Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Best Wine Regions in the World

After a few bottles of wine it’s hard to determine, which wine and region are the best.  But we do our best in a sober moment to discern the best wine regions we have visited and where we are most looking forward to imbibing.

HE SAID…

Why is the sun so bright today?  Why does my head hurt so much?  Why is my mouth so dry?  Man, I need water…  Groggily opening my eyes to the noonday sun must mean one thing: I’ve enjoyed a wine region a little too much.  As the staunch environmentalist I am, I just can’t spit out the wine I taste, no, I, for the sake of not wasting, swallow every taste I have.  It’s easy to judge wine regions by the experience, the sommeliers, or the views, but let’s look at it another way: where do you look back, head hurting, and say “I love this place!”

Mendoza, Argentina is hard to beat.  It sits at the base of Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas, and many of the towering Andean peaks.  The wines are tasty and can be taken home for less than $10 a bottle.  Those things may be nice, but what makes it great?  All-you-can-eat steak.  Sure, you could go visit wineries, but why not enjoy wine the way the Argentines do?  Paired with meat, lots of meat. For less than $20 you can get all-you-can eat steak and all-you-can-drink wine.

Time for bed.  A young me after enjoying a night of Mendoza.

This isn’t a Sizzler special, it’s Porterhouse and other quality cuts, delicious sausages, and just about every piece of meat you can imagine, barbecued up for your indulging.  Yep, you’ll wake the next day wondering why you ate and drank so much, but then you’ll head out for more…

SHE SAID…

After a few wine tastings any wine region can become your favorite, however a few places stand out as areas I would love to return to.  Wine is a beverage that breaks down language barriers, brings people together and has been a highlight of our travels from Australia to Japan and back to the U.S. While I have enjoyed wine from each of these places there are also a few wine regions that have reputations that precede themselves.

Did I say that wine breaks down barriers?  It also helps to create new friendships, me, my Mom and Matt from Ekhidna winery in Adelaide, Australia.

The bold reds of Australia’s Coonawara wine region, the fruity wines of New Zealand, the rice wines of Japan and the spicy zinfandels of the Russian River Valley in the U.S. all stand out as excellent wine regions.  But, if I had to pick just one wine region as a front runner it would be the Sonoma Valley in Northern California.  The friendly tasting room staff, no tasting fees, bike-ability of the area and the wonderful restaurants and accommodation in nearby Healdsburg make this the region I would return to again and again.

While Sonoma has held the top spot on my list of favorite wine regions for quite awhile I am really looking forward to exploring the wines of South America.  We fly to Buenos Aires at the end of December 2012 and Mendoza is a high priority.  Not only am I looking forward to the array of reds in Argentina, but they should be the perfect pairing for the great steak.  We’ll keep you updated as our favorites list grows with our travels.

Do you have a favorite wine region or a specific wine that you love?  We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

 

Erica and Matt Chua: How to Make Gyoza

The Chinese may get credit for the invention of this little dumpling, but our Tokyo host Takeshi gets credit for teaching me how to make them. The gyoza, known more commonly in the U.S. as “potstickers”, was not introduced to Japan until the 1940′s most likely adapted after the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930′s. Since then the Gyoza has become so popularized that there are Gyoza restaurants and even a Gyoza Stadium located in Osaka, Japan. The Gyoza Stadium has a museum complete with history and explanations of the many varieties of this adopted dish, while we didn’t visit I am sure it was fascinating…

This recipe includes a dipping sauce and instructions on how to assemble and cook “potstickers” as taught to me by Takeshi, so the amounts are rough estimates- you might have to play with them a little.

Yields about 48 potstickers.

Ingredients:

  • Dumpling wrappers (these can be bought at Asian specialty stores)

Filling:

  • 8 ounces Napa cabbage
  • 3 tsp salt, divided
  • 1 pound lean ground pork
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped green onions, with tops
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • Dash white pepper

Dipping Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • hot pepper flakes or use a chili oil instead of sesame oil

Other:

  • 2 – 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Chicken stock

Preparation:

Cut the cabbage across into thin strips and then mince into tiny pieces. Mix with 2 teaspoons salt and set aside for a few minutes. Squeeze out the excess moisture so that your dumplings aren’t too wet while you assemble them.

In a large bowl, mix the cabbage, pork and green onions with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon sesame oil, and the white pepper.

