Monday, March 24, 2008

Recipe: Fish Soup

As a very Cantonese person, I absolutely love soup. I could and almost do, drink soup everyday and I love making soup. Just a vat of bubbling, boiling, heady-smelling soup on the stove is enough to make me smile and feel like I've come home.

I often don't blog Chinese soup recipes or ideas because it seems a bit strange, like making a liquid. I actually think of it as like, or better than, concocting a cocktail. The secret to good cocktails is the combination of the composite, the balance and imaginativeness of ingredients. Soups are no different.

The general and easy-to-understand rule though, is, heavy meat light vegetables, light meat tasty vegetables. What I mean is this, if you have a fish base, you want to use vegetables that have more depth and taste, like tomatoes, mushrooms, seaweed to help anchor the soup.

If you have say, duck meat soup, then your base note is already sufficiently heavy and rich, you need to balance it with cleaner vegetables, like white napa cabbage, wintermelon or the lighter chinese herbs like red dates or lighter flowers like jasmine. Chicken is a medium meat and therefore works pretty much with everything but works best with medium vegetables like carrots and onions.

There are some heavy soup bases, like pork, which will work with strong vegetables like lotus root or peanuts, though they will give you a very murky, dark soup. Then there are strong-strong combinations that are just too strong- have you ever tried a pork or duck-based soup with a heavy herb like ginseng? It's super duper heavy, like an overpowering drink! Some people may like it that way but it's often just too much, unless you're a post-pregnancy, lactating confinement-ee who's trying to like, replace half her lost red blood cells or something.

This is one soup that I jump at making whenever I'm preparing a fish dish, particularly a miso cod. Use the bones from the fish and buy a bit more bones at the wet market. Avoid very fatty fish like salmon, I prefer swordfish or a chinese white trout fish, something with firmer, meatier flesh. Boil the fish meat and bones till it cooks, then pour away the water from the fish boil.

Fill up the pot again and add in slices of ginger, handfuls of cilantro and spring onions to counteract the fish-iness that would otherwise result. Stir in three spoonfuls of Japanese dashi powder and a spoonful of enoki mushroom paste (you can find both at Japanese supermarkets). You can use fresh or dried kombu (kelp) instead of dashi which is the second derivative of either dried kelp, shitake or sardines. Slice a tomato in half, squish it a little and drop both halves in, along with some wakame.

Let the soup toil and trouble over a strong fire for at least an hour (lid the pot or you will lose all your soup, a rather obvious point!), then serve. Or, if you're OCD like me, chill and remove the risen fat and strain for a clear liquid soup before replacing the ingredients and serving.

Recipe: Tuna Sashimi Salad

This is an elegant and simple afternoon snack to make. What you need to get is fresh, large cubes of raw sashimi-grade tuna and marinade them in a mixture of wasabi, soya sauce, sesame oil (just a drop or two), mirin, sake and ponzu sauce. Don't drown the tuna, just a shallow puddle of marinade will do and then turn them around frequently enough in the fridge.

Cube avocado - yes, still on about them Australian avocadoes - and skinned cucumber to the same size as the tuna. Mix the pieces gently, coating the cucumber and avocado with the marinade. Thinly slice spring onions and throw them on top. Sprinkle fried shallots on top of the salad and serve cold.

Recipe: Pineapple Upside Down Cake

After making more pineapple tarts for my colleagues, I was up to my ears in pineapple bits and jam! I needed a dessert to serve for dinner and I had some leftover marscapone cheese after making a tiramisu, so I went in search of a pineapple upside down cake recipe.

Usually my favourite places to search online, other than general and blog searches, are the AllRecipes and Food Network sites. However, I now find that a disturbing number of their dessert and cake recipes start with "1 Angelfood cake mix", which I think is a cop-out, especially with cake mix prices in Singapore and processed food inflation on the baking shelf!

