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Hến Xúc Bánh Tráng / Baby Clams with Rice Crackers

Hến xúc bánh tráng or sauteed baby clams served with rice crackers is a classic beer accompaniment dish in Vietnam. It is an easy appetizer to make for snacking anytime of the day. The combination of soft baby clams with crunchy rice cracker is addicting. The combination of clams with various herbs provide for a burst of flavor in your mouth. Enjoy this classic dish today.

Difficulty: Easy / Servings: 4 / Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 package of sesame rice paper

2 and 1/2 cups of baby clams (frozen or from a can)

1/2 teaspoon Knorr chicken bouillon seasoning

1 tablespoon of julienne ginger

1/2 cup of rau ram (Vietnamese Coriander) or use Thai basil if coriander is not available

1 Jalapeno pepper

1/4 red bell pepper

1 yellow onion

3 stalks of scallions

1 tablespoon of minced lemongrass

4 cloves of garlic

1/4 cup of unsalted roasted peanuts

2 tablespoons of vegetable oil

1 and 1/2 teaspoon fish sauce

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon of water or clam juice

Optional: Fried red onions and Thai basil for toppings

 

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Directions:

Mince the 4 cloves of garlic.

Dice half of an onion and cut the other half into thin slices. Minced 1 tablespoon of lemongrass.

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Rough chop 1/2 cup of rau ram (Vetnamese coriander) and dice 3 stalks of scallions.

Cube 1 tablespoon of red bell pepper and slice the remainder of the bell pepper into 7 or 8 long pieces.

Julien ginger roughly 1 inch lengthwise for 1 tablespoon amount.

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Using a food process, lightly pulse 1/4 cup of roasted peanuts.

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Thoroughly rinse the clams and set aside. Marinate the 2 and 1/2 cup of clams with 1/2 teaspoon of chicken bouillon powder, 1/4 teaspoon of ground pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of sugar.

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Heat a large pan on high with 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, add 1/2 tablespoon of minced lemongrass, 2 tablespoons of diced onion, 1 tablespoon of minced garlic and 1 tablespoon of cubed red bell pepper.

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Once the garlic turns golden, add clams and sauté for 3 minutes. Add 1 and 1/2 teaspoon of fish sauce and all of the onion slices, bell pepper, ginger and scallions. Add 1 tablespoon of water or clam juice. Continue to sauté until the onion becomes translucent. Remove from the heat.

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Add rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) and stir.  Add 1/4 teaspoon of ground black pepper.

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Microwave 1 rice paper at a time for 1 minute on each until it puffs up. Be careful not to burn the rice paper.

Garnish the clams with thin slices of jalapeno pepper. Top the dish with 1/4 cup of roasted peanuts and some fried onions. Shred some basil leaves and add to the dish for additional flavor.

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For more recipes, visit our EAT page or Recipe Index.

Authors: Susan Tran and Chau Hoang

Healthy Chicken Lo Mein

Chicken lo mein has become an ubiquitous American fast food item like hamburger, as every small town USA seems to have a Chinese takeout restaurant. Along with General Tsao Chicken, the American version of chicken lo mein is not something you will find in China. The US version of this inexpensive meal is not healthy to eat…but it is delicious. My mom came up with this healthier version of the dish loaded with fresh white meat chicken and vegetables. This is chicken lo mein that you will not feel guilty about devouring.

Difficulty: Easy / Servings: 4 / Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients:

2 chicken breasts

1/2 package of thick egg noodles

2 Portobello mushroom caps

1 tablespoon of minced garlic

1 yellow onion (2 tablespoons of diced onion and 1/2 of an onion in thick slices)

1 tablespoon of minced ginger

5 stalks of scallions cut into 2 inch segments

1 red bell pepper (1 tablespoon of diced red bell pepper and 1/4 of red bell pepper in julienne slices)

4 bok choi pieces

1 cup of bean sprouts

1 and 1/2 tablespoon of soy sauce or Knorr liquid seasoning

2 tablespoons of oyster sauce

2 tablespoon of cooking wine

1/2 teaspoon of Knorr chicken bouillon powder

1/8 teaspoon of baking soda

1 cup of chicken broth or water

1 tablespoon of sesame oil

Roasted sesame seeds

Fried onions (optional)

Vegetable oil

 

Directions:

Cut the chicken breast in 1 inch pieces.

Marinate the chicken with 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of cooking wine, 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of chicken bouillon powder for 15 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix 1 cup of chicken broth or water and 2 tablespoons of oyster sauce. Set aside.

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Loosen the noodles.

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Slice the Portobello caps. Cut the ends off of each bok choi and discard the ends. Loosen the leaves.

Heat a wok or a large pan with 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Once the oil sizzles, add chicken and press down on the chicken pieces to get a good sear. Flip the chicken over once the chicken is seared on one side. Once the second side turns golden, remove from the heat and set aside.

