What would a birthday in Japan be without a special dining experience? Let’s get the bad out of the way first, I made reservations online for Gion Nanba (one Michelin star) about two weeks prior to the date which seemed to go smoothly, but when we arrived, they did not have our reservation listed at all. I had the confirmation on my phone though, and fortunately it was a Tuesday so they weren’t so busy that they couldn’t slot us in 45 minutes later, there was no one else eating at the counter that night that we saw. I think somehow it would be best to confirm a day or two prior either via email, phone or even in person if you book online, just to be sure. It’s opposite a Starbucks in Gion so we went across the road and chilled with some frapuccinos until our time had come.
So second time around we got our seats at the counter and by this time ready to gorge (as much as you can gorge eating such a meal), I was so eager I pretty much fell into the leg pit and banged my knee. I didn’t realise there was space to dangle your legs at the counter rather than just sitting cross legged.
We started off by ordering some sake letting the lady recommend us the type, we had it hot. You can probably see from the pictures how nice the dinner ware is, everything is so intricate and pretty, and especially wabi-sabi (my new favourite term!).
Next up were the sushi and sashimi courses, the sashimi consisted of squid, bonito, sea bream, and tuna, while the sushi (and other stuff) had anko fish liver (top right behind the lead), salmon roe, mackerel sushi, and shirako (a river fish) spem sacs (yes, you read that right! Top left with the spring onion garnish). All the usual suspects here except for the fish liver and the fish sperm sacs, the liver didn’t taste like liver but I’ve never had fish liver before so maybe that’s what it normally tastes like, it didn’t seem to taste like mercury at all (:D). The sperm sacs, well this was actually one of the most memorable items on the menu that night, it tasted really good once you forget what it is you’re eating. The texture is like custard and it’s a bit salty, and a bit sweet, the hard part was getting over what I was eating, it wasn’t that hard, I just needed to eat it.
Down to the staples now with soba, rice, and miso soup, clearly turnip is in season as there were two dishes with turnip, and it was really cool that it was done two ways. That petal shaped bowl was very interesting as well.
We finished with some very yummy desserts, especially the wine jelly, it all sounds very sweet but it really wasn’t, just really, really well made, in great harmony and balanced so well as you would expect. I’m not 100% sure if the mochi wasn’t extra (as an apology) or not, I don’t remember seeing the people before us getting that. And then washed down with a traditional tea ceremony style matcha green tea.
This was almost three weeks ago, and you may have noticed that I didn’t actually comment on the taste of the food that much, unfortunately I didn’t take detailed notes on the night (preferring to just be in the moment, I didn’t even take these pictures!) and obviously I can’t remember how most of the dishes tasted now, but I can say this, if there was anything subpar I definitely would remember it. We can safely assume that this meal was a highlight and that we enjoyed everything, except the whole “didn’t have our reservation” issue. It was a great meal, especially seeing the ingredients that were used, you wouldn’t normally think of a lot of this stuff. And watching the chefs at work up close and being able to see the utensils that they use, the pots and pans, and the oven, it was all very cool.
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A couple of weeks ago we went to this Peking Duck restaurant in the city, apparently it’s a franchise in China, and this was the first branch in Australia. I’ve seen this place a few times as we drove to Queen St a fair bit to park the car when visiting the CBD, but never knew that it was actually a duck restaurant. It’s quite a large space, well, it’s like a two level place but they’ve removed the second floor so it just has a really high ceiling. The setting is nice and the service more upscale than your regular duck restaurant (i.e. Old Kingdom or Simon’s) but it’s not fine dining.
We were six people and ordered two ducks and some fried rice (as two had already eaten something), whereas normally you’d order one duck between two (if it was done three ways), this was supposedly duck done two ways, but we did not get the duck soup (apparently all of the duck bones were bagged for take away by our Chinese speaking companions). The plum sauce, cucumber, and spring onions were individually portioned and more than enough for each of us. The duck however, was sliced a bit too thinly and at that point it is not clear how many slices you should put into your own crepe. I started off with two slices, but then we had leftover duck so I upped it to three slices of duck to each pancake, so in the end it seemed like two bigger slices or three smaller slices per crepe was right, whereas at Simon’s it might just be one slice or two smaller slices to a crepe.
