Friday, 19 December 2008

Shopping Malls

One place where you can always find good places to eat in Asia is in shopping centres. This is due in fact to the seriousness that Asians take shopping. It's not a simple fact of popping into a mall for an afternoon of browsing. It's a day out, it's a family day out, and half way through their shopping expedition, nourishment is needed. Shopping centres are seen as an elitist thing in Asia, people expect there to be good places to eat, and there are. 

This is the opposite of how things are in the UK. All you normally find in shopping centres in England are cheap and cheerful jacket potato, fast food and a multitude of chain restaurant. Pilling out cheap and dour food. It may fill the belly, but it certainly does not nourish the soul.

We ate at several good restaurants in malls in Asia. The best ones were in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Mainly because the food there is so good anyhows it spills over into the malls. But even these countries have some cheerful food for the masses who can not afford to eat in the higher end places. Fast food Asia style. Noodle soups, curries and the like, all good belly filling stuff. 

I have found that working in a restaurant in a shopping centre in London, where we cook everything from scratch even our own bread everyday. The chain restaurants around us are packed to the hilt, where we are busy but not over filling. I am wondering if this is because people are unwilling to pay a little more for their food in these economic downturned times, or as I more suspect people are more happy with bland fast food. As many of us were brought up on this. I blame the microwave and the supermarkets for pushing those ready to eat meals at us. Thankfully my family never brought that many of them, although my mum is kinda living off them now, but she always disliked cooking. 

I wonder if we as a people will accept good restaurants in shopping centres. A good place to get a good cooked fresh meal in good surroundings. Instead of badly rushed cooked processed food. Maybe when we are told times are better we may start to eat better food in these centres or maybe get more of a better choice, as it isn't that good there.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Alila Manggis

To end our trip of Asia we decided to spend a few days somewhere close to the sea. We had stayed in some real dives on this trip. Had Yao springs to mind with its 5 cockroach rating. A few places in Laos were very basic but still ok. It's just how Laos is. So after scouring a few websites to find somewhere casual, chic and really cool to end our trip. I found the Alila Manngis. It's a few moments from the wonderfully dull seaside town of Candidasa. 
The hotel itself is really cool. It has no beach, so the pool area is the focal point. It is an inverted pyramid shape. Enough space around it to relax without having to listen to the people next to you. 
The restaurant though is a big draw here. Sea Salt is its name. The chef is an Australian, so she is used to cooking with tropical ingredients for Western palettes. It is set within a traditional Balinese pavilion and is inspired by a nearby Organic Sea Salt Farm. The views over the coconut garden, pool and sea are magnificent.  
There is a cooking school and it seemed to be very popular but at $100 I thought it was a tad expensive, especially after our disastrous evening in Kota Bharu. 
The pool side menu was short and sweet. There was enough to keep you going through the day till the evening. 
Sea Salt had quite an extensive menu, mainly Western influenced but they still had a few Balinese favourites there. It also has a good wine list. We were quite happy at that, as it had been some time since we had drunk wine. 
The salt they used as I said came from a nearby Organic salt farm. It was really good. I had some just on some bread and it wasn't too sharp, a nice mild salty taste.   The bread they served was good and cooked in the kitchen that day. The homemade basil olive oil and chilli oil were quite nice to dip the bread in also.
For some reason when we arrived there I had massive cravings for some familiar food. Maybe it was the surroundings etc. No idea, but my cravings were silenced. The first night we had grilled chicken served on a bed of polenta with a tomato and basil sauce, and a fish (forgotten what type) smeared with a spicy sauce and wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled. Both were excellent and well cooked. 
The highlight of the stay was the Sea food platter. It was a huge plate of different sea food cooked in Balinese and Indonesian style. The centre piece was the crab with it's lovely flesh. When it comes to crab or lobster it's all hands with us. The prawns were divine and one of the curried fish spoke to me in biblical terms. The rice I think we never touched. It was all about the sea food. 
Sadly our stay came to an end. We spent the last morning by the pool, refusing to leave. We wanted to stay for ever. We nearly did. 

Saturday, 11 October 2008

BBQ Pig in Hindu Ubud

One of my most favourite meats is pork. Any cut will do me, from their trotters to the legs, through its belly to it's ears and snout. I am a fan of nose to tail eating. Waste not want not is my motto. 

