Flirting with Chocolate

 “All you need is love. but a little chocolate now and again doesn’t hurt”  – Charles M. Schulz
IMG_0200A coquettish breeze. Turquoise skies smudged with wispy clouds. A broad deck overlooking bare, craggy hills and milky blue bays, sailboats, sunshine and… chocolate?

For chocolate worshippers everywhere, I have found your Mecca. Head south to New Zealand, then south east to Christchurch and the curvaceous Banks Peninsula. Here, at Governor’s Bay, you will discover the decadence of ‘She Universe,’ the ultimate chocolate café destination.

The menu sets the tone as soon as you are seated, inviting you to “lead an extraordinary life,” by dining on delicious dishes laced with chocolate and choc-a-block (pardon the pun, it really was unintentional) with ‘superfoods’ supposedly thick with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. While the cynic in me denies this marketing tool has any scientific basis, the descriptions are nonetheless tantalizing.

The menu, pages long, offers brunch, lunch, snacks, drinks, desserts and truffles, all containing at least a pinch of chocolate. “She” even holds classes to ‘learn about, taste and create with chocolate.’ If you have even the mildest obsession with chocolate, the dessert menu will have you dribbling and doubtless camping on the doorstep for days in order to work your way through every offering. There is a tiramisu ice cream cake – Tiramisu to Tango – served on a base of chocolate brownie drenched in coffee, and garnished with almond flakes and cream. Or you may want to indulge in “She’s Infamous Brownie” packed with walnuts, dripping with chocky sauce and accompanied by raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream.  For something a little different, slaver over an avocado and chocolate torte on a base of almond and cashew. This weighty cake has been lightened with the sharp zing of berries and a spoonful of yoghurt. Or you may like to explore the history of chocolate by sharing a Chocolate Lover’s platter that takes you on a journey from the bean to the truffle via a chocolate fondue. Is your mouth watering yet?

The latest craze is for the cacao elixir. In the language of fine wine, stone ground single estate beans from Peru and IMG_0350
Samoa are used to create hot chocolate ‘the Ancient Way.’ After seeking advice from our lovely waitress, I chose one made with Samoan beans. Apparently it is made with water, not milk, as the thick chocolate paste does not blend well with dairy. I am dubious. I always hated watery chocolate. Remember that ‘cheap’ version when we were kids? I don’t know about your mother, but mine would rarely waste money on Nesquik or Milo. So it was a teaspoon of  cocoa powder, hot water and a spoonful of sugar? It resulted in something barely drinkable, the sugar never quite dissolving, but sinking crunchily to the bottom of the mug, the cocoa never quite dissolving and floating, dry and dusty, to the surface. So lame.

This cacao elixir, Single-Origin-66%-Peruvian-sweetened-with-organic-fair-trade-can-sugar was quite different. Yes, really! I know the marketing hyperbole is a little distracting, but it truly tastes much better than it sounds. The thick chocolate paste actually does blend comfortably with hot water, and makes a surprisingly filling, pure and tasty drink. The consistency fills your mouth and lingers on tongue and teeth, the texture is smooth as silk. The chocolate is distinctively more bitter than the average commercial chocolate drink, but the sugar syrup takes the edge off it beautifully. It is awfully rich  though, so you will only need a small cup – or maybe that’s just me! Suddenly the Belgian Hot Chocolate made with milk and whipped cream and ‘hand rolled chocolate flakes’ looks and sounds thoroughly ostentatious, overly sweet and unappealing.

If chocolate is not really your bag – and it isn’t mine particularly – there are a selection of dishes that only give
IMG_0199chocolate a passing glance. Rather than a full-on starring role it’s just a cameo performance. But it is good. Several of the savoury dishes have been spiced up with chilli chocolate jam, cacao nibs, chocolate balsamic dressing or a chocolate mole over chicken. We ordered a sample, sitting out on the balcony overlooking Lyttleton Bay and the surrounding hills. An overly boisterous breeze forced us to move back into a more sheltered nook, where we indulged in fish cakes and salad. Oh OK, more detail required? So. “Akaroa salmon, dill and wholegrain mustard fishcakes with orange, pomegranate and fennel salad and chilli chocolate jam.” There, is that better? Our additional superfood salad included more pomegranate seeds, broccoli, avocado, kumara chips and a bowl of trail mix (a hiking snack of nuts and chocolate). We shared everything happily, including a moreish Lotus Heart Shake, with banana and dates, cashews and almond milk, cacao and coconut oil.

And yes, before we left, I handpicked a selection of truffles to take home, all with extra-ordinary fillings: a zesty lime and black pepper; the more earthy beetroot and balsamic; a white chocolate heart filled with vanilla and rosemary; an El Mariachi of salted lemon, caramel and tequila and Hot Lips, a dark chocolate mouth filled with chilli and Indian spices. It was worth the expense, and I may never let a mass produced milk chocolate bar pass my lips again!

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Amuse Bouche

IMG_0339‘New Zealand’ suggests sheep and hobbits and rugby. It whispers of kiwis – birds and fruit – and an on-going feud with Australia as to who invented the pavlova. It rumbles about earthquakes and volcanoes.  It mumbles Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and friendly locals with strange vowels. It roars the haka and murmurs moko (tattoos). It tramps through bush and snow, over mountains and around sheep. It purrs about jade and paua shell. It bubbles mud pools and thermal springs. It swims in the Pacific Ocean or the Tasman Sea and cruises through Milford Sound. It coos over the tiny Maui dolphin and the little blue penguin. It builds weatherboard houses and baches (to rhyme with matches) by the beach. It idolizes the iconic VW campervan and its rugby team. It invented bungy jumping, the jet boat and the ski plane. It boasts of Sir Edmund Hillary, votes for women (a world first) and Apirana Ngata, campaigner for Maori rights. It munches on Afghan biscuits and cooks in a hangi (Maori earth oven) or on a sausage sizzling barbecue. It protects native birds, bats and the ancient kauri. It is a land of great natural beauty and greater natural disasters…

I first read the Hobbit in 1980, before it was set in New Zealand. Then I discovered ‘The Bone People’ at university. Author, Keri Hulme, only ever wrote the one book, but she won the Booker Prize in 1985. I loved it. The dancing, poetic language enticed and enveloped me, and I have dreamed of visiting New Zealand ever since. We just never seemed to be travelling in that direction. Last month I unexpectedly found myself on a flight to Christchurch to visit my best friend from primary school. It was the chance to re-ignite a long-neglected friendship, and to realize a long-held dream.

The weather forecast looked dismal – two days of sunshine followed by a week of rain, hail and cloudy skies – so I had packed my trusty and ancient Gortex raincoat (a garish shade of red) and my umbrella. Luckily the forecast proved totally unreliable: I needed the raincoat only once, the umbrella not at all…

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second-largest city, situated half way down the east coast of the South Island. The city lies at the northern end of the Canterbury Plains, bordered by the Southern Alps to the west and the Pacific Ocean, and is mostly as flat as a freshly ironed tablecloth. Christchurch was carefully planned in a grid pattern with a central square and lots of parks, just like its twin city – my home town – in South Australia, and nothing at all like Manila.

Unfortunately, like Manila, Christchurch was also lying on a fault line, but the only other recorded quakes to cause a majorchristchurch cathedral impact were in 1869 and 1870, so no one really worried about it. Then, in September 2010, there was an earthquake in Canterbury of 7.1 magnitude that caused widespread damage, but no fatalities. Everyone breathed with relief. Then, less than six months later, another quake struck the region, which tore the city apart. Almost 200 people were killed and large tracts of the city collapsed or have subsequently had to be demolished. Liquefaction buried many suburbs in sludge and silt. Repairs and rebuilding are ongoing. Empty blocks look like gappy teeth on the cityscape, and many buildings are boarded up as they crumble down. Sadly, the eponymous Christchurch Cathedral may meet the same fate.

restart mallOn the positive side, a strong sense of community has evolved out of the disaster. Shipping containers are now a feature of the landscape: decorated and redesigned as cafés and shops to help restart the city centre, or planted as barriers along the roadsides to protect drivers and pedestrians from the ongoing fear of rock falls. It gives the city a youthful, quirky and somewhat eccentric feel that is rather endearing.  And the creativity and humour in the face of such a catastrophe is really heart-warming.

