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.

September in Bali: Out of the Water

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I returned to Bali and took a short break from the diving. From my base of Permuteran up in the northwest of the island, I spent a day relaxing Bali’s Lake District, enjoying the cool air at Tamblingan Lake.

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It was lovely to admire a body of water and not feel the urge to dive in. I enjoyed the feeling of the cool air and being warmed by the sun instead of hiding from its much fiercer rays when down by the sea.

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We then headed to Jatiluwih to view the rice terraces. The intense green terraces were a marvel of human ingenuity and tenacity, and the coconut trees up on higher and cooler ground was a surprise to me.

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I was particularly tickled by how entire herds of ducks would take over harvested fields. They were probably scavenging for the scavengers that scavenged on the spent grain and leftover sheaves.

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Going closer, it seemed as if the entire field was quacking in symphony.

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We stopped by at the Botanic Gardens to admire the fountains…

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…  and the various, sometimes rather impressive greenhouses. This one was a desert hothouse, aridly beautiful in the stark light.

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And there were lily ponds galore, with the noon sun reflecting itself in the water.

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Our last stop was the Gitgit waterfall, a picturesque stream of water cascading down into a shallow pool, covering everyone below in a fine mist.

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Again, there was plenty of that wonderful green that made a good break from the diving.

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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.

July in Vietnam: More Motorbike Adventuring

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The motorbike trip took me off the well-beaten Lonely Planet path. Not only did I not find any descriptions of the towns I passed through in the book, I also fell off its map. I still can’t quite place the route we took through the northwest of the country. The first night, I stayed in a nondescript town with only a main street. It could’ve passed for any provincial outpost anywhere in China or the rest of the Southeast Asia. No pictures of that because it just didn’t seem worth it.

But the second night was spent in a charming little village that was back in the Lonely Planet book. Mai Chau lies in a beautiful valley filled with padi fields and its thatched bamboo stilt houses with electric lights and flush toilets were very welcome. Here’s a very relieved me coming into Mai Chau after being absolutely chilled in the drizzle and fog.

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As we set out the next morning, the morning mist had yet to lift. The motorbike laboured a bit as it made its way up the hillside.

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And the spectacular view of Mai Chau valley was revealed. The patchwork of different shades of light green and brown against the deeper green of the surrounding hills was such a sight to remember. It perked me up when I wondered what on earth I was doing suffering muscle and joint pain in the middle of nowhere going God-knew-where.

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It was rare to pass by anyone at all on the road and here, both rider and bullock herder gawked in equal measures.

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Some bits of the road were rather hazardous, especially with the summer rains. There were numerous landslides, one so bad that there was mud everywhere and the original road was impassable. Some enterprising locals cleared paths to get round the worst of the mudslide and extracted a toll for each vehicle that went past.

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On the last day, the road started to get better. We were nearing civilisation!

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But of course not without first passing by some beautiful scenery of the distant hills.

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The early morning light made everything look so clean and fresh.

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It certainly did make everything very much worth it, especially the short stop to stamp off the cramp in my legs and the crick in my knees.

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It was the last I saw of the highlands of Vietnam and I was sad that there wasn’t time to see any more.

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The next thing I knew, the sun had come out in full force and we were in the lowland areas in the southern Hanoi region. This area is characterised by the limestone formations, something like an inland Ha Long Bay.

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It was lovely to be part of the traffic, savouring the country life. We pulled up at a local place for lunch, a simple affair of boiled chicken, rice and herbs served with fish sauce. The chicken was the toughest yet the tastiest I’ve had. Nothing yet has surpassed that amazing concentrated chicken taste from a chicken that probably spent plenty of time running about pecking in the dirt for real grubs and real food.

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I drew nearer to my final destination, greatly anticipating my next stop with the monkeys.

July in Vietnam: The Madcap Motorbiking Adventure

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Maybe my hide had been toughened by the experiences of the last week, maybe my sense of reckless adventure got the better of me, but still I don’t know what got into me. After being harangued for my previous experience, the travel agent suggested I take a motorbike ride down to my next stop, the Cuc Phuong National Park, where I was up to more monkey business. He assured me that the motorbike driver, Hu, was absolutely proper and wouldn’t even try to touch me. Excellent that we got that sorted out and we were off.

Our route took us past the spectacular Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) where I spent ages gawking and trying to figure out whether the water droplets falling on me were from the drizzle or the splash of the waterfall.

