February 27, 2007

Animal attraction

'Avilon' comes from the words aves meaning birds and lon meaning land.
And there were lots of birds!

I can't remember the last time I went to Manila Zoo, but I remember clearly being horrified at the sad state of affairs over there. Many of the once-proud animals looked half-dead, and those that still had enough energy in them paced in their grim enclosures with an almost crazed look in their eyes, fearful I'm sure of suffering the same fate as their fellow zoo mates. It broke my heart. (The zoo has since gone through a major overhaul thanks to the Friends of Manila Zoo.)

I could no longer bring myself to own anything that was to be confined like birds, hamsters and rabbits. I even drained and sold the 20 gallon fish tank I owned. As much as I loved having all these pets in my home, I couldn't bring myself to sleep well at night knowing I was keeping them from roaming freely in their natural habitat.

Joey, no relation to our friend over at 80 breakfasts ;)

But don't get me wrong, I have nothing against zoos as most are established and maintained to promote education and research and play an important role in the conservation of endangered wildlife and where I like to believe they treat their inhabitants humanely. Today, we have a number of such zoos around the city like Malabon Zoo, where I stroked the fur of my first tiger, had a snake draped around my neck, and carried and cuddled the cutest baby powder-smelling and diaper-wearing baby orangutan.

In 2003, another such place opened it's doors to the public in Montalban (now Rodriguez), Rizal, the Avilon Zoo. The zoo is the brainchild of Jake Gaw who was forced to find a new home for his growing pet collection after neighbors started to complain. I heard only good things about it so I was excited to check it out for myself with my friends and their kids last Saturday.

After making a couple of wrong turns (and laughing insanely at the comical directions we printed off the net), we arrived at the zoo at 12:30, two hours after we left Parañaque. We had a quick lunch of homemade tuna sandwiches, hotdogs and corn (you can bring your own food) in the pavillion, surrounded by a lily-covered moat, we began our exploration. We were a little lost at first as there are no directional signs or marked trails within this 8 hectare nature reserve.

Barely halfway through the grounds, I regretted not hiring a tour guide. Most of the animals cages/dens were not labeled. It was only because I asked a lady from the group with a tour guide that I knew the rhinoceros-like mammal with the funny snout was a Malayan tapir. I was very impressed with the wide range of exotic animals and those endemic to the Philippines. I didn't expect to see kangaroos, hyenas and flamingoes. Until now I didn't know about the Brazilian arapaima, the world's largest freshwater fish, which you can feed chicken heads for a small fee.

One of my favorite residents - the sun bear. Isn't he just so cute?

The zoo's commitment to maintenance and sanitation is apparent in it's surroundings and inside the animal's homes which are simulations of their natural habitat. There are sections dedicated to nocturnal animals such as armadillos and primates where you are prohibited from taking pictures even without the flash. Though the zoo was busy with groups of school children and families, it was big enough that it hardly seemed crowded at all. P50 / $1 would buy you an opportunity to have your picture taken with an owl on your shoulder, a snake on your lap or draped around your neck, or astride a miniature horse.

sweet Visayan spotted deer

I would strongly recommend hiring a tour guide, not only to help you understand the origins and habits of each animal, but to make sure you don't miss anything. I found out later from a friend that we had missed seeing the capybara, the world's largest rodent and the different species of crocodiles. The zoo is home to over 3,000 animals, 500 species which make it well worth the long drive.

clockwise from top left: boars, Malaysian tapir, Sumatran tiger, hyena

Avilon Zoo

Eastwood Greenview Subd. San Isidro, Rodriguez, Rizal
Tel. 634-5550 / 0917-8995126
Entrace Fee: P208 / $4 ; Tour guide (optional): P350 / $7
Hours of operation: 8am to 5pm everyday ; You can find a map to the zoo

February 25, 2007

What a dad will do for his daugther

What A Dad Will Do For His Daughter
by Cheryl D'Aprix

What a Dad will do for his daughter is rock his sick baby girl
until the sun peeks through the darkness
letting him know the night of worry is over.

He will take her small hand in his and walk slowly
as she takes her first walk to the ice cream shop
to share a cone full of heaven on earth.

He will sip from the tiny tea cup she has set in front of him
and in harmony with the stuffed animals carefully placed in their seats
he will sing the praises of her great hospitality.

He will sit through dance recitals and fashion shows
where he is the only audience
and will clap with the enthusiasm of a thousand people.

