July 31, 2007

Tastes like beef

Ostrich tapa

Ostrich tapa

Cagayan de Oro, being the white water rafting capital of the Philippines, has a lot to offer the thrill seeker and adventure traveler. Aside from shooting the rapids, ziplining, braving suspension bridges, horseback riding and caving which we did, visitors to this city can also enjoy other activities such as rapeling, spelunking, tubing (also known as Pinoy rafting), biking and nature trekking or swimming under waterfalls.

But another unique feature of CDO and one that is slightly less known is its status as the country’s premier source of ostrich eggs and ostrich meat. The Limketkai family pioneered ostrich farming in the country, vacuum-packing their meats and supplying these to selected supermarkets and restaurants around the country, including Kagayanon, a popular restaurant located at the Limketkai center.

Ostrich curry

Ostrich curry

Although we were far from being hungry after our late lunch of Sunburst fried chicken, we trooped to Kagayanon for some of this prized meat. We ignored all the other delicious-sounding local delicacies and ordered the ostrich salpicao, ostrich tapa and ostrich curry with cashew nuts, along with some bicol express.

And no, this flightless giant of a bird does not taste like chicken. Ostrich meat pretty much tastes just like beef and probably only the most experienced diner could distinguish between the two. But though it shares a similarity in texture and appearance with beef, ostrich meant enjoys a reputation of being the healthier option due to it’s lower cholesterol content and higher nutritional value. Not that any of that really mattered to me at the moment, I was busy enjoying all of it especially the tapa which turned out to be my favorite of the three. Everything was just so tender!

Ostrich Salpicao

Ostrich salpicao

Bicol express

Bicol express

Kagayanon Restaurant
Limketkai Center, Cagayan de Oro City
Tel. +63 (08822)729292

July 28, 2007

Getting my adrenalin fix in Cagayan

Our jeep

Yay I finally did it! I finally went white water rafting! I've been wanting to do this for way too long. The last two times I was in Cagayan de Oro there was no time for any adventure; the first time we we were just passing through on our way to Camiguin island, and the second time was for work so no time there. But yes, finally, there I was feeling brave and snug in a blue lifevest, a yellow helmet strapped under my chin and yielding my oar (or "padol", god I love their accent ) like a knight yields his lance before a joust. Yeah! Bring it on!

So after a quick briefing on safety procedures from Jojo, our guide, the six of us secured our positions on the edges of the raft (see grey rubber strip on the boat below). Jojo and one of his crew positioned themselves behind us, bringing up the rear. Here we go! I felt tiny people doing somersaults and cartwheels inside me. Soon the circus had come to town in my tummy. I love the circus.

Our raft

After a few minutes of easy rowing, we picked up the sound of gushing water, like that of a tall waterfall. As it grew louder, I could make out the patch of white water, a stark contrast from the jade green river water, as it glistened in the sun and foamed over big, menacing rocks. Those rocks had the power to capsize us. "Lock your feet!", Jojo shouted, and we obediently tucked our feet under those hotdog-looking things in the middle of the raft and braced ourselves, awaiting the next command. "Now hard padol! " and we began to paddle fast and hard. Or attempted to. The first splash of water shocked me out of my senses. It was freezing! My thought process went something like this:

"Omigod omigod, this is it!......Whheeee! ......ooohhh fun....hahahaha...heehee...gasp! what the?! it's cold !!...... aaaaaahhhhhh......oh wait, I gotta paddle...... shoot I keep bumping Michelle's oar.....wheeeeeeeee.....gulp!....think I swallowed water......ack big rock!......phew......I'm...aaaahhhhhhhhh.....I'm soaked!.......brrrrr.....ouch this strap is cutting into my thigh.......wheeee.....hahahahaha.....no one's rowing.....hey....omigod that was FUN!.....huff....huff...."

And that was pretty much how it went for the rest of the 19 rapids. Screams and fits of laughter. In between rapids, we conserved our energy and drifted with the current, enjoying the scenery on either side of us. The river serves as a boundary between Cagayan de Oro to our left and Bukidnon to our right - each side equally rich in natural beauty and wild life such as wild carabaos and wild goats (wild because if you touch them their owners will go wild, says our guide the frustrated comedian) and beautiful wild orchids - whose fragrance filled the air around us wherever they were present.

Lunch by the river

We travelled 16 kilometers downstream on the Cagayan river and traversed about 20 rapids in all, degrees of rough water ranging from category 2 to 4+, with 5 being the strongest. The entire experience lasted about three hours and included a stopover for packed lunch. Tupperwares of grilled fish, shrimp, pork chops, rice, water and Cokes were brought to us from the jeep that followed us to their shack on the riverbank and which would later pick us up at the disembarkation point.