After travelling through Malaysia and not really seeing or eating any pork for 6 weeks. I was in desperate need of some good old hog. I had heard off several tele series, magazine articles and friends about this small restaurant in Ubud that serves one of Bali's best known dishes. Babi Guling. Bar-B-Q'd Pig. 

Ibu Oka is situated at the Northern end of Ubud right opposite the Royal Palace. It is an unassuming place, but then most restaurants in Asia are unpretentious. There are a few wooden benches outside for the oversized Australians who can not sit on the floor inside. The small tables nestle nicely in the cramped eating room, the straw mats are quite surprisingly comfortable to sit on. 

There is only one thing on the menu, but you can have it two ways. The "Spesial" is a mixture of all pig. You get a good mix of blood sausage, crackling, some choice cuts of juicy meat from different parts of the pig. I had some delicious ear and  it's crispy tail on one visit. Yes we made several visits here. This is all served on top of a good helping of rice. 

The "Pisah" is a bigger version of the above. The rice is served separately and really is large enough to share. Well we are finding that, as many months of noodle soup has shrunk our stomach considerably. Is that a good thing or a bad thing these days. When you have some fantastic juicy pork to eat, it's bad. 

Ibu Olak opens around 11 am and closes up shop around 4pm. I am not sure how many pigs they cook each day, but I have seen 3 being cut up and deposited onto plates. The pigs are stuffed with a special spice mix which is supposedly secret, but I am sure if you know the right people then it won't be that hard to find out. Bali is like that. Failing that there are many recipes for a Bali Spice mix that I am sure would do the job just as well. 

As I said the pigs are stuffed with the spice mix, sewn up and coked in a wood fired oven. This all takes place in the early hours, good reason for them to close early afternoon in my view. It's open seven days a week. The best time to get there is around noon, as the pork is still hot, the later you leave it, the cooler it will be and the less likelihood of you getting the choice cuts. 

There are also lots of little snacks to eat whilst you are waiting for the meal to arrive. Mainly deep fried crispy pig skin, which are sold in little bags and left temptingly on your table for you to try and resist. There is a wide range of sauces for you to spice up your rice or meat. Kecap Manis being my favourite sauce of all time. The chilli sauce they have is dangerous. Too much and it burns your mouth to the point of actually setting it on fire. Thankfully the beer is very cold there. Phew. You do get through quite a lot of it, as the dining room has no fan but is open to the elements. Sadly the wind does not wish to enter the place, I assume this is because it too would be tempted by the delightful pig on offer and never want to leave. 

Ibu Oka

Jalan Tegal

Sari Number 2


(Opposite the Royal Palace)


Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Via Via Cafe

It was a bizarre 24 hours that took us from Lombok to Yogyakarta via Jakarta. We had spent one night in Senggigi, Lomboks' premier beach resort. Well after the paradise of Gili Meno, anything was going to be second rate. You can not beat heaven that's for sure. 
We decided to get out of Lombok. So we took a taxi to the airport and asked how much fares were to Yogyakarta and Denpasar in Bali. Yogya was very expensive and Bali's next flight was in the late afternoon. So after much discussion and a flip of a coin that we have for making difficult decisions. We settled on Java. Then we noticed that the next flight leaving Lombok was to Jakarta. We asked how much, and it was not that much more expensive than flying to Bali and it left in less than 2 hours. Out came the credit card and off to Jakarta we went. 
We were counting on that we could get a train ticket out that night to Jogya. We however did not count on the fact that Ramadan was ending, and it's a time when every single Indonesian is on the move. 
We soon found out that the thought of leaving that night was but a dream. Apart from standing for 10 hours we were going nowhere that night. Asking in the information centre we found that we might have to stay at least 3 nights. Not a great thought. So we queued up to buy a ticket, when as by a  miracle 2 seats appeared for a train the next morning. Heaven sent. Pachamama was looking out for us. Thankfully noone brought those last two seats before we got to the front of the queue. Tickets in hand we found a hotel, ate, slept and arrived back in the train station 12 hours later for a fantastic trip through the Java countryside. 
I was expecting something similar to Ubud in Yogyakarta. Well it is, but only about 100 times bigger and busier. But still as loveable. Well almost. 
Yogyakarta has 2 sides for tourists. The part by the train station with its small lanes and cheap hotels and restaurants and a slightly plusher side 3 km's South. In the plusher side we found 2 very good places. One to satisfy my addiction to caffeine and the other my desire to eat some good tasting food. A happy soul I was.
The Ministry of Coffee (Great name) sells the best cup of coffee I have tasted in Indonesia. Actually the best since we left Vietnam. Java coffee at its best. Quite strong but with some great nutty taste to it. I was in coffee heaven. It was quite a trek to go there, but as the local cyclos were so cheap it was well worth it. 
The other place ViaVia Cafe, which was a bit further up on the same street satisfied my belly. Indonesian food is good, but like the food in Malaysia, everywhere sells the same and after a while a change is called for. 
It's a pretty cool place. There are about 10 of these cafe's dotted around the Globe in the most random places. They are owned by a Belgium group who believe that travellers should be able to get a good feed plus a nights sleep at these rest stops. Great idea in my view. A modern day inn or Ryokan if you are Japanese. This particular one also sold tours arranged by local guides and sold locally produced handicrafts. I imagine they all do the same, but do not know for sure. 
For lunch or for dinner, we did both, it fitted our need for some good and different food. I have to say though that it wasn't the best food I've had on this trip, but they did a pretty good job of it though. Looking at the photos the salad is a little chunky, like the onions with the fish, but all was cooked pretty well. Well the kebabs could of done with a bit of cumin to spruce it up a bit, the fish we had was a tad over cooked, hey ho. All in all t'was pretty good food they delivered, and that is all that matters, and they saved us from another meal of Nasi Goreng and the like. We needed saving for a time. 

Monday, 6 October 2008

Gili Meno - Island Food

We were not sure what to expect from the Gili Islands. They seem to be very touristy as everyone always goes to the Gilis. We chose to goto Gili Meno the quieter of the 3 for some well deserved R'n'R. As if we haven't had enough of that over the last 6 months. 
The boat trip which was in a smallish boat bouncing around in some rather choppy water did it's best to see me sitting on the deck with my head in my hands and looking rather pale and in a cold sweat. This is how I cope with sea sickness.
The good fun was when we arrived to our Gili and we changed into a smaller boat to take us ashore. The sun had set already and darkness was upon us when we were told we had to do a beach landing, as there was no jetty there. Now I know what it is like to be a smuggler. Being taken ashore under darkness very quickly at the most secluded part of the island. Very pirate like. 
We chose to goto Gili Meno in the end because Sunset Gecko was the only place who replied to our email (via Tokyo). Thankfully, the places on the other 2 islands still haven't replied. Our gain. 
The food on the island is very much travellers fare. Some places do it well, some do not. Sunset Gecko does it very well. Things looked good from the off, as we were given a coconut cream milk shake with a sprinkling of green tea powder on top as a welcome drink. They are owned by some kind folks from Japan, hence the reply from Tokyo. Their food has some Japanese twists and turns in it, especially in the sauces because of this. 
Actually everything they did was a cut above everything else on the island. Not only in quality of the cooking but also the quantities, which once or twice left us with the feeling that we would not need to eat the next day. 
Thankfully breakfast was not included like most other places we have encountered in Indonesia. This allowed us to get into a routine of not waking up till about 10am. Wandering out to the beach, ordering an ice coffee. Drinking this while we pondered what we could do that day. Which was always to wander to the Northern part of the island, as there was no wind there and sit in the sea and look at the marine life until we were hungry. Then we'd stroll down the Eastern side to one of the many places there and eat some lunch, nothing to heavy, until we felt like making the intrepid journey through the centre of the island to Diana's for a couple of sunset beers. Life sometimes is best when it's not complicated. 
We'd either eat at Gecko's in the night or stroll back to the Eastern shores as every night the restaurants there line up the days catch of fabulous looking fish. Some fresher than others. It's simply cooked over charcoal, and depending which restaurant you goto you could get just rice or with one we got sweetcorn, jacket potatoes, salad and sauces. Heaven. 
I never got to try the Barracuda, but I was told it was very good. I seemed to always settle for either a Red or White Snapper grilled over coals and washed down with a cold beer. Life is so simple sometimes. Why complicate it. 
Geckos did the best Nasi Goreng, Nasi Campur and the best creamy Coconut Curry ever. I never got to try their fish dishes but I was reliably informed they were pretty special. Every dish we had with them was presented very well. Presentation is half a chefs job done. I forgot to ask where the Chef came from, I am sure she was not Indonesian when I said goodbye to her. She looked faintly Japanese but I could be mistaken. 
Sometimes I'd like to have a small place on the beach cooking unfussy food for people using good fresh ingredients, instead of the small town we will be in one day in Colombia. Not sure how the local population of Paisas will take to my style of cooking. Only time will tell. If I can do as good as Sunset Gecko, I will be a happy man. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

