Happy Chinese New Year and Gong Hei Fatt Choi to all visitors! I wish you the very best for the year ahead and may it be a prosperous one. I have been on a hiatus for a few months because I was in the process of moving and now I am trying my very best to look for a job. I will continue to devote my time to finding work opportunities and I will be back to blogging once my life is a tad more settled-down. Any well wishes would be appreciated. =)
When one mentions about the island of Bali, I imagine white sandy beaches like the ones in Hawaii—minus the ukulele that’s playing in the background—coconut palm trees adorning the tiny streets, handsome surfers catching some waves, and cheap island-inspired cuisine to nourish the tired souls, trying to get away from it all. Also known as the island of gods, there is much more to Bali than the beach or what Julia Roberts (or the real life protagonist, Liz Gilbert) had experienced in the popular Eat, Pray, Love. Bali’s culture and worldview, which heavily revolves around its main religion—Hinduism, contributes much to its mysticism which makes it unique. I particularly adore the abundance of offerings to their gods, colourful street processions during many of its festivals, the smell of incense permeating the air, the soothing sounds from Balinese gamelan and their reverence to the volcanic Mount Agung. I wanted to see them all.
We decided that our Bali trip was worth splurging; in fact, it was the only trip where we made an effort to relax and do nothing, and spend slightly more on nicer hotels. Mind you that we indeed had a tight budget and when I say “slightly,” I really meant it. Albeit its size, which is a wee bit smaller than Delaware, USA, there’s really a big difference in terms of geographical landscapes in different parts of the island. We planned three nights in South Bali, perfect for unwinding by the beaches. Then we spent two nights in Ubud, central Bali and two nights at the quite shores of East Bali. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to hike the majestic Mount Agung and the national park in West Bali due to time and money constraints but we figured seven nights would be sufficient for a quick introduction to Bali.
We took Air Asia because it was the cheapest flight that we could get and all flights to Bali would fly into Denpasar unless you are heading to Lombok, which is Bali’s quiet neighbour. Java Island, where Jakarta is located, is actually quite long; flying from Jakarta to Bali took us about two hours, about as long as flying from Chicago to Toronto when I visit my relatives. The sights from the plane were quite incredible considering Java has a number of volcanoes–we saw a possibly extinct one with a large crater as we were about to land.
It was evening when we arrived. While Kuta is normally a de facto hang-out place for many tourists and backpackers, we opted to stay away from the crowd. Instead the taxi drove us past the upscale Legian area and straight to Kerobokan where it is less developed but still 5 minutes drive away from the beach. In the midst of family-owned paddy fields through the residential areas, we thought we were lost for a moment when we pulled up in front of a low-key hotel—not shabby or upscale by any means–with literally four parking spaces. At US$80 per night (tax included), I can’t complain much about the room. I mean, look at it—nice decor, large bed, private balcony cum outdoor living room and open-air bathroom. The downsides for this place? It was facing an actual village and the rooster went cock-a-doodle-do every day at 6.30 AM. Also, I could see people in their backyard while taking a shower since it was open-air. Some people might be uncomfortable with it.
Breakfast was quite easy at our hotel, The Seri Suites. We called the reception to order our options and they brought the food to our living room. My favourite was the American breakfast which came with two eggs—any style, toast with butter and jam, chicken sausages, fresh tropical fruits and of course, local Bali coffee. You can dine at the lobby (they don’t have a restaurant) but why would you when you can have breakfast at the comfort at your own room?
With so much space, I would be content to just sit back, relax and read a book but with a pool in the property that nobody ever uses–Legian beach was within walking distance–I might as well take a dip when I get bored with my book. Wait, a book? Who am I kidding? I came for the sunshine, the water and the food.
Speaking of food, the locals love homestyle meals that are sold at the warungs. One Balinese specialty that I’ve been reading about was babi guling, which means roast pork. Bali is unique because it is the only predominantly Hindu region in Indonesia and therefore, pork is prominently featured in Balinese cuisine. The famous babi guling is in Ubud but we came across this warung while we were walking around; so we just stopped by for lunch. They served roast pork with rice, crispy pork skin, pork offals prepared with local spices and aromatic condiments. For Rp 50,000 (~US$5) for two with drinks, it was a delicious meal that we can afford.
We headed to Legian beach right after but it was not the azzurro-blue kind that I expected. Regardless, it was a decent beach and there’s miles and miles of them stretching along the coast from Jimbaran to Kerobokan. One can expect nicer beaches in the southern peninsula near Nusa Dua but the hotels in those areas also seemed to be more pricey. Beach chairs with attached umbrellas were available for hire–perfect for people who want to relax to the rumbling sounds of the waves. I, as you know, am very cheap; so I would usually find a tree or a shaded area nearby. Some things are just not worth paying for.
