Friday, April 29, 2011

Luang Prabrang Part 2: Going to Market

Food in Laos is a direct result of it being slap in the middle of Vietnam and Thailand. Very similar themes to pad thais, papaya salads and noodle phos, one unique distinction is sticky rice, rolled into a ball with hands, and dipped into soupy and spicy dishes. All those familiar flavours of chilli, lemongrass, garlic, lime and fragrant herbs won't surprise you, they will reignite your love for food from this region.

Aside from having gone on a rampage for all those favourites above, we visited the must-see food markets in the centre of town.

On the main Sisavangvong drag, there lies a huge temple which marks the start of the daily street market, serving up semi-touristy souvenirs with some authentic handicrafts and local wares. Get there in the morning though, and take a little side road to the left of the temple, up a narrow path to the morning market...

Sellers sit and squat on the pavements, laying out fresh produce on tattered mats, waving plastic bags attached to sticks to bat away the flies. I'm sweating unglamourously as I stop and stare at these lush ingredients.

Now I wouldn't want to get into a fight with these ladies at the egg stall, especially if they have good aim..

And amongst the familiar items, are the more exotic things. Here comes the purple version of that ubiquitous sticky rice. It's also eaten as a dessert when sweetened.

Something tells me those were Laos sundried tomatoes.

I noticed these fuchsia baskets on the ground, that were moving...

After some faux sign language with a toothless elderly local, we guessed they were tiny quails that could be bought to be freed. We couldn't quite work out the symbolism, and sadly were offered an inflated touristy price for the deed.

And of course, which Asian market would be complete without the downright strange. This vendor seemed to be selling what looked like assorted preserved hides. For eating. Even my Chinese computer says no.

Ah, the calm bliss of sitting still on the pavement and observing this old art of haggling for daily items. That's my kind of foodie morning.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Luang Prabang: Rice of Passage

Again I find myself behind on posts, bursting to flow forth with stories, agonising over how to put them in words and trying to recollect thoughts, feelings, experiences before those sensations fade. After four days in Luang Prabang, the gorgeous old-worldly French colonial town of Laos, I feel vigour from new scapes and sights.

Like it's neighbouring cities and other South East Asian countries, Luang Prabang is home to endless wats, or temples. Those that are still in use are home to various orders of monks, disciplined to a life of frugality and meditation. Some join a temple at an early age to get an education, later leaving to lead a "regular" life. Many remain to serve as spiritual guides and maintain ancient traditions.

A monk's education through a temple (at least those in Luang Prabang) is funded mainly by public donations. What do monks then do in turn for their society, whether they remain in the order or not, aside from religious leadership and preservation of culture? I met an ex monk who smiled knowingly at this question and assured me leading by example was still a very  necessary part of life.

Perhaps I understood his assurance better after seeing an age-old custom of monks receiving alms.

Every day at the early, misty hours of 5:00am, ordinary folk rise to make any food they can and offer as alms to monks. Monks queue in orderly silence from their temples, and open their food baskets to receive what looks like modest handfuls of sticky rice. This serves as one of their two meals a day.

We were a meter in distance from each other and worlds apart. I wonder what they would make of a food blogger. I wonder if I could live on two meals a day, just consisting of sticky rice.

The ex monk said that the Lao believe living as a monk is a boy's rite of passage to becoming a man. I am comforted by the expanse of Time. I feel I'm a grain of rice in a field, and my moment will come and pass.

Grow, and be happy in the moment.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Becoming a Coffee Expert

You gotta love Twitter sometimes. There I was, awash with post-Aussie blues, scouring the net for anything vaguely life-changing, nuggets of cheap entertainment, or heck, anything to inspire even the teeniest chuckle. Up pops a little tweet from @TimeOutKL saying retweet by 3pm to win an Illy Coffee Journey. Free coffee? Off my tweet went into the Twittersphere, and out of my memory within the next minute.

And oh, the excitement and rapture when I found I was a winner! And it wasn't just free coffee, but a taster of Illy's Coffee Expert course in the Universita del Caffe (UDC), where I could bring a friend. There was a coffee university in KL?!

Malaysians love coffee like everyone else. The typical local way would be to have a  Kopi-O - a strong, tobacco scented bean with a touch of bitter, drunk black, sometimes sweetened with condensed milk. KL in particular has fallen victim to the Starbucks infiltration, and we all know it's overpriced coffee flavoured milk. So when it comes to appreciating a European style cuppa, it would be fair to say the majority may not be entirely au fait with the finer details. Little me included, as it turned out after this experience.

