The Best Snacks in the World, Japan Edition

It’s a tough question for the culinary traveler– which country has the best snacks in the world?  Impossible to answer, much like “which country has the best seated outdoor bronze Buddha statue built in 1993?”  (If you said Hong Kong, you’d be wrong, as that’s not a country.)

Back to the food question, ya, I have a few favorites which we might get to in more detail over time.  For now, I’ll leave you with a big one:

Japan, one of the behemoths of the snacking world.  This snapshot of a convenience store in Kyoto covers the gamut of choices on a color chart, and even submerges into the wide world of sexism.  In this instance, we have potato chips, corn chips, and ramen chips.  True gluttons – not unlike myself – would be drawn to the “Hokkaido butter-imbued” (北海度 バター ) flavors, and the sheer of chips will have you replacing jeans on a weekly basis.

The Japanese convenience store merits its own series on BuildingMyBento, but for now, a sneak-peek at some of my favorite snacks will have to suffice.

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Hotel Review: Olissippo Lapa Palace, Lisbon, Portugal

Disclaimer: In exchange for this hotel review, I received a stay in Lisbon, Portugal in one of the Olissippo Lapa Palace’s Garden Wing pool rooms.

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Located in the posh embassy-filled Lapa district of Lisbon, the hotel grounds date to 1870, when a local viscount first had the building built for his son.  His son disapproved – perish the thought – so in 1883, it was sold to another count, who turned it into a palace.  The Olissippo Lapa Palace only became a hotel in 1988.

The hotel isn’t close to a Metro station, but it’s near useful (to downtown) buses and trams.  The neighborhood, as mentioned above, is exclusive, and that partially explains why public transport is hit-or-miss.  However, I took both the bus to and the tram from the old downtown, and both were quite fine.

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Upon entering the hotel, my first impression of the lobby was that it was clean, variegated, and airy.  However, service was a bit stiff – perhaps even arrogant at times – until staff realized that I was a guest.  Even then, it wasn’t the most hospitable, and responses felt stilted.

A bellhop showed me to my room.  Unnecessary, but my hotel contact was unavailable that day, so he showed me around the hotel.  As welcoming and bright as the room was, there were a few issues. Firstly, the air conditioner was pathetic, and only seemed to cool the area directly in front of it.

Also, there was no universal outlet (I have gadgets from all over the world, so whipping out multiple adapters is always cumbersome).  Not to mention, when you press the master switch, everything but one random light in the room went out.  When I left my phone to charge overnight, because I flipped the master switch, the phone actually lost power.  Oftentimes, certain outlets (e.g. fridges) aren’t on the master switch “grid,” but in this room, they were all taken.

On a positive note, the bathroom had a cool, locally-influenced design (think blue and white tiles), and the room had a terrace which overlooked the outdoor pool and garden.

Portuguese sweets (from left): pastel de nata (egg tart!), and two that aren’t pastel de nata…ok ok, travesseiros (pillows) de Sintra, and pampilhos de Santarém.  They also offered fresh fruit and two bottles of water.  (What, no delicious Douro Valley wine?)

Unique way to say “stay out!”

I wandered down to the indoor pool and spa, at the time open from 08:00-20:00.  Quite relaxing, and never seemed too busy.

Breakfast

Buffet breakfasts are always high on my list of priorities (for certain hotels), and the buffet at the Olissippo Lapa Palace was middle-of-the-line.  At first glance, the spread looked small, but on closer inspection, there were decent offerings, as well as the best mango I’ve had in years.

As it was another beautiful October day in Lisbon, I opted to sit outside.  Again, service was underwhelming, but I was satisfied with the vegetables, salmon, and granola, and a demitasse of Earl Gray tea.  As seems to be a theme at breakfast buffets, obnoxious guests aren’t the fault of the hotel, but good acoustics might be.


Ultimately, whereas the Olissippo Lapa Palace has its regal charm and quiet location, I never felt too welcome at the hotel.  It could have been my age, or unenthusiastic employees, but I might have to get a bit older before paying a repeat visit.  Still, I’d go there for a drink or tea, because the setting and district are pleasant.