SQ Krisflyer Lounge and Business Class flight to Bali

As a travel agent I had flown Business Class with many airlines and experienced the delight that it is. But as I am no longer a travel agent this has now become a thing of the past. But as luck would have it, I managed to acquire enough miles to be able to travel Business Class on Singapore Airlines on the short distance between Singapore and Bali. 

The flight itself is just over 2 hours so I would not get much joy out of that, but to be able to use their lounge at Changai Airport was something I was looking forward to. Quite sad I know. 

As a Business Class passenger you are allowed to choose your own meal off their website. As it was a freebie I decided to go the whole hog, and chose a Chilean Seabass with Olive Mash and sautéed veg. Now I was getting sad. 

The lounge is a place of pure relaxation. The lights are dim, there is some subtle music in the background. There is enough space around to give everyone space to relax and rest before their flight. 

There is a multitude of snacks and drinks to choose from. Thankfully it is all self service. For some reason this made me incredibly hungry and thirsty. I had a couple of plates of the boneless duck that was on offer. Also some marinated and grilled chicken wings. But best of all was the aged cheddar I managed to eat as well. Thankfully all washed down with a lovely Zinfandel Red. I think I polished off a bottle within an hour. All this was finished off with a magnificent brandy and a few strong cups of expresso. Only because I could feel myself getting more and more drunk as time went on. I blame my self imposed beer denial programme to get rid of my belly. 45 days with hardly any alcohol. Never again. It got me nowhere. 

I also could of had some very lovely looking ravioli's with a lovely creamy mushroom sauce topped off with some parmesan cheese. But as I rarely eat past outside of Italy anyhows and I've never tasted it in Asia, I'm not going to start now. This is a personal prejudice as i have found that few Asian chefs can cook Western food that good anyhows, and I know a lot of people think pasta is very easy to cook with a tomato sauce, but you would be surprised how many people can not do this simple task. Either the pasta is over cooked and has lost that Al Dente taste or the sauce is too runny and smoothers the pasta. Not what I like. 

The Asian dishes on offer, like noodles, soups and curries did not really interest me that much after I had seen the duck. 

Luckily for me I was not too far gone as I just noticed the time and my flight was boarding. Somehow I managed to get to the plane about 15 minutes before take off. Never done this before. I was shown to my seat with courtesy, amazing as I could not really string two sentences together. 

I was offered a pre take off cocktail, as I was in Singapore and flying with the national carrier why not go for a Singapore Sling. Add more fuel to the raging fire. I ordered a glass of Australian Sav Blanc to go with my meal. 

To be honest from this point I really can not remember really much, the meal was edible, but my taste buds seemed to have died on me. The wine I do remember was quite refreshing. 

Thankfully for all concerned I was not offered any more alcohol.

By the time we were getting close to landing I had sobered up and was able to order several cups of coffee and water, to which the staff were only to pleased to give me. 

As I left the plane I could see a look of relief off the crew that I had caused no trouble on board. I was relieved too and very embarrassed. But as I will not be flying Business Class again, I did enjoy the experience. Would I do it all again. God yes, but hopefully I would not get as drunk again. 

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Hawker Centre in Singapore ... Another good breakfast ...

As mentioned with our other fantastic breakfast in Singapore. The best food guide in Singapore took us to the Pek Kio Market and Food Centre. This place is right in the middle of a public housing estate. As all good hawkers centres they are very busy places. 

