Monday, November 10, 2008

The Beacons at Agra

When I saw the announcement for the new seven wonders of the world I thought to myself, only seven? We are surrounded by so many spectacular feats of architecture and history, how do you shortlist just seven? The Seven New Wonders - Christ the Redeemer, The Colosseum, Machu Pichu, Chichén Itzá, Petra, Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal. Of the seven, I've been to two and now I can say that I've added one more. When we planned our trip to India, we figured we would save the best for last. The Taj Mahal. One of the most photographed buildings in the world. I've seen it so many times in photos, on tv, in the movies that I feel like I've been there myself. And who could forget that picture of the late Princess Diana sitting on the marble stool looking delicate and forlorn against the white marble mausoleum. 

Words cannot begin to describe the feeling I got standing before the Taj Mahal

We woke up bright and early to visit the Taj. Our hotel is barely a minutes walk to the Eastern Gate of the Taj Mahal. To preserve the area, local authorities have banned a no-car zone 500m all around the perimeter of the Taj. It was quiet and the air felt moist. It now costs Rp750 to get in but they justify it by giving you a small bottle of water and paper covers for your shoes. Daylight was just breaking through as we queued to get in. I took a deep breath, fearing I would be underwhelmed by jaded old me.  And yet, as I looked at it for the first time, my mind went blank. It was everything and nothing that I had imagined. I hate to sound corny but the feeling I got can only be described as breathtaking. First of all, its huge. If the Taj was a symbol of Shah Jahan's love for Mumtaz Mahal, then he must have loved her ALOT! Talk about love having no measure. Sigh, its so deeply romantic. It was so serene despite the hordes of people. I'm glad we went during off-peak season and so early in the morning. We just sat at the steps and watched the sun spread its warmth over the marble mausoleum. 

After a couple of hours, the other beacon beckoned. The Oberoi Hotel. Last night when we arrived at our lodgings, the divas within screamed to be let out. Hotel Sheela is dirt cheap and provides pretty basic lodging. Plus the proximity to the Taj Mahal makes the price unbeatable. However, we were quite tired by this time and just wanted to be somewhere better, nicer. And it can't get any better and nicer than The Oberoi. It was calling out to us from the moment we arrived in Agra. We decided to go check it out, just for fun. From the moment we walked in we were filled with such a sense of relief. The rack rate was way over our budget but somehow Edwin managed to wrangle us a very good rate. Well, that one night costs more than the whole trip put together. Oh but it was worth every sen! Malaysian hotels could take a page out of their book. 
The Oberoi - view from the bar's balcony. Watching the classical Indian dance performance. Amazing! Whats more amazing are the DIVINE cookies they serve with coffee and tea. Oh my god, died-and-gone-to-heaven! Especially the dark chocolate cookies which were crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. 

Now this was service. Real service. The staff were always switched on. No "um"s or "ah"s to be heard. They were always around when you needed something yet they never hovered. Most of the time, they anticipated our needs and went above and beyond. The best part was, we really felt like they wanted to do it and not because they had to. How does one go back to mediocrity after this? Every room has a view of the Taj Mahal. You could just lie in bed and stare out the window all day. We had drinks on the balcony of the hotel bar and watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal. At the same time, there was also a classical Indian dance performance going on at the pavilion before us. Now this is the life.  

I've decided that this is the only way to truly enjoy the Taj Mahal and Agra, that is, extravagantly. Admiring the Taj Mahal through the floor to ceiling window of the luxurious standard room (yes imagine what the suites must be like) from the 750-thread count cotton sheets clad luxurious king sized bed in a bespoke hand block-printed cotton robe sipping a strong cup of Assam tea after a long hot soak in the mat salleh sized bath tub. We also had a phenomenal dinner at the fine dining Indian restaurant called Esphahan but I will have to post about it another time until I sort out my pictures. See note below.

Note - blogspot has been irritating me to no end! Grrrrr my pictures appear to be small even at the largest setting. And now I can't even post pictures. Or maybe I'm just technologically challenged. Er, help anyone? 

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Pink City

Jaipur: the famed Hawa Mahal

After a nights rest in Jodhpur at a beautiful albeit slightly neglected guesthouse called Dewi Bhavan, we continued our journey East to the pink city, otherwise known as Jaipur. I may not have heard much about Jaisalmer and Jodhpur before the trip but everyone knows about Jaipur. The romantic city tinted with pink, where one can buy the most beautiful gems and of course the gorgeous Hawa Mahal. Hawa Mahal is translated to Palace Of Winds (not of the gastrointestinal sort) and stands in the middle of old city looking down at one of many bazaars in Jaipur. Its a little tough writing about this place. To be honest, I was very underwhelmed. I've seen really amazing photographs and standing in front of it was a bit of a anti climax actually. When I got home to look at the photos, it looked amazing! I guess its just one very photogenic building. Don't get me wrong, it was very beautiful but it just wasn't what I expected at all. My favourite monument here was City Palace mainly for a beautiful courtyard that had doors representing the four seasons. They were intricate without being gaudy and the colours look as vivid as the bright saris of Rajasthani women.

Jaipur, from left to right: the beautiful and intricate doorways at Ridhi Sidhi Pol in City Palace. Four doors for four seasons. Ganesh against the gorgeous green shades representing Spring. I'm pretty sure the peacock represented Monsoon season but then I was too busy snapping shots to really pay attention to the audio guide.

Jantar Mantar was a blazing hot day and I regret not hiring the services of a guide. I couldn't really appreciate these gargantuas instruments of astronomy as I literally could not figure out the heads nor tails of these phenomenal structures. Superficially, they were also quite ugly as they've been painted over from their original sandstone colour. Nasty. The following day we made it to the Amber Fort. It was massive and again, mystifiying by the sheer scale. There are actually three forts but we only made it to the "newest" wing. We were a little tired by this time. I liked the crazy mirror inlays that created a glittery hall. There is a railing around the walls and you can't enter the main chamber anymore because people kept nicking mirrors off the wall. By this time all I really wanted to do was go shopping and drink chai. When we got back into the old town, we wandered around looking for gems and also the famous sweet shop called LMB. LMB stands for Lakshmi Mishthan Bhandar and it is quite an institution. Not only can you get a huge array of sweets to appease the most insatiable of sweet tooths, its also a hotel! Its an amazing double shot lot. The moment you walk in you are hit with the unmistakable scent of oil and sugar. Not the most unpleasant of smells. I'm not an expert on Indian sweets so I just picked a whole assortment of them. They were all so sweet, creamy and rich. These must be the only sweets that I can't eat a lot of.

Jaipur, from left to right: colourful canned goods and dried herbs and vegetables; bright disco-looking sweet shop; delicious treats from LMB - in my haste to buy all the goodies, I forgot to snap a picture of the shop!

