July in Vietnam: More Cham Ruins

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The Cham ruins in the outskirt of Quy Nhon were much more spectacular, particularly because they were set in the rather prettier countryside that the drab concrete town. It was a lovely time of year to visit as the padi fields were in the middle of the growing season, with pretty patchwork fields of alternating green and yellow.

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The towers were situated on a hilly outcrop overlooking the fields and a still stream that watered the area.

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The good thing about being in an untouristy area was that there weren’t any marked out areas at which to pay entrance fees; the bad thing about being in this untouristy area was that I really hadn’t a clue what I was looking at, just that they were ancient and it was remarkable that they’d been standing for so long.

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Still, it was a lovely walk up the hill where there really wasn’t anyone about and I could admire the large expanse of the country below.

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I liked the unique barrel-like roof put on a few of these towers and wondered the significance of these barrel-topped ones over the others.

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Some of them were already being restored, the sharp lines being made more pronounced with new brick.

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The great thing about this place was that I had free rein to walk around and it didn’t appear that the roof was going to tumble down on top of me at any moment.

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I took my time, enjoying the views inside and out.

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It was nice seeing how the place wasn’t totally restored yet there was still plenty of detail in the unrestored bits. I liked the humour of how the leering toothy face popped out of nowhere in the relief.

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There were also other reliefs that looked like table runners or part of a bookmark design. It’s funny how similar designs emerge time and again in different cultures.

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As I was all alone, it took  a bit of fiddling with the auto-timer on the camera to get a picture of sorts with the ruins.

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Well, not completely alone as I had the company of this little lizard with the rosy body.

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July in Vietnam: Quy Where?

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Quy Nhon (pronounced “wee nyon”) is a slightly industrial and not particularly pretty fishing town midway between Hoi An and my next stop, Mui Ne. It had charmless concrete buildings lining the street and not a great deal in its favour. Yet I was willing to stumble into town at 2am, taking the only available bus in. After a botched attempt at going to a place I’d booked ahead at (the people were fast asleep and no amount of doorbell ringing, door banging nor phone calling would wake them up to let me in), I managed to find a place at a hostel and not get ripped off or abandoned to die on the streets. It’s true, people did seem to get more hospitable as I went further south.

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The only interesting thing along the way to my destination was the way they sold goldfish and fighting fish in tightly shut plastic bags that sparkled in the sun. Pretty, but poor fish!

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Now the reason for going to Quy Nhon was to see the Cham ruins and how the city just built itself round them. It was so oddly out of sync how the concrete and electric wires stopped just shy of the ruins, still much inhabited by colonising plants and creepers.

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Inside one of these Cham towers was a lingam, still looking so little weathered that I wasn’t sure if it was a reconstruction or an original ruin. It was still used in active worship by the locals.

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While the main towers are further in the outskirts of the town, there was a Cham museum in the area, with rather interesting exhibits on show.

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Although the main building was closed, there were enough artifacts scattered in the courtyard to be worth a happy picture-taking session, just like this dog guarding the entrance. I really liked its toothy grimace and its pretty two-tiered decorative collar.

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Then there were these naga-like carvings that looked like they used to be part of a wall. It looked almost like a modern interpretation of Hindu art.

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And the same for this lion-like creature. I enjoyed the little details like the little whorls of hair on its head.

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The town has a nice beach with a great view of the curving bay.

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Too bad it wasn’t in any condition to swim in, the strong fishy smell put me off any notion of getting into my swim gear.

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You see, this town had part of its livelihood in fishing and there were plenty of pretty nets further out that somehow helped to net the fish. These nets were of course responsible for the stench.

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The fishermen went to and from the nets using cute little circular boats. It was a wonder they managed to get anywhere.

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It was lovely to be in this town with few tourists and no touts at all. I blended in fairly well with the locals (as long as I didn’t open my mouth) and enjoyed being on my own for a few days.

Whisky Night

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We had quite a few new whiskies to try out, first being the rather famous Yamazakis. These beat Scottish whiskies in blind taste tests and we were curious to taste the difference. It helped that in my last pass through Heathrow airport, I had a little sip of the Yamazaki 12 and was very taken by it.