I emerge from the airport into blue skies and sunshine and the wide, straight roads of the western suburbs, lined with neat weatherboard houses. We throw my bags into the boot and head east for the satellite town of Lyttleton, the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake, and a sharp geographical contrast to the Canterbury Plains.

The first British settlers sailed into Lyttleton Harbour in the 1850s, and established the small town of the same name, which clambers up the precipitous sides of the Port Hills from the quay. These steep, rugged hills presented a challenging barrier between the harbour and the new city. For many years the only way into the city was over the hills on the precipitous Bridle Path. Today, the Bridle Path is mostly used by energetic recreational walkers, while road traffic flows underneath, through a 2km tunnel built back in 1964, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. On the top of the Port Hills, at Mount Cavendish, a scenic lookout perches like a giant eagle’s eerie, housing the Christchurch cable car that drops sharply down the western side of the hill,  frightening sheep.  The lookout provides a stunning panoramic view across Christchurch, the hills and Lyttleton Harbour, which makes it a great place to catch your breath and grab a bite to eat after the strenuous climb – or the gentle cable car ride. It also proved to be a great place for a little Christmas shopping!

My temporary abode also has the most glorious views from the kitchen window and the broad deck, north and east IMG_0178across the harbor’s glacier mint waters and west to the bare and craggy hills behind. (On the first of December – the first day of summer in the antipodes – we woke to see snow dusting the top of Mount Herbert like icing sugar.) The garden is full of temperate climate plants, including a prolific little lemon tree, a wisteria and a luxurious veggie patch. The front path weaves through a tunnel of trees like the road to fairyland. A midnight black cat sleeps in my suitcase. And there are wildflowers on my window sill.

The roads in Diamond Harbour twist and turn through the trees, dip and dive into bays, and scramble up the rocky hillsides. Houses seem to cling precariously, like birds’ nests, to the steep slopes. We lurch down a narrow grassy path to the black sandy beach at Pile Bay, crammed with shuttered baches, and watch as a small brown duck paddles into shore and waddles over to inspect these presumptuous human beings who have invaded his realm. He is nicknamed Robert, and he follows us around the headland, trying to pretend it is a coincidence, and he has forgotten all about us, but just happened to be passing the same way. I am the Duck Whisperer. Two days later, I am accosted by Deirdre and George as I lie on the grass by the Heathcote River, who choose to settle near my feet like devoted dogs, tucking their heads under their feathers and snoozing peacefully in the sun.

IMG_0282We make a trip to Akaroa to admire beautiful gardens on fertile, volcanic soil. It is late Spring and the roses are lush and heavy on their stems, although surprisingly lightly scented. All their energy has gone into the visual: chubby blooms, like Anne Gedes babies, that drag the branches of the exhausted mother bush towards the earth. Lupins and lavender, peonies and pansies, espaliered pears and arum lilies: it is all the pastel colours of an English country garden. Until your eyes are caught by the stately stand of silvery eucalypts, a shady nook enveloped in bottle green, delicately curling ferns, a flamboyant pohutukawa – the native New Zealand Christmas tree – with its scarlet baubles, or the spiky orange blades of the libertia trimming a gravel path. Contrasting floral cultures intertwined.

Akaroa was claimed by the British in 1840, snatching it from under the noses of French whalers who had earlier made a deal with local Maoris. The French stayed on anyway, and there are still traces of French heritage in the architecture and on the street signs: Rue Benoit and Rue Balguerie, Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud. And, apparently, in a local penchant for French wines. Today there is an opportunity to swim with the petite Hector’s dolphin, spot seals and whales, and search for Pohatu penguins. The town is blessed with a broad selection of good cafés and IMG_0317restaurants, and picturesque weatherboard cottages. And there is a Polish jeweler at the end of the jetty who designs beautifully delicate pieces from paua shell pearls that meld traditional Maori shapes and modernity. Walking tracks will guide you up the creeks and into the hills behind the town. Akaroa Harbour is also a haven for the occasional cruise ships that dwarf the flotilla of sailing boats nestling at the head of the harbor. And the piece de resistance? The Giants Garden, whose terraced lawns and paths and flowerbeds are bejeweled and embedded with bright mosaics: statues, staircases and garden seats that provide a startling contrast to the natural beauty of flowers, trees and the surrounding hills. There is even a grand piano standing proudly on the front lawn of this historic French style house built with New Zealand timber way back in 1880. It is… breath-taking.

New Zealand is, quite simply, a feast for the senses. I am smitten, just by the little corner I got to explore. I could warble on for pages, but I have to start planning the next trip, so I will leave the rest to your imaginations, or the next installment…




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Baa Baa Black Sheep

Black Sheep.7Black Sheep is the newest Single-Malt-Whisky-Bar-and-Modern-Gastronomy-Restaurant in town. Try saying that after a couple of drinks! Situated in the penthouse atop that eye-catching black, white and blue checkered building West Fifth in Bonifacio Global City, the kitchen is in the capable hands of Chef Jordy Navarra who has come to Manila via Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, and the Fat Duck in Bray. Both restaurants have been endowed with Michelin stars. This snippet of information sets expectations high.

Like all good restaurants in Manila, no expense has been spared on the décor. It has touches of a converted warehouse, with huge plate glass windows overlooking the city to north and west. Seating is eclectic. You can perch up in the sky room – tonight set for a romantic anniversary tete-a-tete, the walkway strewn in rose petals – a private dining area with 360’C outlook. Yet it’s quite close to the roof and all the commotion below rises swiftly to the ceiling. There are booths for six opposite the windows, looking north to Ortigas or west to Rockwell. The views are terrific, but the banquette seating was a little awkward for clambering in and out. Around the central bar is the option of high tables and lanky bar w5thstools, possibly for a younger, lither crowd than us. The prime spot is a round table in the corner window, looking both north and west, hugged by deep leather armchairs. Sadly, it was already booked, but the booths were cozy, we survived a little clambering, and combined with carpets underfoot – a rare experience in restaurants these days – we discovered happily that we were sheltered from the intrusive noise of the kitchen and the chatter of other diners. Oddly the lighting is really poor, perhaps to ensure the perfect night view, but it does mean struggling to see the menu and the food.

Our waiters bent over backwards to make us welcome, turning down the music at our request and giving us informative explanations and, later, instructions on how to eat the food.  We were handed a short bar menu, or a choice of two set menus, either five or seven courses. The whisky list, on the other hand, contained over 100 choices of single malts, so it took some lengthy discussion for the gentlemen to make a decision about their drinks. In the meantime, the ladies perused the food menu, but it was giving away no secrets. There were no poetically detailed descriptions of the ingredients in every dish I have come to expect, but plain and simple: catch of the day, bahay kubo and, bizzarely, cigars under the desserts list. I found myself feeling skeptical, hungry and just a wee bit cranky. The message from Virginia Woolf on the table mat seemed to be directed straight at me: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” I was getting querulous and needed good, mood-altering food, but I had no idea what to expect. Nor, as it turned out, could I have imagined what was in store for us.

The waiter, with a wave of his magic wand, suddenly appeared at my side with a bowl of bread rolls that looked like muffins and tasted like bacon flavoured soufflés, soft and spongy and infinitely moreish. “Please sir, I want some more.”  I breathed out happily. It was a good start.

Dinner was a set menu of artistry and innovative creativity. While I was not enamoured of everything we ate that night, that was, I think, immaterial. I don’t believe the Chef was looking for our approbation. He just wanted to defy our expectations, alter our perceptions and watch our reactions.