Add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to the wok. Add 1 tablespoon of diced red bell pepper, 1 tablespoon of minced garlic, 2 tablespoons of diced onion and 1 tablespoon of minced ginger.

Once the garlic turns golden, add mushrooms and sauté for a few minutes until they soften.

Next, add bok choi and stir until the leaves wilt. Add 1/2 of a package of noodles, the cooked chicken, 1 cup of beansprouts and the sauce. Mix carefully a few times to incorporate the ingredients without breaking the noodles apart.

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When the sauce have been fully absorbed (i.e. no liquid left), turn off the heat.

Add 1 tablespoon of sesame oil to the chicken lo mein. Top the dish with scallions pieces and onion slices. Sprinkle a handful of sesame seeds and fried onions and serve.

This dish should be eaten within an hour. Since the noodles absorbed all the water based seasoning, they will become mushy if they are not eaten right away.

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For more recipes, visit our EAT page or Recipe Index.

Authors: Susan Tran and Chau Hoang

Restaurant Review: Tim Ho Wan – NYC Location

Tim Ho Wan (“THW”) is a Hong Kong dim sum destination that was awarded a Michelin star in 2010 for its Mongkok (HK) location and aptly named the “cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world”. Earlier this year, THW opened its first US location in Manhattan East Village to a lot of buzz and corresponding crazy lines. One Sunday, my group of six ventured to this NY location to see what the hype was all about. My first impression of dim sum at THW was that it was a tamer and more Americanized experience. The restaurant has only 60 seats in a small space so dim sum carts are not a viable option. For me, the fun part is seeing dim sum carts whizzed around a banquet room tempting  diners to flag them down. At THW, the menu has been stripped down to essential dishes.

Getting a table at the restaurant was an experience in itself. We arrived late around 12:00pm assuming that the wait would be 1 to 1.5 hours. The wait turned out to be 3 hours long. We gave our name and a phone number for the restaurant to reach us and went nearby to the Smith for a light brunch. After brunch, we ended up with three people for dim sum. Around 3pm, we received a text indicating that our table was ready and we needed to come back as soon as possible. Once we arrived at THW, it took another 15 minutes be seated. There were still people putting their names on the list and the wait was still three hours. We were told the best way to get a table was to have one sacrificial soul come when they open at 10am and put their name on the waiting list for the whole group to be able to eat around 12.

After we were seated, the waiter came promptly to take our order from the menu that doubled as a placemat. We then proceeded to order almost everything on it. The food came very quickly and we devoured them just as expeditiously. These are the items that we selected for our dim sum.

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Sweet Osmanthus Jelly with Goji Berries and Sweet Pumpkin Cream with Sago

The first thing that came out was sweet osmanthus jelly with Goji berries and sweet pumpkin cream with sago served hot. Interestingly, the desserts came first before the savory dishes. The osmanthus jelly resembled a softer version of Jello and had a light sweet herbal taste. The overall effect was very refreshing. The sweet pumpkin cream was a pudding that was not overly sugary as well.

Baked Bun with BBQ Pork (3 pieces per order)

THW’s signature buns were heavenly as they were flaky on the outside and savory on the inside. The braised pork filling melted in my mouth. The bun crust was sweet, salty and crunchy at the same time. It was so good that we ordered another serving to go. Technically, we were not allowed to order takeout, but were told to order for the table and doggy bag it home. I would come back just for these buns.

Steam Pork Spare Rib with Black Bean Sauce

THW’s steamed pork spare ribs was a good rendition of the dim sum classic. Succulent morsel of spareribs, with bones, were coated in a fatty savory black bean sauce. It was not the easiest dish or the prettiest dish to eat with a group. However, who can say no to fatty ribs?

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Steamed Pork Dumplings with Shrimp (Siu Mai)

Siu mai is the mascot for any dim sum meal. The shrimp and pork dumpling wrapped in a yellow skin was an easily likeable dish for most dim sum newbies. THW was not cheap about how much filling goes into each dumpling. One thing I liked about these dumplings was that it was not greasy like the Chinatown version. I could have eaten a few more servings of this dish, if not for brunch earlier.

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Steamed Shrimp and Chives Dumplings

You can differentiate good dim sum parlors from bad ones by the thickness of the dumpling skins. The skin on these steamed shrimp and chives dumplings were very thin, but they were not delicate enough to break apart too easily. The filling peeped through the translucent steamed skin beautifully. The crunchy shrimp and light onion taste makes these dumplings so satisfactory.

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Steamed Shrimp Dumplings

Steamed shrimp dumplings were very similar to the shrimp and chive version and just as good.

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Sticky Rice in Lotus Leaf

A large sticky rice ball is filled with braised pork at the center and steamed in a lotus leaf. The sticky rice was moist and the braised pork adds the right amount of flavor and textural contrast. This is another classic dim sum dish that THW does well.