Putting the pork and cabbage mixture in the dumplings.  Getting the right amount (about 1 tablespoon-full) of mixture makes sealing the dumplings easier.

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Erica and Matt Chua: How to Make Gyoza

Erica and Matt Chua: Luck Didn’t Get Us Here

“You’re so lucky!” is the worst phrase in the English language.  It’s something we’re told by many people when they find out we’ve traveled for two years without working.  Saying this belittles everyone’s ability to make their dreams come true, even their own, as it wasn’t luck that got us here, it was following the lesson below.  Since this is the week we make resolutions to change, here’s how you can accomplish any goal, no matter how big, as we did when we set off to travel the world.  You can use this guide not to make a resolution, but to make things happen.

Cute?  Certainly, but don’t wait for this little guy to make your dreams come true….
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LUCK, LEPRECHAUNS AND LIGHTNING

Before going any further let’s once and for all end the myth of luck.  Luck is like getting struck by lightning, it’s not random, it’s not chance.  If you stand on your roof with a metal poll in a lightning storm, getting struck isn’t “dumb luck”.Not getting struck because you were in your home isn’t luck either.  Lottery winners aren’t any more lucky, rarely has a person hit the jackpot on their first $1 ticket, rather they buy hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on tickets for years before winning.  Getting struck by lightning (or not) and winning the lottery isn’t about luck, it’s about setting yourself up for it.  The reality is luck is as real as the leprechauns who bring it.

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CHAMPIONS DON’T GET LUCKY

Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher or Roger Federer aren’t lucky.  We just weren’t watching them as they perfected their craft for hours every day, for years, before we knew their name.  While we saw them do things in their sport that nobody had done before, we didn’t see the hours each day they worked behind-the-scenes.  Others have had the physical talents of these champions, but only those that put in the work, dedicate themselves to perfection, and overcome obstacles (personal and physical) that become household names.

The same goes for when you watch a professional anything.  What seems so effortless, so easy, is actually the result of years of practice.  Think of something you do that there are professionals, anything from soccer to cooking: don’t professionals make hard things look easy?  Their skills weren’t gained overnight or by a lightning strike, no, they’ve spent years perfecting their craft.

Ana Ivanovic didn’t become the world’s #1 women’s tennis player because she was lucky…
it was the hours on practice courts like this one.
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Erica and Matt Chua: Luck Didn’t Get Us Here

Erica and Matt Chua: Himalayan Hiking Logistics

Hiking the Himalayas shouldn’t be a dream as it is easier and cheaper than most people think.  Want to cross this off your bucket list?  You can indulge yourself in scenes like this for as little as $20 a day!

A view worth the walk from the Cho-La Pass on the Three Passes Trek.

Let me start with a quick intro: if I can do it, you can too.  Traveling for almost two years has taken it’s toll on me.  I probably couldn’t complete a 5k without requiring medical attention and have extra “padding” in places that need no padding.  Prior to this my longest hikes were four days, staying in quasi-luxury New Zealand accommodations.  In summary, you don’t need a Kenyan running partner to prepare for these hikes, reasonable fitness will suffice.

Part of the Annapurna Circuit, always surprising with beautiful views and unexpected changes from desert, to mountain, to lush oasis.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Himalayan Hiking Logistics

Erica and Matt Chua: Vietnam on Arrival

Downtown Ho Chi Minh

Vietnam.  For a 20-something American the name signifies a war more than a place.  I have seen the movies, but have little understanding of the place and conflict.  I know we went due to the Domino Theory, but I never grasped how a theory became a war.  I know we fought and lost.

I headed off to Vietnam without doing any research.  It was only recently that I had learned where Vietnam was on a map.  I heard Vietnam was a fast developing country with factories producing for the West.  It sounded like many places I had gone, but on arrival it gave me some shock and awe.

When I arrived from Singapore I was surprised by how large, clean and new the airport was.  It could have been in any developed country and was nicer than most American airports.  The change was especially stark coming from Singapore’s Budget Terminal which was like the sanatorium in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  The only airport hassle was picking up my Vietnam Visa on Arrival from a bureaucratic regime that was holding up 30+ people.  Luckily, my visa processed fastest of anyone on my plane and faster than most on a plane that had arrived earlier.  After gathering myself and belongings, I exited the airport expecting a crush of touts, taxi services and unsavory individuals that hound tourists in many airports.  As I exited I was surprised by the calm and order.

