Five Must-Dos in Hong Kong

We have been back from Hong Kong for a few weeks, and it just now feels like life has re-settled into a regular routine. The backpacks are unpacked, the souvenirs are handed out, and now it’s time for the blogging to begin!

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Our time in Hong Kong was wonderful and a great introduction to Asia for the two of us. Everyone we encountered was quick to smile, there were endless places to explore, and the food was phenomenal. While I’m still writing “A Vegan’s Guide to Hong Kong” (expect that next week), here’s a round-up of our very favorite things in Hong Kong and nearby areas. So, in no particular order, here are five activities and destinations that shouldn’t be missed during a visit to Hong Kong:

Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery

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About a 45 minute train ride outside of Hong Kong City, the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery is in the small village of Sha Tin. It’s an easy 10 minute walk to the beginning of the path, during which you’ll pass by a small square with local vendors selling snacks, flowers, and incense. Once you reach the beginning of the trail, be prepared for a bit of a hike. The meandering path up the mountain is lined with unique gold-painted arhat (the Buddhist equivalent of saints) statues, ranging from familiar meditation poses to the outright bizarre.

At the end of your walk, you will be greeted by the monastery, a beautiful sprawling area full of (you guessed it) more statues and temples. With the smell of incense lingering in the air, you can visit the nine-story pagoda or the temple that is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery’s namesake, filled with nearly 13,000 unique Buddha statues inside. As a bonus, the small restaurant up there is entirely vegetarian and has the world’s best spring rolls.

Note: Fake monks will occasionally try and scam tourists by asking for ‘donations’ by the entrance. These are not real monks and should be ignored. One tried to put a bracelet on my wrist but quickly backed off when I gave them a firm “No thank you.”

Hong Kong Park

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Visited by complete accident, we wandered into Hong Kong Park after skipping the nearby Peak Tram and its ridiculously long line. A wonderful green oasis in the midst of the city, the park features tons of flora and fauna for the curious visitor. We arrived later in the evening, so the Aviary and Tea Wares Museum (both of which looked awesome from the outside) were already closed, but there was still plenty to enjoy.

Throughout Hong Kong Park you’ll see a plethora of animals like families of turtles, brightly colored koi fish, and friendly pigeons. The path around the lake is the optimum place to go for a stroll, or take a packed lunch to eat on one of the many benches. Don’t forget to visit the Vantage Point Tower, which gives an uninterrupted view of the entire park.

Cheung Chau Island

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Our trip to Hong Kong fatefully fell on the date of Cheung Chau’s annual bun festival. The bun festival, a Taoist tradition, celebrates the island surviving a devastating plague hundreds of years ago, and also coincides with Buddha’s birthday. The festivities include specialty handmade buns (I highly recommend the lotus seed ones), an almost endless string of parades, children dressed up as deities, and vendors hawking everything from hand-painted shirts to mini-bun key chains.

While the festival is an opportune time to visit Cheung Chau, which is a 45-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, there are many other features on the island that make it worth a visit. A gorgeous beach, adorable fishing vessels, an ancient pirate cave, and various temples make Cheung Chau a destination for any time of the year.

Day Trips Outside of Hong Kong

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I know, I know. This isn’t a must-do that’s actually in Hong Kong, but I think it’s a great option for those who want to do a little extra exploring during their trip. For those spending the majority of their time in Hong Kong, there are plenty of opportunities to do a little country hopping to places like China, Macau, and even Taiwan. While there, we took two Viator tours, one to Macau and the other to China. While Hong Kong and Macau are all technically part of the People’s Republic of China, these three regions are distinct enough in culture that they’re all definitely worth a separate visit.

Knick Knack (Knock Off) Shopping

Visiting shopping districts or malls has never been a big interest for Peter and me. We’d much rather hit up a local flea market or craftsperson for souvenirs and trinkets to commemorate our trips. I write all this to say, the shopping markets in Hong Kong are a serious must-visit. Full to the brim with knock-offs of everything from Star Wars Legos (take note of the curvy font that actually say ‘Star Wart’) to jade statues that were undoubtedly just pretty glass, there are tons of stalls and areas to explore with wide-eyed wonder. While this cheap (and fascinating) area may not be to everyone’s buying tastes, it’s at least a hilarious place to spend an hour or two while looking at the horrendously painted or misspelled products. Some of our favorites to visit were the Temple Street Night Market and the Ladies’ Market.

The Best Vegan Buys at Your Local Asian Market

It’s always an adventure to visit an international grocery store. To see packages without a trace of English on them, or to find products you’ve never heard of. But sometimes, it can be just as overwhelming as it is fun.

Thankfully, in Birmingham, we have several Asian markets to choose from. My personal favorite is about the size of your average supermarket and dwarfs the competition. While I love how many options they offer, the first few times I visited, I would purchase only one or two items because I was equal parts overwhelmed by the amount of products and a little nervous to buy a grocery cart full of totally new things.

But one of the main reasons to visit an Asian market, besides just expanding your culinary horizons, is that they provide a huge range of familiar vegan-friendly products at a fraction of the prices found at regular grocery stores. This means you can happily fill your fridge, and pantry with wholesome, cheap foods during your next shopping trip.

Below are some of my favorite vegan food finds at Asian markets:

Tofu

A staple for the many Asian cuisines, you can find just about every type of tofu imaginable in the refrigerated section. Soft, silken, firm, extra firm, baked, fried, puffed, you name it, they probably have it. I usually buy the firm tofu, which rings in at around $2.50 per container and has 19 ounces of tofu. That’s about one and a half times the amount of tofu, for two-thirds of the price at a regular grocery store.

