A tribute to filter coffee

Filter coffee barely contains cafestol and therefore doesn't influence cholesterol levels

I used to swear by good strong Italian coffee. Not a morning went by that I didn’t put my Bialetti on and impatiently waited for the divine black juice to come out. Heat up a little home-made almond milk, froth it and enjoy another awesome almond milk cappuccino.

A cappuccino with latte art

But lately my mokas (cause I have quite a few) are standing around collecting dust and a new, small coffee machine for filter coffee has appeared in my kitchen.

Why did I go back to drinking filter coffee? Three important reasons:

  • Filter coffee contains more caffeine than espresso or coffee from a moka, at least per standard unit. At the same time I have the feeling that the caffeine in filter coffee gives me a more gradual stimulant feeling than the caffeine in espresso, which tends to give me more of a rush. It seems that the higher concentration of caffeine in espresso causes it to be absorbed into the bloodstream faster.
  • I feel that I can enjoy my filter coffee more because it comes in a larger size and takes longer to drink than an espresso or even a cappuccino. I’m really enjoying my big cup of black joy in the morning. My new coffee machine causes a wonderful smell of coffee to spread through the whole house and the sound of the machine making coffee takes me back to my childhood.
  • For my health.
Fresh coffee from a moka

Why is filter coffee healthier than Italian coffee?
It’s a fact that coffee is good for your health. A large amount of studies have shown that coffee can improve health by lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, strokes and possibly even Alzheimer’s.

One dangerous component of coffee, however, is cafestol. Cafestol increases the amount of harmful cholesterol in the bloodstream. Cafestol is therefore linked to a higher risk of heart disease.

The highest quantities of cafestol are found in unfiltered coffee like Turkish coffee, French press and also to some extend in coffee from moka pots. Filter coffee barely contains cafestol because this is filtered out in the process. This makes filter coffee healthier than espresso.

Cafestol stays behind in the filter

Time to dump your Italian moka or espresso machine in the garbage bin? Well, no…. A good cappuccino from time to time won’t hurt at all. Especially when it makes our hearts beat a little faster…

Living sugar-free in Southeast Asia

The quest for minimizing sugar in countries which are full of it

After a couple of months in Asia and a couple of cooking classes I can now truly say that eating completely sugar-free in Asia is an impossible mission. If I were to stick to my diet here for the full 100%, I probably wouldn’t be able to eat anything but bananas and peanuts.

Forget about whole-grain, fiber or low-carbing: refined rice or rice noodles are at the basis of most cuisines in Southeast Asia. Besides that, I’ve learned that most dishes, even the ones you wouldn’t expect it from, contain a couple of spoons full of sugar.

Of course I’m trying to follow my sugar-free diet as well as I can. I’ve resigned to eating white rice and sometimes white bread, but I stay away from overly sweet dishes and desserts – in any case after having lived sugar-free for 5 years, I am usually not able to eat anything quite so sweet anyway.

But what I’ve learned having eaten out twice a day for a couple of months and having done a cooking class in Thailand and in Cambodia, is that even most non-sweet main dishes, like Pad Thai, curry, (noodle) soups and fried vegetables usually contain (heaps of) added sugar.

An explanation of the three dishes we would prepare during the cooking class and their ingredients. Sugar plays a role in all of them.

Especially the Thai love their sugar. During my first cooking class in Thailand we prepared the famous Pad Thai, a red massaman curry and a cinnamon soup. Of the Pad Thai I knew it was rather sweet, but I didn’t quite realize it contained that much sugar. Pad Thai generally contains at least 4 different types of sugar from different sources. It is often made with a sweetend chili sauce (or: spicy liquid sugar), sweet soy sauce, sweetened fish sauce (or: fishy liquid sugar), and 3-4 tablespoons of pure sugar. The result is a sticky, sweet bunch of noodles with some spring onion and peanut on top. I would personally call it more a desert than a main dish.

Cooking up some food

The massaman curry also contained 1-2 tablespoons of sugar and a sweetened curry paste. With the cinnamon soup it was unfortunately the same story. If you want to make your own massaman curry by the way, it is easy enough to find excellent sugar-free curry paste online. The people at Leena Spices make a high-class and 100% natural massaman curry powder.

