5 days of food and adventures in amazing Georgia

Just got back from a five day trip to the amazing little country of Georgia (not the U.S. state) nestled between Russia and Turkey in the Caucasus. I’ve been wanting to go to Georgia for quite some time. The reasons for it being the scenic countryside, Tbilisi as a city, rumours of friendly people, and most of all; the Georgian cuisine.

We flew Air Baltic from Riga, which were pretty decent apart from the final leg on our return to Sweden when I got stuck next to a space-stealing seat neighbour on Air Baltic’s cramped Q400.

 

Tbilisi is mostly a beautiful city, as can be seen on the Old Tbilisi building above.

We also took a day trip to Northern Georgia and Mount Kazbek, about a three hour drive from Tbilisi. Due to two (!) flat tires, either by unfortune or lacking maintenance from our tour operator, the whole day took forever to get through. We were picked up at 9.40 am and was back in town around 10 pm. Nevertheless, the trip was actually worth it, despite most of the day was spent on the road.

Our first stop: Ananuri fortress, situated about 70 kilometers from Tbilisi.


The main attraction for the trip, apart from amazing mountainous scenery for a good part of the trip, was the Gergeti Trinity Church, situated at almost 2200 meters height, and still surrounded by massive Caucasus mountains towering over it. To get there we took a four wheel driven jeep from Stepantsminda to reach the Gergeti Trinity Church. After a 30 minute off-road drive we reached the church, and my god what a place it was. Probably top five of the coolest places I’ve ever been, and that’s despite that they, not sure how, actually has rolled up an ugly little food truck selling burgers just outside the beautiful church.


Mount Kazbek, 5074 meters tall as seen from the Gergeti Trinity Church.

 

The following day, back in Tbilisi, we visited the Dry Bridge Market where everything from Soviet memorabilia to knives, old army surplus, wine jars and cutlery are sold. A fascinating place, for me perhaps more for the ambience than the actual shopping.

Jack London restaurant Tbilisi
After the shopping, more food was needed. The name Jack London did not sound too promising, but the menu looked nice and the food on the other diner’s plates did too.

We ordered a sulguni cheese (the cheese used in khachapuris) stuffed kabab and chicken shashlik, both served with mild raw sliced onion. The fries at this place looked great, I still regret not having them.

 

Since I try to visit as many new and different countries as possible, I of course had to visit neighbouring Armenia. Through Envoy Tours, we booked a “de-tour to Armenia” that took us through the green Lore region of Northern Armenia. I had not really understood just how beautiful Armenia would be with its rolling green hills, canyons and monasteries, some of them constructed in the 10th century. That’s pretty old. During our tour we visited Sanahin and Haghbat (or Haghpat) monasteries situated along the Debed canyon, both of them Unesco World Heritage sites and built somewhere around 966. We also briefly visited the old factory town Alaverdi with abandoned factories, train cars and cranes. Felt like something out of a zombie movie, very cool. Our last sight of the trip was akhtala fortress-monastery which was as old and cool as the two previous, but not a UNESCO world heritage site. Finally, before going back to Georgia and Tbilisi we stoped for lunch at a local family’s home. Sat down around a table with mile-long views of the valley and mountains below the 12 or so of us were served delicious home-cooked Armenian food. We started with a couple of vegetable dishes such as a carrot fritter, different pickled vegetables, bread, cheeses, spinach fried with eggs and fresh vegetables from the area. For main we had a great grilled pork, served with raw sliced onions and thick deep fried potato slices. An excellent meal in an equally excellent setting. Also bonus points to Envoy Tours for including this stop instead of just feeding us in a touristy place somewhere along the way.

A very cool tour that was quite affordable and with a great flexible and knowledgeable guide. You can find Envoy Tours website here.

Then it was time to fly back, but not before cashing in my drink voucher I received upon checking in at Mercure Tbilisi Old Town which’s sky bar was to be the last we saw of Tbilisi before heading back home.

So in summary, wow, what a place Georgia is. It’s beautiful, the food is amazing, the prices are low and you can go to an off the beaten track country like Armenia over the day. Now I’m really keen to keep exploring the rest of the region. All the good restaurants we visited are posted after this post. To just keep on reading to get inspired to visit one of my new favourite countries. 🙂

SAS plus domestic flight review

Flew SAS domestic the other day, and thought I should give some info since it’s not very much available in English about what is included. The trip I took was from Stockholm Arlanda Airport to Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, in the South.


