Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bulots: like escargots but from the sea

Also known as escargots de Bruxulles, bulots are an indelible part of the assiette de fruits de mer. In plain English: no good seafood platter is without whelks. Meaty with a decadent flavour of marine corruption

I buy them already boiled in court-bouillon, so the only thing I need to do is to pry the fleshy part out of the shell, dip it into home-made mayonnaise and consume with fresh baguette and chilled Muscadet.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Teh tarik: Malaysian frothy tea

Malaysian national drink is made by repeatedly pouring sweet milk tea from one glass into another until foam is formed at the top of the glass. It may sound like a senseless waste of time but, in fact, it does affect the way your taste buds perceive the tea. It also cools down the tea, what in Malaysian climate is definitely a perk.

ormally, the tea seller, the waiter or the bartender will do the pouring for you but here on the picture is a rare case of public self-service. These Indian ladies

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kuki wakame (茎わかめ): Japanese seaweed stems

Ah Christmas! The time to wash down lovely oven-dehydrated turkey and vein-clogging trifle with copious amounts of hangover-sure punch. Last year, however, I escaped the joys of London's festive season to eat raw fish on a hotel rooftop. As the tropical night's tightening embrace was squeezing more and more sweat out of my body, kuki wakame (茎わかめ) was what I had swapped the obligatory fart-inducing Brussels sprouts for.

Nominated as among world's 100 most invasive species, wakame kelp has stems whose lovely texture is simultaneously crunchy and jelly-like, described in Japanese as kori-kori. When used as food, they are called kuki wakame and have a nice flavour of seawind. Wind, however, is where all parallels with Brussels sprouts stop.

This Japanese-style aemono salad requires minimum cooking: the accent is on harmonising (aeru) the ingredients. So, here goes the recipe:


Monday, January 11, 2010

Kuala Lumpur Chinatown Food Market: the unsung cornucopia of the Tropics

I f somebody told me ten years ago that I would snub supermarkets and buy my groceries almost exclusively at fresh markets, I would laugh in their face. I used to hate fresh markets from the bottom of my heart: smelly, chaotic and rife with petty deceit. I could only shrug in complete incomprehension, seeing Thai housewives departing from Bangkok's fetid Khlong Toey market on tuk-tuks stuffed to the rafters with bags and baskets of edibles. How could anyone in their right mind ever trade smartly laid out and air-conditioned food emporiums for the putrid warrens of murky stalls with dubious hygiene standards?

I could, if many years later. These days I go to Brixton Market when my batteries are running low. Tiny discoveries of exotic foodstuffs I have never heard before lift my spirits like, perhaps, nothing else. When travelling, I never miss the chance to visit local markets. In Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown Market was just round the corner from our hotel, in rank and dark back lanes running parallel to Jalan Petaling. You would never know it was the entrance but for the dense wafts of smell from various foodstuffs exposed to sultry tropical heat.

Grotty, gritty and pungent, this place does not seem to have found its paean yet: bloggers and travel writers mostly find it more fun to wax on lyrically about handicrafts and local food at the Central Market or pirate goods and eateries at the Chinatown Night Market. No one like to think where all that food actually comes from.

Despite my earlier convictions, there is nothing rotting at Asian food markets. The sheer voraciousness of the Chinese makes the turnover so quick that everything gets cut, sorted, sold, cooked and eaten before it ever needs to make it in the fridge. The overriding smell that repels an occasional tourist so effectively is dried fish. Mixed with the real, not packed away in plastic, smells of meat, fish and vegetables it creates a heady aroma hanging thick in the air like steam in a Russian banya.

Now for stuff that urban myths are made from: I can easily imagine an impressionable co-ed chick, gasping and rolling eyes, telling her parents back in Oklahoma a horror story from her gap year vacation to Asia about how the Chinese would eat anything, like, really ANYTHING! In fact, these cats are pets, with bells on ribbons and all. They are put in cages to keep them out of trouble, like wandering - inadvertently, we all know that - onto a knife-wielding fishmonger's stall.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Five-Flower Tea & Wang Lo Kat (五花茶和王老吉): business and pleasure as usual

or most Westerners the idea of a quick drink in the street to quench a sudden onslaught of thirst is a can of soda. A sweet fizzy concoction of most bizarrely named chemicals - just read the label! - that, if you think about it, tastes like nothing found in the natural world. The fact that some of commercial sodas - like Coca Cola - are routinely used to clean windshields or accumulator contacts does not seem to hinder their worldwide popularity.