He will take her fishing and play soccer,
and introduce her to the world outside
as if just experiencing it for the first time himself.
Perhaps he is.

He will sit with her through sweat and tears over homework
that was supposed to be turned in the day before
and he'll smile as they finish, seeing her relief.

He will place a firm hand on the shoulder of the young man
that comes to take her to the school dance
silently letting him know where he stands and what he expects.

He will watch with overflowing pride
as his young lady accepts her high school diploma
and will silently pray to God to calm his fears
and get him throughout the day.

He will be full of conversation and more than happy to listen
when she calls home now and then.
Even when the game of the year is on.

He will gently fold her arm around his
and with all the courage and faith he can hold onto
he will stroll down the aisle, giving her hand but keeping her youth.

He will be the first one in the maternity ward ,
at the nursery window, carefully inspecting the activities
of his new family member.

Another part of her, another part of him.
He will reassure her as time rages on
and the signs of his old age start to frighten her.

He will caress her hand with a passion to which she has never felt
as he whispers his last wishes to her.

He will come to her heart for all her life
as she sees his manner in herself or his features in her children.
He will live in the smiles that grace her face
as she remembers the things he did for her.

And he will teach her how to make paella... :)

My dad is the family paella-maker. It's pretty much the only thing I've ever seen him cook in my life, now that I think about it. He always makes it on the exact same spot in the garden where he ignites the flame and fans the coals while he waits as his 'assistants' (read: my mom and kitchen staff) do all the prep work in the kitchen and bring these out to him. They then have to assembled just so. There's something almost theatrical in his manner and it's always amusing to watch. (Except for the time a burst of flames from the coals engulfed his hand :( )

Last weekend, my sisters and I asked him to teach us how to make his paella. Which he did all too willingly and happily while we followed his instructions and documented the whole process. We each had our assigned roles: cook, scribe and photographer. Guess which role was mine? ;)

dad's paella 4



The equipment

dad's paella 5

Saute, pour, simmer...

dad's paella 3

Ooohh almost there...

dad's paella
Ta dah!

dad's paella 2
Buen provecho! :)

February 22, 2007

MarieBelle, my belle...I want you, I want you

Be still my beating heart!

The sweet Christina from Brooklyn gifted me with this precious box of MarieBelle chocolates (along with a can of chipotle peppers!) when we met last Saturday. I made a feeble attempt at suppressing a squeal when she handed me the elegant robin's egg blue box with it's dainty ribbon for I knew what treasures lay inside. She had told me previously in one of her online messages that this was her favorite brand of chocolates, preferring them over La Maison du Chocolat. After thanking her profusely, I put it in my bag for safekeeping. I wanted to open it while alone in my bedroom (which, by the way, is done in the same colors as the packaging, just like my blog :-)), where I could really appreciate every moment of this sweet encounter.

As soon as I got home, I plopped down on my bed and slowly opened the box. I pondered it's uncanny likeness to a box from Tiffany's. And while it didn't hold any jewelry, what lay inside were gems in their own right. Nine beautiful, delicate chocolatey gems! I gazed lovingly at each one, admiring all the details. Each little nugget is a work of art, intricately designed with stylish and romantic images that just tug at your heartstrings. They were almost too gorgeous to eat, even though some of the pieces did not hold well in transit.

Life is like a box of MarieBelle chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.

I picked one to try, first one top row. It had an image of a hanging skeleton and what looked like a little girl. Very mysterious looking; I had no idea what to expect. Could it be a halloween-inspired flavor such as pumpkin? Or maybe licorice, candycorn? But when I took my first bite it was clear as crystal. I experienced a burst of flavor that immediately transported me to a sunny beach in the tropics where the only sounds were those of palm leaves swaying in the breeze and waves lapping at the shore. It was the unmistakable taste of a sweet luscious mango, my most favorite fruit in the world. What a wonderful surprise!

Over the next couple of days I unlock the mystery hidden under each pretty design. Each flavor is so intense that it plays tricks on your mind. There was espresso, passionfruit, caipirinha (which at first I thought was margarita until I consulted the little booklet that comes in the box), pineapple, spices, mandarin and hazelnut praline. The booklet also showcases the other exotic flavors: manjari, coconut, gianduja, champagne, lavender, dulce de leche, pistachio, cinnamon, white chocolate kona bean (!), saffron, cardamom and wild berry. To borrow one of my friends favorite expressions, Santa Banana! I wanna try them all!

