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January 2017, Taipei, Taiwan
During a trip to mainland China’s Forbidden City in 2005, we were told by our tour guide that if we wanted to see the treasures collected by several Chinese emperors, we had to go to Taipei. The sprawling palace compound, also called the National Palace Museum, had over a thousand buildings, yet rooms were bare, with only a few Oriental vases here and there. I found out later on what she meant.
January 2017, Taipei, Taiwan
I was watching Anthony Bourdain on cable one night and he was bemoaning the fact that he spent $1800 on a dinner at a fancy sushi restaurant in New York City. When I was in the city in 2006 attending a culinary school, two of my friends and I went to Per Se. The restaurant is owned by Thomas Keller, a famous chef from California and who owns French Laundry in Napa Valley. My friend sweet talked the reservation staff into getting us in the following week — a feat impossible to do unless you were a celebrity. Well, it turned out that the reason we got a reservation was that most of staff came from our culinary school. Belonging to that special fraternity even got us a tour of the restaurant kitchen after our meal and delicious macarons to take home. I ended up spending $240 for a chef’s tasting menu and one glass of white wine. I did feel guilty about spending that much money but over a thousand for a meal — I don’t think so!
February 2017, Manila, Philippines
Last year, I finally decided to come back to the Philippines every year. This is the second year of my annual pilgrimage and I am still getting used to the country I left when I was in my 20’s. The traffic is horrible but I am continually amazed at the resilience of the Filipinos who commute daily 3 hours each way. It is especially difficult to be here during the Christmas season. Many Filipinos abroad, fondly called “balikbayan”, start arriving around the first week of December and they come with everybody in their households. Filipinos are also well-known for being shopaholics and all shopping malls, at least those around EDSA (main Manila thoroughfare), were teeming with thousands of shoppers. Trying to get home from a shopping excursion was literally a nightmare. Even if you could afford to take a taxi all the time, finding one, even through apps like GrabTaxi or Uber was almost impossible. One night before Christmas, it took me 2 hours to find a taxi for a 15-mile trip and I ended up paying a premium fare.
I believe there are three requirements when travelling abroad on a budget, especially if one’s intention is to experience local cuisine:
1. Reliable public transportation
2. Lots of accessible markets and local venues with good but affordable food
3. Lots of museums and great architectural places to fill in the hours
Taipei is a place that checks all those requirements. Besides being clean and efficient, good food can be found in many places. My friend and I went to markets, food parks and tried the mom-and-pop restaurants close to our rented condo and found reliably good and cheap food. After going to the Confucius Temple, we crossed the street and found a large bakery and a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant. We got crazy buying pastries and shared one large bowl of sweet-and-sour soup and pork dumplings at the restaurant. The cost of our lunch was around $2 for the two of us.
Filipinos love to socialize and what better way to do it than find the latest food craze and bring all your friends and relatives to the venue. In that regard, food scenes are immensely popular and ever changing here in Manila. Not only do different food ideas become the norm but competition can be rather stiff.
The new trend right now is food parks. The idea is simple: enclose a small space and install six or eight disparate small restaurants within the perimeter. We actually found on in Baguio a year ago and the idea was creative, especially when there are 3 or 4 people in your group and each one has a different food preference. Read More