Zhuge Liang Restaurant

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We were in the Jalan Besar area and decided to check out Zhuge Liang Restaurant, specialising in Sichuanese kaoyu (literally, barbecued fish). The difference here is that the fish is cooked in two steps: barbecued first, then simmered in a spicy broth at the table. It’s quite unlike the usual idea of a barbecue. Here, it’s done fairly well and in a pretty mild broth compared to its competitors in other parts of town. We ordered the patin fish ($38) and had it done pao jiao (literally, soaked peppers) style and wondered how spicy it’d be. Not that much, because it turned out that pao jiao meant brined peppers, which mellowed the spice a great deal. The fish was smooth textured and tasty, and the broth was full of leek, cucumber and celery. We added some tang oh vegetables ($2) to complete the dish.

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We also ordered some chicken ($18) to complete the meal. This one is called the tao yuan xiong di lian (literally, peach garden brotherhood), which was skewers of chicken and soft bone in a far spicier sauce than the fish. It too came in a hotpot of sorts, this time not in a broth but a spicy sauce. If only the fish had been in this sauce, I’d’ve liked it so much better! Still, the chicken was done very nicely, the soft bone gave a surprisingly moreish texture to the skewers, half-chewy and half-crunchy, which I liked.

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To wash everything down, we had a very light Harbin beer ($6) that came ice cold and rounded off the meal nicely.

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Be warned, though, that this restaurant has no English menu and the (very attentive and lovely) wait staff are from PRC, I doubt they speak English. Ask for the menu with pictures if your Chinese isn’t up to scratch. The staff were super sweet and accommodating in trying to make sure the food was to our taste and the standard of service was one of the best I’ve had in a long time, notwithstanding the feeling that we were in China. I say that eating in a place that reminds me of China restaurants isn’t a bad thing at all.

Zhuge Liang Restaurant
27 Foch Road #01-02 Hoa Nam Building
Tel: +65 6396 8858

June in Thailand: Muay Thai

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Tom had already seen a muay thai fight, so I went with Erico to check it out. Sure, the place we went to in Chiang Mai was hardly Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium, but it was reasonably priced and we just wanted to see any muay thai, not necessarily the top in class which we might not appreciate anyway. For a drink and some ringside action, it was quite a deal for us tourists.

I was quite dismayed at the beginning to see that most fights were between really young looking children who looked no older than 10! It felt almost like child abuse to watch them slugging it out in the ring with such precociousness. It was then that I realised why the prices were so low: muay thai fighters started training from a young age and of course the lower level championships were much cheaper to watch than the higher level ones with correspondingly higher stakes.

After the children finished slugging it out, the last two matches were of at least teenagers. Here there’s a video showing the pre-fight ritual dance in which the fighter practices some stylised moves to show respect to his coach, the audience, and the spirit of muay thai.

And then the action begins! The two launched into kicking and punching from the get-go, though there were a few too many clinches that got the referee (and the audience) pretty annoyed.

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The awesome and of course dangerous thing about muay thai is that just about anywhere on the body is fair game. Here there’s a flying kick straight to the head, crazy stuff.

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Erico wanted to put in a bet on who’d win. I refrained because I normally have the worst luck at betting. Now I can’t remember who won that bout, just that I remember that the guy I put my mental bet on lost. C’est la vie.

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The last round was a really odd one, it was a bit like a blindfolded Battle Royale where a whole bunch of fighters were blind-folded and stuck in the ring to battle it out with everyone and anyone. Of course there wasn’t any point in betting on this, it was really just for laughs.

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The funniest bit was seeing the fighters mock-fall on the ground and try to avoid being stepped on.

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When the vaudeville music was over, it was time to leave and find a cheaper place for beer. We had it at what was proudly “may be the smallest bar in the world” and “not recommended by Lonely Planet.” We sat down to our Leo beers and then I promptly had a headache. Give me the light, smooth taste of Singha anytime!

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A Very Dramatic Meal

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It was the end of a very long work week. I’d just recovered from one of those nasty bugs that was percolating round and round that sick building I work at. It was late and DC suggested we go for burger and beer at Smokin Frogz. That place was so packed we almost had to stand. We were lucky to get a table after a short wait.

The burgers were very good though: meaty and juicy. Although mine was a mushroom burger, the mushrooms hardly registered. Such a pity since the rest of the burger was good. There was soft bun and thoroughly melted cheese to top it all off.