Braised Chicken Feet with Abalone Sauce and Peanut

Chicken feet always scare people because, well, it’s chicken feet. I grew up eating chicken feet at dim sum restaurants and was stoked that THW had this on their menu. The chicken feet was one of the better rendition that I had as the abalone sauce was really tasty. The skin melted off the bone and the savory abalone sauce coats every piece of skin. This was so delicious and was not greasy at all.

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Steamed Egg Cake

The steamed egg cake resembled a sponge cake but with a heavier egg taste. The texture is very light, fluffy and not overly sweet like American desserts. This is a perfect cake to go with tea.

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Deep Fried Vegetable Spring Roll

This was a simple vegetable spring roll dish that was prepared well. There wasn’t anything particularly special about this dish. This was an addition to the THW HK menu for the American location.

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Steamed Rice Rolls Stuffed with Shrimps

This is the Chinese version of lasagna. A thin layer of rice flour batter is steamed until it solidifies. Next, shrimp are added to the rolls and the rice rolls are drenched with soy sauce. This is another classic dim sum dish and is one of my favorite dish.

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Overall, the US offshoot for THW was better than many of the Manhattan dim sum parlors that I have tried. It was obvious that the quality of the ingredients were much higher than their Chinatown competition and the slightly higher prices reflected that improvement. Prices were approximately $1-$2 more per dish than Chinatown. Even though I enjoyed my meal at THW, I would not want to wait for 3 hours again to eat here. This dim sum restaurant is worth at most a 1 hour wait for a repeat. For first time diners, this may be worth the long lines to try it once.

Author: Chau Hoang

Featured Photo: Tim Ho Wan

Bánh Bèo / Steamed Rice Cakes with Shrimp

Bánh bèo is a variety of steamed rice cakes or mini pancakes that originated from Hue, Vietnam. Tiny ceramic plates containing a small amount of a simple rice flour batter are steamed and topped with various savory ingredients such as dried shrimp, mung bean, fried pork, croutons, and scallion oil and then drenched in a salty sweet fish sauce. It is the quintessential group meal as everyone gets a chance to customize their rice cakes with various toppings. It’s not uncommon to see stacks of empty plates piled high on the table. This meal can feed a large crowd with few inexpensive ingredients.  The best part is the conversations with friends and family while waiting for the rice cakes to steam.

Difficulty: Easy / Servings: 6 / Time: 30 minutes to prepare, 8 minutes to steam each batch of rice cakes

Ingredients:

20 jumbo shrimps

4 cups of water

2 and 1/2 cup of Bánh Bèo flour mix (approximately 1 package available online or at any Asian supermarket)

3 tablespoons of tapioca starch

3 cloves of minced garlic

1/2 cups of diced scallions

1/2 cup of vegetable oil

1 cup of pre-made fried red onions or you can fry some yellow onion slices until they turn golden brown

1/2 cup of sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup of fish sauce

2 cups of coconut soda

1/2 of a Thai red chili diced

1 package of Chicarone

Optional: 1/2 cup of Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon (This is typically seen in south of Vietnam as a topping.) Recipe link here.

Equipment:

A flat bottom steamer

At least 20 small plates approximately 4 inches in diameter or you can use muffing tins or mini tart molds.

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Directions:

In a large bowl, mix 4 cups of water, 2 and 1/2 cup of bánh bèo flour mix, 3 tablespoons of tapioca starch and 1/4 teaspoon of salt.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. You will only need enough water to submerge the shrimp. Once the water comes to a rolling boil, add the shrimp and let them cook for approximately 2-3 minutes until they turn light pink.

Drain, peel and devien the shrimp and minced them in a food processor. This should yield approximately 2 cups of minced shrimp. Optional: To make the shrimp look more vibrant, add 2 drops of yellow food color and 1 drop of red food color and mix well.

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Heat a pan on medium heat. Add minced shrimp and continue to stir so it does not burn. The shrimp will dry out and becomes fluffy after 3 to 5 minutes.

Make scallion oil by microwaving 1/2 cups of diced scallion and 1/2 cup of vegetable oil for 40 seconds.

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after: scallion oil

Make the sauce by combining 2 cups of coconut soda with 3 cloves of minced garlic, 1/2 of a red Thai chili diced, 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of fish sauce.

Steam the rice cakes:

Prepare a large flat bottom steamer. Once the steam starts coming through the bottom layer, add the mini dishes. Brush the dish with some vegetable oil. Pour the batter so that it hits 3/4 up the side of the dish and close the lid. Steam for 4 minutes and open the lid to release the steam. Close the lid and steam for another 4 minutes. This will give the pancakes their trademark dimples. Remove from the steamer and allow to cool for a minute before handling the dish.