Thank you so so much, Christina, you made my week! :)

February 20, 2007

A Bootie meet-up and my 1st Chinese New Year

If you haven't already noticed from my blog roll on the right, I frequent a lot of travel-related sites. Each site has it's purpose in my world plagued with wanderlust - to inspire, to inform, to entertain, to connect - you get the picture. One site that does all that and more is BootsnAll, a virtual mecca for backpackers and travel enthusiasts. Like I've mentioned before, I prefer to hear from fellow travellers when doing research on future trips so I come here to find insightful and amusing articles, useful tips, personal experiences, and an active forum that touches on practically every topic imaginable, including Food & Travel which (surprise! surprise!) is my favorite.

It was at these forums where I met the lovely ladies I had dinner with on the eve of the Chinese new year. Christina is a Fil-Am from Brooklyn, NY who was born here but moved to the US when she was little. She is currently on a 2-month solo backpacking journey around the Philippines and was responsible for initiating the meet-up. Also there were Leslie, a former Lakbay TV staff who turned out to be my neighbor (!), and Jenna, an American teaching English in Taiwan.

So it was that we met-up at The Oarhouse on Mabini St., which came highly recommended by Carlos, my personal Malate insider ;). It was originally opened in the mid 70's by an American Peace Corps volunteer and later resurrected in the 80's much to the delight of artists and journalists in this bohemian neighborhood. So over a huge plate of shnitzel, delicious onion soup (both recos of Carlos), kinilaw, cheese sticks, and beer (interestingly we each ordered a different kind of local beer: San Mig light (mine), Cerveza Negra, Red Horse and Pale Pilsen), we happily chatted and swapped stories.

By 10:00, we walked on over to The Living Room for the Chinese New Year party hosted by Carlos and Tessa. They had a nice spread going on that included Charlie's pritchon (roast pig served peking duck style), sisig pizza and pork siomai. We were rolling into the year of the pig after all! :) The apartment had a festive feel, red Chinese lanters hung above us, ang paos (lucky money envelopes) were taped to the walls, and a Chinese movie played silently on the tv. Other symbols of good fortune strewn about such as oranges, longgan and gold chocolate coins (they say round shapes symbolize togetherness). A fortune teller read her cards for a small fee inside one of the rooms.

Andy doing his thang

The "aggressively shy" Andy was also present doing what he does best, capturing the moment with his camera. I caught up with many old friends and made new ones. And I was happy to see my Bootie friends were having a good time as well. By 11:30, we trooped on foot to the Taoist temple in Malate to join the Filipino-Chinese community as they ring in the new year.

As expected, it was packed with people dressed in the lucky color red and waving their ang paos in a circular motion over smoky incense pots to invite good fortune. Over at one corner, a group chowed on noodle soup in cups, the noodles signifying longevity. Everywhere you looked, it was a cacophony of red and gold shrouded in a thick blanket of fog from a hundred burning incense sticks. It was noisy and chaotic. Chinese music blared from the speakers, and everyone seemed to be talking or shouting all at once. Then at precisely 12:15, just when I thought the smoke from the incense was too much to bear, everyone spilled out onto the sidewalk to watch the pretty fireworks display. Now why is it I've never celebrated Chinese new year before (aside from the fact that I'm not Chinese)? Now that I know what I'm missing, that'll have to change.

After the last rocket went off, we made our way back to the Living Room for more drinking and partying. But not before we were accompanied by a group of lively children (below) who serenaded us with Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All. And quite beautifully, I might add! Much to their amusement we joined in, which only prompted them to sing louder as we marched on. They were adorable and their joy and enthusiasm was so contagious that every person or group we passed burst into song as well, until practically half of Remedios St. was belting out this tune. Oh Whitney would have been proud! And that, my friends, is true Filipino spirit for you. :)

Kung Hei Fat Choi!

Christina captured the essence of the night perfectly here. :)

February 19, 2007

Sweet potato stew

When I read that Alanna from A Veggie Venture had dubbed February the Month of Soup and invited everyone to post their favorite soup recipes, I knew exactly what I was going to share. Let me tell you why...

I was born and raised in a tropical country where the only seasons we have are hot and hotter, with the occasional wet season when the heavens open up and the rains come pounding for days on end. In January 2002 however, I moved to London. In the dead of winter. When darkness fell at 4:00 in the afternoon. I had to acclimatize overnight and as would be expected of any warm-blooded girl from the islands, I despised it.