Jackfruit

This past year has seen jackfruit grow in popularity, with recipes popping up everywhere using it as a meat-substitute. And while you can purchase it already seasoned and prepared in most health food stores, you can get the canned stuff for significantly cheaper and customize it as you wish. At my local store, the jackfruit is in the canned fruits section near the coconut milk. Be sure to get the canned jackfruit in brine and not in syrup. Each can has about two servings (at least for the amount Peter and I eat) and rings in around $1.49 a piece. Then you can easily shred the jackfruit and dress is up for tacos, a baked potato topper, or whatever your little vegan heart desires.

Soymilk

Be warned, when buying soymilk at an Asian market, don’t be expecting the thin product from brands like Silk. Their non-dairy drink is very thick in comparison, with a much richer mouth-feel. It’s not something I would use for cooking or drinking straight, but a dollop in a mug of coffee does wonders, and it can make very moist baked goods. If you like the thick texture, most markets have adorable individual-size cartons, usually in fun flavors like chocolate or strawberry.

Meat Alternatives

It never ceases to amaze me how vast (and bizarre) the vegan meat alternatives are in my Asian market. In the frozen section is a collection featuring the likes of vegan ham tubes (see above), seitan shaped like an entire chicken, bite-size shrimp, tuna steaks, and more. In the canned section, you can find mock meats like duck or chicken, which are eerily similar, down to the lightly dimpled skin texture impressed upon the wheat gluten. And while I don’t eat meat alternatives all the time, sometimes it’s a nice change of pace, especially when serving omnivores who would prefer something closer to “the real deal.”

Sauces, Oils, and Vinegars

The majority of Asian grocery stores have an entire aisle dedicated to oils, vinegars, and various sauces or condiments. You can get cheaper versions of many commonplace products like oils (olive, canola, sesame) and vinegars (white, rice, apple cider). For sauces, if you’re like me and cook Asian food a lot, you can get huge bottles of soy sauce, sambal oelek, and sweet chili sauce for a serious bargain. And this is my favorite part of the store, not just because of the nice price points, but because there’s a world of new flavors to discover in the condiments aisle. Besides products that contain fish or oyster sauce, most are vegan-friendly. Try out a new chili paste, curry sauce, or new stir-fry base with dinner tonight. You might just find a new favorite.

A Vegan’s Guide to Reykjavik

Hopefully you’ve already read my recommendations for Five Must-Dos in Iceland from our week-long getaway earlier this month. If not, hop over there for suggestions on attractions to visit and activities to do. Then, it’s time to get onto what every vegan really likes to research before a big trip: Where to eat.

I will warn you guys, the food photography is not great here because wintertime Iceland has sunlight for only about six hours. Combine that with low-light restaurants, and you’ve got some less-than-stellar photo ops. But I promise everything I pictured was delicious and beautiful when I was served.

Iceland was apparently the land of defying expectations. Meaning: every blog, book, or website I read said Iceland was one of the hardest places to eat vegan. I’m happy to say there was no shortage of yummy and satisfying plant-based food, which was not hard to find at all. Honestly, Reykjavik was much more veggie-friendly than almost any place in the Southern U.S.

My only warning is that dining out in Iceland is expensive. A cheap meal for two people is about $20, and that’s if you’re getting something like chips (fries) and a soda. Since a lot of foods (especially fresh produce) have to be imported, the high price tag makes sense. But be aware that the majority of your vacation budget can easily be blown on a night out of fine dining. Because of this, Peter and I stuck to more casual eateries, though according to Happy Cow there are many more choices available in the city for those willing to drop some cash.

Here are some of the amazing places we dined at:

Kaffi Vinyl

Totally vegan and with a wealth of menu options, Kaffi Vinyl was our first stop for food. The restaurant, which also doubles as a record shop and music venue, had a relaxed vibe with servers changing the records as they ran out. We both got coffees, Peter’s was cold and mine was hot, in an attempt to help our adjust to the time change. They offered several non-dairy milk options like soy, oat, and coconut.dscn1799Peter ordered the lasagna, which was an extremely hearty meal filled with rich marinara, veggies, and a sprinkling of vegan parmesan atop. It was served with rustic bread, olive tapenade, and salad.

I took a chance on a bizarre sounding combo, and ordered the black bean burger, which came with blueberry jam, kimchi sauce, some type of cream cheese, pickled veggies, and a slice of pineapple. I just have to say, this burger was so good. I never would have thought to put a sweet jam on a burger (I guess I didn’t learn from that episode of Spongebob) but the whole thing just worked. Sweet, salty, creamy, tangy, every bite had a big burst of flavors.

Cultural note though, Icelanders tend to avoid eating with their hands. For example, I was given a fork and knife to eat this burger and watched two locals at another table cut theirs apart too. So just keep that in mind when you get any “hands on” food.

Reykjavik Chips

A restaurant entirely dedicated to potatoes is my kind of place. Serving only (you guessed it) fries, Reykjavik Chips is a cute little shop that you shouldn’t miss out on. Their large pile of potatoes next to the cash register (see below) should attest to how popular it is.

The chips come in two sizes, small and large, and I highly recommend getting a small. Because when they say large, they mean it. The container is roughly the size to hold two American large fries, so stick with a small (which is about the size of one American large fry) unless you’re sharing.

Crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside, the chips are made fresh-to-order and topped with whatever sauce you desire. Vegans have the options of ketchup or rich peanut-y satay sauce. Best part? Since Icelanders don’t eat with their hands, when they toss the chips in a sauce it’s served with a skewer to eat with.dscn1937

Nudluskalin

Just what you need when the cold wind is whistling into your face, Nudluskalin is the place to go for a meal that will warm up your frozen body.

Very easy to eat vegan at, you can substitute tofu for any meat and several of their menu items are already vegan. I choose the Green Throughout (below, right), a rice noodle soup that is heavy on the veggies and features fresh garlic and chilis for a thorough sinus cleansing.

Peter got the vegetarian option of Bamm Al Pomodoro, a less-brothy hybrid dish that had a bit of Asian and Italian influences. With a tomato broth base, it featured fresh egg noodles, peppers, carrots, Italian herbs, and a hearty handful of beansprouts. dscn1951

Joylato

Joylato is one of those places I’d never expect to have vegan options, and I’m always pleasantly surprised every time I turn out to be incorrect. Using liquid nitrogen, you can mix-and-match ingredients for you own custom bowl of made-to-order ice cream.

You have the options of the base being coconut or dairy milk, then choose the flavor of ice cream you want, add in sweet bits like fresh fruit or chocolate chips, and finally decide if you desire a sauce to drizzle atop. Besides the dairy milk, the only non-vegan add-in was white chocolate chips. I went with a coconut-based salted caramel ice cream with chocolate fudge sauce.

Despite the oxymoron of eating ice cream in cold weather, it was a great sweet treat. But if you’re wanting something a bit warmer, they also make vegan hot chocolate or chai tea that is perfect for sipping while exploring the city.dscn2008

Pylsa/Pulsa

Icelanders seem to love their sausages and hot dogs. I was thrilled to be able to try a vegan version of the local favorite at Pylsa/Pulsa, which was only made better by the fact that it was in the same building as our hostel.

We both got the Bulsur Sausage, which was labeled as “100% vegan” and sat at the bar to eat. If you’re interested in local Icelandic brews too, they had several options on tap. The sausages were crisp on the outside and slightly soft on the inside, with a heavily spiced flavor that was balanced out by the herb gravy. On the side was mashed sweet potatoes and a refreshing green salad. img_1122

Glo

Right off the main street of Reykjavik, Glo is the best place to stop for a healthy afternoon meal. With about half a dozen mostly-vegan salad options, along with wraps and soups, you can mix-and-match until you’ve got the perfect plate.

I ordered some ridiculously creamy cauliflower soup, which came with a dense (in a good way) piece of wheat bread, and three salad of my choice, which were cabbage, potato, and quinoa. Peter got a slightly spicy hummus wrap and the same salads too. Each of left feeling totally full, but not overly weighed down, by the veggie-packed meals.

Habibi

Although they’re usually a safe bet for vegans, the falafels at Habibi weren’t just your run-of-the-mill dinner. I ordered the falafel wrap, asking for no dairy sauces, and the lovely guy behind the counter quickly began frying them up. The soft wrap was just the right balance for holding crunchy falafel, fresh veggies, and silky hummus. It definitely beat out any falafel wraps I’d eaten before. If we’d had more time in the city, I definitely would have returned to try their falafel plate too.img_1182

The Deli

Due to construction, the entrance to The Deli isn’t the easiest to find at the time of writing this. So just keep your eyes peeled for the spray painted pictures of pizza. Peter, a severe pizza fiend, was hankering for some when we found The Deli.

He got several of their vegetarian slices, margherita and white garlic, which were displayed behind the counter. I required a more special order and requested the pasta alla noplentana without cheese or garlic bread. I was pleased that the staff didn’t seemed puzzled at all by my dairy-free request.

The pasta and pizza, which we got to-go, were both great. Peter was a happy camper, and I was pleased by the pasta tossed in a rich marinara sauce and dotted with fresh cherry tomatoes, basil, and black olives. Their drink selection was vast too, so keep an eye out for Icelandic brands. I got an interesting bitterlemon soda that was a delightful balance of bitter, sour, and sweet.dscn1852

1011

It may seem strange for me to include a convenience store at the end of this list, but it’s here for a good reason. 1011, which has branches throughout the city, boasts a large section of pre-made foods. A shocking amount of these dishes are vegan, and clearly labeled so.

Vegan sandwiches, salads, falafel meals, rice bowls, curries, and daals, are available in the refrigerated section for very decent prices. Peter and I shopped their several times for meals to take on long day tours and everything we tried was fantastic. This wasn’t run-of-the-mill gas station grub either, everything was properly prepared and about as good as the food we ate at the nearby eateries.dscn2001dscn1997dscn1999As a bonus, keep an eye out at 1011 for the “Cool American Doritos”. They’re not vegan, just very funny. dscn1944

Five Must-Dos in Iceland

At the beginning of this month, we spent a wonderful week in Reykjavik Iceland. A vacation we’ve always been interested in taking, the off-season prices combined with an easy direct flight from Baltimore made December the perfect time to visit.

