Like most Singaporeans, we at Aurelius Travel really love our food, as well as sharing our love of good food with well-travelled gourmets like yourselves!
In this edition of “Aurelius Eats!” we revisit a handful of our more memorable dining experiences in the Far East! If you have stopped by expecting the likes of Sushi Saito in our list, we apologize for not being predictable!
An annual pilgrimage takes Jessica to Daien-in, a shukubo (temple lodging) on hallowed Koyasan (Mt. Koya), south of Osaka. When it was time for dinner, guests make their own way to a private dining room, where Shojin Ryori (Buddhist cuisine) is served up. The cuisine is based on Buddhist moral precepts that avoids all animal and fish products and makes use of fresh vegetables, edible wild plants, fruits, and grains. Dishes also do not contain garlic, onions or other more pungent ingredients typically used to add flavor. Instead, flavor is drawn out naturally throughout the low-waste vegetarian cooking process. My favorite dish of all is the goma tofu (sesame tofu) which is a special product of Koyasan. Using just the inner kernel, the product is white and light flavoured without oiliness. Although it is called “tofu,” it is not really tofu because soymilk is not used in its production.
Partaking in this almost ritualistic dining affair, and with a monk explaining each and every dish, I was made keenly aware of the obscene food wastage occurring in our everyday lives back home. Feeling cathartic, and most grateful for the opportunity to have another meal, I muttered a silent prayer of thanks, and went straight for the goma tofu.
Photo credit: Jessica
ALTUN ORDA, KASHGAR
Stepping into Altun Orda was like stepping into the pages of Scheherazade’s the Arabian Nights. This atmospheric Uyghur-owned-and-operated institution in Kashgar is popular with both tourists and locals, a testament to its authenticity, despite its over-the-top décor. One will be forgiven for thinking one has been transported to an Ottoman palace in the 16th century! To the untrained ear, the staff might even be speaking Turkish, as both are Turkic languages, and share a high degree of mutual intelligibility.
The Central Asian staples are a no-brainer, with polo (or plov/pilau/pulao in other countries), kebabs and the meat pies the highlights! Those averse to the gaminess of mutton or lamb will be delighted to learn that it is not the case in Central Asia! Generously-seasoned with cumin and other spices traded on the Silk Road, the mouthwatering lamb skewers are not only flavorsome but melt-in-your-mouth to the buttery fats.
Photo credit: Facebook @ Jason Wang
Photo & video credit: Lili
KAISEKI HIMOROGI, NARA
Kaiseki Himorogi is a homely Japanese restaurant in a 140-year-old Japanese-style house, in Asuka village of Nara prefecture. No fancy interiors here, this restaurant is managed by an elderly couple. One of their signature dishes would is the Asukanabe, a milk hotpot dish which was invented by a monk from the Asuka some 1,300 years ago. One can enjoy three distinct flavors consisting of sweet and spicy in the beginning, after which the milk is added, then finally ginger is added for a refreshing kick. The result is a heartwarming pot of goodness that is both nourishing as well as delicious!
BLACK SESAME KITCHEN, BEIJING
If I’m lucky enough to snag a coveted spot at the communal table for dinner, Black Sesame Kitchen is a must-have whenever I’m in the city, and one of my favorite non-specialty duck recommendations, especially for those travelers who love to meet new people. As you linger over a glass of wine as the evening breezes waft lazily through the courtyard, the sounds of the city overshadowed by the sizzling of the wok as your first course is prepared. Repeat for the rest of your ten-course tasting menu, getting lost in conversation with a mix of other travelers, expats and locals as you make your way from dish to dish. Experience Chinese cuisine prepared right in front of you with the freshest ingredients, alongside a small cohort of newfound friends.
In Shanghai, I would try to coincide my visit for Friday lunches at the iconic Shanghai’s Weekly Muslim Market, for Uyghur delicacies such as delicious lamb skewers and flat breads. The heady aroma of smoke and cumin is sure to intoxicate. Don’t forget to pick up a bag or many, of raisins and other dried fruits to go while you plan your trip to Xinjiang!
Photo credit: Black Sesame Kitchen
BANSHTAI TSAI, ULAANBAATAR
In Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, are several local guanz (canteens) and local fast-food establishments located on Peace Avenue, the main thoroughfare. I visited Zochin Buuz (closed) and Khaan Buuz. Besides serving up the eponymous buuz (steamed dumplings), I kept going back for their Banshtai Tsai, a bowl of bansh (mutton dumplings) boiled in savory milk-tea broth, most satisfying when it’s -15°C outside and snowing in early October! It has become a must-have whenever I find myself in a city outside Mongolia with the extremely rare, authentic Mongolian restaurant (no, not traditional Mongolian BBQs which are supposedly a Taiwanese invention!)
Photo credit: Flickr @Kake
HIDDEN VALLEY RESORT, SHANGRI-LA
Another fond food memory would be of my trip to what seemed like Paradise on Earth – Hidden Valley Resort. Boasting farm-to-table produce, we were spoilt for choice by the various options from a steaming hotpot on chilly evenings to bonfire barbeques on others, while the staff captivated audience with a Tibetan song and dance routine. With a bottle of Shangri-La Highland Craft Beer in hand – the perfect complement to any highland barbecue – we sang along to Tibetan ditties wishing our magical escape would never end.
Photo credit: Hidden Valley Resort
FRIED GRUB, KUNMING
Another epicurean highlight, for adventurous palates, would be trying a plate of fried grubs in a small family restaurant in Kunming. Many markets in Chinese cities serve insect skewers but Yunnan boasts a unique range of edible insects known as a "Yunnan insect banquet." Specialties are bamboo grubs, silk worms, cicadas and dragonflies. Once the gross factor has passed, they are a pleasant combination of crunchy, sweet and salty, not unlike French Fries! Besides, an insect diet might just be the food of our future!
Photo credit: Tripadvisor @ GL2018HK
Photo credit: Facebook @ Penny Smith
KAIDA NO POPPOYA, KISOMACHI
Along the fabled Nakasendo Way in Kisomachi, not far from Jizo Pass, hides a delightful gem of a café-restaurant – Kaida No Poppoya. Owned by the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Ando, this homely Italian café-restaurant with a view of the sacred Mt. Ontake, Japan’s second highest volcano after Mt. Fuji, serves up a mind-blowingly tasty Miso Pizza that I still crave till this moment! While scoffing down my third slice, the sweet couple Mr. Ando playing the shamisen, and Mrs. Ando, the harmonica. Even though they spoke no English, guests were taught a little ditty and encouraged to sing-along! After our meal, guests are invited outside where railway-enthusiast Mr. Ando gave us a spirited demonstration of his railway set, against a stunning backdrop of Mt. Ontake. Undoubtedly the highlight of my hike, their love for life and heartfelt omotenashi was infectious and I was moved to tears; no translation was necessary.