We were had coffee made at the New Fashion Coffee Stall. The owner only makes 200 cups a day. Once he has done that, he packs up and goes home. A nice life he has. His coffee is quite strong, and very cheap, but he still manages to give you a lot of condensed milk. How am I ever going to live without this once we get back to the England. 

Food wise, there is everything under the sun to choose from. We three separated and headed off in different directions to find us some food. All three of chose shops that had the longest queues. Lina went for noodle soup, Tay went for 2 different types of yam. One steamed like a cake with sweet soy sauce, the other had coconut shavings in the middle. I went for Nasi Lemak with Taiwan sausage thrown in for good measure. You can never keep a good breakfast down. Oddly enough we all spent about 3 Singapore dollars each. 

These places are a lifeline for some people. With the prices that the food and drinks are sold at, its more cost effective for people to come here for breakfast rather than cook it at home, plus they get to see friends and it's good for the community. Without them, people would be cooped up in their apartments being miserable. More than likely live less also. 

There was a fantastic market next door also. Selling fresh veg, meat and fish also. I wish that England had places like these rather than the soulless, soul destroying supermarkets that have been forced upon us and are driving the small local green grocers, butchers and fish mongers out of business. Why did we let this happen? I am sure Singapore will not go this way, but when big business has its way ....... Profits matter more than anything .

You can see a short video of the New Fashion Coffee Stall at : 

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Chinese Coffee Shops


               Coffee shops keep the world moving. Wether they are in Europe, the Americas, or in Chinese communities in Asia. Only in Asia are Chinese Coffee shops different from the rest of the world. No comfy sofas to sit back and drink your soy milk caffe mocka. The coffee or Kopi as it's called in Malay, is strained through a large cloth strainer that resembles one of my old socks. 

These places are very basic in appearance. Plastic chairs, tables and cutlery. The places are normally with white tiles. Actually I haven't seen one that wasn't tiled white. The image of cleanliness is important, as they proudly show off the certificates to prove it.

Depending on where you are, really depends on the people who frequent them. For example, in Malaka and Penang, you get a good mixture of races, not just Chinese. Where as in Kuching it would mainly be the Chinese who visit. 

Not only are drinks provided, you can get an assortment of local snacks, mainly Chinese in origin. Well they are Chinese Coffee Shops after all. 

We have had some good noodle soups, dim sum buns, stir fried noodles in most of them. Good, filling and cheap food. What more can you ask. 

During the week we found it was mainly workers who came to drink or eat. At weekends we saw a lot of families come for a lunchtime snack (we were never up that early). The shops are always busy, normally from dawn to well beyond dusk, sometimes 24 hours. Lots of people coming in for a quick bite or drink, friends to gossip or just to meet up, or others like us, just to watch the world go by in very relaxed atmosphere. 

Maybe coffee shops the world over are similar after all. 

Friday, 19 September 2008

Singapore - The Best Breakfast Ever

Asia seems to have some of the best breakfast's ever. Pho Bo or Ga in Vietnam, Nasi Lemak in Malaysia to name but a few. Although Europe has a few good ones, like churros and chocolate, and the infamous English fry up, which I can not really eat now. Too much grease. Life sucks huh? In Singapore they have many, but my all time favourite is at a small tea stall in a food floor within a public housing estate in China Town. 

The place has been there for decades, run by the same people and I hope for decades to come. It is only a place you would goto if someone took you to, and the chances are if you found it you would never have sat down and ordered something. We were originally brought here by a friend of ours Tay Lai Hock, who we met whilst I was getting a massage in the street by a blind masseuse in Kunming, China. He is our guide and mentor on all things Singaporean, especially the food and where to eat it. He has never let us down. I keep telling him he should start up a Singapore Food Tour. Sampling the delights of what makes Singapore tick. 

When we arrived at the "Morning Bah Kut Tea" stall, the place was full, and they had to put another table out for us. This being Singapore, the plates and cutlery are all plastic, cheap to buy and easy to wash. Tay ordered breakfast for us, thankfully as I would not have known what was on offer. What came was two lots of pork ribs and liver in soup, fried intestines, pigs trotters, some unctuous vegetables that went so well with the rice. The tea was being warmed in a pot over a charcoal burner by our table. Fabulous. 