Refueled and pumped up with renewed energy, we forged on to conquer more white water. We were getting good at this, even helping our guides steer the boat sometimes by actually using our oars. There was one particular hairy turn that he warned us about and for which he needed our help if we were to get through it in one piece. To avoid the huge boulder in the middle of the river, we had to quickly maneouver the raft to the left of the rock and under an overhanging cliff. We had to duck low to avoid getting our heads banged up and then immediately veer right so we don't slam into the wall in the process. It was tricky and the most challenging of all, but with cooperation and determination we emerged victorious.

After each rough patch, Jojo would shout "high five!", our cue to raise our paddles above us in a group high-five slap, and echo "high five!" as we did so. This was one of his instructions during the briefing and I wondered what it had to with rafting safety, even thinking it was a little cheesy but funny. Never did we high-five each other with such pride and sense of triumph after that last one. Even nearly knocking some teammates overboard in the process. Ok, I exaggerate, but it was such a great feeling! After that one, the rest kinda paled in comparison and I secretly wished they all elicited that same thrill and sense of danger that gets my adrenalin pumping.

Boy from the caves

At the disembarkation point, our jeep was waiting for us. While some rinsed themselves in the makeshift showers, the crew packed up the gear and mounted the raft back up on the roof of the jeep. We proceeded to Macahambus Cave, a very dark and small cave which you enter from the side of the road. It is a "thru" cave that leads to an exit above the river (below). The handsome little man in the photo above was our guide who assisted us in crawling through the tunnels without bumping our heads. According to the plaque at the mouth of the cave, it "served as the hide-out of Kagayanon soldiers and their families during the Battle of Macahambus Hill which marked the victory of the Filipinos against the Americans in the Phil-American war in this nation in 1900."

Looking out into the river from the cave

Next on the agenda was the canopy walk (or sky bridge) and zipline at the Macahambus Adventure Park . The kick-off point of the canopy walk is street level above the Macahambus Gorge, so there was no hiking involved (read here why this mattered to me). Once again the crew took great pains in making sure we were well-equipped with the safety gear: a harness and helmet. This canopy walk, though not really less thrilling, made me feel safer compared to my Kota Kinabalu experience because we were harnessed to a cable above us and the bridge felt less wobbly. There is something about walking amidst tree tops with nothing between thw wooden planks under you and the earth but 150 meters of air that is so amazing.


Canopy Walk

The highlight of my day was the zipline,(also known as flying fox or death slide, yipes), which I had never done before and the mere thought of which made me nauseous with excitement. Upon reaching the third platform, we ascended a tower to another platform where the zipline cable starts at a steeper slope. All the better to propel you at the speed of light to your death err... to the other side, my dear.

We let our friend Joey, who incidentally is the most fearful of heights among us, go first so he could take pictures of us as we land, because we're thoughtful and selfless like that. The poor guy had barely even recovered from the canopy walk and there he was, sweating bullets while his harness was being fastened to a pulley on the cable. The guide held him back, shouted "Go?!" and when this was echoed from the other end he gave Joey a light shove the way you would a kid on a swing, and let gravity do it's job. Joey's screams and nervous laughter did nothing to calm our nerves and 4 people later it was my turn.

I said a quick prayer to the heavens and pleaded, "please Lord let this cord stay strong and carry me through to safety", because I learned from The Secret that this is the proper way to think and not "Please Lord, don't let this cable snap so I don't plunge into the gorge and risk getting my limbs torn off and my neck snapped and spine crushed." On the second "go" I was off, zipping and flying through the jungle and it was awesome! It was freakin' awesome! Until I saw my landing pad.

There was no landing pad. Just a concrete slab by the stone shack where we started from and about three guys positioned to catch me. I felt no fear until this point. I'm gonna slam into that wall like a fly on a windshield, I was sure of it! To make things worse, it seemed I was picking up speed! Then I gripped the cord tight and screamed, my life was in their hands now. Aaahh! They caught me. Barely.

I will not attempt to describe the feeling of ziplining to any of you, I want you to experience it yourself. But if you want an idea, watch this video Joey took while he was zipping along and listen carefully as he is robbed of his masculinity. ;)

Note: The entire package cost P1,400 (about $30) which includes: hotel pick-up and drop-off, 20 rapids (other companies only do about 15 or 16), the cave, canopy walk, zipline and packed lunch.


Golden Friendship Whitewater Rafting
Contact: Vittal @ (088) 858-9007 or 0919-4924488

Ridgeview Chalet
Ridgeview Chalets, Xavier Estates
Airport Rd., Cagayan de Oro City
Tel. Nos. (088) 858-7929/30 & 858-8933/37

July 24, 2007

Hey girl, you rock!

Yes, folks, I rock! And I rock, two times!! Well, at least according to two of my favorite blogger friends: Tracy of Alaskan Adventures and Cookie of ScroochChronicles. :) Thank you so much, you two, I am extremely flattered yet humbled and touched that you think so. I happen to think you both rock too!

If you haven't already had the pleasure of meeting these two lovely women, let me give you a little introduction. Tracy is a fellow travel junkie who shares my love for adventure and the occasional adrenalin fix. I've been reading her blog since I first discovered blogs. She has a flair for writing about her life on the road that makes you feel like you were right there with her, or at the very least makes you want to be right there with her. Don't let her tag line deceive you, she's anything but ordinary. She is a very independent woman whose courage and determination I admire greatly.

