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Appreciating soju

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There once was a time one of the local supermarkets in Bacolod City carried massive qualities of soju; unfortunately for me, at the time, had yet to develop an appreciation for the distilled Korean spirit. Today, after two trips to South Korea and getting fully immersed into K-Pop, K-dramas, and “Hallyu,” the once-prevalent green bottles are not as plentiful anymore and the price has shot up.

Now, soju is everything.

It accompanies many dinners and with every meal at a Korean restaurant, whether it be in Seoul, Busan, or New York City, at least one bottle is needed to make the meal complete.

The clean, crisp taste is like no other drink. It doesn’t have the sharpness of other clear alcoholic drinks and it’s not heavy like a beer (although, somaek – mixing beer and soju – is a delicious “cocktail”). And, despite a fairly high alcohol content, it does not have that jarring taste one usually experiences from imbibing in strong alcoholic beverages.

According to a piece by Anna Archibald for digital publication Liquor.com, “Soju also has a vaguely sweet, milky flavor that makes drinking an entire bottle—the way Koreans traditionally do—easy.”

“It pairs well with food, too,” she added.

Archibald also discussed the presence of soju in western countries, noting, “Higher-proof sojus tend to hold up better in cocktails and can be used in place of vodka, gin, and whiskey.”

In addition, Jung Chaeyeon of K-Pop girl groups I.O.I and DIA claims soju is effective in reducing bloating. The singer-actress says consuming half a bottle will help decrease swelling by the next day; a practice she undertakes the day before a shoot.

Plus, a 2015 article in BusinessKorea cited Dr. Bae Hee-jun of Seoul National University Hospital, who conducted research that found three to four glasses of soju a day lowers the risk of stroke for men. For women, it’s one to two glasses.

Beyond enjoying it as a drink, soju can also be appreciated for its health benefits.

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Written by Paulo Loreto

July 8, 2018 at 10:50 AM

The undeniable draw of egg tarts

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With one of the local malls always seeming to have some kind of “food festival” at any given time, the selections offered have become somewhat commonplace. While still delicious, with the same vendors participating, there isn’t much variety. However, during one of the recent events, came to an abrupt stop when noticing egg tarts on display.

On previous occasions, I have had the opportunity to enjoy egg tarts in Hong Kong, Macau, and New York City’s Chinatown.

An export from Portugal to their former colony of Macau, the egg tart has since been adapted by China and proliferated throughout their culinary culture.

On visits to Hong Kong, there always appear to be egg tarts on display at any given bakery. With the small pastries usually sold at a really low cost, it’s hard not to pick one up to enjoy later on. In Macau, a shop at the foot of the Ruínas de São Paulo sold fresh egg tarts, nice and warm with a beautiful view of Macanese history.

When it comes to choosing between Hong Kong and Macau style, it goes to Macau.

While in New York City, also happened across a restaurant in Chinatown that offered egg tarts and picked up a couple. From there, proceeded to Columbus Park and took a seat on a bench while indulging in the sweets.

On the most recent encounter, found out they sold “Macau” and “Portuguese” style egg tarts; got three of each. To be honest, I couldn’t really discern one from the other, but they were delicious nonetheless.

Finding authentic coffee in a place where instant is king

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Even before moving to the Philippines, I remembered always having to send ground coffee, along with a myriad of other items, when packing those ever-present balikbayan boxes for family members back in the “motherland.” Now, after living in Bacolod City for over five years, it has become very apparent why coffee was in such demand – it’s really hard to find genuine coffee here.

Most, if not all media, is obsessed with instant coffee. In the Philippines, there also tends to be an affinity for “white coffee,” a drink that lacks the look or genuine flavor of coffee; it tastes good, but it’s more like a sweet coffee-flavored beverage than coffee. There’s nothing wrong with instant coffee, it’s good when in a pinch, have also used it when the power was out and had no coffee maker available, but it is not a substitute for brewed coffee.

However, they want consumers to believe it is, with ads constantly showing celebrities with the choice of brewed or instant and picking the latter, then sitting back in a comfortable chair and claiming it’s the same (if not better) than freshly-brewed coffee – that’s just false advertising!

For a while, went with the so-called “native coffee.”

