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)

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Modern Thai at Kha

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Hort Park is a special place for DC and me. We go there regularly but never quite during dinner time till this one time we went to Kha, a modern Thai restaurant. It’s run by the same person who does boutique hotels, one of them being Jia in Hong Kong. It’s cute how the names of the two places are linked: “jia” means “home” in Mandarin while in Cantonese, it’s pronounced “ka”. In Thai, kha is a modifier word for females to use at the end of a sentence to make it polite. (The equivalent for males is “khup”.) What a clever way to name the restaurant. I like!

I was pleasantly surprised already when they served the complimentary appetiser. Instead of the typical prawn crackers with sweet chilli sauce, they gave us popped rice biscuits with red curry sauce. It made for a zingy start to the meal.

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We ordered two appetisers and a main so that there’d be space for dessert. First was the crispy catfish with sweet pork and mango salad. It was very good – tangy and slightly spicy with plenty of texture. I’ve always liked the crispy floss-like texture of catfish done this way. They did right not to mess with the classic combination of catfish and young mango strips. I also liked the extra crunch of the peanuts but felt that the pork wasn’t necessary.

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Our second appetiser was banana flower salad with young coconut and chilli. I didn’t like this one as much. It still had the classic sweet-sour-spicy combination so characteristic of Thai salads, but I felt that the texture of banana flower didn’t lend itself well to a salad as it was too “siap siap” – you know that nasty tannic texture, a bit too sappy? The young coconut helped a little but didn’t help much to give interest for flavour. Interesting idea that flopped.

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The main we shared was very good! It was baked half sticky chicken stuffed with coriander and lemongrass, paired with stir fried pineapple rice. The sticky chicken was marinated in some kind of sweet dark sauce hence the stickiness from all that sugar. It tasted Asian but not quite vehemently Thai. The meltingly tender chicken paired nicely with the pineapple rice for a very safe, crowd-pleasing main. I liked how they used some unpolished rice to add flavour and texture. Good call.

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For dessert, we went for the baked pumpkin custard with coconut ice cream. The pumpkin custard is very typically Thai. This version was very nicely made, with smooth silky and not too sweet custard. It went very well with the rich coconut ice cream, a very nice end to the meal.

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Too bad the drinks weren’t as good. We wanted to enjoy the view outside and had our post-dinner drinks there. They tasted as bad as they looked. Don’t drink the aromatic pear mojito – the pear was somehow oxidised and brown; it left a very grainy feel in the mouth. The khao lao rum looked less bad and tasted OK. It was just another sweet drink. Both were very weak, so Kha is not a place for getting smashed.

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My verdict? A nice place for a romantic meal, just skip the drinks. I hear that they are moving soon. It’s a pity as the space is really quite lovely. Check it out soon!

Kha Restaurant
33 Hyderabad Rd
Tel: 6476 9000

July in Vietnam: Out on the Mekong Delta

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My next short jaunt out of Ho Chi Minh City was a tour of the Mekong Delta. The Mekong flows through much of Southeast Asia and is of utmost importance to the livelihood of those who live along its banks. When it reaches the sea, the mighty river breaks into many distributories flowing over the vast expanse of the Mekong  Delta, stretching at least a 100km along the coast of Vietnam. Even its distributories are vast, taking some effort to cross.

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At some places, the river was narrow enough to build a bridge across.

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At others, the opposite bank was a bit too far away for a bridge.

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We had to crowd with the motobikes in the ferries to get across. Aside from the usual chickens, ducks and vegetables, one even carried live fish in a makeshift waxed canvas tank.

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The river was their livelihood and people lived along the river even if it meant building their houses on stilts. No matter if there wasn’t land in the front, a hanging garden did the trick.

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Others grew their garden on the balconies, like this house with its dragonfruit cacti creeping down towards the water.

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Further away from the river were places of worship, like this Khmer temple that looked like it had been transplanted from Cambodia.

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This area being close to Cambodia, there was a significant Khmer minority here. Some of the Buddhist temples I saw in this area were of quite a different style from the other Mahayana temples I’d seen in Vietnam. This was definitely closer to the Thai and Lao style temples…

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… even down to the saffron-robed monks running the temple.