Cookie is a loving mama to two adorable and lucky little girls. She writes mostly heartwarming stories that reflect the joys of motherhood. Her love and devotion to her family is truly remarkable. Cookie's blog is all that and more, like Forest's box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get. That's one of the things I like most about her. She's a multi-faceted woman and it shows in her posts.

So now it's my turn to spread the love. As usual, this is going to be tough, very very tough. Since I started reading blogs about two years ago, I've 'met' so many strong, intelligent, funny and incredible women who have so generously shared their lives with whoever cared to listen. I really think they all rock. And as much as I'd like to give this award to all of them, I don't think it's supposed to work that way. So I'll pick seven, just because I like that number.

Joey of 80 Breakfasts - If haven't already met Joey, you need to head on over to her blog right now. There you'll find a lady of immense talent. The talent to create enticing dishes, the talent to capture some of the most beautiful food shots, the talent to entertain you with her colorful stories, and most importantly to me, the talent to remain a trusted and loyal friend for life. Yes, this girl truly rocks my world!

Rowena of Rubber Slippers in Italy -Rowena is an island girl living in the Lombardy region of Italy. Can you imagine how wonderful that must be? She weaves stories of food and travel together so beautifully that I love to live vicariously through her and her cute-as-a-button pup Maddie. Rowena is a genuinely warm person who I hope to meet someday.

Bee of Rasa Malaysia - I discovered Bee's site before a trip to Kota Kinabalu earlier this year. I was researching Malaysian cuisine and serendipitously stumbled upon this gem. Her gorgeous photography and mouth-watering recipes lured me in and made me a willing captive. After my trip and hours spent reading her blog, I developed a better understanding and deep appreciation of Malaysian cuisine of which I am grateful. This Bee rocks the blog hive!

Mae of Rice and Noodles - Mae constantly blows my mind with her photographs and writing. Her blog is one of the classiest in the blogosphere and it's always such a delight to visit. You just know she's the type of woman who can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. She's a creative genius and her talent extends beyond the kitchen. Check out her beautiful photography here.

Wysgal of Rants & Raves - Wysgal is an apt nickname for her, for she's wise beyond her years. And her blog is a wonderful resource for all things notable - be they restaurant reviews, books, articles, travel destinations and music. She's about to embark on an exciting two year journey at Wharton, yup, this lady is definitely going places and I'm eager to read all about it!

Mila of Watergirl - Mila rocks because she's an intelligent and sensitive woman and a very thoughtful and generous friend. What initially brought us together was a shared passion for football (or soccer to some of you), but what sustained our friendship was a most basic formula of great conversation, comfortable company and a love of good food.

Shalimar of Wanderlust Sha - It's funny how I first discovered Shalimar. I was toying with the idea of naming my own blog Wanderlust (in fact I do have a registered blog with 1derlust in the addy, and was supposed to name it the Wanderings of a gypsy soul) but didn't want to 'steal it' from anyone who was already using it. So I did an extensive search and found Sha. The first thing that caught my attention was that she was Filipina too and that she lived in Greece and travelled often. I knew at that instant I was in for a wonderful journey. Shalimar is a rockin woman with a rockin job that has her travelling to the most beautiful ports and discovering the most wonderful food along the way. She makes me wish I could trade lives with her even for a day.

Keep on rockin' ladies! And feel free to spread the love... :)

July 14, 2007

Black pepper crabs

black pepper crab

In our village, there are many industrious folk who roam the streets selling a wide range of food and services. They are recognized by the distinct sounds they produce as they walk past your home. There's the unmistakable bell of my favorite 'dirty' ice cream man pushing his colorful cart through our streets whom I've been buying cones of ube and keso (cheese) ice cream from since I was five; the cring-cring of the bicycle bell by the man whose bicycle is fitted with a circular blade to sharpen your knives and scissors and booming voice coming from the man bearing rice cakes such as puto and cuchinta on either end of a pole he carries on his shoulder, to name a few.

Of all these street hawkers, my favorite was always the taho guy. For as long as I can remember, his call would propel me into a frenzy that involved the panicked search of coins and then a mad dash to the front door with an empty glass in my hand. His plastic cups were too small for me. From experience, he knew to linger slightly outside our home especially during the summer months when my siblings and I were home most days. He also knew to add more syrup and sago in mine. How I loved that warm afternoon treat!

Yesterday though, our taho guy came by with crabs. Yup, live fresh crabs struggling to crawl out of a pail right there on our doorstep. My mom couldn't resist and bought 2 kilos to try. She asked me this morning what I wanted to do with them. Normally we have our crabs one of three ways: steamed and served with lemon and/or vinegar, cooked in coconut milk or made into our favorite chili crabs. I wanted something different so I decided on black pepper crabs.