Was told of the days when native coffee stands were all over the place, serving up strong local coffee, brewed fresh in the morning. After stopping at a couple of the still-lingering shops, can only conclude the quality has dropped or they have all started cutting corners. It was hot water with a hint of coffee. One spot, however, at the Victorias City market, a few miles from Bacolod City, serves up really good native coffee for P11 (or around 20¢) for a cup of black, add extra for milk.

Began buying native coffee at the market a while back, but even that too started to wane as of late, the taste was more bitter than usual and wasn’t as tasty.

For the longest time, walked past a coffee stand in the mall called Little Farmers Coffee but never stopped to peruse the selection. One day, decided to inquire and saw, not only do they offer local beans but customers can get up close and give them a whiff. They sell coffee by the kilogram and by the cup, P55 a cup (or just over $1).

Their selection is local and comes from across the northern part of Luzon.

After picking up a half-kilogram of ground hazelnut coffee a while back, a good medium brew for the entire household and guests, have since tried different varieties on every visit. With a preference for a stronger brew, have tasted the Benguet Barako, Sagada Dark Roast, and, on the most recent visit, the Kalinga Dark – none have disappointed.

Only regret not stopping by sooner. At least I know there’s a place to fulfill that yearning for a rich cup of coffee and not having to settle for watered-down and sugary instant or questionably-blended ground coffee from the local market.

A cup of the Kalinga Dark from Little Farmers Coffee.

Written by Paulo Loreto

June 25, 2018 at 8:11 AM

Just the essentials

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Housesitting for the night and had everything else in mind except (ironically) dinner and snacks.

First and foremost, it was a work night, so the laptop and charger went in first. That was followed by the iPad and all the other chargers necessary to both get through the evening and begin the day – like making sure the Bluetooth headset was charged for a morning at the gym.

After packing clothes, then came the toiletries.

As somebody on a daily routine (and with the basics at the ready in the place I was housesitting), it was all about gathering the “beauty essentials.” Face wash, toner, moisturizer, face mist, hand cream, body lotion, and sunscreen were all thrown in the bag.

All packed and ready to go and I’m reminded, “What are you going to eat?” Perused the kitchen and packed more essentials.

Just happened to pick up terra chips at a local supermarket that morning, they were on sale ‘Buy 1, Get 1 free.’ They’re pretty dangerous though, especially during work, the bottom of the bag sneaks up on you. Also brought some mate tea bags, always works for a pick-me-up when staring at a computer screen and for a nice morning wake up call.

Then it was dinner itself. What else but ramen? A trusty bag of ramen, a bottle of soju, and also packed a container of kimchi – complete.

Needless to say, the evening and following morning flew by. On subsequent overnight stays, have found the same formula works every time.

Written by Paulo Loreto

June 18, 2018 at 12:01 AM

A reliable source… for dinner

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On numerous occasions I have found myself ending the workday, shutting down for the night (way past a traditional dinnertime), and scrounging around for something to eat. When there weren’t leftovers from lunch or a random smattering of ingredients in the refrigerator – resulting in one’s personal episode of “Chopped” – there’s always the old reliable ramen.

While the ramen collection sits proudly on top of the refrigerator, with a variety of flavors on display, the old favorite sits along the side. Whenever I’m not in the mood for a hot, steaming bowl of ramen, with a delicious broth ready to be savored after slurping a big pile of noodles, there is always jjajangmyeon.

At first, was unfamiliar with the dish and had no idea how much of a classic it was in South Korea. Going through the instructions, it said to drain most of the water, with the remaining left to be mixed with the sauce powder. Putting it all together, it was delicious, rich, and savory – became apparent why the dish is so popular.

On the first visit to Seoul, had work obligations and was left to scrounge for dinner late into the evening. Staying in the Myeongdong section of the city, there was plenty of activity late at night and managed to find a hole-in-the-wall spot selling a variety of local fare. Spotted jjajangmyeon on the menu and there was no question a fresh-made bowl needed to be sampled.

Obviously, it was better than the instant variety.

The sauce was creamier and, with real bits of meat scattered throughout, the savory flavor was even more pronounced. Visited Seoul again the following year, stayed in the same neighborhood, and, by chance, found the same spot – ordered jjajangmyeon.