To Serve:

Top each dish with a spoonful of dry shrimp, scallion oil, fried onions, chicarone, pickled daikon and carrots and fish sauce. Eat it right off the plate. Bánh bèo is best eaten right out of the steamer as the rice cake hardens the longer it is left on the table.

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For more recipes, visit our EAT page or Recipe Index.

Authors: Susan Tran and Chau Hoang

5 Days in Cuba: Havana and Varadero

As soon as relations between Cuba and America were “normalized” and direct flights to Havana became available, I booked my ticket to this isolated island nation. I have always been fascinated by this isolated nation. The recent flood of Instagram photos of Havana only increased my desire to visit Cuba even more. Planning this trip was a bit difficult since there is limited information for Americans and requires a lot of research. My original plan was to explore Havana (Wednesday, Thursday and Monday afternoon), Viñales (Friday) and Varadero (Saturday through Monday morning). One thing I did not account for was the heat and humidity at the end of May, which according to Cubans is temperate for spring. The heat takes a toll on your body and I ended up not doing as much as I had planned, so I saved Viñales for another time. This is my 5 days in Havana and Varadero.

Note: With President Trump’s reversal of the Obama Cuban policies, travel to Cuba may become restricted again. I recently searched for JetBlue flights for July and August and there are still multiple direct flights a day. I would suggest going to Cuba sooner rather than later if it is on your list.

Day 1: Wednesday – Havana (Old Havana/ Malecon/ Cathedral Plaza)

I arrived in Havana at approximately 1pm on a direct JetBlue flight from NY-JFK. Exiting the airport took another hour and I was finally at my hotel, Iberostar Parque Central, by 3pm. Within 2 hours in Havana, my cab driver tried to scam me by giving me change in CUP instead of CUC, but I was ready for it. (Click here for Cuban Basics) Nothing says welcome to a third world country like being scammed.

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After settling into my gorgeous suite on the 5th floor with the view of the parque central populated by classic cars in rainbow colors and restored colonial buildings, I started to explore the surrounding area. The hotel is conveniently located in the epicenter of all the tourist destinations as well as next to Old Havana. My stomach was growling as I had not eaten lunch and I tried to find a place to eat in the sweltering heat. I navigated through endless small streets lined with buildings in varying stages of decay. It was an eye opener to see how the average Cuban lived, at a level of poverty that was greater than my initial expectation. As the sun and humidity beat down on me, I finally gave up on finding a good place and stopped by the ChaChaCha Restaurant that screamed tourist trap. I was not even that surprised that I had the blandest lobster salad ever at this restaurant.

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After lunch, I tried to visit the Museo de la Revolución only to find that it closed at 4pm. I then continued my endless walking in Old Havana all the way to the Malecon and eventually to the Cathedral Plaza and back to the hotel. I was surprised that I had walked most of Havana’s points of interest in one afternoon and was rewarded with a dusty and sweat-soaked dress. During my wandering, I was approached by two friendly teenage girls showing great interest in me who then led me to a café where a “famous” pianist from the Buena Vista Social Club was giving a “free” concert to locals. The girls insisted that it would cost me 60 CUC to go to his concert later at an entertainment hall. Needless to say, I could tell that the friendly girls were trying to scam me and I politely walked away.

Once I returned to my hotel, I made a bee line for the rooftop pool to cool off from the insane heat. This would be my ritual around 5pm every day in Havana. My two friends finally arrived from Mexico City later that evening and we had dinner at El Carbon. Luckily my friends had made a reservation as this restaurant does not take walk-ins. The décor was eclectic and the menu reflected that diversity as well. I did not have high expectations of Cuban cuisine after my lunch experience and from the general feedback that I got from people that recently visited Cuba. However, I was happy to be proven wrong. The food was excellent and I had the best suckling pig ever. The pork was so tender and moist on the inside and the skin was extremely crunchy. My friend ordered the grilled langoustines and grilled squid that were delicious. The menu was in English, but our waiter only spoke Spanish so it may be hard for English speakers.

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View of the central Havana from the rooftop of Hotel Parque Central

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Day 2: Thursday – Havana (Art Museums)

After breakfast at the hotel, we made the first stop of the day at the National Museum of Fine Arts (commonly known as the Cuban Art Museum). This museum houses Cuban art from the 1800s to the present. The paintings were hit or miss for me, but it provided a look into the country’s volatile history. More shocking is how poorly the arts are preserved. The building does not have air conditioning and some paintings and the frames had mold growing on them. The museum does not allow anyone to take pictures even in the hallway and will yell at you as soon as they see a phone. We spent two hours at this museum and then headed to the Palacio Belle Artes Museum.

The Palacio Belle Artes Museum is located in a gorgeous mansion that used to be a social club. Surprisingly the collection was not extensive or interesting. A lot of the arts are unsigned and not much thought was put into the description of each piece. However, the building itself is worth a visit for the architecture. My friend remarked that both museums could have fit into this building and the conditions here were better for all the paintings.

