Tag Archives: friendship

Kuching, Sarawak: hidden treasures

Growing up in Southeast Asia, I used to take this part of the world for granted. Like some of my friends, my dream vacations involved faraway, ‘interesting’ places like France and Italy.

If I could turn back time, I’d change my perspective. Hot, sticky summers; amazing thunderstorms; delectable food; juicy tropical fruit … how much I overlooked the gifts of home :-)

Around two weeks ago, I popped over to Kuching, Sarawak to visit my friend Soo Sian. We met at university more than a decade ago (!) and I was excited that I was going to see her again … and visit her in her hometown! I didn’t really know what to expect; I had heard about Kuching’s famous orang utans and ‘food that was better than Singapore’s’ (a bold statement?) … aside from that, I went with an open mind.

Soo Sian came to pick me up at the airport and we dove right into easy, rapid conversation – as if the last time we caught up face to face properly was mere days ago, rather than years ago. My first thought about the city was that it was a cross between Singapore and Phuket in terms of pace, feel and cleanliness. It has the best of both cities :-) We headed straight to the heart of the city, into charming ‘old Kuching’ for lunch – sweet and smoky satay, noodles cooked in a gentle broth. I relaxed immediately.

So began six lovely days :-)

Old Kuching / Main Bazaar / Carpenter Street

Some parts of the area have been ‘touristified’, but it doesn’t take away the quiet beauty and charm of this area – loved both the cheerful, well-preserved buildings and the tranquil waterfront. Some really good food in the area too, which is great to enjoy in such surroundings.

The only downside for me was one public loo I walked into there, but I won’t say too much about that – just try not to need one if you are used to public toilets in Singapore or New Zealand.

At one of the jetties we caught a sampan across the river to Fort Margherita (where I got a quick introduction to the history of Kuching at the Brooke Gallery, recommended for first-time tourists).

Street art / heritage

One of the best things about Kuching for me was how you didn’t have to go far to step back in time, or admire the simple pleasures in life – and I mean that in the best way. Cities develop at such a rapid pace now, it was honestly such a joy to gaze at street art, see people doing things the ‘old (and best!) way’, walk past shops that brought back happy childhood memories …

Food

It goes without saying … diets don’t work well in Southeast Asia, and definitely not in Kuching :-) And yes – there were moments in which I thought the food was good enough to rival Singapore’s!

I fell in love at first bite with this crunchy, succulent jungle fern known as midin. We ate it cooked with red wine twice, and belachan (shrimp paste) once. Scrumptious. I could eat it every day.

Local kueh, zhong zi / bak zhang (glutinous rice dumplings) and other delights: my grandma used to make or buy these quite frequently when she was alive. Always makes me happy to see them. I feel they are getting more rare now in shops, as they are labour-intensive and their low prices hardly make up for it.

Kolo mee: affectionately known as one of Sarawak’s national dishes – it’s easy to see its appeal, especially at breakfast time! You can find it almost anywhere in Kuching where there is food sold, though Soo Sian did say there are a few places that do it better than others.

Kway chap: a robust dish with the potential to charm or offend. Flat rice sheets – a little like torn lasagne sheets – served in a herbal broth flavoured with hearty spices like star anise and five spice powder, with braised offal, tongue, belly, etc. It has to be cooked well in order for it to be enjoyable and not pungent; we ate this dish at two places and both were delicious.

Let’s not forget one of the most important meals: dessert! We had some mighty fine dessert … most notably Cocopuri (try their signature). Light and delightful. I don’t think I’ve ever had three scoops of ice cream in a single sitting, nor would I have welcomed the thought, but here it was easy! On the night we were there I loved the combination I got: coconut + lychee bandung + teh-c special. This was topped with what I think were toasted coconut flakes and gula apong.

Kopi-C / China House was a haven of relaxation and indulgence too, with their tempting selection of cakes, good coffee and tasteful decor :-) A great place to visit alone with a notebook and pen, or with friends.

Being in Kuching at the start of Ramadan meant we got to visit a pop-up Ramadan bazaar, a lovely and lively experience, and pick up some delicious ayam penyet, biryani and sugar cane juice.

Indian Temple Trail, Matang

Home to three Indian temples, the trail is also a lovely walk for nature lovers and introverts. Ideal for those looking to start exercising too ;-)

Serapi Virgin coconut shake

A delicious treat after our walk! It was busy but still felt like one of Kuching’s well-kept secrets :-) Also enjoyed the drive there as we got to enjoy lovely views and lush greenery en route.

