Li River Cruise and Rice Noodles Nourish the Soul in Guilin, China

Typical scenery along the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo.

Along the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo

by Jean and Peter Richards

The Li River cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo is one of the most touristic trips in China, but it is a journey worth taking.

We had the good fortune to fly in from Hong Kong on a clear day at an altitude low enough to see the verdant and varied landscape over Guanxi to Guilin. It was a revelatory view for us who have seen more forests of skyscrapers across China than trees.

Scenery along the waterways in Guilin.

Old stone village in Guilin

Guilin, an ancient imperial seat and more recently home base for the Kuomintang, would be just an unexciting third-level city in south central China today if it weren’t for the wondrous landscape flanking the Li on its 83 kilometer cruising route.

The limestone cones of the karst, sculpted by millennia of rainfall, rise and fall, green with vegetation, stripped in places to their geologic colors, spotted with gaping caves and crowned with phantasmagorical features.

The sparkling river, shallow at winter’s approach, rippled with fish, some sold directly to the waterside kitchens in the sterns of the flat bottomed boats.

The Chinese seem to have a knack for moving masses of people with minimal disruption.

Going down to the river boats for the cruise.

Down to the river boats

On an off-season day, our English-speaking guide said that 20,000 people may be on the Li. The figure was hard to believe, but on arrival at the Man Pan Hill Wharf, the smaller of two starting points, there were hundreds of people cascading down the stone steps boarding as many as 18 two-and-a-half storey boats. Once on the water, it seemed as if ours was the only vessel afloat.

It didn’t take long for patrons to abandon the comfort of the lower decks for the rails of the upper observation area. It was brisk. The views were compelling as our guide pointed out the fancifully named formations: panda, apple, woman with baby on her back, old man and nine horses.

Many Chinese tourists seemed more interested in taking selfies than seeing the scenery.

Chinese tourists were more interested in taking selfies than seeing the scenery

The karst is richly veined, often white, sometimes striated and with smatterings of red or yellow. Sichuan bamboo, planted, she said, at the direction of Deng Zhou Ping as tourism replaced manufacturing, edges the embankments. The hills were filled with osmanthus trees and orchards of kumquats and citrus covered in plastic against the autumnal night. Oxen grazed. Ducks paddled in profusion. The tradition of fishing with cormorants has given way to large nets lowered onto the sandy bottom. Bamboo rafts have become plastic. Walking trails seem abundant. Modern life encroaches only occasionally in the form of a utility line.

It would be easy to miss a high note of the legendary cruise. Visitors have about 40 seconds to see and photograph it, if they know what it is. A clue can be found on the cluster of karst featured on current 20 yuan notes. Many people miss it, we were told, because guides point them to an earlier cluster which is vaguely similar and visible for longer, giving the boat’s commercial photographers more time to profit.

Li River scenery featured on 20 yuan banknote.

Li River scenery on 20 yuan banknote

Lunch could have been missed and was supplemented by many with orders of sticky taro balls and river fish caught nearby and fried on the boat.

Four hours passed as if we had slipped into an ancient scroll painting both familiar and rare.

Debarkation at Yangshuo was like rush hour at Grand Central Station – thousands of people scrambled up steps and long ramps to walk along the seemingly endless galleria lined with merchants selling the same horrible trinkets. Yangshuo may have been nice once. It is said to be one of the most westernized towns in China. We took a brief look and declined to linger.

Younger, more energetic visitors are enticed by climbing, hiking, biking and rafting opportunities in Guilin and around Guanxi.

Elephant Trunk Hill with pagoda on top.

Elephant Trunk Hill

Tang Yun (Catherine), our guide for two days, was exceptional. Talking with her and learning about Guilin, its history and customs, was as much a part of our pleasure as seeing the actual sights. We spent a day with her in Guilin seeing Elephant Trunk Hill and Fubo Hill but mostly enjoying an afternoon cruise on the intown lakes and a stroll around the hutong being reconstructed as “Snack Street.”

Along "Snack Street."

Along “Snack Street”

Guilin has a reputation for some of the best rice noodles in China because the rice growing conditions and water are ideal.

Guilin rice noodles.

Guilin rice noodles

At Ming Gui, we had very good rice noodles with pork and a variety of condiments from peanuts to hot chillies. The sauce is special to each kitchen and can include 20-30 ingredients to which broth may be added. A large and delicious bowlful cost only 5 yuan or about 75 cents.

At another stop, Hua Gui, we sampled sticky rice balls, fried and rolled in sesame after having a bowl of soy milk, red beans and red sugar and a plate of chicken feet. Enough for three cost only 28 yuan or about $3.92.

Customers slurp up the rice noodles at Ming Gui.

Slurping rice noodles at Ming Gui

Stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu

Piles of what appeared to be charcoal from a distance turned out to be a local favorite even if from Changsha in the adjoining province of Hunan. The fried fermented bean curd called Stinky Tofu developed a black crust that was crunchy on the outside and had a creamy tofu center. Condiments added personal taste to the 5 yuan bowl.


Panorama from the 6th floor of Shangri-La Hotel.

Panorama from the 6th floor of Shangri-La Hotel

The Shangri-la Hotel Guilin with its expansive garden, homage to traditional architecture and commodious rooms also has a quite decent restaurant – The Shang Palace. Restaurant staff often approach us with skepticism when we ask for dishes not usually ordered by Westerners, then warm to the occasion when we clear our plates. That evening we had a cold appetizer of ox tongue, tripe, heart and beef in spicy sauce, fried tiny Li River baby shrimp with chives;  braised sliced pork belly with taro, rice and Longji local tea which was light and soothing. The meal came to 342.60 yuan or about $50. Everything was well prepared, well served and enjoyed even if the tiny shrimp with their muddy flavor were not to our taste and the pork belly with taro, while interesting, was not something we would order again.


Li River cruise boat.

Li River cruise boat


“Guilin’s scenery is best among all under heaven” is a popular saying. The “forest of sweet osmanthus” as Guilin is traditionally known will be a bright memory.

© 2016 by Jean & Peter Richards

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Savor the Flavors of the Friuli in Spring (or anytime)

Decadence, thy name is Chocolat: ladling out pure pleasure in Trieste

Decadence, thy name is Chocolat: ladling out pure pleasure in Trieste

By Jean and Peter Richards

Spring is a good time to savor the flavors of the Friuli where the warmth of an Italian welcome is always in season.

The natural resilience of the people of this long-besieged landscape manifests itself magnificently in the gastronomy influenced by the historic necessity to use every last scrap and to maximize taste: seafood boreto, pickled turnip brovada and powerful grappa.

We like this northeast corner of Italy in late March ahead of the seaside tourist season just as the daffodils open and the Carnian mountain slopes turn lushly green. We go there to sip the refreshing local wines and eat grilled meats and roasts, seafood, the first spring asparagus, the spectacular radicchios of Gorizia and Treviso and desserts like strucchi filled with nuts and dried fruit.

The strucci at Trattoria alla Posta,  a famous dish in the Carnia, and iindescribably delicious.

The strucchi at Trattoria alla Posta, a famous dish in the Carnia, and indescribably delicious.