The duck itself was pretty good but the skin lacked the crispness that we’ve enjoyed at Old Kingdom and Simon’s, there was a side dish of fried duck fat which was a novelty. Dip it in a bit of sugar and you have quite the treat, but really, this duck meal was left a bit wanting (the fried rice wasn’t anything to write home about either), it was also about $15 bucks more expensive (78$) than Old Kingdom or Simon’s so that was definitely a thumbs down. On a side note worth noting, there was no need to pre-order the duck as is usually the case at Simon’s and Old Kingdom.
We had some friends over from Adelaide on the weekend and as is our custom, we tried to wow them with something that they might not have tried in Adelaide (or might not even have). We weren’t able to get a preferred time slot (with our kids) so we had to settle with Hoi’s in Camberwell (near our work), we weren’t too sure about it as it’s usually just a take away/quick and dirty lunch place, that has re-branded in the past year or two as a Peking Duck restaurant. But it was our only option on short notice, we ordered two ducks over the phone (for five adults), but we were actually all still quite full from lunch, and then one of the adults dropped out.
We managed to order duck three ways here, so the regular Peking duck with crepes, stir-fry duck bone (really it’s other pieces of duck that have meat on the bone), and some duck fried rice, there are also options of duck and tofu soup, and crispy noodles with duck among others. So they provide a few extra options over the other duck restaurants. The duck was sliced better here and the skin was crispier, there were also a couple of drumsticks on a plate that I happily chomped down, yes, the duck was much better here.
They did however, skimp on the sauce and vegies, and when we asked for a sauce re-fill the waiter was very stingy and only half-filled the dish. We ended up only getting one duck which was probably a good thing because we weren’t hungry enough to take a second (we didn’t bother asking about it), even if we took it with us. So food, quite good, service horrible (not to mention my toddler was messing around on his high chair and the tray collapsed sending him sprawling on the floor!) but not unexpected, at 76$ for everything including a couple of beers and tea, the value was better than Quanjude. But I’d rate it lower than Old Kingdom and Simon’s for quality of food, but they are trying, and giving the extra options (something like six or seven total) is definitely a positive. So, next time our friends come over we’ll either have to take them to Simon’s or work out something else to wow them with, we’ll probably have six months to a year :D.
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The final leg of our journey through Vietnam, well, it was broken into two legs as we hit Saigon first, then Phu Quoc, then went back to Saigon, but for the purposes of this recap here we are. To be honest, I didn’t take many pictures in Saigon, but that doesn’t mean that we were super lazy, just a little bit. We did venture out to eat some good things, as well as do some shopping (or at least I stood around while emmy perused the shops). I did manage to drive emmy’s uncle’s BMW through a few blocks of District 2, which was quite funny. But mostly, for me, I got to eat a bunch of nice dishes, we ventured out to District 1 most of the time, and wandered up some pretty old buildings, where all the cool, trendy fashion stores (and coffee shops) seem to be nowadays.
I got to enjoy a bunch of new dishes like Bun Cha Ca (fish cake noodle soup) which was awesome! As well as all the regular favourites, so good, no complaints from me that’s for sure, as you can see from the number of food pictures compared to the number of tourist shots. Saigon is definitely a foodie paradise, just so much variety, and very good quality, and the prices, so, so cheap. Popeyes Chicken is basically everywhere and like what KFC should be, spicy deep fried chicken (the chickens must be quite big, cos the pieces weren’t small like KFC). A lot of trendy coffee shops selling all sorts of cakes and desserts, as well as restaurants with foreign themes like the American BBQ place we went to. I love Vietnamese food so the fact that around every corner there is something good and cheap to eat is definitely my idea of paradise.
You probably couldn’t tell but my last picture is from Boxing Day, which is five days before we were supposed to leave for Singapore. Turned out that I had contracted Dengue Fever (probably in Phu Quoc) and was incapacitated for a week or so. So I can comment on the medical system of a foreign country for the first time! I stayed at an international clinic (spent a total of three nights over the course of five days in the clinic) on a drip, taking painkillers to keep my temperature at a manageable level. That wasn’t fun, but at least I had a private room and my insurance (eventually) covered the costs, and once I started feeling better and got some appetite, I got a skin rash which was really irritating! At least I got to eat pho ga the last couple days as that was pretty much all I wanted (could) to eat :D.