When flying SAS plus, which basically is their intra-Europe premium economy, or business class, everything onboard is included and on the ground you have lounge access (with alcohol available in the Arlanda SAS Domestic lounge in Terminal 4, which only had lighter beer before) as well as fast track security. Since I was quite hungry, I had a little bit of everything such as delicious Ringi apple juice, mixed nuts, Marabou chocolate bar, a “Polar roll” of soft Northern Sweden-style thin bread with cheese and butter.

Danish craft beer producer Mikkeler’s Plane Ale is really tasty. Especially with a view of Sweden below a clear day.

Menu pages, for the geeks like my who likes to study that kind of stuff before traveling. 🙂


The new Cafe Lounge concept by SAS in smaller airport is pretty nice compared to no lounge at all. This one in Malmö had quite tasty muffins, a few small cookies, fruit, coffee and juice. No alcoholic beverages.

All in all, SAS plus is quite nice if you’re not paying much more for it. All the food onboard is available to both plus and go (economy) though, so you can pay for the exact same stuff further back in the plane. The seats are just the same, although you’ll sit in the front and can pick your prefered seat free of charge in plus.

Homemade Spaghetti alla Gricia recipe

This weekend, I tried the last one of the four pastas of Rome. The four pastas of Rome is carbonara (egg, guanciale/pancetta, pecorino, black pepper), Amatriciana (guanciale/pancetta and tomatoes), Cacio e Pepe (black pepper, pecorino) and the Pasta alla Gricia, with pecorino and guanciale/pancetta.

Pasta, or spaghetti alla Gricia is sort of a cacio e pepe with added crunch from crispy fried guanciale, or pancetta. The proper pork to use is guanciale, which is air-dried pork cheek. But when not in Rome, you can substitute it with pancetta, or in worst case bacon (preferably un-smoked).

What you need for Spaghetti alla Gricia (serves approximately four):

One package of spaghetti (I use Martelli or De Ceccho)

300 grams of guanciale/pancetta/bacon, cut into cubes, strips

2,5 deciliters/one cup of pecorino cheese

1/2 deciliter (1/4ish cup) of strained pasta cooking water

Black pepper

Salt

1. Add the pork to a cold pan and put on heat. This will make the fat render and make the pork crispier. I sometimes add a garlic clove to this to slightly flavour the pork (discard when done).

2. Cook the spaghetti until almost al dente, the pasta will cook some more in the sauce. Save the cooking liquid as indicated above.

3. Grate the pecorino cheese as finely as your grater allows. Mix about half of it with a couple of tablespoons of water to a smooth ‘sauce’.

4. When pork is crispy, turn off/lower the heat and add the al dente spaghetti into the pork and fat pan (remove some of the fat if desired). Toss around and then add the pecorino mixed with water as well as the reserved cooking liquid.

5. Stirr until the liquids almost has reduced and the pasta is covered in silky cheese sauce. Add almost all the remaining pecorino, salt and black pepper and give a final toss before removing from heat.

6. Serve immediately topped with the remaining pecorino cheese.

Enjoy!

Japanese style curry at Curry House CoCo Ichibanya in Shinjuku

One of the days in Tokyo we had been walking for ages in the rain. We were cranky, tired and hungry. That is usually not an ideal situation to start discussing where to eat. We stood outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building when it struck me; “Curry, I want Japanese curry”. After a quick look at Google maps, it was almost to good to be true, we were a block from one of the higher ranked curry places in Tokyo, the interestingly named “Curry House CoCo Ichibanya” which is part of a chain with the same name. After a approximately 30 second walk, we found ourselves in a small curry smelling paradise.

Japanese curry is a gravy like sauce flavoured with curry, served on top of rice and usually paired with some kind of deep-fried protein. We opted for deep-fried chicken with our curry which came with pickles, rice and mentioned curry sauce. The food was hot, savoury, crunchy, salty and just plain delicious. Price was really good too, and we left a lot happier.

Price ($) and website
I honestly can’t remember more than it was very affordable. They have an English website with a menu that you can find here. We had lunch at their Shinjuku location close to Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (that by the way has free entry) and the Park Hyatt Hotel. Shinjuku station’s main hall is a 5-10 minute walk away.

Homemade crispy fried sweet potato fries

After years of testing, I last night, finally, managed to get my sweet potato fries crispy. I have my own deep-fryer at home and managed to get “restaurant quality” fries many years ago, but I haven’t mastered sweet potatos fries, until now.

You will need:
1 large sweet potato or 4-5 smaller ones
Corn starch, I used Maizena, a Swedish brand
Sparkling water (without any flavouring)

1. The method is actually very simple. I peeled and cut sweet potatoes into strips. I then rinsed them with cold water in a colander to get rid of excess starch. I then let them dry up.