The Yamazaki 12 (43%) is the entry level single malt from Suntory. It’s very smooth and light, with slightly fruity pineapple overtones and a lovely smokey ending. Lightened with a few drops of water, it takes on an almost sweet character. Very easy for a first-time single malt drinker.

Now the Yamazaki 18 (43%) is three times the price. I’m not sure if it’s three times as good as the 12, but it is Very Good. At first there was nothing much on the palate, but suddenly it exploded in the mouth like fireworks (the fireworks bit is according to DC). It’s smooth and buttery, tasting like dark herbal honey, except without the sweetness. It’s firmly on the favourites list.

We also got the MacDuff 27 (45%). It was from a little shop at Ion Orchard called Vom Fass that dispensed various liquors, vinegars and oils into little bottles. We started with 100ml of it for starters. This whisky took us on a different plane altogether. It was smooth like no other whisky I’ve tried, with very little bite of alcohol. It had an almost hay-like nose and a complex blend of flavours that made me keep going at the little bottle. We’ll have to get a refill to taste again.

Spruce Tacos

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I’d anticipated going to Spruce Taqueria for a while but its opening hours just didn’t do it for me. Not working in the area, it was practically impossible for me to make it there for the week-day lunch only opening hours. Imagine my joy when Travis tweeted that they now serve tacos in the evening between 5.30 and 7.30pm at Spruce itself. Sure, it’d take a bit of a rush there from work, but at least it was doable.

DC and I got there at 7pm and only went in after they assured us that tacos were still available. The head server must’ve thought we were totally bonkers when suddenly we lit up and rushed in upon hearing the taco affirmation. Last orders for tacos were taken at 7.15 so we had to quickly decide how much we wanted. There were three flavours: short rib, snapper and pork carnita. We went for the short rib and pork carnita first. When these arrived, it looked manageable to have more, so we quickly added to our bonkers quotient by asking for the third snapper flavour while just starting our first tacos.

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Only two pictures because they all pretty much looked the same. In order of yummyness, we both agreed that the snapper was the best, followed by the short rib and then a distant third with the pork carnita. Each dish consisted of two tacos and each taco came with two tortillas topped with filling, then taco sauce, shredded cabbage and guacamole, and garnished with plenty of coriander, which unfortunately looked a bit sad in patches. It was finished off with bits of radish and lime. The lime was a bit of a mistake because we’re both big lime fans and ended up squeezing too much on it. The sour drowned out much of the taste of the pork carnita. A pity.

The carnita was basically pulled pork and a bit stringy, though the sauce helped. I liked the tenderness of the short rib but wasn’t sold on how the flavour was drowned out by the rest of the taco. The fish surprisingly held up very well to the robust flavours and its soft, almost mushy texture was a nice counterpoint (plus it was much easier to eat, less effort to bite through the taco).

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The dragon breath later was terrible but it was definitely worthwhile.

Spruce
320 Tanglin Road
Phoenix Park
Tel: 6836 5528

Just a week later, DC and I were fortunately to be in the area on a weekday and we made it to the taqueria itself. The stand is perched at the top of hill, way to the right along the little curved street just coming up from Spruce itself. They were pretty slow to serve the food even though it looked like a fast food shack. Didn’t help that lots of stuff was already sold out by 12.45pm, like beef tongue and watermelon agua fresca. Disappointed, DC went for the short rib taco set that came with tortillas, salsa and lemonade. It was just as good as the tacos sold downhill for twice the price. I’m glad it’s consistent.

I went for the salad bowl, basically the same pile of stuff arranged differently: filling, salsa, guacamole and taco strips crisped to turn into tortillas. I liked the extra dollop of sour cream, it complemented the fiery salsa and filling of mushroom and poblano chiles very well. Plus, the salad is great for avoiding the greater part of the dragon breath (though you still get some).


