Please, Sir, Can I Have Some Moor?

One afternoon last month, I was walking across the 3rd arrondissement of Paris (sidewalks of cigarette butts, trampled autumn leaves, pigeons pecking at someone’s lost piece of challah) on my way to Breizh Café, declared the best crêpes in town, when I was sidetracked by mounds of mubarak magnificence off rue de Bretagne (it’s not a pun).

The hunger pang stops here. © Desiree Koh

The sight of Parisians tucked into benches, their faces obfuscated by steam Old Faithful’ing from large colorful ceramic plates made me take an abrupt 90-degree right turn into an alley, the light at the end provided by florescent tubes whose sole purpose of being was to illuminate mosques of melt-in-your-mouth jannah, turning markets into meccas of masticulation.

Never trust a food stall without gravy spillage. © Desiree Koh

The marché des Enfants Rouges is the oldest covered market in Paris, built in the 1600s, and is where Marais comes for breakfast, lunch, and wine, delicatessen, cheese, fruit, and vegetable shopping. What a difference 400 years make – there’s an Italian stand serving fresh handmade pastas, a sushi stall, a pan-Asian one – seaweed-dusted poulet rôti, anyone? I stood in front of Traiteur Marocain, enthralled by walnuts and almonds caramelized and tossed with root vegetables in harissa sauces and meats clinging on to their bones only by slivers of tendon – oases amid dunes of fluffy cous cous. If we’ve played the “If You Could Only Eat Five Cuisines For the Rest of Your Life” game, you’d know that French is one of mine. I was in Paris and damn it, I was only going to eat French, even if it was baguette with Camembert forever.

But tenir à tes chameaux! Isn’t Moroccan cuisine as integral to French eating as Chinese-made souvenirs are to the city’s tourist spots? Hadn’t I learned anything from my traipse through Belleville, where shisha aromas instead of cigarette smoke now waft out of corner cafés?

Moving ahead: the new face of Paris in Belleville. © Desiree Koh

I stepped into line for what turned out to be an institution in Moroccan chow that wasn’t in the 20e, and immediately held it up when it came to my turn, because I wanted it all and couldn’t decide, not to mention my halting French. I settled for this:

Tajine d’agneau at le Marché des Enfants Rouges. A hunk of slow-stewed lamb shoulder surrounded by a supporting cast of zucchini, cauliflower, potatoes, carrots, peanuts, onions, cabbage, figs, and sultanas, each one infused with the taste of the other. © Desiree Koh

Then I settled on a bench and waited for my own heap of when lamb shoulder met apricots. And chopped tomatoes. And paprika. And sultanas. And honey. And cinnamon. And cumin. And turmeric. And saffron. And garlic. And mint leaves. And coriander. And onion. And lemon. That stock all of the above came together in like the Comic Con of stews should be publicly traded. Next to me, an older woman shared a beef pastilla with her poodle. Across from me, two 3e hipsters with perfect knots in their scarves and tatteredly natty newsboy hats shared pita with hummus and a plate of olives over red wine and cigarettes. We’ll always have lunch in Paris.

Epilogue: I continued on to Rue Vieille du Temple for a buckwheat crêpe with caramel and buckwheat ice cream. I asked if it was sea salt caramel, and the response was, “We only have sea salt caramel.” I could have been in Saint-Malo, Bretagne.

A moveable feast, digesting from north Africa to the Brittany coast. © Desiree Koh

Medieval Times

“We were Googling to make sure we had the right word – is it correct – ‘chicory’?” said the girl with the black apron, in this town made famous partly by Old Master Jan Vermeer and his Girl With the Pearl Earring. Blue and white are emblazoned in The Netherlands’ prettiest town, by way of its ubiquitous earthenware that artisans have been meticulously crafting ever since merchants brought the skill back from China (although most of the souvenir shop cheapies are actually made in China).

The sidewalks wore blue-and-white china – Delftware. © Desiree Koh

But at Eetcafé de Ruif, the brown rustic setting is worthy of Amsterdam’s finest, without the caffeine stains and greenery.