The meat on the ribs literally falls apart in your mouth, but with enough bite to border on perfection. The soup is probably the best in Singapore. Although some refute this claim, as their is a shop owned by the guy who refused to open especially for the Governor of Hong Kong, but from what I know his soup isn't that good. The liver takes me back to my youth, when my dad used to cook liver for me as a child. The intestines, which I ate the lot, were so good I could of ate them all day. This was all washed down with some hot tea, to clear the amount of fat we had just consumed with all that pork. 

The bill for this massive feast which would have fed about 6 people, was 25 Singapore Dollars. Us being greedy for all things fantastic ate the lot, and we were suitably stuffed. I hope it doesn't take us 2 years to return to breakfast heaven. 

Friday, 12 September 2008

First Beer in 45 Days

The first sip of beer after 45 days was a refreshing one. Had it at Brewerkz at Clarke Quay in Singapore. I thought as I had not had a beer for so long, it may as well be a good one. 

So we popped along to Brewerkz as they are a micro brewery. I am pretty sure they were not around the last time we were in Singapore. It's amazing that on this trip the amount of dull, tasteless beer we have drunk. I can really only name a few beers that I have drunk that are of note. 

The reason for my fastening was that after being on the road for nearly 4 months and drinking beer literally everyday I was getting a bit of a beer belly, as well as fed up with beer. So as we approached Malaysia, one of the few Muslim countries in Asia, I decided to go beer free. Mainly to get rid of this belly, plus Malaysia as far as I am aware, does not brew any beer itself. So I would not be missing anything. 

I have to admit that after 45 days, I was really wanting to taste a good beer. So Brewerkz was the spot. They brew a splendid selection of beers ranging from dark ales to crisp light lagers. I settled for a Pilsner (5%). The first gulp was pure magic. I actually could of drunk the whole glass more or less in one go, but didn't want to over do it. 

What else goes with a good beer, but a good burger and chips, and they were damn good. Always like a place that does a good burger and fries. 

I've no doubt we will return to Brewerkz before we leave Singapore for another tasting. 

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Nasi Lemak

Nasi Lemak is without doubt the best breakfast dish ever, although Malaysians eat it anytime of the day. It's the national dish of Malaysia, (unofficially of course) it's a national institution, an obsession, rather like how Laksa is in some 
states. It is available everywhere, from roadside stalls, bus station cafes to food courts, restaurants and even 5 star hotels. In some hotels we have stayed in, we have had to put it together ourselves at breakfast time.
It's a very simple dish consisting of a few core ingredients. Rice cooked in coconut milk and flavoured with pandanus leaf, ginger and lemongrass for fragrance. It is also served with fried anchovies, fried peanuts,  a hard boiled egg, a slice or two of cucumber, a dollop of chilli sambal. Some places we found serve it with fried chicken, a meat curry or even prawns. Malaysians sometimes have it with fried cows lungs in chilli and chicken liver curry. Not seen those yet. One place we were at, the waiter came back to us to apologise that the chicken curry was off but they had beef randang if we were interested. Of course we were. 
Once the Nasi Lemak is made, it's presentation time. Somehow, people have managed to wrap it up into a banana leaf, no idea how, whilst others have simply been piled together on a single plate and for the artistically gifted they have been presented on a plate, like a piece of art. Gordon Ramsey eat yer heart out. 
It has overtaken noodle soup as my favourite way to start the day. 