Quick Eats: Sembawang Hills Hawker Centre

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DC and I thought we’d do something a bit healthier and go for the HSBC treetop walk at Macritchie Reservoir. Before that we of course had to stop somewhere for sustenance. The Sembawang Hills hawker centre nearby did the trick. I did a very unwise thing and queued for the famous “inventor” fish soup where the owner had lots of little contraptions for serving his customers better. There was a curved dispenser so that we help ourselves to spoons hygienically and a coin sorter that helped him with his change. Needless to say, the queue was horribly long and DC said he’d go for the salted duck noodles instead. I persevered and got my fish soup with instant noodles (everyone else seemed to be ordering that too) and added some fish roe to it.

My verdict? It wasn’t worth the queue. While the fish was decent, there wasn’t a great deal of flavour and the noodles were a bit too soft for my taste. I could have done better cooking it myself at home.

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DC was prescient enough to take this shot before he started. By the time I got back to the table with my fish noodles, most of the duck and noodles were gone! Still, I managed to wrangle some over from him. Oh my, the duck was very good! The salt had cured the duck somewhat and intensified the flavour of the duck, also giving it a firm, smooth texture. And the noodles! I’m not normally a fan of yellow noodles (sek mee) but this version was still very much firm to the bite. DC had to restrain me from buying my own set of duck noodles after the disappointing fish ones.

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Next time we go to Macritchie I know what I’m having!

Fresh Fish Soup
#01-36

Ah Ee Traditional Hokkien Salted Duck
#01-28
590 Upper Thomson Road
Sembawang Hill Food Centre

OChre: Flawed but Good Value

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DC’s father insisted that we try out OChre despite us wanting to dress down. We finally got round to getting me out of my usual casual garb (think T-shirt, three-quarter pants and slippers) and into a nice dress and heels. We were pleasantly surprised by this place as the food is pretty good and the prices pretty decent. The cooking is almost classic Italian, with a Japanese sensibility to it. No surprise from a Japanese chef trained in Italy. There’s a restrained elegance to the dishes done well, and a disconcerting feeling of blandness and not quite bringing out the ingredients’ full potential in those not so well executed.

We opted to share the antipasti and primi plati before having our own mains. The first appetiser of tomatoes and bufala was decent as the tomatoes were ripe and sweet and the bufala creamy and fresh. I wasn’t sure about the tomato jelly as it was basically solidified tomato soup that didn’t add much to the flavours and didn’t help to unify the dish. Decent but no a reorder.

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Next was the tonno vitello, slow poached veal topped with tuna sauce. Everyone else seemed to like it, but as it’s not my favourite dish, Ican’t quite comment on the execution. The only thing is thatI felt that it wasn’t a great deal different from the  more downmarket version at Riciotti. I liked how the veal was tender and didn’t like how the cooked tuna in the sauce made it all quite rough in texture.

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The last appetiser was the crowd pleaser: Hokkaido scallop carpaccio with parma ham. The scallop was impeccable, sweet and very slightly briny at the same time. The parma ham was passable, not great, and somehow didn’t quite go with the delicate scallop. Eaten separately, I think this works well, but not both ham and scallop in the same bite.

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I think the ravioli is where the chef really shone. I don’t remember much of the filling (was it kurobuta pork?), just that the little parcels were nicely al dente with chewy, salty filling, and oh the sauce! The sauce was a creamy mushroom sauce with ceps in them. I cannot tell you how much I love the soft texture and gently yet seductively woody flavour of ceps. Cooked into the amazingly creamy sauce, this really made my evening.

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The oyster and saffron risotto was a decent rendition, again not much different from a version at another restaurant, this time Prego’s. I liked the asparagus bits in it, but wasn’t too enamoured by how they couldn’t bring out the clean briny flavour of fresh oysters in this dish. While the oysters were definitely fresh, there was a hint of fishy that I can’t quite place or explain. Perhaps cooking the oysters slightly affected the delicacy of the risotto. Perhaps I also didn’t like that the rice was a bit too hard for my taste. Who knows.

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The chef’s specialty is the duck risotto. I thought it was quite different as it broke away from the mold of risottos being defined by the stock it’s cooked in. This time, I think the chef used water instead of stock and the rice had a very clean taste, quite akin to that of watery porridge made with Thai jasmine rice. Studded in the risotto were cubes of smoked duck, lending little taste explosions of gamey salt to the tongue. It was a good dish but again the rice was too hard. I prefer it cooked a tad more, probably 30 seconds more stirring in the pot and I’ll be a happy camper.

