessert that evening. There were five in total, one of each of their main flavours, and it cost £8.50 (oof). Their texture is fabulous – light crispy meringue and equally light flavored whipped cream.

As you can see, each little mound was also rolled in sprinkles of some kind. From left to right (in the photo above):

  • Le Merveilleux - this seemed to me one of their most famous flavours with chocolate flakes and chocolate whipped cream too.
  • L’incroyable – the cream in this little treat was supposed to be speculoos flavoured but sadly I could not taste it at all. It tasted mainly of the white chocolate flakes on its surface.
  • L’impensable – this coffee flavoured confection was probably my favourite!
  • L’Excentrique – this cherry flavoured one was Blai’s favourite. I would have like more fruity flavour but Blai loved that the meringue flavour came through best because of this reason.
  • Le Magnifique – coated in delicious praline and this was the second favourite for both of us.

That day, there was also a caramel flavoured variety on offer. Ah, another one to sample next time!

Meringues

I’ve only so far had a chance to try their smallest meringue confections (they come in a larger single serving size as well as big cakes) but what we had was delicious.

Aux Merveilleux de Fred
88 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3LQ

We’re obviously very dedicated to the Christmas market. Last weekend saw my friend and I take a train to Birmingham to check out their Frankfurt Christmas Market. We arrived at about 1pm and left by a 7pm train (times are approximate!). It was quite easy to find – it’s all located at the centre of the city, just outside the Bullring. We encountered stall upon stall upon stall of German food, drink, and Christmas gifts and decorations.

Giant Christmas Pyramid

The eating started as soon as we saw a stand selling freshly fried potato pancakes. We opted for a dollop of oniony sour cream on the side and munch away we did. I was surprised by the addition of some kind of grain to the potato base but it added a good crunch to the fried fritter.

Potato Pancake

As soon as the last bite went down, we queued for bratwursts – one white and one red, both to share. I love both – the milder white and the punchier smoked red.

Bratwursts

Gluhwein for Roxanne and hot chocolate for me. And yes, we kept our mugs as souvenirs (you pay a deposit for it).

Hot Chocolate

There was room for a shared pretzel…

Pretzels

…and two kinds of fried doughnuts too. The quarkbällchen was made with quark, the German fresh cheese, and a paper cone of schmalzkuchen was freshly fried and dusted with lots of powdered sugar.

Quarkbällchen

Frying

They all went down much too easily.

Schmalzkuchen with Powdered Sugar

Schokokuss (chocolate kisses) were purchased to take home. While everyone was queuing to buy packs of 10 or 12, I’m glad I showed restraint and only purchased a couple (they’re filled with marshmallow inside…soft, sticky, intensely sweet marshmallow).

Schokokuss

It was with a little difficulty that we put down our final savoury bites for the day – they had to be frankfurters! That photo below shows mine – I swear there’s a frankfurter underneath all those pickles and crispy fried onions.

Frankfurter

Overall, a most successful eating day!

At Night

Other edibles to look out for are the 1/2 metre long bratwursts, the cheese skewers that are battered and fried, hot chocolate spoons, roast pork shanks, huge roasting hams, cream cakes, and a huge variety of Haribo.

It’s a long journey on a slow train on a Sunday and is probably more manageable on a weekday or Saturday. If you’re utterly in love with Christmas markets, then it’s possibly worth the travel but otherwise I’d recommend visiting if you’re in the region!

All my photos from the day can be found in this Flickr photoset.

It was all planned with military precision. Last Saturday, my friend Roxanne and I aimed to visit 5 Christmas markets, most held by churches throughout London, as well as an event in between (that’s for another blog post). I frightened people with our schedule but by sticking to it, I think we did pretty well! They’re a great cultural experience and I highly recommend them.

We were lucky to have three of the markets in roughly the same place. Along Albion Street near Rotherhithe were three of the markets on our list. First was the Finnish Church, the only one we’d also visited last year. They laid out all the Finnish groceries, Christmas products, decorations and gifts in a supermarket style and it’s jolly good fun to browse it all. Upstairs, there were also arts and crafts sold by individuals. This year, you could buy a little Christmas tree from Finland!

Food-wise, they offered coffee and tea and pastries upstairs and outside in a tent, grilled sausages and stew. As it was still morning and our empty tummies weren’t yet ready to deal with grilled meat, we opted to go upstairs and share a Karelian pasty with egg butter and a delicious layered cinnamon roll.

Karelian Pastry with Egg Butter and Cinnamon Swirl

Inside the Cinnamon Roll

Along the street was also the Scandinavian Christmas Market which featured a variety of Scandinavian food, houseware and furnishings stalls. It was good to learn about various Scandinavian bakeries and delis around London (a couple near Barnes/Richmond) and I hope to visit them all. There was even an opportunity to have your photo taken with a Husky!