Black Sheep 1First up, a dish entitled ‘Chicken-n-egg. Free range chicken. Mandarin. Beer.’  A ridiculous, amusing tease; a quirky take on the infamous Filipino street food, balut. Half an egg shell nestled in a bed of straw. A cube of lightly fried chicken. A dash of citrus. A beer broth. I chewed tentatively, but it was happily lacking a beak. And it was surprisingly tasty, the mandarin adding a pert zing as we tipped the shell and sipped the broth. Definitely, for me, better than the original!

The second dish was ‘today’s catch.’ Prawns. One wrapped in a cocoon of batter, another in a ravioli or wonton casing, on a bed of spicy peanut sauce. We were advised to eat the wonton first, then dip the prawn in the sauce. I preferred to eat it with a spoon, childishly, enjoying the flavour of a hot, crunchy peanut paste. My only complaint is one I did not expect to make in such a quality establishment. The battered prawn had been fried in over-used palm oil, that tired, dirty flavour of shopping mall food stalls and street food, which sadly spoiled the effect of the fresh, meaty prawn.

Bahay kubo, for any non-Filipino readers, is a popular Filipino children’s song. The English translation of the Tagalog reads as follows:

My Humble Nipa HutBlack Sheep 3

My humble nipa hut
may look tiny,
but the veggies around
it, sure are many.
Yam beans and eggplants,
wing’d beans and peanuts,
string, hyacinth and lima beans.
Winter melon and loofah,
bottl’ gourd, squash, et cetera.
There is more, amiga,
radish, mustard, yeah!
Onions, tomatoes
garlic and ginger.
If you look all around,
sesame seeds abound!

On this note, the next dish arrived: a singular tribute to the nursery rhyme above. Apparently all sixteen vegetables listed in the song are incorporated into the scene on the plate of hut and garden. The loam consisted of crushed peanuts and minced eggplant, which tasted unexpectedly like haggis, earthy and rich. The little hut was made from strips of sweet ginger. Beneath the earth we dug out slices of bottle gourd and winter melon, a fruit that looks like a bloated zucchini. Loofah is not only for scrubbing backs, it seems, but is also a fibrous vegetable, second cousin to the cucumber. And there were several different beans: my favourite sygarilyas or winged bean; string beans and lima beans, and the pretty, purple-coated hyacinth bean, known more prosaically in Australia as Poor Man’s bean. My One & Only was besotted, and was still raving about it at bedtime.

Black Sheep 4Our main course was a simple but immensely rich serving of slow-cooked pork and free-range chicken served on a bed of ‘truffle sand’ that looked like burghul wheat but tasted like… umm… sand. The chicken was wrapped in its skin, moist and perfectly cooked. The pork had the most divine flavour, a little too fatty for our leaner fancy, but rich and comforting.

And the desserts? Mine was a bit of flummery: mango in three different ways, layered on filo pastry, with cubes of honeycomb, like soft Violet Crumble, and wafer thin ginger slices. Like fairy floss it dissolved on the tongue and disappeared as quickly. My fellow diners chose more bravely – well, I had assumed they were ordering real cigars, but instead they were presented with the most extraordinary arrangement of breast shaped panacotta infused with cigar smoke and served on a bed of chocolate and whisky jelly. All a man’s pleasures rolled into one? It tasted to me – who doesn’t like whisky or Black Sheep 6cigarettes – like licking out an ashtray, but the challenge to mind and taste buds was fascinating, and the textures were strangely alluring. Apparently eating it with a matching whisky makes all the difference.

The grand finale, after a coffee-making performance that rivalled any Japanese tea ceremony, was a letter to our host in a black envelope with a sheep’s head seal, thanking us for visiting. A nice touch. Which reminds me, I must write back and thank them for having us.

PS The black sheep, I always understood to mean one who stands out, the troublesome one, the one that doesn’t fit in. Although traditionally the expression had negative connotations, modern times have seen it turn around to mean the sheep – or person – who stands out in the flock, as one special and apart from the mob; the unique, exceptional one.

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Just Sushi

As I may have mentioned, I recently made my first trip to Japan, landing in sushi and beyondTokyo with a clean slate, eager for new impressions. I must admit, I knew embarrassingly little about the country at that point, and I was feeling ridiculously unprepared. But I had a book, lent to me by a friend, and the book became my guide to Japan. “Sushi and Beyond,” is Michael Booth’s travel journal of four months eating though Japan. It was a godsend.

I began to read about Japan’s most famous fish market, Tsukiji. I got tips on making dashi, a base stock and the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. I read about seaweed and bonito and wasabe and miso soup. It was all fascinating. It was mostly about fish. Then I realized I would have to put the book down, or miss out on having my own adventure.

So I flew down to Kochi, a small town on the island of Shikoku, just south of Osaka. Shikoku is dominated by a large mountain range, and the rest is predominantly rural. Until 1988, when a bridge was built from Honshu, Shikoku was quietly isolated from the rest of the country. There is still a sense of separation from the modern world of Tokyo and Osaka; a time lapse that is very endearing.

Shikoku is renowned for its 88-temple pilgrimage, a 760 mile circuit that skirts the island. Walking through four provinces, the pilgrim’s journey is a symbolic path to enlightenment. These many tourists follow in the footsteps of the ascetics. Unfortunately I wouldn’t have time this trip. I was in Kochi to meet my parents, attend a concert, and discover more about Japanese cuisine.

Our first meal together was at a sushi and sashimi bar in a narrow back lane in Kochi. For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine (18)Japanese culinary terms, sashimi and sushi are not quite the same. Sashimi is raw, unadorned fish, simply sliced, simply presented, with soya sauce and wasabe seasonings. Sushi may use raw fish too, but it can also be cooked fish or even fish-less, but it is always served on vinegared rice.

Our dinner that night was a set menu, much to the relief of those of us unable to read Japanese characters, and somewhat daunted by the extensive menu painted on a wooden palette on the wall. One plate followed another in rapid succession: lightly seared bonito shashimi; crunchy prawn tempura; bream sushi and and miso soup; tiny abalone that made me think of the baby oysters in ‘The Walrus & the Carpenter.’ I am drooling even now at the mere memory of that meal.

The etiquette of eating is quite simple. A hot or cold towel allows you to start with clean hands. While sashimi should be eaten with chopsticks, no one seems to have a problem if you need to use your fingers for the sushi, as some of the larger sushi can become a bit unwieldy when pinched between the tips of two knitting needles! (So speaks the expert at flinging fat, squelchy sushi to the floor.) And then afterwards, you can dab your fingers clean on the damp towel.

Sushi is traditionally served with a dab of wasabi and soy sauce, often already applied by the chef. If you want extra, just remember to dip sushi sparingly in the soy sauce, and remember to turn it fish side down or the rice will absorb the sauce and promptly collapse in a huff. Pickled ginger may be served in a side dish as a palate cleanser. In theory, the fish, even the cooked variety, should be so fresh it almost swims into your mouth.

We feasted well that night, gobbling up every offering with huge enthusiasm and finishing off with a chawanmushi miso soup topped with a savoury egg custard that is considered a good digestive at the end of the meal. At the bottom, as an added bonus, we found three minute cockles, the size of a baby’s thumb nail. I was hooked.

Kochi (29)Wandering the streets of Kochi over the next few days, I found elaborate sushi stalls to fuel my new obsession. While sushi has existed in Japan in some shape or form for centuries, it only reached the west in the 20th century. In the 1960s, Japanese sushi chefs arrived in California. At the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant  in Los Angeles the first sushi bar was established, where one innovative chef, Ichiro Mashita, acknowledging the different tastes of his American clients, experimented with local ingredients and created the first California roll.  The California roll is sushi inside-out  filled with cucumber, crab meat and avocado. In Australia we prefer salmon or tuna and avocado, and I have even eaten them with chicken schnitzel. In the Philippines they are mostly made with mango and crabmeat. This fusion sushi has become popular world wide but it is very different to the sushi I found in Japan.

Back in Tokyo, where I met my husband, I wanted to share the experience with him. So that evening, we delved into the back streets of Shinjuku.