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On to the mains. DC and I shared a beef with foie gras and they portioned them out nicely onto two plates. The funny thing was that they didn’t ask how we wanted the beef done and protested that we should go with the chef’s preference of medium rare. We both like our steaks Bloody and vetoed that in favour of rare. It was almost comical how the waiter kept asking if we were sure. I liked the steak and accompanying vegetables very much, it was all very well executed and the natural flavour of the beef shone through. The foie gras I felt was superfluous and added nothing to the dish. I’ll give it (foie gras, not steak) all to DC next time.

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For dessert, DC and I shared a mille feuille, which we felt was the best dessert of the evening. (There was also panna cotta and creme brulee, which seemed slightly disappointing to the rest.) It was puff pastry with pistachio semi freddofilling. The semifreddo was excellent, being smooth, creamy and full of toasted pistachios. The pastry was a bit too difficult to handle: while crisp, it was a bit too hard and impossible to cut out to eat with the semifreddo filling. Nonetheless, taking a bit of pastry and a bite of semifreddo, this was a great dessert.

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A few last words on the service: fairly attentive though a bit lacking in the common sense department. One chose to make slightly disparaging comments of the very old Burgundy that DC’s father brought for dinner, not realising that though it wasn’t a Bordeaux (hey Bordeaux doesn’t automatically make a wine good!) it was a good vintage from a respectable vineyard. Later when asked our opinion on the food, one of them rather snippily said that the risotto was done that way in Italy. That certainly wasn’t the case in my recent trip to Italy (more on that later, oh my, one Michelin star heaven!) where risotto was done al dente rather than just off the verge of crunchy. Last, they didn’t do anything to clear away the bread basket that was obviously in the way, just says that the attentiveness is a bit of a show.

OChre’s definitely flawed, but the food has lots of promise, just having one or two things in each dish that if tweaked, would take it right up there in the good food stakes.

OChre
181 Orchard Road
#11-03/04 Orchard Central
Tel: 6634 0423

Viet-inspired Chicken Rice

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I was so inspired by the Viet chicken rice in Hoi An that I absolutely had to make my own. I started off on a typical Hainanese chicken rice base. Not having access to the type of chicken (most likely cornfed) that coloured the rice yellow, I improvised by adding turmeric to the rice base. For the chicken, I poached it the Hainanese way. However, the toppings were very much improved with plenty of typically Vietnamese herbage. Even in the absence of Hainanese chilli sauce, I thought this was a winner. It also passed the family test: every grain of rice was gobbled up even though I deliberately cooked more in the hope of leftovers. I can imagine it being even more magical with Hainanese chilli sauce.

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Ingredients:

2 cups rice

1 chicken
1 tsp salt
2 tsp sesame oil

2 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 thumb-length ginger, chopped
4 cloves, optional
1 star anise, optional
1 thumb-length turmeric, pounded

½ carrot, shredded
Thai basil
mint
daun kesom (laksa) leaves
kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
big limes, cut into wedges

Method:

  1. Wash rice and put in rice cooker pot. Measure out how much water you’d put in and keep that amount in mind for the stock to use, about 450ml. (I use the “equal finger” method: stick your finger in the rice, and add water to the same level above the rice.) Now drain the rice and set aside.
  2. Put chicken in pot and cover with water. Heat gently till just boiling and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn off fire and leave for 30 minutes.
  3. Remove chicken and set aside. Keep all stock and juices from chicken. When cool, rub with salt and sesame oil.
  4. Fry garlic, shallot and ginger in oil till fragrant, then add cloves, star anise, cinnamon and fry for a few seconds more. Add rice and fry till it’s dry and glistening.
  5. Transfer to rice cooker and and chicken stock. Squeeze the pounded turmeric over, discarding the dry turmeric pulp. Season with a pinch or so of salt. Cook as normal.
  6. Chop chicken and prepare herbage for serving.
  7. Before eating, arrange chicken on top of rice and top with carrot shreds and herbs. Squeeze the lime over and tuck in.

Serves 4.