We arrived, bleary-eyed and jet lagged, at 5 a.m. local time. After a much-needed nap at our hostel, we hit the town in the afternoon. Reykjavik is an interesting city. Interspersed amongst the adorable brightly painted houses (that you see in all of the travel books and brochures) is a little bit of a run-down, dirty feeling. Abandoned lots, graffiti, and crumbling buildings were not an uncommon sight. Not to say we didn’t like the city—our love for New Orleans should show a little grime doesn’t bother us—but Reykjavik was just a bit rougher around the edges than we expected. It’s a case of remembering everything is not always as it appears on Instagram. dscn1797Throwing aside all expectations, Reykjavik was a beautifully unique city. You could be walking along a regular street, glance up, and realize that there are magnificent mountains just waiting to be gazed at. Read below to find out our five favorite activities in Iceland’s capital. dscn1876

Graffiti Gazing

 

Taking a leisurely stroll through pretty much any neighborhood in Reykjavik will provide views of  (undoubtedly) illegal graffiti and dozens and dozens of professional murals. It seemed like every neighborhood or section of the city had their own art thrown onto shops, houses, and government buildings. Set some time aside to just wander and you definitely won’t regret it.

Thufa Hill

dscn1904A hidden treasure in the city is Thufa Hill, which offers amazing views of Reykjavik and is a small adventure to get to. Tucked behind rows of shops and industrial factories, we had to use Google Maps to find this outdoor art installment. A spiral path of stepping stones leads to the top where a fishing shed and several stones sit. When we went, there wasn’t another soul in sight, giving us time to sit down and relax while soaking in views of Harpa concert hall and the bay. dscn1915

Sculpture & Shore Walkdscn1884

A popular path in Reykjavik, the Sculpture and Shore Walk is a lovely mix of natural and man-made beauties. Looking out over the ocean, the meandering pathway leads you by a collection of sculptures and famous landmarks. Along with taking in the view, it’s a great place to ‘people watch’ since a variety of tourists and locals alike frequent the area. Keep an eye out for natural hot springs areas where birds will hang out to stay warm.

Day Tours

dscn1966Outside of Reykjavik you can truly get a glimpse at the amazing beauty of Iceland’s landscape. Instead of attempting to navigate the public transit ourselves, we used the Gray Line tour company to easily book a day-long Game of Thrones Tour. We saw a multitude of waterfalls, snow-topped mountains, and even an abandoned ‘Wildling’ village. Whether it’s by tour bus or rental car, everyone should take at least a day to get out in the wide open countryside. dscn1954img_1149

Snorkeling

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Who would’ve thought that a snorkeling adventure was an option in such a cold country? Scuba Iceland offers a Silfra Snorkeling package that can’t be beat. During this particular tour, you’ll spend about 40 minutes snorkeling through the crystal clear waters of the Silfra fissure, which is between the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. It’s a shockingly warm experience since you’ll be bundled up in thermal clothes and a dry suit. The package is reasonably priced in comparison to competitors and is incredibly easy to do since transportation and a friendly guide are provided. Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity!

For other suggestions of where to visit, and eat, in Iceland, read my Vegan’s Guide to Reykjavik.

Land of Ooo Macaroni Salad

One of my favorite television shows, Adventure Time is a wacky ride of funny characters, sometimes heart-wrenching storyline, and food. Lots of food. It’s hard to go through an episode without watching a character make a sandwich, share some spaghetti, or feed their loved one a bowl of soup.

My latest recipe inspiration takes place in “Ocarina” episode 12 of season 6. Jake the dog is celebrating his pups’ birthdays, but they’re all disappointed when arrives with no presents and a small amount of macaroni salad.

Although the pups were disappointed with Jake’s beige take on this carb-centric dish, I’m sure they would have been thrilled with this recipe. I pepped it up a bit by adding heavy-hitters when it comes to flavor like salty olives, sweet roasted red peppers, and tangy pickles. The dressing, although vegan-mayo based, isn’t too heavy and allows the whole dish to be cohesive instead of a gloopy mess.

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Although it’s tempting to eat it straight out of the mixing bowl, this recipe really shines when you let it fully sit overnight. Everything melds together to create a dish that you’d be proud to bring to your next birthday party.

Adventure Time Macaroni Salad

Serves 10 as a side

Ingredients

  • 1 lbs. macaroni pasta
  • 1 15.5 oz. can black olives, drained and sliced
  • 1/2 cup chopped roasted red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped dill pickles
  • 1/3 cup sliced green onions (both white and green parts)
  • 1/2 cup vegan mayonnaise (such as Vegenaise)
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard
  • 1/2 tablespoon agave nectar
  • 1 teaspoon dried dill
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste

Directions

  1. Cook macaroni according to package’s directions.
  2. Once cooked, drain the pasta and rinse with cold water until cool.
  3. Combine in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients. Mix well.
  4. Set in the fridge to chill and for flavors to meld for at least 3 hours, preferably overnight.  

Nutrition per serving:
Calories: 283 Fat: 14g Saturated Fat: 0.5g Protein: 5g Carbohydrates: 30g Sugars: 2.5g

New York City – Pt. II

During our second day in NYC in December, we meandered over to the Chelsea Market for a killer early lunch. DSCF0423There’s a nearly overwhelming amount of food and shopping options there, even when you’re “limited” to a vegan diet. We took a good 45 minutes to wander through everything before making food choices.DSCF0432I chose to get ramen from Mok Bar, which touts itself as a Korean ramen noodle bar. DSCF0435I got the one vegan option available, which was miso doengjanjjigae, which is based on the flavors of a popular Korean stew. It had great chewy noodles in a umami-packed broth with triangular tofu, fried onions, seaweed, and other choice veggies.