This recipe is a little unusual as it is not your traditional cream-butter-and-sugar together recipe, it calls for the butter to be melted then mixed with the egg, rather than the sugar. (Melting your butter in a traditional creaming recipe would result in the seperation and curdling of the fat and sugar mixture when the egg is added, not a pretty sight!) I was a bit apprehensive but it turned out to be fine, the recipe created a moistly chewy yet fairly airy cake that was delicious and really suited the pineapple flavour.

3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white sugar
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 fresh pineapple - peeled, cored and cut into rings

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C).
2. Melt the butter and set aside.
3. Melt a little extra butter with the dark brown sugar and 1/4 cup of the pineapple juice. Place this mixture in the bottom of the cake pan. Arrange the pineapple rings on the brown sugar mixture in a decorative pattern. Set pan aside.
If you use a muffin tray as I did, cut the pineapple pieces to fit the bottom of each muffin cavity. I didn't use anywhere near one pinepple but I suppose you could just create a thicker fruit section to your cake.
4. Stir together the flour, salt, white sugar, and baking powder.
5. Separate the eggs. Beat the whites until stiff but not dry.
6. Beat two of the egg yolks until lemony yellow. Stir in the remaining 1/2 cup pineapple juice, vanilla, and remaining melted butter. Add this mixture to the flour mixture. Gently fold in the egg whites.
Instead of pineapple juice, I used the syrup and some jam from my pineapple jam making, decreased the amount of sugar added and added 1/4 cup of milk to make up the liquid content of having not used juice.
7. Pour batter over the top of the brown sugar and pineapple rings.
8. Bake at 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) for 30 minutes. Let cake cool in pan for 10 minutes then cover pan tightly with a serving dish and invert so that the pineapple side is up.
I tend to find that the worse thing you can do is underbake fruit cakes, especially those with sharp fruit flavours like lemon, pineapple or orange. If anything, let the cakes brown a little in the oven so they develop a proper crust.
9. Serve with marscapone cheese mixed into whipped cream, or ice cream and garnish with mint leaves.

Recipe: Bread and Butter Pudding

Notice how good things tend to come with a B&B....B&B Italia, Bed and Breakfast Inns and the third B&B I like- Bread and Butter Pudding! I'm not sure why I like this classic British dessert, except that my mom did say she had a lot of craving of this when pregnant with me.

By the way...these are my new red Cuisineart ramekins from Corduroy and Finch's crockery sale. I remember when I was younger, I used to dig up "English Teatime" recipes for bread and butter pudding and try to use Gardenia bread to create what was invierably a pretty soggy, fatty bread tart. Well, those days are gone.

This bread and butter pudding is light, yet custardy and I haven't found a single person who didn't like it. I made it for a family dinner a couple nights ago in a larger tray and it was immediately finished and complimented by the older and younger people. The recipe is super simple, quick and virtually fool-proof.

What makes it special is, I think, four little steps that I do different- I used brioche bread, which is richer and softer than regular bread, I also boil the milk with pandan leaf and vanilla beans which creates this gorgeous, heady flavour, I also spill a little grand marnier into the bread and then bake it in a tray of water so that it's kept moist while the bottom steams while the top bakes.