My mom steamed the crabs while I prepared the paste. When the crabs were cooked and quartered, I added them into the paste that was already simmering in the wok. The pungent peppery smell filled the air as I allowed the pieces to absorb the flavors into it's crevices for another five minutes.

At the table and armed with our nutcrackers, we proceeded to attack. With each crack of the pepper-encrusted legs, juices squirted out and onto our plates if we were careful. The crabs were so fresh and meaty! In my eagerness to scoop out the flesh, my first crack resulted in my dad's arm and shirt dripping with crab juice. Ack! Heehee. It was a fun, wonderfully messy and delicious lunch. We ate with our hands and we licked our fingers clean, smacking up all the flavor.

I wonder what other treasures we can look forward to from our local taho guy. More of these crabs would be great too!

Black Pepper Crab
taken from Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland

4 tbsp black peppercorns
8 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 pc fresh turmeric, peeled & chopped or 2 tsp ground turmeric
1 pc fresh ginger, abt 3 inches long, peeled and thinly sliced
3/4 tsp kosher salt
3 tbsp peanut oil
3/4 cup water
2 kg steamed king crab, quartered

Place the peppercorns in a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground, about 30 seconds. Add the garlic, turmeric, and ginger and pulse until you have a relatively smooth paste. If the paste doesnt puree properly, you may add 1 or 2 tbsp water, periodically turning the processor off and scraping the sides down towards the blade.

Heat the oil in a wok over medium heat. You can also user a Dutch oven or skillet. When the oil is ready, add the black pepper paste and saute, stirring as needed to prevent scorching, about 5 minutes.

Add the water and crab pieces and raise the heat to medium high. Stir-fry the crab pieces, stirring them constantly to combine them with the flavoring paste for about 5 minutes.

Transfer to a serving dish and serve immediately. We served this with steamed rice and ripe pineapples.

This is another Black Pepper Crab recipe I'd like to try someday.

July 11, 2007

Tales of a Food Whisperer

I 'borrowed' that name from Socky, which was apparently coined by Adobo Magazine. There was no more perfect term for her, I think.

The woman I speak of is none other than Lydia Go. Tita Lyds, as she is fondly called, is a pioneer and master in the art of food styling and food photography who revolutionized the craft in the Philippines. She was legendary in the advertising industry, the woman behind local and international award-winning food ads which made her the most sought-after and highest-paid food stylist in the country.

Though I had never met her previously, a couple of my fellow food-loving friends in the advertising industry had the good fortunate of working with her. It was Socky who organized the dinner which was held in Tita Lyds home studio. We were told not to expect plated styling which was totally fine with us. It was her cooking we were after. I hurled my diet to the backseat, I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself if I passed up such a rare event. And oh was it worth it!


sinigang na lechon

There were three spreads. A long buffet table which held the bulk of the food which included: pako (fiddlehead fern) salad with a red egg & tomato dressing, ginataang taong (eggplant cooked in coconut milk), adobong pusit (squid cooked in it's own ink) paired with kesong puti (white cheese) and sundried tomatoes, burong mangga (pickled green mango)roast beef cooked "in a block of butter", alupihan dagat (mantis shrimp according to our resident alupihan dagat expert, Joey, heehee), adobong talaba (oysters) and the pièce de résistance : sinigang na lechon (roast pig cooked in a tamarind broth), which I swear was phenomenal! On the main dining table, steamed jumbo shrimps, ukoy (crunchy shrimp fritters), and fried vegetable spring rolls took center stage.

The dessert buffet was set-up against the other wall. This is where all my will-power to resist sugar went kaput. Flirtatiously calling out to me was a platter of fried suman (steamed rice cake) and chocolate fondue which I first read about in this post of Socky. Flanking it were equally flirtatious native desserts crunchy fried kamote (sweet potato) sticks with sesame seeds, suman sa latik, and the absolutely sinful chocolate and cream cheese log that I could not get enough of.


Not only is Tita Lydia great stylist and cook, she's one animated story-teller. She regaled us with hilarious tales about her work that had us in stitches. Most of it involved the crazy and near-impossible things she had to resort to meet the client's expectations and demands. It is no wonder brands break the bank for this woman. She does whatever it takes to get the job done.

Even if it means going house to house in typhoon-stricken Tagaytay to look for that rare colored passion fruit the client wants in his ad and eventually buying the tree off the backyard of someone's home. Or having to mount her oven on a pig cart so the talent being filmed inside the moving car was supplied with a constant stream of piping hot pizza straight from the oven, for that perfect mozzarella-stretch shot each time. Or buying an entire poultry farm to get the perfectly proportioned chicken as per the client's request. Oh but there is lots where this came from. It's best though to hear it straight from the horse's mouth, she tells great stories!

It was Tita Lydia's mother who made sure that all the girls in the family knew how to cook (and cook well!) at the tender age of 10, she tells me. Her mom was a staunch believer that it would ensure a lasting marriage. Her passion for food inevitably blossomed into an astounding career in food styling, further enhanced by an experience in food lighting and photography thanks to her late husband, photographer Eddie Go.