Our hotel is a converted old manor called Diggi Palace. And palatial would be a good way to describe this old mansion with its sprawling lawns. It reeks of faded glamour and old money. The rooms are a little tired but I feel it just adds to the charm. In the mornings there are even pea hens strutting about. We spent two nights here and ate the best naans ever! They were always crisp and fresh. Whats the English translation for "soong" (loose) and "song how" (joyful mouth)? Well, that would be the best way to describe the delicious naans. The thalis were delicious too of course. The Diggi family lives in the adjoining building and we even got to see "Lord Diggi". We assumed him to be the lord of the manor as he has a distinguished air around him. Plus, people constantly flocked towards him. Diggi Jr was a friendly chap who came and came to join us for drinks one night. He shared with us two wonderful bits of information. One, where to buy the best cottons for a pittance. Two, a monument located nearby which turned out to be the highlight of my Jaipur experience.

Jaipur, from left to right: block printing is famous in Rajasthan; the slightly surreal Jantar Mantar; glittery mirrored hall at Amber Fort

Chand Baori is a 10th century stepped well located in the village of Abhaneri about 95kms from Jaipur and located off the road to Agra. It served as the local watering hole for the villagers as well as the Kings public swimming pool on hot acrid days. There are many stepped wells around and although they are not unique to Rajahstan, this one is quite spectacular. Imagine an inverted pyramid with multiple steps forming "V"s all way down. All 20 metres of it. I felt a little dizzy when I was standing at the edge. The sheer scale of it was amazing. As we sat in the shaded stone pavilion, I couldn't help but think "If I fell down, I would hit every step on the way and die a horrible death". Yes, it was just that and nothing deep and meaningful really.

p.s/ I forgot to mention that we stopped in Pushkar after we left Jodhpur. Not only were we conned into some faux spiritual blessing by the lake in a temple, we were also forced to "donate" X amount of money in "Euro, USD or Sterling" preferably. These people who called themselves Brahmins should be ashamed of themselves. We were just walking along and a stranger comes up and gives us flowers. Please do not accept them and walk away, quickly! We stupidly followed them to a temple by the lake and we were split up to do individual blessings because "your destiny is not mixed with others". Halfway through, they start asking how much I wanted to donate. After I told him Rp1000 he insisted that it wasn't enough and demanded for at least USD100. And after all that, at the end of it, they asked for more money to feed their families. Disgusting! If you are thinking about visiting Pushkar, don't waste your time. Its nothing but a hippy town thats full of tourists looking for an alternative Goa.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Raju And His Magical Kitchen - Jaisalmer Part Two

There was once a boy named Raju. He lived high up in the Himalayas and spent most of his days herding his flock of mountain goats. One day, while chasing a stray goat, he chanced upon a little hut. There was a wondrous smell floating all round the hut. It was exotic, familiar, sweet and spicy all at once. Raju was enchanted and he hurried into the hut. A little old lady was bent over the stove that was brimming with copper pots filled with exotic ingredients and the aroma made Raju dizzy with pleasure. "Ah, you have finally arrived my dear boy. I have waited for you for a very long time", the old lady chuckled. And that my friends, was how Raju came to acquire all the secrets of the magical kitchen.

Raju and his magical kitchen (the one in the white singlet)

It was sad to say goodbye to Mr Merchu, Osman and the camels but we were excited to continue our journey. Mahinder got us back to the fort in one piece. What a sweetheart. Ashvind greeted us at the guesthouse and we were ushered to our rooms for a much needed shower. Rafs and I got the "love den". Thats what we figured anyway because there were mirrors everywhere, and I mean everywhere. While we were lazing about in the room, little did we know that our friends already were up at the rooftop restaurant. Rafs and I got there just in time. Not long after we sat down, the thalis arrived. Oh. My. God. Was I dead? Had Balu sat on me last night? Surely this must be heaven. Long grain rice had been fried with ghee and cumin to make deliciously aromatic jeera rice. I could've eaten this alone. Well maybe with some soy sauce and fried egg. The dahl was creamy, chunky and moreish. Deep-fried vegetable pakoras were basted in thick tomato masala sauce and of course, stir-fried ker sangri. We had only tasted ker sangri once before at Ratan Vilas but I can safely say that this had to be what it should taste like. Words cannot do justice to the food that we ate at Desert Boy's rooftop restaurant. It was as if I had arrived home. It was to be the most delicious meal of the entire trip. We made friends with the kitchen crew (Puran, Raju and Sanjay) and they promised to give us a cooking lesson that night. 

Jaisalmer, left to right: weaving through the alleys within the fort; a "tourist tailor" - within 24 hours; the view from Chandu's rooftop 

Revived from the shower and fantastic meal, we set off to explore the sights around the fort. We didn't get very far. Weaving through the narrow alleys, we couldn't help but stop and enquire about the array of colour goodies on display. Next thing we knew, we were in the shop trying on stacks and stacks of clothing while sipping chai and chatting with the shopkeepers. They are all very friendly and seem genuinely interested in chatting. Time passes slowly in the desert so I guess everyone likes to sit down, drink chai and talk. I don't how many cups of chai we drank that day. I do know that we lost Dween quite early on and the three of us spent the next 4 hours enjoying the "sights" within the shops! Silk blouses for under RM30, cotton bias-cut dresses for RM25, camel leather bedroom slippers for around RM30... Is it any wonder we forgot all about the sights?! After that shopping frenzy, we had a quick drink at Chandu's. Chandu is Kamal's brother. Kamal is a shopkeeper that Ah Boo bought some block-print dies from. From what we gathered, the more successful shopkeepers usually have a relative operating another shop in the vicinity. Chandu sat with us on the roof and talked about his upcoming wedding. He showed us a picture of his fiance. Wot a babe! We congratulated him, told him he was a lucky man and off we went to attend our cooking lesson. Puran was very animated when we arrived because we were late. He even made Dween chop onions on our behalf! Rafs and I quickly sat ourselves in the kitchen and played close attention to the master. There were no measurements or descriptions, we just watched Raju weave his magic. From what I understand, there was pinch of almost every spice under the sun! Pinch of turmeric, chili, masala, coriander... Voila, dinner was served! Jeera rice with spicy lady's fingers, stir-fried gourd and creamy dahl. Of course, piping hot and delicious capati by capati master Sanjay. 

Jaisalmer, from left to right: thali from heaven; oh my gourd - I still don't know the name of this vegetable; Raju - he is quite shy, ah bless him!

When Rafs and I woke up the next morning, all we could think about was breakfast! Puran was aghast once again at how late we were. We had said 7:30am but we only arrived an hour later. He is a sweet man who fusses like an uncle would over his nieces. A few minutes later, our platters of puri bhaji arrived. Sweet, sweet puri! I was never fond of puri because they tend to be dripping in oil. This was perfectly crisp and dry (in the unoily sense). And the bhaji! I'm pretty sure I had died and gone to heaven. Oh, Rafs must have died too because she was there oohing and aahing with me over the mind blowing bhaji. I know, I would not have thought that I would ever describe bhaji as "mind blowing" but this clearly bowled me over. Rafs eyed my bowl greedily but all that was left that was half a puri. And only because I had ran out of bhaji. Sigh... It was the loveliest 10 minutes of our entire trip. Raju, oh Raju! We stretched the minutes at the lobby. None of us wanted to leave Jaisalmer. The people of Jaisalmer had us charmed. Finally, with much shuffling of feet, we hoisted our rapidly filling backpacks and went on our way.