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Around 2pm, we negotiated for a classic car to drive us 10 minutes to Paladar Gaurida in Old Havana. The short ride was just enough to enjoy the experience. There was no air conditioning and the seats were wrapped in this hard plastic resulting in an interesting and uncomfortable experience. When we arrived at La Guarida located in a crumbling building, I knew I was in for an adventure. We climbed up three flights of stairs passing gorgeous rooms in different states of disrepair and hallways that resembled slums. Once we were seated in a room that appeared to be a bathroom at some point, I realized that we could not escape the heat. There was very little breeze in the stuffy room making it sometimes agonizing. The menu has a selection of European influenced dishes. Our favorite was the octopus ceviche as it was tender and refreshing. An interesting part of our meal was the origins of our dishware. We had flipped them over and one was made in USSR and another was from England in the 1950s. Of all the restaurants that we had been to in Cuba, this paladar felt like we were guests at someone’s house. La Guarida deserves its popularity and requires a reservation.

After a late lunch, we strolled around Old Havana on our way to the Cathedral Plaza once more. By 5pm, the heat and humidity was unbearable and we raced back to our hotel rooftop pool for a respite from the tropical weather. Prior to our dinner reservation at Dona Eutimia, we ventured next door to the rooftop of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, a new 5 star hotel, for drinks. The rooftop is thoroughly modern and would fit right in Miami. Unfortunately, the rain poured on us after 15 minutes so we did not stay long. This would be a great venue after dinner to chill out and take in the inviting views of the theatre, classic cars and luxury hotels.

Paladar Dona Eutimia was the cheapest place that we dined at while in Havana. The menu is basic Cuban and the restaurant is known for Ropa Vieja de Chorro or shredded lamb and “selected spice in a red sauce”. The waiter also suggested that we order the fish croquette and tostones rellenos (a fried plantain stuffed with various seafood and meat). The ropa was very good, but the plantain was surprisingly tasteless. I would suggest skipping anything that has bananas at this restaurant. The paladar was located in an alley with other restaurants so it has a lively atmosphere to people watch. Eating our meals while listening to street musicians was a festive way to end the long day.

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View of the theatre from the rooftop of the Gran Hotel Manzana

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Day 3: Friday – Havana (Museo de la Revolución/ El Morro/ Gran Teatro

We arrived at the  Museo de la Revolución when it opened and for once, the museum allowed us to take photos…of all the propaganda. The building was mildly interesting and has a lot of bullet holes with questionable authenticity. Most of the exhibitions are lacking in detail and historical interest. For example, one exhibit was a uniform of this person related to this person who fought in the revolution. By the second room, my friends and I found the windows to be more interesting than the exhibition…coming from people who love history. I would recommend skipping this museum altogether.
Next we took a cab to El Morro, the main fort by the Malecon. The fort is collectively unique, but there is not one particular feature that wowed us. We spent 1.5 hours strolling around and enjoying the ocean breeze. There are many ramparts, tunnels and rooms to explore in this site.  I would recommend stopping by this attraction for the colonial history. Our stomachs started growling so we searched for places to eat for lunch. We ended at La Terraza next to our hotel and were not disappointed. The food is a mixture of casual American Cuban cuisines and well-executed. We had fish ceviche, ribs and grilled lobsters. All were delicious, especially the finger licking melt-off-the-bone ribs. Yum!

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After a quick lunch, we walked under the blazing sun around the El Capitolio surmising the differences between the sparkling white and landscaped colonial buildings to the crumbling houses across the street. The poverty is startling and unsettling. The capital building was closed for renovations. A few minutes later, we found the Habano store behind the Capital building and purchased some souvenirs to take home. Along the way, we were targeted by random people asking us to follow them down some sketchy alleyways for cheap Cuban cigars. We promptly walked in the opposite direction.

As the heat became unbearable (a recurring theme), we walked back to Parque Central Hotel and passed the gorgeous Gran Teatro de La Habana (the Grand Theatre). We ventured in and luckily, there was a performance later that night so we purchased tickets right away. This turned out to be a quaint way to spend an evening. The modern dance performance was much better than I had anticipated and the theatre is wonderfully restored and boast beautiful architectural. I would highly recommend checking out the theatre to see if there are performances when you arrive in Havana.

We also had planned to go to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano but it was closed for renovations while we were in town. Additionally, we tried to go salsa dancing at the Hotel Inglaterra’s rooftop recommended by our taxi driver, but the rooftop was rained out that night. These two places are not to be missed as they are on everyone’s must-see list.

