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Apparently, you’re not supposed to apologise for abandoning your blog for weeks or months. However, I probably should acknowledge that I haven’t been blogging for an age, and possibly don’t have any readers anymore. It’s been a busy year and I’m not sure I’ve cooked anything especially interesting or new. Anyway, here I am attempting to return to the lemurs. If nothing else, this is a pretty spectacular meal to return with. The lemurs were in Emilia Romagna on a short break with Mama Lemur. She wanted to treat us all to something a bit special, and accordingly we booked dinner at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. As you’ll all probably know, it has recently been listed¬†third on the World’s Best Restaurants list, and Bottura’s playful twists on traditional local flavours sounded like the perfect way to splash out. We drove from our base in Bologna to Modena on our final afternoon, took in the lovely duomo and medieval city centre, kicked back with a campari soda in the Piazza Maggiore, and prepared mentally for the culinary onslaught to come.¬† Read the rest of this entry »

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These are the moments that I love my job. I’ve spent the last few days in Urbana-Champaign, a college town (or two) near Chicago that I had never visited before and about which I had no particular expectations. As it turned out, the conference was excellent and the organisers turned out to be genuinely awesome people that I want to kidnap and bring home with me so that I can admire their fashion, drink their cocktails and dance until the small hours. Conferences don’t have enough dance parties in my view, and the ChamBana crowd know how to have a good time. But what about the food?, you ask. I ate in some pretty decent upscale restaurants but the real highlight was my day off, when I wandered out to Maize, a tiny Mexican gem in the midst of ugly student apartments and parking lots. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you let me loose in the United States, I will find good Mexican food. It’s what I do here.

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I don’t usually have a particularly sweet tooth, and I also tend to find Asian desserts to be a bit ho-hum. But Singapore and Malaysia may have changed those opinions forever, because the world of kueh has opened up for me. It all started in Singapore, where Kenny suggested that we buy some little cakes right after our massive blow-out meal at Chomp Chomp. We laughed, because really we couldn’t have eaten a wafer thin mint at that point. But Kenny insisted that we take some back to our hotel, so we bought two tiny, jewel-like green cakes. And sure enough, an hour later, in our hotel room, we thought why not, they’re very small…They proved to be absolutely delicious morsels, combining sweet sticky rice, coconut custard and pandan layers. When I reported this back to Kenny, he said that Singaporeans have a finely-tuned sense of when the human body will be ready to ingest just a little more food. Read the rest of this entry »

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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at kind of a bad time: it was Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan and a major public holiday in Malaysia. Muslims from KL typically visit their families in the north at this time, and because the holiday fell on a Thursday-Friday, everyone basically had a four-day weekend. The city was eerily empty in some places, jam-packed and business-as-usual in others. This probably contributed to our slightly off-kilter experience, but I think regardless of holidays, KL is not a city you fall for at first sight. Much of the centre is clearly not designed for pedestrians, and we found ourselves walking awkwardly along the edge of highways and under bridges. The public transit system looks great on paper, but all of the lines are owned by different companies and they barely intersect. Making a journey that includes a change of line most often includes leaving the station, walking a few blocks up alleys and across construction sites, then entering a new station and paying for another ticket. Luxury hotels and malls are being thrown up everywhere you look, but nothing fits together logically. It’s the very model of unchecked development. What to do to get our bearings in a strange Asian city? Obviously – morning markets!

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In my last post I mentioned Eating Asia's Robyn Eckhardt. We were lucky enough to take her walking and eating tour of Georgetown, and she passed on a slew of tips for places to eat on our own time. Our plan for the late afternoon was to potter around town and then try some Penang laksa. Robyn dismissed most of the supposedly “best” laksas in town and gave us directions to a far superior but unheralded hawker. This place doesn't open till the mid-afternoon, though, so we had time for some proper touristing first. And yes, we totally planned our day around the time the laksa stall opened.
As we wandered the historic centre, though, we began to notice something. Cats. Cats painted on walls. As a huge fan of the late Chris Marker, cats on walls are of particular interest to me. I knew that Georgetown had a bunch of street art but the cats were an extremely pleasing surprise. Suddenly, they were appearing everywhere, in small scale and writ large. Read the rest of this entry »
 
Georgetown is full of gorgeous old shophouse architecture – the kind of buildings that have been torn down in many other places and replaced with truly ugly modern high rises. Penang's shophouses aren't only valuable for their aesthetic merits, though, as they still support some of the cultures that are nourished by these types of space. A perfect example is Toon Leong coffee shop, which we discovered on the recommendation of Robyn from Eating Asia.* Here, the purpose of the deep interior space with pillars but no walls becomes perfectly clear: it is almost magically cool inside, despite a day in the high 90s and nothing but a couple of lazy ceiling fans. Humidity be damned, it is comfortable here. In the late morning, the cafe is dotted with old Chinese guys and a growing number of local workers coming in for lunch. You can take a lunch break here but it would also be so very easy to while away several hours. Kopi tiam, or coffee house culture here is alive and well, thanks to these kinds of spaces.
 
 
We've been in Malaysia for a few days now, but we're still reeling from the amazing food onslaught that was Penang. We arrived in the mid afternoon, when Georgetown is hot and sleepy. I was eager to get out and eat, but not unreasonably, a lot of the street food focuses on actual mealtimes, rather than being ready to feed foreigners at random moments of the day. So, we pootled around looking at the city's truly gorgeous shophouse architecture until Mr Lemur called time on our mad dogs and Englishmen perambulations and we went back to our hotel for a siesta. (Our hotel, by the way, was the fantastic Campbell House, about which more later. Seriously, if you go to Georgetown, you should really stay there.) Anyway, we didn't quite have our bearings yet in terms of navigating the city, so we didn't want to stray far for dinner. I had a long list of food ideas, but the only one very close to our hotel was the wonderfully named Sky Emperor Chicken Feet Kway Teow Soup on Lebuh Kimberley. Come on, how could you not want to eat at something called Sky Emperor Chicken Feet?
 
I already wrote about the putu piring, but there was so much more going on at the Geylang Serai pasar malam. Blocks and blocks of tents were set up for a giant market that runs through Ramadan, adjacent to the hawker food centre where we ate. Outside, the streets are decorated with lights and in lots of places, decorative ketupat holders. Inside you can buy most anything, but if you are in the market for some spiffy new headscarves, then you have really come to the right place. We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the stalls.
 
While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
 
While in Singapore, we stayed in Chinatown, one of the few city neighbourhoods to retain many older buildings. Even here, you are surrounded by hulks of sci-fi style high rises. Some of the shophouses of Chinatown are run down but, this being Singapore, many have been renovated and now house chic bars and restaurants. Most are very nicely done, but there is a bit of a Disneyfied atmosphere in the more touristy sections. Still, what's fascinating about the city is the rubbing up together of the gentrified night clubs and the old men shooting the breeze outside the temple. Maxwell Road hawker centre is perhaps the best example of this promiscuity: on the one hand, it is definitely a tourist destination, with quite a few Europeans wandering around; on the other, it is a locus of genuinely excellent food, with long queues of locals patiently forming at the best stalls.
 
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