Outside I met a Finnish man who was being hassled by a taxi tout, in hushed tones only good English speakers could comprehend we surmised that we were heading to the same area.  I told him I wanted to take the bus and he agreed.  The taxi tout told us the last bus had left as service ceased at 6pm.  It was 5:55pm.  We haggled to an agreeable price and the tout told us to wait in the parking lot.  Realizing he may not be allowed to fetch passengers at the door, we obliged and waited.  Minutes passed and the tout was nowhere to be seen.  Then the bus arrived.  With no taxi in sight we boarded the bus which was 94% cheaper than the taxi would have been.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Vietnam on Arrival

Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Routeburn Track

This was our second Great Walk in New Zealand.  Click here to read about the Milford Track, New Zealand’s most famous hike.

Inscribed on almost every “World’s Best” hikes list is the Routeburn Track in New Zealand.  All too often the reality fails to meet the hyped expectations, but Routeburn does not disappoint.  From start to finish the trail wow’s you so much that the work of hiking is forgotten.

The sun rising outside the Routeburn Falls Hut, a fine start to our final day on the track.  This is a view hikers traveling in the traditional, Queenstown to Te Anau, direction are given on their first day.

Having completed the Milford Track just days earlier we chose to hike in the opposite direction of most, starting from Te Anau and hiking towards the comforts of Queenstown, the de facto capital of New Zealand tourism.  We had been discouraged by the weather report in the Department of Conservation office: freezing temperatures and snow at the level of the campsites.

Traveling with $25 warm-weather sleeping bags and yet to rent a tent, news of snow was unwelcome.  Given our experiences with rental tents we made the expensive decision to change from camping to staying in hut dormitories.  Even though the huts were listed as booked we learned that there are a couple extra beds always available for a difference of $36 NZD ($28 USD) per person ($54 NZD for huts versus $18 NZD to camp in high season).  Being budget travelers as we are, we lamented the cost, but decided that if greeted by rain, snow and freezing temperatures, this was the right move.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Routeburn Track

Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Milford Track

What makes a “Great Walk”?  This question haunted me after reserving our spots on the Milford Track.  Reputedly one of the world’s best hikes, reservations are required months in advice at the cost of almost $250 USD per person for the four day, three night, hike.  What kind of public park hike requires you to carry all your stuff, cook your own food,and costs over $50 a day?  After a year of traveling on less, paying that much to hike uphill seemed absurd.  That said, having made the payment, we’d soon find out how great this Great Walk is.

After a beautiful boat ride to the trailhead the first day is lovably short hike through moss-covered forests.

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Erica and Matt Chua: Hiking the Milford Track

Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Japanese Fashion

When you hear “Japanese fashion”, what do you think?  Middle-age men wearing Disney World hats, Las Vegas t-shirts and enormous cameras?  Or do you think the Harajuku women, dressed up like dolls, anime characters, and the occasional horse head?  Are their fashion choices representing craziness or self-expression in a repressive society?  Read our takes then have your say in the comments below.

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HE SAID…

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Fashion in Japan is interesting.  “Interesting” used in a Minnesota-nice sort of way, as in, “it’s not my thing, I’m not sure about it, actually it makes me a little uncomfortable, but I can’t say that because…well I’m a Minnesotan.”  I’ve been told that in other parts of the country people would say something like, “God bless their heart, I wouldn’t be caught dead in that!”  I think many of the fashions are absolutely crazy, the pedophile soliciting schoolgirl outfits, the dancing Elvises, the anime characters!?!  I don’t get it.

I don’t understand why people want to walk down the street and have people gawking at them.  I don’t get why people want to become a tourist attraction.  I really can’t comprehend why some of them get annoyed that tourists take photos of them, after all, they are the ones drawing the attention to themselves with their choices of clothing.  More over, how long does it take these people to get all done up like this?  Caking on the layers of makeup, doing up their hair, buying all the clothes, putting themselves together the way you would a Barbie Doll.  The time, effort, cost and ogling makes the whole production seem unrewarding.

Are those shoes comfortable?  Whatever you used to make your face look like that…is it toxic?  What if it doesn’t go back to “normal”?  Do you even care?  What do you want to be?  What feeling does it give you to do yourself up like this?  Why, why, why?  Maybe I have too many question, maybe I’m too cerebral for fashion, maybe it’s me that’s crazy, not them, but I’m pretty certain it’s them.