So it feels like I’ve spent most of this post talking about food … and it is obvious that I missed some of the obvious places and activities most tourists head to Kuching for :-) It is home to many other treasures besides what I have listed here, guess another trip there in the future may be in order. From a fellow tourist-who-loves-exploring-great-places point of view I hope tourism there will grow, yet in another way I hope it doesn’t grow so much that it loses the quiet beauty it enjoys now.

For me I was very lucky to have a friend and travel companion who also hosted me and drove me around, as I do think it would be very hard to get around on my own otherwise. Attractions are spread out and signage and public transport options were not clear to me. That said … when there’s a will, there’s a way. :-)

Thanks Soo Sian and all the beautiful people I met there for a relaxing, restorative getaway!

A special evening at Ang Bahay

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
~ Charles Dickens

Sometimes, life throws you a bouquet with flowers you fancy (my ideal one would have tiger lilies, chocolate mint and maybe a leprechaun or two thrown in for good measure). I am talking about days on which life tickles and delights – you know the ones. They don’t need to contain one million dollars or a rugged Prince Charming arriving on a motorbike (though I suppose they would be nice…). They could happen in good company; at the beach; at the duck pond – when the beauty of life rises to meet your face – and you find your heart and feet dancing.

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The last 10 days have contained a few of these moments for me – a crucial ‘aha’ moment in my work; swimming at Eastbourne; watching a ladybug glide slowly by; having my friend Jane visit. So many things. Hellos and goodbyes. New friends. Last but not least, a spectacular surprise – dinner with the gracious Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand, Her Excellency Virginia Benavidez.

Yes!

Through serendipity, friendship, a big dollop of warm Filipino hospitality and more, Her Excellency hosted a dinner in honour of Jane at Ang Bahay, the Ambassador’s residence. And I got to be Jane’s guest.

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Recently, Jane visited the Philippines and was clearly enthralled by the experience – I could feel her passion radiating through the phone as we spoke. It awakened good memories – mainly of a visit to Manila when I was a little girl, where I found myself chin and elbow-deep in mango heaven… and of the Filipino friends and domestic helpers I have met, almost all of whom are always, in my mind, laughing, boisterous, joyous, gentle as they speak with their beautiful Spanish-tinted accents.

Just the other day, I met one of Jane’s friends, a glorious Filipina lady, who had me beaming within seconds of meeting her. I begin to understand Jane’s heart for the Philippines and its people.

So… when the invitation to Ang Bahay arrived in our email inboxes, we were thrilled! Of course!

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Opening your door to someone is something special; sharing stories and food with someone, even more so. Her Excellency did these and more. I thought to myself, here is a lady in a significant position with a sea of facts and faces to remember – and here she is, humble, graceful and approachable. She included all of us in her informal address and in conversation. No one looked ill at ease – we dived into conversation. Never mind that I have little connection to the Philippines or that I only know about five words in Tagalog – we laughed, chatted, joked… and I forgot myself in the course of the evening, mainly in exchanging stories with the people seated at my end of the table. No attention to napkin placement / polite regal laughing needed (though, umm, I tried to behave ;-)).

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I could try to explain what made it all wonderful – getting to dine at the Ambassador’s beautiful residence, the amazing food, the smiling people… but all that doesn’t really say it. Pretty surroundings, novelty and friendliness are great, of course. I noted, with pleasure, the table setting, tall vases, art on the walls, menus printed on handmade paper cards supporting Samaritana, and (real) fruit candle holders! I enjoyed our meal immensely – everything from soup with a perfect puff pastry crown to an impressive ice dome with fresh fruit tucked into it, which kept cool the entire time. I soaked in the whole experience, marvelling at the fact that I was at the Ambassador’s place.

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But all that doesn’t encompass what made it possible to be fully present and at ease in a new and novel situation. Soaking in something that is at once complex and terribly simple: genuine hospitality. Hospitality that is generous, other-focused, radiant and passionate – hospitality from a host that brings out her best for her guests – hospitality that is glorious, yet humble and welcoming, with no airs and pretension. Hospitality that makes me fall in love again with the world, and its diversity, and the beauty of culture and humanity. Hospitality that seems to touch me not as a gesture, but as an embrace.

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It all sounds terribly cheesy, doesn’t it. But, well, that is the way it was. To Her Excellency, Jane and the other guests: thank you.

Masaganang bagong taon sa lahat!

P.S. Just in case you are interested, the menu was as follows (ah, I’m getting hungry all over again, typing this!):

Mushroom soup with puff pastry
Alfa salad with fruit
Strawberry sorbet
Fish and vegetables in teriyaki sauce
Chicken royale
Braised pork hocks
Fresh fruits in dome
Turon with chocolate dip
Wine
Date tea

A morning like every morning

Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.
~ Walt Whitman

Last night, I watched a spectacular sunset – one which said clearly, “Stop. Pay attention to me.”

