Strategy for visiting attractions in Washington DC

The main attractions in DC are all clustered around the National Mall. Perhaps there are buses that allow you to hop on and off the attractions, I’m not sure, but otherwise, you’re in for an exhausting workout on foot. While we were there, the scorching sun made things infinitely worse. It takes more than 45 minutes to walk from the museums to the White House and to the Lincoln memorial, which is pretty much one end to the other end. Furthermore, you’ll be walking about in some of the museums and that adds a lot of walking distance. If you’re planning on spending time in the museums, it makes sense to allocate an entire day just for the museums. Otherwise, with very young kids like we did who cannot appreciate museum exhibits, it is sufficient to just take a quick look at two museums, and complete the rest of the tour of the National Mall within half a day. Though tiring, it is better to get it over with quickly than having to return to see more of less the same sights.

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The Air and Space museum has many exhibits of historical importance. The size alone makes them appealing to anyone.

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The eagle moon lander.

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The Natural History museum is famous for its collection of gem stones including the hope diamond.

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An event was being held at the White House.

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The Lincoln memorial.

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The reflection pool.

If you still have any energy left after walking to the Lincoln Memorial, you can venture another half an hour to the fish market to get some seafood. This is where locals go for seafood. There is only one stall that offers seating though.

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This was my first time trying freshly shucked oysters. It came with a little seawater and sand and maybe mud, but it was delicious! You can also find crab legs, mini lobsters, clam chowder etc. They were good.

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The Arlington National Cemetery is also near the National Mall. Unlike the National Mall for which car parking could be a hassle, you can park inside the Arlington National Cemetery. Two hours is about enough for walking about and visiting the sights.

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There are two main sights at the Arlington National Cemetery – the JFK gravesite, where there is an eternal flame, and the Tomb of the Unknown.

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JFK gravesite

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The half hourly, very elaborate change of guard ceremony at the Tomb to the Unknown. The Tomb is guarded at all times.

USA West Coast

Probably all tours to the west coast of the USA will include San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon in the itinerary. The typical must-sees are found in these places and they are within reasonable reach of each other by car. My trip starts with San Francisco.

wpid-wp-1433600551307.jpgThe Golden Gate Bridge is the main attraction.

wpid-wp-1433600544943.jpgLocated along the way to the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts.

wpid-wp-1433600538007.jpgPier 39 is good for watching sea lions.

Most people should know about outlet shopping in the US. Gilroy is an outlet along the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It has one of the very few Abercrombie and Fitch outlet stores. There are plenty of outlets in the west coast. In Los Angeles, Citadel Outlets is the one to visit.

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A queue forms outside the Kate Spade shop.

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Coach offers 50% discount. The same discount was also offered at their Las Vegas outlet store. Could be a permanent marketing strategy and it works.

wpid-wp-1433600517162.jpgThe Grove is a shopping mall in Los Angeles with a nice ambiance, worth a visit if you have the time.

wpid-wp-1433598252017.jpgHollywood is famous for its walk of fame. Visit at night to see the glitzy lighting.

wpid-wp-1433598079078.jpgDisneyland is one of the few theme parks in Los Angeles worth visiting even if you are not traveling with kids. The night time parade, fireworks and lights show is bound to leave you wowed.

wpid-wp-1433598135031.jpgA jubilant mood on the main street after the show.

wpid-wp-1433600491196.jpgNow that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, they have added a Star Wars attraction – the Jedi Training Academy. Kids love it.

wpid-wp-1433566679419.jpgLas Vegas is the next logical stop after LA. Las Vegas is famous for gambling (of course), shows and food (specifically buffets). The fountain in front of Bellagio is not to be missed.

wpid-wp-1433597050124.jpgBased on reviews I went to the Bacchanal buffet at Caesars Palace. It was the best buffet I have been to (granted I don’t normally go to expensive buffets). At USD57 per pax it was very good value. Service was impeccable. The food was almost made to order. The Alaskan King Crab legs are a favourite item among diners. I was most impressed that the Chinese section tasted authentic Hong Kong style (I’m sure they hired a Hong Kong chef).

wpid-wp-1433598059265.jpgDo get there early (6pm) if you intend to dine at Bacchanal. Once the tables are fully occupied, you will have to queue. As you can imagine, people take their time to enjoy a buffet, so it will be a long wait.

wpid-wp-1433600509680.jpgAfter the filling dinner it helps to do a bit of strolling along the strip. You might want to check out the original Venetian Canal Shoppes.

wpid-wp-1433600459302.jpgLas Vegas offers a chance to catch up on outlet shopping if you have not been fully satiated on previous attempts. Pictured above is the Las Vegas Premium Outlets North.

wpid-wp-1433566668096.jpgOn the way to the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam is a popular stop. Not very interesting in my opinion.