Baked Goodies

Photo with a Husky!

Escaping the rain, we then entered the Norwegian Church which was packed to the rafters. Unlike the Finnish church, groceries were laid out in old-fashioned shop style, with a counter and an assistant between you and the food. It made for difficult browsing but the assistants were very happy to answer any questions you might have; everyone was in a festive and friendly mood.

Candy Area

The back of the church was taken up with a sitting area and the catering. Open faced sandwiches! They had quite a variety of them on offer and we split two delicious ones (meatball and herring) with a cup of coffee.

Open Faced Sandwiches

Our Order

After a separate event in the afternoon, we made our way to the Swedish Church (Ulrika Eleonora kyrka) near Edgware Road. This was another fantastic Christmas assault on the senses (I’m not sick of it yet). Things were laid out like the Norwegian market but with a bit more space, making browsing much more comfortable.

Sweets

Tomtes!

Surrounded by Tomtes

What was also good fun was this Lucky Dip which was unique to the Swedish Market. Pay a pound, swing over your “fishing line” and pull up a little bag of treats! One for the young and the young at heart.

Lucky Dip

We couldn’t leave without yet another snack and this time it was a Swedish hot dog. Sadly, there were no crispy fried onions but there was plenty of Swedish mustard and chopped gherkins in mayo.

Hot dog at the Swedish church Christmas market

We also trekked over to Camden Road and walked over to the borders of Regent’s Park, where the Danish Church is located. Unfortunately, the times on their website weren’t exactly correct and their market closed at 5pm rather than 7pm as stated. Oh well, we’ll try to make it to every Scandinavian country’s market next year.

We headed home that day laden down with groceries, Christmas decorations and even some gifts too.  Now, the bad news is that you’ll have to wait a whole year for your chance to visit most of these markets. The good news is that the Finnish Church’s Christmas market is also on today until Saturday 1 Dec 2012 – see the top left hand corner of their website (Google translate helps!). Oh, and they each charge £1 to get in.

There’s a curious stretch of Charing Cross Road right by Chinatown – you may know the one I mean. It’s a row of shops filled with kitsch and restaurants serving all manner of Asian foods. At one end is a terrible Korean restaurant and at the other end is a bar. I never really paid much attention to this stretch with the exception of the Malaysian Kopi Tiam and it turns out that I possibly should have!

Take that complex of shops full of kitsch, for example. You may know the one – there are colourful plastic umbrellas and lots of Hello Kitty coin purses. It turns out there’s an Indonesian shop upstairs.

Indonesia Mini Market

And that shop sells ready made meals too with different things available each day. There are a few mismatched oversized tables to sit at and they were almost all full with Indonesian families and students tucking into some good looking dishes. Grab a seat wherever you can and wait for the one server to be free. Be patient!

We put in our order and waited. First to arrive at our table was their mie bakso (£4), a bowl of tender-crunchy beef balls and mung bean noodles in a light but flavourful broth. I believe it’s available every day.

Mie Bakso

Kicking about on one of the tables will probably be a jar of this sambal bakso. The label says Extremely Hot! (in red!) on the side and it certainly is – use with caution! It’s a great accompaniment to the bouncy beef balls.

Sambal Bakso

We also shared a plateful of pempek siomay (£5) (or empek-empek thank you, Ridha, for the identification!), fried fish and tapioca paste fritters – some plain and some first stuffed in tofu. These were quite heavy though tasty under the drizzle of sweet soy (maybe kecap manis?) and a creamy peanut sauce on the side.

Pempek

Help yourself to drinks out of the cooler – we had a can of Coke and a bottle of Mirinda (50p each). There’s an Indonesian bottled tea drink available too.

That day there was also one final dish available – nasi padang with beef rendang. This is a dish of rice served with the rich rendang and other sambals and pickles. It looked great and I hope to try that the next time I drop by. Oh, and of course there are Indonesian (and some Dutch) groceries available to purchase too.

Indonesia Mini Market
57 Charing Cross Road (1st floor)
London  WC2H 0NE

Also part of this complex of shops is a Brazil by Kilo, a Brazilian buffet where you pay for the weight of your food. Judging by the clientele (all Brazilian families), it can’t be too bad. Another one to try.

Also new along this stretch of Charing Cross Road is Roti King in a funny spot called Asian Twist Delicious. These are the guys who ran the Roti Stall at Oriental City and we came here for our first lunch that day (Indonesian Mini Market was our second lunch). Their roti canai is exactly as I remember it and we had it with a dal curry and we also split a delicious roti sardin (spiced mashed sardines wrapped in the thin bread). Excellent.

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