We were staying with family so nothing to report on accommodation, but in terms of transport, I can safely say that the way to go (if you can speak Vietnamese) is uber, it’s much cheaper than taxis and seems to be pretty available and on time in most places. Probably the only time it might be an issue is late at night and if you’re not in the central city area. The cars we rode in were all quite new and in good condition (and clean), at least as good as taxis, usually better.
So we ended up staying a few nights extra in Vietnam, didn’t go to SIngapore, and went straight back to Australia where I had a few more days to recover before heading back to work, and settling our new house! Very hectic period for us, but it’s mostly settled down now, and I can (hopefully) get back to posting some more stuff on here, and not just foodie posts too, although I hope to be able to keep that up to some degree. We went to Sorrento last week, but I don’t have much to report (I might do a short restaurant review), this week we’ve gone up to Mount Dandenong (Sky High Observatory) for a bit, so I will post some pictures (and laughs) from that later this week.
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Moving on to central Vietnam, we flew down to Da Nang before driving to Hoi An to stay for a couple nights. We were pretty lame, didn’t really have a plan of what we were going to do apart from visit the old town. Apparently there is a beach near Hoi An but we wouldn’t know, it was hot, really hot, coming from Hanoi and quite draining of our collective energies :D. We managed to stroll through the old town on one afternoon/evening catching most of the tourist sites around there, the bridge, the Cantonese assembly hall (but not the Fukien one I think, I don’t remember). We saw enough lanterns to last a lifetime, and even bought a couple that are sitting in boxes in the garage catching dust. It’s quite a nice town, picturesque and calm.
On our second day we decided to to go and check out some tailors as Hoi An is quite famous for it, we went to a couple of recommended places, and ended up at Bebe 3. I ended up getting a slim fit suit (which is hanging in the wardrobe as clean as the day I bought it lol), I think I had three fittings and the suit was delivered to our hotel before we checked out the next morning. I squeezed in a shirt and got a tie for free as part of a discount offer provided by the hotel all for 250$ USD.
Emmy got a dress from the same place, a very nice dress that she also hasn’t worn yet (we’re waiting for a special occasion). On top of that emmy wanted to check out another tailor (across the road from Bebe) to spread the wealth and make sure that we weren’t pigeon-holing ourselves into one store (Bebe was definitely better though) and picked up a blazer for about 100$ USD. All of these shops are quite pushy and trying to sell you stuff, but I personally preferred Bebe as they were asking in a nice way, and the customer service was friendlier. The girls (they’re all girls that work at these places) at the other place just don’t seem to have any training in hospitality or something, not cheaper and service not as good.
Really though, the most important part of any trip is the food, amirite? Hoi An is also quite famous for its cuisine, which we very happily indulged in. A couple of famous dishes, Mi Quang and Cao Lau, both noodle dishes, one from the country and one from the city (I forget which), and both were delicious, even though the places we visited were quite random and we wouldn’t know how to get back to the same ones if we went back. The two places we went to, I don’t think you’d find them in a guide book or anything, we pretty much just walked along some street a bit down from where the tailors shops are and found the first place that was open for Cao Lau. The Mi Quang place we asked the hotel for a recommendation and they sent us on a taxi ride to the outskirts of town it seemed, some restaurant along the highway or something.
Other than that, we also went to the recommended place for Hoianese chicken rice which is quite similar to Hainanese chicken rice :D, it was quite good too. A couple of random-ish places we tried, the vegetarian restaurant that was the only restaurant open apparently the day we arrived, somewhere further from town, certainly nothing special unless you wanted the really local feel, and the Banh Mi “restaurant” where we got some local Hoi An bread rolls, they were okay but I much prefer the Saigon style ones that you get at Nhu Lan in Footscray :D.
Finally, the accommodation, we stayed at Little Boutique Hotel which is quite central, right on the canal, and about a ten minute walk from the old town. This was a very nice hotel, first class service, a nice little swimming pool, and a very nice room, luxurious even. Apparently there was a free beach shuttle, but we never bothered going to the beach, too much shopping to do :D.
