A Cambodian Bug Encounter

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I’d known of this Cambodian place for a while but just never got round to trying it out until now. We started with a fairly standard pomelo salad that I thought tasted a bit too weird for my liking. While it had almost Thai flavours of fishy smoked fish, some sweet, some sour, and some chilli, it was fairly toned down in terms of the four standard flavours. There was a herb in it that I didn’t appreciate – it was a bit too earthy and bitter-smelling (though not actually tasting bitter at all), a bit like off garlic.

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The other starter was much better: steamed minced pork paste with preserved fish roe. It was very unusual, like a cross between a warm pate and meatloaf. I scooped spoonfuls of the smokey, fishy meat mixture onto the raw veggies and enjoyed the almost salted egg-like flavour. I never knew that eggplant could be eaten raw and I happily walloped the spongey vegetable with the meat. It went surprisingly well.

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DC saw the writeup on crickets and tarantulas on the wall and immediately wanted to try them. I told him I could probably stomach a cricket or two rather than a hairy spider leg so he ordered this off-menu. My heart sank when the deep-fried crickets arrived. The fellas were fried to a dark crisp – so much so that their carapaces were almost black, making them look like skinny cockroaches. Ewwww. Feeling slightly queasy, I attempted a few times to spear one with my fork but failed as the little buggers (literally!) were fried so hard and crisp they were impossible to spear. DC and I picked out one that looked least like cockroach and I gingerly ate its thorax and abdomen. Honestly, it didn’t taste like much aside from deep-fried. There was a very slightly sour aftertaste but not much. So there was half a cricket in my stomach and the other half – black and winged – still sitting on my plate. I hid it in my rice and hastily chewed it up, and swallowed. Then I looked up and saw DC calmly, and with great enjoyment, crunching up the rest of the plate of crickets. This is the reason why I’m a wuss and I’m with this very brave man with the appetite for adventure. If he can put up with bug-eating, who knows what other crap he can put up with!

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OK so enough with the wussing out – the last dish was their signature dish of fish amok. I’d tried it in Cambodia before and was expecting something thick yet still fluid, somewhat like Thai green curry. This version was like a non-spicy otak. The flavours were very similar and the fish was moulded in a slightly runny coconut custard. DC and I both liked the delicate flavours and the soft-firm texture of the fish. Thumbs up!

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We didn’t manage to get dessert as the banana sago dish I wanted wasn’t available. Service here is generally very sincere and warm, though slightly dopey and haphazard. Be patient with them and you’ll have a good experience.

Khmer Delight
922 East Coast Road
Tel: 6449 1529

Absinthe: Starts Off Great, Then Falls Flat

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It was my birthday. DC took me to French bistro Absinthe for a nice dinner. For some reason, it was #1 on the best restaurant list for tripadvisor.com. We wondered whether it was worthy of its title. The seasonal tasting menu didn’t excite us – too much standard fare and not a great deal that would challenge our tastebuds. We went a la carte instead and it was totally worth it.

I started with seared scallops very simply done. One thing I really didn’t appreciate was realising that the “small herb salad” was miniscule side leaves plated on using tweezers. A small pile I understand, but 3 tiny leaflets do not a small herb salad make. DO NOT LIKE! The scallops themselves were good – well seared on the outside till I got the unmistakable and absolutely sublime charred shellfish flavour, and pretty much raw in the middle. Be warned that the scallops aren’t sashimi-grade because it was a little fishy on the inside. That’s fine with me because I quite like fishy things (especially belachan). The rich lobster hollandaise sauce was a nice foil to the seafood and pastry stick was very nicely short and melt in the mouth. I really like the seaweed flavouring they painted onto the pastry stick. If they sold them in boxes I’d totally snatch them up for an office snack. Oh and DC’s dry sherry went very well with this dish – held its own against the creamy fishiness. I think it was a Perez Barquero Grand Barquero Fino and the nutty, crisp aroma was just the thing to go with my scallops.

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DC liked his special of the evening of kurobuta pork with aniseed sauce. My sampling piece was decent though not mindblowing. DC really enjoyed it though. You’ll have to wait for him to comment to find out why it was that good.

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Then my main. I don’t know what they did, but the lamb rack was so simply done yet so darn good! It was beautifully medium, just as requested and the flavour of the meat just shone through. I think it’s about buying good meat and treating it with respect and love. It was tender, juicy and very tasty, yet not gamey. So good. What really gilded the lily for me was the cep mash. I love wild mushrooms and mixing ceps into the mash was such a masterful touch. So masterful that it was one of the reasons why I ordered that dish. Yummy fragrant cep mash and exquisite lamb made me a happy, happy girl.

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DC went for the classic bouillabaise. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was like beyond acceptable. I think I was too engrossed in my lamb. Again, wait for him to comment!