“And yes, pumpkin!”

What she means is the day’s specialiteit, which is eendenborstfilet, pompoencrème, witlof en spierenjus. If that’s too much of a mouthful, just chew on this:

Fine, we’ll share: it’s duck filet with chicory and pumpkin cream. © Desiree Koh

It’s easy to fall in love with autumn dining in a village that appears to have been founded for the sole purpose of being cluttered with red and orange leaves as it lounges in blasé disaffection – it’s as if Diane Arbus shot Delft for the cover of European Vogue dressed by Foliage. At De Ruif, country food is as heart-warming as laying on the hearth in front of the glowing fireplace, cheeks in palms, gazing at little balls of fire. Chicken soup for the soul has got nothing on my perfectly seared rare duck (a rarity with the effect of a new Terrence Malick film); being on the duck side of the moon puts a lilt in the palate, especially when apfelkorn – apple liquor – sets the table. The perfect slab of fat threatens the viability of foie gras, and the chicory was cut just right to scoop up the right amount of pumpkin mash to go with each peel.

The apfelkorn of my eye. © Desiree Koh

And the small town smiles and wiles have prospered since 1100, whence hospitality has never gone out of style. It’s a Monday and not every store outside is open, but you can come in to De Ruif where everybody knows a great meal can be found. When Bob Dylan comes on with “Times They Are A-Changing”, it calls for another sip of apfelkorn to toast how Delft has found a way to cryogenize the temporal length of existence. Sam Cooke, I love you, but tonight a change is not gonna come, and we’ll be OK for that.

Civil rights in action was the waitresses trying to help me get on the bus to Sweet Street, even though all four of my stomachs were filled to capacity, drawing a Mason-Dixon line between me and dessert. No matter how the tarte tatin with vanilla sauce, lime cheesecake with hibiscus ice cream, white and dark chocolate brownie with cinnamon ice cream, and crême brulée beckoned, I was physically unable to march to the promised land. It wasn’t about racking up my bill, but because they earnestly wanted the evening to end well, extending an invitation for me to linger as long as I needed to digest and by justifying the size of the cheesecake with humble fingered dimensions (warning it’s “quite rich – it’s Dutch cheese, as you know”). Still, no dice – I blame this:

Hand-cut frites with a five-dimensional crisp, potatoe fluff that disintegrates with every chomp (I added an “e” for excellence). © Desiree Koh

It might have been the day after Amsterdam Marathon, but I would have had to upgrade my body from a trunk to a portmanteau. There was just no capacity for excess baggage, unless I paid for being over weight.

Fortunately, an Irish coffee was strong enough to numb the bummer of dessert forfeiture, but it was also a sign of better things to come. I withheld ordering the tarte tatin but unlike the determination of the Dutch Resistance, faltered when I walked by ‘t Klooster, a café with more than 120 regional beers from the vaunted De Moelen to the mighty Mikkeller.

‘t Klooster barkeep Phil craftfully unbottles a St. Feuillien tripel, rounding off the head to make sure the pour retained all the flavor of this fully yeasted ale. © Desiree Koh

There, I knew the night would unleash its aria on a high note, and perhaps in a nod to the Oude Kerk, might also find me standing at a vertical slant to the ground, if I wasn’t already walking on air. The De Ruif ladies had asked me to stay as long as I wanted – Delft will stay this way as long as it liked, too.

The 800-year-old Oude Kerk leans to the left in a town that bleeds blue and white. © Desiree Koh

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.

Waiting for Gezellig

Some people read all of East of Eden only to find out, to their dismay, that their book report can summarized in just one word, and that’s only at the end of the 600 pages they’ve trekked across: timshel. Others sit through Citizen Kane for the sole purpose of getting down to the root of “Rosebud”, gratified 119 minutes later. Many emerge from Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, with just three words ringing in their heads: “Words, words, words”.