Locally, there is NOWHERE to find jjajangmyeon; and the places that purport to sell it are just serving an order of the instant pack (and adding half a hardboiled egg as a garnish). At least, on those late nights at home, can enjoy a bowl of one of the most unique-tasting noodle dishes and pair it properly, with danmuji (picked radish).

Something missing at the airport in Manila

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After a couple months of travel, making stops on three continents, was finally heading home and, given the past few years, was not looking forward to the last stop before the final leg home, Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). Consistently ranked as one of the worst airports in the world, it has seen a bit of improvement as of late; however, it is still light years away from the world’s best hubs.

Even though the airports visited on this trip, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in China, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, and Barcelona–El Prat Airport in the Catalonia region of Spain, aren’t among the top levels based on global surveys, they all still provide amenities superior to Manila’s gateway.

Landed in Terminal 1 and was preparing for the task of waiting for the airport shuttle, standing out in the humidity with luggage in tow. Must say, the shuttle service has improved, but there are still difficulties in trying to determine where exactly the shuttle is headed. On the flight out, took the shuttle in the opposite direction, from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1, and that process was more efficient, with a decent waiting area and an attendant to guide travelers.

Getting to Terminal 3, arguably the best of NAIA’s terminals, it had the most proficient check-in process, with rows of self-check-in kiosks for Cebu Pacific Air passengers. Managed to get through it fairly quickly and, after earlier purchasing extra luggage weight online, did not encounter any problems sending the luggage off either.

Went upstairs to the main food area and made a couple rounds without finding anything too enticing. It was also really warm, as if the air conditioning were on really low – if on, at all.

Always get mixed up when trying to remember where that particular terminal kept their other food options. Once again, got it wrong, and went through security thinking there was more to pick from near the departure gate – they have them in the international hall, not the domestic hall. The sad part is, the international hall is visible from the domestic hall – sad.

Walking back and forth in the scant alleyway of food, along with being hassled by a charity worker, stopped at a café and ordered a frosty drink and a sandwich – should hold me over until getting back to Bacolod City. Can’t quite recall the drink specifically – it was a bright pink slushy beverage with a cookie stuck in the middle – while it was very tasty, it was also sugary sweet (although, not necessarily a bad thing for the moment).

Other airports typically offer a decent respite after sitting on a plane, not all of them off-the-wall amazing like Incheon International Airport, which serves Seoul, South Korea; however, have yet to experience a comfortable layover at NAIA, no matter which terminal.

Written by Paulo Loreto

June 1, 2018 at 6:42 PM

Stopping in Guangzhou before heading home

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After a couple months away, cruising the Mediterranean and reuniting with friends in New York City, it was time to head back to the Philippines. On this trip, flew with China Southern Airlines – a first. On the flight out, had an 11-hour layover and got the opportunity to explore Guangzhou, the airline’s hub. Passengers with a minimum eight-hour layover and eligible to receive an entry visa for the day, along with hotel accommodations; for me, I used the entire time to wander.

The return leg wasn’t as exciting, it was a shorter time period, so it was just wandering the departure hall at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport. To be honest, it doesn’t have the amenities of Seoul’s Incheon International Airport or Hong Kong International Airport, especially getting in early in the morning.

After arriving from New York City and getting through security, prepared for a few hours in the departure hall. With most of the places still closed, took the time to explore and see what they would have available once everything opened. There really wasn’t very much, unfortunately. One would need to leave the departure area to see more of what the airport had to offer, noticed a lot more amenities after getting through customs on the flight coming in

There was, however, one restaurant open. Looked over the menu and they served a variety of basic Chinese dishes; went with an old favorite, noodle soup with beef. It’s become an odd tradition at this point, when visiting Shanghai, had noodle soup at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, had noodle soup when leaving Guangzhou for NYC, and now before the flight home.

It was one would expect; delicious, chewy noodles served in a rich broth. The experience was one of those “people watching at the airport” moments, seeing the restaurant fill up and empty out while enjoying the meal; watching people rush back and forth, while, with the security of a couple hours (and eventual delay), having the chance to savor the dish. In addition, the pickles served on the side were exceptional.

Written by Paulo Loreto

May 27, 2018 at 8:40 AM