NB: Rafs would like all of you to know that Raju belongs to her and they plan to marry soon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Balu, The Renegade Camel - Jaisalmer Part One

Jaisalmer, left to right: picking up supplies at the fort before heading out to the desert; woman with child at a traditional mud village where we encountered the cheekiest kids; fascinated by the hard working dung beetle who left a little present on my mattress

It was exciting to be in Jaisalmer. The road leading to this desert city was a never ending landscape of sand dotted with desert shrubs. When we finally arrived at the fort, Mr Singh dropped us off at the entrance as vehicle access within the fort is restricted. We took a mad but enjoyable ride by tuk-tuk up the narrow cobbled stone lanes. Our driver never slowed down nor did he stop blaring his horn. Somehow, we managed to not run anyone over, narrowly missing them by an inch. Once we dropped our bags off at Desert Boy Guesthouse, we set off with Mahinder on his Mahindra Jeep. I can only say that the entire experience was surreal. Mahinder was a real lad who liked blaring Bhangra music. We suspected he might have been a little high but turns out he just dances to his own beat quite naturally. We snapped pictures, we ate gulab jamun, we laughed and tried to "hum" along to the music, it felt like we were in a movie or very long video clip. We met several locals on the way. Farmer Whip demonstrated his cracking skills with his rather lethal looking whip. We met the sweetest children with the most beautiful and cheeky faces. As usual, they asked for pens. All of us were penless by the time we were done with Jaisalmer. So do remember to stock up on pens before heading over to Rajasthan.

About an hour later, we finally arrived at the base. Shortly after, we hear the unmistakable sound of bells and the camel procession arrived. I suddenly had second thoughts about the camel ride. They looked even taller than I had imagined. Even though their faces were cute and friendly as hell, I knew better than to judge a book by its cover or a camel by this hump. After Mr Merchu and his assistant saddled them up, we all picked a camel each. They all looked about the same when kneeling and mine looked placid enough. Oh no, when they all stood up, Dween funnily enough had the shortest one. Vertigo set in as we were given minimal instructions and Balu The Brute lurched forward. I felt precarious in the saddle, there was nothing to hold onto, I was officially freaking out. Do camels buck? Balu The Beast stomped his way in front and chose his own path, which was straight towards food. I could not for the life of me make the lug move. He was not even scared of Mr Merchu so what chance did I have? Once I made peace with that, Balu The Cutie and I got on quite well. He'd stop many times to eat and the rest would follow suit. He even raced towards a tree only to scratch his neck. Ah Balu, a camel of simple needs. Lots of food and a good scratch. As soon as we got near the camp site, they made a break for it. Balu got there first of course. Mahinder was already waiting there for us. 

Jaisalmer, from left to right: breathtaking sunrise; the watermelon that wasn't quite a watermelon - the best part of the fruit is where the seeds are and that has a texture of a watermelon but the taste of a honeydew. I threw away the seed bits as I assumed the best part was the pale green area. Duh; sweet Jettah - Rafs and I swapped camels as she wanted to ride the wild beast. Jettah was so graceful when he knelt, I barely moved.

I thought it would be like the sahara - endless sand dunes in a barren desert. The desert in Rajasthan is fertile. Our camp site was actually someone's farm. We met the children as they came running along quite soon after we arrived. They seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Once again, pens were requested. Dween parted with his gorgeous water bottle to the eldest of the four. This little boy walks for more than 10km to go to school everyday. When he comes home, its in the scorching heat. I made a vow to drive less and walk more when I got back to KL. We "set up" camp which involved lining up a couple of mattresses on the sand. Five minutes later, we were done and were able to enjoy the sun setting over the vast landscape before us. Rafs convinced us to lie down on the sand. It was an unbelievable feeling. The sand was warm, the sky was on the fringe of darkness and a deafening silence filled the air. It was a little eerie and overwhelming not to be able to hear my own breath. 

That night, Mahinder and Mr Merchu whipped up a mean dinner. Long grain rice, fresh chapati, dahl, vegetables and he even made dessert! I couldn't make out what it was but it tasted like sweet potato. Amazing! I mean, we were in the middle of the nowhere and all he had was a pen knife, some pots and fresh ingredients we had bought earlier. Chapati is staple in the north and its easy to make. After all, there we were sitting on the sand dunes enjoying piping hot roti. Mahinder made sure we had enough to eat. We had seconds and could've gone for thirds but we knew they weren't going to eat until we were done. I wish I had remembered to take a photo but alas, all was forgotten when hunger struck and the smell of food filled my senses. Mr Farmer Man came to join us around the fire. We learn that he has a total of seven children. He is a busy man! After our bellies were full of happiness, we lay on our mattresses and watch Qutub (a cute dog who came to camp with us, I think he belongs to Mr Farmer Man and his family) hunt for scraps. He sure likes his dhal and roti! It was a full moon and in the open landscape it felt oddly bright. How do you turn off the moon to go to sleep? I must confess, we did not sleep well. It was warm, cool, warm, cool and worst of all, insects. A bug found solace in my ear while Ah Boo and Dween were both bitten by some sort of beetle but its a small inconvenience for a phenomenal experience. The last thing I heard was the tinkling of the camels being led away for dinner. Oh Balu, you rascal... 

Monday, October 06, 2008

Just One Ta-Dah!

Weeks before the trip, my friends and I made Caring pharmacy very happy by buying all kinds of drugs for various scenarios. Mild, medium, severe food poisoning. Indigestion. The kind that repeats on you and one for repercussions caused by gluttony. Anti-histamines and Cataflam just in case. Panadol, yup. Water sterilisation tablets, check. "Do you need antibiotics too?", the pharmacist asked. No, I think I'm all set. Better safe than sorry I always say. Theres nothing worse than getting food poisoning when you are travelling. But you know what, apart from very mild diarrhea, none of us got to use any of our drugs. Apart from the water sterilisation pills. And even that we gave up on a few days into our trip. Who wants to keep drinking swimming pool water right? We never drank from the tap but we had plenty of chai from street vendors. Moral of the story, we are Malaysians and the mamak stalls here ain't any cleaner.

Jodhpur, left to right: Details of a tiny window at the marbled Jaswant Thada; posing by the doorway of Jaswant Thada - does his silhouette look familiar?; view of the blue houses from one of the many balconies at Mehrangarh Fort. 

So after a very, very long train ride (12 hours), we arrived in Jodhpur. City of blue houses and jophurs. Ask someone where to buy jodphurs and they will look at you funny. Jodhpuri pants would be the correct term. Otherwise, point at the nearest tourist. Highly likely they would be wearing jodhpurs or the even more popular, cotton ali-baba pants. We have two pairs each! Outside the train station was a hub of activity. And strange smells. Mr Singh whisked us into his Toyota Qualis and off we went to our hotel, Ratan Vilas. Its a quiet oasis in the centre of the dusty city. It had the old charm of Lone Pine, minus the beach of course. We had a quick shower and went off to enjoy the sights. First stop, Jaswant Thada which is a beautiful marble cenotaph located near Mehrangarh Fort. Dween is convinced that this majestic memorial was featured in The Darjeeling Limited and I think he is right. Its a magnificent building and it was definitely one of our favourite monuments of the trip. Perhaps it helped that there were very few tourist then and the sky was a vivid blue. 