Monday, 8 September 2008

Knowing Me, Knowing You - Kuching

Passing the AHA Organic Cafe as we arrived in Kuching, The Cat City as it means in Malay. I wondered if the 80's Norwegian pop group had been big in Malaysia, or whether Alan Partridge had made a runner from his job at Radio Norwich.
We were at a loss for where to eat lunch one day, it was raining hard and neither of us wanted to walk too far, as we only had only one umbrella slightly big enough to keep one side of each of us dry. I remembered AHA. Had to give it a try. It was organic, and as long as the photos of Morten and co were kept to a minimum and 80's hits were at a low volume I could handle it. 
As we were walking there, a car decided to show us who was boss and deliberately splash in a large puddle and drench our backs completely. The obscenities that flowed from my mouth would have turned the meanest criminal a slight shade of red. I know people back in the UK who do this all the time. They do it for fun, and because they hate pedestrians, because they get in the way. I wanted to throw a brick through the back window, but the thought of spending any time in a jail in Kuching did not appeal to me, plus the car would belong to a local politician or policeman. One day vengeance will be had. In this life or the next. 
We arrived at AHA and all thoughts of cheesy euro-pop groups vanished. Downstairs was a shop selling all manner of organic produce as you would expect to find in any organic shop back in London. Maybe not as much but a good selection there was. 
The seating for the cafe was upstairs, so we wandered up, trying to ignore the looks of the staff as they were gorping at our soaked backs. Lot's of nice comfy sofas and some all together strange tables met us as we took the last steps onto the top floor. We both jumped into the same sofa and it enveloped us. I love places like this, that care as much about how comfy you are as well as how good the food is. 
The menu was kinda sparse. Only a few dishes on it, and all consisted of noodles, plus a pasta dish. We forgot to ask about Today's Special, which was a shame as it turned out to be Tuna Head Soup. Fish Head's would have to wait until Little India in Singapore. 
I ordered a Dry Noodle Curry, and Lina opted for a Apple Cider Noodle Soup. Interesting. The headlines downstairs were that they did not use oil to cook with. Dry frying they called it. I guessed everything was either steamed or boiled. 
As we relaxed soaking up the place, drinking my Green Tea, we really could have been anywhere. Chiswick did really come to mind, as it has been on our minds of late. Maybe we were meant to move back there, but we were opting for North London instead. 
Our food arrived and a delight to the senses it was. So colourful and visual. My noodles were topped off with shredded carrot and red cabbage, and a few ground nuts for extra texture. Not so sure about the two green leafs sticking out of the side of the dish, but they added colour. Lina's was just as colourful with red cabbage, some sweet corn, green leafs and those pounded nuts again. 
My dry noodle curry was exactly that, and it was great. The spices were nicely blended to give you a taste of the Sub-Continent but not to over whelm you. Lina's soup was good but odd. Not an everyday occurrence to encounter cider as a soup base. It worked though. Although it could have used more salt. The inclusion of a small yolky egg was a welcome delight and something we haven't seen since Japan. It had been missed. 
All in all AHA was a great place for a light lunch, as Malay food had been weighing us down a bit of late. It had stopped raining, so we decided to vacate the premises and head off to a museum for some culture.
By this time I had forgotten to ask them if Alan was in today. I would have hoped the answer was no. 
Ahhaaaaaa .... 

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Life Cafe - Kuching

Our second visit to the Life Cafe was just as good as the first. It is situated opposite the Black Bean Coffee shop, which was fast becoming our second home in Kuching. The same table and two chairs outside were always kept clear for us. I'd like to believe this, as coincidences are too much sometimes. They only sell 100% pure Sarawak coffee from estates in the hinterland. They have a wide selection of teas from Sarawak also. But it's the homemade peanut cookies that keep bringing us back, as we get one with each coffee. Bribery always works with me. 
Life Cafe has a short menu, mainly consisting of noodle dishes. We were tempted by them, even the Eight Treasure Crocodile Soup was screaming out to me to be eaten, but it the sight of pork on the menu that drove me wild. We had been in Malaysia for over a month by now, and we had seen no pork on any menu. We had even seen chicken ham and sausages, but alas no pork. So the thought of eating some fatty pork was too much to say no. 
Now should I have Hakka Pork Leg or Pork Rib Stew, which I could have with either rice or noodles. Getting sick of rice so noodles it was going to be. I have actually had both as we ventured back there the following night as well. Well you can never have to much of a good thing. 
The Hakka Pork Stew had glorious chunks of fatty pork. Oh my god they were good. The stew was made up of a typical Chinese stock, which included 5 spice powder and star anise. The following night the Rib's were just as good, but the sauce was lighter and not so strong, but still as good. The noodles were thin and worked well with the stews. The Hakka Pork would have been a Smash with mash also. Get it. 
Lina had a Lamb Stew which for the exception of pearl barley and potatoes, any Irish Gran would have been proud of. So lamby. So good. 
This was a real surprise coming from a Chinese cafe in a small town in Malaysia. Kuching was handing out surprises on every corner and we were loving it. 
On our third visit to the cafe. Lina decided to have the Eight Treasure Crocodile Soup, and some steamed pork and leek dumplings. The Eight Treasures we found out were Chinese herbs, some tasted better than others. One tasted a bit like cardboard. The crocodile itself didn't really taste of much, but was moist and well cooked. The star of the show was the soup itself. It was really different. The herbs gave an indescribable taste to it, but overall it was pretty good. 
The dumplings were filled with pork and eek and came with a soy sauce and minced garlic dipping sauce. Reminded me a lot of the momo's I used to eat in Tibetan restaurants in Khatmandu. Gorgeous. 
For the second time that day, I had chicken curry with noodles. This was the better one of the day. This had a thick gravy at the bottom of the bowl, enough to coat the noodles, but not drown them. I am getting fed up with thin watery gravies, so this was a welcome change to get a nice thick one. Yummy. 