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Day 4 to Day 5: Saturday to Monday- Varadero

I had a reservation for Iberostar Varadero for a short beach stay. Getting to Varadero was an experience in Cuban travel. I had a ticket for the tourist bus that picked me up at the Plaza Hotel, located next to my hotel, for a 9am departure. The bus did not show up until 10am. I had assumed a two hour drive would be at worst three hours, but turned into a 4 hour expedition. Once I got settled at my resort, the stay was like any other beach stay. It was relaxing and a nice change of pace from Havana. I would highly recommend carving out a few days at the beach before heading home. One thing I will note is that hotels are general older in Cuba so 5 stars hotels are generally 3.5 to 4 stars internationally, especially outside of Havana. If you come with lower expectations, you’ll have a great time. Staff are very accommodating and try their best to help you as much as possible.

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Day 5: Monday – Havana (Hotel Nacional)

Learning from my experience, I booked a taxi for my trip back to Havana. This was a more efficient option. However, my driver did not speak English and the hotel staff did not communicate with him properly, so he assumed we were going to the airport. I realized this after we overshot Havana thanks to my map app and had him turn around. Once I got back to the Parque Central Hotel, I went for a late lunch at Chansonnier in Vedado. I wished I had discovered this gem earlier. This is an upscale French Cuban restaurant housed in a converted mansion in a residential neighborhood. The décor and atmosphere are elegant and it felt like I stepped back in time to the 1950s. The food was wonderfully flavorful and I ranked it as one of my top choices of the trip.

Thunder started roaring, the sky opened and flooded Havana’s streets. Luckily for me, I had my driver picking me up, otherwise I would have been stranded without an umbrella and a ride. After lunch, I made my way to Hotel Nacional to wait out the rain. The lobby felt as if time stands still. The large outdoor veranda was a perfect spot for afternoon drinks and people watching. I shared a seating area with two American professors and had an interesting discussion on Cuba and the impact of tourism on locals and the future poverty level. After the rain stopped, I headed back to my hotel to rest for the day. At this point, I had seen all of the attractions in Havana that were interesting to me.

For dinner, I made a reservation at Paladar Menderes, a small restaurant hidden in the alleys of Old Havana. My driver had a hard time finding it and had to walk me to the restaurant as the area did not allow for car traffic. Once I was there, the atmosphere was lively with acoustic music and the restaurant was jamming. I would highly recommend this as one of the dining options, especially if you are a solo diner. The specialty of the house was the filet mignon with three sauces that my neighboring tablemates raved about. I had the octopus with black ink rice which resembled squid ink risotto and was delicious. This was a great way to end my stay in Cuba.

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Cuba is a mysterious country that is rapidly changing and engaging with the outside world. Even with the high level of poverty which can be hard to see, it is a relatively safe place to visit. Cuba is a destination that should be explored as soon as possible. US policies are constantly changing and it is only a matter of time that the 1950s aesthetics become solely for tourism.

Restaurants Recommendations:

  1. Al Carbon (Calle Aguacate No. 9|  A Chacon, Havana 10100, Cuba)
  2. Le Chansonnier (Calle J No. 257 e/15 y Linea, Vedado, Havana, Cuba)
  3. La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418 | Gervasio y Escobar, Havana 10700, Cuba)
  4. Paladar Los Mercaderes (Calle Mercaderes #207 | e/ Lamparilla y Amargura, Havana 101100, Cuba)
  5. La Terraza (Prado 309 Esquina Virtudes, La Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba)
  6. Dona Eutimia (Callejon del Chorro # 60-C | Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba)

Restaurants to Avoid:

  1. El Cocinero – The food is just average.
  2. El Rum de la Habana – My friends ended up with food poisoning.
  3. Café Opera – This is a gorgeous restaurant adjoining the grand theatre that served inedible food, but it would be a nice place for drinks.
  4. ChaChaCha Restaurant – Mediocre food in a tourist friendly setting.

Rooftop Hangout

  1. El Surtidor Pool Terrace and Bar at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski
  2. Hotel Parque Central Rooftop
  3. Hotel Inglaterra Rooftop

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Sticky Rice with Baby Red Jackfruit / Xôi Gấc

Xôi gấc or sticky rice with baby red jackfruit is the essence of any holiday feast. The red color comes from the baby jackfruit, a fruit exclusive to southeast Asia, and signifies luck.   The fragrant aroma comes from the seed of the jackfruit and resembles vanilla. This rice dish has become a staple of everyday meal in Vietnam and is often eaten for breakfast or as a snack. In the US, you will often see this xôi gấc at any Vietnamese family gathering as it is inexpensive and easy to make, feeds a large crowd and everyone loves it. Sticky rice can also be made in advance since it is usually served at room temperature. Try this red sticky rice for your next meal.

Difficulty: Easy / Servings: 6 / Time: 8 hours to soak the rice and 30-45 minutes to cook

Ingredients:

3 jars (5.6 oz. jar) of frozen baby red jack fruit pulp with seeds or 2 jars without seeds. (I prefer the jar with seeds. This can be purchased at any Asian supermarket.)