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We were delighted to spot some harder to find beers on the menu. DC went for the Chimay Red and I had the Little Creatures Pale Ale. The Chimay Red was rich and malty but also quite hoppy. Surprisingly for something so malty and dark, it was rather fruity with a hint of apples. The Pale Ale was very forgettable: light and smooth but nothing much. It seemed like the Little Creatures took flight before putting in the flavour.

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The beer was also very heady! It was probably a combination of exhaustion, post-illness fatigue, a late dinner and the alcohol. One moment I was telling DC that the beer had gone to my head too fast and the next I was waking up from a faint, flat out on the floor. It must have been rather alarming to the rest of the customers. I was lucky that DC was there and also had the help of another diner who was a nurse. We’d arranged to meet a couple of his friends there for drinks but they showed up only to help haul me to car and get to A&E to be checked out. Such a pity since the Chimay was good and fairly cheap (less than $10 I think).

Smokin Frogz
879 Bukit Timah Road

[post script: I’m OK, don’t worry. The hospital couldn’t find anything wrong, so all’s well.]

My First F1

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It was the first time for both of us at an F1 race. Miraculously, DC knew someone who knew someone who had tickets to give away. We got Pit Grandstand tickets for the Saturday race. Being a complete F1 newbie, DC had to brief me on exactly what happens at one of these dos. I found out that the cars don’t all start at the same time and definitely not in a straight line with a gun going off to signal the start of the race. Saturday night was to be for pole position for the final on Sunday: they all raced individually and whoever had the best timing would start in front for Sunday’s final. It was quite different from my mental image of a car race. (I’d obviously not paid a whole great deal of attention while playing Daytona at the arcade.)

When we got our seats, I realised that we could only see the last turn and not the finish line! There wasn’t much to see except cars whizzing by at random intervals. I couldn’t even get two cars into the same frame, nothing was happening.

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So I tried a zoom shot on sports mode. At least I got a nice blurred picture of a Ferrari streaking by.

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Soon I gave up, and popping the ear plugs out of my ears, I demanded nourishment. DC rose to the occasion by getting me horribly overpriced $12 Hokkien mee with scallop (the scallop was fake, some kind of small faux abalone that was nothing even close to scallop). At least it tasted pretty decent.

The heat became unbearable and we ducked into the Red Dot tent for beers and a 7 inch Italian sausage hot dog. In a rare instance, DC chose the wrong beer. He got the Weizen, a wheat beer that was light and, well, simply too light that it hardly had any flavour at all. My summer ale was much better. It was grassy with an aroma of floral honey, and bitter hoppy finish. Very refreshing especially when cold, probably the best part of the evening.

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So the F1 was a disappointment, but at least it was free. Oh well. And there was good beer to be had.

Beer and Pinot Noir

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I met up with Tweych for dinner and drinks. It was a pity that our sushi dinner hardly stood out especially considering that the place claimed to fly in fish daily. I didn’t like how loosely the rice was packed and felt that the fish wasn’t particularly fresh. It wasn’t frozen but neither was it fresh. However, I enjoyed the standing sushi bar‘s Suntory Premium Malt’s (5%) which is supposedly hard to find in Singapore. It was a lovely pale yellow, very malty as expected and also surprisingly sweet. It went down fairly well with the sushi although I think Asahi Super Dry would probably do better at cutting through the seafood.

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Not being particularly satisfied, we headed to Moomba for wine. Our resident wine expert Tweych picked out a New Zealand pinot noir, the 2007 Wairau River Home Block Pinot Noir (13%). Like most pinot noirs, it was light red and of course still very young. There was plenty of heady cherry, strawberry and red currant in the nose and it went down very smoothly. The only problem was that I felt like I was drinking alcoholic Ribena. The feeling only damped slightly after about a glass or so when the mild tannins started showing through. It was not bad, but I’m still not quite convinced when it comes to pinot noirs.

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Standing Sushi Bar
1 Raffles Place
#B1-02B OUB Centre
Tel: 6533 7078

The Moomba Wine Shop
52A Circular Road
Tel: 6438 2438

A Leisurely Breakfast with Easy Long-Rise Bread

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This is what I try to make my typical breakfast: lots of fruit with some dairy and complex carbohydrates. I think it’s a tad heavy on the sugar, but at least the jam is homemade and the Yakult gives me some sort of lactobacteria. I slice bread only when I need it and end up lazily using the chopping board as my serving platter too.