Shinjuku initially seems all about size and volume: broad, tree-lined streets framing stolid government buildings; huge department stores; a vast railway station; pavements seething with people. Then suddenly, you will come across an unexpected cluster of narrow side streets; a rabbit warren of restaurants and cafes. After dark, these areas are colonized by hungry workers all hunting for their favourite food.

It was here that we found a nifty little sushi bar, the sort where the plated sushi revolves around the counter on a conveyor belt, known in Australia as a sushi train. The conveyor belt was chock-a-block with beautifully presented, plated sushi. It was like a fashion show, and we dithered about where to start, there were just too many choices.

The most popular styles of sushi include Nigri sushi, a single piece of fish on a pillow of rice, Gunkan-maki: the rice Japanese cuisine (8)pillow has a seaweed sleeve (nori) to hold a looser topping in place, like salmon roe or sea urchin, and maki-zushi, or sushi rolls, that rice bolster stuffed with multiple fillings and tied in place with seaweed strips (nori again). Hosomaki are skinny maki-sushi cut into bite-sized pieces. Temaki sushi  are cones made of nori  filled with sushi rice, seafood and vegetables.

We watched the plates revolve for a bit before taking the plunge. Then we endeavoured to try them all – well, as many as we could swallow before our stomachs could notice they were filled to overflowing. Every mouthful of freshness, quality, flavour and texture, was bliss. When we were uncertain, our waiter would try to advise us, although often, he could only give us the Japanese name. But I copied them down assiduously to check later. A cooked piece of ‘white fish’ on its cushion of rice (bream I think) was melt-in-the-mouth “oishii” (delicious), but sadly I never caught another one – it was obviously popular with everybody.

Some fillets were simply and elegantly presented, reclining in naked glory on a cushion of rice, with maybe a thin slice of lemon to cover their modesty. Others were dressed for a party, bedecked in baubles of salmon roe and ribbons of mayonnaise. I thought the latter looked a little overdone (mutton dressed as lamb?), but in fact this was two or three magnificent mouthfuls of creamy salmon, a delicate, citrusy mayonnaise and the salty pop of orange roe.

In between, we nibbled on wafers of pickled ginger, and piled our empty plates neatly at the end of the counter, where our waiter could count up the cost of our feast. I wielded my chopsticks – mostly – with surprising efficiency. And we certainly did not go hungry, as any gaps we made in the display were quickly filled by the sushi chefs, surveying their realm haughtily from their dais in the middle. My only remaining question: when can I go back?

*Adapted from an article written for Inklings magazine, November 2014 issue.

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Umami: The Fifth Taste

umami (2)Salt, sweet, sour, bitter. I am assuming we have known about these four taste categories since Sesame Street was a dirt track through the woods. Each one tells our taste buds about what we are putting in our mouths, and whether it is safe to eat.  For example, a sour taste, or acidity can alert the brain that the fruit is not ripe, or the milk off, and may upset our stomach – or, alternatively that it is our favourite citrus-based lolly. Sweetness identifies energy-rich – and potentially fattening – foods. Bitterness may warn us of something poisonous, something addictive, like coffee, or something we love like arugula. Salt says… more beer with your fish and chips?

And then the Japanese invented umami. Which is what, exactly? It seems umami is difficult to translate. savoury? Tasty?  Delicious?  What it adds to our meals defies an easy descriptor. In technical terms it introduces our taste buds to glutamates, inosinates and guanylates. Simply, these three ingredients in our food combine to create that element of mouthwatering flavour lacking in, say, tapioca or rice. Umami enhances other flavours, making our food tastier and indicating protein-rich foods. Remarkably – as I discovered recently in Japan without understanding the significance – it also makes a little go a long way, by giving you a sense of being full much quicker.

A Japanese chemist first pinpointed and name the fifth taste in 1908, having discovered it in the depths of a bowl of seaweed soup (kombu dashi). Kombu dashi is an exceedingly simple broth made from kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi  (dried bonito, a smaller cousin to the tuna).  Kombu has the highest glutamate score in the world. Katsuobushi is one of the wealthiest source of isonates. Together they packs a real punch on the umami scale. One to ten? Eleven.

Despite its undeniable x factor, scientists would debate its existence for decades, but finally, in 1985, the term umami was formally recognized, and the culinary world has followed hot on its heels. Although perhaps the chefs had recognized it all along, as that magical, nameless element that added the oomph to a watery soup, a mundaneumami3 bowl of pasta or an insipid stew. Umami is what adds mouth-watering words like piquant, pungent, spicy, scrumptious, luscious, sumptuous, appetizing, ambrosial, delectable and delicious to the menu, and drowns out the damning dullness of antonyms like banal, bland, boring, insipid, uninspiring, and pedestrian.

And here the lecture ends, and the fun begins. Last week I met umami in the flesh when the Japanese Team from our club of trailing spouses turned on a show in Dasmarinas to introduce us wayward westerners to “Umami: the fifth taste of Japanese Cuisine.” Which is not to say I haven’t met it before, but we had never been formally introduced,
although I did bump into it unwittingly on several occasions in Japan recently.

While our chefs bustled about in the kitchen, brewing up the ‘ones I prepared earlier,’ we, the audience, admired a pair of kimonos, or rather yukata, the summer version, on display in the entrance hall. Several ladies were persuaded to model some other ones, and we all cooed at the results and the glorious fabrics. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we finally squeezed into seats around the demonstration kitchen that had been set up in the dining room.  The menu was simple and our teacher, Satomi Kondo, was efficient and informative – through her very able translator, Mio Ishida – providing us with half a dozen quick and easy meals. At the core of each meal was the umami rich dashi broth.

umami1Gyūdon means beef in a bowl. It is a popular Japanese dish of rice topped with onion and thinly sliced beef (sukiyaki style), simmered in dashi, and flavoured with soy sauce and mirin, that sticky, sweet rice wine.  It is traditionally served with pickled ginger. Beef only wandered onto Japanese tables in the late nineteenth century, when the Emperor Meiji opened the long-sealed doors to the west, transforming a feudal society into a modern civilization, and adopting many western customs. Not being one for boiled meat, I was happily surprised by the sweet and savoury flavour of this dish.

We were then shown how to cook the rice in a traditional clay pot, or donabe, learning to rinse the rice three times using the heel of our hand to grind the starch from the rice. This allowed the rice to better absorb the water, and soften as it cooked. By the time the rice has been rinsed and soaked in water for 30 minutes, abracadabra it had swollen to a considerably greater volume than we started with. The process of then cooking it in the clay pot over a gas flame had me reaching for my electric rice cooker: bring to boil for 7 minutes; turn heat to medium for another 7 minutes; and finally cook for yet another 7 minutes on a low flame. Then remove from the heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes. I’m sure it would taste better than mine, but I’m not sure if I have the patience. I would probably wander off and boil the pot dry. Nonetheless it was a lovely process to watch – something like making an English pot of tea.

And we learned to make dashi from scratch with konbu seaweed – paper thin strips or sheets the colour of licorice – katsuobushiand katsuobushi, or bonito flakes that soak in the stock like bay leaves. While the dried seaweed was rehydrating in a warm bath, we examined the katsuobushi, which looked like a lump of fossilized wood and felt surprisingly heavy in our hands. Smoked, fermented and dried, it is then shaved with a special tool: a katsuobushi kezuriki, like a carpenter’s plane, while the results appear identical to the curly wood shavings we would use to make beards on our collage portraits at school. Luckily they didn’t taste the same. The smoky, salty bonito curls almost melt on your tongue, and apparently make a moreish snack, as well as a vital seasoning for dashi. Laughing, most of the Japanese ladies admitted they usually resort to the ‘instant’ variety that comes in a stick, a bit like our chicken stock cubes.

Our instructor then followed up with sumashi and miso soups which both use dashi as a base stock, to which can be added a variety of ingredients such as tofu, spinach or shiitake mushrooms. Finally, the ubiquitous bonito broth was boiled with mirin and soy sauce to make a sauce to go with cold noodles or tempura.