Streets of Bali were similar to that of a small town in Malaysia–lots of motorcycle on the street and food stalls–and of course touristy shops because we’re in Bali. One thing that was particularly striking was that people sell petrol or gas in 1 litre vodka bottle off the main roads. I don’t know if it’s for motor vehicles or home use, but it was certainly quite hazardous and not something common in North America.
We ended the day looking for dinner after a long tiring day at the beach. We came across Waroeng Enak, owned by a Balinese woman and her German husband. They offered a buffet but we weren’t that hungry. So we opted for the classic nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles) and they came with an egg. Note that hot food in this buffet were not kept at a certain temperature and it is not uncommon in Asia. In North America, we are concerned that bacteria might grow if they are left to cool in room temperature but honestly, I lived with food like this for 20 years and I never had food poisoning before. Decent and cheap (~US$ 2.50 per person) meal to wrap up the night and we also had a conversation with the nice couple who owns this place about the politics of Bali and how hard it is for foreigners to live and buy properties in this island.
In my next post, I will be writing about my trip to the southern-most peninsula of Bali. Expect majestic cliffs, clear blue waters, temples and lots of Balinese culture!
On my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I was searching for a night market snack which I hadn’t had since I left the country ten years ago – something we call otak-otak. When translated, the name of this exceptional delicacy literally reads, “brain-brain.” If you are taken aback somewhat by the name, don’t. Despite the name, there’s no brains in otak-otak. Instead, the kind that I grew up with – Muar style otak-otak – comprises a thin rectangular strip of fish paste, wrapped neatly with coconut leaves, and finally grilled to perfection. When unwrapped, the red hued-paste was unusually tender and nicely spiced, redolent of dried seafood flavours.
Reading the book, “Nonya Flavours” exposed me to a plethora of Peranakan dishes, which I was not as familiar with; one of the items that caught my attention was otak-otak. This version, was to my surprise, in a form of a banana leaf parcel and secured by a toothpick. More importantly, the fish used was sliced in small pieces and mixed with a spiced custard, before being steamed. The outcome was notably more delicate in texture but smelled pungently fragrant due to the inclusion of daun kaduk (Piper sarmentosum, also known as wild betel leaves or lá lốt in Vietnamese). It was not the easiest thing to make, especially the spice paste, as I own a mortar and pestle. I remembered spending all afternoon on that, as well as wrapping those little parcels while ensuring my leaves were not torn.
However, I could not imagine making this any way else. I find that mortar and pestle has a strange way of connecting us to the food we are prepping. I saw how my spice paste was slowly transformed in a matter of minutes. I also realised the amount of effort and patience that went into making this otak-otak. In Malaysia, a small piece of Muar style otak-otak would sell for a mere RM0.50 – RM0.80 (approximately $0.25) despite the amount of labour; Penang Nyonya-style would run much higher. What’s impressive is not only the price. It’s that people are still making it by hand and they make them well, something which probably many Malaysians take for granted sometimes. For an overseas Malaysian like me, we don’t have the privilege to buy these otak-otak from the markets and making them by hand is quite humbling in many ways. I am sure a proper nyonya would be proud to see this.
- 250 ml thick coconut milk
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tbsp (heaped) rice flour
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, fine julienne
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 1 tbsp sugar, or taste
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
Spice paste (grind with mortar & pestle)
- 100g shallots
- 20g garlic
- 40g fresh red chilli, seeds discarded
- 7g dried red chilli, soaked to soften
- 15g galangal
- 20g fresh turmeric
- 40g lemongrass
- 20g belacan
- banana leaves for wrapping (thawed, if previously frozen)
- 20-30 kaduk leaves
- 0.5kg – 1kg fish fillet, sliced
- Mix spice paste and custard together. Let it sit for about 30 minutes or so while you prepare the banana leaves as detailed below.
- Cut banana leaves into 18cm x 20cm. Wipe them with a clean tea towel to rid of any dirt.
- Take a piece of banana leaf and line with about three kaduk leaves in the centre.
- Place three (or more) slices of fish and about two tablespoons of custard mix in the centre.
- Fold two opposing sides of the banana leaf together. Then, fold the remaining sides to seal. Form into a little parcel and secure it with a toothpick.
- Ensure water is boiling rigorously and steam for ten minutes or until the custard sets and the fish is cooked.
- Enjoy as it is or serve with rice.
(recipe adapted from “Nonya Flavours – A complete guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine” by The Star Publications)
Posted August 20, 2012on:
The exotic Javanese and Manadonese lunch had left us so full, so much that I could skip dinner altogether. But the prospect of trying the famous oxtail soup or known locally as sop buntut from Hotel Borobudur was too tempting. I heard their soup was legendary. I couldn’t find any evidence that they invented sop buntut but apparently, it’s pretty darn tasty.