The Dutch spend entire lifetimes trying to find gezellig. You can try to define it, but you shouldn’t – it’s the same way the Swedish feel fika and the Irish cherish craic. It’s the umami of human unity, a setting, situation or sensation where every inkling of conviviality clicks into place so there’s no better place or position to be in. When words fail, gezellig (pronounced hel-SELL-ick) is a successive celebration of all that’s tip-top about the moment.

Gezellig enlivens Johnny Jordaanplein, a colorful square dedicated to a beloved musician known for levenslied – tears-in-your-beers ballads. © Desiree Koh

In gezelligheid, the state of being gezellig, you’ll converse, debate, sing, play, eat, drink, create, sleep, dance, work – truly, go about your life, but you’ll know it when you feel it. Gezellig is hardly a mere acquaintance – it’s a guardian angel for Dutch life, both the good and bad ones, existentialism in ecstasy. And unlike the Steinbeck, Welles and Shakespeare, you won’t mind devoting hours, days and travels seeking it out.

La Falote owner, chef and court jester Peter van der Linden plays along with gezellig accordingly in his diner. © Desiree Koh

As Peter van der Linden plays the accordion from table to table in La Falote, the diner he owns in Amsterdam’s Oud Zuid, gezellig pumps into the ambiance of dark-paneled walls, heartily stocked bar counter, family photographs, flea market knick-knacks, and football jerseys with each wheeze of “Home On the Range” or “Volare” (regulars from the neighborhood get classics and folk songs). Van der Linden himself is one of the best instruments of gezellig, generous with gregariousness and serving portions, finding room for everyone who comes into his place. “We just want it to feel like home,” he says, the bistro’s only cook who uses these musical interludes as an excuse to carve out time for himself outside the kitchen each evening. “You like it, sweetie?”

Handmade gezellig at Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs – climbing steep, narrow slivers of steps to get to pancakes? Extra gezellig points. © Desiree Koh

Pannenkoeken, Dutch pancakes and perhaps Holland’s national dish, can sprawl up to a foot in diameter, all the better to wrap itself around the concept of gezellig. At Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs, the menu is not complicated – after all, pancakes are simple pleasures. Cheese, cheese and ginger, bacon and tomato, apple and cheese – a specialty would be the Bali, which is coconut, chocolate and cheese. Squirt schenkstroop (black treacle syrup) over your pancake, sweet or savory, and dine under an array of teapots hanging from the ceiling. At Pancakes! Amsterdam, flipping is more of an art form, made with organic ingredients, sustainably farmed produce and flour from the Eersteling windmill in Hoofddorp. But no matter what tops the pancakes, it’s what’s in the mix that rounds off the equation – on their own, each pannenkoeken glows with an aureola of aroma. A cross-section examination of the pancake – thicker than a French crêpe, thinner than an American flapjack, but enough to be layered with the best intentions – reveals softly rounded pockets in the texture, trapping wholesome flavors before releasing them as gezellig.

Gezellig – the gastronomical glue that holds together goat cheese, garlic oil, spinach, and pine nuts at Pancakes! Amsterdam. © Desiree Koh

A name like Récar de Fleur is already gazillions of gezellig, but that if you can believe it, gezellig was already emanating from my email before I arrived at this gentleman’s Studio Récar bed and breakfast in the city’s Museum Quarter. “It’s not a hotel, it’s a home,” Récar says several times, beginning his first note welcoming me to his townhouse that once used to be the graphic designer’s printing workshop, making sure any special needs I might have would be attended to (including an around-the-clock breakfast available in the kitchen, which is salvation for pre- and post-marathon chowing). With colorful paintings by Récar adorning the walls of my studio apartment with four beds, a kitchen, dining area, and living room – three times the size of a typical European hotel room, a transit map plotting out the route from the bed and breakfast to Olympic Stadium for Sunday’s Amsterdam Marathon waiting when I arrived, and a check-out time whenever I pleased, I woke up every morning recharged with a full tank of gezellig.