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It was a steep but very scenic walk up to the top…

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… and the views were nothing short of spectacular.

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We went past Tram Ton Pass which, according to Lonely Planet, divided the warmest and coldest places in Vietnam, Lai Chau and Sapa. As expected, when hot and cold met, you really could see air. It was mistily beautiful and mysterious, one of those places that has to be seen while you’re there. I couldn’t get any pictures because my camera was hopelessly fogged up. As we headed downslope, the mist cleared up slightly and I managed to catch some of the amazing scenery in pixels.

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Some parts of the hills gave way to little pockets of land flat enough for padi. It was the first harvest season and villagers were working hard to dry their harvest along the road, …

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… and subsequently thresh it by hand.

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It was tough work in the fields and it was also tough work staying on the bike. It was my first time for long at the back of the bike. Astride behind Hu, I had to hold myself straight and not grab onto him for propriety’s sake. It meant a mean day-long workout for my abs and thighs. When my abs were tired, I stood up slightly on my knees and when my knees were going to give way, I held my abs in to straighten up. The only alternative to this tough workout was to slump with my face against Hu’s back and I wasn’t about to let that happen. Boy was it tough going. I was so glad to get off the motorbike when we came up to a river crossing.

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Here, there were geese on the banks waiting for us. They must have thrived on the grass growing along the muddy banks.

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After waiting for enough customers at a little shop/tea-shack and chatting with the proprietor to pass the time, we got on board the little boat to get across.

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And after a short two-hour ride more, we were at a village homestay where the pigs very enthusiastically greeted us in the dusk.

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It was also where I very enthusiastically tackled my food (yes, the portion in the picture is only for two!) after a long day’s workout and passed out in the roomy common room of the stilt house.

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More next post.

July in Vietnam: Sapa

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I hopped on the night train to Sapa hoping that things would get better there. I arrived early the next morning to vastly different weather. In contrast to muggy, humid Hanoi, Sapa was cool and on the verge of chilly, though still quite humid as it was the rainy season. Higher up in the mountains, the weather felt almost temperate. I was surrounded by beautiful hills and verdant valleys again, the quintessential hill country.

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I took a walking day tour to Cat Cat, followed by a 2D1N trip slight further into the hill country. Hmong tribeswomen immediately attached themselves to our group as we ventured out with our ethnic Viet tour guides. I thought it very odd that it was rare to find a Hmong tour guide and that most came from the cities. One of them didn’t even seem to hold a very high view of the local indigenes, which unsettled me quite a bit. Nonetheless, we proceeded on with a procession of Hmong women joining us on the way.

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We walked on in the drizzle and were amused by how the Hmong women whipped out their umbrellas with alacrity and offered to shelter us. A bit discomfited because the Viet guide told us that they would ask us to buy their wares at the end, we kept slightly away from them. But as they helped us up and down slippery muddy slopes along the paddy fields, it was hard to keep a distance. We were soon won over by their charming ways.

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Before long, we arrived at Cat Cat village and its beautiful waterfalls. We spent ages oohing and aahing over the wonderful views and the almost poetic splash of water obeying the laws of gravity.

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Treks on the other days took us through more padi fields cut into the hillside, making for a breathtaking view through the mist into the valley below.

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As we walked on, we gazed longingly at the pack animals going by…

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… and followed behind our guides, amazed that they were wearing rubberised slippers and getting along fine while we were in proper sports shoes slip-sliding behind them at the treacherous bits.

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We paused to admire more of the wildlife, like these too cute ducks posing for postcard souvenirs to send home.

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This was the youngest of the Hmong women joining us, I think she’s probably about 12 years old. Check out her intricately embroidered clothes, especially her sling bag and belt. Later in the less touristy villages I would see progress in the form of villagers choosing the less labour-intensive and probably cheaper way of wearing western-style clothes bought from the market.

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Hmong women really did have the coolest clothes and accessories from all angles. Here you can see their intricately patterned clothes and accessories, from belts to sleeves, to earrings and hairclips. Exquisite.

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We stopped at yet another beautiful waterfall for a breather (note sign of breathtaking scenery fatigue setting in here).

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And also in huts along the way. It was here that the penny dropped and I realised that our informal guides were decked out in ceremonial Sunday best wear, while those who were actually working the padi fields wore far simpler clothes sans heavy embellishment. It spoke volumes on the value of the tourist dollar here.