I watched this little shop on a busy street corner in central Kuala Lumpur. Richly festooned with Chinese paraphernalia of gilded auspicious slogans and portraits of ancient emperors, it however does not seem to attract any tourists. A small but steady trickle of locals provides the client base here: here a street cleaner drops by for a wee bowl of tea from one of the two huge shiny samovars, there a couple of businessmen find respite from their hectic routine. People pop by, spend a few minutes over their tea and go their merry way. Mostly Chinese - it's Chinatown after all - but Malays and Indians too.

The trade goes in two kinds of hot herbal drinks:
Ng Fa Cha (五花茶), known in Beijing as Wu Hua Cha, Five-Flower Tea as well as Wong Lo Kat (王老吉) or Wang Lao Ji, which, . The former tastes like sourish stewed fruits, the latter - like your classic bitter pill so a sour-sweet plum candy is proffered with it to make it more palatable.

Unlike many a canned drink, these two rely on herbal formula for both taste and, most importantly, healing effect. It was revealed by a Taoist monk to a certain Wang Zebang he was escaping an epidemic-stricken Guangzhou back in 1813. The magic five in Ng Fa Cha are Jasmine, Silk Cotton Flower, Yin Chen, Chrysanthemum and Honeysuckle (aka Chrysanthemum morifolii, Lonicera japonica, Bombax malabaricum, Sophora japonica, and Plumeria rubra). The claimed effect is cooling and soothing, whilst also nourishing your spiritual energy, or 清潤 in Chinese. No, seriously, even in Chinese you can't cram so much in just two characters: the spiritual energy bit has been added to lure the New Age crowd.

Wong Lo Kat in its unadulterated form does take some determination to drink. The taste of a crushed acorn has an ever-thinning-out public appeal so there is a hugely popular canned variety that tastes much more palatable thanks to a high sugar content which the old Chinese consider detrimental to the tea's medicinal properties. In an inadvertent allusion to the New Testament, the white-bearded sages insist that to benefit fully, you need to put up with the quinine taste and just gulp it down as soon as you can.

In an interesting example of combining traditional Chinese business shrewdness with modern internet technologies, the PR hand of the company that produces Wong Lo Kat organised a viral campaign "Force Out Wong Lo Kat" capitalising on the company's high-profile 100-million RMB donation to the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Internet users, initially attracted by the seemingly controversial slogan, were invited to buy available Wong Lo Kat in their supermarkets to support the manufacturer's charity activities.

Wong Lo Kat

Friday, January 8, 2010

Hornbill Restaurant@Bird Park, Kuala Lumpur: dining with toucans

There are different shades of  eating outside. First, you can eat on your balcony or in your patio, or even a garden, if you are blessed with one like me. Then you can go urban hip and eat on a café's terrace: these days it's what middle classes do. A notch higher are picnics: al fresco munches supposedly take us back to how our pre-historic ancestors's had theirs. Except we use paper plates and plastic cutlery.

Hornbill Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur's Bird Park takes the joy of dining with Mother Nature even higher
: it's a trendy terrace with designer cutlery and super polite waiters but because it is also suspended on 10-metre wooden pillars whack in the midst of world's largest aviary, you are completely exposed to the feathered fauna unceremoniously landing on your table, just stopping short of pecking food off your plate. Considered that some of these uninvited guests spot beaks the size of your arm, it's fun not for the faint-hearted.

he point in dealing with this nuisance is being assertive: shoo away the pesky critters because the food is too good to leave behind. We saw people running from their tables intimidated by such a close exosure to wild life but that kind of cowardly behaviour does not belong at the top of the food chain, where we humans are. Just look for what we stood our ground against the birds.
Nasi lemak is Malaysia's national lunch favourite and justly so. In one plate you get to taste the gifts of the rice paddy, the sea, the chicken coop, the grazing pasture, the coconut grove, the kitchen garden and the spice plantation. Just allow yourself to brim with gratitude thinking just how many people have laboured to deliver all this goodness to your palate and stomach!