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Degadillo’s Snow Cap is a much more interesting stop, and the food is actually not bad. They close at 6pm, so it would be a nice tea break or early dinner stop.

wpid-wp-1433600482923.jpgThe Grand Canyon. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking. I took on the recommendation to hike some way down the canyon and it truly offers a nicer perspective on the canyons.

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wpid-wp-1433566633646.jpgIf you’re fortunate you might see an Elk.

Matsumoto

Matsumoto is not typically in the itinerary of most people. I went there due to Matsumoto Castle being recommended as the other best castle to visit other than Himeji. The castle was pretty indeed, was quite small and bare inside but nevertheless pleasant. In fact, Matsumoto town itself was more pleasant than Himeji.

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Apparently they have the frog as their mascot.

There are two specialty food in Matsumoto – soba and horse meat. That’s right, horse meat. Specifically, horse meat sashimi. The soba was the best I’ve had. This was at Sasaki Soba.

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Unfortunately they didn’t offer the horse meat on the day I visited. Was feeling relieved I didn’t have to try it.

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This was beer from a nearby town. Awesome.
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Simply cannot skip sake for every meal

There are a few scenic towns and sights in the Japanese Alps. You can visit them along with Matsumoto. I will certainly come to this region again.

Hiroshima and Miyajima

Hiroshima and Miyajima are about an hour from each other, so if one of them is in your itinererary, the other should be too. If you have the JR Pass, it costs you nothing additional to travel between them. Half a day is about enough to cover the main sights in Hiroshima and Miyajima, i.e. the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima and the Itsukushima Shrine with its great Torii gate, in Miyajima. These are UNESCO heritage sights.
wpid-wp-1432676883225.jpgThe Atomic Bomb Dome as viewed from the monument in the Memorial Park.

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The Torii Gate at Miyajima.
wpid-wp-1432676895379.jpgItsukushima Shrine.

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Okonomiyaki is the specialty food you will find all over Hiroshima. It does take quite a bit of effort to assemble and tastes good too. Not to be missed while in Hiroshima.

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The specialty food in Miyajima are oysters. The oysters have very thick flesh, very different from what is typically available in Singapore. Cbeck out the restaurant 牡蠣屋.

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I read about recommendations (from tabelog.com) on the restaurant specializing in eels in Miyajima – うえの. This restaurant is very near the train station. In order to satisfy my craving for both the oyster and the eel, i bought the eel bento (which was not cheap, at more than 1700 yen). The bento was fantastic. The eel was like nothing i have tasted before. The textue is not the typical mushy type, and the taste was not the typical “drowned in teriyaki sauce” kind. If you want to taste eel like you have never before, go here. At least grab the bento.

Osaka, Nara, Himeji

This post is more than one week overdue. So I found out that in practice it’s difficult to blog while traveling. Anyway, if Osaka is in your travel itinerary, you might want to visit Nara and Himeji as well since they are only about an hour away from Osaka.

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The Osaka castle is a popular attraction. You will probably see bus loads of tourists there like I did. I took some photos and went off.

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If you go to the Nanba area (I stayed there), then you should make it a point to try the Rikuro cheesecake, which was awesome moist and fluffy. They always sell it fresh off the oven and it sets you back by only 648 yen which is unbelievable value for money.

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Many travelers from Singapore visit Taiwan and Hong Kong for their night markets, but have you wondered where the Taiwanese and Hong Kongers go? That’s right, it’s Japan. The Dotonbori is simply the best night shopping district I have been, with never ending lit covered streets, each with a different design. It is bound to impress.

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Various cuts of the Matsusaka beer are labeled in English when served

The food i was most keen on trying in Japan is beef, and the best beef in Japan is none other than the Matsusaka. Through Tripadvisor i found this restaurant in Osaka that offers a decent price for sampling Matsusaka beef – Yakiniku M. You do have to make advance reservations, make sure you do that way before your trip to avoid disappointment. I can say this was an eye (or rather tongue) opening experience.