3 cups of sweet rice or glutinous rice soaked in water overnight

2 tablespoons of white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc

1/4 cup of water

4 tablespoons of butter

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/3 cup sesame seeds

1/3 cups roasted unsalted peanuts

1/4 cup + 1 teaspoon of sugar

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Directions:

Mix 3 jars of jack fruit with 2 tablespoon of white wine in a bowl. Let the mixture rest for 30 minutes on the counter. (Save half of the seeds for garnish and aroma.)

Heat a large steamer on high until steam starts coming through the holes.

Drain 3 cups of sweet rice that have been soaked in water overnight. Add 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to the rice and mix well.

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Combine the rice with jack fruit and mix well to incorporate all the ingredients.

Spread the rice mixture in an even layer in the steamer and leave a hole in the center to allow steam to come through. Steam the rice for 25 minutes.

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After 25 minutes, sprinkle 1/4 cup of water on top the rice and steam for another 5 minutes for a total of 30 minutes. Remove from the steamer.

Stir in 4 tablespoons of melted butter right away and let the sticky rice cool off for a few minutes.

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Make Sesame and Peanut Topping:

Pulse 1/3 cup of sesame seeds and 1/3 cups of unsalted roasted peanuts in a food processor until they turn into rough powder. Mix this with 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt and 1 teaspoon of sugar.

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Top the sticky rice with a spoonful of crushed sesame and peanut mixture. Garnish with a few seeds that were saved earlier. Enjoy this special treat today.

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For more recipes, visit our EAT page or Recipe Index.

Authors: Susan Tran and Chau Hoang

Cuba Travel Basics for First Time Visitors

With the recent normalization of Cuban and American relations, Cuba has become a hot destination for Americans. There is limited information for first time visitors to Cuba easily available in one place. This is a list of basics that one should know when traveling to Cuba for the first time from the US.

As of the date of this post, President Trump has reversed President Obama’s normalization policy. However, the effect on tourism remains to be seen in the coming months.

Maps

Google Maps does not allow you to download an offline version for Cuba. However, there is a free app called “Maps.Me” that has detailed offline street maps. Since your location tracker does not need cellular data or Wi-Fi to work, you can use the offline map to gauge where you are at all times. The offline map also has all the popular restaurants pre-loaded and can be helpful when the taxi driver does not know certain addresses or tries to scam you.

Direct Flight and Visa

*This may change due to the new policies.

There are direct daily flights from United, Delta and Jet Blue to Havana. The process is very simple and you can book the flight at the airlines’ respective websites. After registering your information online, you will be asked to give a reason for your trip. You can check off either “educational purposes” or “support the Cuban people”. The visa process is straightforward.

For Jet Blue, you will check in at the baggage claim level at JFK Terminal 5 where there is a separate check-in room for Cuba. The visa can be purchased at check-in with the staff. After you have received your ticket and visa, you will go through normal airport security and off to your gate.

Customs and Other Entry Forms

Once you are in flight, an attendant will give you a white form to fill out your registration info and where you will be staying in Cuba. After you land and go through immigration where the officials will stamp your visa and passport, head to the security line. Ask for the blue customs form, which was located above the x-ray machine when I was there. Most people, including me, missed it and went through most of the exit procedures…only to be told to return through the mayhem for the blue custom form.

After security, you will walk toward a makeshift table set-up where you will hand the white form to the officials before you proceed to baggage claim. The baggage claim area is very small so try to stay alert to find your luggage. Next, head toward the customs line (declare or nothing to declare), hand in your blue form and exit into the arrival hall.

Exiting the Airport

You will be bombarded with people in all directions when you walk into the arrival hall. Keep walking out of the airport and locate the currency exchange booth to the right or left of the main doorway. Change just enough money to Cuban Convertible Currency (“CUC”) that you will need for a few days. You will be mobbed with taxi drivers asking if you need a ride. Make sure that the fee from the airport to Havana center is no more than 30 CUC.

Currency: CUC and CUP

Before you leave the US, change USD to Euros or Canadian Dollars at the currency exchange store. There is a 10% surcharge if you convert USD to CUC. The exchange rate is below:

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Make sure you only change enough currency as needed because there is a 10% surcharge to change CUC back to Euros or any other foreign currencies. I did not realized this and lost 50 Euros between the surcharge and the conversion rate.

Cuba has two currencies, CUP and CUC. Memorize what CUC looks like because some people will give you change in CUP (worth 1/25 to CUC) and hope that you will not notice the scam.