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Product Review: Royal Hawaiian Orchards Fruit & Macadamia Crunches

Disclaimer: In exchange for two samples of the Royal Hawaiian Orchards Fruit & Macadamia Crunches, I am writing this product review.

Although the Rainforest Crunch Bar (ok, and Reese’s Pieces) was my holy grail of sugary snacks, there are fortunately plenty of options that can vie to play second fiddle.  With their Royal Hawaiian Orchards Fruit & Macadamia Crunches, Royal Hawaiian Orchards is on the right track.

The company can trace its roots back to Hilo, Hawaii in 1948, when it was founded as the Royal Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Company.  These days, although Hawaii is a leading exporter of macadamias, in the 1880s they were originally brought to the archipelago from Australia as a decoration, and as a means to prevent soil erosion.  Not to mention, the trees take roughly 15 years to mature, which is still a much shorter time than for airline executives.

They sent me one pack of the Blueberry Pomegranate Macadamia Crunch, and one Kona Coffee Banana Macadamia Crunch.  I was a bit wary at first, because prior experience has taught me that crunch or brittle in the title might spell imminent danger for my incisors.  In spite of the name, they both ended up being quite easy on the teeth.

Blueberry and pomegranate individually, are foods that I greatly enjoy.  More and more, however I see the combination in foods and drinks, and just don’t get it.  To begin with, I don’t find either to be a strong flavor, so whatever happens when they cross paths seems to mute the resulting taste.  The same can be said about the blueberry pomegranate macadamia crunch.  There was a subtle sweetness, and that’s about it.  Try to focus on local (i.e. tropical) flavors instead.

On the other hand, I was a big fan of the coffee and banana sample.  Hawaii is known for its coffee, too, and the sweetness of the bananas paired quite well with the bean.  I suppose these would be a good late morning work pick-me-up, and it would be nice to see them sold alongside – or, instead of? – the ubiquitous Mauna Loa chocolate macadamias at airport shops.

Royal Hawaiian Orchards, in addition to the Fruit & Nut Crunches, sells dark chocolate-covered macadamias, seasoned macadamias, macadamia butter, and variety packs.  Here’s to hoping that they’ll also attempt a Rainforest Crunch Bar of their own.

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Event Review: LUCKYRICE™ New York Feast

Disclaimer: I am writing this event review in exchange for one VIP entry ticket.

On September 22nd, the 36th floor Mandarin Ballroom at the Mandarin Oriental New York (entrance on West 60th between Broadway and Columbus Ave.) near Columbus Circle hosted the 8th annual Lucky Rice New York Feast. The event highlighted dishes from throughout the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, with a couple of Indian-inspired samples added to the mix.  Lest we forget that Asia also includes Yemen, Azerbaijan, and Vladivostok, but that’s another story.

Whereas the VIP ticket would get you in an hour early (VIP entry started at 7pm), the Lucky Rice website’s claim that it also innately means “half-capacity” is ludicrous, seeing as the ballroom was already at Shinjuku station rush hour levels of crowding by 7:30pm.

In other words…

Overlooking Columbus Circle

The city views were great, but…

The breathing room, not so much.

Still, I believe that in general, the food offerings at the Lucky Rice New York Feast were better than other events, if often a bit salty.

I noticed that there was a slightly hidden room located opposite to the main ballroom/entrance.  Fortunately, at the time it was quite empty – not to mention, it coincidentally had what I believed to be the best sample of the night:

The Anjou pear cake with yogurt and dark chocolate.  Simple and not too sweet, I regret not returning for seconds at the end of the show.

You may also begin to notice the omnipresence of the color red.  In China, the color represents good luck, prosperity, and happiness.  That it can also mean “stop” has not caught on yet in that country…

Fortune cookies, possibly created in Japan, or by a Japanese-American in California.  Naturally, they – the fortune cookies, that is – made an appearance.

What?  Mexico is in Asia now?  Ah, well, the panna cotta was fine, but the grasshopper was very salty.

This plate was a bit too sweet for my liking, but the variety of colors reminded me of Balinese Hindu offerings.

In this dish, the bánh tráng mè (sesame rice crackers) provided a nice texture, but there was a distinct lack of numbing spiciness (from the Sichuan peppercorn) that took away from it.