We had these the first day of spring at Trattoria Gostilna Devetek

The first day of spring at Trattoria Gostilna Devetek

Fusion is no new trend here where the descendants of Celts, Gauls, Romans, Etruscans and Huns have been mixing it up through the ages with great success. Younger cooks are moving in more global directions, not always with similar success. Two restaurants where we had previously enjoyed wonderful meals fell far short this trip under the influence of mindless innovation.

Fortunately, most Furlans know better than to rush headlong into a trend. Fine meals in the Friuli can often be had that would be worthy of a major urban setting and that cost far less here than they might elsewhere. In general, the Italians are not greedy and don’t jack up prices of coffee, wine and bottled water the way the French do.

Every few years we stay at the Grand Hotel Astoria in Grado and try to sample as much as we can from Grado on the Adriatic to Clodig in the Carnia. In Italy we like to have our main meal of the day at lunch. Rarely do we eat as well for as little anywhere as we do in the Friuli. Lunch for the two of us generally runs in the 50-60 euro range. Fish restaurants are more expensive.

Gallinella di acqua (water hen) in umido con polenta. From the kitchen of La Barcanetta.

Gallinella di acqua (water hen) in umido con polenta. From the kitchen of La Barcaneta.

Our choices are generally selected because they have been suggested by enthusiastic eaters, food professionals in the area, stumbled upon by accident or found in one of the lists distributed by similar restaurants, in a guide or on an internet site.

Some meals are satisfying; some meals are memorable. Some people are lucky to live in a place time has passed by. It almost seems some days as if work is a way to kill time before a very good lunch.

The recommendable highlights for 2015, in no particular order, are:

Osteria di Villafredda in Tarcento.

Osteria di Villafredda in Tarcento.

Osteria Villafredda, Via Liruti 7, 33017 Tarcento, where we shared the 31€ Menu Tipico with silky, delicate lardo and cotello, an herbed frittata with fried cheese, a lusty but well-balanced barley soup with beans, the local ravioli known as cialcions (or cjalcions) of Carnia, sliced pork medallions with sweet herbs and a very good strudel.

The soup at Villafreda had great depth.

The soup at Villafreda had great depth.

We also shared on the al la carte menu a fine salad of a shredded radicchio with shaved duck ham, an inventive and refined artichoke mousse with the local Montasio cheese in the sauce and veal kidneys with mustard sauce. The bill with wine, water and a sorbetto was 68€.

Trattoria Gostilna Devetak at San Michele del Carso on the Slovenian border has kept its standards and passed them on to the next generation. The hills are dotted with signs indicating the battlefields of World War I. The restaurant is rustically Karst with art nouveau touches in the lighting and woodwork. The food draws from the mountains, Austria and Eastern Europe.

Our meal::

Tapelspitz, a nod toward Austria with pork, brisket, tongue and a tartare with yogurt and mustard — a bollito misto without the broth. It was very good.

The first white asparagus on the first day of Spring tenderly cooked and served with a perfectly poached egg on one side and a creamy cheese sauce on the other.

Mlinci con La sapete, a tradtional dish kept aalive at Devetek

Mlinci con La Supeta, a tradtional dish kept alive at Devetak

Mlinci con La Supeta, the restaurant’s Dish of Memory, a flavorful stew of tender chicken breast with lasagna-like pasta and paprika. It is memorialized on a plate which came with the entrée – a ceramic souvenir tradition which began 51 years ago as a promotion by some restaurants in Italy organized to save the old recipes. Unione Ristoranti del Buon Riccordo adds new plates yearly and people collect them. This was our first. The entrée was 15€ including the charming plate illustrated with a cartoon chicken.

Homemade tagliatelle sauced with wild boar was followed by apple strudel with poppy seed and pine nuts, which was unusual and not quite to our taste, and a sweet, unleavened dough filled with jam and served with vanilla sauce. With water, wine and coffee, the bill came 67.30€. Homemade grappa was offered.

The Devetak family has joined the movement to bring back traditional breads. Cheese sticks were thin and crispy, crostata was crunchy. The heritage breads were presented as part of the “Let’s Save the Bread” campaign undertaken by 20 restaurateurs in the region who are “raising the alarm to save the traditionally naturally leavened fresh bread.” The manifesto went on to say, the “market is overrun with frozen bread, often produced outside of Italy. Bread that is reheated just before going on to the shelves, and sold as fresh. And, there is worse to come: it’s made with flours mixed with self-raising substances to drastically reduce the preparation time. This means the job of of the yeasts continues in our stomachs, so the digestion process after eating this type of bread (and sweet buns or pizzas) is long and hard…….We have to turn back to the traditional, fresh, digestible bread made as it has been for thousands of years: grain, flour, natural yeast and water.” Their passion is contagious.

It was so nice to see people doing something well over a sustained period of time and generations.

Fritto misto at de Toni, a fine rendition.

Fritto misto at de Toni, a fine rendition.

de Toni, Piazza Duca d’Aosta, 37, Grado. A very good restaurant for fritto misto and fish prepared well and served in an attractive setting in the old quarter. Not just a tourist place in a resort town. Our bill was 49€ for a fritto misto, a grilled orate, a salad, and water.

One of the greatest: radicchio de Goritzia with sweet and sour vinaigrette at Al Parco.

One of the greatest: radicchio de Goritzia with sweet and sour vinaigrette at Al Parco.

Al Parco, Via Stretta del Parco, 7 33042 Buttrio. There is no sign visible at the entrance gate to this handsome stone edifice in a park-like setting. Fred, the loquacious Albanian-born waiter, gives good advice and says rightly that “the food here is very traditional, very simple and very good.”

We had:

Flower of radicchio of Gorizia with spek sautéed to golden with a warm sweet-sour vinaigrette, one of the most beautiful and most satisfying appetizers in the culinary heavens. Spectacular.

Prosciutto with fried zucchini flowers. Sweet prosciutto with tempura-like flowers that were hot, crisp and crunchy.

Carpaccio of venison at Al Parco, sprinkled with grated horseradish and pomegranate seeds, was fresh and startlingly good.

Carpaccio of venison, sprinkled with grated horseradish and pomegranate seeds was fresh and startlingly good.

Carpaccio of deep red, very fresh, thinly sliced venison with with tiny flecks of raw horseradish, a drizzle of olive oil, a raspberry, blackberry and kumquat and pomegranate seeds had a fresh and delicate taste, not a bit gamey. A large portion. Served with a piece of crostada. It was interesting, new to us, and delicious.

Homemade and very thin tagliatelle with green and white asparagus in a cream sauce sprinkled with cheese. We had glasses of Pinot Griglio Meroi to begin and Sauvignon Meroi with the venison.

Fred said, as he has before, that he would make us a good bill and he did. “It came to 300, but I made it 60.” We happily paid.

We were pleased to have met Claudio Moretti, the highly skilled owner/chef at La Barcanetta.

We were pleased to have met Claudio Moretti, the highly skilled owner/chef at La Barcaneta.

Trattoria Barcaneta in Piazza Marii, 7, Marano Luganare, a particularly pretty fishing port where Claudio Moretti presides at his restaurant with a precision bordering on brilliance. It was an extraordinary lunch and one we would not have had had without a recommendation from the waiter at another restaurant. The dishes are interesting and composed of fresh ingredients simply dressed, but it was one of the few times in our half century of eating out when every single ingredient was perfection. Nothing was overcooked; nothing was under dressed; nothing was amiss. Flavors, even when unusual, worked.