Thank you,Tita Lydia for sharing your passion with us (you'll surely be hearing from me come December! ;) ) and thanks Socky for arranging the dinner. :)


My shameless dessert plate
clockwise from top right: minatamis na saba, suman with latik,
fried suman dipped in chocolate, chocolate and cream cheese log

Read more about Lydia Go and our fabulous dinner here.

July 9, 2007

A seaside jaunt


After our delicious Balinese lunch, we climbed into Gusti's car and headed west towards Bali's famed coastline. As much as we loved charming and peaceful Ubud and it's colorful tapestry of mountains, rice fields and art galleries, there is another side to Bali that warrants at least a few day's visit. But since we didn't have a few days left, we settled for some highlights.

I had no more than a sneak peak at this beautiful coastline that wraps around the island but it was enough to make me understand why sun-seekers and surfers the world over love it here. This part of Bali reminds me quite a bit of Boracay in that it is divided into seaside neighborhoods with multiple personalities and price points, a la Stations 1, 2 and 3.

Seminyak, which I am told is like Nusa Dua on the eastern coast, is for the true hedonist and the discerning traveller. This is where you go if you're Brangelina or just want a first-class hideaway. Spa resorts are juxtaposed with chic designer boutiques and elegant restaurants.

A little too flashy and glam for you, maybe? Head south until you step onto Legian sand where, while still patronized by the affluent crowd, the snob appeal is turned down a notch. It is classy, yet hip. Think Ibiza with a spruced-up set. For most it's the happy medium.

Slowly encroaching into Legian territory is Kuta beach, which is like Legian or Boracay or (enter name of any popular beach here) on steroids. It is a surfer's paradise, where everyone comes for the cheap rooms and cheap eats and the all-night boozing and partying. It is generally loud, frenetic and overly crowded. Hawkers cram the tree-lined path next to the road selling refreshments and souvenirs. Across the road from the beach is a multitude of budget-friendly establishments and alleys leading to hostels. The beach is no less beautiful though and we were fortunate enough to catch our last Bali sunset here (photo below) before heading to the airport.


the beach at Legian


the beach at Kuta

Gusti took us to a spot where Seminyak meets Legian. He waited in the car while we strolled on the sand, marvelling at the huge waves. The beach seemed to stretch into infinity on either side of us. I walked further out, letting the surf roll around my ankles, surprised to discover that the water was cold.

A man was soaking up the sun with his shirt shielding his face, a couple held hands as they walked along the shore. Up ahead were some sarong vendors and a kite salesman but other than that it was barren. Making you feel like you were on someone's private island.

We hiked up the dunes towards the popular La Lucciola, a classy beachfront restaurant recommended by an Australian lady we met. It was mid-afternoon and we had some time to kill before heading to Ulu Watu temple for the sunset so we had some cocktails. Rina & I shared a gorgeous prosciutto, apple and gorgonzola pizza topped with arugula. It was thigh-slappingly good! I washed it down with a blueberry margarita, which turned out to be very interesting.

We climbed back into Gusti's car and travelled south along Jl. Legian, a road that runs parallel to the shoreline from Seminyak in the north to Kuta in the south. We drove past trendy boutiques and art galleries that were soon replaced by souvenir shops, internet cafes, surf gear shops, hostels, karaoke bars, more souvenir shops, eateries, a Starbucks, and a couple of fastfood joints. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out we were in Kuta country.

Bikini-clad girls and guys wearing nothing more than board shorts and flip flops filled the sidewalks, among them Indonesians from Java selling their wares and plying their trade, yes that of the fleshy kind included. Gusti pointed out the vacant lot where the bomb went off on Oct. 12, 2002 killing over 200 people. Those who lost their lives are honored with pictures on the perimeter wall and at the memorial across the street. I felt deeply saddened for the innocent people who met their fate here and said a silent prayer for them as we drove away.

Ulu Watu cliff

We arrived at Ulu Watu and Gusti advised us to wear the sarongs we brought around our waist. Men and women alike were required to wear sarongs and if you didn't have any on you, you could rent them at the gate. This time Gusti came along yielding a long stick, acting not only as our tour guide but also our bodyguard against the agressive monkeys inside the temple grounds. We had been pre-warned about the vicious creatures so we removed all items of jewelry and I left my sunglasses in the car.

The Pura Luhur Ulu Watu is a multi-tiered structure of thatched roofs and is one of Bali's directional temples. It is perched precipitously on a cliff where it wards off evil spirits from the southwest. It is especially famous for it's unique sunset. A stone wall snakes along the cliffs on both sides of the temple. We walked along both walls, enjoying the view of the temple from both sides. Gusti rapped his stick on the ground to scare away the monkeys who dared approach us. Whenever one got too close, he protectively shielded us from it with his body and hissed at it while waving his stick menacingly. We felt safe. The other tourists were not so lucky. A guy next to us had his sunglasses swiped from his face and I spied a monkey running away with someone's camera case.