2. Mix corn starch with sparkling water. We did not really measure, but maybe 4 deciliters (1,7 cups) of water and 4 tablespoons of corn starch, that is approximately 1 tablespoon per deciliter (1/4 cup) of water.

3. The sought texture of the mix is somewhat thicker than milk, but it should be runny. We just dipped our dried sweet potato sticks in the mixture and then put them straight into the hot fryer. You’ll need to insert them in batches so they wont stick. It’s a little bit of work, but very worth it.

4. After a couple of minutes they start to get slightly golden (the corn starch will stay white tough). Remove the sweet potato fries from the fryer and season with sea salt and any other spice you’d like.

Enjoy!

Two really good tonkatsu restaurants we visited in Japan

One of my favourite Japanese dishes is tonkatsu. Tonkatsu or panko crusted deep-fried pork cutlets is a dish similar to a schnitzel with juicy pork covered by a crunchy panko (Japanese breadcrumbs) crust. 

During our recent trip to Japan, we had tonkatsu twice; once at Wako, where we went last time in Tokyo, and once at Maisen, a place I’ve been reading about a lot and what usually show up when you google “Tokyo’s best tonkatsu”.

Wako tonkatsu in Kyoto Station
We went to Wako in Kyoto Station, situated on the upper floors of the Isetan department store inside the station. Bonus trivia is that you can go outside from the restaurant floor where Wako is and up a couple of stairs/escalators to reach a nice rooftop area with views over Kyoto, although with a wall in the way of proper photos.

At Wako we opted to try one of the more expensive premium versions of pork for our tonkatsu. I believe the cost was around 1800 jpy, meaning roughly $16. According to the staff, it was juicier with a higher fat content and hence slightly more expensive. After a round of frosty beer mugs, our tonkatsu arrived. Since the tonkatsu came as a set meal, which it usually does in Japan, we also got rice, pickles, cabbage slaw and grated daikon radish. The tonkatsu pork cutlet was, just as advertised, nicely fatty and soft, as well as the breading crunchy. A nice thing with tonkatsu is that it, when done properly, lacks almost any excess oil. So given the relative healthiness of the sides, it doesn’t feel that bad to eat. Despite being a couple of hundred grams of deep-fried fatty pork. Wako’s tonkatsu is a really nice one and in my mind well worth a visit.

Price ($$) and website
We paid roughly 2500 yen a person with premium pork tonkatsu set meals and a beer. Website with sample menu in English (scroll down to Kyoto and then Wako JR Isetan for address): click here.


Next place to enjoy tonkatsu was, as mentioned above, the legendary Maisen or Mai-Sen. We went to their outlet close to Tokyo Station in Daimaru shopping mall, located on the 12th floor. Bonus trivia for this place is that the view from the restaurant floor’s restrooms is quite spectacular. We went quite late, so we could snap a few sneaky restroom pictures since no one else was there.

Bathroom views from the restaurant floor of Tokyo Daimaru shopping mall.

Anyway, the food. As per usual, we ordered a round of beers and a set meal each, opposed to Wako, this time with fillet instead of loin, meaning slightly less fatty meat and also a slightly smaller amount. I think it was 100 grams of fillet instead of 150 grams of loin, for the same price. The tonkatsu was served with rice, miso soup and cabbage slaw with a tasty lemony yuzu dressing. Once again, the breaded pork was not at all oily from the deep-frying. The meat was slightly less juicy compared to Wako, but that did not really matter as the crust was so crunchy and delicious. It actually felt more balanced than with the premium high fat content-pork tonkatsu at Wako, since it was almost overwhelming with both fatty pork and being deep-fried.



Katsusando from Maisen. Tonkatsu in white toast bread. Good stuff.

Maisen’s katsusando – tonkatsu sandwich at Tokyo Foodshow
Another thing we tried and that you probably should too if you like tonkatsu is Maisen’s katsusando. Katsusando is a tonkatsu sandwich, which means sliced cold tonkatsu in a white bread sandwich with some tonkatsu sauce spread on. We had Maisen’s katsusando that we bought at Tokyo Foodshow in Shibuya, a whole floor of food where different outlets sell their different types of food and where you can both pick up take-away as well as dine in at a couple of communal stand up tables.

Price ($$+) and website
Maisen is slightly more expensive that for instance Wako, and we paid about 1600 yen a person for one of the cheaper set meals on the menu. Maisen’s website, only in Japanese. Address (google maps link).