There is one thing I do like in Japanese and in broader Asian fashion: super short mini skirts.  If wacky english worded slogans on shirts, strange makeup combinations, or odd styles are what we have to accept to get super short shorts on a daily basis then I could be converted…

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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said/She Said: Japanese Fashion

Erica and Matt Chua: He Said-She Said: Missing the Holidays

Most of the year being away from home is just fine.  Daily life doesn’t give us much to miss, but the holidays are a different story.  Do we want to be at an ugly sweater party?  Yeah, you betcha!  Do we want to be feasting on unhealthy food just because it’s a holiday?  Of course!  Here are the key things about the holidays we miss.

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HE SAID…

December is a deceptively good month at home.  The fun of the holidays outweighs the fact that in Minnesota the temperature drops below freezing; a mark it won’t rise above until sometime in May.  While the air outside becomes frosty, inside it’s a different story, the warmth of people abounds.  Everywhere becomes festive, downtown Minneapolis hosts a nightly parade, stores that seem barren in the summer are wrapped in decorations, and people open their homes to share great food, catch up, and drink a little too much eggnog.  Overall, December is a month that I wish were longer.

Ever seen The Hangover?  At the end they find a digital camera with photos of the night before that show scenes that are unbelievable for even those that were there.  Our friend’s holiday party is like that.  Part of you wishes there were no digital cameras and facebook, but you also realize that’s a big part of the fun.  The party doesn’t really celebrate the holidays, rather it uses the holidays as a reason to party, in costume.  This year’s theme, Punk Rock Christmas, will celebrate the decade we were born in, but too young to rock mohawks and leather jackets without our parents’ agreeing to pay for them.  Being the season of giving, there is a gift exchange where you can expect to walkaway with household essentials such as stuffed bobcats and profane inflatable objects. This is one holiday party that is a shame to miss.

Stuffed bobcat!?  You know you want one and the gift exchange is a great place to get it.

A close second to missing Punk Rock Christmas is being able to indulge in eating without shame.  The holidays are a time when it’s seemingly OK to catch up with family while holding a plate that only contains prime rib, lamb, and turkey.Sure, there are plenty of other things I could put on my plate, some carbs for example, but why?  Spending time with loved ones and a plate of meat is what makes December different from Thanksgiving when people will plop sweet potatoes onto your plate against your will.  The holidays are all about food, family and friends, which makes December a great month.
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SHE SAID…

I have always had a white Christmas, being from Minnesota having snow on the ground is a sign that the holidays are just around the corner.  While we have chased summer weather around the world, I miss the snow that tells me it’s time for holiday parties, ice sculptures and long standing family traditions.  Sure I wish I could attend friend’s ugly sweater parties and play secret santa, but what I miss most is our traditional  Christmas Eve meal and our eclectic Christmas Day gathering of friends and family.

My plate of food with Swedish meatballs, Swedish sausage, lefse and a tiny bit of obligatory lutefisk.

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Erica and Matt Chua: He Said-She Said: Missing the Holidays

Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction

Every year millions of tourists flock to Agra to see the white marble, architectural marvel that is the Taj Mahal.  Few leave disappointed.  To enjoy the magic of the Taj give yourself a few days to truly take in this legacy of the Mughal empire.  Seeing the domed mausoleum from several different vantage points will leave you awe-inspired and offer you the best opportunity for a prized photo.

The Taj was completed in 1653 after 22 years of construction and some 20,000 workers contributing their efforts including specialists from as far away as Europe.  It is widely thought to be the most beautiful building in the world.  Shah Jahan built it as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz whom died giving birth to their 14th child. Not long after it’s completion Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son and imprisoned in Agra Fort.  He spent the rest of his days only able to admire the Taj from a distance until he was entombed in his own creation next to Mumtaz in 1666.

Unlike Shah Jahan, you are not restricted to viewing the Taj from just one vantage point.  Being that likely your number one reason for paying a visit to Agra is to see the Taj, take time to find your favorite vista.  The four identical faces of the Taj are an exercise in architectural symmetry, yet the eye seems to notice different things from various angles.  Below are my three favorite views, each offering a unique perspective and gave me a new appreciation for this awe-inspiring memorial.

North Bank of the Yamuna River

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Erica and Matt Chua: Agra’s #1 Attraction