At the Mehrangarh Fort, we got a great view of the entire city with its rows and rows of blue houses. I sat there, in the "vip lounge" which was a room with a fantastic view especially for people who had opted for an audio guide. That was me! My travelling companions were avid photographers who were preoccupied with their SLRs. My compact camera and I met many audio guides on the trip. It was incredibly hot and we were quite dehydrated without even realising it. You know your body is crying for water when we drink bottles and bottles and we don't need the toilet. After that peaceful tour we were taken to the first of many tourist traps organised by the tour. We were first brought to a three-story shop lot selling all kinds of soft furnishing. By KL standards, the prices were okay but we would learn later that we paid far to much for very mediocre merchandise. We then went to a spice shop and bought more things at inflated prices! That night we enjoyed a very mediocre meal at Ratan Vilas. I think they made some sweet and sour paneer especially for us. Yes, it was like eating bad Chinese food. However, we did get to try ker sangri which is can only be found in Rajasthan. Its a bean like vegetable that grows only in the desert. The beans and buds are dried. The texture is a little like enoki mushrooms but the taste is mildly earthy and sweet. After breakfast the following day, we journey West on a 6 hour car ride to Jaisalmer.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Delhi In A Bite

Old Delhi, left to right: one of the many alleyways leading to our hotel; market right outside the previous alleyway - boy selling melons; a common sight- chai stall. 

I'm back! I just spent 12 glorious days travelling around Rajasthan. I was vegetarian for most of the trip and am utterly convinced that I could live on Indian vegetarian forever. The thalis are just so delicious that I felt completely satisfied after each meal. Ah, I miss the morning pooris, sweet spicy chai, and Diggi Palace's excellent naan. Everyone is surprised by my positive review of India. They always crinkle their nose before asking "So how was it?" Everything that you have heard about India are both true and false. When everyone keeps telling you how nasty and dirty Delhi is, combined with reading too many kwai loh guide books, I started to believe that I was doomed to die a violent death from food poisoning or sheer dirtiness! If you think about how populated Delhi is, over 20 million and growing, it is relatively clean compared to Kuala Lumpur. Sure they are some nasty bits but as a tourist, you never really get to see it unless you make a point to go looking for it. As for feeling overwhelmed by the masses, I didn't quite feel it. Oh wait, only when travelling in a precarious tuk-tuk. Talk about too close for comfort! Hats off to Indian drivers. They are true masters of the road. And I say that with all sincerity. Not only do they have to navigate the countless potholes, there are added obstacles in the form of other vehicles swerving violently to avoid unsuspecting animals (and sometimes people) lying in the middle of the road. I think its funny how so many of these cows are happily grazing on the greens growing on the divider oblivious to the chaos they are causing. So while the roads from town to town are relatively smooth, you can never drive over 80kph because something is always crossing the road. Billy goats, camels, cows, buffalos and the occasional elephant. Our driver Mr Singh from Indian Holidays is a real champion. Thank you Mr Singh for bringing us back safely and not killing any animals on the way! 

The night that we arrived, our driver tells us that there had been a serial bomb blast an hour earlier. So the dusty sky we mistook for pollution wasn't really pollution at all. It felt unreal as everyone seemed quite indifferent. The following day, it was business as usual and the only signs of the bomb blasts that we could see was increased security and upturned bins near India gate (a few bombs were found in the bins and diffused in time). Navigating the pretty manicured streets of New Delhi on the first day of our tour was a far cry from the messy and narrow roads of Old Delhi. But where was the drove of beggars that I had heard so much about?There were a couple of children that came tapping on the window of our hired car but nothing like I had imagined. Maybe asian faces don't look as welcoming as mat salleh ones. There was one girl who was quite persistent. She was quite a contortionist. She was doing flips and splits in the middle of heavy traffic and no one even batted an eyelid. It is a sad sight to see especially when you look into their eyes and see where childhood innocence should be is a hard resilience instead. After a whirlwind of day of sightseeing, that evening we boarded the Mandore Express for a 12 hour ride to Jodhpur.

Delhi, from left to right: huge archway in heavy relief; golgappa stall Rps10 for 3 pieces (more on these addictive snacks later!); quiet moment at Jama Masjid

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Balik Kampung

And I'm back! Back from my hiatus, back from a fantastic trip from India and back on the bloggersphere for good. And just in time for a quick raya post. Thanks for all the encouraging comments while I was away. I would like to wish all our Muslim friends Selamat Hari Raya. May there always be delicious food on the table! Speaking of which, I was invited to Hunky's grandmother's house for festive cookies and soto ayam. Fat taugeh, rice, crisp golden shallots, pegedil, shredded fried chicken, spicy green chili paste and intensely aromatic broth to drown it in. Sublime! Ahhhh, its delicious to be back!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Taking A Break

After two years of blogging intermittently, I am taking a break. "Taking a break" in a relationship usually means its over but not in this case. For those of you who visit my blog regularly, I'm sure you would've noticed that posts are getting fewer and further in between. Call it laziness or inspiration vacuous maximus, I'm at a point where blogging has turned into a chore. And for this reason, I must take, as Christian Siriano from Project Runway 4 says, "a vay-kay!". I will be back in a couple of months after I settle some work stuff and renovating my flat. Until then, I leave you with a delicious recipe for angel hair pasta with prawns & rice wine. I made this for Hunky a few years ago when I saw a recipe in Flavours. Since I can't remember the recipe, this impromptu one is even better! Always follow your instincts right? 

Angel Hair Pasta With Freshwater Prawns & Rice Wine
Recipe for three, cooking time 5 minutes
  • 10 freshwater prawns, cleaned thoroughly (I removed the shell but left the head on as all the flavour comes from the head)
  • 1 tsp of chopped garlic
  • 6 stalks spring onion sliced lengthways and cut into long strands (I used mainly the base and reserved the green strands for decor)
  • dash heavy cream
  • a ladle or two of broth (mum's chicken soup was just next to the pan at the time, very handy!)
  • Chinese rice wine (Shao Shing Hua Tiao Chiew)
  • sea salt to taste
  • ebbiko /tobiko (whichever you can get your hands on, this packet was 50g I think)
  • angel hair pasta (usually 100-150g per person)
  1. Bring a pot of water up to boil, add salt. Angel hair pasta cooks in 2 minutes so you should try to time it. The prawn sauce will take around 5 minutes.
  2. Heat some oil in a heavy-based pan, stir-fry garlic and spring onions
  3. Add prawns and continue to fry on high heat, add Chinese rice wine (as much as you like dahlink!) and flambe. (You should have a orange-tinged sauce here from all the glorious prawny roe).
  4. Remove the prawns at this point or they will be over cooked. Add some broth to deglaze the pan and reduce broth. Mine was a little runny at this point which is why I added some cream. Probably would've tasted even better without as the cream mellowed out the taste. 
  5. Reduce heat and throw the prawns back in, season to taste and turn off the heat.
  6. Add drained pasta & prawns, toss with tongs and lastly, toss in the ebbiko and spring onions.
I think if you are following my recipe it would benefit from a hit of lemon juice just to lift the dish from the mellow creaminess. Enjoy and see you back here soon-ish!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Carats & Greens

Its been awhile since I had a date with my boyfriend. By that I mean setting up a time and place just the two of us. This was no ordinary date, after all we were celebrating our 5 year anniversary albeit a few days late. So last night we arranged to meet at C.Club in Pavilion for dinner before catching a movie. I was hoping that since we were going to C.Club that some diamond(s) might have been potential anniversary gift. After I greeted Hunky and sat down, I was happy to see:
  1. They had removed the ugly-ass yellow vases from the table
  2. A familiar aquamarine paperbag with the initials T & C!

