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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August in China: Food in Chengdu

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The first pit stop for food was at Mr Bunglez favourite noodle place opposite his building. It has a rather impressive steamer at the front of the shop selling bao and other steamed goodies to supplement the noodles.

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The star of this little place surely had to be the noodles. There were three types: the regular thin lamian type, the flat type like meepok or fettucine, and the large flat sheets like ravioli sheets or mee hoon kway. They were served according to weight, so you could order one, two or three jin of the good stuff. For us two Singaporeans embracing the low-carb craze, we opted for one jin servings. I worked my way through the various flavours and on several occasions out-ate Mr Bunglez by ordering seconds. I did, however, concur with him that the best variation was the lajiang mian (hot sauce noodle) with minced pork and the best chilli sauce ever. It was complexly savoury, with slow burn chilli and the almost menthol kick of huajiao (Szechuan peppercorns). This stuff was so addictive I ate a portion practically every day there.

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Not all Sichuan food is spicy, case in point being the tomato-egg noodles at this famous joint further away from the town centre. Here, it’s a simple affair of noodles in a tomato broth topped with a fried egg. There’s something about the combination of sweet-savoury tomato and oily fried egg that really hits the spot after a night of clubbing.

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Of course there’s also the street food. Here’s me with a stick of barbecued tofu coated with chilli powder and msg. It probably pickled half my insides and made me lose a handful of hair with the amount of sodium on it, but what’s street food if not satisfying and unhealthy?

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And of course Mr Bunglez took me to an upmarket place for authentic Sichuan food. Oh my, mapo tofu and shuizhu yu are such revelations done the right way! Authentic mapo tofu is done without minced meat and has liberal lashings of chilli powder and huajiao. I don’t know how they do it, but the depth of flavour and contrast with the soft smooth tofu was simply awesome.

Shuizhu yu (literally: water-cooked fish) is a complete misnomer. Don’t be fooled by the innocuous-sounding name. Fish slices come in a vat of boiling chilli oil. It’s so covered with dried chillis and huajiao that it’s hard to spot the fish under it all. Again, the combination of chilli oil and numbing huajiao practically anaesthesized my tongue, but you know what they say about painkillers and addiction!

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Finally, there’s the mala huoguo (spicy numbing hot pot) which most people would translate as steamboat. I grew up eating steamboat Cantonese style in which the thinly sliced morsels were cooked in light broth made with chicken and pork bones. Here in Chengdu, mala huoguo is more a pot of chilli oil with a small ladleful of broth in it rather than broth with a bit of oil on it. This way, the raw morsels are pretty much boiled in chilli oil. After boiling each slice of meat in the numbing hot chilli oil (of course there are huajiao inside, this is Sichuan food!), I dipped it into my bowl of xiangyou (fragrant oil), a concoction of sesame oil, chopped coriander and a good dose of rich black vinegar. Of course, the wimpier you are the more vinegar you add. At first the morsels aren’t spicy at all, since the xiangyou washes off most of the spice. As I ate, I found the food getting spicier and spicier. The xiangyou was obviously soaking up the chilli and huajiao. Shortly, I felt the familiar addictive anaesthesized sensation on my tongue. Then I started sweating and soon after, I was gasping and pleading for peanut milk to soothe the spice. Needless to say, it was a fantastic meal. Sorry no pictures this time. I was too distracted to take pictures of the food!

Southeast Asian-Style Coca Cola Chicken Noodle Soup

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This is a rather odd-sounding recipe. It’s inspired to some point by the famous Kai Tun Coke in Chiang Mai (even though I haven’t tried the McCoy yet) and from eating my way around Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. I know that most people don’t have a leftover Coke problem when they have guests over, but I do. This recipe used up my leftovers beautifully.

First, simmer the chicken in an infusion of coke, fish sauce and whatever herbs and spices you like. My recipe is a broad indication, use as many or as few of them as you like. Similarly for my soup toppings: I adore the Viet idea of having a whole herb garden to accompany each meal. Diners would then pick and choose from the basket whatever they liked and added the herbs and vegetables according to preference. I tried to replicate some of it here, so please don’t feel like you have to run out to buy every single topping/garnish. If you just want it in its most bare bones form,  try it with just mint, onion and lime.

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Ingredients:
500 ml coke
4 tbsp fish sauce
1 stalk lemongrass, sliced
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 star anise
4 cloves
2 cardamom pods
1 chicken

kway teow noodles
romaine lettuce
onion, sliced thinly
mint leaves
lime wedges

Optional:

cucumber, cored and cut into matchsticks
long bean, cut into short lengths
beansprouts
red chilli, sliced

coriander leaves
thai holy basil
spring onion

Method:

  1. Combine the coke, fish sauce and herbs in a pot and lower in the chicken, breast-side up. The breast should just about be covered by the liquid.
  2. On low heat, bring to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
  3. Allow to cool in its own liquid.
  4. Lift out the chicken carefully and divide into portions ready for serving. Reserve the cooking liquid.

To serve:

  1. Dilute the cooking liquid in an equal amount of water. Bring to a boil and season with fish sauce to taste.
  2. Add the noodles and lettuce. Bring back to the boil.
  3. Divide into bowls, top with the chicken and serve. Diners will add their own garnish according to taste.

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.