Here's the run-down of nasi lemak's components for the newbies to Malay cuisine: coconut rice, slowly cooked in spice beef rendang, decadently flavourful and tear-jerkingly hot sambal belacan cumi-cumi - squid curry based on shrimp paste, roasted peanuts and anchovies and a boiled egg.
Mee Goreng Mamak is spicy fried noodles with shredded tofu and vegetables. Mamak means Indian Muslim style. It involves quite an amazing array of ingredients for the recipe, which I will publish later.
Calamansi and sour plum drink is something I had never tasted before. Refreshingly sour but surely with a nice dab of sugar, it tasted half-way between lime and tangerines. It also had crushed sour plums (李), so favoured by Chinese grannies, floating at the top of the glass.
Pro's: Great food, great atmosphere.
Con's: Watch out for them birdies: they can sneak up and whack you on the head with their mighty beak.
In a nutshell:
Safari-style dining on classic Malay dainties in a lush tropical setting.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tang City Food Court@Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur (吉隆坡唐诚小食中心): big breakfast in Little China

A less glamorous - no WiFi or air-conditioning like at Pasar Seni - but, perhaps, even tastier food court experience can be found at Tang City Food Court, right off busy Jalan Petaling in Central Kuala Lumpur.

Tang City means Chinatown. The Tang Period (4-9th centuries AD) is widely considered the peak of Chinese history, so the Overseas Chinese like calling themselves the Tang people. Predictably, in this establishment the delicacies of the Middle Kingdom reign uncontested. It is mostly Cantonese, because Canton (Guangzhou) is where the majority of Kuala Lumpur's Chinese hail from
originally. Their nostalgia for the Old Country's food has survived for at least one and a half century, thanks goodness for that!

Here is our breakfast (RM32, no tip):
  • a bowl of freshly cooked frog meat congee with some shredded ginger and chopped scallions - croak-croak!
  • three saucers with dim sum for Floyd who naturally refused to eat his totem animal; the green bits are coloured with pandan leaf powder,
  • two steamed bapao buns (one with Chinese veg and one with sweet red bean paste fillings)
  • and two cups of kopi liang, treacly black ice coffee popular throughout Southeast Asia - not particularly flavourful but giving you the so-much-wanted kick without making your work up sweat like a regular hot coffee would have.

Here is a bit of lyrical waxing about this nice eatery by a fellow blogger.

ro's: Open from the dawn till the nightfall. Cheap and healthy food.
Con's: Only bare-bones English and Chinese dialects spoken. Forty-five electric fans blasting at the highest notch will dry out your contact lenses in a millisecond - wear glasses!
In a nutshell: Fresh, tasty and scrumptious, like all food in Malaysia.

Here's some chintzy drag chinoiserie from 1978 by sexually ambiguous Amanda Lear.

Food Court @ Central Market, Kuala Lumpur

I wish there were more Asian-style food courts in Europe. A panoply of stalls all peddling different kinds of dishes surrounding a large dining area normally takes the basement or the top floor of every self-respecting department stall in Asia. In multicultural countries like Malaysia you get to choose from a variety of cuisine: typically Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Thai Simply litsting their subdivisions may mess your mind: Malay from Kelangtan or Malay from Sarawak, Sichuan, Teochew or Hokkien Chinese, Tamil from Southern India or Gujarati from Northern India, Southern Thai or Central Plain Siamese Thai. And then you get Japanese and Vietnamese, sometimes Burmese and Indonesian. As for steaks and spaghetti, I don't even give them my time of the day, not worth it, a big hippopotamic yawn.

Then you have separate stalls fo drinks and sweets. I am a big fan of Chinese desserts so full of medicinal herbs, roots and mushrooms you don't know if you indulge or medicate yourself. Thai and Malay desserts often combine exotic ingredients like sweet red beans, lotus seeds, taro paste or ... with copious amounts of sugar, shredded ice and colourants, hopefully, natural like pandan leaf extract or..., but sometimes also venomous looking chemical which are easily recognised (and avoided) by their too enthusiastically vivid hues.