They gave us a lot of great helpful advice and the buffet breakfast was very well stocked with a great variety of Vietnamese and western regulars. They arranged for a shuttle service to take us to our hotel in Da Nang which was convenient, I mean we had to pay for it, but still, door to door, can’t argue with that. Very highly recommended, we’ll stay there next time we need some fancy clothes ;). And with that we’ll be moving on to Da Nang, I was going to include both central cities in this post, but Hoi An really took over.
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Man, it’s been desolate here, and is this long overdue, like three months, I am so lazy, but here I am now, ready to kick start a new year of dtraCorp madness. We started our trip to Vietnam by heading to the north, emmy’s home town and birth place, Hanoi (the capital). We never planned to do much there (I think we had three days there including a night in Vinh to take care of some family business), other than eat some good food. So this post is going to pretty much be food, and some reviews of our accommodation and transport.
We stayed at a hotel called Lucky Hotel in Hanoi, which wasn’t great, and I certainly wouldn’t have picked it if it was my choice, but it wasn’t the worst place I’ve stayed in, that’s for sure. Dark and not particularly clean (not dirty, just not sparkling or anything) with pretty basic amenities, the positive is that it is quite centrally located (near Hoan Kiem Lake). We travelled by train (the north-south train from Hanoi to Saigon) down to Vinh, the train is on time when leaving Hanoi and we also got quite a clean one heading south for the six hour train journey. It went quite smoothly and arrived at a reasonable time I think.
In Vinh, we stayed at the Saigon Kiem Lien Hotel which is actually a four star hotel, so was a reasonable quality, but I don’t think that it’s had any work done since it was opened as it was starting to show it’s age a bit. Still, better than the Lucky Hotel in Hanoi, and very reasonably priced too (not that I paid for anything), we didn’t do anything in Vinh other than drive out to the ancestral cemetery and do some of that stuff, before getting the train (this train was old and creaky and ran late) back to Hanoi the next day.
I don’t have a picture of the wonton noodles that emmy’s cousin took out to eat, but not a big deal, they were yummy, we were out and about a lot, so other than home cooking at emmy’s aunties’ place, we ate a lot of sticky rice (quite good) wrapped in paper while travelling around. And so that’s it for the first of this series, I’ll be back tomorrow (or more probably the day after) with the next in this series, Hoi An and Da Nang.
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I interrupt the Japan review posts with a restaurant review, I’ve been wanting to try out Hanabishi for a very long time, and finally decided that our (emmy and my) fourth anniversary dinner was as good a time as any. Hanabishi is a fine dining Japanese restaurant that has been around for 30 years or so (I think) and has achieved many awards. So even though we’d been eating real, authentic Japanese food for two weeks, emmy needed a hotpot fix, and turns out the Japanese do hotpot as well. There are two options (as far as I’m aware) when it comes to Japanese hotpot, sukiyaki – which is a pot of sweet saucy soup that you don’t actually drink, or shabu shabu – which is more along the lines of a traditional hotpot whereby you do drink the soup, it’s a dashi broth, we went with sukiyaki (because I didn’t know which was which beforehand). I’m pretty sure I would go with shabu shabu every time, I didn’t realise how sweet the sukiyaki sauce is.
Looking at the menu, I always wanted to try one of the set menus (which are quite varied and cover everything), but emmy was craving hotpot, so that’s what we went with, plus some sashimi and dessert as well.
There was a Tasmanian sea urchin sashimi special, so we thought we’d give it a go since we’re both really starting to enjoy the texture of this strange seafood. Well, it was really fresh and very smooth, no fishy smell or taste (as you’d expect from a restaurant with such a reputation), I don’t know how people in the know would eat this, but for me, definitely needs wasabi and a good lathering of soy sauce to get the most out of it.
On to the sashi set (entree) which has kingfish, tuna, salmon, and salmon tartare, it’s always great to eat really nice, fresh sashimi, the salmon was a bit ridiculous, they were sliced quite thickly but the samon was just falling apart (flaking?) when picked up, great stuff, I love sashimi, I’ll leave it at that.
Now for the main, sukiyaki with wagyu beef slices, spinach, and udon on the side, as well as wombok, mushroom and onions in the broth. The beef was great, I really don’t think you even need the premium grade stuff (says the person that didn’t want to pay for it), it is so rich, the broth is probably a little too sweet for my taste, but then you’re not meant to drink it, still, if I had my time over again, I’d go with the shabu shabu, I like udon in broth.