The portrait of the graphic artist as a bed and breakfast gentleman of gezellig. © Desiree Koh

Gezellig is not getting run over by bikes which hurtle towards you each time you try to cross the street in Amsterdam – it’s a vicious cycle, and there is no insurance policy covering this insane insurgence. But unlike, say, China, where your mis-step might invoke a litany of liturgical swearing and spitting, the voracious velociraptors acknowledge your sorry state with a benevolent smile at best, but at least also put in a sincere effort to avoid running you over.

Rising from the ashes, after getting run over by an Amsterdam bike – that’s onzellig. © Desiree Koh

That may not completely be gezellig, but it’s one of the happy memories you’ll bring home to share. You’ll say, “Jay-cycling is rampant in Amsterdam!” to friends and laugh about it, forgetting that parts of your toes can probably be found all over the city, together with rainbow sprinkles fallen from waffles, puddles infused with genever, splotches of mayo from cones of frites, green entrails from brown cafés – tokens of last night’s gezellig.

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.

Oranj You Glad You’re Here?

The French are Les Bleus; the Brazilians samba to green and yellow; the Swedes were designed in blue and yellow; the Americans bleed red, white and blue; the Kiwis are All-Black; the Irish are an ode to kerry green; and the Chinese are red.

Graffiti makes light of gravity in Amsterdam, making its mark in orange. © Desiree Koh

The Dutch are orange, a nod to William the Silent, Prince of Orange, leader of the Protestant revolt in the Eighty Years’ War that led to independence from Spain in 1648. The feisty flamboyance of this hue that plays on the bright side flares on in Amsterdam, bringing along happy friends red, blue, yellow, pink, and green to the party that is murals, graffiti, art, and public design. The Dutch keep it inside, too – walk along any of the historical townhouses lining the canals and peek into the windows at decorations so vivid in color they overwhelm the pallor of the darker seasons – the Manhattanites and Parisians can have their black and the British their brown sauce, but the Hollanders levitate their spirits with tones on the higher end of the spectrum. Put it this way – Van Gogh painted “Sunflowers”, not “Lilies”.

The autumn leaves don their national colors. © Desiree Koh

This élan is everywhere in Amsterdam.

In the Dam, the medieval womb of the city where Amsterdam sprouted from a cluster of fishing boats in 1275, these waffles add fun to a fair on the square.

Rainbow bright. © Desiree Koh

Even Nieuwe Kerk – the New Church, only because it was built in the 15th century as opposed to Oude Kerk in 1306 – pops up in pink.

An Andy Warhol exhibit pretties Nieuwe Kerk up in pink. © Desiree Koh

Down in De Pijp, the city’s first 19th-century slum that is now its lively pipe dream of working class laborers, dreaming artists, new immigrants, old intellectuals, burgeoning bobos, and little cafes, Taart van m’n Tante puts Willy Wonka to shame with its princess-pleasing decor pumped with plum gobs of crazy pastels, its pastry case of pies, tarts and cakes so comforting that the most chiseled Stanley Kowalskis would flaunt his inner Barbie – and no one would bat an eyelash.

Everything you’d expect your favorite aunt’s kitchen to look like, filled with your favorite pies. © Desiree Koh

At the famous Bloemenmarkt, the “floating” flower market, a floral florescence surges down the arc of this part of the Singel canal, as you tip-toe through tulip bulbs that promise to bloom amid any doom and gloom. Here, budding gardeners can kick-start Versailles-worthy lawns with seed money – 50 different flowers with just 10 euros – and fingers seasoned with green can Mother Nurture flowers that look like anything from purple astroids to magenta starfish.

Flower power at Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt. © Desiree Koh

Even at night, rather than conceding to the darkening sky and shadows lurking in the alleys, luminous glows cut their ways across canals and bridges, lingering in the trail of boats and bicycles with an authoritative aura. It’s funny – it could be a starless night, but everything is glittering in the water, which seems less murky in dusk than during the day.