Those first couple of months were my most lonely and trying. I was a long way from home and living alone for the first time in my life. I couldn't properly deal with personal issues such as homesickness, which was the most prevalent, because there were business matters to take care of. It was after all, the reason for the move. So I hit the ground running, temporarily neglecting my inner fears and emotions. Sooner than later, it was starting to take it's toll on me and the pressures of doing everything single-handedly was almost too much to handle.

I needed some serious nurturing and comforting! And while I had friends and relatives there who were extremely supportive, I had to start taking care of myself. One of the things that needed a drastic change was my diet. One could subsist on those pre-packed convenience-store sandwiches only for so long. Yes, folks, that was my epiphany. I couldn't stomach another one of those egg-salad sandwich wedges so I had to learn to cook. It was learn to cook or starve. So I bought cookbooks (I found myself frequenting Books for Cooks which was conveniently located across my favorite bookstore in Notting Hill, the Travel Bookshop) and waded through pages and pages online bookmarking recipes as I went. That was when I found this recipe for sweet potato stew. It sounded perfect!

Not only is the sweet potato (locally known as kamote) one of my most favorite vegetables, it reminded me of home where it was practically a staple on our table. It sounded easy enough to make but I was a little nervous, this being one of my first times to ever cook anything on my own and all. To my surprise and delight it turned out wonderful! It was hearty, flavorful and had just the right amount of heat. Oh and healthy too! Did you know the sweet potato is chock-ful of goodness? In fact, it was ranked the #1 most nutritional vegetable, by the CSPI. Proof that not everything good is bad for you! ;)

With each spoonful came a flood of warmth and memories. It was just the thing this tired and lonely soul needed on that cold winter night. :) And even back home where the mercury rises, it still makes for a very satisfying and delicious meal.

Sweet Potato Stew
adapted from a recipe site online (sorry, it's been so long I don't remember which site)

1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
½ yellow bell pepper, chopped
½ red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup tomato sauce
2 cups water
½ can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes
2 cups diced peeled sweet potatoes
1 can (15 oz) black beans, rinsed & drained
1 tbsp chilli powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
fresh oregano
salt & pepper to taste

Heat some extra-virgin olive oil in large saucepan. Cook the onions and garlic until lightly browned. Add bell peppers and saute for 5 minutes.

Stir in water, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, chilis, sauce, chili powder and cumin.Cook over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes or until thickened and potatoes are cooked through.
Season with salt and cracked black pepper, and serve hot with some crusty bread.

If you're in need of some soothing nourishment or just simply looking for new soup ideas, head on over to A Veggie Venture and check out all the delicious-sounding recipes posted there.

Thank you, Alanna, for letting me play. :)

February 18, 2007

ATV Safari & The Rasa Ria

For our third and last night in KK, we booked ourselves at the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort about 45 minutes away from the city. Back when I was deciding on a resort, the Rasa Ria won me over with it's great location (wedged between sea and jungle and quite secluded) and plethora of activities. Of course the photos on the website helped a lot too.

As soon as we stepped out of the hotel shuttle, we were welcomed by the warm and friendly staff with a bang on the gong and a very interesting glass of iced-tea that had a kiamuy (dried plum) floating in it. Beyond the big and sunny lobby was the sprawling grounds which stretched to the white sandy beach. It was just as beautiful as the photos online promised and I felt a pang of regret that we only booked one night here. Nevertheless, I was determined to make the most of it.

Snapshots of the Shangri La Rasa Ria

After dropping our bags in the room and freshening up, we all met up for lunch at the Tepi Laut where we ordered food a la carte. I had the nasi goreng which actually came from the coffee shop so it arrived last. It was well worth the wait! Later that night we would be committing guiltless acts of gluttony with their amazing hawker-style buffet.

After lunch, some chose to soak up some rays, others opted for a dip in the pool, while three of us headed over to the resort's Nature Reserve to watch the orangutans during feeding time. While I enjoyed watching the whimsical creatures with their curious antics, I was a little disappointed because I thought there would be more of them. Instead there were only three and there were like thirty of us on the viewing deck jockeying for position and angling for a good shot.

Who's watching whom?