The ambience in most of such establishments is the no-frills cafeteria style but the food is consistently enjoyable. Air-conditioning and visibly good hygiene standards make food courts a good place start to get introduced to local cuisines for first-time visitors.

Kuala Lumpur's Central Market (Pasar Seri) also has a food court. I can't remember eating there in one of my ten-odd previous visits to Malaysia's capital but this time it was the first place where we headed to after unloading our bags at the hotel.

When you are in a hot climate you naturally develop a craving for something spicy to yank you out of the heat-induced semi-lethargy. Nigerians and Thais as well as Malays and Mexicans know all too well about the miraculous working of the chili pepper on your mood and well-being when exposed to scorching sun and stifling humidity.

My awareness of that time-honoured folk wisdom had defined my choice as you can see from the intense red of my plate's content: the Malay chicken and beef curries plus tempeh stir-fried in sambal sauce were so fiery I had to go get another helping of rice. Floyd went for a more mild Hainanese chicken, which he almost immediately regretted because it's just boiled chicken with boiled rice and some bland veggies and mushrooms on the side. It came with a wee bowl of seaweed broth but that was littel consolation.

Sugar cane juice looks murky but that is because it was not chemically enhanced. It won't help you extinguish the chili fire in your mouth but it has the cooling "yin" quality that will help your body cope with the sultry weather conditions.

Pro's: A wide choice of good cheap food. Free WiFi.
Con's: No burgers or French fries. (Just kidding!)
In a nutshell: Great place to refuel on your sightseeing tour of KL.

Mangrove Food Court
Central Market (Pasar Seni)
10 Jalan Hang Kasturi, Kuala Lumpur

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Jallo Kabab Kharasani@Dubai (چلو کباب خراسانی): Iranian food in Dubai, serendipity in work

An essential part of enjoyable travelling is getting lost in unknown places. I am still learning to do that. As obsessed as I am with schedules and maps, I do allocate some time to stop making mental notes of the turns and directions and just blend into the locality.

Just like that, we were trundling the busy streets of Dubai's back quarters without any idea where we were heading and feeling the typical Dutch remorse for indulging in the sin of extravagant gluttony after our swanky 170-euro splurge at Al Mahara, when we stumbled upon this neighbourhood gem: Jallo Kabab Kharasani (چلو کباب خراسانی), the Persian restaurant. It is so local that there is no single mention of it on the web. Primarily, because its clientèle hardly use internet. They are the backbone of the Emirates economy, the gnarly-handed creators of its glitz and prosperity: the shamelessly underpaid gastarbeiters with no labour rights or prospects of local citizenship. Quite a number of them comes across from the Persian Gulf, that is, from Iran. During their long stays abroad they naturally develop a craving for food that reminds them of home. That is how you can be sure that you get the authentic culinary deal here.

The profusely moustached waiter could not explain the priceless (i.e., no prices mentioned) menu: no English spoken, but I figured that if we order just a bit it can't possibly too expensive: lamb kebab and skewered chicken.

However, even before any meat made way to our table, it disappeared under plates with bread, vegetables, hommous, lentil soup, herby yoghurt and a huge platter of what Iranians called sabzi - any fresh herbs meant to be eaten with bread and dips. It can be mint, coriander, or tarragon but this time we got mostly young spinach.

Middle Eastern breads are so good, I quite enjoy them plain: the slightly sweet taste and the saliva-inducing fresh pastry aroma don't really need any enhancements. Persian wafer-thin lavash is one of those.

Persian jallo kebab is neither overly herby nor spicy and it tastes the same wherever you have it, in London or Dubai: juicy and flavourful.

I had not been properly exposed to Persian cuisine, so, rather naively, I believed that chicken tikka was an Indian dish. Turns out it a regional specialty from a huge are stretching from Iran to the farthest reaches of the subcontinent. The turmeric-flavoured pieces of skinned chicken breast are grilled to perfection: golden brown on the outside, bursting with juice on the inside.