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The bread I make is very dense and quite moist, like the German fitnessbrot I grew up eating, so it doesn’t go stale easily. It’s based on a Cooks Illustrated almost no-knead bread recipe. I’ve modified it slightly to suit my own needs. My bread is dense because my tins are non-stick, meaning that the dough doesn’t get enough grip to rise high against its walls. If you have a regular (as opposed to non-stick) metal tin, go ahead and use that instead for a lighter bread. Don’t oil the sides, if not the high temperature of the oven will turn it into a gloopy mess that takes an eternity of scrubbing to remove. And use only metal tins because you need the metal to conduct heat to get the dough hot immediately. Fear not, the rest of the process is dead easy.

As for the flour, feel free to use all plain flour or all finely ground whole wheat flour, normally sold at atta flour or chappati flour at places like Phoon Huat. As long as the flour makes up three cups, try using a bit of rye or other grains for varying taste and texture. If you don’t have whey, just use water with a few spoonfuls of milk. Or try the original recipe with a quarter cup of beer in it.

Ingredients:

1 cup plain flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup atta chappati flour (very finely ground whole wheat)
¼ tsp instant yeast
1 tsp salt
1¼ cup whey
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar or lemon juice

Method:

  1. Blend all the ingredients together in a bowl and cover with a dry towel. Leave to rise for 12 to 18 hours.
  2. Punch down the dough and knead by pushing and folding over the dough 10 times.
  3. Put into a 20 cm diameter round springform tin and allow to rise for 2 hours.
  4. Preheat the oven 30 minutes ahead to 250°C or as hot as your oven will go.
  5. Cover the tin tightly with aluminium foil and put onto lower oven shelve. Turn down the oven to 200°C.
  6. After 3o minutes, uncover and bake for a further 30 minutes.
  7. Leave to cool for about 30 minutes. Cut and serve immediately to enjoy the crisp crust.

Makes 1 loaf.

Burps at the Beer Fest

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I was late to attend Beerfest Asia 2009 mainly because I was out diving for most of the time. (Will update on that in a while.) Finally made it on the last day, on a Sunday afternoon when all the fun was pretty much over. No matter, we made up for the lack of good music (and Vertical Horizon) by downing more beers.

We limbered up on the Turkish Efes which was surprisingly light for a 5% and tasted of… nothing at all really. This was swiftly chased down by our very own local Archipelago Travellers Wheat that had a very unique taste. I couldn’t place it until I looked it up on the website. It was tamarind and ginger together, so it was spicy and warming yet with a very pleasant tang.

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I’d originally planned to stop at a couple of beers, but I’d already paid $27 for entry only to pay more money to get my hands on some beer. So I wasn’t a particularly happy camper and proceeded to instigate my drinking companion to buy more beers.

The American Doggie Style Pale Ale (5.5%) was more packaging than good beer. We were not impressed. Another friend joined us with a Dog Schwarz (7.8%) and was similarly underwhelmed. No matter, onwards to better things! DC liked the Chimay Tripel (8%) from Belgium, proclaiming that it was complex, dark and… like a stew. I thought it was bitter and moved swiftly on to my favourite of the session. The Silly Saison (5%) was also from Belgium and was redolent of thick , buttery and almost salty caramel. It was smooth and amazingly good.

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Then came a silly in-joke as we drank to a friend called Calvin. Unfortunately the Calvinus Blonde (5%) from Switzerland lived up more to the second part of its name. Despite the pretty label, it was another one of those bland forgettables in the ocean of beer. John Calvin must’ve been rolling in his grave, more because it was such a bad beer, methinks.

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Next up came a short and rather ill-fated interlude with some cider. Magner’s Irish Cider (4.5%) from (you guessed it!) Ireland was, according to DC, metallic and tasted like rotten 500-year old cheese. I thought it was OK, but not worth the carbs and burps, so we moved swiftly on.

I don’t remember trying the Pompey Royal (4.5%) from the UK but DC said that it was malty and full-bodied with lots of hops. It was well-balanced and smooth, worth the $10 price tag. I remember scribbling some notes, but ended up losing them, so fat lot of good that did me and this blog post.

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And last of all, we dreg up the Swiss Schwarzer Kristall (6.3%) from the depths of my memory and all I remember is that it was a terrible letdown that tasted like the insipid Flying Dog stuff from the US.

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The conclusion really was that there are good beers and there are expensive beers and the two are not necessary the same. Oh and there are bad beers too. And beer makes me tipsy. And gives me a headache. So no more beer for a while.

