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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Despite what this blog may lead you to believe, I have a day job.  Since getting back to Hawaii in January, I have been working a normal M-F (usually) 8-5ish gig – followed by a 5 a.m. wakeup each Saturday to help with a venture at our most popular farmers’ market.  I did the same before this trip and the one before it, and also get to play food with my friends when they pop up – and absolutely love it.

Even if I didn’t have the privilege of being a very small part of something so amazing, today’s long-awaited opening of the brick and mortar would have been a huge deal to me.  The story behind the Pig and the Lady could have been taken from a Hollywood script and the food is innovative, brilliant and delicious.

They have received significant recognition and acclaim, most recently #1 in HONOLULU Magazine’s 100 Best Dishes and the Hale Aina Gold Award for Best Vietnamese Restaurant, before having a physical location.  Despite all of this, what makes PTL special are the people behind it.

Work hard, play hard has never been better exemplified.  The Le family (and their team) work their asses off.  I could not continue to function on what little sleep they get, and have been getting for years now.  The lack of sleep may contribute to them being hilarious as individuals, and especially together, but it is not the only reason.  For all of the early mornings and late nights of grueling work, they are fun, happy, light-hearted, and truly love what they do.

Today’s soft opening of their restaurant was both a celebration and a culmination of all of the above: the story, the food and the people behind both.  The restaurant itself, located in walking distance from my day job at 83 N. King St. in Honolulu’s Chinatown, has the best-designed interior I have seen in the state.  It feels like you’re walking into a restaurant in San Francisco, Seattle or somewhere else where people value the aesthetics of a restaurant as much as the food itself.  The front of the house and kitchen had faces both familiar and new to me, and those that I know are among the best in the industry.

The food was, as always, phenomenal.  There were some new dishes and some I had enjoyed before and everything was on point and perfectly executed.  The cocktails were on par with the food and the beer list extremely impressive.

A number of friends, family, industry people and lovers of food were at the invite-only event and it was a big lovefest.  I’m grateful to have been among those lucky enough to attend and am looking forward to many great meals to come.

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I had been away during Hawaii Food & Wine for the past couple years and was looking forward to being able to join in on the fun this year. Food & Wine brings some of the top chefs from across the country to Oahu for a week of fun. Due to work, I wasn’t able to fully participate, but it was definitely a week to remember.

Most Saturdays I wake up early and help with The Pig & The Lady at the KCC Farmers’ Market. On the Saturday of Food & Wine, my favorite chef from the Continental US, Chris Cosentino came for breakfast with his family. It was a real treat to serve food I believe in to Offal Chris and they enjoyed their meal.

That night, I attended the “Taste Our Love for the Land” event at the Hawaii Convention Center. There were 19 brilliant chefs cooking up their best and you could revisit their stations as much as you wanted. The huge assortment of wine, craft cocktails, and beer helped wash down each tasty bite.

The chefs took a variety of approaches and it was a treat to see such talented minds going for it! I didn’t get to taste everything, but there were a couple stations I paid a few visits. My top three were: Mark Noguchi’s Kaneohe He`e, Russell Moore’s Grilled goat-king trumpet mushroom kofte kebab, and Ed Kenney’s “Grilled Pa’i’ai and Kukui Nut Broth.”

Gooch’s tako was tender, fresh, and had perfect company courtesy of Ho Farms. Goat was a popular protein and Hawaii’s own Sheldon Simeon laid down a mean kilawen. Russell Moore’s goat kebab was really, really good. In a world of tako, goat, and uni, Town’s Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero served up a true taste of their love for the land. Pa’i’ai is hand-pounded taro, which was the first staple crop of Hawaii, and I don’t think there is a more signature ingredient in Hawaiian cuisine. The dish was earthy, delicious, and told a story.

As good as the food (and drink) was, the company equalled it; there were chefs, farmers, and food enthusiasts from across the globe and many key players in Hawaii’s food future. It was a well-lubricated, four-hour foodgasm in a beautiful setting with tons of great people.

While I only managed to get a taste of Hawaii Food & Wine, it was one of the best bites I’ve ever had. Hawaii is a great place to be.

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Most of the time I visit places it’s not with a particular goal in mind, but occasionally I go somewhere seeking a specific experience. When I first went to Southeast Asia, I sought out an epic elephant trek through the jungle and found what I was looking for in Mondulkiri. For Rajasthan it was a desert camel safari. Tucked into the heart of the Thar Desert near the Pakistan border, Jaisalmer has emerged as a popular destination for people seeking such a trip.

A small, charming city built on sandstone that was once a fort, “The Golden City” of Jaisalmer is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to shops selling camel leather goods and textiles, there are a number of companies aggressively soliciting travelers for a desert trek. Through a tepid recommendation from an excellent host in Jaipur, I ended up with one of the less scrupulous agents. My companion and I were able to negotiate the price down from highway robbery to a mere ripoff and ended up going with a 4 day 3 night desert trek.