Insalata di piovra con rosa di Gorizia e brovada crudo: thin slices of chilled octopus with Goritzian radicchio and shreds of pickled turnip. Very lightly dressed in oil.

Some perfectly fried shrimp and tiny fish at La Barcanetta.

Some perfectly fried shrimp and tiny fish at La Barcaneta.

The little plate of lightly battered tiny shrimp and fish chef offered as an adjunct may have been the best fritto misto we’ve ever enjoyed. They were piping hot and crunchy, a rarity.

Codine di gambero su letto di peperoni: prawn were delicate yet with a distinct, fresh flavor and served on a slight squiggle of pepper sauce. Possibly the star of the day.

Codine di gambero.

Codine di gambero.

Filetto di orata scottato con radicchio di Treviso et crema di aceto balsamico; an interesting combination with the tart radicchio.

Spaghetti di Gragnano con fasolari (a red fleshed mollusc) e aspargi (green and white).

Gallinella di acqua (water hen) in umido con polenta. There is a local fish for which that name is used. Lumps of firm, white flesh. Whatever it is it was served in the most beautifully seasoned stock and with a slice of polenta. The bill was a bargain at 95€ and included two glasses of wine and coffee.

Filetto di orata scottato con radicchio di Treviso et crema di aceto balsamico.

Filetto di orata scottato con radicchio di Treviso et crema di aceto balsamico.

Sliced steak on rocket at La Taveernetta

Sliced steak on rocket at La Taveernetta

Tavernetta di Sara & Diego at Via Madonna del Mare, 2 , Trieste, is charming. It has half a dozen tables and a local clientele. The steak on rocket with shaved Grana Padano, recommended by Adam Begley in an article in 2011, was excellent. We also shared a fittingly filling tagliatelle with guanciale. Lunch was 60.50€, including two glasses of wine and water, We followed with a pleasant walk and coffee outside the famed Caffè Degli Specchi on the Piazza Unità d’Italia.. The two coffees cost 5€ and were worth every penny for the views of people and buildings.

Boreto di cappelonghiu (razor clams) at ai Bragossi in Grado.

Boreto di cappelonghiu (razor clams) at ai Bragossi.

Trattoria ai Bragossi, via Conte di Grado, 21, Grado, is a pleasant and good place to try boreto, a local specialty that evolved using the seafood that fisherman had left over from the catch or for which there was no market. A cheerful Austrian and Bragossi regular at the next table aided our choices: pepata di cozze, mussels in a light broth, 10€; boreto di seppie, cuttlefish in its own ink,15€; and boreto di cappelonghe, razor clams, 15€

Total 50€50 with water, 2 covers and 2 glasses of wine.

Grilled vegetables at Spaghetti Hojse in Grado.

Grilled vegetables at Spaghetti House in Grado.

The Spaghetti House, Via Gradenigo, 27, Grado. The name put us off. We never would have entered this terrific little restaurant if it hadn’t been for Albert the Austrian’s recommendation the evening before. The art of grilling fresh vegetables is perfected here as is the preparation of spaghetti with garlic, pepper and oil and spaghetti vongole. Our only regret was that it had not made our list earlier. It just goes to show, one should never be put off by a name even if it does conjure up images of a similarly named chain in Asia. It was a fine meal with a flavorful bowl of large croutons for the bread basket. The bill was a mere 30€. Albert and friend waved from across the room and said next time to have the boreto with buffalo mozzarella.

A great dessert at alla Buena Vite, served creatively in canning jar.

A great dessert at alla Buona Vite, served creatively in canning jar.

Alla Buona Vite, Via Dossi, 15, Boscat. It was another Austrian whom we met on a previous trip who introduced us to this restaurant a few winters ago. This time we went for lunch:

Tagliolini with green asparagus and shrimp, a light and fresh fritto misto, white asparagus gratinée and panacotta served in a canning jar topped by a strawberry confit and with fresh strawberries from Sicily on the side. 63.50€ with wine, water and coffee.

We were so enthusiastic we made a reservation for lunch the following Sunday. That was a mistake. It was very busy on Sunday and that appeared to affect the quality of the food. The best thing that day was the little plate of fritto misto offered as an aperitivo and a portion of spaghetti vongole. Still, we will certainly return.

Lady Chef Maria Gilda Plomosig does everything at Trattoria alla Posta.

Lady Chef Maria Gilda Primosig does everything at Trattoria alla Posta.

Trattoria alla Posta, Frazione Clodig 22, Grimacco, Frazzione Clodig, an hour and a half’s drive into the beautiful valley of the Natisone from Grado is not likely on the average visitor’s itinerary. It should be. This Slovenian border hamlet has a great cook. Maria Gilda Primosig wasn’t open the last time we drove into the mountains to find her, but this time we made a reservation and had a lunch which paid homage to the deep traditions of the Furlan culture and the creativity of the proud and self-described Lady Chef.

We let senora Maria have full rein, as did the other two diners, for a tasting menu supplemented by one glass of red Merlot and one glass of a white Tokai.

The slice of San Daniele prosciutto astride a warmly wilted Treviso radicchio with a sweet-sour dressing was a fine opener.

Easter bread in shape of chick.

Easter bread in shape of chick.

Senora told an elaborate story about the bread in the shape of a chick, but we couldn’t understand most of it. It did have to do with Easter. The chick was served with a scoop of ricotta and herbed spaetzle.

Potato soup with fennel and a dollop of pink ricotta, a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds and a sprig of fennel was spectacular.

Where is potato soup a work or art – and delicious? Answer; Trattoria della Posta.

Where is potato soup a work or art – and delicious? Answer; Trattoria allla Posta.

Pasta (cjalcions) with a light cheese sauce was followed by a steamed artichoke. Small, feathery light gnocchi were interspersed in its leaves after having been tossed in a tomato sauce. We love artichokes but thought the tomato sauce did not pair well and that the favor of the very good gnocchi was lost under the sauce and within the leaves.

Guanciale de miale — a small piece of long-braised pork cheek. Very good.

A pleasant, refreshing lettuce salad was enlivened by a vinegar which we were instructed to spray on the leaves.

Strucchi, dumpling style ravioli filled with nuts and raisins and warmed in butter was simply incredible.

You could easily drive e by Trattoria della Posta and not notice it.

You could easily drive e by Trattoria alla Posta and not notice it.

The food was 25€ a person and the beverages, coperto and coffee accounted for another 11€ of the 61€ bill. Our Lady Chef offered us and the other diners, a young couple from Monfalcone, homemade nocino liqueur at the bar. Rarely is a digestive a bad idea and this was a very good one even if the road down was narrow and winding. While we sipped, Senora Primosog talked about her foraging and growing the more than 40 herbs on which she relies. She appeared to do everything herself from gathering the food to setting the tables, cooking, serving and no doubt doing the dishes. This is a place, as so many seem to be in the Carnia, where those who know go.

The reassessments of restaurants mentioned in the January 31, 2012, article archived on this blog:

These colored ravioli at La  Pergola were presumptuous. They tried to look good but were lacking in flavor and texture.