The sunset was indeed spectacular! The temple was silhouetted against a sky painted shades of pink, purple and red. It was a shame we couldn't stay longer for the Kecak or ancient fire dance. We still had to drive to Jimbaran for dinner and we didn't want to end too late. We had a 6 am walking tour of the rice paddies the next morning.

Ulu Watu by sunset

Sunset at the Pura Luhur UluWatu

We capped the night with a lovely seafood dinner under the moonlight. Jimbaran Bay dining is an experience highly recommended by all the Bali guide books and websites. Dining here is all about the choices. First you have to choose from the many restaurants and shacks that line the bay, (and there are many so we let Gusti decide for us), then you choose your meal from the abundance of live seafood flapping and wriggling on beds of ice or swimming in water tanks. Then your 'catch' is weighed and the price per kilo is negotiated until you come to a mutually beneficial agreement. We opted to have everything grilled though you can ask for it to be steamed or fried as well.

With a welcome fruit drink in our hands and a complimentary frangipani tucked behind our ear, we followed our waitress to a wooden table by the water's edge. The place was packed. Down the bay were more restaurants and more tables as far as the eye can see. Tiny lights flickered out in the water, fishing boats carrying live loot. Close by, a roaming band was doing Van Morisson's Brown Eyed Girl. Later they moved to the group of Australian ladies next to us and got them to sing-along to Down Under by Men at Work. They were a riot!

We had ordered with our eyes, more shrimp, squid, fish and steamed veggies than we could handle. As we began to eat, we were faced with yet more choices. What sauce to dip what in? Lemon butter, garlic mash, sambal, kecap manis, kecap asin, decisions decisions! We tried them all, then like mad scientists we mixed different sauces together. We enjoyed every morsel, dancing in our seats as much to the beat of the music as to the tingle of delight with every bite.

prawns on the grill

Fresh seafood at Jimbaran Bay

sunset at Kuta beach

And this concludes my Bali series. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I loved to relive it by sharing my stories. :)
Kaya Ayu Beach, Kerobokan, Legian
Tel. 62-361-730838

Gusti Made Merta
"Taxi Driver and Tour Guide to anywhere in Bali"
Mobile: 081-338 759 321

July 4, 2007

A lesson in Balinese cooking


glutinous rice treats

I'm not a morning person but on this day I could have fooled you. We were up at 5:30 and out the door by 6 am ready for our wee-hours-of-the-morning market jaunt with Cok Sri (pronounced chawk sree), the Balinese woman who would be instructing us on her local cuisine today. Even the roosters aren't up yet!, I thought. Rubbing the sleep off our eyes, we stumbled over to the front desk where we were soon met by Cok Sri, who for some reason instantly brought to mind many a scary school teacher from my past.

She just as quickly dispelled that thought with her jolly greeting and warm smile, then we were off to the Ubud market to purchase the ingredients for our cooking class. It was quite cold and I hugged my shawl tighter around me while I looked around and noticed many other women walking in the same direction, alone or in small groups of two or three. All heading to the market too, no doubt.

I was right. I couldn't believe my eyes. The market was teeming with customers at this ungodly hour, it seemed as if the entire female population of Ubud was present and then some. There was produce everywhere. I gingerly tiptoed over and around a maze of crates and mats piled high with the radiant contrasting colors of red chilis, fiddlehead ferns, squash and shallots.

All the vendors seemed to know Cok Sri. Her keen eye (and nose!) for freshness evident as she surveyed and sniffed and then honed in for what she deemed to be perfect. After procuring the vegetables we needed, she led us down the steps to the wet market for chicken and fish. As Cok Sri and Rina discussed our protein requirements, I scanned my surroundings for photo ops. Then something caught my eye.

Over by the cookies and breads, a lady was assembling what looked like multi-colored sticky cakes on a brown sheet of paper, which she would drizzle with a brown syrup and then sprinkle with coconut. Cok Sri must have seen the drool gushing (seriously, I still hadn't had any breakfast!) down to my flip-flops because she bought one each for us to have for breakfast later.

With us tailing her, marched down an alley where she stopped for some dried shrimp paste and peanut sauce before declaring we were done. It was only when we were back on the street did I notice we were joined by a woman carrying all our purchases on a basket balanced on her head. She gave us a toothy grin as she walked past us.

We parted ways with Cok Sri at the bungalows, agreeing to meet her at her place at 9am. This gave us a little over an hour for a nice leisurely breakfast that included rice cakes I was so eager to try. I unwrapped the paper to reveal a medley of glutinous rice cakes in assorted colors, shapes and textures, lightly drizzled with palm sugar syrup and shredded coconut that was acutely reminiscent of home. Kakanins (native snacks) that came to mind were cuchinta, puto and bilo-bilo. Yum!