We got changed into something nicer and we headed north of Jakarta Pusat to the hotel. We were bombarded by a crowd of people in front of the hotel, all of whom were nicely dressed in traditional batik costumes. We walked past them and directly to Bogor Cafe at Hotel Borobudur. Lucky for us, there was no wait at all. We ordered some mocktails to sip on while waiting for our sop buntut. I don’t remember exactly what drinks those were but they were full of local tropical flavours!
After about 15 minutes wait, our sop buntut had finally arrived. The huge bowl had a gorgeous caramel coloured broth with several pieces of oxtail, tomato wedges and chopped scallions. The taste was spectacular, to say the least. It was full bodied and in clear in taste and possessed similar qualities to a well made consomme or stock. When eaten with the super tender oxtail, it was possibly one of the best soups I’ve had so far. To make the meal more substantial, we also had some jasmine rice with Indonesian crisps called krupuk.
The soup was just our appetiser. Our main course was seafood and for this, we travelled to a seafood restaurant called Saung Grenvil. As we walked into the entrance, we past by a table of large live crabs and what got me interested was the female crabs because I love the roe from a crab. As a child, I was always fascinated with the possibility of finding the bright orange roe on the shell because I could not get enough of the rich and creamy surprise with my rice! The female crabs here were not cheap though – Rp. 236,000 (approximately USD 30) per kilogram but if there is anything, this is the delicacy that is worth paying for.
We ordered Kepiting Telur Saus Padang (Female Crabs with Spicy Padang Sauce), char grilled giant head prawns and mantau goreng (fried buns) to soak up all the delicious sauce. I immediately took a piece of the shell when the dish came to the table and I could not believe what I saw! It was filled with so much roe that I was no doubt in roe heaven. =) I dipped the crispy and pillowy mantau in the sauce-covered roe and I slathered the sauce all over my rice as well. We spent the next couple of hours cracking the crabs into smaller pieces and slowly digging for the meat. I was never a big fan of crabs when I was little because it can be awfully messy. In other words, too much work for too little meat. However, I started to enjoy whole crabs prepared this way again in the recent years. The giant prawns were equally delicious with a big squeeze of lime that went so well with the sticky caramelised sauce on the shells.
I wished we had a larger party so that we could try other seafood items at Saung Grenvil. But that only means that I would have to come back again for more next time. Jakarta has been quite a journey. While the city is polluted and heavily congested, there were certainly culinary gems to be found around this megacity. It would be helpful to have a local with you at times but not having one is not a deal breaker. Looking out for such gems on your own is part of the fun and adventure, isn’t it? My next stop is the exotic island of Bali. I will be writing about my experiences with three distinct areas of Bali and the amazing food that I’ve across. Bali was the part of the trip where we splurged; so expect nice hotels, cheap local warungs, traditional dances and everything mystical in between. =)
Having lived in the American midwest for several years, live prawns are very difficult to come by. We have frozen prawns that have been defrosted in the supermarkets but most of them have deteriorated in quality. The flesh was soft and at times, mushy. They’re just not pleasant to eat. In rare occasions, I would find tiny live shrimps from one of the larger markets in Chicago’s Chinatown but for over $20 a pound, there is really not much meat to savour in the end. Shall I say, a waste of money?
Now that I am in British Columbia, Canada, spot prawns are revered when they are in season. The spot prawn season was not very long in June this year, just a total of six weeks. However, I was very excited to get my hands on these spotted crustaceans because I know how tasty they can be. I missed the abundance of fresh prawns when I used to live in Malaysia and I couldn’t wait to relive those experiences. It’s going to be pig out session!
I was waiting till the prices drop to $13 a pound before buying them. This year the spot prawn supplies were low so I figured the prices would not go any lower. A couple of years ago, advertisements showed they were just $7.99 a pound!
There are plenty of ways to cook live prawns. They can be grilled, baked in the oven, baked in sea salt, stir fry and deep fried. But in my opinion, the best way to capture the sweet-tasting flavour of live spot prawns is none other than steaming. I lined my bamboo steamer with banana leaves and fill it up with the prawns. Be careful when handling the prawns because they have very sharp spikes on their shells and they may jump all over. So, safety gloves are highly recommended.
Steam for no more than three minutes over boiling water (or until it turns bright red) and serve immediately while they are hot with a few lemon wedges. They are also delicious when peeled and served cold with cocktail sauce.
- 1.5 lb live spot prawns
- lemon wedges
- banana leaves
- Wash prawns with cold water.
- Line a bamboo steamer with banana leaves and steam for no more than three minutes when the prawns turn bright red.
- Serve hot with lemon wedges.