Though it was a tad salty, this was probably one of the better options of the New York Feast. I could easily taste each of the ingredients, but throwing in the endive for the crunchy texture and bitterness was unusual, for something Thai-inspired.

The eel taco sounds fun, but I couldn’t help but think that adding in the tare (Japanese eel sauce) would have worked best.

Oh, as for the photo, this is the result of taking a photo using another person’s flash.

The idea sounds delicious, but again, it was awfully salty.  Lemon would have helped out.

Simple seems to have worked best that night, as this was my favorite savory – ok, umami – selection at the Lucky Rice New York Feast.  I should have parked myself here for the night, and purchased a fishing rod for…

the Kimbap Lab.

In South Korea, you can find these filling and relatively healthy kimbap (rice rolled up with various ingredients in seaweed) for less than two bucks, and with lots of types of seafood and proteins to fill them.  The Kimbap Lab is the first Korean vendor located in any Whole Foods, and they can be found in the Williamsburg (Brooklyn, NY) location.  Here’s to hoping that they make it to a NYC-area airport soon.


Hoping to attend a Lucky Feast?  They happen annually throughout North America.

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Oreos: Omnipresent, Overzealous, (Un) Original?

These days, Nabisco’s diminutive Oreo might be a mainstay in supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines. However, these black-and-white sandwich cookies received great inspiration from the Hydrox, the original, introduced by Sunshine Biscuits in 1908, four years earlier than the Oreo.  Whether or not you prefer the darker chocolate of the Hydrox – or that it still tastes as good as it did back in 1908 (quite an exclamation) – there’s no denying that the origin of both cookie names is unusual.

Whereas Hydrox is a portmanteau of hydrogen and oxygen, the two elements composing water, it was also controversial in that the term “hydrox” was more commonly known as both being a company selling hydrogen peroxide (for bleaching and for disinfecting), and as another term for soda. Doesn’t sound like the most appealing name for food, hey?  Might as well name your firstborn “Student Loans.”

The history of “Oreo” is even more dubious, as it either refers to the Greek word for mountain (Όρος “oros”) – since the cookies originally were slightly mounded – or the French word for gold (or), because the first packages were golden.

Alas, we’re not here to cover the background, or the rivalry between the two brands.  Instead, we’re going to focus on Oreos – and their knock-offs – from all over the world.

The discoveries were mostly in North America and East Asia – no shock there – but there will be a nuanced example at the end.

The US

Nothing too unique found in the US; yet, three of the brands don’t even hail from the country. Then again, there’s the token glutenfree “Oreo,” but I wouldn’t touch those with a 10-meter cattle prod.

To start off this post’s language lesson, “giro” in Spanish means “turn,” which reflects the most famous way Oreos have been eaten.  Also, although there is a word for sandwich (샌드위치 senduwichi) in Korean, the Lotte package abbreviates it to 샌드 “sendu.”  Japanese does this too; the verb “to make into a sandwich” is サンドする (sando suru), literally “to sandwich.”

Mexico

Considering the bright colors, I could stick this package on the back of my metaphorical bike, in lieu of a yellow reflector.  Found in Mexico City, this Oreo “trio” offered a combo of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, better known as the Neapolitan.

Cambodia

The Lotus Strawberry Mini Leo come from Thailand, but I saw them in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  C’mon Thailand, you can be much more creative with your flavors.

Taiwan (ROC)

Though the product doesn’t quite look like an Oreo, the name sure does. But are Orievo the biggest offender?  Stay tuned.

Bought the Goriorio at an Indonesian store in Kaohsiung.  The cookies were so artificial tasting that the wrapper probably would’ve tasted better.

China

Mango and orange Oreos, made in China.  So, replace the mango and orange with Styrofoam and dish soap, and then you’d be correct.

Nah, I’ve been craving Hunanese food lately, so I’ll lay off of the reality for a bit.  They weren’t bad, but the grape and peach ones were another story.

Apologies for the inferior photo quality, but the most important aspect of the photo is clear enough.  “Ord.”  That’s a good one.  But might it be shorthand for the Chinese ghost city aka Ordos?  No.  No way.