The buffet lunch that followed was a splendid spread, which we loaded onto our black lacquered trays with glee. First, the gyudon put in an appearance, topped with red pickled ginger. I also collected a petit pot of Japanese pickled vegetables. Then there was a platter of crispy chicken karaage: bite sized pieces of chicken marinated in ginger, garlic and soy sauce, then coated in potato starch and fried – a sophisticated KFC. The tamagoyaki or rolled omlette was unexpectedly sweet and heavy on the tongue, but could be balanced by the green vegetables – okra and beans – marinated in a light sesame sauce, known as goma-ae in Japanese. A potato salad seemed strangely out of place at a Japanese lunch, but, adopted from America, the Japanese have made it their own, and I found it in many restaurants in Japan: chunky spuds with a sprinkle of ham and chives, and a much lighter, tangier mayonnaise than you will find in the west. A tiny container of green tea noodles and sauce looked like spaghetti in pesto, but had that unusual taste of tannin: slightly drying, slightly bitter. And of course, a melamine lidded bowl with miso soup, garnished with a fingernail-sized gluten flower.

umami5Dessert? Thick and almost savoury maccha pudding, like panacotta, flavoured with green tea, topped with a splash of sweet red bean paste and a dollop of whipped cream. Yum! Our hostesses finished off their performance with a short tea ceremony, giving us each a taster of both sencha and houjicha green teas Sencha, like most green teas, is simply infused in hot water. Houjicha is traditionally roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal, which alters its colour from green to a reddish-brown and adds an appealing smoky layer to the tannin flavour.

The grand finale was a performance by an extremely talented young man, Mr. Yu Miyoshi, who had come along in hisumami6 lunch hour to introduce us to the traditional Japanese 13-stringed zither or Koto. A beautiful piece of highly polished striated kiri wood, it was topped with a complex fretwork of strings and bridges, which he plucked and swept skillfully with three fingers tipped with metal plectra. Having moved to Manila last year, Mr. Miyoshi uses his spare time to give recitals and introduce Japanese Koto music.

If there is an instrument that illustrates a musical version of umami, this is it.

*With thanks to my good friend June Vann for her photographs. My new camera, you ask? The battery was flat. Of course.

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Celebrating Life & Death: All Souls Day in Vigan

2014_11_01_2976It’s the week before All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Vigan, a Unesco Heritage town in North West Luzon, is humming. It is Raniag, or the Twilight Festival, and the streets are overflowing with large family groups – locals and visitors, mostly Filipinos – eating, chatting, taking selfies, smiling, laughing, shopping for souvenirs, riding in kalesas pulled by anxious ponies skipping across the cobblestones, or squeezing into the not-so-roomy tricycles that burp and buzz around the city streets.

Every evening this week there have been special events all over town: a candle floating ceremony, (similar to the Thai festival of Loi Kratong) on the Mestizo River to cleanse the community of bad luck and negative vibes, and thanks God for his gifts from the river and the sea. Then there is the flight of the sky lanterns – I imagine that scene from ‘Tangled’ when hundreds of lanterns flood the night sky like a papery Milky Way. A parade, a costume party, a dance competition, a Zombie fun run: it’s party week and the city is thrumming with excitement. And it all culminates at the cemetery on All Souls Day.

All Souls Day is as important as Christmas for Filipino family gatherings, although the focus this time is not on a birth, but on the dead. The cemeteries on Saturday night are choc-a-block with families gathering around the tombs and graves of their loved ones. Traditionally a religious day of observance, even in the grave yards – perhaps especially in the grave yards – it seems more of a celebration, as Filipino families gather to visit their dead relations, clean and repaint family tombstones and cover them in candles, flowers and prayers. Plastic chairs and picnics abound. It is a family reunion that extends to all the deceased family members too, with all the traditional accoutrements of a feast day: food; community; party. The cemeteries are surrounded by stall holders cooking chicken and pork on sticks, corn on the cob, empanadas, ice creams, while the kids scuttle among the gravestones.

All week the restaurants are packed with tables for ten, twelve, twenty. Where ten or twelve are gathered together there will be merienda, lunch, dinner, food… but we are only two.  So when we wander in for lunch, a deux, we inevitably end up feeling like a Nigel-No-Friends, or looking like Baby, inevitably stuck in the corner. It is, nevertheless, fascinating to simply sit and watch the proceedings.

Vigan is a particularly pretty setting for all these festivities, with its broad squares, a towering church and numerous
Spanish colonial houses that are now protected by UNESCO World Heritage. One long, cobbled street, Calle 2014_11_01_2988Crisologo, is lined with houses over two hubdred years old, in various states of disrepair, but finally, miraculously on the mend. A few have been gutted and beautifully renovated, often into stylish hotels, like the glorious hotel Veneto de Vigan we discovered in the centre of town. It only opened this year, and it is a gorgeous renovation. Broad, highly polished wooden floorboards squeak chattily underfoot. Mosaic tiles swirl and twirl across the lower floor and courtyard. Bright green leafy vines scattered with purple flowers have been stenciled lovingly onto the ceilings. The staff is numerous and welcomes us joyfully every time we pass, as if they are really pleased to see us after a long journey, not just a half hour stroll to the antique shop at the end of the lane.

Around the corner, the Syquia Mansion, once the home of sixth Filipino President, Elpidio Rivera Quirino has been well maintained in its original form, and is now open to the public as a museum in remembrance of one of its first families. It is fascinating to wander amongst the wide, shady rooms filled with Venetian glass mirrors, enormous family portraits and antique furniture of centuries past. A family chapel in the centre of the house puzzles peering tourists with its reflective windows. A roof top garden welcomes the sun.

Similarly, the Crisologo home across town has been converted into a museum to the memory of assassinated local Congressman Floro S. Crisologo, shot in the head during a Sunday service at the local cathedral. Guides take you proudly through rooms full of memorabilia belonging to this famous politician and his equally renowned wife, Carmeling, once Governor of Vigan. A rather gruesome exhibit in Crisologo’s office shows photographs of the corpse, newspaper clippings about the attack, and the bloodied clothing of the late congressman. You may also wish to examine the family car in which his wife survived an earlier assassination attempt while she was pregnant with their fifth child. The little boy was consequently nicknamed Bullet in recognition of this prenatal flirtation with death. While there is some focus on the obvious family dramas and tragedies, the house is also a fascinating example of life in a Spanish colonial house: the Governor’s changing room containing many of her frocks and shoes; the pair of high chairs near the open window where the Congressman and his wife would sit and watch the passing street parades. The kitchen is rustic and simple, with a table so low, staff would have squatted on the floor beside it to eat. The walls are black from the smoke of the open cooking fire, and the lavatory consisted of a bench with three different sized holes that dropped through to buckets below.

IMG_0155 (2)Thanks to the prominent waterways and proximity to the sea, Vigan has a long history of trading with Japan, Malaya and China. Many foreign traders eventually settled here, and there is still a strong Chinese influence in the region. The Spaniards, arriving in the 16th century, transferred the archdiocese of Nueva Segovia from Lallo to Vigan in September 1758, at which time Vigan was also elevated to city status by royal decree.  At that time the immigrant Chinese were pushed to the outskirts of the city, but they continued to produce and trade in goods such as the pottery wine jars, indigo, tobacco and the local woven textile called abel. Their tenacity produced a class of wealthy, powerful Filipino Chinese families who would ensure the economic growth of Vigan into the twenty first century. That same wealth also helped to support General Emilio Aguinaldo and his band of revolutionaries, who would defeat the Spaniards at Vigan in 1896, and raise the Philippine flag above the Archbishop’s Palace, which, ironically, became the General’s headquarters after almost four hundred years of Spanish theocracy.

Back in the twenty first century, the streets of Vigan are still bustling, but the sun is beating down on our heads and we need to escape the midday sun and find some lunch. Café Leona, named for the local poetess Leona Florentino, is located by the fork in the Calle Crisologo road where a statue of  the poet presides in stately calm. The café has been recommended by our escort from the airport. Just a skip and a jump from our hotel, it will be our regular eatery over the weekend, with its menu that ranges from pizza and pasta, to crispy pata to Japanese cuisine.