I also have a weakness for fermented foods, so I got the kimchi trio sampler and chose the traditional, daikon, and green onion types. Everything was amazing, even the daikon kimchi which I was a bit iffy about at first. In the end, although I’m sure this will reveal to readers how little couth I really possess, I added all three types of kimchi to the ramen to make a salty spicy bowl of awesome.DSCF0446I also had a little trouble breaking apart my chopsticks.DSCF0440Peter partook in Takumi Taco, which specializes in Japanese inspired Mexican food. He got an infant-sized burrito that included Japanese lentils, brown rice, beans (pinto, black, and edamame), ginger pico, cabbage slaw, and avocado cream. He said it was like eating a huge sushi roll with tasty Mexican food filling and gave it a thumbs up.DSCF0439Cyanide & Happiness fans will be happy to know there’s an original drawing hanging in the Market.DSCF0454A lot of the shops were selling bizarre and adorably creepy items. If only I’d had more room in my backpack. DSCF0452Despite it being cold outside, we ordered some gelato and sorbet for the road from L’Arte Del Gelato. I was pleasantly surprised when the guy behind the counter said all the sorbet flavors were vegan, even the dark chocolate! That combined with a scoop of coconut sorbet was like eating a cold Mounds bar. Peter stuck with an old favorite and got chocolate chip mint gelato.DSCF0448While waiting for a subway to Brooklyn, I noticed the most adorable art installation, Life Underground. Thankfully our ride took a while, so I had plenty of time to wander around and take pictures of the small sculptures made by Tom Otterness. Below are just a handful of the ones I took.

For those of you unaware of the Sketchbook Project, please go check out their website. It’s a really neat project where you purchase one of their sketchbooks and decorate it and fill the pages however you’d like. When you’re done, you send it back in and they add it into their collection in the Brooklyn Art Library.DSCF0482Peter and I participated in the Project a few years ago and were excited when we learned you can visit the entire collection. They have a nifty “check out” system where you can pick out books by theme or name, then you also get the two books next to it as a random bonus. DSCF0481We spent the next hour or so enjoying browsing through sketchbooks that ranged from amazing (like the watercolor travel journal about a visit to Singapore) to the just plain weird (I’m looking at you, book with only lipstick kisses inside). DSCF0480Brooklyn was definitely the most artsy part of New York that we saw. There was a good amount of street art to gawk at as we marched under the elevated subways and avoided the seedier looking areas.DSCF0497DSCF0485DSCF0492DSCF0498DSCF0500DSCF0487We ended our day by visiting someplace I’ve wanted to go to since I heard of its opening, Dr. Cow, a vegan “cheese” shop. The adorable shop front is so tiny it would be easy to just walk past it, but trust me, vegans, you don’t want to miss this.DSCF0490Inside is a small case displaying their various cheesy wares. The options ranged from the simple like plain cashew or sea salt, to the more bizarre like black salt with beet or balsamic with turmeric.

Thankfully, you can sample any of the flavors, so don’t worry about taking a blind guess at what tastes good. We settled in the middle of the strangeness spectrum and purchased some smoky celery salt cashew cheese.

This stuff was rich, creamy, packed with flavor, and everything I’ve ever wanted from “fancy” vegan cheese. I can’t promise if I lived in Brooklyn I wouldn’t be that person bringing out a fruit and cheese plate when company comes over.DSCF0488A short walk away is Dun-Well Doughnuts, an entirely vegan paradise of fried dough. There was a huge assortment of flavors and it was hard to choose. The guy behind the bar was helpful in giving suggestions on what to order. We ended up getting a mix of chocolate, maple, and eggnog doughnuts to take back to the hostel with us.DSCF0504And that’s how our two days in NYC ended. With us sitting on our hostel bunk beds happily eating cashew cheese and doughnuts for dinner. DSCF0502

New York City Pt. I

I was planning on posting about our vacation much sooner, but I was busy on the hunt for a job after graduating. I’m happy to say that I’ve found one, and in the food writing industry no less! I’ll be MyRecipes.com’s recipe editor and officially start in two weeks. On top of that Peter and I will be moving soon, so there’s a lot of exciting change happening in our household!

Back to our December vacation though:

It was a challenge to find someplace reasonably priced (and not 100% sketchy) in New York City, but we finally settled for the Harlem YMCA. Our room was a pristinely clean private bunk bed with very nice bathrooms, a simple kitchen with a fridge and microwave, and it was just one block from the subway.

A plus was the good view of Harlem!DSCF0376We arrived to the city ridiculously early at the crack of dawn and decided that we would skip the subway and walk the still peaceful streets to Central Park. DSCF0317DSCF0319We arrived at the park and spent the next hour wandering around and dodging early morning runners and cyclists. DSCF0329DSCF0327DSCF0325DSCF0335DSCF0331DSCF0333To avoid a hangry meltdown from us both after walking several miles with no food, we ate breakfast. We found a small, unmarked food truck (we’re still not sure it was legal) that was whipping out sandwiches. Peter got an egg and cheese and I got a PB&J on a plain bagel. Both sandwiches were toasted on the griddle and delightfully warm after being in the cold wind for a while.

