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LOCATION: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
MILES WALKED: 12.17
We needed caffeine. Our first full day in Amsterdam, and by the end of the day we would have walked over 12 miles. Along the canals, through the stalls of the Noordemarkt as vendors began tearing down, around the Jordaan neighborhood, and back.
The café where we had dinner had wifi, so I looked for coffee on Yelp. There was one called “Coffee Company” on our way back towards the center of town, so we headed that way. Strange, we thought, as our GPS indicated that we had arrived (urban backpacking is so much easier with a smart phone). There was a dolphin on the sign out front and a clear nautical theme, at least on the outside.
We shrugged and walked in. And then we walked straight out. Nobody was in that café to drink coffee. I knew that there were two kinds of coffee shops in Amsterdam, but it never occurred to me that I might ever walk into the wrong kind. Turns out, the shop we were looking for was around the corner. We had a good laugh, and I enjoyed my steaming cup of amaretto latte.
I can’t remember her name, and that makes me feel bad.
I made sure to ask her, but I should have written it down. I wanted to let her know that I really appreciated her — her friendliness, her attention to detail. But no matter how hard I try to remember, I can’t recall.
The entire week I was in Seattle, Tiffanie (my cousin) and Vishal (her husband) had been talking about taking me to Slate Coffee Bar in the Ballard district. One day we spent too long sightseeing and didn’t realize they closed early. Another day, the clouds opened up and emptied torrents of rain over the city. Tiffanie wanted Vishal to come with us when we visited Slate, but he had late calls or brought work home with him several days that week.
It looked like things weren’t going to line up for us, but Tiffanie was determined. In my mind, I had already had quite a few delicious cups of coffee from places all over the city, and even if I had had several cups a day, I wouldn’t have been able to visit every local favorite or must-try cafe Seattle has to offer during my short stay. They would have to wait until I could make my next caffeine-fueled trip. But when Tiffanie suggested we wake up early to go to Slate before my departing flight home, I raised no objections either.
The weather had cleared up after a couple days of steady rain; the sun was shining and the trees’ leaves danced gently in the breeze. Seattle had greeted me with this weather, and it seems it was bidding me farewell in the same way. I had gotten used to the drive from Tiffanie’s studio in Belltown, past the towering Space Needle, past the EMP Museum and the pink, oversized elephant car wash sign, past Frank Gehry’s strange EMP Museum. We headed north up the 99, keeping Lake Union on our right, driving towards the free spirited, increasingly hipster Fremont and Ballard districts.
The familiarity felt nice. All week I had been struggling with the fact that I only had a vague sense of the city; I was worried I would leave with that, too. But now Seattle no longer felt like a cold and distant stranger. A slightly standoffish acquaintance, perhaps, but at least there was the possibility of someday becoming warm and comfortable — maybe even an old friend like London or Hong Kong.
We had some trouble finding Slate, unwittingly passed by the unmarked building cleverly camouflaged amongst the quaint homes in its quiet, residential neighborhood. Looking back, I think that is also part of its charm — the unexpectedness of the place. We found curb parking and walked into the coffee bar. Generous windows let natural sunlight flood the bar, and customers sat perched on high stools soaking up the sun. Rather than being a large cafe designed to accommodate large amounts of people, Slate feels more like a neighborhood hangout. A kind of daytime dive bar or speakeasy, where the baristas and regulars are on a first-name basis.
“Hi! Come in and sit down. Relax,” she said, beckoning us towards two corner seats at the bar. Slate had clearly been a house at one point, and it still had the coziness of having once been someone’s home.
“How are you doing today?” she said smiling as she set a minimalist menu before us on the counter. “What can I get for you?”
“Actually,” Tiffanie said, “my husband came here yesterday with his friend and said you made something for him that wasn’t on the menu.”
“Ahh, I remember. Is your husband the tall Indian guy?” she asked, indicating his height with her hand.
“His friend was having trouble deciding between a mocha and a latte, so I whipped something together for him. So he could try both. Let’s see…I made him a baby mocha, a latte, and a spoonful of our special chocolate with an espresso bean inside.”
“I’d like to try that too,” said Tiffanie. The barista waited patiently as I hemmed and hawed.
“What do you normally order?” she asked, seeing that I had come to an impasse.
“I normally get a latte,” I said. But, I confessed a little embarrassed, “I normally like it sweetened with something like almond.” A lot of these fancy coffee places, in my experience, don’t appreciate customers defiling their perfectly roasted, painstakingly brewed, pure coffee concoctions with things like sugar or syrup.
“We don’t have almond,” she said with neither judgment nor horror. “But we have simple syrup. We can make it as sweet as you like.”