1. Preheat your oven to 180C degrees and choose a container for the pudding that is deep enough for a substantial bite but not so deep that you have to dig around for the pudding.
2. Slice up 200g of brioche bread or pannetone, this is available at Cedele ($7.60) or Swissbake stores ($5.60 but the Cedele one is better) in Singapore and arrange it a radial or terrace pattern with the crust pointing up
3. Add in some sultanas, cranberries and pistachios. You can omit these if the bread already has raisins.
4. Melt 50g butter and pour over the bread, along with 2 Tbsp orange juice, grated orange rind and 1 Tbsp grand marnier.
5. In a saucepan, combine 150ml cream (pure or heavy cream) with 150ml full cream milk, 2 torn-up pandan leaves and 1 split vanilla pod and cook over low heat. Make sure you scrap out the vanilla seeds before throwing the entire pod into the saucepan and heat the mixture to almost a boil, then remove the pandan leaves and vanilla pod.
6. In a bowl, beat together 2 eggs, 2 additional egg yolks and 80g caster sugar.
7. Pour the milk mixture into the egg mixture, while stirring rapidly.
8. Pour all the liquid over and into the bread and push the bread downward with the back of the spoon, so that the bread pieces drown a little in the liquid custard and soak it in. The bread will bounce back up, that's alright.
9. Fill a deep baking tray with water and place the ramekins or cake tin into it. The water bath should cover the bottom one-third of the ramekins and the idea is that the bottom of your pudding will steam in the heated water, while the top bakes in the oven's heat.
10. Use the pieces of the pandan leaves to cover the top of the bread pudding, this prevents the surface from burning and imparts the pandan smell to the pudding, counteracting the egg-iness of the custard.
11. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the custard is set but still soft, then remove, peel off the pandan covering and serve hot with ice cream.

Let me share a secret with you that I discovered after the first time that I made this. You can actually omit the melted butter from the recipe and it doesn't really make a difference! In fact, I like it lighter and with the grand marnier and orange kick, it tastes just as nuanced. This is because soft breads like brioche already contain egg and butter.

Over the weekend, I made it again, this time layering thick chunks of leftover pineapple jam from the pineapple tarts, in between the bread layers and decreasing the amount of sugar from the custard. It was awesome!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Best (Sun) Baked Breakfast

Finally a long weekend and my first weekend in Singapore for awhile. I decided to celebrate by actually making breakfast and of course, the good Chubby Hubby tempted us all with his ode to Pata Negra and Butter.

I on the other hand, had been tempted for a long while by these new Australian avacados that are now popping up everywhere in the stores. Unlike their blackened counterparts, these never go darker and yet they ripen into the most wonderful, firm, lucious richness.

They are available at Meida-Ya (for $1.90 each), Cold Storage ($1.80 each) and the Ghim Moh market and Pasir Panjang wholesale market fruit stalls (I forget but I'm betting it's cheaper than in supermarkets). Look at how you can just peel the skin off and it maintains its beautiful shape and turgidity.

I had bought two focaccia rounds from Swissbake at Guthrie House along Sixth Avenue the night before. I'd say that Swissbake is very good for crustry breads but not so good for soft, sweet ones but I actually like their focaccia better than specialty bread stores like Simple Bread.

If you are up for some travel though, then I'd suggest the rosemary or chipola bread from Peck from the Takashimaya basement or else Werner's Oven in East Coast for their 14 different types of sourdough.

Swissbake won out for its convenience of being next to a grocery store, so that I could pick up some goat's cheese, sun-dried tomato and a generous amount of parma ham. I made a relish by blending 50g of sun-dried tomato with a raw, skinned tomato and a spoonful of fig and date chutney.

After baking the focaccia for awhile, I sliced them open and layered butter, seed mustard and thick slices of avacado, then topped it a generous amount of goat's cheese, sun-dried tomato relish and parma ham, before toasting them whole.

I sliced them in half, plated them and brought them out to the pool so that we could eat in the sun. It was a beautifully sunny, bright morning and they were delicious and I think, very appreciated!

Miscellaneous Food: Beijing Part 2

Apologies for the long wait! I've been in and out of the country, trying to work on some projects, though I've been meaning to write about my Beijing experience for awhile.

This post is sadly not about the two restaurants that I enjoyed the most in Beijing because as usual, I didn't bring my camera. (I am amazed at bloggers who can blog about 80% of the food they eat, I think I average about 25%...yes, that makes me seem like a heifer).

The two places that you must try in Beijing are Pure Lotus for vegetarian food, in a creative and beautiful setting and Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant which is where all the locals go for their roast duck fix. The meal I had there was truly inspiring, not just because of the roast duck but also because of the beautiful tofu dishes, fish and vegetables dishes, all gorgeously presented in a way that made me hunger to get back to the kitchen and cook!