Finally, we have the dessert platter (small one for two) which contains a little bit of everything (except for the three other dishes you get in the larger selection). We got some chocolate cake, egg tart, coconut sorbet, anmitsu (fruit and jelly), green tea creme brulee, and a green tea mousse. Each dessert by itself cost about $15 dollars (I’m guessing that they’d be larger portions), and the platter cost $33 by itself so we got try a bit of everything for the price of two desserts (we usually only ever share one dessert). How do you pick a favourite, creme brulee I guess, I’m a big flan/creme brulee fan now, and it’s one of my favourites (along with iced cream), the chocolate cake covert in chocolate sauce was a bit soggy or wet for my liking, I liked the anmitsu second best along with the coconut sorbet I would say.
Just for a piece of high judgement, I would like to mention the couple that were sitting on the table next to us, it was quite entertaining for us, as they ordered a lot of food, shabu shabu (premium wagyu), a dozen oysters, sea urchin, grilled fish with rice. Now I am the type that will ignore people at the table and play on my phone occasionally, but if these two weren’t arguing about something or another, or eating, they were staring at their phones (maybe they were instant messaging each other, I don’t know), and to top it off, they had udon and spinach left over, which they requested to take away! Udon, maybe you could make a case (not really), but spinach?!?! Really? I guess it’s better than throwing the food in the rubbish bin, but maybe don’t over order next time.
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Happy Birthday me, 33, just like my number, and multiplying each digit together equals my birthday. Any way, moving on, my better half surprised (as if I didn’t know) me with dinner at a fancy French restaurant, something that we haven’t done before. Bistro Thierry in Prahran is pretty French, from waiters with French accents (mostly) to all the pots and pans, baguettes to escargot, and creme brulee. We each ordered an entree along with a main, and a glass of wine (as chosen by the waiter) and shared the dessert as we usually do. This being a French restaurant, of course we also ordered some traditional French Fries.
I had the steak tartare, while Huyen (her name is not em or emmy) had escargot, I would have to say that the steak tartare was the highlight of the meal for me, beautifully tender and a very flavoursome vinegarette on top. The escargot were yum, but the sauce was probably a bit rich, very buttery, the snails were cleaner (no grit) than the ones we ate in Vietnam, but the sauce was too overpowering.
On to the mains, emmy had one of the fish of the day, pan seared snapper on black rice, she just told me that it was good but did not have any wow factor. Meanwhile, I went with duck confit, it was good except that the skin crackling on top was just too salty. The french fries were good (although we probably should have gone with a salad instead), as were the baguettes on the table.
For dessert we ordered the creme brulee (not pictured) as we tend to do, I liked it, but it wasn’t anything special, I wonder if there is anything that can make it really stand out. That’s it, good service, good atmosphere, food a little pricey, and tending toward being a bit rich (that’s French cuisine I guess), a good meal, but I don’t think that I’d put French food up there in my favourite cuisines.
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Every summer when I was young, my mum would send me to Hanoi to stay with my grandma for a month. I remember reading lots of manga borrowed from my cousin, and playing card games with my childhood friend. It was simply too hot and humid to play outside for long. Every morning at 7, I would go and knock on my friend’s door hoping that she was up so that we could go down to the alley way to have breakfast. She was never up, opting to sleep in every single day. In my defence, the sun rises around at 5am in Summer so it was impossible for me to sleep in. After a lot of yelling and knocking she would finally wake and we would go down to get the last few bowls of bún on offer. The seller usually packed her stall around 8-8.30am. My friend would go for bún ốc (snail noodle soup) while I would always go with bún riêu cua (crab noodle soup) since I found (and still find) the former a tad sandy.
Bún riêu of my childhood is a simple affair and much different to its southern counterpart. It was made out of freshwater crab paste with lots of tomatoes and the secret ingredient of giấm bổng (a kind of vinegar) which gives the broth a subtle sourness. It was eaten with chopped salad leaves, purple perrila and the usual spring onion and coriander. Admittedly the seller (she also lived in the apartment block) was heavy handed with the MSG but I found this version the most wholesome of all. I tried another seller in Hanoi but the taste didn’t match and I was too snobby to ever eat it in Saigon being put off by the red colouring, fried tofu, and even pork blood cubes.
