Back to Tulamben: Bottom Dwellers

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There were lots of creatures living on the bottom, whether on the bottom of a part of the wreck or on the sea floor proper. One of them was the relatively hard-to-spot snowflake moray eel with its startled expression.

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Other eels included the ribbon eel, like this yellow female…

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… and this black juvenile.

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Ribbon eels have a characteristic way of moving in and out of their holes, probably partly moving with the surge and partly to act like a lure for its prey.

Yet other eels we saw were the incredibly shy garden eels. It was impossible to get any closer without chasing them back into their holes.

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I think these are spotted garden eels, but it’s difficult to tell without a close up picture.

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Moving away from the eels, there were other fish that live in holes, like this goby…

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… and this yellowbarred jawfish with its characteristic yellow mark on its eye.

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Then there were the fish that simply sat on the bottom, never being found more than a few centimetres off the coral. Case in point is the leaf scorpionfish.

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At Tulamben, we found the white variation…

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… the yellow variation…

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… and a red variation. Such was the multitude of fish at Tulamben, it was a fish photo collector’s paradise.

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We were also lucky to find a rather hard to find ocellated frogfish. This tiny fella was about an inch or so long and we find him while battling a unexpected strong current. Too bad we weren’t able to stay for too long as I’d certainly like to get a better shot of him.

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And last of all was this deeply depressing stonefish. It’s almost perfectly camouflaged, with only its glum downturned mouth to give itself away.

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Tom Yum Soup

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One of my favourite soups to make at home is tom yum soup. I learned a version of it at the Chiang Mai cooking school and never looked back since. It’s dead easy to make from scratch and even adding tom yum paste is optional. Granted, the ingredients aren’t the easiest to find, but I’m finding that more and more shops are stocking them. Some of my local supermarkets even sell tom yum starter packs with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallot, lime and chilli in them. What  I normally do is buy a bit more of the herbs when I see them, prepare them and chuck them in the freezer. With a bit of forward planning, a fragrant spicy soup can be made from frozen to tummy in minutes. If you’d like the soup a little spicier, there’s no need to add more chilli, just pound the chilli padi into smaller bits.

For today’s soup, I had some seafood and plenty of prawns and their shells. I also had some spare chicken bones and made a lovely stock from boiling the bones and the prawn shells and heads together for about 10 minutes. The prawn heads, especially when I squeezed out the orangey guts, gave the stock an intensely briny prawn flavour. You can make the soup with plain water, it’ll still be fragrant but not as robust.

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Ingredients:
15 prawns, shelled
1 large squid, prepared
1 clove garlic, smashed and peeled
1 shallot, peeled
2 thick slices galangal
2 kaffir lime leaves
3 stalks lemongrass, cut diagonally into thick slices
1 chilli padi, smashed

1 small punnet cherry tomatoes (about 16)
1 small bag oyster mushrooms (about 12), torn into large chunks

juice of one big lime
2 tbsp fish sauce

1 bunch coriander, leaves only

Method:

  1. Make stock from the prawn shells and head by boiling them in 2 litres of water for 1o minutes. Strain the stock into a separate pot for making soup.
  2. Add the garlic, shallot, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and chilli padi to the stock and bring to a boil. Next, add the prawns, squid, tomatoes and mushroom and bring to the boil again.
  3. Off the heat, add the lime juice and fish sauce sparingly, tasting as you go along, till you get the right balance of sour and salty.
  4. Serve, garnishing with coriander leaves.

Serves 4.

Layang Layang: Reef Life and Macro

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Don’t think that Layang Layang is only for the pelagics. There’s plenty of macro to be found here, it’s only that sometimes the currents and the wall can be a bit challenging for finding those critters and also getting the perfect shot of that tiny little creature. There was a lot of reef life here, such as this rather surprised looking tomato grouper.

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I was also quite pleased to see one of my favourites, a juvenile black snapper with its characteristic black and white stripes and dots.

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Then there were the fish that insisting on posing for a picture, like this slightly constipated looking pennant bannerfish.

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There were also bottom dwellers like blue-spotted stingrays.

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They always seem to stare up so malevolently at us.

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There were also other fairly amusing fish, like this doublebar goatfish. They like to rest on coral and pretend that they are not there, innocently spacing out, as if if they can’t see us we can’t see them!

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Others showed off their colours beautifully against the coral, like these panda butterflyfish and peacock grouper.

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DC is obsessed with the pufferfish family, just like I’m obsessed with hawkfish. His favourite shot of the whole trip is this seal-faced puffer that he cornered in a coral niche. It’s cute, isn’t it?

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Not so cute is this giant frogfish that has its mouth open in wait for unsuspecting prey. In a split second, it’ll pounce and the prey will be in its belly.

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Far less grotesque were pretty nudibranchs slowly making their way across the coral gardens.