Curries are still your best bet for eating healthily in Asia. They generally contain only little sugar and many different vegetables.

In Laos and Cambodia the food is definitely less sweet than in Thailand. I was surprised to find, however, that even Cambodian food contains quite a bit of added sugar. During my Cambodian cooking class we prepared fish amok, a traditional Cambodian dish of steamed fish in coconut milk, green mango salad, fried spring rolls and a coconut dessert based on coconut milk, sugar and gelatin.

The dessert of course contained quite a bit of sugar, and because the teacher prepared it himself with us watching, I couldn’t secretly cheat on the amount of sugar in it. I tasted it afterwards and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as sweet as I had thought, and it was really quite tasty as it was sort of half-frozen. I’m already thinking how I can prepare my own version of it with agar agar and xylitol when I come back.

But even the filling of the spring rolls contained added sugar, the dressing for the green mango salad was largely composed of some kind of really sweet sauce and in the coconut milk for the fish amok we were also suppose to whisk in a bit of sugar.

Turning the springrolls…
The preparation of fresh coconut milk. Freshly grated coconut powder goes into the machine and is pressed so hard that the milk comes out.

The green mango salad and fish amok were also fantastic by the way. The green mango salad is basically a mix of sliced green unripe mango and sliced carrot. The fish for the amok is steamed and put in fresh coconut milk mixed with special amok paste and presented in a banana leaf. The coconut milk was the best I’d ever had: we had bought it on the market where they had freshly produced it for us by grating the inside of coconuts and pressing out the milk from the coconut meal.

I can’t wait to eat lots of whole-grain rice, whole-grain bread and salads with olive oil dressing once I get back home. But for now I stick to my diet as well as I can. There are of course a lot of ways to make sugar-free (or sugar-low) life in Asia a little easier. Stir-fried vegetables will generally be soaked in some sweet caramelized sauce, but just asking for the sauce to be left out or asking for boiled vegetables will generally work.

Making the amok paste

Smoothies will generally contain added sugar here, but you can always ask for a sugar-free smoothie. In the beginning I didn’t realize they normally use sweet milk (more sugar than milk, or: liquid white sugar), but after I realized that I usually ask for that to be left out as well. This will lead to the most amazing results. A lady in Cambodia made us a smoothie by blending a whole ripe juicy mango with a bit of ice. It must have been one of the most delicious smoothies I’ve ever had!

One of the most surprising things here is the coffee. We were really amazed to see that even though countries like Myanmar and Laos produce really good coffee, hotels and local coffee places will generally serve you a so-called 3-in-1 coffee, basically a mix of coffee, milk and sugar. A careful examination of the ingredient list of the 3-in-1 coffee revealed that it primarily contained sugar and fat, no real milk and only a little bit of coffee, often not even from Asia.

The best investment in healthy eating though comes from a $2 electric kettle we bought in Myanmar. After buying some other things like bowls, a cup, spoons, oatmeal and coffee, we now make our own porridge in our small portable kitchen with a “fresh” cup of black instant coffee. At least we can start the day fully sugar-free! I really recommend buying an electric travel kettle. You might have to pay a little more than $2 for it, but it will be well worth your money. There are even foldable travel kettles which will save you a lot of space.

The Thakhek motorbike loop

The stunning landscapes of the famous loop

3 days, 2 people and 1 motorbike: we have just completed the famous Thakhek motorbike loop and I must say it exceeded all my expectations. Bear in mind that that is coming from a person who is sometimes difficult to impress, even at the sight of endless natural beauty. Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors and enjoy spending time in nature like nothing else. But it’s not like watching the sunset from the umptieth viewpoint is likely to make my blood flow faster or touch me emotionally.

The Thakhek loop was different. Perhaps it was the adrenaline from driving this powerful vehicle on the dusty and often unpaved roads of the Laotian countryside, but there were just so many points on the route that gave me goose bumps and made the hairs on my arms stand up.

In Thakhek, we stayed at the Villa Thakhek. There is a motorbike rental (PokemonGo) on site, but we decided to walk 40 minutes to the center of Thakhek where we heard there should be two cheaper rental places. Unfortunately all of their motorbikes were rented out, so we walked back 40 minutes to our hotel to find all the motorbikes rented except one. So we had little choice but to take it.