Ready to give our feet a rest, we jumped on the subway and headed to The New York Public Library.DSCF0345DSCF0347The architecture was everything we hoped for and we spent half the time with heads craned back and mouths open. Sadly, the reading room, which is one of the main attractions for visitors of the library, was closed for ceiling restoration. We’ll just have to add it to our “see it next time” list!DSCF0352The kid’s room had a rad lego version of the lions on the front steps.DSCF0359Our next stop was the Morgan Library and Museum. While the picture below is of the original building owned by J.P. Morgan, the actual museum now spans through several buildings with various exhibits and galleries. DSCF0370The sheer amount of ornamentation was astounding and down to the most minute parts of the building were embellished. DSCF0364The most stunning part, hands down, was the library. All I could think was “This is my dream!” as we saw the thousands of books.DSCF0369They also had several Medieval manuscripts on display that Peter promptly had a freak out over.DSCF0367Lunch was at Franchia, a vegan Korean restaurant. We were both really excited to try Korean because despite being voracious eaters of kimchi at home we’d never eaten anything close to the traditional cuisine. Although both of us ended up getting dishes that had names from other countries in it, so it may not have been as traditional as we intended.

I got the Penang Noodles with Spicy Curry and Coconut Broth. I have a weakness for any type of Asian noodles, so this was right up my alley. Not very spicy, but it was a flavorful creamy broth full of vegetables, chunks of tofu and mock chicken, and delightfully chewy noodles.DSCF0374Peter also took the pasta route and chose the Singapore Curry Angel Hair. It was a good size plate of noodles in a thin curry sauce tossed with vegetables and served with lobster balls. The latter was new to us, and it tasted like a soft seafood-y meatball. It was a great meal and the service was extremely good with very friendly waiters.DSCF0373After our lunch we were fairly tired from all we’d packed into the morning, so we went back to the YMCA for a small power nap to regain some energy.

Feeling fresh and ready to go, we went to the most obnoxious of all American landmarks: Time Square. Despite the overwhelming amount of ads and flashing lights, we had a good time people watching and doing what we do best. Eating.

We got snacks and some hot drinks for our frozen bodies from Nuchas, which was a tiny food truck in the thick of things. DSCF0381I got an almond milk cappuccino and shiitake curry empanada. They both were great and we had a great time laughing at all the insane people in costumes in the square.DSCF0384Our personal favorite was the guy who had a giant pot leaf shirt and was carrying around US and UN flags while screaming “LEGALIZE IT!” He wasn’t even asking for money. Just spreading the word, apparently.DSCF0390Our main entertainment for the night was Matilda the Musical at the Shubert Theatre. DSCF0395I have to start by saying this was my first Broadway show ever. So I may just be not be used to something of this quality, but Matilda the Musical was the best live performance I’ve ever seen. The cast was amazing, the story was equally funny and melancholy, and the props were so good that when Peter and I left we were still trying to figure out how they did a few of the scenes.

Seriously, if you like Matilda the book or the movie, or you’re just wanting to see a good musical while in NYC, please think about this one.DSCF0405Pizza was something we felt like we had to do in New York. So we chose Pizza Suprema for dinner because of the combination of it being voted best slice in town and they had vegan pizza available!DSCF0419Right after I took this photo the place got ridiculously packed to where people were sharing booths with one another. A good sign when you’re someplace with as many pizza options as NYC.DSCF0416Peter got cheese and I got the vegan. The vegan was chock full mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and herbs. It was so juicy and good, it didn’t even need vegan cheese or anything. Peter didn’t even have words for his, he just kept going “Mmmmm” with his mouth full. It definitely lived up to our expectations.DSCF0412Overall a jam-packed first day in NYC and much more fun to come!

East Coast Christmas – Philadelphia Pt. II

Our next day in Philadelphia we hopped up and decided to take a long walk. Along the way we stopped in to see Elfreth’s Alley, which is the nation’s oldest continually inhabited street.DSCF0219DSCF0220The main goal of our walk was to reach Soy Cafe, which I couldn’t resist due to the name. It’s a tiny little cafe with a relaxed attitude and a ton of vegetarian/vegan options.DSCF0222I’m not usually a smoothie fan, but threw caution to the wind and got a Cookie Monster smoothie which had oats and vanilla in it. It was kind of like an oat-y tasting milkshake, which I thoroughly approved of.DSCF0230Peter got the Milli Vanilli (click here if you don’t know the duo this smoothie is named after) which had peach, banana, and vanilla in it.DSCF0229I was intrigued by wasabi hummus on the menu, so I got a hummus, avocado, and tomato sesame bagel! Guys, this was so good. I would have never (and I don’t know why not) thought to put wasabi in hummus, but now I’m definitely recreating this recipe at home. I mostly got the wasabi flavor with almost no heat, and it tasted like a bread-y sushi roll when combined with the avocado.DSCF0236Peter’s love of eggs held strong and he got a portabello mushroom omelette which came with a side salad. He gobbled down the omelette and described it as “Good and creamy, even though it’s soy cheese.” Which what else he expected from someplace with “soy” in the name, I’m not exactly sure.

The side salad was a flop that we left to wilt though, because (while beautifully presented) the ginger dressing was very lacking in flavor and a bit too thick to mix in properly.DSCF0234After brunch we visited the Eastern State Penitentiary, which is a looming remnant of the world’s first penitentiary. We got the audio tour and spent nearly two hours wandering around this behemoth of a building, hearing about both the good and the bad of it. Also Steve Buscemi narrated the tour, so props to Eastern State for the good choice!DSCF0289Even though there were other visitors, for the most part Peter and I had large sections of the building to ourselves. This resulted in some eerily quiet moments.DSCF0259The most moving part of the tour was this art installation “Other Absences” by Cindy Stockton Moore. The artist painted images of victims murdered by those who ended up living in the Penitentiary. DSCF0278The artist also wrote about how she had a very hard time finding photographs of victims who were minorities or lived in poverty, leaving her with no way to paint them or visually honor their memories.DSCF0277On a lighter note, a funny part of the visit was seeing Al Capone’s cell, which was dressed to the nines. The famous gangster, who was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, spent his first ever prison sentence in relative luxury.DSCF0286Just like with the Magic Gardens, I had way too many photos to share. So here are just a few highlights from our visit.