Feeling reassured, I ordered the deconstructed latte. Tiffanie told me a little more about Slate as we watched her go swiftly to work, her movements practiced, relaxed, and efficient. The owners of the coffee bar, she told me, were known for their unbridled passion for coffee. They worked hard to produce the scientifically perfect cup of coffee with each pour, brewed consistently and precisely for optimal flavor. They were obsessed with learning everything there was to learn about coffee. And they, like much of Seattle, were all about buying local. They used only single-origin coffee beans, and they knew their bean farmers by name because they visited them regularly.
My deconstructed latte was set before me, a shallow wine glass of dark, aromatic espresso, a glass of milk from cows grazing happily at a local farm nearby — pasteurized at a low temperature and non-homogenized — and second wine glass containing the finished latte. Per the barista’s instructions, I swirled and sniffed the espresso the way I imagined people swirled and sniffed wine, tasting to see if I could get the graham cracker-y flavor she had told me about, or if I could notice the balance they tried to strike between acidity and sweetness.
Next I took a sip of the milk, not expecting much. I’ve never been much of a milk drinker, and most of my nuclear and extended family are lactose intolerant. To my surprise, the milk was sweet, full-bodied, and flavorful — totally unlike any milk I’ve ever tasted. And the more espresso I sipped, the sweeter the milk became to my tongue. Finally, I turned to the last wine glass, topped elegantly with a velvety layer of milky foam, the espresso and milk working together in latte harmony.
In that moment, as I sipped away at my three glasses, alternating between each one, my mind felt completely at ease. I had no thoughts of my flight back home or my anxieties about the future. I wasn’t worrying about what I would write later or whether my photographs turned out well. It wasn’t a moment of clarity or enlightenment or anything like that. It was more like a pause, or a deep breath. Our barista turned her attention back towards our end of the counter.
Slate Coffee Bar
5413 6th Avenue
(between 54th St & Market St)
Seattle, WA 98107
I don’t like all the reporting or programming on news radio, but I really enjoy listening to interesting stories of people, places, and cultures. Real lives and experiences and perspectives that say more about our world than a 30-second sound byte or 3-minute YouTube video. A week or so ago, I heard an interview with Michael Paterniti discussing the story behind his book The Telling Room.
Without going into too much detail, the book is about Ambrosio Molinos, a larger than life farmer whose grandísima filosofía de vida leads him to spend endless hours perfecting his family’s forgotten cheese and eventually creates the phenomenal Páramo de Guzmán.
It’s a story about an old way of life, a town still haunted by the tragedy of civil war, hanging onto their rapidly fading culture and decreasingly relevant traditions. About the slow food movement against the backdrop of the hectic, demanding, technology-saturated modern world. About friendship, betrayal and decade-old grudges. About the author and the trajectory of his life as he becomes captivated by Molinos, the cheese, and the Castilian way of life — so much so that he moves his family to Spain and travels back and forth to the village of Guzmán with regularity over more than 10 years, despite getting married, becoming a journalist, and having children.
The part of the book that resonated most for me focused on the significance of storytelling within the Castilian community and, by extension, the rest of the frenetic, modern world.
It’s part of what drives Paterniti as the author, and a central activity within Guzmán in the cave bodegas and “telling rooms” where Molinos and his friends would eat, drink, sing and tell stories together. It’s this fixation on story that prompts much of Paterniti’s travels back and forth to Spain, as well as triggering meditations on his own story.
Throughout the course of the book, Paterniti eventually comes to realize that this story belongs not only to Molinos, the cheese, or the villagers of Guzmán. It belongs also to him and helps him, in the end, make sense of his own life and world.
The way this epiphany rises slowly to the surface, like curds from milk, brings to light the significance or storytelling to a people, a town, and an individual person — even in a world where true storytelling (“the ability to exchange experiences”) is nearly a thing of the past.
As I’m exploring more seriously what it means for me to be a writer, this point really rings true. Why did I insist that Dad regale me with tales of his youth before bedtime when I should have been fast asleep? Why did we read voraciously as children, checking out 10 books at a time from the library and coming back for new ones the following week?
Why was it so important to me to study literature in college, instead of training in the practicalities of journalism or business? Why am I so captivated by the interviews and anecdotes I hear on the radio, so that I’ll sit in the car listening long after I’ve returned home? Why do I feel compelled to travel, to meet people, and to write about the things I’ve experienced?
I think it’s because stories have always been a big part of my life, helping me to orient myself in a world inundated with multimedia and competing voices and piling demands. How do I prioritize? How do I filter through all the information and ideas permeating the atmosphere of my mind?