B-Mobile visitor sim card


I used B-Mobile’s Visitor sim card for surfing on the go while in Japan recently. Conveniently you can pick it up as you arrive in Japan, or order it to your hotel so it’s waiting for you when you check in (as I did).

Just a note, this is not sponsored in any way. We just very much enjoyed the easiness to order and pay the sim card online, to have it delivered to our hotel, and that it worked really well during the trip. 🙂

Usually when I travel, I try to find a way to have internet on the move. Since about 7-8 years back I’ve been purchasing local sim cards where possible, to avoid expensive roaming and to only be able to surf the web without wifi access. I want to be able to use maps, google restaurants I’m outside to see if they’re good, or just translate stuff. Or maybe post a picture or two on Instagram. 🙂

B-Mobile Visitor Sim Card
Anyway, before leaving Japan I googled how to solve this usual travel problem of mine and found B-mobile and their “b-mobile VISITOR SIM, 5GB, 21days”. We were in Japan for 19 days, so 21 days sounded like a good amount of days, and 5 GB like it would probably last if combined with a bit of wifi-surfing.

Price
The price is 3480 yen, something like $30, which I found reasonable.

Convenient pick up
The nicest thing is that you can order it free of charge to the accomodation of your choice. You can also pick it up in the airport, but that did not work for us since they had limited opening hours and there was an extra charge for airport pick ups. We opted to have our delivered to our hotel, which it was.

We picked it up on check in, installed it in our phones (it took a little bit of work, but there were good instructions with the card) and that was it. We were connected, and both of us had remaining credit when we departed Japan 19 days later.

Here is a link to their website where you can order the sim card (nope, no comission for me 🙂 )

What to see and do during five days in Kyoto, Japan

During our Japan trip, we spent five days in beautiful Kyoto. Fortunately, my younger brother’s (who we were there to visit) school holidays coincided with the sakura, or the cherry tree blossom that Kyoto is famous for. This made Kyoto even more beautiful, adding a layer of pink, white and purple (from the also blooming plum trees) flowers to the temples, river, old buildings, mountains and generally awesome scenery that makes up Kyoto.

But what did we do except for admiring sakura trees, eating lots of tasty food and drinking Japanese beer in frozen mugs? We went sightseeing of course. I’m a born and bred tourist, and I think that if many people tend to visit something, there’s probably a reason for it. There might be lines, yes. But I find it usually worth it. Hence we visited most of the main attractions of Kyoto, and here they are:


Kiyomizu-Dera (清水寺) is a Buddhist temple complex close to central Kyoto. We just walked there from town, paid the reasonable entry fee of ¥400, which translates to roughly $5 or so. Unfortunately there was a bit of construction going on while we where there which meant a few of the buildings were covered in scaffolds. Did not matter that much though since the temple and views over Kyoto as seen above was pretty great regardless.


Visit Gion, Kyoto’s old town. Like many other, we had to visit Gion, sort of Kyoto’s old town with pretty old buildings, tea houses and restaurants. While there we walked right into the judge trio of Australia’s Masterchef which we have watched for the last 7 years or so. I am way too Swedish to ask for a picture or similar, but it was still pretty cool to run into someone you recognise on the other side of the world. Which I incidentally has done in Japan before, read more about that story here.


Fushimi-Inari shrine or Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) is a Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto, quite close to where we lived. If you live in central Kyoto, you might need to catch a bus since it is quite a walk from there. The gates above are called Torii gates, and they lead the way to the top of Mount Inari, 233 meters above sea level. We somehow took the wrong way and walked all the way up following trails and the occassional collection of torii gates. I guess we took the backway or something because eventually we ended up with the crowds walking the proper route. At the top of the mountain we got awarded with below great views over Kyoto.

View over Kyoto from Mount Inari.


Picnic under the cherry trees and manage to tick hanami in Kyoto of your bucket list. Sakura is the actual blooming of cherry trees, and Hanami is basically “enjoying the sakura”. Hanami usually means to have a picnic under the blooming cherry trees, and hence enjoying the sakura. We did a couple of those picnics, as did the rest of Kyoto’s population.

Monkey around in the mountains. Very close to Arashiyama bamboo forest is the Arashiyama monkey park or Monkey Park Iwatayama. We walked there from the train station (the Hankyu line station) and very close to the Togetsukyo Bridge we found the monkey park entrance. The actual place where the monkeys hang out though (they roam free) is on top of the mountain. So you need to walk about 15 minutes or so quite steeply uphill to reach the place. The added bonus is an amazing view over Kyoto with great photo opportunities.