This is what you chew after the meal to make your breath fresh and fragrant: fennel seeds with colourful bits of unknown provenance (the waiter was not available for comment). The etiquette is to use a spoon to put some of the mix on your hand and only then put it in your mouth. This way many people can have some from the bowl leaving no germs behind.

To this day, I have no idea where this wonderful restaurant is situated but I am sure that if you take your time to lose your way in Dubai, you will walk into it.

Pro's: A full table of great food for 9 Euros.
Con's: Untraceable location.
In a nutshell: Simple and honest everyman's Persian food at rock-bottom prices.

Blue Barjeel Restaurant @Dubai (البرجيل الأزرق): up the Creek with a kibbe

I really wonder what Dubai dining scene would be without all the entrepreneurial Lebanese restaurateurs tirelessly churning out kibbe and moutabal to locals and tourists alike?

Blue Barjeel is very easy to find: it is right next to the abra pier ( you can see it on the picture above) on the Bur Dubai side. Just like its romantic neighbour Bait al-Wakeel we visited the night before, the location here puts this place head above shoulders to other Lebanese eateries in town. Before you even order anything, plates with pickles, fresh vegetables and bread appear on the table. When inquired, the waiter jovially replies: "No eat, no pay!"

As for the food, it is once again your regular very well cooked Lebanese fare of lamb kebab, kibbeh and moutabal.

Pro's: Great location, great food.
Con's: Watch out when salad, pickles and bread arrive uninvited: you will be charged for those.
In a nutshell: Delicious Lebanese classics on the panoramic waterside.

Bait Al Wakeel@Dubai: romantic Arab on the Creekside (بيت الوكي)

There is something irresistible about dining on the waterside. Perhaps, the charm is in the exposure to the constantly flowing element or in the spectacular views doubled in the water.

Bait al-Wakeel (بيت الوكي) on the Bur Dubai (بر دبي) side of Dubai's Creek is better than just that. Situated in the former Arab-style house of an English merchant, its nookiness and dim lighting make it one of my world's top five romantic restaurants. The sitting area is laid out so that while never feeling crowded you are always within the convenient reach of the waiters, yet isolated enough from the everyone else for the unlimited footsie play, should the mood take you in that direction.

As for the food is your typical Levantine grub, typically cooked to perfection and thus highly enjoyable. The perennial classics lie moutabal, kibbeh, hommous, fatoush and shish kebab co-exists on the menu with a variety of grilled seafood, all very reasonably priced, considered the location.

Pro's: Location! Very good Levantine food. Utterly delectable (albeit deservedly pricey) fruit juices.
Con's: Can get windy, but, hey, that's the price you pay for dining outside.
In a nutshell: Perhaps, the most romantic place in Dubai.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Al Mahara@Burj Al-Arab, Dubai: contrived cookery and kitsch gimmickery - but not without its own merits (المهرة)

l-Mahara (المهرة) means oyster in Arabic. This is also the name of the seafood restaurant Dubai's self-appointed seven-star Burj Al-Arab Hotel. This stellar trickery seems irresistible and the sort of crowd that requires menus written in Russian flock here to feel that the world is finally their oyster.

To maintain the air of exclusivity, customers are required to jump a few loops before getting admission: you need to register at their website, make a booking, wait a while for a confirmation and, once on the premises, announce yourself twice: to the guard at the entrance and then to a statuesque Filipina receptionist, both of whom will check your reservation in a huge hand-written logbook. All that rigmarole only to end up in a largely deserted dining hall.

Speaking of which, it was a bit of a let-down. After reading many an online review enthusing about otherwordly experiences at Al Mahara, I was completely led to believe that we would be dining inside an aquarium, with only a glass wall/ceiling between us and the captive marine fauna. My stomach butterflies were taking to flight just looking forward to it. Turns out you just sit next to a huge fishbowl, the kind of trick I've seen in much less fanfare-intensive establishments. The topmost picture gives you a better idea of what the insides of the place look like than all the fanciful promotional imagery you find on the web. If you are into multi-coloured plastic, this is definitely your place.