The day before leaving town, I made sure to stop by the famous Dr. Bhang for a lassi and some cookies for the upcoming journey. A familiar face was prominently displayed on the wall, someone who had been following me throughout my journey. I didn’t see the episode of No Reservations until after I got back home, but Anthony Bourdain had also made a pit stop at the Doctor’s office before heading to the Thar.

My notion of a desert was a giant beach without the ocean, but the portions of the Thar we covered were more wasteland dotted with a few large sand dunes. It was arid, harsh, and beautiful. Despite the scumbags that ran the operation, our two guides were friendly and delivered a great desert experience.

Most meals consisted of a simple curry and fresh chapati. Everything was delicious. We stopped by a few small villages along the way where children sold beer and opium. Houses were constructed out of mud brick and had thatched roofs. A female goat was giving birth as we entered one village and I got to witness the miracle of life several times over. It was slimy.

Campfires took the chill from the star-filled desert nights. We drank whiskey and talked story with the guides as the camels ventured off into the darkness to pursue camelly matters. A year before, the same story played out in the jungle outside of Mondulkiri, with elephants filling in for the camels.

Aside from the lack of sand, the desert trek was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was definitely worth the trip to Jaisalmer and I highly recommend trying it for yourself.

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Having just 5 weeks in India, I opted to visit fewer places and spend more time in each rather than burn travel time trying to see as much of the subcontinent as possible. The area I wanted to spend the most time in was the “Land of Kings” Rajasthan. Coming from Varanasi, logistics made it most convenient to start my Rajasthani experience in the capital, Jaipur.

A ginger guy from Copenhagan was on the train with me from Varanasi and told tales of the wonderland that is Christiania. We had similar intentions for Rajasthan and joined forces for the next leg of our journeys. Resisting solicitations for lodging from “helpful” locals aboard the train, we ended up at Tony’s Guest House; it turned out to be a great home base to make the most out of Jaipur.

Tony is an older man with a big heart and hospitality at his core. The accommodations were standard for India, but the atmosphere was world class. Outside of the iconic Hawa Mahal, The Pink City isn’t teaming with things to see and do. The guest house had a hammock-equipped rooftop lounge that offered a prime view of the bustling city in the middle of nowhere, as well as free morning yoga.

Whether Hindu or Muslim, religion dominates India. Tony does not buy into the mainstream and introduced me to his spiritual leader, Baba Ji. One evening, we loaded into Tony’s van and made the trek to Baba Ji’s compound nearly an hour out of town. It was something out of a Hollywood studio. Set on a hilltop overlooking an arid wasteland, I felt as if I had arrived at a Southwest Asian tribal leader’s fiefdom; in a way, I had.

The new Lexus SUV in the driveway was a stark contrast to its bare, rugged surroundings. It was Baba Ji’s new ride and intended to lift his spirits after recent heart trouble. Apparently, Baba Ji has a penchant for smoke, drink, and unhealthy food that led to his decline in wellness. He was confined to his room and there was a host of followers who attended to him and facilitated visits. We were offered a bhang beverage while meeting the people occupying the compound in wait of our visit with their leader.

When it was my turn, I joined Tony and we were taken to Baba Ji. Lazing on his bed, Baba Ji’s gray dreadlocks reached his feet. He was a true mystic, full of the insight, wisdom, and intensity that fits a person of his role. We had a brief, positive, and cryptic exchange. It seemed like our conversation could easily have taken place in a time long ago, but when he pressed his electronic service button to summon an attendant, I remembered that the 21st century had arrived.

Following our time with their leader, we joined the rest of the men on the roof. In all there were about 20 men there, some of them stay for long stretches of time and others, like Tony, visit frequently. They were gathered in a circle around a fire talking and smoking a chillum. My traveling partner so impressed the group with his chillum hitting abilities that they presented him with one of Baba Ji’s chillums. It was quite the honor. We ate with the group and returned to Tony’s Guest House.

While staying in Jaipur we also made the day trip to Ranthambhore National Park, which is supposed to be one of the best places to see wild tigers. There were no tigers around on the day we were there, but it was worth taking the chance to see my favorite land animal in the wild and a cool wildlife refuge.

Jaipur was culturally different than the India I had seen and felt more like being in neighboring Pakistan. It was a good time and a perfect transition to Rajasthan.

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Aside from humans, tigers are my favorite land animals, and I was hoping to see one in the wild while in India. Ranthambhore National Park is supposed to provide one of the best opportunities to do just that and I made the day trip from Jaipur to try to catch a glimpse.

Ranthambhore is an easy trip from Jaipur; you can take a morning train in and an afternoon train back. I did just that and also had time to check out the small green market near the park. A morning and evening mounted safari is offered each day and ticketing was a breeze. Two vehicle options are available: a 6-passenger jeep and a 20-passenger truck. The jeeps, which are slightly more expensive, sell out quickly and the truck wasn’t bad at all.

In addition to tigers, the park is also home to a host of other exotic beasts. We saw deer, boars, crocodiles, a host of exotic birds, and a tiger print. Sadly, we were not fortunate enough to see a tiger.