On one of my nights off, my generous friend offered to take me to eat at some alternative places to the usual tourist fare.

The meal that I did manage to take photos of was dumplings at Da Qing Hua. This is a large, local restaurant, where their specialty is dumplings but they have many other kinds of regular dishes.

It took us awhile to find this place but the seating area was large and full of regular families enjoying a meal together, on a weekday night.

Although the duck was not as fine as in Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant, I actually enjoyed it a lot because it was more fatty. They served it with the pancakes and also with man tou, or steamed buns.

We didn't reliaze that our meal came with a bunch of free items, so we ordered vegetables and tofu as well as our dumplings.

This was the most unusual dish, it was actually a complimentary dish and I believe it was sweet potato, fried and then basted in a thick sticky sweet syrup that stuck together as we tried to lift it. When warm, it was actually quite nice though we wouldn't have been able to eat much of it and in this instance because of our over zealous ordering, we hardly touched it at all.

This is the first of the two types of dumplings, these are boiled dumplings. You can also have your dumplings steamed. We ordered vegetarian boiled dumplings and they were not bad, though the skins were not as thin as I'd have liked (but I think that's the Beijing way of making dumplings).

These were the fried dumplings, with a cute little fricasee of doily dough on the top of the dumplings. I bet this is because they cook a batch of potstickers together and throw a bowl of batter over the whole which then forms this pattern on the bottom of the pot, but that's just my hypothesis. It certainly adds to the flavour and texture of the dumplngs. I liked this one better than the boiled dumplings.

This was also sweet potato but cooked in egg yolk, very savoury and good! The menu had a lot of unique options but both because we concentrated on the dishes that we recognized and because there were only two of us, we didn't get to try a lot of the more local and regional specialties.

This is a photo I snapped as we were leaving. After our meal, we stumbled back toward the first ring road of the city and went for a massage, after which we decided to hit up a bar. Or rather, a bar restaurant for some dessert and coffee, since we were too old for bars and clubs!

I'd read about this Spanish bar-restaurant in a Luxe guide and had wanted to come, it looks gorgeous in the photos and during the day but the lighting at night wasn't particularly good.

As you can see, the architecture is still quite dramatic, given the high curved ceilings and imaginative bar set-up. The restuarant is tucked away in the snack street of Wangfujing.

It's called Garden of Delights and it's an unexpected venue and dinner location. The night we went wasn't the weekend, so the place was rather deserted. In general, Beijing has so many lovely bars and lounges, there's a multitude of watering holes that you could go to every night if you wish. Now the city just has to get it's air clean!

Da Dong Beijing Duck Restaurant
Chang Hong Bridge
Third Ring Road.Beijing
Tel: 65822892 / 65824003

Garden of Delights
53 Donganmen Dajie,
Tel: 5138-5688
Open 11pm-2:30pm; 6pm-11pm

Miscellaneous Food: Beijing Part 1

While in Beijing, I was privledged to learn about and sample some of the new products that different food and beverage companies are releasing in the China market. Since they are already in-store, I won't be giving away any trade secrets by sharing some of these innovative and tasty ideas with you.

This was my favourite by Knorr's (Unilever), it's a soup base to make a classic Chinese thick, double-boiled soup. This is clearly a product that is targeted at Chinese tastes and can be extended for sale in other Asian regional markets.

Market research has shown that typically, the focus is on pre-packaged soup and soup mixes but this product is clever both because it's compact and it helps you make soup, rather than trying to sell you a supermarket soup. Although the soup market is huge in China, I think it's hard to find a generic and successful formula because soup is a very personal, family taste and is considered a home-made specialty.