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Grilling in progress
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The main attraction in Nara is the close encounter with deers
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Nara Park is quite nice – probably man-made, yet looks so natural
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Deer chewing on a map from the back pocket of a visitor
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The Himeji Castle is quite a sight to behold

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Japanese castles are not large in size and do not have intricate details, both for the exterior and interior, as compared to European castles. Still, the architecture is nothing short of beautiful.

Kyoto in 1.5 days

Many itineraries are possible in Kyoto. Here’s what i have chosen to do in 1.5 days. This itinerary is a scaled down version of japan-guide’s Eastern Kyoto Full Day itinerary, and i had to skip a few stops, as my original itinerary was still overly ambitious. There were a lot of slopes to tackle, which turned out to be quite challenging for us as we were carrying 2 kids.

Day 1 – Arrival at Narita in the morning. Take Shinkansen to Kyoto. Check in to guesthouse. Head to Fushimi Inari. Dessert at 中村藤吉 which is at Kyoto Station. Check out the shopping mall at Kyoto Station (Isetan). Dinner at 太郎屋.

Day 2 – Get the one day bus pass. Most of the tourist attractions are actually accessible only by bus. Take bus to Ginkakuji. Walk along Philosopher’s path. Take bus to get lunch at Gion Doraemon (祇園えもん). Take bus down to Kiyomizudera (requires some climbing). Tea break. Take bus back to Gion Hanamikoji. Gion Shirakawa is a short walking distance away. Walk to the Pontocho area for dinner, at Hiro‘s. Bus to Shijidori, the main shopping street.

Fushimi Inari is famous for its Torii gates.

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Nice photographic opportunities here, easy access via the JR Nara line.

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Glimpse into the driver’s seat on the vintage train that still serves Kyoto – Nara.

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中村藤吉 offers nice green tea flavoured desserts. Its location at Kyoto station makes it an easy tea time stop. Expect to queue for a while.

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Sample Kyoto style Obanzai at 太郎屋.

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Ginkakuji has a nice zen style garden.

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The philosopher’s path is just beside the Ginkakuji, making them a compelling combo attraction in Kyoto.
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Kiyomizudera is packed with tourists, but it is still worth a look despite having to jostle a bit.

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I learned that the Japanese love to have a tree sticking out from the front facade of their homes, and it really does look pretty. Here’s an example from the Gion Hanamikoji area.

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The Gion Shirakawa area is like the Japanese version of Venice.

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Locals and foreigners alike love basking on the sidewalk of the Kamo river, and it is very pleasant indeed.

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Patio dining at the Pontocho area overlooking the Kamo river is popular and probably requires advanced reservations.

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Not to be missed in Japan.. Wagyu beef.

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The main shopping street is along Shijidori.

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The Japanese are so polite.

How to find food for your trip

foodresearch

For me, and, i suspect, for many people, food is a very important part of travelling. Many will wander weary miles just to satisfy their taste buds, myself no less. In fact, to me, the food part has an equal weight to the rest of the sightseeing experience, so i spare no effort to make sure that every meal on a trip will be good, and i mean EVERY meal (other than breakfast provided by the hotel). That means i will do prior research on where and even what i will have for my meals. Since I started doing this, my trips have become much more satisfying than those times when I left everything to chance. The best restaurant may be right under your nose without your knowing it and what a pity that would be.

What i think most people will do is to check TripAdvisor. I do too, though it’s not always the most reliable source for food reviews. I think the best reviews are those by the locals themselves, which is usually not the case on TripAdvisor (sorry to say this but I would trust a review on, say, Japanese food by an Asian more than I would someone from the western world). The results on TripAdvisor are often skewed in favour of restaurants nearer to tourist attractions and those that have an English menu. So, in addition to referencing TripAdvisor, I would go on to check if there are native food review websites.

In the case of Japan (where I’m going very soon), I found tabelog.com, which basically made TripAdvisor redundant. The restaurants recommended on TripAdvisor were not always as highly rated, according to the Japanese reviewers on tabelog.com. Also, there are many more restaurants reviewed, and the store information available is much more comprehensive and accurate (especially the name of the restaurant in Japanese characters which you may need for identifying the restaurant, and the pinpoint location on a map). The entire website is in Japanese of course, but with Google translate, there is no problem for anyone to be able to understand.

For North America, I found yelp to be useful. For Australia and New Zealand, urbanspoon did the job. For Singapore, hungrygowhere is the go to website. Often times, blogs provide the best information on where to find good food. For Hong Kong, I basically followed the recommendation of a single blogger and it worked well. Ultimately, you should base your decision on multiple sources and don’t just count on TripAdvisor.