Touted as world's best seafood restaurant, Al Mahara specialises in the ever-so-popular among the recently moneyed crowd nouvelle cuisine, which is your old toffee-nosed French haute cuisine taken to further convoluted heights with Asian, mostly Japanese, twists and far-fetched cooking methods. This post-modern culinary pastiche assertively expands on the 19th century aristocratic tradition of gastronomic perversion where veau Orloff, for example, was an intricate way to dupe an über-jaded Russian prince into eating veal that he hated by concealing its taste with an armament of kitchen tricks and rich sauces.

The hoo-haaed submarine ride meant to transport you from the gaudy lobby to the wondrous world of seafood exuberance turned out to be a cheap fairground-style gimmick with a few 3G screens rather unconvincingly imitating an underwater ride. This kind of Finding the Nemo imagery would be probably good to excite 5-year-olds in the unlikely event they decided to make Al Mahara their favourite hangout.

Here is a little rundown of our 170-euro business lunch for two. I had a hard time understanding our friendly waiters' heavily accented explanations of our courses so some bits may have been lost in translation. All in all, exactly the kind of pretentious cookery the Michelin Guide became so fond of since it lost its original purpose of advising motorists about great places to eat.

First we picked out our bread of choice from a generous basket. A squid ink bun glazed with grilled cheese and a cheese-flavoured mini-focaccia would Italian herbs will accompany the rest of my lunch. The 16-Euro bottle of sparkling water was our wine.

Now for the starters. Duck confite with passion fruit jelly and a slab of scented fried rice. The white powder you see on the picture is unfortunately not cocaine that you would expect for the price but herb-infused starch or something (I couldn't make out that one too). The two thin skidmarks you see on the plate are some kind of fragrant sauce too. All nice and tasty separately but when mixed amounting to a sheer sensory overload.

Celeriac and scallop velouté with truffles and leeks doubles as a starter and is fixed in front of you on the plate. The truffle flavour, unsurprisingly, suffocates everything else and lingers in the mouth for the rest of the meal.

Next, for the mains. Pan-fried cod with pumpkin purée topped with crunchy alfa-alfa (I guess they treated it with liquid nitrogen or something as ridiculous but its texture is amazing!) There is no way of verifying the claim that it was line-caught but the cod was superb, moist, flaky, with delicious crust on top and just the right amount of fat underneath the skin. The round button on the left is a scallop.

Turkey bouillotine (or some other fancy French way to call a piece of meat) with foie-gras and chestnut sauce was surely a strange guest in this seafood establishment. Like truffles in the soup, the foie-gras, added more for the expensive touch than any gastronomic necessity, drowned out everything like a vial of fancy perfume spilt in the restroom.

As is the norm in chic eateries, the portions are just enough to give you the idea of chef's inventiveness. The dessert is your only hope to boost your sugar levels for you to feel more or less satiated.

Mine was a delicious oatmeal cookie stuffed, glazed and accompanied by raspberry in all possible states of matter and half of scoop of most exquisite Chantilly. Since truffles or foie-gras would not possibly sit well in it, a gold leaf was rather gaily deposited on its top - just in case Mr T might drop in for the afters.

Floyd's ice-cream came accompanied by kumquat jam and the obligatory gold leaf. I can very well imagine how that last touch must be highly instrumental in giving the clientèle that very sought-after feeling of "having arrived". Well done, chef, good targeted marketing!

Our cappuccino's were superb: aromatic and flavourful with a thick creamy foam but somehow the chef thought that a sprinkle of leaf gold was the touch of sophistication they really needed.

Call me biased or conservative but for me the ultimate seafood dinner is where I can enjoy the gifts of the deep brine uninterrupted by the chef's bombastic ego-promoting ideas. I guess I would have been more impressed by Al Mahara, if sophistication for me commensurated with the size of the bill. However, it does not. And there is no way of persuading me that the sweet scent of fresh scallops needs any truffle enhancement or fresh fish has to be smothered with foie-gras. But I am just a simple guy who likes food for the way it tastes. Preferrably the way Mother Mature intended it to be.

Pro's: The closest you get to the kitschiest of Las Vegas in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Con's: Contrived gimmickery marketed as culinary sophistication to justify the hefty price tag.
Overpriced dining by an oversized fishbowl.
In a nutshell: An ethnographic peep inside the gaudy world of the new money.