Stories tell me, remind me, where I come from, where I’ve been, what I’ve learned, and who I am. And only in writing (long form in particular) do we have some semblance of that in an era of 140 characters or less. These stories have the power to change us, to give us new or renewed perspective, to encourage or rebuke us. It’s part of what makes us human. That’s why we write.
At the same time, storytelling can also make things more convoluted, can help us hide from our selves and our failures. It becomes a defensive mechanism, a symbiotic enabler, delusions to which we cling lest we wither away. And this too is a fear I have; that I may believe myself a writer, a teller of stories, a revealer of truths, when the reality is something radically different. That I am somehow deceiving myself into believing I am someone or something I’m not.
We’ve been going to the same church for years, so it feels like we’ve tried nearly every restaurant within a 10- to 15-minute drive. We go through phases. Maybe a lot of Japanese food one month, maybe a lot of pho the next, and cheap Mexican another. This past week was no different. After getting out of church service, catching up with friends, hugging the seniors, and cooing at the babies, we found ourselves at a familiar crossroads: “Where should we eat lunch today?” Suddenly, Casa Inka popped into my head.
Last time Dad went, he says, he didn’t order the right thing (euphemism for “he didn’t like it”). That was a long time ago; he had never ventured back. I went to Casa Inka a couple years ago for happy hour with my church small group, but didn’t eat anything particularly memorable. But every other Peruvian restaurant I’ve been to, I’ve liked. So we decided to give it a go.
This time, our server Jake made all the difference. He explained all the dishes in detail and gave us his personal recommendations. With his help, we ordered the Lomo Saltado (my pick) and the Golden Garlic (mom’s), filets of tender red snapper drenched in a light yet creamy garlic sauce. I like ordering several dishes so that we can try a wide selection, but Casa Inka serves large portions and my family doesn’t like to overeat.
The lomo saltado, as usual, was a combination of everything I like: soy sauce-marinated chunks of beef, sauteed onions and tomato wedges, and soft potato-y french fries stir-fried together in an awesome mishmash of deliciousness (the egg on top was quickly dissected from the dish and handed over to Mom). I guess it makes sense that I would like a dish like this. A product of the Chinese immigrants’ influence on Peruvian cuisine, lomo saltado is now part of Peru’s own diaspora making its way to the U.S. in the form of restaurants like Casa Inka.
Interestingly enough, my own family history took a similar trajectory. My great-grandfather, like many of the immigrants from Canton who moved to North and South America — including Peru — for new opportunities, traveled to Mexico to work as a rancher. According to family lore, the Chinese migrants “sat on their bales of hay” because they were too small to be effective ranch hands. When Pancho Villa came after the Chinese in Mexico, as the story goes, they hid themselves in wooden barrels and floated up the Rio Grande into Texas.
Of course, this was during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Dad tells me that my great-grandfather joined a team of men who rode back across the border into Mexico to hunt down Pancho Villa. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together, I’m guessing that he was probably a special exemption as part of the deal, which explains why I, his great-granddaughter, grew up hearing Chinese and Spanish at home, watching “La Bamba” and singing the theme song with my grandpa, and being as familiar with chorizo as I am with char siu.
But back to Casa Inka and our server Jake. I forgot to mention the warm, fresh bread he brought us and the freshly made rocoto salsa he let us try — an expertly boiled and blended sauce of roasted red bell pepper, onions, ghost and habañero chiles, and garlic that packs some so-painful-yet-so-good heat. By the time we left, there were probably three or four more dishes we wanted to try — plus dessert.*
8610 Warner Ave
Fountain Valley, CA 92708
*Jake tells us Casa Inka just hired a Le Cordon Bleu-trained pâtissier
There’s no shortage of teahouses on the so-called “Colima Corridor.” As my friends know, I generally know all the boba cafes and coffee shops in the vicinity wherever I happen to be in that area. Dad and I spend a lot of our dad-daughter dates grabbing food and using the wifi to get our work done. It’s because “we don’t have traditional jobs,” he always says. This time, when I visited Dialogue On, I was by myself, looking for a quick lunch on the way to DTLA. I’d had drinks here before (I recommend the almond milk tea latte) but never tried the food. I didn’t realize until I ordered that they only serve vegetarian food — not that I mind.
So I sipped my white peach amber oolong iced tea and waited for my “Say Hi to Burger,” I chose spicy over BBQ, with a fresh salad, curry potato, pineapple and soy patty sliders, and seasoned waffle fries. I don’t dislike vegetarian food, but if I’m going to eat a dish without meat, I still expect it to have substantial flavor and texture. In that regard, I’m not sure the sliders measured up. Even so, I still enjoyed the calm and quiet afternoon to myself, and the tea, as always, was just the thing.