Cok Sri

barefoot in her kitchen

We arrived at Cok Sri's promptly at 9 am. She lived in a very traditional Balinese family complex she shared with a slew of brothers and sisters. She called out to us from her kitchen near the rear of the complex. It was a simple galley kitchen across from another open-air kitchen area where all the ingredients were laid out. Like model pupils, Rina and I took our positions on mismatched monobloc stools, excited and ready for our private Balinese cuisine education.

The first task was to prepare the Bali sambal, a fiery condiment of shallots, garlic, chilis and dried shrimp paste (trasi). Sambals are either raw or cooked, though in these islands it is preferred raw and untamed by cooking. It is served with everything and a meal without sambal is unthinkable. Cok Sri laid a large granite mortar on the counter in which she threw all the ingredients except the shrimp paste. She proceeded to grind everything with quick masterful strokes of the wrist.


I loved how this mortar and pestle worked. The flat pestle with the slightly bent ergonomic handle made it easy to grind ingredients into a paste rather than pound it (I even bought myself one). And the large size of the shallow, almost flat mortar accomodates big quantities to be ground together. Here they prefer to massage the ingredients, coaxing the flavors out by hand rather than pulverizing it with a food processor.

Cok Sri fired up the stove and grabbed a pan from under the sink. She mashed the block of dried shrimp paste into it until the heat and her actions broke it down into a thick grey paste. Almost instantly the air was filled with a pungent fishy aroma. Into the paste went the mashed ingredients for a quick saute and gentle simmer. My goodness, the aroma! The aroma wafting from the pan was heady, provocative almost. The fumes tickled my nostrils and stirred my tummy.

Watching Cok Sri in her element was fascinating. We watched her coax the flavors from exotic spices, expertly wrap the fish in banana leaves, effortlessly negotiate the stove top that seemed to have 4 pans sizzling or steaming at once, and deftly chop ingredients with quick fluid motions. All the while she answered all my questions patiently, even spelling out some names as I took down notes, and regaled us with tales of her family without missing a beat. She had the kitchen prowess that comes only from decades of experience. She did have an assistant who helped her grate the coconut for the long beans but she did everything else herself without breaking a sweat. She was the picture of efficiency, constantly cleaning and packing away as she worked.

A little over two hours later, we were ready to chow. We helped her bring out the plates to where tables had been set for us at one of the pavilions by the courtyard. At our insistence, Cok Sri joined us for lunch and together we feasted on her masterpieces. They were truly works of a master and I felt almost compelled to give her a standing ovation by the end of the meal. Instead, I gave her a hug and thanked her for the wonderful meal and insightful glimpse into her culture.

Aside from sambal, the other dishes we learned to make were:

Ikan Pepes
- Tuna wrapped in banana leaves. The chunks of tuna were coated in a paste of turmeric, galangal, shallots, garlic, lemongrass ginger and chili then wrapped in banana leaves with a daun salam (local bay leaf) leaf tucked in. (The daun salam , tree is a member of the cassia family; its leaves impart a mild spciy/woodsy flavor). The wrapped fish is then steamed then grilled on a pan.

Perkedel jagung
- Indonesian corn fritters. This was hands down our favorite! They are made with shallots, nutmeg, chili and garlic and then deep fried to perfection. We were eating them hot off the fryer, and eating it like popcorn.

Ayam Goreng - Spicy fried chicken. This is her children's favorite, Cok Sri tells us, and I can understand why. The chicken is fried with garlic, chili, onions and tomatoes then glazed with kecap manis. Kecap (pronounced keh-chap; derived from the Cantonese word for sauce koe-chiap form which the word ketchup was also born) manis is sweet soy sauce infused with palm sugar which gives it it's syrupy consistency. Kecap asin on the other hand is the regular soy sauce we are familiar with.

Long beans in coconut milk - I don't know what this is called in the local dialect, but it was delicious. I've always loved local cuisine cooked with gata or coconut milk. This one was redolent with the sambal Cok Sri prepared, galangal , shallots and garlic.

Gado-gado - of course what would a Balinese or Indonesian cooking class be without this vegetable dish. Gado-gado loosely translates as "potpourri" and that it is. A potpourri of vegetables tossed with peanut sauce and topped with shrimp crackers. In it she also added pre-packed tahu (tofu) and tempeh, a staple food in these islands. Tempeh is made by fermenting half-cooked and dried soybeans with a starter yeast. It has the texture of nougat and the same nutty taste as tofu.

balinese cuisine

top row: pergedel jagung; ikan pepes; ikan pepes unwrapped
middle: veggies for the gado-gado; tahu tempeh for the gado-gado; gado-gado
bottom row: long beans with coconut milk; ayam goreng; Bali sambal

Cok Sri conducts cooking classes for small groups of 2-4. If you're staying at the Puri Saraswati and are interested in attending one of her classes, the receptionist will be happy to arrange it for you. Cost is $20 per person, inclusive of all ingredients and a sumptuous lunch which you've learned to prepare. Now that's money well spent! :)

Cok Sri Putra Nurhani
Menara Home Stay
Ubud, Bali

July 2, 2007

Ubud Palace and Café Lotus


Across the street from the market is the Ubud Palace that is a traditional Balinese complex open to visitors who wish a glimpse of life as a Balinese royal. Today, the palace or puri is used as a venue for traditonal dance and ceremonies. We stepped through the main doorway that was adorned with religious and mythical figures and onto the first courtyard to find many locals milling around idly waiting for rehersals for the Legong show scheduled that night to start.