Granpa’s Inn along Bonifacio Street is a two-in-one dining option: Uno Grillo is outdoor dining in a pretty courtyard IMG_0160opposite the Inn, while Café Uno is tucked away inside the inn. We choose the former, and sit quietly at a vast slab of wooden tabletop that could seat a dozen, while our waiters bring out an assortment of local specialties, including a large bowl of pinakbet teaming with okra, ampalaya and string beans, pork and bagoong. The bitterness of the ampalaya is unexpected and challenging, but fascinating. We taste and chew, sip, dip and drip sauce down our chins in a gluttonous feast of ribs and prawns, eggplant and

We spend three glorious, self-indulgent days roaming through this very walkable town, absorbing its history, its food and its inimitable atmosphere. We consider the plethora of potential tourism opportunities: the likes of Carlos Celdran could provide a fascinating historical walking tour; a foodie tour or cooking classes for learning about local dishes; a pottery class with one of the local potters.

Meanwhile, we clutch our maps, quiz our museum guides, sip iced tea, eat, chat, shop for souvenirs, squeeze into pigmy tricycles, smile, laugh, eat some more…

*With photos from the cameras of both my One & Only and me!

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Culture Shock or “How’s the Serenity?”

CSCulture shock is a complicated, confusing, disorienting experience.  It is defined as the individual’s sense of dislocation when attempting to settle into a new environment. Moving cities can be hard enough. Moving countries requires you to adapt to foreign values, mannerisms, mind-sets and traditions while trying to find your balance and your sense of direction, while you are trying to create a new home. Some of the most common problems include information overload, communication barriers, homesickness and the lack of a cultural skill set to deal with the new environment.

For me, culture shock has always seemed a bit melodramatic, like ‘man flu.’ My instinctive reaction is to say ‘o, just buck up and get on with it!’  And that terribly-British-stiff-upper-lip I was raised on has generally stood me in good stead. We have moved countless times through several countries in the past twenty five years, and I have always loved the adventure of setting up in a new place. Sure, there are the usual stresses and strains of moving house with a pack of kids and a stack of furniture, but it always leads to a clean slate, a fresh start, new friends to meet, new places to see, and the opportunity to immerse myself in a whole new world.

So imagine my surprise to discover that, on our tenth major move, I had ‘caught’ culture shock.

According to Wikipedia, ‘culture shock is a subcategory of a more universal construct called transition shock.’ In case you are wondering, the symptoms include: feelings of helplessness and withdrawal; irritability; mood swings; physiological stress reactions, and physical exhaustion. In retrospect, I can’t understand why I didn’t diagnose it sooner, but I am convinced temporary brain dysfunction is one of the lesser known symptoms. Or maybe that was just due to the heat and humidity.

Now please understand that we came to the Philippines willingly, and with great enthusiasm. My One & Only and I have long since realized that, like Dory in Nemo, we both have a short attention span. It has extended a little as we have got older but nonetheless we inevitably reach a point – luckily for our marriage, at about the same time – when, like gypsies, we decide it is time to move on. Not necessarily because we don’t like the place we are in, but simply because our feet start to twitch and we know we need a change.

Also, we have had a lot of joy out of living in the Philippines. All of us have expanded our horizons, tried new things,
evolved, made wonderful friends, travelled liberally, eaten extensively and, if one Facebook friend is to be believed, hung precariously upon the lip of the abyss (or glass) gazing down into the depths of imminent alcoholism. I have really enjoyed making Filipino friends – not so easy in a posting where English is not in common use – and love them for their humour, their warmth and their joie de vivre: wherever two or more Filipinos are gathered together there will be a party that generally involves food, costumes and karaoke.

So why was I so unsettled? I made endless excuses for my ever-present sense of frustration – although, let’s face it, I have never been a woman of saintly temper –  as I tried and failed to come to grips with the Filipino perspective on life. Emotional? Well, obviously! For the first time we had not moved as a complete family unit, and I was missing our daughter, which easily explained my frequent, inexplicable bouts of weeping. Endless visits to the doctor for various physical ailments proved it was neither menopause nor depression, arthritis nor cancer. We had a good life, in fact we were living in the lap of luxury, the kids were at a great school and seemed happy, my husband’s job was going well, I was getting on with my writing, and that had given me a fascinating entrée into my new home. So why was I  feeling such a mess?cartoon

I have always considered myself to be – prided myself on being – adaptable and resilient. To paraphrase fellow blogger, Julnar Rizk, resilience involves having a strong belief in your abilities and in who you are. It means having the agility to adapt to change without losing sight of your core values. It requires a focus on the future, not the past, and it means an endless curiosity and desire for learning. I was all these things… once… and yet…

Of course the guilt made it worse. We did have a wonderful life. Every day I spent in the streets of Manila highlighted how lucky we were, living in a country where, despite the endless construction and signs of increasing development, poverty is a daily grind for the majority. What on earth did I have to complain about? I made concerted efforts to be positive and upbeat. We entertained, I joined everything, life became increasingly decadent. I had done this all plenty of times before without batting an eyelid. Now it was exhausting. My mood swings, frustration, hyperactive self-criticism, grief – it made no sense, my own illogical over-reactions were frightening. I was used to being in control. What was happening to me?

And then I began to realize I wasn’t the only one. I have now seen and spoken to so many trailing spouses, many my age, who struggle to take back control of their lives and their emotions. Maybe I was giving out a new empathetic vibe, but suddenly total strangers were downloading about the struggle they were having settling in.  That may not have made me feel a whole lot better but at least I didn’t feel so isolated.

culture-shock-chartYet despite all the clues, the diagnosis did not fall into place until I read an article recently about culture shock. Apparently it can affect anyone, even the most seasoned traveller. It is a crisis of confidence for which we shouldn’t judge ourselves harshly, yet we inevitably do. It can seem like a mild dose of homesickness or a terrifying Jekyll and Hyde personality change. And it is largely underestimated in the Philippines, which has at least a veneer of the familiar. Yes, there are McDonalds and Toyotas, ATMs and English. But the cultural values can sometimes feel a million miles from our own.

So what changed? Unexpectedly, unaccountably, the storm passed. Almost overnight – although I cannot pinpoint the when or the why – the wind went out of my sails. I realized I had developed a bucket load of coping strategies, including humour. Now I can – eventually – make a funny story about every awkward situation I get myself into, and every pointless battle I fight. Inexplicably I found myself accepting the cultural mores of the Filipinos; swallowing, if not accepting, the social imbalances; keeping my eyes sensibly averted from the traffic;  no longer over-reacting to everything. I still swear too much, but I accept that this can be a good pressure valve and just try not to let too many people overhear me.

There is a prayer I learnt at school: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I finally understand it. I’m not perfect. There are still days when physical violence might be the only option, but I am learning to avoid those situations or walk away – not a bad response to this passive/aggressive city. And there are still some things I would like the courage to change – although I think I will eventually accept that I cannot single-handedly retrain every waiter in Manila to bring out all our meals together. That is just not the Filipino way.

That article I read explained that the best way to handle culture shock is to recognize it, accept it, focus on moving though it: a paraphrasing of my favouite prayer indeed, and it is  good advice I am now ready to accept.

I don’t know how much longer we will be here, but it probably won’t be forever, so I am glad I am in a head space to enjoy whatever time we have left here, and that the lump of frustration that was stuck in my throat for over two years has finally dissolved. It is a fascinating country, and I have loved learning to understand the way it ticks. It may not be my way, but we live comfortably side by side now, and I am not constantly at loggerheads with that which I do not understand or wish to emulate. And hopefully I have learnt new skills to prevent being crushed by culture shock next time.

* With thanks to Google images for the graphics.