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And the dessert. I wish I could say better things, but it was a horrible nasty letdown. The apple souflle, while not deflated, was an absolute flop. First off, they used overly coarse-grained sugar to line the souflle ramekin. Did the chef run out of caster? It completely defeats the purpose of light ethereal sponge when you crunch into sugar. Didn’t help that the souffle was too small to escape from the side edges, which in the absence of coarse sugar would actually be the best bit of the souffle. The accompanying apple sorbet was way too sweet and not very aromatic. And the strawberry garnish? Sour. FAIL.

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So if this is America’s Got Talent, they’d have gotten the first buzzer by now. What got the second buzzer? DC made reservations for a birthday dinner. They FORGOT the birthday dessert. After our souffail, DC asked if I had space for more dessert. We’d been on an eating spree that day and I wasn’t too keen on a repeat fail. So we didn’t remind them. DC paid up and we left. That’s all. So much for attentive service, particularly because they have a habit of going through their reservations and calling to remind you the afternoon of the big dinner. Inexcusable.

I’d return for the appetisers and mains, then head off somewhere where they actually care about finishing off great and respect their desserts. You’ve been warned.

Absinthe
48 Bukit Pasoh Road
Tel: 6222 9068

Really Good Lebanese

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Mum and I were in the Arab Street area sorting out some errands and we wanted something that wasn’t too heavy, like my favourite nasi padang or Moroccan in the area. We stumbled across Beirut Grill and liked both menu and ambiance. I liked how it was brightly lit so I won’t fall asleep over my food (yes I’m very sensitive to low light conditions – even brightish yellow light makes me yawn).

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Yet they added really nice touches with the Arabic/Lebanese decor.

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The food was surprisingly good for a place so styled up. Hey we’re talking Arab Street here where the good looking places are generally crap and the crap looking places have good good food! We started with baba ghanoush and tabbouleh. The baba ghanoush was pretty decent, mushy eggplant dip with crunchy vegetables. I think I’d’ve liked it better if it didn’t have crunchy bits, I guess the baba ghanoush I was expecting came from a different region in the Arab world! The tabbouleh on the other hand was sharp, zesty and very refreshing. I don’t know what they put in the bread, but it was incredibly tasty. I mopped up all the dips (despite the baba ghanoush not being my favourite texture). The taste was quite similar to the kind of vermicelli they like to put in rice in Arabic food. It was addictive!

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Mum and I shared a main, the shish taouk. It was grilled chicken with chicken rice. I liked how flavourful the spiced meat was and enjoyed it with the various sauces. There was a slightly vinegared chilli sauce, a thick garlic one somewhat like aioli and a chilli cream sauce. All were good and helped to disguise the dry chicken breast parts. They really should have used chicken thigh if they couldn’t cook the breast right. The chicken rice was done rather differently from the local version. I liked the subtle flavour and how it wasn’t awash in oil.

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My biggest disappointment was this place was the dessert! I held off on having separate mains just so I could have my favourite baklava, but they didn’t have any. My reasons to return? For the chance to try their baklava and the fabulous bread.

Beirut Grill
72 Bussorah Street
Tel: 6341 7728

Lombok: The Beach

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We finally got round to seeing the beach, going southeast to a different set of Gili islands from the usual Gili Air, Gili Meno, and Gili Trawangan. These Gilis were called Gili Nanggu and Gili Sudak. We drove about 2 hours down, following the winding road till we found the beach at Sekotong and rented a boat for the day. The boatmen took us in turn to each island, stopping first at the smallest one, a mere splodge of sand fringing the coast.

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It was a beautiful splodge of proper white sand, albeit rather coarse. This was a far cry from the brown beaches of Senggigi – I didn’t even bother writing about that. We circled the island, found a nice spot and enjoyed the water for a bit.

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Then it was off to the next island, Gili Sudak, where we took a walk along the beach, thinking it wasn’t such a big islet. By the time we got round to the edge of the island, we realised that it might be bigger than we thought. For a moment, we wondered whether we’d starve by the time we got back to the little cafe for lunch.

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But it wasn’t too bad. After crossing round to the back of the island, there wasn’t a great deal more to go and we again sat and enjoyed the beach. The waves were a little too strong for us to venture into the sea, so we saved that for the next island. We headed to our cafe for a simple lunch of nasi goreng and vegetable soup made with a chicken stock cube.

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Then it was more lying around on Gili Nanggu. We wanted to go snorkelling, but the conditions weren’t good enough. Close to the beach, the waves churned up too much sand and further away, the waves seemed a little too aggressive.

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We ventured into the island and found a little turtle conservation area. There was lots of little pools of  turtles of different ages. I think this little fella is a green turtle. We gawked for a while and then gave a little donation at the centre.

