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Cooking Tharu Chitwan Nepal
The Chitwan area of Nepal is a national park that is located around 100km from Kathmandu. It takes around two to four hours to travel there from the capital (sometimes much longer if the roads are busy – our return journey took 10 hours!) depending on the route. But it’s a pleasantly scenic drive across the Nepalese countryside (we travelled there after spending a night at the Neydo monastery) once you have escaped the busy roads of the capital city. It is possible to fly from Kathmandu but this is a more expensive mode of transport. Although Chitwan is best known for its wildlife, it is also possible to meet the local Tharu people and learn to cook with them.
Wildlife Walking Safari in Chitwan National Park
Chitwan is best known as a wildlife reserve where you can undertake a boat or walking safari and – if you are amazingly lucky – you may be able to see wild elephants, rhino, bears or even a tiger. If you’re merely lucky you will catch a glimpse of monkeys, deer and birds. And maybe chance upon some rhino poo to prove that they really were somewhere in the forest, honest.
We caught a jeep from our hotel to the river early in the morning and climbed aboard a long boat, so we could float serenely downriver.
There were lots of birds to see, including brightly coloured kingfishers, and we passed by a crocodile, who was almost as long as our boat, also enjoying a leisurely time in the river.
After around an hour we disembarked and met our guide for a walking safari.
We were given a pep talk whereby we learned what to do if we were to encounter any of the amazing, but potentially dangerous, creatures. Basically, they can all outrun you, so:
Rhinos – Stand still if you are downwind from them, they have appalling eyesight and probably won’t see you. Back away. If they charge, run away in a zig zag pattern, climb a tree if you can.
Bears – Do not run, avoid eye contact, back away slowly.
Tigers – Stand your ground. Don’t run, all cats love a chase.
Elephants – If they’re in a strop, you’re doomed!
Sadly, we weren’t amazingly lucky and didn’t get to try any of these techniques as the wildlife had decided not to come out to play, but that’s okay, that’s why it’s called wildlife.We did see a strutting peacock, a monkey and some deer.
But whether you see spectacular creatures or not, walking through the forest or floating along the river makes for a very pleasant morning.
And did meet one tiger!
Cooking With the Tharu People in Chitwan
A less well-known excursion is one which takes you to a nearby Tharu village where local people welcome you and are happy to introduce you to their traditional way of life. This trip can be arranged via your hotel who will organise transport to the village, which is located just a few kilometres from the national park. All the villagers are very welcoming and are happy for you to wander round. Some of the local women have recently set up a home stay so that you can experience the local way of life first hand. If we were to return to Chitwan we would absolutely love to stay with them.
Even if you’re not staying overnight, you can spend a very pleasant afternoon learning to cook traditional dishes with them. We met our lovely hosts who made sure we had a hands-on approach to cooking, right from the start.
The first element of the meal to start cooking is the rice. First of all, get water. There is no running water in the houses so you have to go to the local pump. Wash the rice then add water to the urn. Next, start the fire. The Tharu use an outdoor clay oven fuelled with wood. The oven is located between the houses.
Some kindling starts the fire and then the wood burns slowly to create an intense but steady heat. Pop the rice into the water vessel, put it on the fire and let it start cooking.
We then went for a walk in the local area to find ingredients. The Tharu grow a lot of their own vegetables on land adjacent to the village. These include onions, rice, beans, wheat and corn. It was particularly interesting to see lentils growing – we’d only ever seen them dried and they only ever came in packets from the supermarket.
Then we started preparing the vegetarian dish that accompanied the rice which was boiling away merrily on the fire. Beans were sliced using a knife by steadying the handle with a foot and – carefully – slicing the beans using the inside of the blade. Other vegetables were added.
We then went onto flavouring and this was something of a revelation. At home we’re very accustomed to using gadgets to process our food. There’s nothing wrong with that – with busy lives, a food processor can save a few seconds with all sorts of routine kitchen preparation jobs. But, actually, crushing garlic with a stone on a rock took no time at all and produced a smoother paste than any garlic crusher we’ve come across.
We removed the rice, which remained piping hot inside its pot and cooked the main dish over the fire. We started by quickly frying off the garlic and then added the vegetables and a bit of water to simmer.
The other thing is that we are also very used to buying powdered spice mixes. Pick up a packet of garam masala, sprinkle into your cooking and… instant flavouring. But so many of us buy spice mixes that are often never fully used before their ‘best before’ dates and languish in a cupboard slowing turning into tasteless dust. And it really isn’t that much more effort grind whole spices. Again, we used a stone. In this instance some dalchini (cinnamon bark), a few peppercorns, a dried cinnamon leaf and a cardamon pod were quickly ground into a masala. And doing it this way also gave us the freedom to change the spice combination. We added this to the dish at the last moment to provide a very aromatic flavour. Which, of course, was delicious.
We shared it with our host family in their home.
The trip also included an opportunity for Mitch to dress up and dance with the local ladies. Photos of her wearing traditional dress and – shock, horror – make-up do exist, but we’ll spare you those. What was lovely about the trip was not only getting the opportunity to cook and taste delicious local food but also to meet so many lovely people. Our hosts were absolutely charming and the whole village was delighted to see us.
The afternoon with the Tharu was delightful but it also changed the way we think about using spices. After our visit we decided that we would buy whole spices and then we could develop our own flavourings. Much as we’d like to have a grinding stone and a rock it’s not very practical in a suburban English house, but we do use a good quality granite pestle and mortar. It gives us the opportunity to experiment with spice combinations as well as textures – sometime we want a fine grind, other times we prefer a coarser texture. The whole spices can be stored more easily and keep for a longer period of time – especially as we use an airtight container.
How to make Vietnamese Spring Rolls Summer Rolls
Vietnamese cuisine is amongst the most delicious in the world. It is also amongst the prettiest. While most people think of spring rolls as being deep-fried, gỏi cuốn are actually served cold – at room temperature. In Western countries they are referred to as spring rolls, salad rolls or even summer rolls. They have slightly different names depending on the region of Vietnam: they are gỏi cuốn, meaning salad rolls in the south and nem cuốn in the north. Apparently they are called “rice paper” rolls in the central regions of the country, which is a simple description but accurate.
Gỏi cuốn comprise cold vermicelli noodles, salad, protein such as prawns or pork and herbs all wrapped up in rice paper, known as bánh tráng. They are usually served with a dipping sauce. Unlike fried spring rolls, these are really fresh and, like so much of Vietnamese food, full of flavour.
Makes 12 rolls
For the Rolls
Rice paper wrappers (you can get these from Asian supermarkets)
100g vermicelli rice noodles
36 king prawns (3 per roll, or one more each if you are feeling greedy), cooked and peeled.
Shredded lettuce or cabbage
Handful of fresh mint and/or coriander (or a herb of your choice)
For the Dipping Sauce
2 tbs sweet chilli sauce
Juice of ½ a lime
Splash of fish sauce (or soy sauce for vegetarians)
HOW TO MAKE VIETNAMESE SPRING ROLLS METHOD
Prepare the noodles. Pour boiling water over the vermicelli and leave for 5-7 minutes until they are soft. Drain and allow to cool.
Prepare the filling. Shred the lettuce/cabbage.
Finely slice the carrot. There is a tool that you can buy easily in South East Asia which is a little like a vegetable peeler that juliennes the carrot. If you don’t have one of those you could use a mandolin. And if you don’t have a mandolin a grater will do just fine.
The packaging on the paper skins – and many other recipes – states that you only have to soak them in warm water for a couple of seconds. We found that actually some of them need quite a bit longer soaking time. (And some just didn’t go soft at all- those should be discarded, these are not crunchy rolls and will not only not taste very nice, they will have a horrid texture and be really difficult to roll.)
When the paper is super-soft and totally translucent take it from the water and lay it flat on a clean surface. The skins are much more robust than they appear.
Start placing your filling onto the paper. You want to place it around 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up from the bottom of the paper and leave about 2 cm space on each side. Because the papers are partially transparent you can take your time to make the rolls look pretty. To do this make sure that the colourful items such as the prawns, herbs (try to keep the leaves whole for extra prettiness) or carrot are on the bottom of the pile, so that they can be seen through the wrapper.
Add a small handful of vermicelli, remembering that less is more – you don’t want to overstuff the rolls.
Variation: We also added some slices of home-made pickled garlic to some of the rolls to add an extra zingy flavour.
Now the tricky bit: the rolling of the rolls. It’s not as difficult as it might appear. Firstly, pull the filling together and fold the bottom of the paper over it, pressing gently into the filling so that the wrapping is tight.
Next, fold each side in towards the centre of the wrapper to form a little parcel.
Then roll forwards to complete the spring roll, trying to keep the filling inside as tight as possible. The paper is soft so will stick at the end easily. When the rolling is completed, keep the seam on the underside which will also help it stick.
There are a variety of dipping sauces. A popular one is hoisin and crushed peanuts but we made a sweet chilli dipping sauce.
We used sweet chilli sauce, half a lime and a splash of fish sauce to give us that characteristic sweet, sour, salt and spice flavour. Just mix the ingredients together in a bowl. Then it was simply a case of serving the rolls, dipping and enjoying.
How to make Vietnamese spring rolls summer rolls
These are some of the tools and ingredients we used to make the summer rolls:
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Spending New Year in Japan is a great way of understanding the traditions associated with one of the country’s most important celebrations.
While Christmas Day is a normal working day in Japan (albeit one where it has become a custom to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken of all things – there’s a really interesting programme on the BBC World Service about this tradition), many businesses tend to close down for the new year period, usually from around the 28th December to the 4th January. Certainly most will be closed on the 1st to the 3rd January but some businesses may close for longer in order that proprietors and employees can spend time with their families. This means that if you are sightseeing, some ryokan may not be receiving guests and some museums and attractions will be closed.
We were in Japan around new year 2019-2020, our last trip before the world changed so dramatically.
See the Lights in Shibuya
Shibuya is a vibrant, bustling district in Tokyo which has loads of shops and restaurants. Its most famous features are found close to the station.
Its road crossing is possibly one of the best known in the world as it has featured in numerous films and adverts.
Apparently its nickname is ‘scramble’ because at its busiest time over 2,500 people can cross the road in the two minutes that the pedestrian lights allow.
As new year approaches, the crossing is the place to join the celebrations if you want a party. We visited in the afternoon as preparations were underway and also got to see some of the lights in the surrounding area.
The statue of Hachiko is a famous Shibuya landmark. Hachiko was an Akito dog owned by a professor in the 1920s. The professor used to go to work and each day his dog would wait for him to return at the station in the evening. The professor died in 1925 but Hachiko would still wait for him every evening for a decade until his own death. It’s a very moving story of canine loyalty and a statue was erected to the dog outside the station in 1934. Of course, he is dressed for the occasion at this time of year.
Noodles in Shinjuku
One of the traditional things to do on New Year’s Eve is to eat Toshikoshi Soba – year-end noodles. The principle is that long noodles equate to a long life, so they represent longevity and good luck. This is a popular tradition and soba shops are likely to be busy on New Year’s Eve. We had a wonderful meal with a dear friend at lunchtime at the food hall in Takashimaya Times Square, the vast department store just south of Shinjuku station, which has a variety of wonderful restaurants located on the top two floors. We chose the soba restaurant there. We had to queue for around 40 minutes which wasn’t a problem – it had such a nice atmosphere.
Once seated you are not rushed to finish your meal, even though there will be people waiting outside. If you want to dine on noodles in the evening your wait may be much longer – we saw very long queues in Shinjuku later that night.
We ordered the set menu which came with tempura and other treats. It wasn’t cheap but it wasn’t bank-breakingly expensive and the entire meal was simply divine.
The noodles are presented on a traditional platter and appear to arrive in the most enormous mound but, on closer inspection, actually have been cleverly placed on a conical tray.
Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold – on a winter’s day, hot was definitely the best way to enjoy them.
You are provided with a broth which you can season to your liking and then you dip the noodles in the broth. It is polite to slurp in Japan! (Which, when you’ve been brought up not to slurp your soup, is surprisingly difficult!)
As we were finishing the restaurant staff came around with a small teapot filled with a hot, white opaque broth. This was sobayu, the water that that the noodles had been boiled in. We mixed it with our leftover sauce, added any further condiments and drank it – it’s a very satisfying way to finish off the meal.