We were at the lobby at exactly 5:00 pm to meet the ranger who would lead us through the jungle on our ATVs. We followed him down to the beach where the vehicles were waiting. He briefed us on some safety reminders, handed us shower caps to wear under our helmets and off we went. There were five of us and four of them: one ranger leading the pack, and three bringing up the rear. I wondered why the need for so many, and this was answered soon enough when J got himself stuck in a ditch.

This was, undoubtedly, the highlight of my trip. Can you say fun?!

The next hour and a half was just wild! It felt as if my thumb acquired a mind of it's own as it pressed hard on the gas. The helmets prevented us from hearing anything over the roar of the engines, which only enhanced the experience. We maneuvered our lean mean red machines along narrow and slippery trails and plunged into puddles of mud. Every once in a while we would emerge into a clearing for a minute or two before driving into yet another dense part of the jungle. We passed a herd of cows who didn't seem too happy about the noise barrage we inflicted on them.

Forty-five minutes later, we stopped at a Badjao village for refreshments. This is where many of the resorts staff live with their families, inside houses on stilts. We washed up using the pails of water provided and then listened as they explained what we were about to eat. I don't remember the names but the tastes were familiar. There were plates of fried bananas, spongy sticky sweets made from flour and brown sugar (their taste reminded me of brown puto) and wafer-thin crisps with nuts. The coffee was strong and delicious. The lady who prepared everything even gave us some cooking lessons and I made my own little spongy cake (if any of you know the names of these sweets, please tell me).

We thanked our hostess and climbed back on our ATVs, ready to take on the more challenging trails. This consisted of very narrow paths that we had to squeeze through and involved a lot of ducking and swerving to avoid low tree limbs and branches that threatened to skin us alive. We made it back to the beach in time to catch the sunset. After taking the requisite pictures, we were given fifteen minutes to fool around with our bikes up and down the shoreline. We raced to the river, drew circles on the sand, and satisfied our need for speed! :)

Freestyling on the beach

By the time we were through we were filthy and worn. Our legs were caked with mud. Our clothes, hair and faces were spattered with mud and sand but we were happy. We borrowed the gardener's water hose and we cleaned up as best we could before meeting up with the rest of the gang for cocktails at Coast (the hotel's restaurant/bar located out near the beach).

* * *

The next day, while having breakfast at the Coffee Terrace, we met the most colorful member of the resort's staff (below). He pranced around proudly, totally showing-off. He even obliged the guests by posing for pictures. And when no one was minding him, he squawked loud. He was beautiful and he deserved to be noticed! :)

Sadly, it was time to say goodlbye to Rasa Ria and to Sabah. Before we boarded the vans that would take us to the airport, the staff serenaded us with the Rasa Ria farewell song that had us all in tears. What a nice bunch of people! I wouldn't think twice about coming back here someday.

February 15, 2007

Kinabalu Park and Canopy Walk

Kinabalu Park is Malaysia's first World Heritage site designated by UNESCO in 2000. It covers a staggering area of 300 sq. miles, and is bigger than the entire nation of Singapore. The park is dominated by Mt. Kinabalu which stands at 4,095 m or 14,435 ft. and is a botanical paradise blessed with an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.

Only 4 of the 8 of us were going to the Park so we asked the concierge to book us a car and driver for the 2 hour trip. We had no delusions of grandeur of trekking up to the summit, which normally takes 2-3 days so climbers can acclimatize, but we did want to see this majestic mountain and do the canopy walk we read about in the brochure. So after a heavy buffet breakfast, off we went.

As we gained altitude, the temperature dropped, until we were pretty much engulfed in a chilly blanket of fog. Our wise and thoughtful driver suggested we visit Poring Hot Springs first and do the canopy walk and hope that by the time we go back to Park Headquarters the fog would have cleared and allow us a clear view of the mountain's peak.

We paid a minimal 'conservation fee' of 15 rm to enter the Park at the Poring Hot Springs where the trail to the canopy walk is at. We followed the signs over a running stream and past pools of hot springs until the start of the trail. Believe me, I had no idea what the trail was like. The brochure said nothing about having to climb up a steep mountainside (didn't we just decide there were no mountain climbing expeditions for us?), to reach the suspension bridges that connected the treetops 200 feet above the forest floor.

Twenty minutes into the trail, I was still clueless as to what I was getting myself into. If you read my post about the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacan, you know I'm not fit for climbing. I can walk for hours on end, in fact I am notorious for taking my London visitors on personalized walking tours of the city that would last 8 hours give or take an hour or so for lunch. But make me climb anything taller than an anthill and you'll hear cussing that would make any sailor blush. Ok so I exaggerate a little. I can do anthills.