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There was also a scattering of other places of worship, like this church here. It looked a little incongruous rising elegantly from the rather scruffy stilt huts along the river.

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As part of the tour, we were taken to see some of the cottage industries. One of them was food manufacture. Here, ladies patiently worked over wood fires making rice paper by hand.

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Others tempered melted coconut sugar to make rich caramelly coconut candy.

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And men did the grunt work of pressing popped rice into blocks which would then be coated in syrup and cut into crispy-crunchy sugary snacks.

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It was lovely wandering through the little hamlets in the area, passing under gardens and other topiary.

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And also chancing on a wedding banquet, where the happy couple was happy to let tourists take pictures of them on their big day.

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There were also some quiet backwaters…

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… which weren’t so quiet when children popped out of nowhere screaming “hello hello!” at passing tourist boats.

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It was lovely to wave back at them…

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… their smiles were such a lovely lift to river experience.

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Minang Nasi Padang: Best Beef Rendang Ever

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Shinta and I were in the Arab Street area so we had to drop by Minang Nasi Padang for lunch. DC had raved about it before (he’s now raving about another place, but more about that in a later post). As usual, we ordered too much. Between the two of us we had beef rendang, curry chicken, squid in its own ink, begedil and sweet potato leaves cooked in coconut milk.

It was all very good quality, with the tender, well-spiced chicken and the richly gravied potato leaves being above average. The  dry-style beef rendang, however, stole the show. Its incredibly depth of flavour and smokiness blew me away. They spiced the dish incredibly well and toasted the spices so well that the slightly tough texture of the meat actually added to its allure. Upon further chewing, the meat yielded more flavour. Despite the lack of tenderness, it’s my favourite beef rendang thus far.

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Minang Nasi Padang
18 & 18A Kandahar St
Tel: 9457 7384

A Viet Gem

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We dropped by Viet Lang for a dinner with friends one weekday evening and were pleasantly surprised by how good the food was. Every dish we ordered was good, quite a change from most restaurants were there were invariably some items that were pretty run of the mill.

We started off with the imperial spring rolls, which had a filling of chicken and prawn encased in a net wrapper and seaweed of some sort, then deep fried to perfection. Wrapped with lettuce and aromatic basil leaves, then accompanied by a fish sauce based dipping sauce, the rolls tasted really fresh and had wonderfully contrasting flavours and textures.

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Next up came a dish that was awful to look at, especially in the badly taken photo below, it looked like something the dog brought home perhaps. But oh the flavour! The smokey eggplant really was smokey, which added an extra dimension to the dish, a bit like a very lovely Vietnamese take on babaganoush.

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The next dish, prawns steamed in young coconut, came masquerading as a drink. We wondered why the waiter was serving us a drink halfway through the meal but soon realised that the prawns were cooked in the coconut shell. It was very unusual because of the light touch to the flavouring. It was just delicate coconut juice, prawn and coriander that shone through, and was very, very good.

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Then there was the Hue-style grilled chicken with fried glutinous rice. The chicken was decent and quite tender, which I liked. Here, the unusual part was the fried glutinous rice. It was a bit like a cross between fried polenta and plain tangyuan (glutinous rice balls). DC loved it but I found it a bit stodgy after so much food so far.

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Then there was the Hanoi style hot pot with beef and seafood. The hot pot came with accompanying raw meat, seafood and vegetables and it was up to us to cook it ourselves.

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The ingredients were fresh and of very good quality, particularly the beef and seafood. The broth at the end was full of flavour and the glass noodles soaked it all up, showcasing the fresh flavours nicely.

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Last but not least was the pho bo. I was a bit sceptical when one of our friends specially requested for it but was amazed by how good this traditional beef noodle dish was. It beat any other version I’ve tried hands down with its lightly spiced broth and very good quality beef that melted in the mouth. A definite re-order for next time.

We didn’t have any space for dessert, but are definitely planning our return!