Monkey chilling in the sun. The entry fee to the monkey park was, as most other Kyoto attractions, quite low.


Visit the Arashiyama bamboo forest (嵐山). Arashiyama is a bit outside of central Kyoto, and we went there by train (with one change) from Kyoto Station in about 30 minutes. No entry fee, you just need to share space with a bunch of other people. We went quite late in the afternoon though, so it wasn’t that crowded.


Bonus: eat forest crepes. After visiting the bamboo forest we were about to leave when we found a random van in the forest with a line. Of course we had to check it out, and found out that it was a food truck with a Japanese girl producing these great crepes, stuffed with pretty much all things tasty such as whipped cream, fresh berries, marshmallows, chocolate sauce and toasted nuts. She handmade each one, so it took a while but it was really delicious. Never managed to get the name of this arashiyama bamboo forest creperie, so feel free to comment if you’ve also been and know it.

Kobe beef dinner at Gyu-an Ginza


One of the best meals of the trip, and probably one of my best meals ever was enjoyed at Gyu-An in Ginza, Tokyo. Gyu-An specialise in meat, as in good quality stuff, such as wagyu beef and the world famous kobe beef. After quite thorough research we decided that Gyu-An felt most bang for the buck for our relatively tiny kobe beef budgets and we managed to score a reservation with the help of our hotel concierge a few days later.

As we arrived Gyu-an, after a stroll through the neon lit Ginza district of Tokyo, they couldn’t find our reservation, and I had a few seconds of panic, before they found us a table, and my greatly anticipated steak dinner was, fortunately, a go. While prices are decent given what you get, there is still a considerable price for a meal, depending how you look at it. To have some reference, and to save some money, the two of us decided to share a slightly less pricey wagyu steak set menu as well as the swankiest of the kobe sets which meant you got 200 grams, 100 grams each of kobe fillet and kobe sirloin. Included was a couple of starters, a tiny dessert (below) as well as coffee or tea. Drinks were extra but was relatively decently priced.


We had a couple of starters, but the only really exciting one was this incredibly delicious beef sushi with a thin, fatty piece of beef covering the rice. A great bite that like the beef was washed down with house red.


The matsusaka wagyu beef was just a tad less delicious than the kobe beef. Hadn’t I had the kobe beef, this would’ve been the best steak I’ve ever had. Extremely flavourful and tasty with a great tender texture.

The steak of steaks. Kobe beef fillet and sirloin. Not really sure which one I liked the best. The fillet was of course a bit leaner and softer than the sirloin, but that was barely noticeable given how tender both were. The fat in the kobe beef is not at all chewy, but rather melts in your mouth. The best comparisson I’ve been able to make is, to think of how you bite into a ripe mandarin orange and how it kind of bursts with fruit juice when you bite into it. This was like that, only that the fruit juice was kobe beef fat. It was incredibly good. It was also incredibly rich, and it was almost a struggle to eat everything given the two starters, rice, soup and salad that you are also served. No doubt this was the best steak I have ever had. My expectations were really high. I’ve been eating some really good meat the last years, churrasco in Brazil, grilled bife de chorizo in Argentina and great French steak au poivre. But this beat them all, easily.


For dessert we were served three perfect strawberries. Although it is almost insulting calling this a dessert in normal cases, we were so full that we did not really mind. And the strawberries were in fact extraordinarily tasty.

Price and location
We paid roughly $280 for our two steak meals (one wagyu at 8500 jpy, one kobe combo at 15500 jpy), a caraff of red wine, and water. The restaurant is located in Ginza, easily accessible with a couple of subway lines.

Delicious sushi at Musashi kaiten sushi in Kyoto


The best sushi, and unfortunately one of the only times we had any during the trip, was at Musashi Sushi in Kyoto. The sushi is served kaiten style, which means the chefs make sushi and then put it on a conveyor belt which diners are conveniently placed around, and then you make your pick as it passes by you.

At Musashi, you can also ask the chefs to make you special ones if your favourite is constantly taken by the couple just before you. I’m not saying that this in fact did happen, just that it could have. 🙂


We sampled lots of different sushi at Musashi, for instance ones with roasted beef, melt-in-your-mouth fatty tuna belly, lobster in mayo, tuna and quail egg yolks and grilled unagi eel sushi. Everything was really delicious, the beer was as always served ice cold in iced beer mugs and the prices were quite good too. Your check is calculated by the number of plates of a certain colour you have on your table.


Lobster salad sushi.

Steak sushi.


Grilled sweetish unagi eel sushi.