So there I was, huffing and puffing up the trail, telling myself we were almost there, when my friend A saw a sign that indicated we were only halfway up. Only halfway? But we've been at this for 30 minutes! I felt deflated and almost gave up. I seriously contemplated turning back.

I thought about the canopy walk that awaited us and how great it would be to walk among the treetops, something I had wanted to do in Cagayan for so long. I imagined how I would regret turning back and hate myself for it, and reminded myself how much sweeter the victory is when you push yourself to the limit.

So in a sudden burst of self-motivation, I looked at the glass half-full and told myself, "Self, we're already halfway up! You can do it!". With that I pushed myself, one step at a time. With the rest of my 'Team Sabah!!!' friends encouraging me, I made it! (But not before I made a mental note to increase the grade on the treadmill at the gym.) All of a sudden I felt like I could conquer the world! But in retrospect I think that was due to a combination of vertigo and fatigue hehe.

When I saw the first bridge, the pain of the climb was instantly forgotten. In it's place was a thrill, a rush. That feeling one gets when they're about to do something so wild and crazy that it involves the possibility of putting your life at risk. I couldn't wait to get on it. I let everyone go ahead so I could take their photos.

There are 3 bridges that run a total length of 158 meters. All it really is, is a wooden plank less than a foot across supported by a steel ladder and suspended with sturdy ropes. Netting is woven into the ropes on each side which create a safety net in case you slip from the plank. (It failed to give me any peace of mind though). Each bridge is connected by a circular observation deck where you can stop and smell the tree tops. Looking down all you can see are more trees, the forest floor is nowhere in sight.

Every so often we would catch a glimpse of spectacular scenery through the branches and the mist. I loved being here, surrounded by nature like this. It was an exhilarating experience to say the least. Being high up in the forest is one thing, but being able to actually walk from tree top to tree top is just a whole other story. Now if only they could install escalators or cable cars to the top. Just kidding! We wouldn't want to disturb this untouched jungle with such a monstrosity. How about a chopper that drops you off at the first deck? Ok ok. I admit, the entire experience was all the more memorable and satisfying because of the climb. :)

The trek down was definitely much easier and took us about half an hour or so. The unpaved trail was very muddy so we had to do it slowly. By the time we reached the base, the heavens opened and it started to pour, as if to cleanse us of the sweat and grime we accumulated during our adventure. We stopped at the restaurant lodge for a quick drink before we hopped back in the car and made our way to the Kinabalu Park headquarters. By the time we got there, it was 3pm and we were starving. The fog was still too thick and we couldn't see the Mt. Kinabalu in the background. So we freshened up and hit the restaurant where we feasted on tom yam soup, satay, roti, and teh tarik. The food couldn't have tasted any better. It was the prefect reward for us tired folk!

We needed to get back to the city by 6 so we started heading home. Mt. Kinabalu seemed to be eluding us today, there was nothing we could do about it. But as we drove off we kept an eye out anyway, just in case it came out of hiding. Through the fog, it started to play peekaboo with us. And each time it did, we would scream at the driver (who was only too willing to try-out his Evil Knievel moves as he swerved to the wrong side of the road to pull over) to stop so we could take pictures. It was definitely a spectacular sight, and I wished the rest of the gang could have been there to see it too.

Up Next: ATV Safari & the Shang

February 13, 2007

Kota Kinabalu: the markets & the food

“Welcome to Sabah”, a uniformed officer at the Kota Kinabalu International airport smiled as he greeted us with his right hand on his heart and an ever-so-slight bow. I realize later that this is a typical greeting of the warm and gentle Malaysian people.

So there I was, finally, eight months after we booked our (super cheap!) flights to KK on Air Asia, with the “Macau group” – the friends I went to Macau with this exact same weekend last year. We had had such a wonderful time then, that we vowed to do a trip together every year.

Kota Kinabalu, or KK, is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah and is located on the coast of the island of Borneo. It is named after South East Asia’s tallest mountain, Mt. Kinabalu, a massive granite dome of molten rock popular with mountain climbers everywhere. Because KK is surrounded by a wealth of natural wonder, we decided to experience the best of both worlds by staying 2 nights downtown and 1 night at the Shangri La Rasa Ria resort 45 minutes away.