That reminded me to be present in each moment… to know that the Good Life is not the Perfect Someday, or the Hive of Meaningless Activity. It is right here, right now. Walking on wet grass, releasing the scent of rain with each step. Feeling the wind graze every inch of my skin. Drinking in the glow of the setting sun. Gazing at the mist. Pausing on purpose. Dreaming, yes, but not losing sight of the waking moments or the really important things. Being thankful.

So this morning I met Herman for breakfast and there it was again – something which said, “Stop. Pay attention. Take a photo if you like…” Of what? The bright sun, the table askew, the berries stacked in his glass and the avocado spread on my toast. Or, in the case of the photo below, the End of Breakfast and the Start of Mid-morning Tuesday…

Conversation. Friendship. My work schedule for the day. The buzz of business people walking past clutching meeting agendas and other such things. Morning.

The mornings like every other morning – those are the gems.

Mid-Autumn in Spring

The moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
~ William Shakespeare

Spring is whizzing by in a blur of tulips, work and windy sunshine… and I nearly forgot all about Mid-Autumn / Mooncake Festival! Luckily, Jeremy didn’t – and him and Char prepared a delicious celebratory feast for us lucky folk last weekend :-)

It was a blustery blustery busy busy Saturday for me, so walking through the doors to see and smell ALL THIS was especially amazing!

Tofu with a sweet chilli marinade, deftly stacked into an inviting tower…

Mussels with melting cheese and bacon bits… mmmm!

Prawns, corn and greens tossed in a pretty stir-fry:

Jeremy’s version of san choy bau (生菜包) – traditionally made with chicken / pork mince and water chestnuts, with the cooked mince rolled up in fresh lettuce leaves immediately before consumption. Classy finger food :-) This (addictive!) version incorporated lamb mince, bamboo shoots, tinned baby corn, carrots, oyster sauce, and a host of other ingredients.

Roast duck – bought, but made to look homemade ;-)

Of course – the necessary mooncake. I’ve heard that each one carries approximately 1,000 calories, but the truth is I am clueless about calories so I eat them even though 1,000 sounds like a lot. Growing up, I tried mooncakes with all sorts of crusts and fillings – yam, red bean, lotus paste, snow skin… they are different in each region of Asia and even now the sight of mooncakes makes me smile and intrigued to know what is inside.

This one hid within itself pandan and salted egg yolks. Pandan is a happy scent for me, don’t often get to inhale it now – and I loved this!

Mooncake on its own would have been sufficient for dessert, but out popped a second surprise – mango pudding, made from scratch! Creamy, rich and so mangoey, for lack of a better adjective! I asked Char for the recipe she used, which she kindly sent to me – see below :-)

    Ingredients:
    3 cups Alphonso mango pulp
    3 tbsp plain gelatin
    2/3 cup cold water plus 2/3 cup boiling water
    1 cup evaporated milk
    1 cup superfine sugar
    1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
    Method:
    Place the gelatin into a bowl and stir in the cold water. Add in the boiling water and stir until the gelatin is thoroughly dissolved. Set aside to cool a few minutes.
    In a bowl, add sugar to the evaporated milk and stir until sugar is completely dissolved.
    Place the mango pulp into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the gelatin mixture, then add the sweetened evaporated milk and vanilla extract. Give everything a good stir, then pour into 8-9 custard cups or bowls (we used plastic cups, as shown in the picture above).
    Chill for at least 3 hours, or until set. Serve with a garnish of fresh fruit and evaporated milk poured gently over the top.
    Yields 8-9 servings.

Thank you Jeremy and Char, and happy Mid-Autumn Festival, everyone :-)

P.S. Somehow I’ve missed eight rounds of Sweet New Zealand! Grazie mille Alessandra for reminding me (incidentally, she is also the gracious host of this month’s Sweet NZ!). Don’t forget to send in your entry if you are a NZ food blogger and haven’t already…

Beautiful food

A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
~ John Keats

Beautiful food by a beautiful friend – Lizzie! A spread of delight – fish tacos, homemade coleslaw, chicken-yummy (I am sure it had a proper name, but this is what it was in my head), pumpkin with basil, cheese and crackers on a board and more. You can always taste a bit of someone’s heart along with their talent in their food… thus this food tasted golden indeed. Us all were very blessed.