Viet Lang @ The Arts House
1 Old Parliament Lane #01-03
Annex Building, Old Parliament House
Tel: 6337 3379
E-mail: vietlang@wellborn.com.sg

Memories of Thailand: Khao Tom Kha Moo

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The things I learned from Thai cooking school stayed with me and two years since, I still cook Thai occasionally. Thai food is great mainly because there are quite a few dishes that are pretty healthy and easy to whip up in a jiffy. In this recipe, I’ve taken great liberties by turning tom kah kai, a coconutty chicken soup, into rice porridge. It’s so easy to make.

I’d arrived home after work wanting something easy yet comforting and didn’t have much in the fridge. Cue freezer to the rescue. I pulled out my staples of chopped shallots, kaffir lime leaves, galangal pieces and lemongrass slices. There was also some unidentified meat that upon defrosting, turned out to be pork ribs. Tom kha moo it was then instead of kai. Vegetable-wise, there were mushroom and carrot languishing in the fridge, so it all came together quite nicely. All of it dumped in a rice cooker together with the addition of tom kha paste from a packet and I was good to go for the quick run while the whole thing bubbled together.

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Ingredients:

3 pork ribs
1 small carrot, sliced
2 shallots, chopped
1 slice galangal
1 kaffir lime leaf, torn up
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
¼ cup rice
½ tbsp tom kha paste
2 tbsp thick coconut milk
5 mushrooms, sliced
fish sauce, to taste
1 lime

Method:

  1. Cover the pork ribs and carrot in water and simmer together with the galangal, shallots, kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass for 30 minutes. Remove the galangal, kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass.
  2. Add the rice, tom kha paste and mushrooms and simmer till the rice is cooked.
  3. Stir in the coconut milk and season to taste with fish sauce.
  4. Serve with a squeeze of lime to taste.

Serves 1.

Diving the Similans: The Villa After

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After all that hard work diving, a couple of days at a nice villa was definitely in order. DC found the Vijitt Resort online based on its reputation. It didn’t hurt that the place appears in Francis Ford Coppola’s list of top resorts in the world. and what a beautiful place it was! The resort only has individual villas, there aren’t any rooms in a building. Each had a private entrance and a little garden filled with aromatics. I especially liked how they grew a lot of pandan outside our villa. When we emerged for breakfast in the morning, the fragrance was such an uplifting start to the walk to the restaurant. What was even better is that the resort recognises that the grounds are quite big, so there’s a buggy service that takes you wherever you like in the compound. It was great how cheery staff would come up on the buggy and ask if we needed a lift. Most times we waved them off so we could enjoy the walk and the view, but having one at beck and call and also for when the sun was beating down was just fantastic.

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There were excellent views from the villa. Here’s what we saw from the balcony and bath tub. It overlooks the southern shore of Phuket and what passes as its beach. It was incredibly lovely to see the old coconut trees towering majestically over the villas. The resort claims that they built the villas round the trees and not a single one was cut down to build the resort.

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I shall be coy about the room itself, go have a look at the resort website to have an idea of the layout. But what was really nice was the pseudo-outdoor shower. It’s actually sheltered so you’d still need to turn on the shower if it rains. The shower is built in a kind of lean-to bamboo shack with a window that opens out to the lovely view.

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It was really nice having a shower and enjoying the view at the same time. I liked how thoughtful they were in planning the villas. It’s really hard for someone to peek at you while in the shower, so no worries about privacy.

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After all that rave review, would I stay there again? Unfortunately, no. It’s mainly because they had a major mosquito problem. The resort is located in a rather swampy area and despite their efforts to fumigate and place mosquito coils (upon request) in the villa, there was no way of keeping them out. Didn’t we close the verandah door and windows? Yes. We had both airconditioning and fan on at full blast at night but still got bitten. Puzzled by the mystery, DC looked at the finishings carefully and realised that there was a large gap in the sliding verandah doors, so mosquitoes could get in anyway. I was kept up all night scratching, it was that bad.

The other problem with the Vijitt is that the maintenance isn’t that great. I think they chose cheap finishings and didn’t do it up properly. For instance, the metal hand grip of one of the sliding doors in the bathroom came off. We realised that even though there were holes for the screws, the panel was simply glued on. Nonetheless, that didn’t affect our stay at all, just that I wonder if the place has longevity. The resort is currently just over a year old and while definitely not run down, it looks like it could do with moreTLC. Please go if you’re immune to mosquitoes, and go soon!