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Trendy Mediocrity with a Side Order of Inconsistency

Rambla.6I love Rockwell. There is always some new restaurant to try amongst the plethora to be found both inside and outside Power Plant Mall. My latest, belated discovery is Rambla. Apparently it has actually been there for almost twelve months, but I have been away a lot this year and only came across it in September. I may have been delinquent, but I have been dropping in at every opportunity since.

Rambla is described as a Spanish Open Kitchen and cocktail bar. It is, more accurately, an innovative tapas bar, a platform for modern Iberian cuisine where the concept of tapas takes priority over the concept of Spain. Of course there are all the standard Spanish favourites: Jamon Iberico and Manchego cheese; a stunning Spanish omlette of prawns and potato, served in a baby cast iron frying pan; and a salmon paella, to name just a handful. But there is also a heavy emphasis on tapas with a twist: veal cheek won tons (my favourites); lechon croquettes of great crunch and richness; shiitake arancinis (rice balls filled with those east Asian musty mushrooms) and the quite extraordinary foie gras mousse with caramelized apple and coffee Baileys foam, which sounds more like dessert than an appetizer, and I am yet to be brave enough to taste. But the chef is obviously having fun trying out different flavour combinations, and even if some seem a little far-fetched or slightly dubious, good on him for experimenting – although I would suggest he encourages customer feedback on some of his more outrageous creations. I would also politely suggest he consider the maxim ‘less is more’, as the quality of some dishes is sometimes lost amongst the surfeit of trendy ingredients and too-clever flavour combinations.

So, that was last month. This month the menu changed – apparently that will happen quarterly – and we were confronted with a range of new dishes to try. With a glass of Sangria in hand, we were perfectly content to start afresh.

Actually, a quick word on the Sangria. Offered red or white, I usually choose red, as I have always loved this wine punch served with a cinnamon stick, that tastes like mulled wine, only chilled. Today, however, I tried the white wine Sangria, and I may never look back. On a muggy Manila afternoon, this is really refreshing, and more closely resembles Pimms, particularly as the glass is filled with slices of citrus fruits, apple and grapes.

Tucked underneath Joya apartments, Rambla has redesigned the restaurant space to incorporate Rambla.4an open kitchen and a broad, wrap around bar. If you fancy clambering onto the bar stools, there’s a great view from up there. I have visited Rambla as a couple, with a friend and with a large group of ladies. Today I pottered in by myself and decided to sit at the bar and see what happened, which proved entertaining.

The problem with dining at a tapas bar alone is that you can’t try a range of dishes without looking atrociously
greedy, particularly as many of the dishes seem to be designed for two. So by the time I had dipped the crunchy-on-the-outside, doughy-in-the-middle imported Spanish bread in oil and vinegar, and  eaten my enormous salad – more of that later – I was full, and struggled to eat all three lechon empanadas. It would be good if they could add a mixed tasting platter for the solo diner. Or even for a couple. I would certainly welcome the option of smaller serves at smaller prices. (Although I have to say the new menu is not as tempting as the last, and the dishes have got even sillier when it comes to odd flavour combinations. And they took away my wontons!).

However, you don’t have to order to share. There are burgers, sandwiches, seafood and rice dishes aimed more at the individual diner, and less on grazing as a group.

Rambla is named for a famously bustling, tree-lined, promenade in central Barcelona. Rambla the restaurant certainly lives up to the reputation of its predecessor, as it’s always thrumming with the enthusiastic chatter and activity of its trendy clientele. Sometimes this can prove detrimental to communicating with the waiting staff, as they struggle to hear your order, but the atmosphere is lively and happy, and the staff are sweet, so I am not complaining. I will just have to  try the foie gras empanadas with pineapple jam next week – the lechon version with grape jelly was perfectly acceptable this time.

And my salad? O yes. Crispy fresh Romaine lettuce, crunchy bacon, marinated tawilis (that exclusively Filipino Ramblafreshwater sardine) and Parmesan, perfectly dressed in just a drizzle of vinaigrette – not the usual dousing so popular here – creating a wondrously light combination of textures and subtle flavours.

OK. this is now my third installment on Rambla, and I have had a change of heart. I was sorely disappointed today, and that makes me sad. After last week’s slight glitch with the empanadas, I was hoping to rediscover my initial enthusiasm, but today found me totally underwhelmed by the food’s embarrassing mediocrity.  I thought I would pop over for a lazy lunch with my note pad and take some pics with my new camera. Dodging the tapas foronce, I decided to splurge on their Ramblas Burger – presumably a signature dish to be named for the restaurant. I ordered it medium, as I am averse to undercooked mince, be it ever so posh and ever so wagyu, and I was served a red, raw hamburger lined with 2 small pieces of bruised lettuce (had somebody trodden on them?), a Rambla.3slice of white, flavourless tomato and a pile of baby gherkins heaped in the centre. At least they had the grace not to charge me when I filed a complaint with the chef.

I am not writing this to condemn, rather I am hoping it will be recognized as constructive criticism. I was delighted to discover Rambla, and was hoping to make it a regular lunch spot, but until the chef recognizes that simplicity and flavour are the essence of Mediterranean cooking, I will be foregoing the cold octopus carpaccio with hummus, the salad of heirloom cherry tomatoes with orange and quails egg, or the pork with caramelized onions, pear chutney, red apple baked jam and smoky cinnamon as too many clashing flavours screaming to be noticed.

In the meantime, I may still pop back for that great salad and the Sangria, and I would definitely be tempted to try the chicken and prawn risotto. And while I don’t usually eat dessert, the xoxos, (it is written with hugs and kisses for a reason) salvaged my lunch today from the ruins of an undercooked hamburger. This Spanish version of the Italian cannoli is a deliciously crispy deep fried pastry tube filled with gloriously gooey  ganache chocolate or vanilla custard with just a whisper of lemon.

Like the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when Ramblas is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. Some consistent quality would be much appreciated, and might ensure a solid core of regular customers after the trendy crowd has passed on.

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Snapshots of Japan

Mode Gakuen Cocoon TowerA clean and helpful clockwork world where a pair of missing glasses are located and returned before panic sets in….

A lavatory with a heated seat, an in-built bidet, a video screen and a sound system that provides the noisy gush of a waterfall as you pee…

A colony of commuters, twenty deep, waiting patiently by the kerb, camouflaged in grey and black and beige – and one dazzling, lemon yellow cardigan like a sunburst.

A hotel room the size of a bento box, neatly arranged for maximum efficiency in minimum space, with slippers…

A gentle soul at the airport information booth, who, with no English, takes my hand to guide me through the process of introducing the ticket machine, buying a bus ticket and showing me to the right bus stop. Thank you for your kindness.

Kochi (30)A sushi counter in a Kochi mall, chock-a-block with mathematical arrangements of colour and shape I have never before seen in sushi form. And the petrifyinging effect of so much choice…

A car park built like a Ferris wheel: as you drive your car onto the platform, it swings up and around to make room for the next one…

Konnichiwa, oishee, Suntory, arigatō gozaimasu and domo arigatō, itadakimasu, katsuo no tataki, sake, and

My mother, primped and powdered, swathed in a silk brocade kimono of spring green and cream flowers,
wreathed about the waist with a broad, cherry blossom pink sash or obi and garnished with a matching pink Kochi (56)chrysanthemum hairpiece. A truly magnificent bouquet…

A glimpse from a bridge of a broad, gravelly river bed sliding down between the mountains, strung with fishing lines that guide the crystal-clear waters of the Niyodo River to the Pacific Ocean…

An elusive mountain view swallowed up by hungry mist…

One group of choristers draped in red satin or cream chiffon, another formally attired in black, bridging the gap between East & West with a common love of music…

A solemn couple converting the traditional tea ceremony into a ritual coffee-making in an alpine village, where beans from Yemen and Ecuador, Indonesia and Tanzania seem curiously out-of-place…

A smooth, round island baby giggling in surprised delight as I blow raspberries on her tummy, while her great-grandfather, an ancient Japanese gentleman smiles softly upon his approaching centenary, bowing under the weight of his wrinkles….