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They were surprisingly hard to spot among the colourful backdrop of coral, but once found, a joy to photograph.

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Far harder to photograph were the pink anemonefish, who were so skittish, this is probably the only decent one I got amongst the tens of shots I took.

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Going down to the seriously macro-level, I found some large whip gobies on a sea fan and thankfully this one wasn’t as shy as my next subject.

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The Denise pygmy seahorses were such a pain to photograph. My camera had great difficulty focussing on the tiny creatures smaller than my fingernail. This one is pregnant and had the tendency to swim to the underside of the sea fan, making it impossible to catch on camera.

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DC got this picture that’s far superior to mine, it’s so beautiful how he managed to capture the eye and its almost serene expression.

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We had some good luck on sandy patches at the house reef at night. There was a flamboyantly coloured Spanish dancer.

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There was also this strange blob of a sea slug oozing its way along.

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Much prettier was this variation of a reeftop pipefish that wiggled its pretty pink tail and didn’t seem to mind the many flashes from our cameras.

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Then there was the bizarrely shaped longhorn cowfish that seemed to have difficulty navigating its way out of this patch of seagrass.

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Back on the coral reef, there were other oddities like this leaf scorpionfish with its glassy white eye staring out at us while swaying back and forth in the water pretending to be a leaf.

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In the anemone were some porcelain crabs, which were quite shy. This one kept scuttling towards the underside of the anemone and it was really hard to keep up with it before it disappeared from sight.

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A rare sight in the coral was this peacock flounder. Normally associated with muck diving, I was thrilled to see this one swim along and then try to rather unsuccessfully camouflage itself on some maze coral. Its googly eyes and patchy colouration gave it away immediately!

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There were also quite a few shrimp and other crustaceans hiding out in crevices. Here’s DC trying to get a good snap of some shrimp.

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They were some kind of orange cleaner shrimp that I have yet to identify, very pretty though!

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Other cleaner shrimp like these commensal shrimp also hung around the same area. Both kinds would come out onto my hand and pick away at dead skin. I suppose it makes good eating for them. And round goes the circle of life!

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There were also these spiny rock lobsters in another hole. I was so tempted to pull them out by their feelers but of course resisted. It’s a pity they were so shy though!

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Back on the surface of the coral reef, we were happy to see the bigger fish thriving. There were plenty of sweetlips about, including these adult harlequin sweetlips that seemed to love giving a mirror mirage by going in pairs above and below the coral.

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Then there was this emperor angelfish that came up to pose for a picture on my last dive. Such an obliging creature!

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And last of the fish, there was this white mouth moray looking out for prey.

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Unfortunately, as this video shows, it’s a bit of FAIL because it got slapped in the face by a passing fish. So much for being a lean, mean predator.

The nicest finale to our dive was getting up close to this turtle. As we approached, the green turtle was facing us and knew full well of our approach. Somehow it didn’t swim away.

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DC got in close enough for a really macro shot of it.

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But then we noticed something odd about the way it was rocking back and forth.

We realised that it was stuck in the coral! For the sake of this turtle, I broke one of the laws of diving – don’t touch any creature – and tugged it gently out. It got free and immediately coasted up towards the surface for a good breath of fresh air.

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It was such a lovely feeling to end our successful series of dives by helping out a stranded turtle.

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.

A Reviving Broth

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I like to cook chicken and vegetable broth because it’s so comforting and reviving. It takes a bit of time and effort to debone the chicken, but the results are well worth it. Freeze the thigh and breast meat for some other use and put only the bones into the soup. If you’re feeling lazy, you can just chuck the whole chicken in, but don’t blame me if you get dry stringy meat. Add as much or as little of the veggies as you like. If you have leeks or potatoes, feel free to add those too.

A note on the aromatics: I like the deep flavour cloves give to the broth. It somehow makes the soup extra satisfying. I stash parsley and coriander stems in the freezer each time I use the leaves, so making this broth just involves unpacking whatever there is in the fridge. Don’t worry if you don’t have it.

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Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 large onion, cut into large wedges
2 carrots, scraped and cut into rounds
4 sticks celery, cut into chunks
bones of three chickens (if lazy, just use one whole chicken)
4 cloves
a sprinkle of whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
parsley and coriander stalks

Method:

  1. In a big pot, heat the oil and the onion, carrot and celery. Stir on low heat for about 5 minutes to sweat. Make sure the vegetables don’t brown.
  2. When the vegetables are soft, add the chicken bones or whole chicken and pour water over it till covered. Add the cloves, peppercorns and bay leaf.
  3. Bring the broth to a gentle boil for about one hour. Alternately, if you have a thermopot, put it in the thermopot for about two hours.
  4. When the soup is done, lift out the bones or chicken and extract whatever meat you can. Serve on the side with the soup.

Enough for 4.