Our home in the city, Le Meridien, was conveniently located across the Waterfront where most of the city’s best restaurants and bars are located and within walking distance to the markets. On our first night, we ate out on the boardwalk and ordered our food from the Oregano Café. The food was excellent. We had tom yam soup, steamed mussels, nyonya spicy crabs, fried rice, sambal prawns, sweet & sour fish and tons of fresh baby kailan. We ordered practically everything on their menu!

We were stuffed and needed to do what we could to aid the digestion process. So we strolled along the boardwalk past coffee shops, hip bars, english pubs, satay stands, massage stations and other restaurants. Each place pulsed with it's own unique sound and vibe, with varying smells wafting from invisible kitchens, intermingling with that of their neighbors, as locals and tourists occupied both their indoor and outdoor areas. It was after all, a Friday night.

Before retiring to our hotel, we checked out the sprawling central market located just beside the Waterfront esplanade. We walked through stall after stall of vegetables and fruits, some of which were unrecognizable. They had a fish market towards the rear near the water, and a large section with tables and chairs surrounded by stalls of cooked food, chicken and fish on the grill and all sorts of native sweets. It was already 10 pm yet the market was in full swing.

We tried some snake fruit (top left photo), so named because of it's leathery snake-like brown skin. The fruit is native also to Thailand and Indonesia and known locally as salak. The flesh is firm and acidic, not very sweet. I wasn't too fond of it, but I'll take it over durian any day! We did buy some pomelo and guava sprinkled with plum powder to take to the hotel. My sister had introduced me to the apple and plum powder combo recently and even gave me a tub of the stuff, now I have a new fruit to eat it with.

guava with plum powder

The open-air Sunday market on Gaya Street is open from 6 am until 2 pm. They sell pretty much everything here: pets, vegetables, antiques, orchids, fruit, clothes, shoes, name it. It was hot and crowded with tourists and locals but not stinky or dirty. I hadn't had breakfast so I bought some donuts and lemonade. My favorite food item was the mini pancake sandwiches (middle picture below)with assorted fillings of chocolate, peanut, kaya, butter and cheese.

The food. Omigosh the food! There was lots of it. Malaysian cuisine is a perfect representation of the multi-cultural aspects of Malaysia. It is strongly influenced by Chinese, Thai, and Indian cuisine. Like in most Asian countries, rice and noodles are staples together with Indian-style bread such as roti and naan. The dishes are colorful and flavored with a tantalizing mix of spices and herbs that include lemongrass, turmeric, nutmeg, pandan leaves,kaffir lime leaves, cumin, fenugreek and of course garlic, onions and chili paste. Malaysia is like disneyland for the tastebuds! Here are some of the meals we enjoyed:

tom yam soup, chicken satay with peanut sauce and compressed rice, roti canai with egg

curried chicken, lamb kebab, nasi goreng

Nasi Lemak is is a hearty meal of rice, sambal (a thick chili paste), boiled egg, cucumber and peanuts which is usually enjoyed for breakfast. The breakfast buffet of both hotels had a DIY nasi lemak station with all the condiments. It was my first encounter with nasi lemak (it is nasi goreng I am most familiar with) and I thought it was pretty good. Another favorite of the group was the laksa, a tangy soup dish of noodles, shrimp, lettuce and fish.

Another first for me is teh tarik . I becamse an instant fan! It is tea sweetened with condensed milk. They serve it with a nice layer of froth which is achieved by pouring the tea from mug to glass repeatedly with outstretched hands. It's so good, I would have it as dessert.

teh tarik

Next: Kinabalu Park and canopy walk

February 7, 2007

The Chutney Project & The List

I am constantly making lists. I've got them all over the place, in scraps of paper in my wallet, on my pda phone, in notebooks, and if you go through my laptop you'll find lots more. It gives my life some sense of order. But above all, it helps me remember since I have such a horrible memory. The best part about making these lists is the gratification one gets from taking that pen and drawing a line across that item, or placing that neat check mark beside it.

Yesterday, I did just that. I almost danced a little jig as I crossed out mango chutney from my 'list of food to try and make at home', from hereon we will refer to simply as The List. Our chutney supply comes from my tita who lives in our village. The fact that our source is only a few blocks away has proven to be so convenient especially when curry is served for Sunday lunch and we whip out the jar only to find that we're running dangerously low on chutney. So while on one of these chutney runs I thought, why don't I make my own? And so that was the day it was added to The List.