Next, we wanted to see around the Christ Church Burial Ground, which was sadly locked up. I’ve honestly never seen a cemetery that closed during the day or that charged money, so we left confused and disappointed. DSCF0294At least Benjamin Franklin’s grave was close enough to the fence that we could throw a penny onto it (because of his classic  quote “A penny saved is a penny earned”) before leaving.DSCF0290We spent more time just wandering around before heading to Blackbird Pizzeria, which has the reputation of having the best vegan Philly cheesesteak in town. DSCF0305The place was small and the staff a bit curt, but the food here was the best meal we had on this stop of the trip. DSCF0299Although I never ate them in my pre-vegan days, I really love buffalo wings. We decided to order several things off the menu with the plan to take leftovers back to the hostel for a late snack.

I made the mistake of assuming I could take the heat, and I ordered the smoked habanero wings. Now, before I get into the gory details, these were the best wings I’ve ever had. They were fried seitan with a crust that stayed crunchy despite the sauce and had a chewy flavorful inside. The dipping sauce that came with them was cucumber based and really deliciously creamy, but even that couldn’t save our mouths/esophaguses.

The wings weren’t so hot that you couldn’t taste anything (which I always hate) but you could taste the smoky flavor with a heat was so intense that I had a few tears rolling down my face by the finish. In the end (in this meal and when we took part home) we went through four containers of the creamy sauce to survive. I can say I’d happily order these again, but I’ll probably plan ahead and bring a half gallon of soymilk along next time.DSCF0300Peter is always happy with pizza, but when he naively said “Just two slices of the haymaker pizza.” I don’t think he expected them to be this large. The kind he chose came with seitan sausage, garlic butter, onions, and Daiya on top. DSCF0297Eventually, after sharing bites of the wings and pizza, we got around to the reason we came here: the Philly cheesesteak. As a disclaimer, I’ve never had a “real” cheesesteak, but I’m pretty positive this is close to the real-deal.

The seitan was thinly sliced and seared with garlic, rosemary, peppers, and onions. The accompanying cheese whiz was creamy and oozing out the sides of a thick and chewy buttered hoagie roll. So freakin’ good. I could only eat a few bites because of our previous snackings, but Peter ate a whole half. Throughout he kept exclaiming how much better it was than Carmen’s from the day before, which meant that Blackbird’s version must be amazing since he had just been talking about how he wasn’t sure you could find a better vegetarian version in town.DSCF0302

 

East Coast Christmas – Philadelphia pt. I

Philadelphia was our first stop for our winter vacation. We got an awesome deal using Spirit airlines within certain dates ($40 total for both of us one-way) so we just chose to visit someplace we’ve never been! We flew in at night, so we started out early the next day to get a feel of the town. I actually took so many photos and we saw so much cool stuff that I had to break the Philadelphia part of the trip into two blog posts.

We stayed in Apple Hostel, which is directly in the center of town and great for walking every place. We were five minutes away from the Liberty Bell and really close to a PHLASH bus stop which will take you to all the “must visit” spots in Philadelphia.

The first thing on our list was some American history. We visited the President’s House which is a recreation of a mansion used by George Washington and John Adams in the 1700’s. You could see excavation sites where original parts of the house are still present.DSCF0035Right next to the President’s House is the Liberty Bell Center. It was free and only took a moment to get in through security, so it’s worth a quick stop if you’re nearby.

We took the time to read the informative displays, most of which were interesting, but others were a bit extreme with patriotism. One part described how emotionally inspired Americans are by the Liberty Bell and how soldiers have sacrificed themselves in war as they thought of the Bell. So a cool place to stop in, but take the displays with a grain of salt. I can personally say as an American that the Bell has not yet made me moved to tears or whatnot. 😉DSCF0042We couldn’t resist goofy Rocky poses at the Independence Liberty Center.

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Walking down the street to get to Reading Market Terminal we accidentally stumbled upon the Declaration House where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. We stopped so Peter could model for a bit.For lunch we stopped in at Reading Terminal Market, which is an amazingly chaotic market with multiple food vendors, produce stalls, craft stands, and more! We took a good half an hour to wander around before deciding on where to eat.DSCF0076There were a ton of adorable bakeries and candy shops with lots of treats ready for the holidays.DSCF0081There was even a Christmas train set up for the kids…DSCF0090… or adults who really like trains.DSCF0092After much deliberation, I settled on Nanee’s Kitchen which had an amazing aroma wafting from the stand. The nice young man behind the counter was extremely helpful and when I asked which dishes on display were vegan (due to a lack of labels/names) he pointed out six or seven different options on main dishes and then said all the rice choices were animal-free too. DSCF0098Peter was hankering to try a Philly cheese steak, so he braved the line at Carmen’s to get their seitan version.DSCF0101DSCF0097A really neat thing was that instead of an order number you got a playing card.DSCF0100Since it was fairly crowded in the Market and great weather outside, we ate at the little park across the street. DSCF0071I  had decided on a chickpea dish and okra in a tomato sauce over yellow rice. They included “salad” for free, which was just undressed shredded lettuce and carrots, but other than that the food was amaaazing.