This was a product by Quaker oats, or Pepsi Co, which is a riff on their exisiting and popular oats. Actually, the chinese eat a lot of oats already because of their high nutrient content, so this is an innovative way of eating oats. You can pour it directly into a rice cooker and steam it together with your rice, as well as make a nutritious porridge or baby food.

This is another great product, this time championed by a local company, China Mengniu, which is a dairy and milk producer from Inner Mongolia. This is their yoghurt milk drink, which is extremely popular in China, that has aloe vera bits in it. I was recommended this by a non-Chinese friend in fact and it has a wide popularity and appeal. The range of yoghurt and yoghurt drinks is just mind-boggling and really, good luck to Vitagen and Yakult! I wish we brought in just a fraction of China's varied offering in the sour milk category.

Given the size, breadth and potential of the Chinese market, there are now so many overseas companies and brands in China, many of which aren't even present in most of the rest of Asia. You notice that food bloggers are usually all up about French or Spanish foods and produce but actually as a rather enthusiastic consumer (let's not lie, eh), I often wish I had more access to the Mainland Chinese grocery and retail market.

You might recognize some of the big names, like Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, Estee Lauder, Sephora, Carrefour, Walmart and H&M but there are actually tens of hundreds more, in part because of the large brand portfolio of some of these companies. For example, Estee Lauder owns LaMer, Clinique, Estee Lauder, Bobbi Brown, MAC and I believe Origins, so they own about half your cosmetics counters! Similarly, P&G and Unilever combined probably own half your processed foods and personal care shelves.

While in Beijing, I was fortunate enough to do some store tours to a Walmart superstore, which cracked me up because of the cute red outfits and Uncle Sam's smiley face insignia on the souvenir badges. The produce though, was distinctly Chinese and I was impressed with their fresh, chilled and processed offerings.

These are two of the meats that I bought and carried back home. One is dried Chinese/Shanghainese ham and the other is the similar but saltier Fo Tui (literally, Smoked Leg), these are great for slicing up to flavour soup or to cook with steamed chinese cabbage. I bought some interesting local produce from Nanjing as well but more on that in a later post when I finally get around to cooking my purchase!

I'm looking for people to try out some of these products! Leave me a comment and address, if you're interested in testing out the soup base or oatmeal-in-rice. I'll send you some in return for your feedback!

Recipe: Momotaro Tomato

It's no secret that I love Japanese food. I love home-cooked Japanese food even more, I'd cook Japanese at home I think half the time, if I could and I'd definitely feed my own family Japanese food out of most other cuisines because its lighter and often healthier.

This is a classic easy dish that I adapted from a similar one at Xi Yan, the private kitchen restaurant in Singapore. You need to get Momotaro tomatoes from the supermarket (most premium Cold Storages will have them and they are also available at Japanese supermarkets like Meida-Ya in Liang Court and the Isetan supermarket in Shaw Center).

In Singapore, there seems to be a monopoly over Momotaro tomatoes by this company called Grace Cup, which also produces a lot of the cherry tomatoes that we consume and grows them in the highlands of Malaysia. Since the product is identical, I might say that Cold Storage tends to have slightly, though not noticeably lower prices per 2 tomato-pack than the Japanese supermarkets.

You want to inspect the whole tomato and choose those that are red all over, not green near the stems. Then you want to sun your tomato in hot direct sunlight for an afternoon, which makes them sweeter because the sugar rises toward the skin.

Then you blanch the tomatoes for 20 seconds in boiling water and pull them out. It's imperative that you don't actually allow them to boil till the skins burst and the tomato flesh gets all mushy and soft. You just want to plunge them in boiling water long enough to cook the 2 mm of skin, to make it easier to peel the tomatoes, you don't actually want to change nor cook the texture of the tomato itself.

After skinning, your tomatoes should look something like this- taut, smooth and intact. Pat them dry, invert them and dig out the nob of the stems. In that cavity, pour a little sake, mirin and this fantastic sesame sauce by Kenko then let your tomatoes sit, cavity side-up, in the fridge for a couple of hours, so that the mixture seeps into the insides of your tomatoes.