These colored ravioli at La Pergola were presumptuous. They tried to look good but were lacking in flavor.

La Pergola (formerly Osteria Al Ponte) in San Daniele has passed to a new generation of cooks intent on further updating. We did not enjoy the radicchio and San Daniele ham overwhelmed by a mustardy dressing or the multi-colored ravioli where the emphasis was on appearance rather than taste. Lamb chops were okay, but unevenly cooked. We passed on dessert and thought lunch this time at 72€ was expensive relative to quality.

Gnocchi with chopped pork at Terra & Vini.

Gnocchi with chopped pork at Terra & Vini.

Terra & Vini, Via XXiV Maggio, 34, 34071 Brazzano di Cormons, is an osteria of the Livia Felluga vineyard. Our previous experience might have been hard to match under any circumstance, but this experience fell far short. They never give us a menu here so we left the choices to the waiter. There were different cooks this year. The selection was white and bland: cheese slices, cheese balls, thin slices of veal dotted with diced pepper and sautéed zucchini cubes on mache, potato gnocchi with chopped veal and a very good slice of spinach soufflé. A tasting portion of beef cheeks and polenta was competently prepared, but unusually characterless. Still we would try Terre & Vini again as it may just have been an off day. Lunch with drinks and tiramisu came to 65€.

The pasts with carciofi fell short of our expectations.

The pasts with carciofi fell short of our expectations.

Al Piave, Via Cormons 6, Mariano del Friuli. We had a wonderful lunch at Al Piave some years ago, but this one was disappointing. The service was slow, the roast veal was stale and pasta with artichoke had a gooey cheese sauce. The portions are ample and the food is substantial. Perhaps Sunday lunch was not the best time to go. We might try it again. Bill was 63.20€ including wine, water and coffee.

Local and simple:

Pizzeria La Ciacolata, Via Caprin, 35, Grado. The Margherita at 6€ was big enough for the two of us (but younger eaters would probably order two) and as good as one from Naples, which is where the staff hails from.

Pappa e Cicci on 352 route on Cervignano. The calamari fritti was above average, French fries below. It was old fashioned, pleasant and okay. The San Daniele ham board at another table looked appealing and pasta may have been a better choice in this homey place. Lunch for two, 29€.

Three Specialists

Gelateria Gran Gelato, Via Udine, 47, 33052 Cervignano del Friuli. Some days we have to double back to get the Gran Gelato but we wouldn’t think of not having a post prandial scoop. Try all the flavors. It’s the only solution in this popular place where a scoop is only 1.20€ and please tell the Senora that “the old Americans” sent you.

Luxurious, and only a day's worth of calories at Chocolat in Trieste.

Luxurious, and only a day’s worth of calories at
Chocolat in Trieste.

Chocolat, Via di Cavana, 15, Trieste. Only in Italy would a cup of pure chocolate ladled smooth as silk from a pot cost 1€30. The chocolate can be had in a glass, spiced with cinnamon or ginger or topped with really thick whipped cream. This convivial spot is also a confectionary. It was worth going to Trieste again just for this experience.

A good place to buy prosciutto and other products in San Danielle

A good place to buy prosciutto and other products in San Daniele

Prosciuttifico Prolongo, Viale Tempo e Trieste, San Daniele, is just outside of town. There are many places to buy the famous ham in San Daniele, but this producer won us over by accommodating our small needs with grace and good cheer. The products are excellent.

One final note of praise for Italy:

On our way to the Friuli we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill at the Cremona Sud exit on the A21-E70 autostrada. The food at the restaurant looked good. We ordered tagliatelle with funghi (mushrooms) and a plate of prosciutto. Both were very good, better than you would get at most Italian restaurants in most American cities. Just another reason we love Italy.

Buon appetito!

Octopus salad at La Barcanetta.

Octopus salad at La Barcaneta.

Dessert at Villafreda

Dessert at Villafreda

© 2015 by Jean & Peter Richards

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Japan: complex, mysterious and isolated

Toji Temple in Kyoto, serene and less commercialized, has the tallest pagoda in Japan.

Toji Temple in Kyoto, serene and less commercialized, has the tallest pagoda in Japan.

By Jean and Peter Richards

Japan surprised and grew on us.

We were surprised to learn that a country with such global reach could still be so insular and homogeneous.

It was something of a shock to be in cities that value cleanliness, efficiency and good manners. We saw no litter, no graffiti, no tattoos or body piercings and no end of well-dressed people, polite teenagers, spotless taxi cabs, sparkling windows and orderly queues.

Tokyo is not a pretty city. Bombs and earthquakes obliterated much of its architecture in the 20th century. That which replaced it is often functional and banal. A point of pride amongst locals is the Tokyo Tower, a 1,093 foot orange and white monstrosity modeled on the Eiffel Tower and built in the 1950’s to carry broadcast antennas. The most interesting new designs we saw were along Omotesando, a leafy avenue in the Miniato district. There, a hodge podge of buildings of modest scale by name brand architects house the expensive handbag and shoe shops the Japanese have helped make so profitable at home and abroad.

The best shops we saw were underground — the extraordinary food halls of Japan’s traditional department stores. Matsuya on Ginza where the staff gathers on opening to bow to incoming customers, became our favorite because it seemed to concentrate most on the broad range of Japanese taste, on freshness and on tempting in-store treats and takeaway.

Typical plastic display showing selection on offer at department store.

Typical plastic display showing selection on offer at department store.

Food, like so many things we found in Japan, reflects a complicated and ritualistic approach. The fundamentals of preparation can boggle the mind.

Westerners seem to love Japanese restaurants at home, but in two weeks we seldom saw a non-Asian in any place where we ate and were conscious of being curiosities amongst shoppers in the fascinating markets and food halls.

Never have we seen so many ingredients that we couldn’t identify or been in so many restaurants resistant to accommodating foreigners. Still, we found places where staff or customers went out of their way to instruct us in the many styles of cooking from Ramen, Sushi, Sashimi, Yakitori, Tempura  Tonkatsu, Teppanyaki, Shabu Shabu, Kare Raisu to Shojin.

One of Tokyo’s gastronomic cathedrals will soon disappear. The cavernous Tsukiji Fish Market where the legendary tuna auction takes place is a study in chaos and a model of efficiency. Motorized carts zip over cobbled lanes dodging stacks of styrofoam boxes, blocks of ice and the flashing knives of fish cutters.

Slicing tuna at Tsukiji Market.

Slicing tuna at Tsukiji Market.

“You are very lucky,” a security guard told us in a rare burst of English. “You know that the market is broken in two years.”  The clang and clatter of commercial history could be replaced by the clink of the cocktail glass in a casino if some have their way. Construction of the new market site outside the central city is moving forward on land claimed to be toxic.

Given that we have early childhood memories of World War II, Pearl Harbor Day seemed a slightly perverse time to visit the controversial Yasukuni Memorial to Japanese who died fighting for the emperor, but we did it anyway. Just standing next to the the Zero fighter plane and a locomotive from the infamous Burma line in the shrine’s museum had a chilling effect.

Strings of wishes left by worshippers at Yasukuni memorial for war dead.

Strings of wishes left by worshippers at Yasukuni memorial for war dead.