Even with the abundance of Vietnamese restaurants in Melbourne, it was impossible to find a good bowl of bún riêu since we don’t have freshwater crabs here. I once bought a frozen bag from the grocery store but couldn’t make it coagulate to form the crab cake. The version listed here is what I make with the available ingredients to satisfy my craving but it’s nowhere near as good as what the real bowl of bun rieu was in my mind.
Ingredients (serves 4)
Q: Can chicken stock be substituted with beef/pork stock? Can I use stock from a can or stock cube?
A: I wouldn’t think so since we want a milk flavoured stock here. You can make the stock by boiling chicken cases with a knob of ginger, 1 tbsp of salt for about an hour.
Q: Can I use live crab instead of the one from the can?
A: You can add boiled live crab meat to the mixture but using it alone wont result in crab cake.
Q: Can I use a different brand of crab paste?
A: You could try but this one is my favourite.
Q: Can I not use mince pork?
A: Yes, in that case double the crab paste and make sure that the stock is not on high heat. Otherwise it will over boil and you won’t get any crab cake.
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Bun bo hue is my favourite childhood dish. I and the neighbour kids used to religiously go to this bun bo hue stall at the market every day during the summer holidays. A bowl set us back a mere 3000 dong back then. Last time I went home, the stall was still there but the food was disappointing. The bowl was small and there was hardly any meat. I guess I’m used to the big bowl we get in Australia. We also had Bun Bo Hue in Hue but were not impressed. It could have been a tourist trap restaurant but the bun bo was so different from what we had been accustomed to. The bun was thin, there wasn’t any sliced meat, only big chunk of pork hogs which I’m not a big fan of.
Having said that, a good bowl of Bun Bo Hue is harder to come across in Melbourne than Pho. Our top choices would be Co Do and Ninh Kieu in Richmond, and Dong Ba in Footscray. While the bowl at Dong Ba is slightly too oily for my taste, Ninh Kieu offers the deepest, most flavourful version of all.
True that it uses mainly beef stock but what sets it apart from its more famous cousin Pho is the liberal use of lemongrass, the spiciness of sate and the deep flavour of Hue shrimp paste. Making Bun Bo Hue does require a fair amount of ingredients and some plan-aheads. I attempted to make this dish a few times before but was too lazy so some steps were skipped and the stock never came out as good as at the shop.
Ingredients: (yields about 9 bowls)
1/2 kg of beef bones
1 kg of beef shin
1 large pork hock
4 stalks of lemongrass
1 knob of ginger
Mam ruoc Hue (Hue shrimp paste)
Rice noodles (Bun Bo Hue type which is round and a bit bigger than the normal bun)
Lettuce (could be cos lettuce, shredded water spinach, shredded banana blossom)
1 stalk of lemongrass
3 cloves of garlic
dried + fresh chilli
annatto seed or powder
Mix 2 table spoons of mam ruoc with 1 cup of water. Use a glass or small container. Cover and let it sit overnight.
Parboil the bones, beef shin and pork hock for 5 mins. Discard the water and wash the meat and bones thoroughly.
Chargrill onion and ginger until brown. Peel the onion.
Bruise the lemongrass.
Add the meats, bones, onion, ginger, lemongrass, clear part of the mam ruoc to a large stock pot and add about 5 litres of cold water.
Add 2 tbpspn of salt
Bring to the boil and start skimming the scum.
Lower to simmer.
After an hour, remove the pork hock and submerge in a bowl of cold water.
After another half an hour remove the beef shin and submerge in water. Continue to simmer the stock for another hour or two.
Chop lemongrass, shallot, garlic and chilli.
In a small saucepan, add 2 tbsp of veg oil. When the oil is hot, add the lemongrass and stir for 2 mins.
Add shallot and garlic and stir for another 2 mins
Add chilli and quickly stir for another 30 sec and add it to the stock
Slice the pork and beef thinly.
Cook the noodle and run it through cold water to prevent further cooking.
In a bowl, add the noodle, some meat, garnish and ladle the stock.
What could go wrong?
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Well, any way, that’s pretty much it, not sure when I will post next, or what, maybe just some random thing with some photos, White Night maybe.
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