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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?
Singapore is famous for its hawker food centres: since the government cleared hawkers from plying their trade on the street, they have been moved to what are essentially food courts. However, they're not food courts in the way you might imagine them if what you are used to is European or North American mall food courts. These hawker centres are mostly open air, with a covering roof but no walls, doors or, crucially, air conditioning. The stalls have access to plumbing and there are hygiene certificates prominently displayed (this is Singapore, after all), but they are still decently grimy, hot and chaotic. Kenny and Alan ramped things up by taking us to Chomp Chomp, a hawker centre that's a bit further out and less touristed than the Chinatown ones. The neighbourhood is tony, with gentrified wine bars and posh bakeries nearby, but Chomp Chomp remains unabashedly traditional, and packs in crowds of mostly (but by no means all) young people. Read the rest of this entry »
I have much food to blog about. So much food. But before I get into the vast meals, let's stop to consider just one dish. Not even a dish really, a simple sweet made of rice flour, coconut, pandan and palm sugar. But as simple as they are, putu piring are one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. They come in packs of five and Kenny tells me he has been known to buy four packs all for himself. He's not an especially greedy person, but these things are like crack. We went to the pasar malam or night market at Geylang Serai that was packed with Ramadan crowds, and then headed to the Haig Road hawker centre. Among the savoury food Kenny picked us up some packs of putu piring from this bright little stall. Somehow we knew this was not something to hold out till dessert. No, in between mouthfuls of soup, we moved in on the fluffy little morsels. With a pandan scent from fresh leaves, and oozing with gula melaka, these steamed rice and coconut cakes are transcendentally good. Read the rest of this entry »
Yes, the Lemur trip to Singapore and Malaysia is underway! We arrived in Singapore yesterday morning after a sleepless thirteen-hour flight, but luckily the energy of being here carried us through, at least till a much-needed afternoon nap. More to the point, our desire to be out and eating won out over tiredness, and we met up with Lemur friend Kenny* for a late breakfast. Our first stop was the Chinatown Hawker centre, which is a sprawling, labyrinthine food hall on the second floor of a concrete mall. It's nominally indoors but open to the elements, not air conditioned, but with breezy balconies around the edges. We wandered a lot, weaving through colour-coded sections, sometimes ending up walking in circles past the same kway teow stall or the same family with a giant fish on their table. It was the perfect introduction to Singapore food and possibly an extension of our feverish jetlagged minds. Eventually, we settled on mixed meat noodles with fish balls and fried wonton. The broth was spicy and tasty, and the tangle of noodles included delicious secrets like little cubes of deep-fried lard. So. Very. Good.
 
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