The East Asia War, as it is known, is not forgotten in Japan. At the temporary but very informative exhibition of Tokyo’s urban history in the Edo Museum we stood silently beside a middle-aged Japanese man solemnly reading the Instrument of Surrender aloud to a young boy.

Treasures abound at the the Honkan Museum in the National Museum complex at Ueno Park and at the Nezu Museum where the harmony so important to the Japanese aesthetic is achieved in the building, the garden and the extraordinary collections of bronzes and the objects associated with tea. It is a serene and beautiful place.

This exquisite piece is used by the Nezu Museum as its signature.

This exquisite piece is used by the Nezu Museum as its signature.

Early December weather tempered our exploration of northern Japan; we headed south on the fabulous bullet train. The world’s busiest high speed rail network, the Shinkansen turned 50 in 2014 but it still seems young, fresh and innovative. On a clear day, the clean windows of the sleek train to Kyoto offered sensational views of Mount Fuji and tea terraces along the way.

Kyoto is at its fashionable best in Spring when cherries blossom and Fall when when maple leaves color. We caught the last bit of brilliant red color and happily missed the leaf peeping hordes by a week. There was an occasional nip in the air the second week in December and the weather, more invigorating than hampering for us, was obviously chilling to the local geishas-in-training running errands in Gion. The famous old district seemed contracted, tattered and a trap for young women and tourists.

If you can eat it, you can find it at the Nishiki Market.

If you can eat it, you can find it at the Nishiki Market.

Nearby and more interesting is the venerable Nishiki, one of the world’s great covered markets. The stalls in the five-block galleria brim with temptation – an amazing array of pickles, a shop for pepper that gives new definition to the word hot, glistening fish and freshly roasted spices and strange mixtures for sprinkling on rice. Small soy donuts warm from the fryer at Konna Monja disappeared quickly when the oil was fresh in morning, but were a disappointment later one afternoon. At Kyo Yasai Kanematsu two perfect strawberries can cost a small fortune, every vegetable is treated as a work of art and a very good luncheon can be had in the restaurant upstairs. Serious cooks stop at Aritsugu whose family members have been forging metal since 1560 and still set the standard for knives. Their knives are handsome, sharp and very expensive.

A penchant for obliterating some aspects of the past infects the ancient imperial capital these days but not in its preservation of hundreds of temples. They are so prolific that choosing a few amongst many becomes quite a chore. The best advice came from friends familiar with Japan and a  woman at the Tourist Office on the second floor at Kyoto Station. She jabbered in English like a French woman in a frenzy, but gave terrific advice: avoid the tours because “they take tourists to the temples where they can shop at souvenir stands. Walk over and see the Toji Temple which is nearby. You will like it.”

Part of the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.

Part of the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.

We loved Toji for its beautifully proportioned pagoda, splendid grounds and lack of commerciality; Ryoan-ji for its magnificent dry rock and moss gardens; and Fushimi-Inari, touristed as it is, for its long line of Chinese red gates.

“Hello. Hello. Where are you from?” chirped students from Omuta as they approached.

Westerners become accustomed in Asia to being politely accosted by clusters of children eager to practice their English. Enthusiasm usually outstrips ability, but the encounter is sometimes the first with a foreigner and forms a lasting impression. Hand-drawn souvenirs were given in thanks.

The unforgettable red gates at Fushimi-Inari/

The unforgettable red gates at Fushimi-Inari.

The young and squeamish squeal with fear and delight in 8th century Nara when tame deer aggressively nuzzle visitors en route to the Todai-ji temple, home to one of the biggest Buddhas in Japan. It and Nara’s park and other temples are perhaps more appealing to the pilgrim or day tripper than the traveler seeking historic enlightenment.

A surprising number of museums were closed during our stay. The National Museum in Kyoto’s stunning  and intelligently mounted collection of Buddhas and bodhisattvas was a fortunate Sunday morning excursion. The very modern new wing evokes in its grayness and spareness a traditional Japanese construction using metal, glass and water rather than wood.

The setting and the objects at the Miho Museum are spectacular.

The setting and the objects at the Miho Museum are spectacular.

We ended our stay at the Miho Museum, I. M. Pei’s masterpiece set in a dense forest an hour’s drive from Kyoto. The Chinese-born architect literally moved the earth and put it back in place for this museum approached through a tunnel, set mostly underground, funded by Mihoko Koyama as a venue of “virtue and beauty” for followers of her cult-like spiritual organization and stocked with Han bronzes, Achaemenid gold, Bactrian silver, Persian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian rarities from a splendid buying spree.

It has a spectacular site, a stunning entrance, a magnificent design and a superb collection and is as complex, mysterious and isolated as Japan itself.

© 2015 by Jean & Peter Richards

At the temples in Japan the worshippers burn slips of paper with wishes on them and waft the smoke toward their faces.

At temples in Japan the worshippers burn slips of paper with wishes on them and waft the smoke toward their faces.

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Food in Japan: look, eat, learn

The chefs are era cut ups at the Tsukiji Sushisay.

The chefs are real cut ups at the Tsukiji Sushisay.

By Jean and Peter Richards

We ate well in Japan; sometimes we did not know what we were having.

In our half century searching for good things to eat across the globe, never have we seen so many ingredients we couldn’t identify, been in so many restaurants unprepared for foreigners or considered so many menus where we did not have a clue.

Two weeks were hardly enough to do more than scratch the surface but more than enough to make us eager for more.

Tempura was always a treat — fresh and light.

Tempura was always a treat — fresh and light.

Very little of what we had had elsewhere came close to authentic in Japan. Tempura was lighter. Miso had more depth. Noodles were better. Pickles were amazing. Sukiyaki was a completely different experience.

We had no idea where to begin with shabu shabu, how to cook gluten or in what order and with what sauce to eat the foods arrayed in the Tankatsu style restaurant. Chopsticks, however, were never a problem even when wresting the perfectly grilled breakfast scallop out of its shell to fortify ourselves for Tsukiji’s cavernous fish market.

Nothing shabby about these shabu shabu ingredients.

Nothing shabby about these shabu shabu ingredients.

Markets are our museums of daily life. Within them we glimpse the colors, traditions, economic conditions and values of a culture. In Japan that means the emphasis is on quality, freshness, presentation, seasonality and service. It means an abundance of beautiful vegetables: perfect fruits presented in be-ribboned cellophane bags, lively fish, freshly roasted spices, rice seasonings and sushi counters with very long queues. Service comes with a smile and often a bow.

Prize melons were $37 apiece.

Prize melons: $37 apiece.

If one could judge a country by its food, Japan would be colorful, creative, clean, efficient, patient, not wasteful and still largely tradition-bound. Young cooks are making reputations with international gastronomes by being inventive, but in Japan they seem to respect tradition more than their colleagues abroad greedy for wider acclaim.

We can’t imagine not eating native when we travel. We had some things we liked less than others, but we never had anything that was not well prepared, well presented or well priced in its range.

Typical plastic dos[;lay shown g selection on offer.

Typical plastic display shown g selection on offer.

Ordering was difficult unless there were menus with pictures, or we could point to what others were eating and indicate a preference that way. Very occasionally we were handed an attempted English translation; it usually was difficult to fathom and involved a limited set menu. We seldom saw a Westerner in any restaurant and rarely heard anything other than Japanese.