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Then we lounged under some casuarina trees for a nap and headed back to Lombok.

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Our final meal in Lombok was this fantastic sop buntut, also known as oxtail soup. Again, Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended this place. It was sop buntut as I’ve never known before. The place was someone’s front sitting room converted into an eating house. It appeared that there was only one dish served here. Everyone had generous portions of tender oxtail in a thick, almost stew-like broth. They’d obviously spent ages gently cooking the oxtail as the soup was immensely flavourful and unctuous with collagen. The flavour was so intense that the were lime wedges provided to cut through the richness. I also liked the very spicy chilli sauce accompaniment – alternating mouthfuls of soup, chilli-spiced oxtail and plain rice was enough variety that I didn’t even think of having other dishes for our meal. They were very generous with the oxtail as well: plenty of soft meat that couldn’t help but be flavourful, and almost melted tendon. I think I’d return to Lombok just for this amazing dish. It was definitely the best sop buntut I’ve had.

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And with that marvellous meal, we ended our relaxing trip to Lombok. I think I enjoyed the eating far more than any other activity there!

Lombok: The Approach to Mount Rinjani

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Lombok is famous for Mount Rinjani and a lot of people spend their entire trip climbing this mountain. I hear it’s not an easy ascent because the mountain is pretty high, a lot of people who ascend too fast end up with mountain sickness. We were wusses and did nothing more strenuous than drive the car up to the highest point we could. But let me start from the beginning.

The road taking us to the mountain was winding and first sloped up one of the foothills, lending us a glimpse of the sea. It was partially hidden under the clouds and we were glad we hadn’t gone to the beach that day.

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As I said, the road was incredibly windy (in the winding sort of way, not the high winds sort of way). I’m glad DC drove and all I needed to do was navigate. It was quite easy for most, because there wasn’t a huge choice of roads here!

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We stopped occasionally, most times to admire the view, this time apparently to admire the amount of dirt that started to cake the car already!

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The sky was all sorts of strange menacing, so we had to get off and snap a pic of me grinning maniacally with a backdrop of steel-grey sea and rolling clouds.

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Then the approach to Rinjani. Here was where navigation was a bit tough as there were actually forks in the road. Sadly, I lost some of my navigation-fu and took us past our destination. Thankfully, there were plenty of friendly locals. A rather dodgy pit stop at a local house later, we finally found our way on the road to Rinjani. We were a bit annoyed that the clouds almost completely obscured the peak.

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At least these bright pink flowers creeping on a tree added some vibrancy to our day.

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We really did nothing but drive till the road stopped, get out of the car to take pictures, and then stop at the most cheerful cafe  we could find for lunch. We didn’t even go to see some waterfalls because we were afraid that we’d be rained on. (Clever me also had in mind that it was going to be a beach holiday and I only had slippers and leather flats. No good for traipsing about waterfalls or mountains! I was obviously not showing my seasoned traveller-dom here.)

Still, it was lovely to soak in the cool weather and marvel that we were still on tropical Lombok. There were still plenty of banana trees downhill from the little cafe to remind us that we weren’t anywhere temperate.

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And then the mist rolled in and I was cold! Here I am all huddled in my trusty shawl…

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… and here you can see the mist roll right in.

And then we drove back the way we came and spent the rest of the lazy day by the pool at Villa Sayang. I told you it was a relaxed holiday!

Lombok: Rice Fields and Hindu Temples (and Good Food)

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Traffic in Mataram town itself could be rather alarming for a first-timer as there are so many different types of traffic here! Aside from the usual  seemingly blind pedestrians, careening motorbikes and SUVs of all shapes and sizes, there were also horse-drawn carts!

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If there was a sudden slowdown along the way, it was sure to be because the traffic was piling up behind one of these carts being pulled manfully along by a blinkered pony. Such were the traffic snarls we had to get past when travelling across town.

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Out of town, however, was far more peaceful. It was almost surprising how close the padi fields were, they started immediately at the suburbs of Mataram town and when we visited in December 2010, the fields were green with new growth.

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There’s something ineffably tranquil and calming about the sight of coconut trees dotting the padi and kangkung fields. To me, it was a symbol of escape from city life and a return to the bucolic past.

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Hidden in the farm area was Pura Lingsar, one of the few Hindu temples in Muslim-dominated Lombok.

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In the past, the Balinese attempted to colonise part of Lombok and extended its influence fairly deep inland. Near the coast, however, was where most of the Hindu temples remain. Pura Lingsar is believed to be one of the most major Hindu centres in Lombok and its

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A tout approached and asked for a bit too much money than we thought was necessary. He wanted to take us inside to see the inner chamber and pool where an albino eel resided. I read from our guidebook that visitors could buy hardboiled eggs to lure it out from its hiding place. Cute as that could be, the tout was a bit too pushy for our taste and we ended up taking pictures of the outside instead.