By the way, if you’re curious about the food in the photos above, in clockwise direction from the top left:

  • Goose liver at Erhardt, Szeged, Hungary
  • Tapas (grilled cheese and mushroom that tasted heavenly) at El Majuelo, Salamanca, Spain
  • Beef steak at Dom Beisl (one star Michelin), Vienna, Austria
  • Seafood casserole (with rice at the bottom, very tasty and filling) at Restaurante Regional de Sintra, Portugal

Amazon product recommendation – Mason jar food sealer

masonjar

Ball Mason Jars are canning jars, intended for home canning of food. To do that, the traditional method was to heat the jar and allowing it to cool. Due to steam escaping from the jar, a vacuum is created when it cools down and this keeps the lid tightly sealed over the jar. The removal of air and thus oxygen in the jar prevents mold and some bacteria (which causes food to spoil) to live, allowing the food to last longer.

jarsealerziplockstarterkit

There is now an easier way to remove air from the jar. The FoodSaver Wide-Mouth Jar Sealer is an attachment that fits on top of the Mason Jars. It is a simple device that allows you to suck air out of the jar, and you don’t actually have to use the FoodSaver System (quite costly) to do that. I learned this from Salad in a Jar. You just need to get the Ziploc Vacuum Starter Kit.

foodmasonjar

I use the jars to store salad (keeps it fresh for a week instead of lasting just 2 days), honey lemon preserve (vacuum optional), sliced ham, evaporated filled milk, sauces, coffee beans and so on. They are almost infinitely reusable and will save you a lot of money in the long run.

I cannot understand why retailers don’t bring in Mason Jars to sell at mass market prices. A quick check on the internet shows that online sellers generally sell each Mason Jar at S$8! That is A LOT more expensive than the price on Amazon (US$17.90 for 12 jars which is only about S$2 per jar). Unfortunately Amazon no longer offers the free shipping to Singapore on this item. Thank goodness i managed to get the free shipping, but the 12 jars i have are barely enough to go around now. You still do get free shipping with the Jar Sealer and Ziplock Vacuum Starter Kit. By the way, the Mason Jars come in regular and wide-mouth versions. Get the wide-mouth version, which obviously has a wider mouth that makes filling or removing food from the jar easier.

Update 25/3/2016: i recommend getting this suction pump from Taobao instead of the Ziploc Vacuum Starter Kit.

Here are the links for your convenience:
Wide-Mouth Mason Jars

Wide Mouth Jar Sealer

Ziplock Vacuum Starter Kit

iHerb product recommendation – flour and baking needs

Believe it or not, i often ship flour from iHerb.com. They carry flour mostly from 3 brands – King Arthur Flour, Bob’s Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills. If you’re into baking, you would have come across the acronym KAF when you browse forums on baking. After a while you’d realize that KAF stands for King Arthur Flour, a highly regarded brand for flour. Naturally, you pay a premium for this branded flour, and unfortunately iHerb only offers the much-more-expensive organic variant (US$9.20 per 5 pound/2.27kg bag). The Market Place supermarket, and sometimes Cold Storage sells the non-organic 5 pound bag of Unbleached flour at S$10.30, so if you swear by KAF, the Market Place supermarket is your best bet (just for comparison sake, it’s only US$3.98 ~S$5.45 on Walmart).

BobsAP

Any self-respecting baker will recommend the use of unbleached flour. While i can’t confirm this, i presume that most, if not all the local branded non-organic flour are chemically bleached (since they do not state otherwise) Update: they now label their flour as unbleached. If you care about eating non-chemically treated flour, you could, again, buy from the Market Place/Cold Storage supermarket, or iHerb. The Market Place/Cold Storage sells Pillsbury Best (from USA) Unbleached All-Purpose (S$7.40 S$8.05 for 5 pounds) and Waitrose branded (from UK) range of flour. Update 4/3/2016: Fairprice Xtra or Finest also sell Pillsbury Best Unbleached, for only S$7.20. On the other hand, the cheapest unbleached All-Purpose flour on iHerb is this one – Bob’s Red Mill Unbleached All-Purpose White Flour (US$5.64 ~S$7.75 for 5 pounds). These unbleached flour are just slightly more expensive than the local branded flour, definitely recommended.

iHerb offers a very extensive range of Bob’s Red Mill products. While they are also sold at Cold Storage, iHerb’s is probably more comprehensive. You can have fun trying them out – whole wheat pastry flour, kamut, spelt, flax seed meal etc.

buttermilk walnutoil shortening

Other items you might be interested to get from iHerb for baking are buttermilk powder (saves you a lot of hassle from having to buy the fresh ones from the supermarket which you may not be able to use up each time), oilshortening (don’t use Crisco!), vital wheat gluten and baking powder (i find that the local brand Bake King Baking Powder has a tart taste, and more importantly, it does not state that it contains no aluminium, which poses a health risk).