The last time I dined here was quite some time back. I was keen to see if it was as good as I remembered. The service is still impeccable and they have removed some unsightly decoration (See Lyrical Lemongrass' rant and review here. Hey Aunty, they must've read your blog because they've changed the menu paper so all you old folks can read without straining your eyes!). I was tempted to order their kickass homemade ginger beer again but I only just recovered from a never ending sore throat. The ginger beer here is seriously potent, fantastic if you love ginger as much as I do. So much better than the one at Delicious which is just syrup, syrup and syrup. I read somewhere that vitamin C helps absorb iron so I ordered a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice to go with my spinach salad (RM18) instead. Hunky ordered "country-styled" gravadlax marinated home smoked salmon (RM36). Yes, pay attention to what you order because when the salmon arrived, the gravlax was nowhere to be found. Reading the description again makes sense now. Indeed, it was a thin salmon fillet that had been smoked and marinated with things you use to make gravlax. Ahhhh. Needless to say, Hunky was very disappointed that it wasn't gravlax but he did comment that the salmon was very tasty otherwise - "As good as the original". If you've been to Frangipani, you'll find the menu here somewhat familiar as the Chef here previously worked with Chris Bauer of Frangipani. Warm tea smoked salmon, duck confit, lavender lambshank, salmon rossini, etc... And all of them, a few ringgit cheaper. Ahhhh. My spinach salad was a nice portion for a starter. Clean baby spinach leaves dotted with crumbled feta cheese and sauteed mushrooms. It was served with an anchovy emulsion on the side. I guess too many people must've complained about the saltiness.
I ordered the pan seared salmon “rossini” on oxtail stew, topped with foie gras and balsamic palm sugar glace (RM59) again as it was the best dish of the night when I was last here with the girls. When it arrived, it looked the same. Pan seared foie gras resting on a plump piece of salmon and rich oxtail stew lurking underneath. Unfortunately, just as I was marvelling at how good it looked, Hunky's spring chicken (RM35) arrived looking like last year's winter coat on this year's spring runway. Tsk tsk. Surely this can't have been made by the same person? Where mine is polished and refined, this looked half-hearted and cheap. Despite its appearance, the chicken was moist and the gravy, "mild prawn flavoured mushroom broth", was very tasty. It tasted good enough and reminded us a little like Kenny Rogers in the best possible way. My salmon rossini tasted just as good as before except that the salmon was overcooked and that made it quite dry. Thankfully there were some oxtail gravy to soak it up with. I'm pretty sure there was more oxtail before looking at LL's pictures.

We didn't stay for dessert as I was afraid it might just spoil Hunky's mood if he tasted just one more mediocre dish. Thankfully the movie in Gold Class really lifted Hunky's mood. Incredible Hulk was entertaining and reminded me of the tv series I watched way back when I was a wee laddy. Edward Norton has been away too long. This one is so much better than Ang Lee's version which, to me, came off as pretentious. I should know right? It also helped that I could snuggle under the fresh duvet (felt clean and smelt clean!) they provided. How can one go back to pleb class after this? Quite easily at RM50 per ticket! I think last night was the most expensive dinner and date movie I've ever had.

So did I commit some sort of faux pas by opening my Tiffany gift in Carat Club? Who cares! I just thought it was funny to see the blue box lying on top of the C.Club monogrammed place mat. Before anyone gets too excited (after reading The Zhong Luck Club), it wasn't a ring. As much as I am a sucker for shiny baubles and packaging, the shrewd Chinese woman in me would've shouted "WTF?! Buy Tiffany diamond ring for what? Can get much cheaper at Habib/Poh Kong/unknown online source! But er, can I keep the box?" Happy anniversary Hunky and thank you for the lovely gift!

The C.Club is located at Level 6, Pavilion Kuala Lumpur, 168 Jalan Bukit Bintang, 55100 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-2141 3160

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Fine Bone China

Butterfly pea flower (clitoria ternatea)

With my recent (fairly successful) completion of "Pseudo Tai-Tai - Basic 8 Course", I decided to take my studies further with "Resplendent Tai Tai - A Full Banquet". After very thorough and extensive research, I finally settled on nyonya zhong and nyonya sambal zhong for my final thesis. Part of the charm of the nyonya dumpling for me is the lovely mix of blue and white rice. Coloured with butterfly pea flowers, the rice turns into a pale shade of the finest Wedgewood. I gathered as many as I could find in the garden. This is what I will miss living in my family home when I move into my tiny concrete flat. No more being able to pluck kaffir lime, chillies, pandan and butterfly pea flowers from the garden anymore. Somehow growing aloe vera on the balcony just isn't the same.

I am still trying to get use to cooking with my newly acquired pressure cooker. Morbid thoughts of the cooker exploding in my face flashes across my mind a lot! I cooked the zhong for, on and off, about an hour. This included time spent off the stove, just waiting for the pressure to ease before putting it back on the stove. The rice was perfectly cooked - glossy and gooey. The colour didn’t “pop” which makes you wonder how much artificial colouring goes into the variety you get commercially. I used 12 flowers boiled and reduced in 100ml of water and yet it barely even shows. It was rather anaemic looking but I was just so chuffed with it that I didn’t really care about the colour. My mum looked at them suspiciously and said “How delicate” which is her way of saying “So damn small, where’s the filling?” I reassured her I made a couple of big ones filled to the brim with filling just for her. I managed to get 32 small zhongs from this recipe. I think this size is perfect. Zhongs should be delicate, barely a mouthful, dainty – did I not just describe the ideal Chinese wife? Hmm, maybe thats why some Chinese men actually find Nigella sexy despite her Rubenesque frame. She does love to harp on about how her mouth can "accomodate". 

I should’ve started with nyonya zhong as it is so much easier than making cao mai zhong. I think it only took three hours in total. I’m also a lot more blasé about the wrapping. Its like folding flour into egg whites, you can’t approach it with too much caution, somehow you end up jinxing it if you do. You just have to tackle head on. I didn't even double-tie them this time. I realise its not the end of the world if some break but none did! Yay!