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It was enough for me to look at the beautiful carvings on the outer perimeter, like this gracefully etched guardian. Having said that, we were glad that we had a car and could zip in and out quickly. It wouldn’t be worth the hassle to get all the way out there on a special half day trip.

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That evening, we headed back into town to Mataram Mall for some dinner. Again, Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended the place and it was excellent food as usual. I apologise that I can’t remember the name of the place. It serves Indonesian food, is on the ground floor, towards the centre of Mataram Mall and is opposite Istana Gadgets. Have a look at me tucking into our sweet-sour gurame to have a feel of the place.

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This was probably DC’s favourite dish of the night. It was a whole deep-fried gurame topped with sweet and sour sauce. Gurame is a freshwater fish and the flesh is very succulent, never getting stringy like other types of fish when overcooked. I enjoyed the especially juicy bits of the cheeks and also the crunchy fins.

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True to our style, we had lots of side dishes. I felt that the tempeh and squid were rather ho-hum compared to what we’d had before, but the kangkung cha (stir-fried  local kangkong) was a welcome familiar dish.

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We also had the ayam penyet (or deep-fried “smashed” chicken) accompanied by a very spicy chilli sauce. It must’ve been very good because DC ate most of it. He also ate most of the chilli sauce with the tempeh while I was still gnawing on my deep-fried fish fins.

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And as usual, we staggered out of the restaurant stuffed to the gills.

Again, please check in with Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang for directions (and the restaurant name!). It’s at the ground floor of Mataram Mall, towards the centre of the place and opposite Istana Gadgets.

Lombok: A Trip South to a Very Different Kuta Beach

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DC and I had a rental car and we took it down south to the very sleepy Kuta Beach. We passed by lots of gentle-eyed buffaloes grazing along the road…

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… and ogled at the cute, lighter-coloured calves obliviously munching away.

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At a cafe, there was a sleepy dog that epitomised the laidback atmosphere of the beach. It lay on the trademark peppercorn sand of Kuta Beach.

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Look closely at the sand and you’ll see that the little granules are round, like miniature white peppercorns.

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We later went for a walk along the beach and found more of the peppercorn sand.

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It wasn’t a fantastic white beach, not quite even up to the (not that great) standard of Kuta Beach in Bali. But there were still great views and it was a lovely walk just before the rain started coming in.

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We walked up to a rock outcrop partway out of the beach and found some slightly macabre sights, like the remnants of a heron, perhaps…

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… and the lifelike remnants of a crab’s moult.

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Luckily, there was still some life out here, as evidenced by this cute little lizard skulking its way stealthily along the rocks.

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It was then time to make the bumpy, pot-holed trip back to Mataram. We took respite from the bad road conditions by stopping at a Sasak village to have a look round. The Sasak are the indigenous people of Lombok. They are mainly Muslim and traditionally live in huts with packed-mud floors and roofs thatched with the local long grass, alang-alang. The huts in which they lived I felt were rather nondescript, and the only structure of interest was the bale, or storage shed. Its characteristic structure is the symbol of Lombok and is replicated in concrete and wood all over the main city.

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What’s a village without chickens? This cute little chick was poking around the village grounds with its brothers and sisters, learning how to fend for itself.

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And having had our fill of sleepy beach and equally sleepy village life, we headed back to Mataram. Ibu Rosa at Villa Sayang recommended Restaurant Taliwang, a local place serving up Lombok specialties. I started off with a jumbo-sized coconut drink with honey. It was really good and such a godsend because Lombok food is very spicy!

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We ordered a whole array of dishes like deep-fried tempeh (I couldn’t get enough of it), deep-fried squid, grilled gurami and vegetable soup. All of this was accompanied by copious amounts of the fiery chilli sauce made with local belacan, a kind of fermented prawn paste.

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Belacan, the smelly delight, really came into its own when turned into the local delicacy, kangkung pelecing. Here, toasted grated coconut is piled on top of toasted peanuts, and boiled beansprouts and kangkung. The kangkung is a more tender, heart-shaped leaved version of the Singaporean kangkong. Toasted belacan is worked into a spicy sauce of chilli and tomato (and probably other secret ingredients) and then poured on top of the mound of veggies. The result? An in-your-face explosion of sour, sweet, spicy and fishy that hits the taste buds with a one-two (POW!) blow. Amazing. This is one dish that I have to attempt to recreate soon.

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Rumah Makan Taliwang I
No. 20 Jalan Ade Irma Suryani
Mataram, Lombok
(Ask at Villa Sayang for exact directions)