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We stopped for the evening at a village where I experienced the most beautiful sight of my time in Sapa. A young river flowed past the village, gushing past the boulders in its path, worn smooth by the rushing water. I perched on one of the boulders enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and dipping my toes into the icy water. It was a great ending to a damp day of trekking.

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June in Thailand:Deeper into Karen Territory

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We headed out from the village into the newly transplanted padi fields, green shoots pushing out from the dark brown earth.

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Jare explained to us that the charred trees were from the previous growing cycle where the chaff was burnt in the fields to break down the nutrients quickly for the next batch of seedlings. The trees were collateral damage, a testimony to the impact of man on nature.

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There was also the occasional little hut dotting the valley, made as rest huts for the tired farmer.

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In one of these huts, Jare and Kiat found a traditional headpiece worn by the villagers to protect them from the elements. It shields the head, neck and back from the fierce sun and offers some relief from the incessant drizzle so characteristic of that season. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, but the moment it started pouring again, I was back in the humid poncho!

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Soon, we moved further away from the village where it was too far away and not worth the effort for the villagers to farm. Here, the valley gave way to an incredible spectrum of green, Nature showing us the inadequacy of our own paints and colours.

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Even more beautiful were the little splotches of bright colour on the way, including this pretty pink flower that came into our path all of a sudden.

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Jare pointed out various weird and wonderful creatures, including this cow-horned insect, a beetle of some sort. It’s amazing how long and curved its antennae were and the odd mask-like back with black dots on white looked so out of place.

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In direct contrast was the stick insect Kiat coaxed onto his parang. I’d not seen one before except in pictures, and it was almost a shock to see how, well, stick-y this fella was! The details were amazing, even down to a little knob of a shorn off branch on the top.

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Soon, we reached our destination for lunch, another village nestled in a valley, this time a little lower so there were plenty of coconut trees.

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Here, they were a little bit more old school, with shrunken skulls from the way back in the days where they dried enemies’ skulls and hung them up to ward off evil and other enemies.

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The strangest thing was sitting around the stove slurping up the instant noodle lunch Jare cooked for us, watching the skulls stare out at us from their empty sockets.

The Art of Stir-Fry

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Stir-frying is actually quite simple, as long as you’re quite brave too! Most home cooks only do it on medium heat, resulting in food that’s more steamed than fried. Stir-frying requires a very hot wok and all the ingredients, in small quantities, on the ready. This makes sure that the food is fried quickly and you get that barely charred taste.

Here’s how to do it. First, heat a dry wok till very hot. Then add the oil, swirling to coat most of the wok. Wait till the oil starts to shimmer and barely smoke. Make sure the ingredients are ready. Add the aromatics, like chopped garlic, and stir like mad. When it’s fragrant, add the rest of your ingredients according to how long they take to cook, and keep stirring. Turn off the flame and then season.

Here are some ideas:

Almost Sambal Kang Kong

Ingredients:

2 tsp belachan (about thumb-size)
1 tbsp oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 chilli padi, finely chopped
1 bunch kang kong

Method:

  1. Toast the belachan in a dry wok until brown on both sides. Crush using a mortar and pestle.
  2. Add oil to the hot wok and when oil is shimmering, add the shallots and fry till fragrant.
  3. Toss in the chilli padi, belachan and kang kong and fry till kang kong turns deep green.

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Watercress and Tau Kwa Stir-Fried in Tau Cheow

Ingredients:

1 tbsp oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 cake tau kwa, cut into squares
1 bunch watercress, torn to small sections
1 tbsp tau cheow, crushed

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till oil shimmers, then add the garlic. Fry till fragrant.
  2. Add the tau kwa and fry till tau kwa is browned but not burnt.
  3. Add the watercress and tau cheow and fry till the veg turns deep green.

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Chicken, Mushroom and Bean Fry

Ingredients:
1 tbsp oil
as many mushrooms as you like, cut into strips
1 chicken breast, cut into small chunks
handful fine french beans, cut into sticks
2 tbsp shaoxing wine

Method:

  1. Heat the wok and the oil till shimmering. Add the mushrooms and fry till browned.
  2. Add the chicken and fry till browned slightly on all sides.
  3. Now add the french beans and fry for a few seconds.
  4. Add the shaoxing wine and stir till it stops bubbling, then turn off the heat. Add salt to taste.

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All recipes serve two. (Or one greedy person.)