Taxi and Traveling to Other Cities

There are a few different types of taxis such as classic cars for tourist, private cars and official government taxis, and all are negotiable for the most part in Havana. Rides around Havana should be no more than 10 CUC and should be negotiated beforehand. When I was in Havana, I took the classic cars, taxis and a private car. I prefer a private car since it has air conditioning and it was much safer and easier as a solo female traveler. Luis, my driver, picked me up at an agreed time throughout the day. This was especially helpful at night as some restaurants are not on the main road so that Luis had to walk me to the restaurant and pick me up when I was done.

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There are also unregistered taxis for locals that pick up multiple passengers. Avoid those as the cars are much older and are basically saunas.

There are a few options to get to other cities such as Varadero, Trinidad and Vinales from Havana. If you have more than 3 people or value time, I highly suggest booking a taxi. If you have time and money is an issue, there are nice tourist buses that will pick you up at your current hotel and drop you off at your hotel in the new city. The problem is that it also picks and drops off everyone on the bus so a 2 hour taxi ride can become 4 hours on the bus. A taxi from Havana to Varadero costs approximately 100 CUC compare to 25 CUC per person for the bus. The hotel concierge can book the taxi for you or direct you to the appropriate place to buy a bus ticket.

Wi-Fi

There is limited Wi-Fi in Havana. Most international hotels will have Wi-Fi in their lobby. For guests at Iberostar Parque Central, a 1 hour Wi-Fi card is 2 CUC. For non-guests, it costs 4 CUC and comes with a free non-alcoholic drink. Connecting to Wi-Fi can be spotty and depends on where you are standing in the lobby. I find that selecting “forget network” on iPhone settings or rebooting the cell works most of the time.

Restaurants

Since there are only a few good restaurants in Havana, you must make a reservation at least a week before you get there or you won’t get in. The hotel concierge can book those reservations for you as well. At minimum, I would suggest booking all your reservations for lunch and dinner as soon as you arrive.

Cigars

Cuban cigars can be purchased at most major hotels or at the Habano store behind the Capital. Avoid buying it from anywhere else as many people have been scammed. There is also a Habano duty-free store at the airport.

Prices

Cuban prices are surprisingly high. Meals even  at “cheap” restaurants will have similar prices to NY. Give yourself a larger budget than what you think you will need for this trip.

Beware of Friendly Cubans

Unfortunately many “friendly” Cubans that approach tourists are likely trying to scam them. It happened to me at least twice on my trips but fortunately, I was aware of it. The classic scam is one in which you are brought to a café for a “free concert” only to be gouged for drinks in order to leave. Another common scam is to give you change in CUP, which is 1/25 in value to CUC. Observe and follow your instinct if the situation feels wrong. Beware of the scam that sells you cigars made of banana leaves and advertises it as authentic.

Clothes

Don’t underestimate the heat and humidity. Pack two changes of clothes a day as you will sweat through the first set by 5pm.

Bring a Fan

If you can get your hand on a motorize pocket fan, bring it with you. There is very limited air conditioning around Cuba and even the AC at the hotels is generally weak.

Breakfast

I usually do not eat breakfast at the hotel, but in Cuba, there is not much of a choice. If your accommodation offers a breakfast option, I recommend opting for it.

Bring Sunscreen and Medicine

Bring sunscreen and medicine. They are hard to find and I did not see any store that sells them around Havana. The hotel has some of these items in limited quantity and they are much more expensive than in the US.

Departing Cuba

If possible, you should change all CUC back to Euros or Canadian Dollars at the hotel before going to the airport. The line at the airport is long and the rates are standardized anyway. You will be charged a 10% fee to convert CUC back to a foreign currency, so try not to have a large quantity of CUC left. All you need for the airport is just enough for the cab ride, tip and 15 CUC for water, coffee and trinkets at the gate. Foreign currencies are accepted in the departure terminal; however, your change is in CUC and there is no way to exchange it.

Head to the airport 3 hours before your departure time. The JetBlue line was very short so I ended up with 1.5 hours wait for the flight. However, there were giant lines for the other airlines. There is limited food and shopping at the airport besides a duty-free shop and a very unappetizing food kiosk and cafeteria. WiFi is available at the gates so keep those Wi-Fi cards handy. If you decide to buy gifts at duty-free, give yourself 30-45 minutes for the check-out line… because the staff works on Cuban time. You can get a variety of alcoholic beverages and cigars at the duty-free. I did not want to deal with the currency issues as Americans do not have access to credit cards in Cuba, so I purchased most of my gifts around Havana. I ended up buying a bottle of rum at duty-free to get rid of the remaining CUC and that took 40 minutes to just pay for it.

Check your departure gate as it changes all the time. My gate was B-12 when I checked in my luggage and that changed to B-8 once I passed through security. When I was supposed to board, the gate changed to B-7 making everyone scramble to a different gate. Expect Spirit Airlines type of cattle herding but worse for the boarding process.

Lastly, have fun! Cuba is a very interesting country and should be experienced at least once with an open heart.

Look out for our post on 5 Days in Cuba coming soon.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang