Doozy Times in Seattle

We spent five short days in the Pacific Northwest with my sister-in-law and her lovely family, and even though five as a number is short — it felt short — it was enriching within a tight span of time.

Enrichment came our way through activities. We chatted endlessly, baked and cooked, when we were not tripping over to the city’s iconic marketplace to gather fragrant spices and delicious cheese, sipping on hot apple cider, tasting moreish butter, and buying braids of garlic and chillies that did the singular job of elevating our hearts to our mouths with the amount they cost (oh, but they are beauties). Amongst all of this was the scenic presence Mount Rainier, with its upturned conical tip sheathed in snow, and the Olympic ranges. A band of photogenic siblings.

The sun was shining, and the days were spectacularly cold, but boy, they added sass to the time spent outside.

To mitigate the chill, we slurped on Taiwanese food. Mere broth and garlic, yet divine. Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings for the rest of us) and Sichuan noodles stole the highlight simply because we had never had them before.

Novelty is a cracking thing. You always remember that first trip you ever took, that first time you explored a new place and came across things alien to your culture, met a person who turned out to be a beloved figure in your life,…you never forget those, do you? The Taiwanese meal had left its impression upon us, indelibly.

Now, Seattle for us inevitably means Snohomish. A place the father-in-law chanced upon during a golfing trip and introduced the sister-in-law to. Ever since, she has been a fixture there. It’s her pick-me-up, a no-brainer, according to her. Snohomish has an assortment of shops that deal in antiques, time-worn, quirky objects that make your heart flutter with want. Safe to say, we have never returned empty-handed from there.

The nephew and niece have grown up a fair bit. If the little missy is all for mathematics, reading and baking — she made us delicious mini brownie pizzas — the nephew is a level-headed teenager with none of the angst of one yet. From them, we gained new knowledge. Of the concept of sneakerheads. We had zero idea of this. You can call it a subculture, if you please. Sneakerheads are sneaker collectors who like to accumulate limited edition shoes and even vintage ones. They then swap or sell them for exorbitant prices. There are other little details culled from the mouth of these babes that made my mind tumble and stumble, but they escape me now.

We wrapped it all up with a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner, decorated the Christmas tree, and nibbled into a sticky and lovely Christmas cake, the best I have ever had. It was baked by the sister-in-law’s neighbour. It was shattering and I cannot wait to replicate its goodness.

Now that I am back to reality, it is unsettling, but it is acceptable because Christmas is around the corner. The city has gone the festive route. We got our first batch of snow too yesterday, big chunky flakes that drove through the day, changing directions, and in all of it, through the slush that resulted on the pavements of New York City, I was out to meet a blogger. She turned out to be as humorous as her blog and wonderful company because the hours sped by as we prattled.

That’s the beginning of December for me. I cannot wait to see what else it brings.

I am hoping for more Christmas cake and snow.

Iconic Pike Place signage
The iconic Pike Place signage
Matt's in the Market at Pike Place
Matt’s in the Market at Pike Place
Spices at Pike Place
Spices at Pike Place
Tiramisu from the Chinese bakery 85°. Astonishingly good.
Spicy Sichuan soup @ Din Tai Fung
Taiwanese soup dumplings @ Din Tai Fung
A chilly break from Black Friday shopping at a shingle beach in Kirkland
Sunset trio at Kirkland
Brother-sister act at the gardening-decor store, Molbak’s.
Christmas windows at Snohomish
Rummaging for vintage
Green touch
Why we are enamoured of Snohomosh
The Snohomish Santa
Christmas tree at sister-in-law’s
Christmassy note at Seattle airport

In Downtown Seattle

Every time you see a feature on this city named after Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe, it is led with a shot of the famous Pike Place. It is as obligatory as say ladyfingers laced with coffee are to the noble tiramisu. So just to be obtuse, I decided on this giant man with his slow-mo release of a hammer, as mine. Perverse pleasures.

But let me not get ambitious here, for Pike Place is the throbbing heart of Seattle. Did I just contradict myself? I often do. And I end up quoting Mr. Whitman: ‘Very well then I contradict myself; (I am large, I contain multitudes)’.

The old public market was the first place in Downtown Seattle that I laid my eyes on  three years ago when I first visited the sister-in-law and fam. It was a pleasant evening after a smokin’ hot day in June, and it must have been late, because the row of stalls had been emptied of their wares. No traces of fishmongers, flower sellers and vendors who throng it during the day. It made me want to see it during the day, for ’tis the buzz of humanity after all that makes a place special. Even though I do carp about the crowds — how they singe your scalp with indignation in a location like Charles Bridge, Prague — but in Pike, ah, it is another matter. Here the crowds are part of a carnivalesque atmosphere. This includes the fish throwing event that takes place at the Pike Place Fish Co. Now I have written a post previously about the FISH philosophy, so I shall not bother repeating myself and content myself with the observation that it is bloody marvellous how effortlessly the fishmongers catch and throw monster fish. For all the world, they could be hurling soft toys at each other.

This time they did a token throw for the few who had accumulated around the stall. We wandered around, taking in the familiar sights of the bronze pig, a favourite with most for sitting astride it and claiming insta-happy photos, of the flower seller who is almost rendered invisible, burrowed inside her world of flowers.

We tasted chilli-coated chocolate beans and wondered aloud about the idea of carting mushroom growing pods back home, stared at fish with their gaping mouths and dead eyes that see no more, watched whey being swirled in vats inside humid cabins of the Beecher’s flagship store (it sells one of the best cow’s milk cheeses I have had — its the Beercher’s Flagship Cheese), saw a queue form outside what is said to be the Original Starbucks store, but what is not, because the first one was actually started by three men a few blocks north of the present location.

At a fresh produce stall, black truffles were pegged at heart-stopping and credible prices. One of the grocers came forward and insisted we try  some jumbo-sized purple asparagus. It was delicious raw. A fat bundle of it was bought for my mother-in-law’s birthday dinner, to be rustled up that evening at home. The fellow gathered momentum with all his green talk. He held forth about about the art of foraging, and he pointed out thin stalks of sea beans culled from salt marshes and mushrooms sourced from the forests nearby. After some violent nudging (which was resolutely ignored by me), Adi vamoosed with his sister. The brother-in-law and I stood and listened to the guy gab, because how do you leave such passion unappreciated?

Pike Place, you realise, is a live theatre of sorts. It is what I love most about marketplaces. Be it the rows of vegetable stalls in Calcutta where I turned up at with my father as a child almost every day; or the ancient market square in Northampton where the butchers hawked their meats the old way, where the produce made my senses hum with their freshness; Borough Market in London where you could browse and taste gourmet foods before squirreling them away in cloth bags, to be savoured later at home; or the Mercado de San Miguel of Madrid where I went barmy at the range of pinchos, cheeses and meats on display, not to mention the delightful wine bars and cakes. It is a fascination, which I suppose can be put down to the old-world charm of a market, for it fosters the need for community, conversations and a wonderful feeling of bonhomie.

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Fowls and Antiques of Bothell’s Country Village

The royal wedding’s done and dusted off, everybody’s had their fill of dissecting the fashion of the new duchess and her guests, and life is back again to the realm of the normal. After a weekend of harried baking and then socialising in the cosy piano bars of New York City, I am back to picking up the thread where I had left off. Seattle and around.

Now there’s a medley of antique and home decor stores in the city of Bothell, about 22 miles and a half-an-hour drive from Seattle. The good thing about living with a local like your sister-in-law is that she will take you to places that only residents have the knowhow of. Intimate places where time goes slow, where the rustic cedar-shingled buildings huddle together and where you can land up time after time.

When we reached this charming cluster of buildings on the Bothell-Everett highway, it felt like we had fallen through a hole into an oasis of quiet. Inside the parking lot, we had to halt. Duck and duckling crossing time. I hopped off the car and crept after them. But you know how animals are bloody nimble. Fluffy little balls on the tiniest of feet sped into the stream trickling by. All along the vigilant senior sounded out a series of alarmed quacks.

There is that much quacking one can take, so I headed for the stores, only to be confronted this time by a mighty fine specimen of a rooster. This fellow gave me the once-over, turned his head away in condescension, and after a few minutes of ignoring me, did an about-turn showing me his feathery behind, and stomped off. The huff was inaudible but palpable.

With the aim of giving all rude fowl a wide berth — just not possible in Country Village — I walked past the duck pond. Plump ducks in pairs squatted and quacked, others waddled around a pond upon which dwarf trees with white blossoms leaned in, as if to skim its surface. The stores themselves gave me heartache because we had sworn off buying more junk than we can stow away. A paraphernalia of quaint objects confronted me. Pretty teapots, silverware and coffee grinders that must have been handed down generations till they landed in the store, books autographed by actresses from the ’20s, sepia-tinted photographs of families from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, glassware that had seen better days, and shabby dolls that stared back at me with vacant eyes, promising Chucky-style terror.

It is  staggering to see the variety of things that line the shelves of these stores, things that you would never have known existed but in a few seconds you nod wisely about their practicality in the scheme of things, and things that could be yours. That day I looked temptation in the eye and the win was mine. The only thing I succumbed to from the till of a store — where little girls host their birthday parties with spa and beauty treatments — were chunky oat cranberry cookies that dissolved into my mouth, doubly laden with the pleasures of coconut and butter. The on-dit is that it has been sold to townhouse developers, so who knows if I shall see County Village again? So I leave you with a few images from this endearing place near Seattle and hope against hope that it shall not be a heap of stony rubbish some day.

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Upon the Snow-Laden Slopes of the North Cascades

The loveliness of the Pacific Northwest enveloped us from the moment we passed through deep forests of evergreens, beneath rows and rows of firs, cedars and hemlock. Through their thick outgrowths of needles, sunlight filtered in to rest awhile upon branches coated with moss which bathed in the glorious sunshine, seemed to have a life of its own. The forests looked like they have been around for a long, long time. Scattered log cabins showed up, framed poetically by all those evergreens and the snow-covered peaks of the Cascades. The Nooksack River popped up in places and it flowed gently gathering creeks along the way. Who knows if the Nooksack tribes still live around it, hunting and fishing, and generally, living off the land.

There is irony in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, for the tectonic forces that have given birth to it, can reduce it to rubble. The region is edged by the Ring of Fire, a belt of volcanically and seismically active sites. All those mountains that rear their heads majestically — Rainier, Adams, Baker, St. Helens and Glacier Peak — they are actually active volcanoes. It never ceases to amaze me that nature holds such great power over our miniscule lives. That a thing of beauty is not a joy for forever. One day it shall pass into nothingness.

Farms and ranches, horses and vast tracts of land rolled by, with hardly a human being in our field of vision for miles, till we stopped at a local brewery for lunch and pints of chilled beer. There the fortune cookie revealed that in my stars was a road trip. What are the chances?

When we got back on the road, the scene started changing slowly at first, patches of snow peppering the woods. Then we were passing through walls of snow, out of which road signs stood out as if to declare proudly that they had held on despite the barrage of snow. Here there were only dark evergreens standing stark against the thick cover of snow on the mountains. Mount Shuksan stood dramatically in front of us, dots of skiers to be seen along its slopes. And there was this world of beautiful silence to be inhaled at that moment, the roads ribboning below us into swathes of evergreens.

The plan was to drive high up into the meadows, right up to Mount Baker, but the road was closed with this fresh onslaught of snow. Instead, surrounded by mountains with tickling names of the likes of Triumph, Despair, Fury, and Terror (evocative of the emotions of climbers who would have scaled them, I would imagine, but then I am wrong because the surveyor who had named them had not climbed these bad boys), we trudged up snowy hills clad in pristine snow, so thick that it was powdery on top, and in places where I sank into waist-deep snow, the indents revealed an icy-blue base.

I can report that there were snowball fights thrown into the mix, dodging and hurriedly hurling clumps of snow, training our cameras on all that beauty. And there was the intense urge to lie flat on the snow, to just stare for hours at the blue skies above our heads and the white, white world around us, as skiers and snowboarders swished past us, leaving criss-crossing trails in their wake.

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Scenes from around the Mt. Baker Highway 

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Farms and ranches along Mt. Baker Highway

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The brewery where they brew beers in small batches. They are delicious, so I vouch.

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Catching the sun on a wonderful spring noon

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Roads that wind through thick forests of deciduous and evergreen trees

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Around the creek are snowshoeing routes running alongside the Nooksack River

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Mount Shuksan

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Glaciated mountains around Mount Shuksan

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Chalets in the Mount Baker ski area

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Spring in Seattle

It is May already and I wonder what it shall bring, but in the last sunny week of April, we were whirling around Seattle. It was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday and the family had decided to get together at my sister-in-law’s who lives in a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the city. It was a merry gang of 8 and there was enough feasting to last us a month. I have to confess that Adi and I have returned home with food tucked into our waistlines. The sister-in-law is a great cook just like her mother and it was a pleasure to do justice to her efforts in the kitchen. Plus there was all the wonderful eating out.

We gorged on juicy chicken wings at Wing Dome which does a bang-up job including smothering its 7 Alarm Wings in heavy-duty sauce. There’s enough of it. So much so that the wings are incidental to the sauce.

Now the 7 alarm is a serious challenge. Worthy individuals have admitted defeat. That would include Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food. Imagine the hottest dish you have had and triple it — and you have this shattering sauce that sets your nerves on fire. The crackling in this affair is that they refuse you tissues to dab your runny nose nose or burning lips. Who said it was pretty? Then there is no beverage to accompany this challenge of stripping meat off 7 wings within 7 minutes, if you are up for fame upon its Wall of Flame.

The Wing Dome is kind though. It advises you to order a recovery kit before you start on this path of intense adventure. Expect two glasses of ice-cold milk and an ice cream sandwich to feel anywhere near human again.

Three years ago, we had visited Seattle from the UK. A time when I had short hair and the ability to handle nerve-wracking hot food. The niece had insisted that we take part in the 7 Alarm challenge. With no time at hand, we had to relegate it to our next trip. What broke me on that particular trip was a certain sauce in Leavenworth. Naturally, I am a cautious creature today.

This time, Adi, his sister and I, each ordered one 7 Alarm wing. The brother-in-law refused to be party to this brand of gastronomic self-flagellation. I threw up my hands halfway through that one wing and was tearing up, hyperventilating, while Adi and his sister finished it. And then began their tears.

The rest of the holiday was spent mooching around decor boutiques and antique shops in Snohomish which were exquisite and we had to garner all the self-control we could to not lay our greedy hands on just about everything; celebrating the mother-in-law’s birthday at a beautiful restaurant on the Puget Sound, along with an early barbecue supper; laying her hands on some exquisite Beecher’s handmade cheese; catching up with old friends and listening to smoky jazz in charming eateries; ooh-ing and aah-ing over cakes and mousses from Taiwanese bakeries (and making a mental note to never scoff again at the likes of them); and stalking neighbouring dogs.

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The family catching up at the sister-in-law’s tastefully done-up home

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Pink azaleas and us


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Violet azaleas

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Spring glory on the roads

And some cherry blossoms, please

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Noshing at The Pink Door in an alley off Pike Place Market 

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Browsing stores in Snohomish

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This beauty of a lamp now graces my sister-in-law’s home

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A caramel coffee brûlée that had me heart and soul at 85°C, the Taiwanese bakery 

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Chocolate bomb at the Taiwanese bakery

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Shaky shot at Wing Dome. Blame the 7 Alarm Wings!

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Oden the Mighty