Dialogue On Teahouse
17823 Colima Road
City Of Industry, CA 91748
Got together with the UNDER ONE ROOF team for dinner before Ricky and Colleen returned to China and Diana moved to China. We had some of the most delicious hot pot meals during our time in Yunnan: free range black chicken hot pot and spicy fish hot pot with garlic and potatoes in Lijiang, spicy dry chicken pot in Da Luo Shui, Sichuan hot pot with mushrooms you can only find by going up the mountain side.
Of course, hot pot at home is nothing like what we experienced in China. There, everything we had was undeniably fresh, the animals allowed to roam freely throughout the villages, the vegetables (and particularly Yunnan`s one-of-a-kind varieties of mushrooms) often gathered from local family farms, and no unnecessary oil or artificial flavors added — or needed. But Hot Pot Hot Pot, according to Diana, may be as close as we can get in SoCal.
We ordered an almost ludicrous amount of food: thin-sliced beef, lamb and pork belly, roe-filled fish balls, tripe, bamboo and bamboo root, baby bok choy, napa cabbage, pea shoots, tong ho choy, spinach noodles, enoki mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms, tofu, spinach, and lotus roots. We also plowed through a plate of fried noodles, fragrant lamb dumplings, a platter of fried rice, and “mongolian meat pies,” to which we added soup plum juice to complement the half spicy, half mild pot of broth filled with herbs, spices and food.
I learned in China that, at least in Chinese cuisine, there is a reason and order to everything. Certain dishes necessitate ordering certain other dishes. And when it comes to hot pot, you eat food in a certain order — meat, seafood, veggies and carbs. I’m not much for following rules when it comes to hot pot; throw in whatever you like and keep an eye on it lest someone else fish it out and eat it. Of course, we ate the meat, seafood, noodles and mushrooms and completely ran out of room by the time we got to the vegetables. Dessert — we thought about going to Half & Half across the street — was a non-issue; it never happened.
My good friend and travel partner Diana is moving to New York, so I suggested we eat something she wouldn’t be able to get in the Big Apple. “Authentic Taiwanese food,” she said. Plus, she had never been to Class 302. And, as usual, our eyes are always bigger than our stomaches: chicken roll, Taiwanese sausage, crispy fried pork chop, iced guava green tea with aloe, and matcha shaved ice with red bean, mochi, coconut jelly and condensed milk. I’m going to miss having Diana close by, but I’m hoping our next big food adventure will be in New York — or abroad.
4566 Beach Blvd
Buena Park, CA 90621
I really want KFC right now. Diana and I are sitting together at our hostel’s lounge area, working and being distracted by a really dramatic scene in a really dramatic Chinese drama. The three main characters are eating their distressing lunch (I swear, she’s crying over her chicken and biscuit) at KFC — we’re wondering how much that product placement must have cost — and making it look really delicious.
I’m not the kind of person to get tired of food easily, but Ricky was joking this morning that we’re now at the point where all food falls into two categories: will cause diarrhea, and will not cause diarrhea. I’ve probably fared the best out of our team, but even I had some bouts of stomach irritation.
The food around Lake Lugu (both on the Yunnan and Sichuan side) isn’t short on flavor, but that could be from copious amounts of MSG and cooking oil. Everything is organic (I never thought I’d be pleased to see bugs in my veggies) and home-grown. Animals here are free range — they roam through fields, along the streets, on the sidewalk, in the gutters — and make for richer meat than we get at home.
Our diet has consisted mostly of potatoes (julienned with chilis or fried into hash brown pancakes), eggplant, soup noodles, corn and barley bread, eggs and tomatoes, homemade Mosuo sausage and cured pork (mostly fat), fake Vitamin Water and Propel, rice crackers, and Dove chocolate bars. Right now there just isn’t much variety. We can spend hours talking about the food we miss.
Sanitation in this area is suspect at best and stomach-churning at worst (though, I’ve been told, not nearly as bad as it could be). My digestive system really dislikes not knowing whether or not I’ll have access to a clean bathroom at any point during my day. And yet, today, I feel optimistic.
Perhaps it’s because I got a full nights’ rest, or because I didn’t have to fight a territorial war with hundreds of mayflies over my bed last night, or perhaps because Diana and I are beginning to work through some of the mental block we’ve both been struggling with on this trip.
I’m growing fond of the people who have quickly transformed into friends, and the scenery never ceases to inspire awe in me. Over all, I’m happy to be here. the only thing that would make it a little better is some Kentucky Fried Chicken and some buttermilk biscuits.