August in China: Zhuang Country

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Going up the hillside to reach the village and its rice terraces was hard work. Most of us chose to burn our own calories going up, but others chose to burn cash instead. Enterprising locals would take tourists in a sedan chair for that moment of feeling like a king or at least minor nobility. It was unsurprising that most of those going up by chair were on the plump side. And I wonder how the fella in the picture managed to take a good video with all that bumping up the stairs.

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At the bus bay there were many Zhuang women making their handicrafts while waiting for tourists groups to buy their wares. Here you can see their long hair bundled up carefully. They never cut their hair as it’s a much prized symbol of beauty and probably fertility too. Here, all the craftswomen were married matrons. The unmarried girl keeps her hair firmly under wraps as it is only to be unveiled on her wedding night. Our Han Chinese tour guide warned the men to be careful not to accidentally uncover a girl’s hair or he’ll end up being married straightaway. He then said that he was a bachelor and would be happy to be the fall guy and marry a Zhuang girl on some hapless tourist’s behalf. I found that rather tasteless and offensive.

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No less, Zhuang hair was really a sight to behold. It was thick and black with not a strand of white or silver in it. I wonder if the older ladies simply wove their hair from younger days into their do, but I just can’t think how it could be done. There are apparently many herbal concoctions for making the hair black and glossy, but here they focussed on selling knick knacks and bags to the tourists.

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After being piled into a minivan and driven down and up more windy mountain roads, we ended up at another village where most of the domestic tourists elected to go for the optional cultural show. Most of the foreign tourists milled around outside, simply sitting around and soaking in the village atmosphere, watching corn dry.

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We heard sounds of the cultural show going on inside, complete with traditional songs and raucous mock wedding rituals.  Later, some of the tourists emerged with lipstick and such painted on their faces by enthusiastic villagers. It was amusing but slightly disturbing as I felt that the villagers had no choice but to do this just to earn a living.

Outside, we didn’t fare that much better as we bought imported iced drinks from the hawkers. Thankfully, the local vendors largely left me alone, preferring to target my Polish friend who looks a bit like an off-duty Santa Claus. I sensed that the children were probably more curious about these odd looking people than anything.

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Touristy as it was, I don’t regret going on this package tour. It cut a whole lot of hassle and was probably cheaper and easier than going it on my own. Travelling completely solo wasn’t easy, so I often joined tours to meet people. On this trip, I met some fellow tourists as eating partners that evening. It was fun taking A and T out to explore the Guilin food scene as they got to eat in some very local restaurants with no English menu and I got to sample lots of different dishes I couldn’t have done on my own.

I also observed a solo tourist who suddenly appeared in the village as we waited for the performance to end. He sat for a while on his own near two old village elders. After a while, a vendor came by offering little trinkets but he plumped for a cold beer instead. Soon he was taking a picture of the vendor and then of the village elders. It was amazing how he drew them in so unobtrusively and unexploitatively. If I had more time, I’d probably have done what he did: find his own way around the villages, sit around and interact with the locals in an authentic way, then hitch a ride back with a tour bus.

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August in China: Food in Yangshuo and Guilin

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The first night in Yangshuo was my first time in a less developed part of China. Tortoise and I thought we’d eat at one of the bustling local restaurants. I was so amused when our crockery arrived pre-sterilised in a vacuum pack. There was no need for the usual rinsing with a splash of hot water. No pictures of the dinner we had because we were too hungry and forgot to take pictures. We had beer duck (pi jiu ya) which was quite spicy but had no trace of beer in it. We had difficulty finding the meat as all the pieces seemed to be nothing but bone and gristle. I suppose that’s the consequence of being in the countryside.

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The next morning we staggered out for breakfast at this makeshift stall selling Guilin mifen (rice noodles). The lady would hand over a bowl of noodles topped with minced meat and black fungus, and then it’s up to the customer to add the ingredients to taste. There was piping hot pork stock (of course fortified with msg), several kinds of pickles and boiled soy beans.

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It was a delicious combination. I particularly liked the kang kong and long bean pickles and developed a taste for them from then on. The combination of ferment, sour and spicy was so addictive that for the rest of the trip I’d often seek out Guilin noodles or anything with long bean pickle in them.

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Stopping for lunch, we also had horse noodles (ma rou fen). It’s been a long time since I last had horse (that was in sandwiches in Germany). It tasted a bit like venison and was quite robust and pleasingly chewy. I liked it, but Guilin noodles are still better.

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