Back To The Hotel to Watch TV
New year is traditionally a family time in Japan and many families stay home to see the new year in together. Kōhaku Uta Gassen is the NHK (the national broadcaster) TV channel’s new year show which has been running since the 1950s. It is a national custom to watch Kōhaku on New Year’s Eve. The format of the show is that popular singers, musicians and bands are invited to join and each are assigned to one of two teams – red and white. They each perform throughout the evening and the audience and judges decide which team was the best. Quite often western performers will take part as well. At the end of the show, just before midnight, everyone sings Hotaru no Hikari, a song similar to Auld Lang Syne. We spent some time in the early evening at our business hotel to catch some of the songs before heading out to see in the new year.
Seeing in the New Year
There are several choices depending on how you are feeling. Shibuya is the place to go for a party atmosphere. The famous road crossing is usually filled with people waiting to see the new year in (pre-Covid) and the atmosphere is guaranteed to be lively. Other possible places include Tokyo Tower, which has a countdown to the New Year, and Tokyo Disney and Disney Sea which have fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve. There will also be celebratory countdown events in hotels and izakaya across the city.
We chose to visit the Meiji Jingū. It’s one of Japan’s most important shrines, a Shinto shrine, just a couple of stops from Shinjuku, where we were staying. Meiji Jingū is a lovely place to visit at any time. It is set in a large, forested park which is very pleasant to wander through and is a completely serene contrast to the hustle and bustle of neon urban Tokyo. There are several JR stops that you can use to reach the shrine. We disembarked at Harajuku, the district where the cool kids hang out, and followed the crowds heading towards the shrine. We arrived at around 11:30 pm and were by no means the first people there. It’s a pleasant stroll from the beautiful wooden Torii at the entrance.
You need to bear in mind that it’s a one-way system as you walk through. You will see traditional lanterns and rows of sake barrels along the way.
Then we stopped at the barrier which had TV screens showing pictures of the crowd as it assembled and the shrine itself. We weren’t too far from the front but were still some way from the shrine. Even though the area was very crowded, everything was typically well-organised and there was a quiet buzz of excitement.
As the new year dawned 108 bells rang out. This is actually a Buddhist (Japan’s other main religion) custom, the number represents 108 temptations and the bell ringing is to reject 108 worldly desires. The bell is actually rung 107 times on the last day of the old year and just once after midnight. The bell rings aren’t uniform in length – some of the bells are rung in quicker succession than others.
We were reasonably close to the front at the Meiji shrine but it still took us around 45 minutes to reach the Naien, the inner area, which contains the shrine buildings. Marshalls were present wielding signs in both Japanese and English and beckoned visitors either to approach, or to ‘wait a short while, please’ before coming forward. This means that smaller groups of visitors were able to visit the shrine and offer prayers without it becoming over-crowded. It was an excellent system, especially as everyone co-operated beautifully.
When it was our turn, it wasn’t really possible to undertake the full Hatsumōde but we threw our coins, bowed, clapped and made our wishes and prayers for the new year. The Meiji shrine is the most famous shrine to visit and apparently attracts over three million visitors in the first three days of each year. A lot of people don’t quite make it to the very front of the queue.
Outside the main temple area there are stalls with refreshments and it’s possible to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere. We then walked back to Yoyogi station, where we knew the platforms were likely to be less crowded than Harajuku, and we hopped onto a very full, but joyous, train on the Yamanote line, just one stop back to Shinjuku. As we arrived back at our hotel, a barrel of sake had been opened in the lobby and we were invited to partake of a cup. We greeted the hotel staff, ‘Akemashita, omedetou gozaimasu!’ – meaning: the new year has dawned, congratulations!
Hatsumōde – Visiting a Temple
Another Japanese new year tradition is visiting a temple within the first three days of the year. Although we had been amongst the first to undertake Hatsumōde at the Meiji shrine the night before, we met up with our friend in Kichijoji. (Also, because we were out at the shrine to see in the new year, we hadn’t found out whether the red or the white team had won Kōhaku, so she was able to update us with this important information.)
Hatsumōde is considered to be a very important part of welcoming the new year and there will be queues at temples. We met quite early and had to queue for around 30 minutes. It was all very organised and the atmosphere lively.
There is a certain ritual that one undertakes when visiting a Shinto shrine. It is absolutely fine for anyone from any religion, or none, to visit a shrine and make an offering. First of all, it is important to purify oneself before entering the shrine. This is called ‘temizu’.
Approach the chozuya, which is a small pavilion which contains a purification font filled with water. There are multiple ladles laid next to the basin. Holding the ladle in your right hand, pour water over your left. Change hands and repeat. Change hands and then pour a little water into your left hand and take it into your mouth. You aren’t supposed to swallow the water but to spit it delicately into the drain.
Then walk up to the shrine itself and make an offering by throwing a coin. The monetary value isn’t important but 5 yen and 50 yen coins are considered to be lucky. Go-en (5 yen) sounds like ‘goen’ which means ‘good luck’ in Japanese.
Then you should bow deeply, from the waist, twice, then clap your hands twice, to show reverence to the kami-sama (the god; kami can also be interpreted as a spirit). Keep your hands together for a silent prayer.
We were delighted to be invited to our friend’s family home to enjoy osechi-ryōri, traditional new year foods.
Traditional New Year Food
New year is a time for feasting and there are some dishes that are particularly associated with celebrations. Much of the food in osechi-ryōri is prepared in advance so that the whole family can eat together rather than spending loads of time in the kitchen.
The quintessential new year food is mochi. These are rice balls made by pounding steamed sticky rice with a big mallet in a large wooden container to achieve a stretchy and slightly sticky consistency. This is then formed into little rice dumplings. They have an unusual texture – very soft and delightfully squidgy. They may be flavoured and/or filled with all sorts of ingredients. Matcha green tea, milk flavouring and azuki bean paste are popular fillings. Sometimes the mochi will have a sesame coating.
Matcha mochi with azuki bean filling is delicious:
Kazunoko is another popular new year dish. It is marinated seasoned herring roe. The roe is yellow in colour and comprises hundreds of eggs all bound together. The texture is surprisingly crunchy and the flavour slightly salty. It is usually marinated overnight in ingredients such as dashi (Japanese stock), soy sauce and sake. We were lucky to enjoy home-made kazunoko marinated in sake lees and it was delicious. The multiple eggs in the roe are symbolic of a large family. The kuzunoko can be served on its own or with other delicious ingredients, in this case, with prawns and a scallop on top of cucumber.