Prepare a pouring sauce by finely chopping a teaspoon of Chinese spring onion and Chinese parsley (cilantro) and mixing it into two tablespoons of the Kenko sesame sauce, which is a mixture of sesame, wasabi and soya sauce. Then turn the tomatoes over (stem side-down) and slice them across firmly into 6 wedges. Move them whole onto a serving plate and drizzle the sauce mixture over the tomatoes. If you want you can top them with white or black sesame seeds.

This recipe can be prepared and should be, in the morning, for a dinner party and even the full preparation can be done before hand so it's a cinch to pull from the fridge and serve.

Recipe: Lobster Capellini with Artichokes and Olives

I have a tendency to get distracted at the wet market. So many things catch my eye, like today, when I was shopping for some cod to make miso cod and came upon these little monsters.

They don't look very large in the photo but one was actually quite an impressive size. The shopkeeper insisted on selling me both because the littler one had less value on its own so I wound up with a lot more lobster than I had planned. My initial plan for one, would just have been to BBQ it or roast it in the oven buried under herbs, lemon and breadcrumbs.

I started by lightly steaming the meat (I lifted out some sashimi from the neck joint of the lobster- incredibly delicious, I could have eaten the whole crustacean raw) and reserving the heads (as well as some prawn heads) to make a concentrated, heady stock-broth.

Unfortunately, my mom had already invited my grandmother to dinner that night. Even more unfortunately, my grandmother has distinctly Chinese tastes, that is, no olive oil, no cheese, no cream, no fruits, no uncooked vegetable salad, so while hunting up a lobster pasta recipe, I decided to compromise and use capellini. This was also a compromise to my dad who doesn't understand why I like flat, ribbony pasta (so much dough, he sniffs).

In the end, I stir fried the artichokes, chopped onions and dark olives (the natural saltiness of the olives helps to flavour the whole pasta without the addition of salt) in white wine, balsamic vinegar, garlic, light parmesan cheese and parsley. I added back the sweet seafood meat and the broth that I had made earlier that day to the cooked pasta.

The pasta soaked in a lot of broth, which made it both tasty and slightly softer than usual, I'd probably use a thicker pasta the next time just because they taste slightly starchier and firmer, as opposed to the capellini which took on the texture of this silky Chinese noodle, eaten at New Year's known as mee sua.

To my dad's surprise, my grandmother ate quite ferociously, had three large helpings and postured about the use of the leftovers, before coming out to ask to take them home. She out-ate the boy by a mile, which is no mean feat at all. I think my dad was gobsmacked! It's the second thing I've made that she likes (the first being the tomato capsicum soup over Christmas).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Recipe: Clam Chowder

Although I'm not a huge clam chowder fan, from time to time, one might get a craving for that distinctive mix of flavours- the tanginess of the sea, the ribald savouriness of bacon, the starchiness of the potato and the sweetness of chives.

I decided to make some soup, since the memories of New England and Fisherman's Wharf from my last trip to the US in November were kicking in! Thankfully, it is the simplest recipe to make.

It's not the healthiest recipe so whenever I make it, I try to use fresh herbs and ingredients. I also like to serve it with crispy baguette slices or with warm squares of cornbread. It's a brilliant recipe to make on cold nights or for home-style getogethers precisely because people don't get to eat it often.