Most of my family members think my zhongs are “too healthy”. I can’t bring myself to leave all that fat on (Although this time I did cut little cubes of fat which was confusing because I couldn't tell them apart from the winter melon). On the other hand, all those who usually like zhong are singing praises. Like me, they find a lot of zhongs too heavy and rich. This batch of nyonya zhongs was well received but everyone agreed that the flavours could be more intense. More sweet, more salty! I agree with the salt part but I think its bloody sweet enough! I even added more candied winter melon than the recipe suggested. Next time I might chop them a lot coarser so you can taste it but this was gorgeous as all the small pieces of winter melon had caramelized and fused with the garlic and shallots into one beautiful, sticky and tantalizing mess! I didn't get around to starting on the nyonya sambal zhong, maybe I'll just make the filling tomorrow and wrap it up over the weekend. Below is an adapted recipe from One Publisher’s Rice Dumpling cookbook:

  • 12 shallots & 6 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 600g pork belly, cubed
  • 1kg glutinous rice, rinsed and soaked for 1-2 hours, leave to dry
  • 200g candied wintermelon (chopped coarsely)
  • 15 – 20 butterfly pea flowers (boiled in 100ml water, reduced slightly)
  •  4-5 tbls oil, 2tsp salt
  • Seasoning, 3 tbls ground coriander, 2tsp white pepper, 1 tbls dark soy sauce, 2-3 tsp of salt
  • 2-3 pandan leaves cut into small squares

  1. Mix 300g of glutinous rice with butterfly pea. Marinate the rest of the rice with 4 tablespoon of oil, 1 teaspoon white pepper and 1 teaspoon salt.
  2. Heat oil in a wok and stir-fry garlic and shallots until fragrant. Add pork belly and candied winter melon. Pour in the seasoning and fry a further 10 minutes. Leave aside.
  3. Place 1 teaspoon of glutinous rice followed by a generous tablespoon of filling, then top with half tablespoon of blue rice and 1 tablespoon of rice. Place a square of pandan leaf over just before folding. 
  4. Put a little oil and salt into water before boiling for 50-60 minutes in a pressure cooker

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Zhong Luck Club

giant salmon roe?

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be somebody’s wife some day. I was never particularly ambitious nor outgoing as a child. I wanted to be just like Mum. Well, not exactly like Mum- someone smack me if I start watching WLT, but I wanted to build a warm and loving home for my faceless husband and me. This “home” in my head never had children in it. You see, I have the maternal instincts of a brick. Up until recently, I was convinced I didn’t want to have children. Since my siblings had children of their own, I was given a glimpse of what life could be with a mini-me. And I realize that its not so scary after all and perhaps I would make an okay mother and not totally screw them up. So now there were only two things left to do 1) snare the man and 2) learn how to make zhong

I have the man but am still not married! It can only be, the Zhong. Everytime I bring it up (zhong, not marriage) I get discouraged by aunties and members of the sisterhood. "Its too difficult dear" or "Why don't you just buy them, they will taste better than whatever you make anyway". I'm onto them. They just don’t want me to get married! They want to keep me single so that they can keep patting me on the arm and give me that look. You see, the key is Zhong. When you can make zhong, you can rule the world. Seriously. Come one day, when I host my mah jong party, which is really a guise for tai-tais to one up each other (hello, didn’t you watch Raise The Red Lantern and more recently, Lust, Caution?), I will bring out the Zhong after my opponents offer homemade kaya, egg tarts and hmmph, rojak. Pitiful! And they will all fall to my feet and proclaim me Supreme Ruler of the... er, Tai-Tais?

It is all fated. Just as I am told that I can finally pick up the keys to my new apartment, The Cooking House has a zhong workshop. The stars are aligned, the time is ripe! Marriage is whthin my grasp! (Run, Hunky run!) Come Sunday morning, I found myself a tiny group of women at Gina Tan's "Dumpling Workshop". She was organized, personable and gave us useful tips along the way. It felt like a sisterly-bonding thing. If she was willing to share the trade secrets, she must be one of the good guys. A godsend if you will. After spending three hours of training, the two tips to making a good zhong is in the folding and investing in a pressure cooker. The first really is as tricky as it seems. Under the guiding hand of Gina, it was easy-peasy but when I actually got home to trying it, it was a different story altogether.

I announced to my mother a few days after that I was going to attempt to make zhong. Big mistake! Mother got super enthusiastic and bought enough raw materials to make enought zhong to sell. 3kgs of pork belly and enough green beans to make dahl for 100 roti canai. I started with alkaline dumplings since it virtually requires no prep work apart from soaking the rice and adding alkaline water and some salt into the clean rice. And although Gina’s recipe said 50 dumplings, I only got 20. I just couldn’t get them as small and delicate as Gina’s. Furthermore, half of them fell apart. It was so disappointing lifting open the lid to find yellow stained water and floating rice bubbling away. And the cooking time was slightly off too, it took three hours instead of two. So when I got to making the cao mai zhong, I made sure I wrapped the hemp string around the zhong twice. It doesn’t look pretty but better than finding broken zhong floating in the water.

Prepping the ingredients was actually the hardest work which is expected really with all Asian cooking. I blanched the pork in boiling water first to get rid of the impurities, then marinated it with rose wine, dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, white pepper, salt and sesame oil. This was cooked with shiitake mushrooms later. The green beans were soaked and marinated with some salt and sesame oil. What was most fun were the salted eggs. I’ve never handled raw salted eggs before so cracking them open to find perfect neon orange yolks was perfectly cheap thrill. I never knew yolks came in pairs! My mother’s maid thought it might have been goose eggs instead of duck as they were a little larger. Think it seems more likely to be a product of genetic modification. Next up, raw chestnuts which needed to be boiled and peeled; shallots and dried shrimp were deep fried and set aside. Last but not least, soaking the glutinous rice for an hour and letting it dry completely. Once dried, fry the rice with garlic, fried shallots and ground dried shrimp, and season with dark soy sauce, sesame oil and pepper. It took me a whole day to wrap as there was so much of it. I have to say, as much as I enjoyed spending the day in solitude with just my greedy and hopeful golden retriever Carlos for company, wrapping zhong is something that should be done with your “sisters”. The job would be done much faster and the whole experience, more pleasurable and meaningful. So next time, I shall be recruiting my sisters to help me with this age-old tradition of zhong. Oh wait, that would mean I have to share the secret. Uh oh.

The second batch of zhong turned out to be a lot more tasty as I fried the glutinous rice with garlic, fried shallots and dried shrimp (fried and chopped finely). This week I want to make nyonya dumpling. Stay tuned for more zhong posts. 

Monday, May 26, 2008

Junkily Yours

Its 6pm on Thursday and I am my latest playground Pavilion. As I walk from the car park into the building, I am greeted by a familiar smell that can only be deep-fried dough. Its been a while since I had a J.Co donut, feeling lucky I make my way over to the deep-frying also known as Lot 1.05.00, First Floor of Pavilion. What luck! Merely four people in the queue. Could it be that the donut craze is finally dying down like leg warmers and bubble tea?

The four ahead of me order a dozen each. The man behind the counter looks at me expectantly.  I tell him I only want three; pieces not dozen. He looks at me like I am deranged but hands me my donuts in a box fit for three anyway. Two things struck me as I paid for my donuts - 1) I have not blogged about these before 2) Am I in Frangipani on a Friday night? Any more friends of Dorothy and they will have to call it GayCo Donuts. So instead of cruising down Bintang Walk (as one does according to He Who Will Not Be Named), perhaps its worth checking out J.Co. If the eye candy doesn’t grab your fancy at least you can drown your sorrows in a sugary deep-fried ring of dough.