Thursday, 4 September 2008

A First Rate Tour With an Even Better Meal Thrown In.

We never expected much from Bandar Seri Begawan. We were only there to really pass through from Sabah to Sarawak, and decided to stay for 2 nights. Everything we had read made the city seem like a mid sized Malaysian town. They were right. To make matters worse, alcohol was banned in Brunei back in 1991. We managed to smuggle in a bottle of rum, brought in the duty free island of Labuan. Although we found out later we were allowed to bring in 2 bottles, but had to declare them. 

The only thing people advised us to do was take a boat tour of the Water Villages (Kampung Ayer) on the Sungai Brunei. As we approached the banks of the river a small boat came speeding up to us with the driver waving his hands at us. We had found our guide for this short trip. Tommy was his name, a very jolly fellow who lived on the river himself. 

The tour was quite short, about 40 minutes. He showed us around one or two of the smaller villages and gave us some good explanations on the areas, pointing out all the local landmarks. 

At the end of the tour as we were passing by his house he invited us inside. We jumped at the chance at seeing inside one of these houses. To our surprise the house are extremely large. The ceilings are very high, lots of space and very airy. Air-con not needed here. 

His house was full of extended family members as his cousins' child was getting married the next day. Over the course of the day, up to 1000 people would come and visit the bride and groom. 7 houses were going to be used for the celebrations. I could imagine the feast. We were shown his cousins house which was next door. His mother-in-law was inside the kitchen cooking up a large wok of chicken curry (kari ayam). Smelt great. Tommy took us back to his house for some light refreshments of tea, juice, fresh mini ringed doughnuts and a typical desert of Brunei. Sorry forgot the name, but it is glutinous (sticky) rice cooked in coconut milk and served tightly wrapped in a banana leaf. Really really great. It was a little sweet, but the banana leaf gave it a great flavour.

After a while chit chatting, we got up to leave, when Tommy's mother-in-law came over to tell everyone lunch was ready. I guess Tommy was hungry or being a Muslim, generosity is just a way of life. We were invited to stay. Now I am never one to turn down good home cooked food, especially a curry. At least 20 people were crowded around the large dishes of rice, chicken curry, bamboo & other vegetables and grilled fish. We served ourselves a good portion of all. We were given chairs to sit on, most of the other people sat on the floor to eat. This truly was the best curry I have had since arriving in Asia. It was not spicy, which someone apologised for, but you could taste everything in it, even the cinnamon they used in the dish. Glad to see I wasn't the only one who used cinnamon in savoury dishes. It was so good we popped up to the table and helped ourselves to a second helping. They told us to, and it would have been impolite not to. 

I could have carried on eating that curry until my belly burst. So much better and different from the curries we have had in restaurants. Like they say, home cooked food is so much better. Very true. 

Brunei's national dish is Ambuyat. It is the pith of the sago tree, which is ground to a powder and mixed with water. You are served big globs of it with spicy dips to add to the bland taste. We never tried it, to be honest we never went looking for it. The description put us off. Some people we spoke to didn't like it either. 

The memory of this time will remain with us for a long. Sometimes when you least expect something to be good, it pops up and surprises you.