The chickpeas were soft and perfectly spiced over flavorful fluffy rice that soaked up all the sauce from the beans. The okra was great too (probably the most delicious way I’ve ever eaten the vegetable) with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and a great texture that reminded me of the way it’s served in gumbo. Nanee’s was a good choice from an almost overwhelming variety of food stalls.DSCF0109Peter was thrilled with his seitan cheese steak. He chose American cheese and got all the fixin’s of broccoli rabe, sweet pickled peppers, spinach, onions, and mushrooms. The Reading Terminal Market was a very good first food-impression of Philadelphia.DSCF0105We walked through City Hall into the inner courtyard that was decorated for Christmas and had several street performers.DSCF0124DSCF0126One performer was a very entertaining (and hilarious) magician who seemed to specialize with knotted ropes.DSCF0134Afterwards, we visited JFK Plaza with the iconic LOVE sculpture and were pleasantly surprised to learn that a German Christmas market was taking place!There were a large amount of tiny stands with everything from handblown glass ornaments to little carved nesting dolls to knitted finger puppets. DSCF0140My pig obsessed self was not disappointed with the Christmas market which had a large amount of carved wooden pigs and ornaments scattered throughout the stalls.DSCF0142After getting our Christmas fix, we wandered down South Street, which was an equally sketchy and fascinating part of town with strange shops, restaurants, and bars. There was a decent amount of art spread throughout our walk too.DSCF0155DSCF0159DSCF0157I’m sure you’re just as surprised as I am that the Queen of Pop is now reading palms in Philly.DSCF0154One of the weirdest shops we ducked into was The Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. The coolest part is that the store is entirely run by volunteers and holds various discussion events open to the community.

The Wooden Shoe had a plethora of books, zines, and magazines with themes ranging from police brutality to feminism to (what a surprise) veganism. I also loved their kids section, which mostly focused on remaining true to yourself and reinforced the idea that nothing is wrong with being a black sheep.DSCF0163The main goal of our walk on South Street was to reach the Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, a mosaic art project by Isaiah Zagar that spans several city blocks. DSCF0202The Gardens are a chaotic and beautiful piece of art that requires viewers to take a good amount of time to process all the tiny details hidden amongst everything.DSCF0182DSCF0196We spent about an hour wandering around and noticing all subtle parts of the pictures.DSCF0200Another bonus is that it only cost a total of $10 for us to get in with student IDs! This was definitely my favorite part of our Philly trip.DSCF0177I had a hard time picking my favorite pictures, so here’s a small gallery you can click through to see extras.

For dinner we marched to China Town to eat at the totally vegan New Harmony Vegetarian Restaurant. This is a “Chinese” restaurant that is not authentic and highly American-ized, but honestly Peter and I enjoyed it because it was familiar to us due to growing up eating at Chinese buffets.

We got the dinner deal which included soup, an appetizer, main dish, and dessert. It was a huuuge amount of food for the cost and we left with enough leftovers for another meal.

Starting off we both got hot and sour soup, which was very tart with matchstick carrots and daikon with bits of tofu.DSCF0204Peter went for the spring roll and I got something I can’t remember the name of (even after looking at the menu again) but it tasted like a potato latke with cream sauce. The spring roll was just all-right but the “potato cakes” were great! Crunchy, salty, and creamy all at the same time.DSCF0205I went with an American-ized Chinese classic, sweet and sour chicken. It was just what I wanted. Chewy fried chicken in a thick syrupy sauce with chunks of pineapple and bell peppers.DSCF0206

Peter got the orange beef, which was creepily similar to real meat and served with broccoli mixed in.DSCF0208

We both forgot to specify which dessert we wanted, so our server brought out strawberry and pistachio ice cream, which we pretty much had no more room for at that point. Though I doubt it was made in-house, I really liked my pistachio ice cream because I’d never had it in my pre-vegan days and was always curious about what that would taste like. Overall, for those craving the American palate’s version of Chinese, New Harmony is a delicious and reasonably priced choice.DSCF0214Stay tuned for Philadelphia part II!

Tex Mex Stew

My in-laws gave me the awesome birthday gift of a spice grinder. This gave me the perfect excuse to use Aldi’s whole dried guajillo chiles that I’ve been eyeing for a while now. As soon as I got that spice grinder I knew what I wanted to make, chili!

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I ground up the whole chile (minus the stem) and some cumin seeds I bought at the Asian grocery store. Nothing quite compares to the smell of freshly ground cumin.The base of fresh vegetables makes a fairly light “stew” and the mild flavor of the chile blend makes it safe for the non-spice lovers in our household. Feel free to change it up with different pepper varieties or vegetables (I bet corn would be good in this). This is a very basic dish that’s waiting for some creative additions!

Tex Mex Stew

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes (about 4 medium tomatoes)
  • 3 jalapeños, deseeded and diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 (15 oz.) cans pinto beans
  • 1 whole guajillo chile, ground
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds, ground
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Directions:

  1. In a large pot, bring the olive oil to medium-high heat. Add the onion, tomatoes, jalapeños, and garlic. Sauté until the onions are translucent and tender.
  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients and simmer over medium heat for 10-15 minutes for flavors to meld. Serve with a side of cornbread or crackers.

Nutrition per serving:
Calories: 247 Fat: 8.4g Saturated Fat: 1g Protein: 11g Carbohydrates: 35g Sugars: 5.5g