2 slice hickory-smoked bacon, minced
2 Tbsp fresh garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon butter
3 stalks celery
1 cup onion, minced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 can clams (6-1/2 ounces)
1 cup bottled clam juice
1-1/2 cups full cream
1 teaspoon marjoram
2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil
1/4 teaspoon dill
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
1/8 cups chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp sour cream
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
2 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and diced
Half a baguette, sliced or make a pan of cornbread


  1. Cook bacon until transparent.
  2. Add butter, onions, celery and all the seasoning except dill and parsley.
  3. Cook until tender.
  4. Add flour and cook for another 3 - 4 minutes over low heat.
  5. Add all dairy products, clams and clam juice.
  6. Heat just under boiling point.
  7. Steam potatoes and cool.
  8. Add chopped clams and potatoes.
  9. Bring to a boil slowly and cook for 2 - 3 minutes.
  10. Add dill and parsley.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Recipe: Meatball Pasta

One of the things about having kids over, you have to think about what they will eat. This is one of the most acceptable pastas to simple tastes and also the most delicious, I love it myself!

I must caveat that the recipe isn't mine and comes from a cook with far more personality and charisma than myself, if you couldn't tell from the ad verbatim instructions below.

My only contribution is that the central idea for this dish is you should take as long to make the pasta sauce as the pasta takes to cook in the hot water. Then you can drain the pasta and toss it straight into the fat of the sausages.


1. Make pasta normal, put salt in your water
2. Buy good sausages, cut the skin, squeeze it out into small balls and fry the *expletive* out of it
3. Fry some onions and garlic and mushrooms, if you have any
4. Throw in two cans of chopped tomatoes
5. You can put in a spoonful of tomato paste, if you have it. Also, you can add halved cherry tomatoes or spinach
6. Basil and parsley should be added both while cooking and when near complete, or if you're contrary, garnish with chopped cilantro and shaved parmesan

*By good sausages, what is meant is premium veal or pork herbed sausages from say, the Swiss Butchery or grocers. Also, as I have learned the hard way, you want to use English sausages that are uncooked and soft inside their skins, so that they are easy to reshape. Avoid the cooked, regular frankfurters.

Miscellaneous Food: Bangkok Part 2

The weekend dawned early in Bangkok. I'd been advised by my dear and resourceful friend A. to check out a local bike ride run by a Dutch group in Bangkok city. This bike tour is fairly reasonable and takes you on an extended cycle around the back of the Sukhumvit Soi area (the area behind Emporium Department store) toward the Chao Praya river.

Although my local friends had a good laugh about this farang-breathe-in-dirt-and-potentially-hit-by-a-car bike ride, (they were particularly amused with the sign for "testicular massage" at the shop opposite the registration location in Soi Ari), it was actually good fun!

At the back of the sois, we cycled through the scenic rich people's residential area, the Japanese expat enclave, through deserted warehouses and under a bridge where we saw illegal muay thai fighting rings and cock fights!

The highlight was a visit to a local wet market, which is the largest street market in this area, including tons of wet and dry goods stalls and even furniture stores and a dentist!

We then loaded the boats onto a longtail and headed down the river, toward a jungle area which we were told is known as Phra Paed Daeng. This is accessible by half an hour on the boat, although it takes a couple hours to drive to because of the traffic. This community is small and sited on the river with the access via a narrow series of wooden and concrete cycle-ways that criss-cross the maze of houses, parks and woods.

The air is clean and the area is very flowery and green, quite unlike Bangkok itself and we enjoyed our morning ride, culminating at a small floating market where we got to taste a bunch of local delicacies like fried fishcake, wrapped betal leaves with tamarind and coconut, local omellettes and sugar floss. We had simple fried rice, coconut and jackfruit lunch at a little hut (kampong) before heading back into the city. This was particularly worth doing though if you plan to, you should call ahead to book a slot as each excursion group is fairly small.

As you can tell, we've all been to Bangkok many times so no renditions of transvestite cabarets or tiger shows here, though can I say that I've enjoyed quite a few entertaining and pretty cabarets in Bangkok such as the Calypso Cabaret at the Asia Hotel and I would highly recommend a Muay Thai fight.

After the bike ride, we went in search of the best fried chicken, hidden away in Soi Polo, off Wireless Road, near the Conrad Hotel.

This local place is known as Jackie ('Sister' in Thai) Polo and they do delivery to the surrounding area.