The safari was still fun and, if you are a tiger lover and in the area, it’s definitely worth taking a shot at seeing one in its native habitat.

It was my first time smelling human flesh as it burned. Sorry, I always wanted to start a post that way. It really was, though, and I was surprised people were allowed to walk within 10 feet or so from the bodies as they are burned around the clock, in the place Indians go to die.

Varanasi’s history is as old as that of the subcontinent itself. It is the longest continuously inhabited place in India and one of the oldest in the world.

The sacred city’s largest draw is its continuous cremation ceremonies. Followers believe that being cremated at Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat allows them to achieve moksha, where they break free from the cycle of reincarnation and go to heaven. As soon as one body is no more, another instantly takes it place and a new fire is built to free the next soul.

By the time the mighty Ganges flows to this hugely important site, it’s polluted to where its water is of no use whatsoever.  Everything from agricultural runoff to human waste renders the majestic Ganges a murky mess.  The sky-high fecal content doesn’t stop locals – and the more intrepid visitors – from bathing and washing clothes in it.  This was a stark contrast to Rishikesh, where I had just come from, and the great river was clean and pristine.

If the burning flesh, beyond dirty river, and tasty food aren’t enough, Varanasi is a short distance from culturally rich Sarnath, the deer park where Buddha delivered his first message after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath is also home to an Ashoka Pillar, constructed in 250 BCE by the legendary warlord turned benevolent emperor Ashoka. You can haggle with tuk-tuk drivers and get there and back from Varanasi for a few dollars.

The food in Varanasi was really good. Varanasi has quite a few sweets and is known for its betel nut, but I preferred to explore the more savory assortment of chaat. I particularly enjoyed aloo tikki, crisp potato patties served with spicy curry and a compliment of tasty sauces.

I stumbled across a major flower market where many of the funeral flowers come from, not far from the ghats; it was colorful, vibrant, and chaotic. The salespeople were extremely friendly and must be accustomed to visitors. They actually asked me to take their photos and fought with each other to be the subject of my shots – all without asking for money.

There are a number of guesthouses along the river and prices are comparable to other places in India with a single room running around $6 per night. Boat tours are offered each morning to catch the sunrise and provide an alternative angle to view the cremations.

Varanasi’s sites, tastes, and smells make it a deeply enriching destination to take in and is on the tourist map for good reason. Be warned: barbecue will never be the same after your visit.

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“Hello, are you cold?” As I opened my eyes, I found myself shivering on a bench in the front room of a yoga studio that was attached to the guesthouse I planned on staying.  The door was open when I arrived in the middle of the night and no one was there, so I kind of just crashed. The gentle stranger put a blanket on me and instructed me to rest.  Upon waking again a few hours later, I learned that the man who woke me so kindly was the guesthouse’s resident yogi.  This greeting set the stage for my time in Rishikesh.

Transportation in India is efficient in the sense that you can get wherever you’d like to go; how and when you arrive is a different story.  I arrived in Rishikesh from Agra at about 3 a.m.

A 15 minute rickshaw ride took me from the bus depot to the town, set on the Ganges in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Most of the guesthouses were located on the other side of the river, which you cross via a high, long and narrow walking bridge.  It was a dark, windy and scary crossing that took me to a magical new age wonderland.

Before getting sidetracked, I had planned on visiting Nepal prior to India and still wanted to take in some Himalayan culture.  I narrowed it down to either Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, or Rishikesh, “the yoga capital of the planet.”  Since it was December and freezing in Dharamsala, I opted for the latter.

The town is small, quiet and peaceful. Despite being well-established on the tourist map, there isn’t much development and places close early.  The Nepalese population provide visitors with authentic handicrafts and yak cheese.

Rishikesh’s claim to fame is that it is where the Beatles holed up at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram in February of 1968 to expand their consciousness and write the bulk of the White Album.  The Ashram shut down, but you can pay an unofficial guard 50 cents and tour the grounds.  It’s really cool and definitely worth spending hours walking in the footsteps of hippies.  John Lennon stayed in pod 9 (see photo).  In addition to dozens of living pods and funky buildings, there was also a giant warehouse type building that was converted into a semi-church to the Fab Four.

Oh, yeah.  Yoga.  There are ashrams and yoga studios everywhere and you can get a session in for a couple dollars.  It’s an ideal place to meditate, contemplate and elevate your existence; it’s trippy stuff, man.

I took a break from exploring my inner-self and trekked to nearby Neelkantha Mahadev Temple.  This popular Hindu pilgrimage site dedicated to Lord Shiva is where the god is said to have drank poison that turned his throat blue.  The walk there is beautiful and there is another temple to Shiva on the hill overlooking the shrine.  It’s worth the trip.

The food was vegetarian, simple and tasty.  There was no alcohol to be found, but that would only detract from your mind-opening.

Rishikesh was a very Indian experience and I enjoyed my time there.  It was also nice to visit the ganges far enough upstream where the great river is still clean and pristine.

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