One can’t have donuts without coffee so I walk across to Gloria Jeans. I haven’t had much GJ coffee since the closest outlet I can think of is at Gleneagles Hospital and somehow it would seem morbid to go hang out at a hospital. Ever since Pavilion opened, Hunky and I have been coming to the outlet here because of their 2 for 1 opening promotion. The promotion has long ended but we like the coffee here and that it is away from the madness unlike Starbucks a floor above. I order a low-fat mocha because it balances out the calories in the donut. Denial is my middle name. Anyway, speaking of HWWNBN, who should happen to saunter by as I sit down with my cup of low-fat mocha? He is a great fan of Starbucks and Coffee Bean, although I suspect that has more to do with the view rather than the quality of the coffee. He absolutely hates J.Co donuts. “That’s not a donut, those are just fluffy pockets of nothing!” he moans and points at the box disdainfully and backs away quickly just incase he catches some sugar-borne disease. I have to agree with him, it really isn’t so much a donut as it is a semi-sponge that has been fried. The texture is incredibly light, if you close your eyes, you could be fooled into thinking that its just sponge that you’re eating. Out of all the flavours I have tasted, the best has to be the plain sugar glazed one. The rest are just so sickeningly rich. Having said that, if I was feeling super junky and hit with a major bout of PMS, I would have the pink-glazed, yoghurt-filled one. The white chocolate coating is irresistibly glossy when warm and the slightly tangy filling balances out the overall sweetness. If you like your cheese processed, you could also try their savoury cheese one. Fried dough with a Kraft singles sauce. Right. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Small Small

Rafs has been living in the Seputeh area for the past few years. Soon, she will be moving to a new place and finally be rid of any bad vibes left over from idiot ex. So while I am happy for new beginnings, I'm also upset that she only brought me to Siu Siu for the first time recently. How could it be that this thriving neighbourhood restaurant escaped our attention for so long? I mean, its literally down the road! Incidentally, there is also a superb nasi lemak stall nearby.

The night was cool and the place was buzzing with large Chinese families. After we ordered, my pupils dilated to the size of saucers watching mouth-watering dishes fly past our table. The food looked fantastic and I have to pat myself on the back for taking photos and not diving in immediately. We had sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, homemade tofu with braised minced pork, oil-drowned aubergine in claypot and token vegetable. The pork resembled crisp pieces of batter and the lemon chicken even crispier. The pale and wobbly tofu was a delicious contrast to the garlicky pork. I could've had a massage with the amount of oil in the aubergine but it was utterly sublime and worth the potential heart attack. I've been back twice since and apart from that one time we had to wait 1.5 hours for our food, it was been fantastic! Great simple Chinese cooking in a relaxed and open environment. After dinner you can take a drive through the cemetery and entertain your fellow passengers with horror stories. 

Siu Siu is located in Robson Heights. 15-11 Lorong Syed Putra Kiri, 50450 Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 016 370 8555, 016 309 8038. Closed on Monday.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Last But Not Least

Finally! I don't know about you but I'm pretty bored of blogging about Perth. Especially since I've taken such a long time to do it, all the enthusiasm has evaporated in this heat. Anyway, I have not been able to bring myself to eat anything vaguely Australian since I've been back. I did have one Italian meal the week that I got back which was bitterly disappointing. Hunky and I also paid RM36++ for 15 black Tasmanian mussels of four which did not open. Why, oh why? So I have steered clear since. My last post is about places I have revisited.

1. Little Creatures
It was a scorching day that we chose to catch the train from the city into Fremantle. We made a pit stop at Cicerello's because we couldn't decide between the two restaurants. CW insisted we have a "light snack" by which she meant a dozen natural oysters, a dozen kilpatrick and a huge portion of fish and chips! CW's eyes are definitely larger than her stomach. Miraculously we still managed to head over to Little Creatures to eat some deliciously spicy, piping hot mussels and two orders of grilled corn. Drizzled in olive oil, parsley and sea salt, it was the most delicious grilled corn I've had in a long time. The spicy mussels really do have a kick it and is actually tastier than the ones at Il Ciao. But then again, it could've also been the view of the sea and glorious sunshine. Don't you just hate me? Yeah I know. To wash it all down, Hunky had a pint of pale ale while I had half pint of Pipsqueak cider. Visit their website and be tempted for a visit.

2. Blue Water Grill

I had a wonderful brunch here with the girls during my last trip. I was looking forward to another dose of artery clogging eggs benedict but we got there too late for brunch. We shared half dozen oysters with chardonnay and shallot dressing, and another half dozen with citrus vodka, salmon roe and sour cream. The vodka actually came in a shot glass. Think it was a little early to be doing shots so we poured a little vodka over each oyster instead. For my main, I had beautiful almond crumbed seared scallops with dried beef salad. So fresh, succulent and sweet at the same time. The contrast of the crsip salty beef against the tender scallops was just gorgeous! Mmmm, I could've eaten a few more plates. Desserts were worth a mention especially the warm fig pudding with butterscotch sauce and vanilla bean ice cream. Absolutely to-die-for! It was like coming home to a toasty living room when its snowing outside. I just wish I didn't have to share it with 5 other people!

3. Red Teapot
Lem's little restaurant is still thriving after 4 years. The menu at Red Teapot has not changed, my favourite prosperous fragrant chicken and salted egg soft shell crab were still as good as ever. I'm too lazy to write about it all over again so if you are interested in reading about it, click here.

There were a couple of places which I didn't get round to blogging about. Maybe on my next trip to Perth. Until then...Yes, I can barely wait to move on. Next!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Almost There, All Things Italian

This is going to be the second last post on the Perth series. The final one being a recap on places I revisited and blogged about previously. This must be a relief to those of you who have been just short of calling me a tease. I know, reading about good food that can only be found 5 hours a way warrants some name calling. However, should you ever find yourself in Perth, voila! You would be so prepared for a feast!

One thing that I could not get enough of during this trip was mussels, well, and oysters. Fresh, plump and delicious mussels! Oysters and mussels are probably the only time when size does matter. For me, the smaller the better! I once watched an episode of Surfing The Menu wh
ere they ate an oyster(raw!) that was the same length as the span of one of the chef's hand. That man is over 6ft tall, imagine how big that horrible giant oyster was, lying across his big, able and manly hands. Swoon. Er, where was I? Oh yes, giant oyster. Yes, can't imagine eating an oyster that big. Shudder. I can see how oysters may have a high "eew" factor to some especially when eaten raw. I mean the more I start to analyse the soft, gelatinous, mucous-like consistency the more I am starting to feel allergic to them. However, when they are small and fresh like those in Perth, there is nothing that tastes quite as beautiful as natural oysters. I even converted Hunky. Initially, he watched with mild disgust as CW and I downed oyster after oyster like thirsty chinamen yumseng-ing whisky. By the fourth day, we convinced him to try oyster kilpatrick. You know Hunky, torn between indulging in those crispy and salty slivers of bacon and the grey-tinged mollusc lurking underneath. Once bitten, he was smitten! There was no stopping Hunky after that. He even lamented how much he regretted not joining us earlier. Awww.