Moonlight serenade in Amsterdam’s canals. © Desiree Koh

And at Olympic Stadium, the start and end of the Amsterdam Marathon, everyone will be walking on sunshine once they cross that 26.2-mile (42.195-kilometer) line. There will be people from 85 countries making the final victory lap to a glossy finish – no matter how much the Dutch love their oranj, a single color can only go solo for so far. It will be a United Nations indeed, and these colors will run.

We can’t all be Olympians, but anyone can be a marathon runner. © Desiree Koh

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.

Canals x Cycles

Cities that are spoken for by bicycles are a tireless whirr of cranks, creaks and circular motion, and when you round that up with canals, the scene becomes undulatingly more picturesque. A stream of people and pedals gliding over bridges at speeds a tricycle time trial faster than the sploshing beneath, a quayside campaign with a trail of swans bobbing along like a left-wing peloton, leaf-littered water making room for reflections of the city always going somewhere – more often than not, forward.

Wheels up on Amsterdam’s Keizergracht canal. © Desiree Koh

Within the last three months, I’ve straddled two European cities big on canals and cycles; now that I’m in Amsterdam, I can’t help but make comparisons between the two, like one might between Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Breaking Away. In Copenhagen, gears are built into the Great Dane DNA, in which muscle fibers are juiced with an innate dedication to the outdoors and fueled by a ceaseless cadence which if stopped, would be defying a major law of physics. Copenhagen cyclists propel purposefully even when life-threatening wind chill and Scandinavian winters throw up stop lights all across town. The mechanics of motion are graceful, and their Nordically hardy steeds are pimped.

Park and ride in Copenhagen. © Desiree Koh

In Amsterdam, every other storefront is a café with cakes, tarts and pies that make your heart stop instantly (also eventually, if you heed the beckon of beautifully baked goods at each appearance; every other storefront in Copenhagen is a bike shop), which might explain huffs and puffs are sometimes audible as the city’s cyclists step on it up canal bridges. Despite the infamous Red Light District, Amsterdam bikes are not built to hustle – they are old-fashioned fat tires, occasionally rusting, often heavy, and a means to an end, rather than the start of a day that probably also includes marathon training and beer drinking, and all the other routines that ensure the Danish finish strong. In Amsterdam, they’re happy to pull their own weight, and that of a pillion rider on a bicycle built for one. They go down waterside lanes side by side, chatting and sometimes romantically linked by holding hands. In Copenhagen, they’ve turned cycling as a common commune into a science – bike lanes have their own traffic signals and off-ramps. Here, the lap of pleasure in taking the longer, slower route is an art and also, artful dodging is rampant in the face of abstract jay-cycling.

Gember koek, a tart filled with almond paste and piled with candied ginger, that Lansdroon Café has been baking since 1908, part of the fuel that powers Amsterdam cyclists. © Desiree Koh

After years of rebellion (the Eel Riot of 1886, student occupations in the 1960s, the abortion debate of the 1970s, and an anarchist named Bart Huges who drilled a hole in his forehead to show how open-minded he was), you can hardly hold it against Dammers for letting their bike chains hang loose. Brown cafés revolutionize friendships, the “I AmSterdam” welcome policy has almost 50 percent of the city’s population comprised of non-Dutch people (you hear accented English as often as you smell fresh frites – every street corner) and of course, you’ve heard about Amsterdam’s liberal arts (and I don’t mean Van Gogh and Rembrandt). Ramshackle, bare-bone houseboats drift on the waterfront next to millionaire houses on gilded canals such as Herengracht.

On Prinsengracht canal, Golden Age mansions loom over houseboats, who never feel like they have to keep up with the Johanns. © Desiree Koh

All this progressive thinking is part of the reason why Amsterdam and its bikes are on the right track. Two wheels are better than four – less pollution, more exercise, more fresh air, less stalling – a victorious cycle. Everything else is just water under the bridge, little of it troubled.

Like that story of the dog who waits patiently for his master to get off the train every evening, Amsterdam bikes faithfully take a brake as their owners take care of business in the city’s trademark brown cafés. © Desiree Koh

This post is courtesy of CheapTickets.sg. All editorial views remain mine and unbiased.