Indonesia

These Indonesian “Dueto” look like pieces of chocolate instead of sandwich cookies.  Maybe marshmallow is in the middle?  Tidak (no), it’s not.  They were also extremely artificial tasting. But what’s that sneaking into the photo on the bottom?…

Ooh, now we’re talkin’.  Tried these coconut delight Oreos in Solo (Surakarta), and they were addictive.  Deliberately took the photo in front of the sign which translates as “ginger alley 3.”  Ginger-flavored Oreos?  Perhaps one day…

Japan

We have finally had a banner year for Japan on BuildingMyBento.  Reviews, onigiri month, guest posts, and plenty of Japanese food.  But, what of Japanese takes on foreign food?

Soft Strawberry Oreos?  The darn things will fall apart in the milk all too quickly.  I’d bake ’em first.

Cream Clan by Happy Pocket.  What???

Egypt

Egypt decided to join the fray, and surprise, their “Borio” brand is the winner of the least original yet mostly likely to cause a chuckle award.


Which Oreo (or Oreoesque) cookies would you like to try first?

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Hotel Review: Shangri-La Bangkok, Thailand

Disclaimer: In exchange for this hotel review, I received a stay in Bangkok, Thailand in one of the Shangri-La’s deluxe river view rooms.

Although my usual visits to Bangkok involve staying near Sukhumvit Soi 3 (the Arab/pan-African part of town), a drastic change in neighborhoods was welcome this time.

The Shangri-La Bangkok is located in the Bang Rak district, one of the older parts of downtown, bordered by the Chao Phraya River and Si Lom, one of the primary business/nightlife neighborhoods in the sprawling Thai capital.  The hotel is conveniently located across from Saphan Taksin (meaning “Taksin Bridge”) BTS (sky train) station, Sathon pier for local commuter transport, is only a 20-25 minute walk to Si Lom, and even offers a free boat service for guests to the Asiatique shopping and dining complex.

View from my room; the Ferris Wheel of Asiatique can be seen in the background.

The immediate area around the hotel is known for its Thai and Teochew food, specifically congee (rice porridge) and pig knuckle, but I’m more of a spicy seafood (think calamari salad, and mashed catfish and chilies) eater.  If you’re feeling too homesick for something else, the Shangri-La is located right by the Robinson shopping complex, which houses a Tops supermarket in the basement.

(not from the hotel) Catfish and Calamari

Before entering the hotel, I noticed that they had one of those not-quite security checks just outside of the main doors.  Well, they didn’t bark at me like the TSA does, but they also never cared about what I threw into the X-Ray machine, as long as something was thrown in.

Shangri-La Wing Lobby

I should note that the Shangri-La Bangkok has two wings.  My room was located in the older, Shangri-La Wing, containing 673 rooms, and originally built in 1986.  The lobby bustles with business-people, couples, families, and lots of hotel staff whirring about.  My review will only be covering this part of the hotel.

The Krungthep Wing, finished in 1991, has only 129 rooms, and has a quieter, more private feel. Whereas the Shangri-La Wing also has a lobby cafe and an outdoor pool, the pool and cafe in the Krungthep Wing are free only for guests in that section.  That said, guests in either wing can easily walk between the two, and might be glad that the hotel air conditioning can accompany you from the Shangri-La Wing almost all the way to the Saphan Taksin BTS station.

Shangri-La Wing Pool…and solar panels

My contact generously provided me with early check-in/out, and access to the Horizon Club Lounge on the 24th floor.  All my interactions with front desk staff were hit-or-miss, I did appreciate the one time that one agent assisted me before helping another guest who obviously cut in line.

Now, onto the deluxe river view room…

My room was on the 20th floor; rooms could only be accessed by swiping the room key on the elevator panel. Additionally, the Horizon Club Lounge floor required special swiping access, although I noticed that if you could make it to the 23rd floor (presumably a club room floor anyway), there’s a spiral staircase connecting to the 24th.