Kobumaki is a piece of kelp seaweed. It will have been simmered for a while to soften and is often presented in the shape of a bow. An alternative serving is a roll of kombu tied with a strip of dried daikon (a white radish); this is called hoshi daikon. Further variations include wrapping the kombu around a piece of meat or fish. The word ‘kombu’ also means ‘joy’ in celebration of a joyous day.
Sushi is not usually part of osechi-ryōri but it is a celebratory food and is often eaten on special occasions. It would be unusual for Japanese families to make their own sushi – they would leave it to the experts and buy some in.
Another Japanese new year tradition is Fukubukuro. When the shops reopen many will offer lucky bags – sealed bags or boxes – containing random merchandise. The value of the goods inside are greater than the price you would normally pay and sometimes you may – by sheer luck – end up with some very cool products. We met up with a dear friend in Nakano Broadway the following day and found a Lucky Box stall. At just 300 Yen we didn’t have high expectations but it was fun seeing what was in the box.
We were in our favourite local Vietnamese restaurant recently and, while eating a delicious bowl of Bún Bò Chân Giò Huế – Beef, Pork Hock, Meat Balls in a vermicelli noodle soup (Bún means vermicelli and the dish originated in Huế, a coastal city in central Vietnam that used to be its capital), the restaurant staff brought out a jar containing pickled garlic to be used as a condiment. It was delicious – it added another dimension to the dish – a zap of sour garlic with just a hint of spice from the chilli infused vinegar. It’s a really popular condiment and apparently some of the restaurant’s customers will devour the whole jar when it’s brought to the table. We figured it probably wasn’t too difficult to make ourselves so we did some experimenting and, indeed, it’s a really easy recipe.
We had grown a bunch of garlic earlier in the year – planted in the late autumn we harvested it mid-summer. We also have a habit of keeping empty jars for preserving purposes, so had most of the ingredients and equipment to hand. It’s very flexible to make and the quantities in the recipe really depend on the size of your container. You will need a clean empty jar – you can use any old jar. Just wash it out thoroughly and fill it with boiling water, which will make sure it’s clean enough to store pickles, then let it cool down. Our jar was around 300 ml capacity.
Several bulbs of garlic (the quantity will depend on how large the bulbs are and how finely you wish to slice it)
Two red chillies
White vinegar (you can use rice vinegar if you are feeling decadent but the garlic has a strong flavour and we feel it would dominate the subtle flavour of the rice vinegar)
2tsp white sugar
1/2 tsp salt.
Peeling the garlic is the most time-consuming part of this job. Garlic is one of the stickiest substances known to human kind but you don’t realise this until you start peeling lots of it.
Once peeled, you have a number of choices. You can keep the garlic cloves whole, you can slice them with a knife or you can slice them wafer-thin using a mandolin. We prefer the very thinly sliced garlic because when you add it as a condiment the flavour enhances rather than dominates the food.
If using a mandolin, be really careful. Being clumsy cooks, we use a knife glove which means that you can slice the garlic very close to the blade without risking sliced fingers. Bloody garlic pickle is not a good idea.
Place the sliced garlic, slice the chillies and add everything to the jar.
Top up with the vinegar. Add the sugar and salt.
Shake the jar.
Leave to infuse for at least a week. The pickled garlic will last for months… but is likely to get scoffed much sooner. Also, because the vinegar is acidic you can add additional sliced garlic or another chilli as you use up the existing condiment.
Although this dish goes really well with Phở and Bún Huế dishes, we’ve also used it to add a bit of zing to Vietnamese summer rolls.
And this condiment isn’t just for Vietnamese cookery. We use this pickle to garnish soups – this is a home-made vegetable soup.
Or it can be used in a meat dish – these are glazed pork belly bites. Just a slice or two atop really cuts through the richness of the meat.
This is the mandolin we use. It’s adjustable so you can get different thicknesses of slicing and you can julienne vegetables as well. The cut-resistant knife gloves are excellent and have saved us from multiple sliced fingers over the years.
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The Feast of Sinterklaas (a contraction of St Nicholas) is celebrated all across the Netherlands, and also in Belgium, on the 5th and 6th December. St Nicholas was the patron saint of children. While he has a similar appearance to that of Santa Claus (who is derived from Sinterklaas) with his red robes and fluffy white beard, his attire reflects St Nicholas’ historic occupation as the Bishop of Myra (now in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century, so he wears a bishop’s mitre and holds a crosier.
Like Santa, he knows which children have been naughty or nice, as he has all that information recorded in a big red book. Traditionally, nice children receive presents but naughty children were packed up in a sack and taken to Spain. Not-quite-naughty-but-not-quite-nice-enough children might have received a bundle of birch twigs or a lump of coal instead of presents in the past. But that doesn’t happen so much these days…
Festivities connected with Sinterklaas start in mid-November (on a Saturday, three weeks before the 5th December) when he ‘arrives’ on a boat from Spain – each time to a different port – and parades through the city on a white horse. Thousands of people turn out so see him and the event is televised. Sinterklaas’s helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), in fact, multiple Pieten also join the parade and carry bags to throw sweets and other treats to children in the crowd. There has been some debate over the depiction of Piet in recent years in the Netherlands and he is Schoorsteenpiet (Chimney Pete), from the soot in the chimneys, in many cities these days.
Although there is an official arrival, most Dutch cities have a Sinterklaas parade. During the weeks that Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands tradition dictates that he rides over the rooftops and children put out a shoe with a treat for the horse, such as a carrot or sugar cube, by the chimney (or the radiator if there isn’t an open fire in the house). During the night Piet climbs down the ‘chimney’, takes the horse’s treat and replaces it with a present.
The 5th December is the day that the Dutch give each other gifts, rather than on Christmas Day, which is usually a time for a quiet family celebration. Known as pakjesavond after the Dutch word for present, the family will sit together and hear a knock at the door. Children will open the door to find a bag of presents for them. Older children and adults give gifts and also have a custom of writing irreverent poems to family and friends.
Traditional sweets are pepernoten (mini biscuits), speculaas (spiced biscuits), marsepein (marzipan).
Pepernoten are little spiced biscuits made from rye flour and sugar with anise, cinnamon, and clove flavourings. Sometimes they are coated in chocolate.
Dutch marzipan is awesome – it is often beautifully crafted in a variety of guises: marzipan fruits, a packet of pigs and even chips, presented Dutch-style, with (sugar) ‘salt’ and (white chocolate) ‘mayonnaise’.
Best of all are the chocolate letters associated with Sinterklaas – it’s a massive bar of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of your name. You don’t have to worry if your name begins with an ‘I’ instead of an ‘W’ – you get the same amount of chocolate!
Colin is half-Dutch and has long enjoyed the tradition of Sinterklaas. And no matter how old you are, nor the fact there has been a pandemic raging for the last 20 months, somehow if Sinterklaas can post you a chocolate letter, your day is guaranteed to be filled with joy.
PS – Thanks, Mum!
BRAND: Indo Mie
FLAVOUR: Onion Chicken
No. OF SACHETS: Three – soupbase, onion oil and chilli
“I’ve got a thing about chickens,” Mickey Rourke so famously said in Alan Parker’s film, Angel Heart. Well, he may indeed but those flavour makers at good ol’ Indo Mie have got a really big thing about chickens. They can’t get enough of that hen-some taste and it shows in the diversity of every delicious poultry based product that they deliver our way. Onion chicken is no exception. It’s another fast cookin’, great tastin’, chopstick lickin’ excursion into the wonder world of convenience food and another affirmation of Indo Mie as the crown king of the budget noodle. You’d never believe that a chicken could be so versatile. Don’t read this, go to your local noodle emporium armed with one of those two pound coins and get yourself eight different tastes of quality Indonesian noodles, you know it makes sense.
*Retro noodle packet
A Place of Awe and Wonder
The animations of Studio Ghibli, by founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and their protegees, are amongst the very best in the world. If you haven’t seen a Ghibli film we can’t emphasise enough quite how magical they are. For fans of anime (Japanese animation) and films in general, the Studio Ghibli Museum is top of the list of places to see when visiting Tokyo.
A teenage witch, her hair ruffled by the wind, rides her mother’s broom through the open skies. A giant robot unleashes molten destruction on the soldiers who have awakened him from centuries of slumber. A city worker recalls her childhood growing up in the 1960s. The skies above Kōbe are filled with buzzing agents of death, raining down fire upon a terrified population. A burgeoning writer seeks inspiration from a quaint antiques shop. A travelling warrior becomes infatuated with a feral wolf-child in a land scarred by war. A group of young people discover love and loss during their turbulent high-school years. A girl’s parents are turned into slobbering pigs. A father turns superhero, if only for a moment, when he stands up to a local biker gang. Two elated girls soar through the air inside a grinning cat bus, its headlight eyes tracing yellow streaks in the sky above the forest.
Gods and monsters. Love and loss. Jubilation and despair. The horrors of war. Childhood wonder. The passion of life. Welcome to the heart-soaring, euphoric, whimsical, terrifying, compassionate and, above all else, emotional world of Studio Ghibli. The remarkable films of Studio Ghibli show, without a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be art. Often the terms ‘art’ and ‘cinema’ result in products that distance audiences, but Ghibli makes films that touch the soul, that can enrapture and delight everyone from toddlers to pensioners. Studio Ghibli Kamera Book.
It’s not possible to visit the studio itself. That’s just basically an office building. But Miyazaki and Takahata commissioned a museum dedicated to the art and technology of the animated form in 2001 and it is one of the most delightful museums we’ve ever visited.
Practicalities to Visiting the Museum
If you want to visit the Ghibli museum you can’t just turn up. The museum is so popular that you have to pre-book your tickets and also arrive at a specified time. The process for getting tickets is a bit convoluted especially if you don’t live in Japan or have contacts there. So (deep breath)…
If you are Japan you can buy tickets at Lawson konbini (convenience stores). The tickets go on sale from 10:00am (Japan time) on the 10th of each month for the following month. So really you have to be in Japan for several weeks to stand a chance of getting any for yourself and they WILL sell quickly.
If you can’t get tickets via the link there are other options. A number of travel agencies can get tourist tickets which you can purchase directly from them in your home country. The Ghibli Museum – Ticket System (jtbgmt.com) describes how to get tickets, you need to click on the link to select your country of origin.
Other travel agencies often have staff in Japan who may be able to go to Lawson to get tickets on your behalf. But book early! We’ve used services such as these in the past and it has worked very well. However, over the years, demand has increased and many travel agencies may also want you to buy other services, for example, they may request that you purchase your Japan Rail Pass from them, or book a couple of nights’ accommodation in Tokyo. This is frustrating, especially if you have already made your plans or can purchase these items more cheaply elsewhere. For example, we always search for the best deal for our JR Passes and usually stay in Japanese Business Hotels which are cheap and comfortable (if small), especially in Tokyo because, frankly, when you’re in Tokyo you don’t really care too much about your accommodation as there’s so much fun to be had in the city.
The tickets state a specified date and time of entry and, as a result, you will need to arrive on time. The face value of the tickets is an extremely reasonable ¥1000 for those over 19 years of age, with lower costs for children. But there is likely to be a handling fee if you purchase your ticket from an agent.
On Arrival At The Ghibli Museum
The museum is located in Mitaka, on the Chūō Line. There are direct trains from central Tokyo and you can use your Japan Rail Pass if you have one. It’s a short walk from the JR station. There is, however, a bus service which, for around ¥300 return, will take you directly to the museum. It’s easy to spot the bus stop.
On arrival, walking along Kichijoji Avenue, which is adjacent to Inokashira Park, at the entrance of the delightfully colourful building you are greeted by a giant Totoro, which is the best possible welcome anyone could want, before you walk around the building to the real entrance.
On arrival you exchange your voucher for a real ticket which has a film strip from a Ghibli animation inside. There is no time limit on your visit and the policy of limiting admissions means that the museum never feels crowded. You can wander freely through the building but you are requested not to take photos. This is actually a really good idea – it ensures that you enjoy the experience rather than try to record everything that you see. It also means that there are no (or at least minimal) spoilers from zillions of photos of the museum on the internet. If you wish, you can buy a book or a set of postcards of the museum from the shop – so that you have a memento.
Miyazaki’s principle for designing the museum was ‘Let’s lose our way, together’. It’s a brilliant philosophy. There is no set route around the building and there are all sorts of spiral staircases, internal bridges and nooks and crannies to explore – some at a low level, suited to children… or adult sized children who are prepared to crouch and wiggle into small spaces. Just go wherever your curiosity takes you.