A backyard barbecue stuffed with straw, a torpedo bonito, a grill and leaping flames… a dish made in heaven…Kochi (85)

A kitchen full of Japanese chefs with a penchant for pasta, flirt and sing behind a hefty leg of prosciutto crudo, while my father sighs with relief at the absence of raw fish…

Sliding up a bannister of clotted-cream-clouds, in the wake of an autumn typhoon…

The extraordinary Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, nurturing the students within a latticed framework over two hundred meters high…

…and the Asahi Brewery, its buildings designed to resemble a golden, froth-topped beer glass and a squat, black hall crowned by a 60 ton golden flame that appears to have toppled sideways…

Yoyogi Park (7)An unexpected and peaceful retreat by a spiritual spring in the depths of a forest in the midst of urban sprawl and the caterwauling of commuter trains…

A sushi bar, and the ultimate party food revolving past us, lacking only disco lights: a pretty blue and green plate piled with sunset-coloured salmon sashimi garnished with baubles of salmon roe and ribbons of mayonnaise…

The Victoria and Albert Museum, that nineteenth century edifice of British culture, airlifted into central Tokyo to be reborn as a twenty first century train station…

A panoramic view across a vast metropolis from the heights of a nearby government building. This once small fishing village of Edo transformed into a city that drifts to the horizon, ringed by white towers flashing white lights of welcome…

A tour guide with a passion for the Tokyo transport system. Trains, taxis, car parks and buses.  To snore or not to snore…

A boat, beer and a double-decker bridge around the bay, with new friends from northern climes…

Japanese cuisine (20)

A final lunch on a tray in a silent café. A dozen dainty dishes exhibiting an exceptional miso soup; steamed rice with a
red nose of salted plum; a tiny bowl of tangy soy sauce; a skerrick of white pickled cabbage; broccoli and okra sprinkled in umami-dense katsuobushi flakes; a slab crispy fried fish impossible to manage with chopsticks; knobbly potato salad; thick slices of carpaccio-coloured katsuo sashimi with seared edges; a small heap of beige daikon mash; a wart-sized green blob of wasabe; bottomless green tea in a handle-less blue cup. A feast of taste and texture, colour and aroma, our hearing the only sense left unengaged. So I slurp my soup and bid a happy “gochisosama deshita”


*With thanks to my mother, my One & Only and, this time, even ME, for the photos!

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“Selamat Datang!”

“I loved the heat. Hot, hot and then all the rain. It rains, you know, nearly every day in Malaya… It comes down in sheets, in buckets, nearly every day around the same time for an hour or two. And then it’s gone again as quickly as it came  and the sun is out, blazing,  blazing, blazing…”  ~ Fergus Linehan, Under the Durian Tree

twin towersWe used to live in Kuala Lumpur. And I remember that heat, and those torrential, monsoonal rains. And the smoke haze. I loved the storms, but not the heat. And definitely not the smoke. It was our last year in this almost-equatorial city and Malaysia was making headlines. The Petronas Towers were almost finished, while Aquaria KLCC and the Suria Shopping Mall, at the base of the Towers, had just been officially opened. Malaysia was hosting the first Commonwealth Games to be held in Asia, and the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport was finally completed, which had us driving almost to Singapore to find the runway, but at least it was air conditioned. And while the dreadful South East Asian smog of late 1997 had finally cleared, the region was still suffering the economic consequences.

Today, Kuala Lumpur has evolved almost beyond recognition, and certainly beyond navigating without a SatNav. Rife with spaghetti junctions, superhighways, building sites and air pollution, the centre is still compact and vibrant and eminently walkable. And again, 2014 has been a year for Malaysia to hit the headlines, as the Malaysian government has had to deal with the inexplicable disappearance of a Malaysia Airline flight in March over the Indian Ocean. Four months later there was further disaster for Malaysia Airlines when another plane was destroyed by a missile over the Ukraine. On a happier note, the 16th Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix was won by Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes, and coincidentally for us, Malaysia opened a second terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. And the city was again shrouded in smoke from forest fires.

So. We arrived back in Malaysia sixteen years later and just in time for dinner. I had a craving for curry. We debatedBombay palace 1
whether or not our favourite Indian restaurant from the 1990s would still be there. Google said yes, and the concierge at our hotel agreed, and booked us a table. The taxi driver seemed a little confused by our directions, but ‘maybe I am forgetting?’ he said apologetically.

The fact that the Bombay Palace appeared to have been air lifted across about eight lanes of heavy traffic and a substantial medium strip to land on the far side of Tun Razak threw us into confusion, and we started to feel a little silly, apologizing profusely to the driver for our senility.

Yet it turns out we were all right. The restaurant actually had moved across the road some years before, into a very similar, spacious old house on a large lot. Now it’s moving again, to Sultan Ismail, as yet another elegant but rather faded colonial building makes way for yet another suave high rise.

We were ushered upstairs to a large formal dining room, surprisingly empty of all but a group of silent army hot shots in full uniform. We felt a little awkward, but not for long. It was soon humming upstairs as loudly as it was downstairs.

Our waiters were charming, advising us cautiously not to order too much. Well, who doesn’t when confronted with a ten page menu? You don’t want to miss anything significant, do you? One young waiter was so friendly, I thought he was going to pull up a chair and join us. You would have been proud of the polite and ever-so-regal nod of the head that indicated we were perfectly happy now, and thanks for his warm welcome. He left reluctantly, checking back over his shoulder, unconvinced that we would be OK on our own.
kingfisherThe Bombay Palace has a great wine list according to one fellow blogger, but we chose a Kingfisher beer to accompany our meal, having long felt that beer goes much better than wine with Indian cuisine. Of course we had ordered way too much, but we could hardly complain. And the only dish that was faintly disappointing was the Malai Kofta, a favourite discovery of mine back in the early days, which did not live up to my expectations.  The rest, mostly spicy vegetarian dishes apart from one prawn vindaloo,  were as tasty as we remembered and we eventually waddled out, filled to the gunwales.

Indian cuisine in Malaysia is largely based on the hot, vegetarian Tamil cuisine of South India, and is very popular with its host country. The Indian Muslims mixed north and south to create dishes with less spice and more meat, and many of these have developed a distinctly Malaysian flavor.

Indians make up 7% of the population on the Malaysian Peninsula, the third largest ethnic group after the Muslim Malays and the Chinese. They have had a presence in the region since the 11th century, but the main influx, largely Tamils, arrived with the british during the years of British colonization – from around the mid-18th century until 1957 – to provide labour for the tin mines, and the rubber and palm oil plantations.

Flying in, all we saw are palm plantations to the horizon, which is hardly surprising when Malaysia is one of the world’s largest exporters of palm oil. The other type of oil popular here comes from Petronas, Malaysia’s leading oil and gas company, which has its headquarters in the Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC When we first arrived in Malaysia, the twin towers were growing up at a rate of knots from the grounds of the former Selangor Turf Club. Now they are 88 storeys high, with a sky bridge about half way up, straddling the space between them. Renowned for their starring role in the 1999 movie Entrapment, with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, the Twin Towers also have a starring role on the Kuala Lumpur skyline, especially at night, when the towers reflect an almost ethereal lustre due to the shimmering stainless steel façade.

Friday night drinks, and we found a perfectly acceptable spot at a bar overlooking the 50 acre park at the heart of thesymphony lake KLCC development. Well, almost perfect. My romantic plan to escort my One & Only to Marini’s on 57, the rooftop bar on the top of Carigali Tower (commonly known as Tower 3) had been scuppered by his most unacceptable attire. “No shorts and sandals allowed here, Sir.”  It was a shame, as the view of the Twin Towers from there is magnificent, and you sit so close you could almost touch them. But the price of drinks soar nearly as high as the building, and it was happy hour at Limoncello, so we were not too disappointed. And from this lowly terrace we could glimpse the Lake Symphony, a lovely display of colored lights, fountains and music in the centre of the man-made lake. A fitting way to kick start our weekend. And next time, perhaps he’ll remember to pack trousers.

*With thanks to Google Images for the pics as we can’t locate ours!

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