In the end I must admit I was quite happy with PokemonGo. We paid a whopping 120.000 KIP (or 14,50 USD) per day for the motorbike (including two helmets), but we did get a fully automatic and powerful Honda 125cc for that money which had no trouble carrying us over the steeper parts of the route and showed no signs of any technical issues.

The owner also allowed us to deposit 1 million KIP or 120 USD instead of our passport when I told him my passport was at the Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane. A lie, of course, but I find that this lie usually works quite well in Laos where almost all of the rental places demand you leave your passport with them for the duration of your rental.

The first day took us to Thalang. The road was not very impressive but there were a couple of sights on the way, including two caves. Laos is quite typical in the sense that you will soon find yourself having to pay small amounts of money for the most ridiculous reasons. For example, most caves and waterfalls in Laos have an entree fee of anywhere between $0.50 and $5, which is sometimes used to help maintain the sight, but sometimes just seems to pass to the guy in the hammock hanging around all day collecting the fees. At the first cave, they had even invented a rule that my girlfriend had to wear a traditional Lao skirt in the cave, which she had to rent for 3000 KIP or $0.40.

The second day started with a 15 kilometer stretch back where we came from. I had slipped the day before on some stones besides the road and we realised in the evening that we had lost the spring that keeps in place the standard of the bike. So we drove back for a bit and found the spring along the road and fixed it back into place with the help of two lovely around-the-world-cyclists we met along the way (check out their blog here)!

The mystical lakes with trees growing out of them

Armed with the excitement of having fixed our motorbike by ourselves, the second day turned out to be absolutely fabulous. First, meandering through the mountains, we were surprised by several small pools of water with trees growing out of them, which looked like landscapes from another planet. Later, the road became ever more quiet, the Vietnamese and Thai trucks which had dominated the road on day one disappeared and the landscape surrounding the road changed to long stretches of red clay and sand bordered by tall rocky mountains.

Thaklek Loop Dirt Road
One of the typical red roads of the Thakhek loop

We decided to drive to the cool pool, on what was one of the most impressive roads I’ve ever seen, a long red stretch of sand with motorbikes going back and forth, leading to a mountain range which seemed to be appearing out of nothing. The cool pool itself was a beautiful, still, green-blue pool.

We finished our day by driving to Konglor Village where we quickly found a cheap guesthouse and met the two cyclists again who had helped us in the morning and took the shorter but much more difficult road to reach Konglor from the other side.

On the third day, we got up early to be at the famous Konglor Cave shortly after it opens at 7.30 am. I would really recommend anyone to go and see the Konglor Cave and especially early in the morning. Some people say it’s not worth visiting or nothing special, but for me it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. The Konglor Cave is about 7,5 km long and it’s very wide and high. A trip through the cave to the other side of the mountain takes about 45 minutes. The cave is completely dark as there seems to be no power in the village between 6 am and 6 pm. Our boat was the first one in on the day and I must say the drive through the cave was one of the first times in my life that I was just lost for words. The ancient Greeks apparently based their myth of their underworld on a cave, and going into the Konglor Cave I could see why: it is truly like entering into another world, void of light and sound (except for the loud motor of our boat).

The remainder of the loop was slightly disappointing, the viewpoint near the limestone peaks on route 8 towards route 13 being the absolute and beautiful highlight. The rest of route 8 was being repaved, the smell of warm and fresh tar continuously in our faces. Route 13 was perhaps even worse, and I spent the last 100 km going 60-70 km/h between trucks and other cars to make it back to Thakhek before 6pm, since we figured out the light on our bike didn’t work.

Limestone peaks from the viewpoint on route 8

Just before Thakhek we were stopped by the corrupt Lao police trying to make an extra couple of bucks off tourists doing the loop. It was easy enough to get out of that one though. He demanded 50000 KIP (6 USD) for not having an international drivers license and we pretended we only had 24500 KIP. He gave us back the 4500 KIP, put the 20000 in his pocket and told us next time this wouldn’t suffice!