Potato salad at Wabiya Zanmai,

Potato salad at Wabiya Zanmai,

After a week of reasonably successful experimentation in Tokyo, we fell upon Wabiya Zanmai, a pleasant place on the ground floor of Kyoto Station across from the New Miyako Hotel in Kyoto where we could sit at the comfortable counter and order from the pictures with curious captions on the menu or by pointing at what was coming off the grill. The first meal was so good we kept going back. By the third visit we had decided to work our way through the menu pictures convinced that we had found a convenient, convivial place which seemed authentic and was popular with locals. It was, we decided, a place we could be confident of eating well while learning about the Tepanyaki style.

One night’s grilled organ meats and Yakisoba noodles with flickering flakes of shaved and dried bonito led to another of selected pickles, skewers of shrimp, scallop, chicken liver, octopus, and garlicky chicken gizzards.

Wabiay Zanmai  stood tall for us.

Wabiya Zanmai stood tall for us.

We loved sitting at the counter and watching the cooks pour the thin egg mixture which they chased into the folds of the very popular Japanese omelet as the aromas of oden, a winter soup speciality on a steam table, wafted our way.

Who knew that a cloudy soup loosely transliterated as “Toro Mettari” would pair so well with a superb potato salad and small beef intestine or that a raw egg could enhance beef grilled on a hot plate?

By the fourth visit, staff was beginning to nod in a vague welcoming way and occasionally smile. Diners chattered about our presence, our orders and our quizzical natures. When we ordered the seasonal vegetables with sauce, diners across the way signalled thumbs up. The artfully arranged bowl with a chunk of cabbage, daikon and squash came with a white plastic pouch decorated with red and black characters containing the intense and delicious mystery miso in which the vegetables were to be dipped.

Nishiki  Market in Kyoto was a highlight of our visit.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto was a highlight of our visit.

A traditional flattened cabbage pancake called Okonomiyaki fell flat with us at another visit, but a chicken curry, Indian in influence only, was a pleasant surprise as was the young waitress who on the last evening spoke English well enough to ask where we were from, if we cooked and when we were leaving. That night we had a wonderful meal of garlic rice, deep-fried chicken thighs with citrusy ponzu sauce, daikon, bacon and mushroom salad, oden with enoki mushrooms and yuzu citrus pepper.

The chef sent over some pickle and when we were leaving he, the barman and the waitress presented us with a pouch of their special sauce as a gift. Then they bowed and saw us off, waving until we disappeared out of sight. It was a very touching finale to a very interesting week.

Grilling scallops at the Tsiki Market/

Grilling scallops at the Tsikiji Market.

Places to Eat:

Tokyo recommendations:

Matsuya Ginza, Mitsukoshi, Isetan and Takashimaya Department store food halls and restaurant floors. Restaurants are generally small, have limited seating and fill up early. Each store has a place where takeaway purchased in the food hall can be consumed and some have very good sushi and other food bars in the halls.

Tsukiji Sushisay (since 1889)4-13-5 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku outside the Tsukiji Market where by chance Peter had what he said was the best sushi he ever had – 10 pieces plus miso soup and tea for less than $18.

Asakusa Imahan Restaurant, Nishi Asakusa (since 1895), recommended by Yukari Sakamoto for shabu shabu and sukiyaki. They were excellent. Since both are cooked by the diner, good instructions were provided in English. Lunch for two with tea was about $78.

Shoshoan, 2-10-1810 Ginza, Chuo, across the street from the front entrance of the Hotel Mercure Ginza. Convenient, quiet and comfortable, with good, simple food. Soba noodles are a specialty. Dinner with noodles, tempura and drinks under $40. The desk at the Mercure has a menu translated into English which is helpful.

Occasionally we found that restaurants offered house made ginger ale as a drink. It was a revelation when available.

Kyoto recommendations:

Wabiya Zanmai, Kyoto Station:

Most main dishes were in the $7 to $9 range; starters at $2 and more-than-sufficient evening meals and drinks seldom went over $40 for two. The restaurant, which also had traditional Japanese table seating in one area tended to fill up by 6:30. Twice we waited until 7:30 p.m. to have places at the counter. We would have reserved if we had known how to.

Ryoan-ji Temple Tea House

A charming traditional tea house where everything appears to be prepared to order. Best tempura of the trip — squash, pepper, mushroom and two prawn, pickle and rice with seasoning sprinkled on it for $7.20 and a curry udon for $8.30.

Kyo Yasai Kanematsu at Nishiki Market specializes in heirloom vegetables and has the Yaoya no Nikai restaurant upstairs accessed by stair at the back of the shop. We removed our shoes, climbed the wooden staircase and were ushered through the paper door into a small room with two tables for four and two for two spaciously set before low slung chairs. Yukari Sakamoto described it well in her guide, Food, Sake,Tokyo, which has suggestions for Kyoto as well.

“Each day the restaurant offers a set menu that may include tempura, vegetables dressed with sesame dressing, pickles, yuzu infused rice, and miso soup.” Reservations were advised, but there was plenty of room at 12:30 on a wintry day. We had rice infused with tiny bits of lemon peel and cabbage, potato tempura with a broccoli floret and a bit of green pepper and  vegetables we couldn’t identify. It was well prepared, pretty and interesting and we managed to be able to rise up from the low-to-floor chairs with some grace after it. Lunch was ¥4400 or about $36. We continued down the market stopping at the gluten sweet stall for a lollipop with red ginger which we did not like. Students swarmed the stand for such treats.

Yoshinoya is a fast food chain famous for its cheap and nourishing gyudon, a dish of sautéed beef and onions served over rice. A small bowl can be a big meal. On December 17, 2014, the chain raised the price for the first time in 24 years. Our bowl cost ¥300 on 9 December and went up to ¥380 a few days later rising from $2.54 to $3.22. The yen averaged 118 to $1.00 during our stay.

Nishiki Market

Daimaru Department Store restaurants on the eighth floor and basement food hall.

© 2015 by Jean & Peter Richards

Nishiki Market: pickled vegetables.

Nishiki Market: pickled vegetables.

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Prada Puts on a Devil of a Display in Hong Kong


By Peter & Jean Richards

Prada has put on a surprisingly interesting road show, Pradasphere, which is parked atop Pier Four on Hong Kong Island’s Victoria Harbor until 5 December 2014.

The luxury goods company has been reported to have asked for a rent reduction to compensate it for loss of business during the nearby Occupy Central protests this Fall, but it spared no expense in mounting the historical exhibition it modestly calls “the universe of Prada.”

We were on our way elsewhere when we spied the big black box on the roof of the pier and went for a look.

The front showcases a few dozen examples of beautifully crafted leather goods and accessories offered by Fratelli Prada in the glorious Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II from 1913. The rear wall flutters with visuals of models strutting the runways, but the central IMG_1632focus is on old-fashioned vitrines filled with contemporary Prada. Even the mannequins look uncomfortable in the outré costumes designed to be worn by models who can neither walk in the platformed and stilettoed heels nor sit comfortably in garb made of shaggy goat hair, acrylic crystals or waxed silk. The most tastefully dressed in the room were the docents clad discreetly in black. They were welcoming, knowledgeable and eager to elucidate.