Past yet another gateway (above) we found ourselves in the middle of a second courtyard within the property's thick stone walls. Beyond this courtyard were many more courtyards, each one with a cluster of bales or open-sided pavilions supported by teak columns used for different purposes. Bali palaces are hardly imposing because all the structures within the compound are never built more than one story high. There is a superstition of some sort about being under other people's footsteps.

There were the requisite gold leaf and ornamentation fit for royalty, and the intricately carved wooden doors and stone structures were especially awe-inspiring. But I couldn't help feel a sense of harmony with nature as I walked through the grounds and among structures built with mud, stone, bamboo, teak, thatch roofing, livened up by a variety of foliage and plant life with frangipani scattered about. This was the stuff those glossy Balinese-inspired coffee table design books are made of. By the time we traced our steps back to the street the rehearsals had started and we lingered for a short while, enjoying a sneak peak into what was in store for us that night, though at another venue.

inside the palace

After a quick shower, we followed the path from our bungalow through a private back gate that opens up to the lotus ponds of the acclaimed Café Lotus next door for our pre-booked dinner and gamelan performance. The Café Lotus has to be one of the most remarkable restaurants on the island, not only for it's delightful menu of traditional and Western fare but especially for it's unrivaled ambience and views. The restaurant has two dining areas: the main area up front with standard chairs and tables and an elongated raised platform with low tables on bamboo mats and cushions that runs alongside one of the lotus ponds.


the view of the stage and temple from our table at Cafe Lotus

I ordered the Bebek Betutu, described on the menu as a half duckling basted with fragrant herbs wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground for 12 hours. It was fragrant indeed and oh so tender, which I suppose is a result of it's rather unique cooking method. Rina chose the Be Pasih Goa Lawah, fish fillet marinated in turmeric, lemongrass, tamarind, garlic, shallots, chili, kaffir lime leaves and garlic.

The facade of the stunning Saraswati temple is used as a backdrop and open stage for the regular performances held here almost nightly. Diners have the option of watching the performance across the ponds while they dine or having an early pre-show dinner and then transferring to the seats set up in front of the stage for a close-up view. As per Catur's advice we chose to do the latter and I'm so glad we did. It would have been a shame to miss out on the choreographed movement of eyeballs, fingertips, heads and toes.

So after polishing off a shared dessert of plantains in palm sugar and toasted coconut, we made our way to our seats. It was a spellbinding show on a spectacular night marred only by nasty flesh-eating mosquitoes (I swear, all insects love my blood!). So while hopelessly trying to swat them away, I watched the stories unfold before me in music and dance.


For 50,000 rupiah (less than $6), we were treated to 7 acts by the Chandra Wirabhuana gamelan orchestra. The first was part was an overture performed solely by the gamelan that was divided into two groups on either side of the stage. The piece was called Cerukcuk Wana and the delicate percussion sounds mimic those of the melodious Cerukcuk bird song.

The basic gamelan orchestra is made up of a series of xylophone-like instruments known as gangsa and brass gongs. Both of which are struck with a mallet to produce deep resounding notes. Also typically used in a gamelan are bamboo flutes, cymbals and double-sided drums or kendang that are beaten with the palm of the hand or fingers.

gamelan dancer

For the second act, the first of many female dancers came out from behind the shadows. She plays Chandra Wangi, a pure teenage girl formed in the image of the Goddess of the Moon who brings peace and harmony to all. Her costume and head piece are adorned with gilded ornaments and she moves with precision to the tempo of the music from the gamelan, jerking her head this way and that; her eyes darting left and right are so full of expression no words are needed; and her hands gesture meaningfully. She is mesmerizing. And I almost forget to take photos.

In Bali, dancing is not only done for one's own pleasure or for entertainment, it is also a means to commune with the gods. The different dances are categorized into secular or sacred, with the latter reserved for mystical rites. What we witnessed on this night were secular dances such as the mask dance and the tari satya brasta which is a battle scene based on an excerpt from the Mahabharata (below).


Rina and I both agreed that most impressive of all was the third act, the kebyar terompong, whose star performer stunned us all as he executed the dance with impeccably choreographed eye-hand-neck movements while he played the terompong. On his face is the unmistakable range of expressions from curious shyness to pain to sadness and coy flirtation. This is human coordination at it's best!

We continued to watch as more stories unfolded before us on this nippy night. By the time the show came to an end an hour later, we were lulled into a completely restful state. I could see the faint light in our bedroom from where we sat and I wanted nothing more at that moment than to be tucked in and cruising through dreamland.

Café Lotus
Jl Raya Ubud, Bali
Tel. (0361) 975660