The first room after the entrance contains a Ghibli-inspired history of cinema technology. Periodically the lights are dimmed and a flashing Totoro zoetrope starts up – it’s a magical display as characters from the film rotate around a central point illustrating about how animation can create the illusion of movement. (Be aware that this is a stroboscope effect if you are sensitive to flashing lights.) Amongst the other exhibits in the room is a delightful display of the Laputa robot surrounded by doves. It truly is a room of wonders.
Upstairs there are further rooms to explore. Some of these have permanent exhibitions – such as the life-sized cat bus (from My Neighbour Totoro). Adults be aware that you are only allowed to play inside cat bus if you are under eight years of age, something that we feel is most unfair. There are a couple of rooms which represents an animation studio so that you can understand the technicalities and process of animation from start to finish.
The studio also has a number of temporary exhibitions which often showcase the work of animators from around the world. Isao Takahata, in particular, did a lot to promote the work of film-makers from around the world. We have enjoyed exhibitions showing the works of Pixar studios (themselves huge Ghibli fans) and Michel Ocelot’s remarkable animations.
Don’t forget to follow the steps to the roof – there you will find the gentle giant robot and mysterious control cube from Laputa, Castle in the Sky. (It’s okay to take photos outside the museum’s main building.)
Exclusive Ghibli Films!
One of the biggest attractions about the museum is the opportunity to attend the screening of a short Ghibli film. You cannot see these anywhere else in the world and they are not available on DVD or on streaming services, they are totally exclusive to the museum. The films are around 20 minutes in length and there is a board outside the Saturn Theatre on the ground floor, indicating screening times. It’s worth getting to the waiting area a bit earlier than the start time to make sure you can get into the screening you wish to attend. (If you miss a screening there is plenty to keep you occupied until the next one.) We have been lucky to have visited the museum five times and have never seen the same film twice. You can buy picture books of the films as a memento.
Shop Till You Drop
There is a bookshop where you can buy books and DVDs related to the films
And there’s also a souvenir shop where all sorts of gorgeous and tempting merchandise can be purchased. If you are a fan of the films, pack an extra suitcase for all the goodies. Over the years we have accumulated a lot of souvenirs.
The bags are from the film Porco Rosso and are a souvenir in themselves.
It’s worth noting that Ghibli merchandise is also available throughout Japan. We managed to buy the biggest Totoro soft toy that we felt we could get onto a plane without having to buy an extra seat – bought at the very end of a long trip (which had involved lots of travelling on the shinkansen and it really wouldn’t have been practical to transport him all over Japan, gorgeous as he is) at a department store in Tokyo just before we headed out for the airport. And yes, we did get lots of funny looks from security guards at the airport, but Totoro has pride of place in our living room.
The design of the museum is so intricate and detailed, even outside the main building.
There is a café, The Straw Hat Cafe (featuring Mei’s hat from My Neighbour Totoro), adjacent to the museum which sells ice-cream, drinks and snacks.
It’s become something of a tradition for us to enjoy a hot-dog and a cold beer – yes, you can even enjoy a bottle of Nausicaä beer! – at the end of the exploration.
The Ghibli museum is emphatically one of the most wonderful places we have visited. It’s a triumph of imagination and design and is genuinely a place of wonders. Even if the process of obtaining tickets is somewhat convoluted, we can’t recommend this museum highly enough. We’d go again in an instant.
If you are interested in the films of Studio Ghibli – and they are all amazing – here are some links:
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Kabocha is a type of squash, often called a Japanese pumpkin. It is small-medium in size (around 25-30cm diameter). Its flesh is bright orange which contrasts beautifully with its dark green skin. They are also pretty easy to grow. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that home-grown vegetables are always more delicious than shop bought ones.
This year we grew three of the beauties in our little garden and the very first thing we wanted to make once harvested, was ‘korroke’, a Japanese version of croquettes (the word is spelled in katakana, the phonetic alphabet used for words of international origin). It’s the sort of dish that you would find in a Japanese izakaya (a bar that sells alcohol and tasty snacks/small dishes). They are simple to make and utterly scrumptious. Here’s our recipe for Kabocha Korroke – Pumpkin Croquettes:
1 kabocha pumpkin. If you can’t get a kabocha, other squash can be used. Pumpkin might be a bit too squishy but something like a butternut squash would work well.
1 egg (vegans can use corn starch mixed with warm water in an approximate ratio of 1:3)
50g (approx) Plain flour
50g (approx) Panko breadcrumbs
Pinch of salt
Oil for frying/spray oil for baking
Tonkatsu sauce to eat with (Brown sauce will work well if you can’t get tonkatsu)
Cut the pumpkin in half and then into slices. Remove the seeds (we kept loads of seeds and dried them so that we can sow them next year).
Arrange the slices into a steaming bowl. We tend to use the Asian style bamboo baskets as they stack very nicely and can just sit on top of a saucepan of boiling/simmering water.
Steam for around 15 minutes or until the pumpkin is soft – a knife should easily sink into the flesh. (If you don’t have a steamer you can bake the pumpkin slices in the oven for around 40 minutes.)
Although the skin of the kabocha is edible, for the purposes of the korroke it is best to remove it. (You can treat yourself to pumpkin skin snacks – once they have cooled down a bit – while you continue the preparation.)
Add a pinch of salt and mash the pumpkin using a potato masher. It is possible to add other flavourings at this stage if you wish. Some recipes add sautéed onions, others lashings of butter, yet others include shichimi (Japanese seven spice mix). We just seasoned with the salt, which brings out the natural flavour of the kabocha, in this instance.
Form into patties.
Panko are Japanese breadcrumbs. They are crispy and super dry, usually made from white bread. You can buy panko in most supermarkets these days but ordinary breadcrumbs will be fine if you can’t find them. Set out three bowls. One for flour, one for an egg, lightly beaten, and one for the panko.
Dip each patty in the flour, then the egg, then the panko. This process can get a little messy (especially if you are a clumsy cook). Do not attempt to take photos using your phone if you have sticky fingers.