One night, I insisted Laura take us to a restaurant for chilli mussels. Without any hesitation, she suggested Il Ciao in Applecross. Its a cosy neighbourhood Italian restaurant that only opens for dinner from Wednesday to Sunday. Well, when you are as busy as they are, one can afford the luxury of such relaxed opening hours. The menu boasts wood-fried pizzas and hearty Italian fare. We shared two huge bowls of hot steaming mussels between the five of us. Unfortunately I was sitting next to Peter and felt like I needed to eat really quickly before he finished the entire bowl! Poor Pete got an earful from Laura about that. Sorry Peter! It was worth the risk of ingestion as I raced Peter to the bottom of the bowl. They were so juicy and yummy! They were cooked in a white wine, garlic and tomato sauce which we dipped freshly baked bread into until the bowl was completely dry.

In between, our pizzas arrived. One was boscaiola with tomato, mushroom, mozzarella, prosciutto and olives; the other mediterraneo was smothered with tomato, mozzarella, ricotta cheese, olives, eggplant and Italian sausage. They were both very good. Nicer than the one at Ecco Cafe but then these people do specialise in wood-fried pizzas. You can see from the picture how generous they are with the toppings and the crust was just right - like crispy flat bread. I wanted to try one of their pastas and which better than homemade canneloni filled with ricotta cheese and spinach smothered in a fresh tomato sauce. This was just gorgeous! I managed to eat a whole roll despite proclaiming over and over again how full I was. You know, kind of like those annoying skinny saying "I'm so fat, I'm so fat". Yeah, whatever. I wasn't all that full really because we still had room for dessert! Hunky's favourite pit stop throughout the trip - Gelare! He even snuck off without me once. I lost count of how many waffles he had but he was pretty sad he managed to miss "Half Price Tuesdays"! Geláre is an institution (not the mental kind) for quality homemade ice cream. It was right here in Western Australian that they open their first ice cream cafe in Fremantle in January 1987. I had my first cone in 1993 (that was when the franchise started) and have been in love ever since. It still tastes fanbloodytastic! The picture below is Hunky's waffle with rum and raisin ice cream. Mmmm...

For more information on Il Ciao, click here

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Simply A Must

Must Wine Bar

Perth. I've been blogging about the food in Perth for the past few posts. I wonder if anyone is convinced to visit Perth just for the good food. Its not the first destination Malaysians would choose especially when the allure of bigger cities in Oz is just a Jet Star ticket away. A couple of weeks before we left for Perth, I starting preparing Mikael for the kind of lifestyle to expect in Perth. Words like "quiet", "sedate" and "dull" were repeated regularly. I always think its best to play it down than to hype it up. Its certainly a lot more lively since I left but it is by no means "exciting". Then again, we are not the type who look for excitement in a holiday. The only excitement I want to experience is strictly gastronomical. 

Perth used to be so dull and boring, there simply wasn't much to do for a restless teenager. I longed for term to end so that I could fly straight back to KL and party. Well, now that I am no longer a slice of Kraft Singles but a rather fine mature cheddar, Perth wasn't so bad this time round. Something about the clear blue skies and never crowded streets is utterly relaxing. There are actually lots of things to do in Perth. There is a casino, rock climbing, surfing, swimming with the dolphins, surfcatting on the Swan River, breweries and last but no least, the fantastic wineries of Margaret River. The latter probably the number one reason most adults would choose visit Perth (sorry kids, your parents are not really coming to "visit you"). See! So many things to do once you are all grown up! If you don't have time to take a trip to Margaret River, then you must at least visit Must Wine Bar in Mount Lawley (not a real mountain, like Bukit Bintang is not a bukit). 

Must Wine Bar is listed as one of the "must" places to visit in Perth. I did not know this of course since I didn't read up on tourist information nor am I a big wine buff. Turns out, Must is on top of the list of my friends' favourite restaurants. I love this place! I love that they have 40 wines you can order by the glass and over 500 wines by the bottle. Now, thats a real wine bar. If you get confused with the seemingly endless wine list, there are sommeliers on hand to guide you to a bottle. Most bottles start from AUD40. One probably would not expect great food at a place that is first and foremost a wine bar. However, you will be pleasantly surprised at this particular wine bar. With a small menu offering a mere smattering of starters (or "bistro menu" as listed) and mains, Must concentrates on making each dish spectacular. Dinner at Must was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. There were quite a few of us that night so I got to try all the dishes and I must say, they were all good. 

For starters, we shared their famous chicken liver parfait with grenache jelly and twice-baked porcini mushroom souffle. The parfait arrived with a smooth glossy layer of deep purple jelly on top. Fantastically smooth with just the right amount of brandy and not the slightest hint of musky liver. CW ordered a entree-sized angel hair pasta with blue manna crab, chilli, tomato, basil and fini olive oil so it arrived the same time as out starters. It was superb! I loved the abundance of bruised tomato cubes tossed in the creamy sauce. It tasted a lot like the one from Rialto's but richer. I like the latter but Laura loves the Must version because of the cream. 

She ordered the rotisserie spatchcock with rosemary potatoes and golden shallot jus for main course. Now, spatchcock, to you and me, refers to the way the bird has been spilt open and forced into the urdvha upavishta konasana position (certainly not for the stiff jointed! ). Basically you cut it in half and splay the body outwards so it lies flat.  However this is not what it means in Australia apparently. Or maybe just in Perth. Or maybe just to the dodos I happened to be having dinner with. I was confused when several people kept saying it was too big to be a spatchcock. Huh? Hey if you really wanted to, you could spatchcock a turkey too! Anyway, the spatchcock chicken was drop-dead gorgeous! I'm so used to not ordering battery farmed chicken in Malaysia that I automatically ignore all chicken dishes on menus. This was tender, moist, aromatic, flavoursome and better than any darned roast chicken I've ever had. The shallot sauce was salty and sweet at the same time, perfect for dousing the roast potatoes in. The other dish worth mentioning was Hunky's Must Pure Pork Sausage with caramelised pork belly, cassoulet beans and red wine jus. It was pure pork indeed and a very fine sausage it was. It was not overwhelmed with herbs nor was it too salty. It was exactly what a homemade sausage would taste like, wholesome and healthy. Although I seriously doubt it was all that healthy. The beans were a nice accompaniment but the pork belly was a tad disappointing. It was very tasty but the texture had turned a little coarse and the skin (the best part!) chewy from the caramelisation. 

To end the meal, we ordered a raspberry clafoutis and sticky treacle pudding from the special's board and from the menu, a creme brulee duo - grand marnier and pineapple. The winner was the raspberry clafoutis which was light, tangy and regrettably too small to share with so many people! The sticky treacle pudding was delicious too. Warm and oozing with tenderness, it was like receiving a big warm hug from a long lost friend. Eventhough the creme brulees were very well done, they seemed shallow and boring in comparison to the other two. If I had any room in my stomach left, I would've loved to have tried a selection of their cheese. Oh, I also had the first proper coffee of the trip. Dark roasted and perfectly brewed. Ah, what a perfect meal!

Must Wine Bar, 519 Beaufort Street, Mount Lawley. T. 08 9328 8255. Or for more information, click here
Starters from AUD14-23, mains from AUD36 and desserts from AUD14.5