Update: it appears iHerb may not ship Bob’s Red Mill’s unbleached all purpose flour anymore. It is forever out of stock, but when you check the stock availability with your location set to the US, you will discover that it is available. I suspect it is due to exclusive distributorship agreements, whereby iHerb is no longer allowed to ship to Singapore. Anyway, since unbleached all purpose flour is now readily available from local supermarkets, and the price is reasonable, there is no need to buy from iHerb.

Update 24/3/2016: I managed to ship Bob’s Red Mill’s unbleached all purpose flour from iHerb again. I find that it smells and taste better than the Pillsbury flour sold in local supermarkets, which is also imported from the US.

Update 16/8/2016: I think my shipment of Bob’s Red Mill’s unbleached all purpose flour in July was the very last one. iHerb has discontinued the product, as well as most other flour products for Singapore customers.

Update 2 Mar 2017: My current favourite flour is CJ Beksul, which is sold for S$2.10 per 1kg at NTUC Fairprice. I have no idea whether it is unbleached, but it tastes pretty good to me and is actually cheaper than those local branded flour. Anyway, here’s an interesting experiment on comparing KAF and Beksul.

CJ Beksul

Check out iHerb.com now for more products you will be using from day to day.

iHerb product recommendation – spices and foodstuff

If you’re ordering stuff on iHerb.com and have spare capacity for the shipment (up to 6.3kg), you might want to consider getting herbs and seasoning. There are plenty for you to choose from. Even if you don’t have anything in mind to get, you could try searching for the best rated or best selling herbs to see if anything piques your interest. That was how i ended up getting the Drogheria & Alimentari Organic Provence Herbs Mill which is made up of some of the commonly used herbs in French and Italian cooking. It works great in pasta. The pricing on iHerb is competitive (or cheaper in some cases) with what is found in local supermarkets, so if you want to try products from a different brand than those commonly found here, you can do so through iHerb.

A sample of other herbs i have gotten from iHerb:

chives
Frontier Natural Chopped Chives US$3.87 (4g), tastes close to fresh chives, handy and probably a lot cheaper to have it in dried form.

nutmeg

Drogheria & Alimentari Nutmeg Mill US$3.29 (40g), cheaper than what is found in the supermarket. Going to try making steak marinade with this.

taco

Frontier Natural Taco Seasoning, Salt-Free Blend US$2.93 (66g), for a Mexican/Spanish taste occasionally.

If you’re a health freak (i’m somewhat one), try Himalayan Pink Salt. The pricing on iHerb doesn’t compare favourably with what you find on Amazon (still within reasonable range though), but Amazon doesn’t ship Himalayan Pink Salt to Singapore, so iHerb is still your best bet (definitely cheaper than what’s available in Singapore). The best value Himalayan Pink Salt are Aloha Bay Himalayan Crystal Salt, Coarse US$5.90 (510g), which requires the use of a salt mill, and Fun Fresh Foods Himalayan Pink Sea Salt US$10.70 (909g) which comes in fine crystal form.

alohabayhimalayan funfreshhimalayan

Or try Celtic Sea Salt, which is “Doctor Recommended Since 1976”. I buy the ‘Light Grey Celtic’ version which is coarse and i grind it directly onto food for seasoning. You do have to bake the crystals to dry it before use because it comes in a slightly moist form.

celticseasalt

The other food product i recommend getting is Y.S. Eco Bee Farms Raw Honey US$17.86 (1.36kg). This is an organic, true raw honey. It isn’t the best honey available out there, but it is probably the best value. It is super thick and creamy, doesn’t smell nor taste so good on its own actually, but great when made into a drink, with lemon for example. Once you’ve gotten used to this you may not want to go back to those processed and watery honey.

rawhoney

These are just a small sample of herbs and foodstuff on iHerb. Check out iHerb.com now for more products you will be using from day to day.