So, that was it. I have finally graduated culinary school. While I was absent from this blog for the past three weeks or so, we’ve accomplished so much in class. We did plenty of sugar art from ribbons and candy canes to putting together a sculpture from all the bits and pieces. They look great but it’s just not something that I want to focus on in the future.
We also spent three days to create a celebration cake and I could understand why people would pay top bucks for a cake decorator to create an elegant cake. It’s not easy! My vision was to create a three-tier Prinsesstårta, which is a Swedish Princess Cake. It’s is common for cake decorators to use fondant because its white colour and smooth surface makes a great canvas for any sort of decorations. However, I personally do not enjoy the taste of most fondants. It does not matter if the cake looks great sometimes; if it tastes awful, nobody is going to remember the looks anyways. My cake is a vanilla sponge with raspberry jam, whipped cream and vanilla cream fillings with a marzipan exterior. Our team also hand piped traditional batik patterns around the cake for that elegant finish.
Finals had not been easy either. We had to produce moulded chocolates with a ganache filling, a marzipan rose, a buttercream cake with nougatine, bread rolls, cookies and a lemon tart. While there are definitely room for improvement, I was happy that nothing went terribly wrong, especially in a warm kitchen. Warmth and pastry don’t always go well together. I did not achieve honours in both culinary and pastry but my marks were something I am very proud of. Marks are not the only indication of success. What’s more important sometimes, is the passion in what we do. I remembered learning to hold and cut using a knife properly back in January and now, in August, I feel more confident that I’ve ever felt before in both the savoury and pastry side of the kitchen. I will never look at food the same way again.
Posted July 19, 2012on:
Indonesian food is generally very homey, characterised by the presence of rice, noodles, stews, spicy condiments and soups. The Javanese and Manadonese which are two ethnic groups in Indonesia, feature very similar food groups but differs in the way they are prepared or spiced. In other words, their dishes are very regional in that respect. It’s not surprising as this archipelago had different influences; the island of Java, where Jakarta is, had plenty of Chinese immigrants and was the centre of the Dutch East India. As a result, bakso, bakmi, lumpia, pangsit, bistek, semur and sop buntut entered the food repetoire. Manado, which is a city in the northeast tip of the island of Sulawesi, had a different colonial experience and their cuisine tend to be less sweet and much spicier.
After a snack of sate kambing serenaded by the beautiful keroncong music, we headed to Bu Endang for some lunch. Bu Endang is a restaurant that offers homestyle Javanese cuisine in a calm setting away from the crazy traffic. It was nice to get away from the warm Jakarta heat and cool down in this beautiful air conditioned place. Their menu has a wide selection, most of which I’ve never had before. The wonderful thing is, I didn’t have to do the ordering since we had a Javanese friend with us at our table. =)
Our friend ordered a Bistek Lidah; it was a steak of beef tongue and a luscious sauce, potatoes and vegetables. Clearly, the dish was of foreign influence, possibly Dutch; it was rich and tasty and oh so tender! My partner had Nasi Langgi, which is a mix mash of spiced meat, egg, vegetables and noodles. It was spicy and it was a great dish to sample different types of meats and vegetables in one plate.
My dish was Nasi Pecel, which was rice served with vegetables and a spiced peanut sauce, fried egg and a peanut crisp. It reminded me a lot of gado-gado but it was surprisingly delicious when served with rice. The prices were very reasonable and the portion sizes were great as well. There were so many dishes with tempeh, squid and urap that I never got to try. I did however got a copy of the menu so that I could try to cook them at home.
Still full from our Javanese lunch, we headed for a snack again at Beautika Khas Manado. I know it was insane that we could still eat but we didn’t have time as it was our last day in Jakarta. Apparently, this place started as a beauty salon, hence the name “Beautika” but its food made them popular. This place was packed with people on a Saturday but we managed to find a seat.
As we entered the restaurant, we saw a fantastic selection of meats and vegetables through the display case. All of them look spicy and I wanted to try them all. Our friend Driya took care of the ordering, of course. We had a dish of spiced meat, possibly ayam rica or daging sapi rica, colourful vegetables and served with rice. They were very obviously not shy with spices, let’s just say that. =)
Our next items were the perkedel jagung which were perfectly fried corn fritters and the super crunchy pisang goreng (fried bananas) served with spicy sambal roa condiment. I love fried bananas but I have never had them with sambal. This is one of the best that I’ve had and the sambal was so spicy my lips were on fire for at least 15 minutes. However, that satisfaction from the intense flavours was quite indescribable.
I wish I had known this place earlier because I could eat these food for my entire stay in Jakarta. They are truly authentic Indonesian comfort food; Spicy, delicious and I felt the food was as close to home as it could get. Next up, we explored a fancier take on Indonesian food; we tried the famous Indonesian oxtail soup called sop buntut from the famed Hotel Borobudur and the meatiest crab dinner in a while. So stay tuned!