What to do in Beijing

To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.
~ Bill Bryson

I left Beijing late on Monday night, sad to leave Jane and happy to be heading towards a city with cleaner air. Grateful for the marvellous trip – Beijing is really home to many wonders besides the Great Wall!

There is so much to write about – wandering down curious mazes of narrow streets/hutongs. Bus adventures involving rapid-fire Mandarin and being forced to elbow people to stay alive (the buses there, they do strange things to humans). The spitting (which I now understand, because I was tempted to cough up and dispose of the balls of dust which kept taking up residence in my throat). The beautiful, soft foliage. The ‘exercise machines’ on streets for public use – hilarious, and rather cool! The marvellous mangoes. The way the city looks tranquil and mysterious in the evening. The thoughts I thought in the public toilets, which I shall spare you from. The curious ways of guan xi.

And thoughts on travel! – how wonderful, worthwhile, informative and exhausting it is… and how much it makes me appreciate my life (both the big and little things that make it awesome). How much I love, too, the moments of mini coincidences, kindness from strangers, inspiration and total shock. :-)

My favourite method of getting around Beijing was, without doubt, via tin can car! It’s like a loud mini motorised carriage or a Chinese version of the tuk tuk… way too cute! I wish we could’ve travelled everywhere in them, but for the following reasons: distance (the drivers mostly do short rides), variety and cost, we also travelled via taxi, subway and on foot. If you can cycle, Beijing’s pretty bicycle-friendly too.

We attended a dim sum cooking class at The Hutong Kitchen, at Beixinqiao (map here). With the Little Gold Book, we got a two-for-one deal. :-)

Our instructor showed us how to make nuo mi ji (steamed parcels of chicken/glutinous rice wrapped in lotus leaves), shao mai and xia jiao (shrimp dumplings) (all pictured below).

It was certainly a class designed for foreigners and dim sum beginners (and the dim sum was not quite identical to what is served in most restaurants), and I doubt I’d reproduce any of these in my own kitchen (too cumbersome!) – but I gleaned valuable cooking tips and enjoyed it very much.

Right after the cooking class, we adjourned to Sanyuanli Market (Shunyuan Jie, opposite Jingkelong Supermarket, west of Sanyuan Dongqiao, Chaoyang District). A long corridor with stalls selling just about everything you need to cook anything at all. I’d say it caters well for both locals and foreigners. Good cuts of meat, wide selection of seafood and fresh herbs/vegetables – and all sorts of dried/packet goods too! All at good prices.

See, we had two excellent meals made from products purchased at Sanyuanli Market (Jane cooked! Yum!) – baked salmon, and lamb and prune tagine.

Jane also took me to Niu Jie (Ox Street), the Muslim quarters in Beijing. I loved this area! And not just because the Niujie Mosque (Niu Jie 88, Beijing, China) so beautifully incorporates both Chinese and Islamic culture and elements…

Niu Jie is also home to an amazing array of food like yang rou chuan’r (lamb kebabs), various types of cakes and nian gao and other snacks… (we bought a few green bean snacks before we lunched at a place with delicious Xinjiang cuisine).

One place I’d definitely visit often if I lived in Beijing is Ri Tan Gong Yuan (Temple of the sun)… so calming!

After a leisurely walk and cup of coffee/tea in Ri Tan Gong Yuan on Sunday afternoon, we were well ready for dinner! We walked for 20 minutes to get to Na Jia Xiao Guan (south of the LG Twin Towers, west of 119 Middle School in Chaoyang District) – a fantastic place both in terms of food and ambience.

We queued for nearly half an hour to get in, and were served red date tea whilst we waited – dinner was totally worth the wait. The place was buzzing with positive energy and happy diners. The menu – featuring mostly Manchu cuisine – was colourful and exciting. And the food, including a plate of most perfect crispy goose, was so delicious!

I ate my first donkey burger on Monday. Surprised by how good it tasted! Tender and flavourful… so good, especially with the addition of chopped chives! It tasted nothing like chicken, for the record… :-)

Also ate my first jian bing on Monday – again, loved it. Imagine a warm, savoury cross between an omelette and crepe with sweet crunchy lettuce in the middle…

Lastly. Jingshan Park – it was so foggy when we visited, but the view from the top was still spectacular… I can just imagine how stunning it’d be on a clear day!

(While it is very unfortunate that Emperor Chongzhen hung himself, I think it even more unfortunate that they chose to bear such text on a sign in the park – right at the top, no less!…)

Thanks Beijing (and Jane!) for having me! (And thanks Jane for taking the better photos that feature in this post).