Illy's UDC opened last year, with the mission to spread the love and appreciation of coffee, Italian style of course, to KL and beyond. If you've always wanted to be a barista, this is the place to come. Best friend KL and myself sat in a stylish, white and red classroom with 12 others, sipping introductory lattes whilst waiting for the fun to begin.

In full powerpoint glory, trainer Evelyn starts off by introducing the school, and quickly moving onto how to spot the perfect espresso. Illy uses 100% Arabica beans, regarded as the highest quality for aroma, taste and body. Generally, a well extracted coffee "honey" produces an elegant, caramel crema, the beige residue that sits on top of the darker liquid. An under-extracted bean doesn't produce a crema, and an over-extracted one can taste sour. We are strongly encouraged to reject any espressos that fall outside these guidelines to keep standards high. Hmmm...I imagine that being a source of fun. 

The real fun starts with a practical demonstration and chance to play with the fancy looking equipment, facilitated by head barista Keith. What a character.

"Why we drink espresso in the morning?" [Why do you like drinking espresso the morning?]
"Cos it's kow kow ah?" [Because it's strong]
"Ahhhh, now you understand, understand, understand?" (Whilst pointing at individuals around the room) [Do you understand?]

Despite the heavy Manglish (Malaysian-English) conversation and goofy demeanour, this man knew his stuff. He explained why full fat milk is the one to go for when making cappucinos or lattes (a higher fat content gives you a puffier yet rich foam) and skimmed milk is great for iced coffees. He was very keen for us to understand how temperature was crucial in getting the best flavour, and conducted endless demonstrations in "balancing" milk with the steaming nozzle to get an even distribution of foam. 

"Bad" foam looks like egg whites, good foam gets distributed evenly and has a glossy shine

At times I felt my head would implode from too much new information. The taster is a watered down version of something an aspiring barista would want to qualify in, and Evelyn and Keith looked like they could talk about any technical detail for days. It's nonetheless very interesting, fun and unless you are already friends with a barista, a great chance to try your own hand at making a perfect espresso. The actual courses are a pretty penny - the full 2 day Coffee Expert qualification for an enthusiast is at RM1500. Perhaps enter a competition on Twitter first!

Universita Del Caffe
Block B, Unit 901
9th Floor, Phileo Damansara 2
Jalan 16/11, Off Jalan Damansara
46350 PJ, Selangor
Tel: +603 7960 3808

Thursday, April 14, 2011

All these Little Creatures in Perth

What a lucky gal to have reached Western Australia all the way from NSW. Let's see, amazing cocktails in Sydney, great wine in SA, and yes yes I know there is Margeret River and Swan Valley in WA, but trust me folks, in Perth it's all about Little Creatures.

Courtesy of my antipodean crew in London, I know where to get my fix of this golden beauty they call Pale Ale: like The Stag in Belsize Park (a top gastropub for an excellent roast) or the more central Porterhouse in Covent Garden. I don't know what I expected when I was told the Little Creatures Rrewery had a bar. I just didn't expect the brewery to be all around the bar...

In contrast to wineries, that often have cultured tasting areas and swish restaurants alongside, breweries tend to look like unkempt production plants. Fremantle's mothership brewery had me from the moment I walked in. On my right were ginormous vats, fronted by a brick wall and bar. To the left were more vats, shielded by glass, with lots pipes and tubes running across, impressive looking buttons, in a Dexter's Laboratory-esque way. Ahead was a large seating area, leading out to the terrace and sea. All of this housed under an exoskeleton of metal beams, and what looks from the inside like corrugated metal. I'm a sucker for industrial-chic, so concrete and steel, and more steel, looks good to me.

All that architectural masculinity was doing it for me. It was a sweltering day in Freo (Perth-ian for Fremantle), so the only place to be was the outside. The terrace was a-buzz with chatter, large groups and families luxuriating in the gorgeous weather, the spacious and atmospheric surroundings, and of course the beers.

Ice cold beer bubbles fizzing on the palate and tingling down the throat, especially when temperatures are high, is such an awesome sensation. Little Creature's ales have a distinctively yeasty aroma and flavour due to the large amount of hops and method of brewing used. I loved savouring that long bready aftertaste. Aaaahhh.

So much so that I had to make a second trip back, at night.

Little Creatures' menu is typical of one attached to a brewery, varied with favourites like burgers, meat skewers (including kangaroo), pizzas and salads. I was catching up with friend K, who had been a Londoner as well, till moving back to Perth. Mussels and fries, bites to nibble on and share, seemed apt.