There’s not much that’s pretty or wearable, but  it was fun and may soon be moving to a city near you.The exhibit was at Harrod’s In London in May and we were told it will make two more stops in Asia.

You can get all the details on the Internet, but here are some photographs which will give you the gist





















© 2014 by Peter & Jean Richards

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India’s Golden Triangle Proves a Great Introduction to a Rich and Ancient Culture

Turbans displayed for sale in Jaipur.

Turbans displayed for sale in Jaipur.

By Jean and Peter Richards

India’s Golden Triangle unfolds in layers as intricate as the colorful costumes of its women.

Its cities abound in economic contradictions; its suburbs burst with banal expansion, but in the landscapes of its fertile, furrowed fields, the India of vivid image comes to life.

New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra provided the classic tourist taste of a country as complicated as its condiments.

It teems with exotic sights and sounds, yet is familiar as the voices of the call support centers now known world-wide.

Elephants carry some tourists up to the fort in Jaipur.

Elephants carry some tourists up to the fort in Jaipur.

People we know seem to love or fear India. The well-traveled often advised, “Don’t go. You won’t be able to deal with the poverty.”

“Be careful. There’s crime on the streets and corruption everywhere.”

“Don’t drink the water.”

Ours was a limited taste of Delhi, new and old; Jaipur, Fatephur Sikri and Agra on a private tour for two arranged by Abercrombie and Kent (A & K). It was fabulous and whetted our appetites for more.

There is poverty. You see it in the people who live on the streets on Delhi and camping out in front of the walls of the enclaves of the privileged. You surmise it in the clusters of the un-Westernized sectors where the glorious colors of native costume brighten dusty markets and you suddenly realize that here is where people smile more. Poverty is not an assault on the senses as so many expect, it is a fact of existence.

Crime and corruption were factors in our choice of how to see India in the Fall of 2013. Reports of vicious attacks against women had spread and impacted tourism.

Woman checks her shopping list at Agra market.

Woman checks her shopping list at market.

As older, independent travelers, we had twice been stymied in attempts to plan a trip with some surety of arrangements. When A & K emailed a Fall Savings special, we leapt at the chance and for the first time in a half century of travel to nearly 40 countries on five continents booked a 10 day tour — albeit a flexible private itinerary with set dates and pricing for two complete with driver, guides and five-star accommodations. At $2,230 per person, exclusive of international airfare and travel document fees, it was a great choice.

At hotels along the way we met other Westerners exhausted from long days of luxury group journeys by rattling bus, irritated by fellow travelers and exasperated by the number of stops where tourists were encouraged so the driver could get a commission. We experienced none of that, but rather a splendid spree with informative guides, a skilled driver and pleasant lodging, particularly at the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur.

Both of us were recovering from modest injuries to limbs which slowed our pace but not our enthusiasm for Delhi, the nation’s capital, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque.

Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque.

Amidst the cacophony of Delhi lies the serenity of the magnificent remains of the 12th century Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque. We walked and idled amongst its arches, towers and green gardens as Mehesh Ramnani, our able guide, instructed in its Mughal history.

Proportion is essential to successful design. Humayan’s 16th century double-domed tomb is said to have inspired the perfection that is evident in the Taj Mahal at Agra. A more recent success is the Bahai Lotus Temple in which 27 marble petals unfold in a magnificent modern homage to the flower, a symbol of purity. The house of worship, surrounded by nine pools and set amidst expansive gardens, is open to all. Lines of visitors seem interminable but move with remarkable swiftness and respect for the site.

A drive around New Delhi’s British Colonial cream colored government centers, India Gate and leafy diplomatic enclaves was contrasted with the earthiness of Old Delhi’s spartan 17th century red sandstone fort, an early seat of Mughal power and later the place where the first flag of independence from British rule was raised in 1947.

Humayan’s tomb, said to be the model for the Taj Mahal.

Humayan’s tomb, said to be the model for the Taj Mahal.

Rickshaws aren’t the most comfortable mode of transportation, but they provide an easy way to traverse the narrow alleys of Delhi’s markets and reach its open air Jama Masjid mosque.

Gandhi Samriti, the house in New Delhi where the Mahatma spent his final months and was, was a serendipitous addition to our itinerary. His few worldly possessions are displayed in spartan rooms, but we were captivated by the series of dioramas made by craftsmen to commemorate the points of his life. They are charming, informative and appropriate in their simplicity.

One of the dioramas at Mahatma Gandhi's house.

One of the dioramas at Mahatma Gandhi’s house.

Only the National Museum in Delhi disappointed with a paucity of offerings and surprising shabbiness. We had hoped to see more of the fabulous miniatures, ceramics and other decorative arts remembered from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1991, but came to accept that Indians were quite sincere when they told us, “The British took all the best even down to scraping the gold off the walls and ceilings of the 14th century fort at Agra.” Old British India hands, of course, counter that the natives did the looting themselves. The truth is likely somewhere between.

At the Red Fort in Delhi.

At the Red Fort in Delhi.

The massive Amber Fort that looms in the hills over the pink city of Jaipur delights with the intimacy of halls, mirrored chamber, gardens and temple. We declined the opportunity to bounce up to its inner reaches on an elephant, sat back in the car and enjoyed the view across the valleys and city from on high.

The intensity with which Indian people look to the stars for guidance is evident at the sculpturally modernistic and functional 18th century astronomical instruments which comprise the Jantar Mantar. The neighboring City Palace museum has a splendid collection of royal costumes and intricately worked textiles and famously large silver urns made to carry sacred Ganges water to London for a Maharaja’s use during a visit in Victorian times.

Hall of the Winds in Jaipur.

Hall of the Winds in Jaipur.

The elaborate facade known as the Hall of the Wind is a stand out, but the palace which has become the 100 room Jai Mahal hotel is an 18th century Rajasthani gem is justly referred to as a “masterpiece in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.” Its grounds sprawl over 18 acres. Fires on its terraces cast a warm glow on a cool night as 600 revelers gathered in flower strewn pavilions below for a sumptuous wedding event said to cost as much as $50,000, possibly not including its video drone and camera crew.

Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.

Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.

In the mezzanine restaurant called Cinnamon, we found a young chef is making a mark worthy of the palace’s heritage. Niranjan Nayak’s food bears no relation to the dishes we have tried and dismissed in Western Indian restaurants. His have depth and finesse and changed our perception of Indian food. (See accompanying review.) So enthusiastic is this charming young man that next day he sent a bowl of his dal to our lunch. Its subtle and rich taste lingers in memory as does his smile.

An unexpected highlight of our tour was the drive from Jaipur to Agra. Along the way we glimpsed the India of legend — women doing field work in bright and beautiful saris, thatched open air shops, donkey carts laden with bricks fresh from kilns whose chimneys rose like stelae beyond the fields. That which looks so beautiful and bucolic can be backbreaking to person and beast.

Alongside the highway, fastidiously groomed camels ornamented with decorative necklaces were being led by men in fresh white garments walking them to the annual fair at Pushkar hundreds of kilometers yon as helmeted and cell phone carrying women on motorbikes zipped past with the colorful tails of their regional dress fluttering in the wind.

Manu Pathek checks out the apples at the Agra market.