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First impressions were that the room was very clean-looking, bright, and had an excellent view of the Chao Phraya River/Shangri-La Wing swimming pool.  There were enough pillows present to stretch the length of one Boeing 777 wing – maybe – though I would say that the electrical sockets were not plentiful enough, and that Samsung technology (in the room’s case, the tv) is third-rate.  Most importantly, however, the bed was exceedingly comfortable, and I also managed to awkwardly pass out on the couch, courtesy of jet lag.  Staying on that topic, unless someone was yelling right outside of the door – and if it’s anyone, it’s a mainland Chinese guest – the room was very quiet.  That’s a big plus.

The bathroom was equipped with a shower with excellent water pressure, a bathtub, useful amenities including a toothbrush and a comb, and a rather tight space for the toilet.  The volume button on the side of the basin – I’m guessing to control the tv volume – did not function properly, though that’s a minor quibble.

Aren’t you getting hungry?  Let’s have a look the food and drink options now

I only tried a couple of the Shangri-La Bangkok choices (I’m in Thailand…Thai food beckons!), so we’ll have a closer look at three of them.  In all, there’s the riverside Salathip restaurant focusing on Thai food, Volti for Italian, Shang Palace for Cantonese, a Chocolate Boutique, the 14.2 meter (46.5 feet) Long Bar, the Lobby Lounge, Next2 Cafë for buffets, and even a nightly dinner cruise on-board the hotel’s own Horizon II.  The Horizon Club Lounge also serves breakfast, afternoon tea and liquors, and has its own meeting spaces.  The restaurants could all be rented out, and theme parties are a common occurrence in the Shangri-La Bangkok.  On one of the nights I was at the hotel, Volti had a Latin dance party.

The Lobby Lounge was generally busy but not overcrowded.  It’s airy and full of light, but at night, there’s often an underwhelming singer serenading the furniture.  While sipping my lemongrass tea and munching on taro chips and tom yam peanuts, I overheard a few business meetings taking place; in other words, I don’t think I noticed anyone younger than 18 at anytime in the Lobby Lounge.

The Horizon Club Lounge and its staff were a high point of my time at the Shangri-La Bangkok, even though some of the guests let their kids run amok.  Anyway, the views were good, the snacks changed every day, and the staff were particularly pleasant, and very willing to help.

View north/northwest from the Horizon Club Lounge

I’m rather fond of this photo, taken from the computer terminal section of the Horizon Club Lounge.  The Baiyoke Sky Tower is in the left background, and in the left foreground, Assumption Cathedral.

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Ah, now we’re talking, right?  In reality…no.  The breakfast buffet at Next2 Café was the low point of my stay.  Waiters and cooks were sluggish, bored and unresponsive, other diners – again, Chinese – treated the meal as if it were their last, and the overall taste of the food, save for the salad bar and Indian section, was dull or insipid.  Not to mention, the chef at the omelette bar was coughing all over my omelette, so that was cool.

The one positive aspect is that Next2 Café also had outdoor seating…on the flip side, people could smoke there.


In spite of the disappointing breakfast, somewhat out of the way location, and presence of obnoxious guests (which is not hotel’s fault), the riverside atmosphere, Horizon Club Lounge, and overall tranquility in the deluxe river view room helped outweigh the negatives.  If I returned to the Shangri-La Bangkok, I’d likely opt for the Krung Thep Wing, as it appeared more serene and subdued, almost as if it were a separate hotel.

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Airline Meals, Part Eight, Modern Art, Part One?

Since my first flight with them in 2002, Japan Airlines has consistently been one of the more tolerable airlines to choose.  OK, so I find their flight attendants a wee bit too obsequious with Japanese passengers, their in-flight announcements (in Japanese) can last as long as domestic Japanese flights, and some of their meal choices are questionable if not unwelcome. Then again, it could be worse.

Or, it could be somewhere in the middle:

I asked a friend what he thought this was, and he said “mint.”  For context, many New York-area diners used to have round mints – sometimes colored white, other times multicolored – at the register.  Creative response, but with chopsticks and clear broth present, very far off.

Wouldn’t you know it, it’s  fishball soupproudly created by a 3D printer?  Would it be any tackier if it looked like a rainbow?

This was part of an airline art class airline meal on a flight from Tokyo to Dallas.  Oh, what should I say next?  Book a ticket today!

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