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.