Manu Pathak at the Agra market.

At Fatehpur Sikri, Manu Pathak, a pioneering female guide, waited to show us the hauntingly beautiful and ephemeral 16th century red sandstone capital abandoned possibly for lack of sustainable water almost as quickly as it was built.

We couldn’t resist a stop at lively market outside of Agra where a festival appeared to be in the making. Musicians in sparkling blue uniforms gathered around trucks decorated to a fare-thee-well ready to transport grooms to brides on wedding days. There seemed a brisk business in marigold flowers in stall after stall. Women were carefully selecting long stalks of sugar cane. “The Devuthan Festival,”  Manu explained, is a time when offerings are made to the Hindu gods in hopes of being favored with an auspicious wedding day. It was joyous, it was colorful and it was a glimpse of daily life which makes a trip memorable.

Women select sugar cane to help get a good day for a wedding.

Women select sugar cane, hoping to get a good day for a wedding.

We took Manu’s advice and did not go for the sunrise at the Taj Mahal when, she said, the lines would be long, the press of the crowd possibly tight, and haze would obscure the view. We arrived about 8 a.m. when the haze was just lifting. There were no lines. Security was so tight that a piece of candy was confiscated. Only water, tissue, wallets and a small camera were allowed in our pockets.

The Taj, like an increasing number of tourist sites world-wide, has a two tier payment system: 750 Rupees for foreigners and 50 for natives when we were there. An increase has been proposed.

The site of the beautifully proportioned white marble domed 17th century mausoleum built for a beloved queen now also teems with those seeking to emulate a princess – visitors queue to pose on the bench that Britain’s Diana made famous in a memorable  photograph.

It appeared that a photo on "Diana's bend" was the highlight of the trip.

It appeared that a photo on “Diana’s bench” was the highlight of the trip.

Much as we enjoyed the Taj and the 14th century Agra Fort, we equally enjoyed the company of our guide, Manu, whose knowledge of history and willingness to discuss Indian culture immeasurably enriched our experience. She didn’t blanche when we elected not to return to the monument at sunset for what sounded like a ghastly and expensive sound and light show designed just for tourists. Instead, we asked to be taken to a local market.

Preparing snacks at Agra market.

Preparing snacks at Agra market.

We found it far more interesting to see the people, the fresh produce, the peanuts roasting in sand in a wok, the making of sweets and the preparation of paan, a beetle nut and other flavorings folded in a leaf. Indians take great delight chewing this concoction. Flies buzzed, cows wandered, dogs foraged, rickshaw drivers sat at the ready and the kids smiled, waved and said, “Hi.”

Women were gaily dressed in saris. Inexpensive ones with five meters or more of cloth could be had for a few hundred rupees; better ones cost anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000  ($80 – $800) as a rule, Manu said.

We learned that women shop daily and cook fresh food at each meal. They would never make something in the morning to eat at night, she said. At the end of the day she will prepare two dishes to share with her husband and seven-year-old son —a meat dish and a vegetable dish. Men generally don’t cook.

Buying apples at Agra market.

Buying apples at Agra market.

We asked to see a supermarket, but Manu said the big store in a nearby shopping mall had closed for lack of business. “People prefer to shop locally. They know that small businesses are important to the Indian way of life and economy,” she said.

Though Manu comes from a family of guides officially licensed by the Indian government, she is a pioneer who endured experiences familiar the world over to women breaking into male purviews. She succeeds with intelligence, grace and style. We were sorry to leave her at Agra.

Everything and everyone in India has a story – even the water. Himalayan, our preferred bottled brand, comes with all the statistics of its mineral composition and its biography:

“I was born in the Sivalik range of the Himalayas. In a place most of you visit only in an Atlas. In a time that wasn’t measured by cuckoos that sprang out of clocks. In a silence that was sometimes punctuated by howling winds and gushing streams. In a world that had nothing to do with yours. Seems like enough reason to be here.”

Not a bad story for any traveler in India.

B'hai temple in New Delhi.

B’hai temple in New Delhi.

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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A Chef in Jaipur Transforms Our Attitude Towards Indian Food

Fried pappadam with a mango sauce for the sliced vegetables.

Fried pappadam with a mango sauce for the sliced vegetables.

By Jean and Peter Richards

Indian was never on our list of favorite cuisines until we met the talented young chef at Cinnamon in Jaipur. Niranjan Nayak transformed our impression of his country’s food.

Nayak applies his considerable talents at Cinnamon, a 34-seat restaurant tucked away on the mezzanine of the sprawling and beautiful 18th century Jai Mahal Palace hotel.

From the moment a selection of pickles was set before us to be scooped with crisp roasted pappadam we knew this Indian experience would be different. Garlic clove pickle burst with flavor, papaya with well-tempered sweetness and mint perfectly balanced coriander in a classic green chutney.

Fried pappadam accompanied a mango dipping sauce for beet, cucumber and carrot sticks sliced thickly so that each could hold its own for flavor against the fruit.

The richness of a chicken broth was offset with just the right measure of spice.

We never did order entrées that evening because two appetizers were more than enough –

Royal Hara Bahara

Royal Hara Bahara

Royal Hara Bahara, four dense, pan fried patties of spinach and green peas with roasted gram flour, yogurt and almonds (650 INR) and Sikandari Raan, an ancient roasted lamb dish served with a creamy and garlicky sauce (1100 INR), was as complex in ingredient as in flavor. Together, they constituted a feast.

We were savoring slices of a frozen dessert called kulfi and  a scoop of cinnamon ice cream when Chef Nayak appeared at our table. He is 24, from the East Coast state of  Orissa, has been cooking for nine years, has a radiant smile, a gentle voice and he beams when appreciated. It was almost hard to believe that a man so young could cook with such finesse.

Sikandari Raan

Sikandari Raan

That night’s bill, including a glass of a fresh and pleasant local sauvignon blanc, Sula, was 4061 INR or about $65.

We promptly made a reservation for the next evening.

Chef had carefully considered the options he proposed: marinated and grilled tiger prawn (1350 INR) followed by spiced and grilled chunks of sole (1100 INR). Each was beautifully prepared and light on the palate.


For the entrées, Chef divided plates with a spicy traditional melt-in-the-mouth lamb Laal Maas (750 INR) and a lighter and contrasting Dhaniya Murgh (750 INR), a nugget of chicken in a creamy coriander-onion sauce enlivened with cashew, ginger and garlic paste. Both were superb.

Subtle saffron milk dumplings rounded out this fine meal for which the bill with wine and water was 7000 INR or $112 for a meal worthy of a top table in any current culinary capital.

Laal Maas

Laal Maas

Cinnamon presents itself as “inspired by the two spheres of cooking — Punjab and the Moghul India, connected by what is called the cinnamon-saffron link” and claims to re-define Indian food using “only the freshest ingredients and authentic herbs and spices to provide a modern twist to traditional Indian cuisine.”

After decades of eating around the world, the words “modern twist” would be enough to cause us to flee most restaurants. We still don’t know enough about Indian food to know how Chef Nayak may have modernized traditional dishes. We will not be surprised to hear wonderful things of him in years to come. It will be a pleasure to say, “Ah, but we knew him when he was young and transformed our appreciation of Indian food.”

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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