I got the feeling food here was pleasant, though not wildly exciting. I could have eaten bowls of those salty fries and garlic aioli, which went perfectly with the ales. Our mussels were large but not juicy with sea-flavour, almost tasteless. The spicy tomato sauce it came in was flat and one-dimensional. Pizzas seemed to be popular, judging by the amounts coming out of the open kitchen.

The space took on a different personality in the evenings. Bossanova beats cascaded from above, fairy lights twinkled underneath the metal beams creating what I imagine to be a man-made firefly effect. Energy still ran through the building despite everything being a little more relaxed.

It's a Hungry Female first - I admit the food wasn't all that, but I totally loved the building and the mood it created. It also added to the enjoyment of the ales. I tried the Pipsqueek Cider, Roger Dark Ale and the Bright Ale. All had that signature hoppiness, the Dark Ale more stout-like, and the Cider not actually very strong in flavour. My favourite? Still the original, Pale Ale. 

Now a Fremantle landmark, Little Creatures Brewery is a must-see in Western Australia. A "small" ale is circa AUD$5.50.

Little Creatures Brewery on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 11, 2011

D'Arenberg & Kangarilla Road @ McLaren Vale

My last post on Adelaide. Sigh. Still on my mini-blogging with less words to try and fit this all in, but at least the pictures turned out.

Isn't Mclaren Vale muchos splendidos? Rolling hills, vine leaves a flutter and wine wine everywhere, and lots of drops to drink. We only had time for two wineries, due to a lazy start and lots of goofing around on the grounds, but I wouldn't have changed a thing. I swear I've seen D'arenberg in off licenses (bottle shops to them Ozzies) in the UK, with that distinctive red stripe. I'm not going to attempt to name what we tried, it's just not possible after all the excitement. One relevation to me was Sparkling Shiraz, which is very South Australian. Sadly I don't think much gets out, I love that rich burgundy colour which has the same dazzling effect as white sparkling wine. D'arenberg's only one was slightly sweet, berried, possibly a little vanilla-ed and sophisticated.

My guilty purchase was their 2007 Noble Prankster dessert wine, a blend of Chardonnay and Semillon. Quite the opposite from a prankster, it was like a gentleman's kiss: sweet, gentle, strong and so memorable afterwards.

We then meandered down to Kangarilla Road, a smaller winery with a large open tasting room that was half warehouse, half granny's living room. To the left of the tasting counter was a simple, graphically striking poster with five different leaves, denoting different different grape varietals. Did you know that each grape has a different leaf? I didn't. I do now.

This time's treat was the 2007 Primitivo, which was a little tannic, drier and even raspberry-like.

We got tipped off by the rep to try some grapes off the vines on the way out. Niiiice.

First thing to do is nominate a responsible non-drinking driver (good luck) Then check in at the McLaren Vale & Fleurieu Visitor Centre for a map, find your wineries and work the route. And even if you're route is just two stops, indulge in this ravishing landscape.
Tastings in SA are free (yay!) and some wines are only sold at the cellar door.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Day in Adelaide

Life is sweet (and savoury) right now.

When in SA, start with a mighty caffeine boost by Taylor Blend on Hallett Road, the artisan coffee shop this side of Melbourne. These men have passion for their craft, beans are selectively blended and service is at warp speed during peak times. Be nice and they could grace your flat white with a Taylor-made frothed milk smile.

Mooch around Adelaide's Central Markets for brunch, SA's answer to Borough Market with bigger tasting portions. I liked starting at the back with fruit and veg, finding some bargain bunches, and working my way to the front for the gourmet bits. Cheese, meats, fresh fish, bread, dips (there was a seller that just specialised in dips!), bakeries, you name it. Displays are full, bursting forth with fine Aussie produce.

When you're smacking your lips for the afternoon sweet fix, head to Prospect Road for Muratti, an unassuming patisserie that looks like a prime candidate for Restaurant Makeover. I swooned over my light-as-air hazelnut mousse wonder, crowned with crunchy tiramisu "cigarettes" made out of meringue.

And for the real icing on the cake, there's only one dinner choice. Any Adelaidean worth their foodie stripes will raise their eyebrows in approval at the utterance of Red Ochre. Near the River Torrens (where I saw those fiendishly beautiful Black Swans), it prides itself on using only Australian ingredients and a modern Australian menu. And you bet I tried the crocodile cakes (tasted like fish!), emu meat and kangaroo steak. Just for the record, kangaroo is bliss with roasted peach.

Can you have too much of a good thing? Naahhhh. I miss you, sweet Adelaide. A big shout out to one of my dearest and oldest friends, KK, for being the perfect culinary guide!

Taylor Blend Espresso on Urbanspoon

Muratti Cakes on Urbanspoon

Red Ochre on Urbanspoon