I had so many recipes to choose from for my first attempt. Eventually, I settled on the one from The Gourmet Cookbook (pp. 906-907). I tried to stick to the recipe as much as possible but didn't have any red pepper flakes on hand so I left that out.

Mango Chutney from The Gourmet Cookbook

3 large firm but ripe mangoes (I used 4 Philippine mangoes), peeled, pitted and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 (3 inch) cinnamon stick
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds
1/4 tsp. fennel seeds

Chill a small plate for testing chutney.

Combine all ingredients in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and simmer, skimming away any foam and stirring frequently as chutney thickens for about 30-35 minutes.

Remove saucepan from heat while testing for doneness. Drop a spoonful of chutney onto the chilled plate. Refrigerate for 1 minute, then tilt plate; chutney should remain in a mound and not run. Transfer chutney to a bowl to cool, uncovered. Once thoroughly cooled, refrigerate for at least 1 day to allow flavors to develop.

I doubled the amount of sugar to 1 cup and simmered it for another 10 minutes to allow more of the vinegar to evaporate because I felt it was a little too sour. It turned out sweet and tangy with the nice juicy chunks of mango. All in all, it was not exactly what I hoped for, but a pretty good start.

The chutney didn't come out as dark as I would have liked, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I used light brown sugar instead of dark brown. Now all I need is a good chicken tikka masala or lamb curry to test it with. Meanwhile, I'll be trying other recipes that include raisins, allspice and cloves, which I think are essential in a good chutney.

For those of you who live in Manila and haven't already heard: Assad's (that wonderful Indian mini-mart from UN Ave.) has opened a branch on Jupiter St. (Yay!) They haven't installed a phone yet, but you can easily find it next to Red Ribbon and near Nullah. That's where I got all the spices I needed and at super reasonable prices. I'm so happy I no longer have to go all the way to UN Ave. for that! :)

February 4, 2007

Lunch at Charley's

The estate as seen from the questhouse rooftop

"Hi! I just made a comment on Anton's post on The Popit De Leon Experience: "road trip!" to Charley's in Lipa! And he emailed back, why not? So. Here's an open invite to bloggers i read (and lurve!!!)".

Upon receiving this email from Poch, I thought great idea! A food trip with fellow foodies, some of who I was yet to have the pleasure of meeting in person, fun! So over the next couple of weeks we selected the menu, fixed car arrangements and set the meeting place: 10:30 am at the Petron gas station along SLEX.

I think we were all so excited about the food and the company that we weren't prepared for the scene that awaited us. Hidden behind a massive stone wall lined by mahogany trees, was a beautiful first-class ranch complete with thoroughbreds roaming freely. Perhaps I was expecting something a little more rustic because it was out in the country. But whatever it was, I was pleasantly surprised.

As we pulled up, we found Popit outside ready to welcome us. Soon after, our group of 16 gathered around the table in the sunny dining room. Though the setting may have been formal, the vibe was relaxed and casual. What followed was a comfortable and enjoyable lunch among friends, old and new. The wine and conversation flowed freely as the seven course meal was served.

Chef Popit at his crepe station

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the meal was dessert. Popit whipped up crepe suzettes and topped each one with vanilla ice cream. It was sinful and delicious. The intoxicating smell of butter lingered in the air for hours after.

We had the pleasure of meeting Charley, who treated us to a grand tour of her property. As you can see, I went a little crazy with the camera, especially with the horses. I love, love, love horses. I think they are one of God's most gorgeous creatures. I just wish they weren't such a darn expensive passion.

Anyway as they say, pictures are worth a thousand words, so I'll leave you with these.

"I'm ready for my close-up.
Ummm, I think this is my better side. Erm, no this one is!"

A tale of two cuties: Aidan with the Shetland pony

Just horsin' around

Isn't she a beauty!? She was my favorite.
She nibbled on my arm and had Aidan squealing with delight.


Thanks Poch for planning this trip for all of us! :)

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Read what the others had to say about the trip and check out their beautiful pictures:

For reservations, call Charley at 0920-9507032

Driving directions: From SLEX, exit Calamba heading towards Batangas/Laguna (exit 50) until Sto. Tomas. Enter the Star Tollway, exit at Lipa and turn right. Continue down this road until the fork (across Robinson's) and take the left, passing Jollibee and SM. A billboard of the Sto. Nino Parish marks your next left to Gov. F Leviste Highway.