S.T.A.Y. on a Michelin star

But friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life, and thanks to a benevolent arrangement the greater part of life is sunshine.
~ Thomas Jefferson

Hello from Beijing! I’m here visiting my friend Jane – and we have been functioning on an average of three hours’ sleep a night, but we’re pretty happy.

Initial impressions of this city: DUSTY! BUSY! Dust descends daily on me like an army of microscopic aliens – and people are gruff, cab drivers especially so (though I guess I wouldn’t like to be spending my days driving random people around in Beijing traffic either). Personal space doesn’t appear to exist as a concept here.

Yet, for all its smog and busy-ness, Beijing possesses a tangible charm amid all the chaos – I feel safe on her streets and pleasure fills my pockets as I gaze at street stalls boasting luscious fruit and street food like jian bing; people playing chess under bridges; the beauty of faces on the subway, on bikes, at the market…

It’s been wonderful exploring Beijing via subway, ‘tin can cars’ and taxis with Jane as my personal unpaid tour guide ;-) I’ve loved everything from hearing Mandarin all around me, fumbling with my own questionable command of Mandarin, to meeting the people who make up Jane’s China world…

One highlight was going to S.T.A.Y. last night, a restaurant championed by Michelin-award-winning chef Yannick Alléno.

Does one need a good reason for a special dinner? Yes and no – the simple joy of a great friendship is reason enough for me… but on this occasion we also had Jane’s birthday to celebrate (she terms it as “the 26th anniversary of her expulsion from her mother’s womb”). We spent a few hours on Google trying to decide where to go, and when at last Jane rang them to make a booking our eyes held a matching gleam. :-D

And so it is that we spent an hour travelling via tin can car (see first picture), taxi and subway to get to S.T.A.Y. where we very happily stayed for three hours! We had an outstanding waiter and sommelier who made us feel at once like old friends and like royalty – and who arranged for us to have champagne on the house (for Jane’s birthday)!

We began our evening with a generous selection of amuse-bouches including: cherry-coloured radishes brushed with butter; cubed tomato with parmigiano (these held their shape on the plate but collapsed immediately upon meeting our tongues); fish fingers served with a paprika dip; a bread basket with butter checkered with creamy ham.

We opted for the four-course meal (with two options per course, RMB528 per person).

Course 1: both of us had spanner crab cakes rolled in sesame seeds, served alongside fresh broad beans and greens with a beautiful shallot/ginger/garlic sauce. This was a light course, and I enjoyed the way the individual sweet strands of crab meat mingled with the fragrance of the sesame seeds and the savoury sauce… mmm.

Course 2: Jane had the chicken consommé, a clear, refined soup with mushrooms and carrot – and garnished with toasted crostini spread with foie gras and chicken liver pâte. My cream of cauliflower arrived as a bed of crispy croutons, delicate seaweed strands and cauliflower to which the waiter added a warm, delicious cream…

Hmm… you’ll have to trust me on this, but it really looked much better in real life than it does here:

Course 3: The black pepper Angus beef fillet with cafe de paris and gratin dauphinois floored her… she was speechless for some time and I wondered if her face could split from smiling. When I took a bite of her meal, though, I understood :-) And I was well pleased with my red snapper with clams – the dish was awash with the sweetness of clam juice – and the zucchini, tomato marmalade and basil leaves added texture and flavour that was really complementary to the fish and clams.

Course 4: And finally, dessert – a stroll through Pastry Library wonderland! Here we were treated to a visual feast of treats in glass cabinets and left to select our sweet of choice. Jane opted for a vanilla tart, which arrived at our table topped with gold-dusted caramelised pistachio nuts – and I had a passionfruit cream-filled biscuit cigar reminiscent of a brandy snap, topped with a passionfruit/chocolate mousse and almonds. Of course, we were also given an additional complimentary platter of other sweets (including meringue cigars, mini pistachio balls, etc)… ah lovely staff.

As I ate, I thought “everything stands out but nothing sticks out”… it was a moving portrait of harmonious perfection, flawless yet welcoming. I loved the way food and joy met on every dish and meandered through our bodies and minds as we ate.

Something else I found remarkable – that they served such food and waited on us with such style as if it were everyday fare – as if this was the only way to eat. Special turned Ordinary… amazing :-) 2am now and I want to continue waxing lyrical about S.T.A.Y. but frankly, my mind is turning to custard with lack of sleep so I’m going to sign off for now!

I look forward to many more privileged years of being your friend, Janey! (And thanks for coming up with the somewhat clever title of this blog post).

S.T.A.Y. – 29 Zizhuyuan Road, Beijing, 100089, China – Phone: +86 10 6841 2211