There are several options for cooking. Bear in mind that the pumpkin is already cooked so the korroke don’t need long. We’ve recently invested in an air fryer so thought we would use that. Just spray the patties with oil and cook at 190C for 4 minutes on each side. You can also bake them in the oven for about 8 minutes. Or you can fry them the old-fashioned way in vegetable oil for a couple of minutes on each side or until the panko are golden.
Then it’s time to scoff! Korroke are often served with tonkatsu sauce. This is a sweet and tangy sauce that perfectly complements the pumpkin. If you can’t find tonkatsu, brown sauce (the type you eat with a cooked breakfast) is a good substitution. Other accompaniments can include mayo or a soy based dipping sauce. Best served with a nice, cold beer. Or two.
Some years ago we were staying in the delightful mountain town of Takayama in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, just for a couple of nights. Usually our budget limitations mean that we stay in cheap business hotels, but we always try for a couple of nights in traditional Japanese style accommodation. Our beautiful ryokan had a suite of tatami mat rooms, inside which we lounged around in yukata (cotton kimono), used the o-furo (bath, fed by hot springs in this instance) and were served the most exquisite food. It’s a gorgeous place to stay.
Directly opposite, on the other side of the road to this oasis of calm and refinement, however, we discovered the madness that was Horror House: Crazy Killer.
We’d grown up with ghost trains at funfairs in the UK and, to be honest, they are a bit rubbish. You sit in a rickety cart and are wheeled around a short track inside a tiny shack and various unconvincing props occasionally swing out at you with the aim of making you jump. Japanese horror houses are far superior: they are like a ghost train but without the train and comprise multiple rooms which you walk around. The difference is that there is usually an actor or two inside, ready to jump out at you, all with the aim of scaring the bejesus out of anyone who enters. We had been inside Japanese horror houses before, so we kinda knew what to expect from Crazy Killer.
Some years previously we visited the Toei Studios Movie Theme Park, home of samurai soap operas and big monsters, in Kyoto, which made for a great afternoon’s entertainment, especially as we adore Japanese cinema. There are all sorts of activities, from exploring the movie sets to viewing the history of the studio, as well as meeting kaiju (monsters) and enjoying a spectacular ninja show.
The studio has a horror house, inside which were a number of rooms to explore. Several denizens, dressed in various scary costumes lurked within, all ready to chase us around the room or jump out at us. The most disturbing of these was actually a lone actor, dressed in ghostly attire, who was just sitting in a corner of the room, whimpering.
Takayama’s Horror House: Crazy Killer had just one. Crazy Killer, that is. Once we paid our modest fee and entered the attraction, the building contained the usual blend of gruesome exhibits and shock tactics such as doors slamming loudly behind you, or a claustrophobic room where a light switches on and you jump at your own reflection in a mirror.
And, of course, Crazy Killer was lurking there. He first revealed himself when we passed by an array of gory severed heads which were clearly models – until we reached the last one, whereupon Crazy Killer leapt out, making us jump, and we immediately scarpered, simultaneously screaming and laughing. Crazy Killer retreated back into his dastardly domain and we tentatively continued our way around, largely in the dark, all nervous energy and adrenaline, waiting for the next time he was ready to jump out at us. Which he did on several occasions. When we finally saw the exit we could hear that he was close behind us and advancing rapidly… so we ran!
We laughed our way around and when we emerged, unscathed, at the exit, the proprietor asked us if we’d like to go in to have our photo taken with the killer. Of course we did! So she radioed him and we met up inside, whereupon he handed us a plastic machete and a severed head. Great! Apparently most visitors pose demurely alongside Crazy Killer.
The proprietor explained that it was okay, we were from England. Crazy Killer was delighted to meet us. So we all had a nice chat about the British royal family in our best Japanese (which was quite a challenge) and then we went back to the ryokan for a night of decadence and a delicious dinner.
The remarkable Galapagos Islands are undoubtedly Ecuador’s top tourist attraction and many trips to the islands start out from Quito. The city itself has plenty to offer the visitor. We were lucky enough to undertake a largely land-based Galapagos tour but gave ourselves a couple of days on the Ecuadorian mainland before and after this trip, predominantly to give ourselves some days in hand in order to make sure we could catch our connecting flights, but also because we wanted to explore the city and surrounding area. There are all sorts of day trips available in and around Quito.
Quito is the second highest capital city in the world, located virtually on the equator and at an altitude of 2850m above sea level. If you’ve not spent time at that altitude it is really important to take it easy, even climbing a flight of stairs can leave you a little breathless when you first arrive. Many hotels in South American countries offer coca tea which is supposed to help with the effects of altitude sickness, although if you do feel ill make sure you seek medical attention.
The Centro Histórico is a great place to stay. San Francisco de Quito was founded by Sebastián de Benalcázar in 1534 and the colonial architecture is considered to be so important that the city is designated a UNESCO world heritage site (along with Krakow in Poland). It also has some of the best bars and restaurants in the city. Our hotel had a good view over Santo Domingo Plaza, one of many colonial plazas.
It is very pleasant just wandering through the city.
Basílica del Voto Nacional – Basilica of the National Vow, a Roman Catholic church, is located atop a hill. Apparently it is the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas and is still officially unfinished. There is a local legend that when it is finally completed the end of the world will be nigh.
La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, known locally as la Compañía, is a Jesuit church which was completed in 1765. Its interior is decorated with wood carvings, gilded plaster and gold leaf in an astonishingly ornate style.
The Plaza de Indepencia is a focal point with its expansive square.
There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area but, notably, just around the corner from the Plaza is a chocolate shop which offers the most amazing chocolate delicacies. To be fair, there are loads of chocolate shops offering amazing chocolate delicacies (Central and South American countries are quite rightly famous for their chocolate), but it was in this one that we discovered Pacari chocolate. The chocolate isn’t cheap but it’s the best quality we’ve ever tried. The company is really ethical as well; a fair trade organisation they support local farmers in Ecuador by paying a good wage and working with them directly. The chocolate is also 100% organic and absolutely stonkingly delicious.
We brought home a multitude of different chocolate bars: the ‘pure’ choc – at 60% cacao – but also some of the flavoured ones. Many are flavoured with fruits: passion fruit and cherry really captured the flavours of the fruit, lemon verbena’s zing was a lovely contrast with the smooth, silky chocolate. We had enjoyed corn in various guises throughout our trip so toasted corn kernels in the chocolate added a satisfying crunch and the corn flavour also came through very well. Of course we had to try the chilli chocolate. It’s surprisingly subtle – the first flavour you taste is that of dark chocolate then, after a few seconds comes a gentle warmth (definitely not the fiery heat of a chilli) that lingers on the palette long after the chocolate has gone.
