September in Bali: Menjangan Island

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I was in Permuteran to dive two very different locations. The first was Menjangan Island, also known as the island of the deer. To get there, we had to abide by a whole bunch of rules. I like multi-coloured signs like this and I especially liked the rather paternalistic exhortation to make sure all your diving equipment was attached securely to your body.

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While the diving at Menjangan Island wasn’t quite as spectacular as the other places I’d dived for this trip, it was very relaxing as there weren’t any challenging currents. The water was beautifully blue as usual and while there weren’t as many pelagics, there was still the odd gem or two. This yellow-spotted trevally was one of them.

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Here also was the second time in my diving career I saw a school of squid in broad daylight. The last time I saw a school of squid, it was my first dive. It took more than a hundred dives to see them again.

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Closer to the reef were plenty of longfin batfish. Here, they seemed almost excessively friendly, changing quickly from their day colours…

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… to night colours as they came in close, as they did when wanting to be cleaned.

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For some really odd reason, one of them swam right up to me, as if it was expecting me to do the cleaning honours for it.

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There were plenty of parrotfish around. I’m surprised how little photographed these fish are. I think it’s something to do with how shy they are and how they just don’t stay put in one place.

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There were others like this grouper that I can’t find in my fish ID book…

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… and more familiar ones like this Indian doublebar goatfish hovering over some coral.

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Some of the fish came in schools, like the two-spot snappers in their brownish grey raiment.

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Others were more solitary, like one of my all-time favourites, the juvenile harlequin sweetlips. I can’t get enough of its unique polka dot pattern.

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Some fish lived in crevices, like this yellowbarred jawfish emerging in search of prey.

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Others like this fire dartfish seemed to simply hover in one place posing for the camera.

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There were other fish that lived in crevices, and some of these you won’t want to get too close to. This fimbriated moray eel is one good example.

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Some were small and really difficult to get close to, like the goby. I can’t tell for sure whether this is a common ghostgoby.

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I think this is a large (!) whip goby but as usual, I can’t be sure.

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Other fish are much more easily identified, like these panda clownfish, also known as Clark’s anemonefish. They were so at home among the stinging anemones…

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… as was this anemone shrimp.

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Rather camera-shy was this hermit crab, which hid its face swiftly under its shell as the camera clicked.

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And then the ones that didn’t seem shy at all – the nudibranchs. I saw a white flabellina that seemed to mimic the coral it was on.

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There were others that were even more unidentifiable, like this strange blue one with an orange and white strip outlined by deep blue running down the middle.

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I tried to take some nudibranch portraits, some not quite coming out as I’d like as the flash refused to fire.

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And others came out much better, with a pensive, slightly lonesome feel that seems quite at odds with the experience of being a nudibranch, perhaps.

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June in Thailand: The Stir-Fry Fireball and Other Cooking Adventures

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The highlight of Chiang Mai was something I hadn’t planned: cooking classes. I was intrigued by the large number of courses on offer at the various guesthouses. Cooking classes seemed as popular as day treks to the hilltribe villages. Tom and I decided that we just had to go for one. We chose The Best Thai Cookery School, run by the inimitable Permpoon “call me Perm” Nabnian, not just because of the price but also because of the almost shameless self-promotion on the brochure.

The morning started off from the back of his pickup truck, a nicely converted vehicle with fairly comfy seats at the back. He picked us all up personally, squeezed us all in the truck, and took us on a tour of a little local market. Here, he took us through the entire encyclopedia of Thai vegetables and herbs. Being Southeast Asian, I thought I’d be familiar with all he’d show us, but I was surprised when he showed us another version of ginger I didn’t know. Of course there was the regular ginger, there was blue ginger (galangal) and yellow ginger (turmeric). But there was also something called lesser or finger ginger, which he’s holding up on the left hand side of the picture. I also learned that Thai basil and holy basil were different plants, both also quite different from the sweet basil used in Mediterranean cooking.

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Aside from that, it was lovely to see the great variety of herbs and vegetables available in the Thai market. Seeing the cute rotund green brinjals made me want to set up kitchen there straight away. Along the way, Perm dispensed little tips like don’t be crazy like the Westerners and go for the largest eggs: buy only small eggs because they’re much tastier.

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And the mushrooms! I don’t know why, but fresh straw mushrooms just aren’t available in Singapore. I love this stuff in soup, especially tom yam. It really is just too bad that so far I’ve only found this good stuff in Thailand and China.

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Whirl round market over, we bundled back into the pickup and went to his house in the suburbs for the cooking lessons proper. First, we learned how to make mango sticky rice. I was surprised that it was made by steaming instead of the typical boiling my Chinese heritage is familiar with. I’ll share the recipe once I get round to making it at home.

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After a round of demonstrations, we were all obviously itching to go. We weren’t issued the aprons and dish cloths for nothing! We’d each chosen a stir-fry dish: I wanted the minced pork fried with holy basil and Tom went for the fried morning glory. The ingredients were all prepared for us and all we needed to do was a bit of minor chopping.

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After getting the food prep out of the way, we were ready for the most exciting part of the course! We took turns with our partners to do our respective dishes, for safety and also to make sure that there was a photographer to document the momentous occasion. First, we got our ingredients ready and stood by the hot woks. Perm came round adding the oil and checking our work stations.

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At his signal, it was time! With a great roar, the flames leapt up together with lots of smoke and exclamations from the more timid of the lot.

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It’s just too bad that the pictures didn’t really do it justice because the flames really went pretty high.

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They only truly died down when I added in the sauce ingredients.

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And there was my minced pork with holy basil replete with plenty of wok hei. Now this is how you do it!

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Next, Perm taught us how to make papaya salad (which I’d already learned by observing the people at the street stand in Laos!) and deep fried banana spring rolls.

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The fun tip I learned here was to use a cut up banana like a glue stick to seal the spring roll wrappers. In my greed, I later forgot to take pictures of them, so no you can’t see the finished product. However, what you can see is me grinning maniacally while making my spring roll.

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We proceeded on to making our own curries and carb dish. I made jungle curry and khao tom. Didn’t quite like the jungle curry but loved the khao tom. And I realise now that khao tom is all about the right kind of soy sauce and also the sprinkling of chinese parsley on top. Tom made a very yummy massaman curry and pad thai. Look at his pleased expression cooking it up! He had rather a short-lived (5 minutes to be exact) of going back to Wales to set up a Thai restaurant.

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As a bonus, Perm also very generously taught Tom and me to make coconut and banana soup. It’s pretty much the same as the soup we make further south in Malaysia and Singapore, just that I think our version is slightly better because we use the more fragrant gula melaka rather than white sugar. Nonetheless, we assembled all our cooking out in the patio and shared the food. It was all very very good, especially since many of my classmates were cooking for the first time. Just goes to show how good Perm is!

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Of course I had to have a parting shot with the chef himself. He was industriously preparing for the evening class already and I had to catch him at the back before he drove us back to town!

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