Weekend in Sofia

It's hard to remember all the nice parts of a trip when it's bookended by Ryanair flights and extremely backed up German border crossings, but setting that aside, I had a wonderful time in Sofia this weekend. After months of incompatible schedules, my friend Owen (yes, really) and I finally found somewhere we could meet, with him coming from Düsseldorf and me from Berlin.

I did not know a lot, or really anything about Sofia. I still don't. I remember from elementary school that the capital of Bulgaria had a nice and easy-to-remember name. I've met some Bulgarians at different points in my life, but I would be hard-pressed to recall anything about country or people. Are there any famous fictional Bulgarians? In fact, a new friend in Berlin is Bulgarian but I didn't realize it until I ran into him at a party a week before the trip. So suffice it to say, I went in pretty blind.

The City

I don't think Sofia sticks out as having particularly beautiful or interesting architecture or urban design. There do seem to be large number of parks and public spaces, though in winter everything's covered in snow and ice anyway. Buildings tend to look (to my untrained eye) basically socialist blocks or 70s concrete. What's actually the difference? There are two subway lines, one which goes to the airport, so points for convenience, especially compared to Berlin. There are lots of buses and trams, but I couldn't figure out how to use them and we mostly walked places anyway. Someone should make an app with a trip planner for Sofia!

Food

This was one area where Sofia really surprised me. We got a few tips for restaurants to check out and even went on a free food tour. Almost everything we ate was really good! It was interesting, experimental, well-cooked. I didn't expect there to be a forward-thinking food scene, but there was and we were lucky enough to experience a bit of it!

History

My final thoughts on Sofia and Bulgaria are that I'd like to understand their history better. While on the walking tours, our guides tended to gloss over the thousands of years of history, explaining that there were Thracians, then Slavs and proto-Bulgarians who came to occupy the land that is now Bulgaria. I'm sure it was bloodier and messier, and a country that has 3 kingdoms and was conquered by the Ottoman empire surely has a complex history. But I always feel this way after I go on trips, so please recommend any good (interesting) histories of Bulgaria that you might have! Even fairytales would be an interesting place to start.

Berlin Restaurant Week 2015 Map

The great folks at Berlin Restaurant Week have kicked off their first year with 18 restaurants in Mitte, Wedding, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Neukölln. This week (June 1 - 7, 2015) you can get a 3-course meal for 20 Euros. Not that these places aren't usually a good deal, but as with past restaurant weeks I've eaten at (San FranciscoPhiladelphia), it's a great excuse to go out and try some place new. 

Julian & Moritz put together a really beautiful website, but I was missing a map of all the restaurants that are participating. With some help from Google Maps, here it is for the geographically-inclined gourmands among you. Click on the pins for a link back to the specific Berlin restaurant week page.


Berlin's Better Philly Cheesesteak

Last week my friend Tom and I went on a hunt for some good Philly cheesesteak here in Berlin. He grew up near Philly, and we became friends when we were both living there, so we are pretty discerning when it comes to cheesesteak.

The Bird

We first tried The Bird (Kottbusser Damm 95, right by U Schönleinstrasse) which has a lunch special: Philly cheesesteak, fries, and a drink for 8.50€. Tom and I split one, since we knew we'd be having a second cheesesteak in short order. Verdict? Decent, but didn't scratch the Philadelphia cheesesteak itch. The fries were pretty good, and there were plenty of them.

The cheesesteak was on a hamburger bun (though they use English muffins for their burgers, so maybe it's their thing?) and therefore not cheesesteak-shaped. Traditionally it's on a longer Italian roll, or at least what people in Philly call an Italian roll. The meat was good, but very chunky instead of being more thinly sliced. The green peppers you can see are a nice touch, though we didn't ask for them. I can't even remember what kind of cheese was inside.

Hamburger Heaven Kiosk

Our second stop was Hamburger Heaven, of which there are two. We went to the one at Graefestraße 93, which is basically a food stand with some outdoor tables. Dress warmly if you're going in winter! There you can get 6" cheesesteak for 6€ or a footlong (12") for 8€, so we got a big one and split it.

Berlin Philly cheesesteak number 2!

A photo posted by Powen Shiah (@polexa) on Oct 10, 2014 at 6:53am PDT

This one reminded me a lot more of the cheesesteaks of yore. It was cheesier, it was in a long, crunchy roll, it had onions and peppers, and came wrapped in paper. Needless to say, both of us were much happier about this cheesesteak.

Since I've only been to two places, I can't call this the best Philly cheesesteak in Berlin yet, but of the two I've tried so far, Hamburger Heaven's is better by far. But in neither place do you need to worry about how to order a Philly cheesesteak properly. There weren't any options.

The sweet reward of a recipe "translation" well-done: banana bread

With a couple of bananas making their way from ripe to too-mushy-to-eat on my shelf in the kitchen, I decided to dust off my recipes and try my hand at banana bread.

Two things that are different about baking and cooking in Germany. First of all, they use metric units like grams and milliliters, which is to be expected. Second of all, and this catches me off guard every time, they don't use volume measures in their recipes, e.g. 3 cups of sugar, 2 teaspoons of salt. Instead, most recipes call for a certain number of grams of flour. To make things even more confusing, baking powder (Backpulver) and baking soda (Natron) usually come in single-use packets instead of in jars or containers, so while an American recipe may list 2 tablespoons of baking soda, a German one might just say two packets of Natron.

My very simple banana bread recipe (courtesy of my friend Miler) looks like this:

  • 1/2 cup of oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 3-5 bananas
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1 teaspoon of baking soda

Converted into metric and weight units, this is what I ended up with, using the guidelines on this handy reference "the Metric Kitchen":

  • 120mL of oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 200g of sugar
  • 3-5 bananas
  • 240g of flour
  • 7-8g of baking soda (1 packet)

(Mix oil and sugar, then add eggs, then bananas. Make sure it's all evenly mixed. Add flour and baking soda and mix until completely blended. Bake at 375*F / 190*C for about 30 minutes)

The main thing that takes some getting used to is that volume to weight conversion depends on the density of the substance. A cup of sugar weighs significantly more than a cup of flour, so when converting, you have to find the right table for that ingredient.

After overthinking this, I went into the kitchen and actually started getting ready to bake, when I discovered that there isn't a scale! Instead, there's a giant measuring cup with markings for how much volume is approximately how many grams... so after taking the time to convert from volume to weight, I wound up using volume to approximate the weight anyway!

Here's how it looked part way through baking process:

I'm not enough of a baker to know how important the exact ratios of the ingredients are, but it tastes to me like the banana bread turned out fine. It tasted especially delicious fresh out of the oven.

Eating my way through the Raohe Street Night Market

Friday night, my friend Justin and I decided to have a walking dinner at the Raohe Street Night Market (饒河街觀光夜市) in Songshan. It's  an easy walk from Xinyi, the neighborhood where I'm staying in Taipei. In fact, during my daily wandering around the neighborhood, I had run across it in the daytime on my way to the river, which is just north of the market street. It didn't look like much during the day, because all the booths and shops are closed down, but at night it turns into a pretty exciting stretch to walk through if you're hungry for food or looking for neat shops to browse through. If you want to shop for clothes, Wufenpu is a huge clothing market in the same area.

The market itself stretches down one street, with the very pretty Ciyou temple at one end.