It is possible to buy Pacari chocolate around the world (they also try to offset their carbon footprint) but we’ve found that it is significantly more expensive than in Quito (and it’s pretty expensive in Quito, but emphatically worth every cent), so if you do find yourself in Ecuador, we recommend stuffing every square centimetre of spare space in your luggage with the chocolate before you travel home.
City Tour – In And Around Quito
There are lots of city tours available and most hotels will be able to put you in touch with a company that can suit your budget, whether it’s a group tour or a private guide. Some of the guides are very flexible and can adapt a standard tour to suit your interests so it’s definitely worth asking what options are available.
The Equator is one of the most popular tourist attractions (after all, the word Ecuador means ‘equator’) and it’s difficult not get excited at being able to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres at the same time. There are two sites, located a short drive of around 25km outside Quito. Amusingly, the official equator site at La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) isn’t quite on the equator itself, thanks to an error by a French expedition in 1736.
It seems it was the Incas who, several centuries earlier and without the use of GPS, managed to locate the correct location for the equator so we headed over to the Intiñan museum which is just a few minutes away from the incorrect official monument. The museum has an official equator line and also some exhibits showing traditional culture. You can also undertake various activities such as looking at the Coriolis Effect (whether waters swirls down a plughole clockwise, anti-clockwise or straight down depending on which hemisphere you are in – it won’t make a spot of difference), balancing an egg on a nail or walking along the equator with your eyes closed. It’s all ridiculous and hugely touristy but it’s enjoyable fun nevertheless.
Anyway, whether you are standing on the real equator or not, it’s great to take photos astride a line – whichever one it is.
We made a brief stop to view the Pululahua Crater. It’s a caldera (from an extinct volcano) although you can still see a couple of volcanic cones. The area has plenty of fertile soil so farming here is profitable. It’s possible to walk in the area – the caldera is about five km across – but we only really had time to enjoy the view.
Back in Quito, the Teleferico offers a cable car lift to the top of Cruz Loma which affords fantastic views across the city as well as ‘Volcanoes Avenue’, a splendid vista revealing fourteen peaks across the Andes… if the weather is co-operating. Otherwise it’s a nice ride up and down a mountain in a cable car! It’s located in Pichincha and the site also offers an amusement park, restaurants, a shopping centre and other activities, so there’s plenty to do if the views aren’t spectacular.
A slightly more unusual stop was a visit to the Fundación Guayasamín Museum, the house with an adjacent art gallery of local artist Oswaldo Guayasamín, widely considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest artists. The house is located on a hill overlooking Quito in the Bellavista neighbourhood and has been left as he lived in it. It contains many artworks; his own as well as an impressive collection of pre-Columbian, colonial and modern art, and you can also see his studio. We were invited to watch a video about the artist so that we could learn about his life and works. The adjacent gallery, known as the Chapel of Man, has an exterior on the form of a massive cube with a conical dome atop. Inside it offers multiple levels in which to explore a range of artworks. Guayasamín’s art is big and bold and very much reflects Ecuadorian landscapes and culture. He was also particularly interested in the inequalities in society and many of his works are powerful – and moving – representations of injustice. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the gallery.
Day Trips Further Out
There are loads of day trips to explore the area surrounding Quito. Again, your accommodation will likely be able to help you find and book a trip that suits your interests, even if it might be at quite short notice. (We arrived from the airport late in the afternoon and managed to organise a day trip for the following morning.) Many companies offer coach trips that can pick you up from your accommodation (and a whole bunch of other tourists up from their accommodation, so bear in mind that the first hour of the trip could well involve sitting on a coach collecting people – which was fine for us as we could doze for a bit to catch up with the jetlag). But the greater the number of people that join the excursion, the lower the cost, and it’s often nice to have company on a day trip as well. Full day trips usually include lunch at a local restaurant.
Quilotoa Crater Lake
This was a full day trip, primarily to see the crater lake, which is located some 180 km from Quito. The journey takes a couple of hours direct from Quito, so other activities were incorporated into the trip to break up the day.
First stop was a market where we could see local produce for sale…
…And then onto the lake itself. It’s a caldera caused by the collapse of the volcano when it erupted in 1280. The crater filled with water over the years and now forms a lake, some 3km in diameter. It is possible to walk around the rim on a trail (it’s about 7.5 km) but we didn’t have enough time for this, so there’s a pleasant half hour stroll to the lake itself. It’s worth remembering that you are at altitude so the hike back up to the rim may take longer if you have not yet acclimatised. Also bear in mind that the sun is strong, even on a cloudy day, so make sure you have sun protection. The caldera itself is beautiful.
We also stopped off at Tigua to visit a local family home.
And in the late afternoon, as we headed back into Quito to do the reverse of the hotel pickups, we just happened to pass by the Cotopaxi volcano at sunset so the driver stopped off to let us all have a photo stop. Well, with a view like this it would have been rude not to.
It’s also worth noting there are lots of trips and activities at Cotopaxi – from climbing up it to mountain biking down it (at vast speed) as well as horse riding and jeep tours. Local tour operators and hotels will be available to find something that suits.
Bellavista Cloud Forest
We had long wanted to visit a cloud forest and booked directly with the organisation. They arranged a pick-up from our hotel in the central district – very early in the morning – to take us and a group of other people on a drive to the cloud forest that took a couple of hours. After breakfast at the lodge we embarked on a guided walk. Unfortunately the best time to see the birds is around 6:30am – about the time of our Quito pickup. Some people stay overnight in order to be able to take the early morning walks in order to get a greater chance of viewing the birds. It’s also worth noting that we found the experience to be expensive. Still, the walk was lovely and the guide knowledgeable. These are actually colour photos but the forest was so wonderfully cloudy they have an evocative black and white feel to them.
It was also nice to be able to see gorgeously colourful and beautifully iridescent hummingbirds, and other birds, using the feeders that were located around the lodge, flitting, darting and hovering.
Even if the Galapagos are your primary reason for visiting Ecuador, there are loads of activities in and around Quito – whether wildlife, activity or cultural – and it is definitely worth incorporating these into your itinerary if you have time.