The best way to eat the sticky glutinous rice and chicken fried with shallot shells is still right there on the sidewalk, though the stall has now expanded to a seated restaurant area.

The papaya salad is also good, though very spicy!

After filling our stomachs, we headed to the shops along the stretch between Central Chit Lom all the way to MBK Center, which are well-known to all tourists. My favourite places to go are probably the Platinum outlet mall, opposite Amari Watergate and Siam Square area, where a store called Living Dolls retails Philip Lim 3.1 clothing for a reduced price. Platinum, while noisy and suffocating, is quite an experience, the discount pricing goes by the number of pieces you buy (if you buy three pieces you get the wholesale price, which is usually a third or so of the rack rate) so go with friends or buy for friends!

Sadly, what I've discovered is that a lot of the malls have remade their food courts, which used to be these lovely collection of dessert and beef noodle stalls with concrete floors and a lunchtime buzz, into faceless, nameless "international" food centers that hock cold pizza alongside your too-sweet pad thai. What a waste!

We treated ourselves to Zanotti's for dinner, where as usual, the appetizers and meat just wowed us. For me, this is still the best Italian restaurant in Asia- I hadn't been here in awhile and had forgotten how good it was so it was such a pleasant surprise that the bistecca steak, cooked over an orangewood grill simply melted away in your mouth. It was the tastiest, most nuanced meat I had eaten in years and rivalled the bisteccas I had had in Tuscany. Coming from me, that says quite a lot, since I am hard to please when it comes to steak! It was so good that the next day, we were still saying sadly in the tuk-tuk... "orangewood grill". If I had an extra day, I would have gone again!

After dinner, I wanted to get drinks at the rowdy and risque Patpong area but was just too tired. I also wanted to go to the cafe-filled alternative greenie area at the UN headquarters and walk around in the brightly coloured Khao Lak backpacker district but didn't get up in time.

We drove out to the Chatuchak market, which is the largest outdoor market in Asia, comprising hundreds and hundreds of stores selling everything from the useful, to the fettish, to the absolute rubbish.

I think every visitor should go to Chatuchak but then I imagine every one already does. Another option, though much smaller, would be the Suan Lum Night Market, which is just off the Lumpini train station and is open every night (versus Chatuchak which is primarily a weekend morning market).

While not at all comparable to the scale of Chatuchak, I've found that the quality of the goods and food at the night bazaar has improved tremendously since I last paid it a visit. While Chatuchak remained cheap and cheerful, I thought Suan Lum had stores with great design and generally better content.

Things to look out for are clothes by local aspiring Thai designers. I found several dresses and tops that were wonderfully cut, ruched and pinched pleated, very reminiscent of the fashion of Thakoon, Philip Lim 3.1 or Peter Som. Other notable buys are vintage homewares and repro retro furniture which can be shipped internationally. If you're looking for a good replicas from Scandinavian or B&B Italia inspirations, then you'll like the well-stocked furniture stores at the markets.

I bought colourful hand-painted fridge magnets of vintage American and Italian cars and one of my colleagues picked up a huge but gorgeous carved wood and rice-paper umbrella.

The stores that peddle celadon crockery, wood products (like salad bowls and ebony plates) and silk flowers and ribbons do a particular good job and the items are much cheaper than you would get in the city itself. The markets are definitely worth a visit for at least a couple hours at each, just for the environment and atmosphere.

After the market though, you'll definitely need a good massage and meal! While there are a multitude of spas in Bangkok, one of the largest and most consistent chains is Healthland. It's definitely the place to go to for a clean, practical and cheap massage, their Thai massages cost about 400 baht ($18 SGD) for 2 hours and their aromatherapy massages run 800 baht for an hour and a half, which I think is really reasonable. The staff is friendly, polite and well-trained and they have several locations around the city.

For lunch, I like to go to Le Dalat Indochine which I think is still the best Vietnamese restaurant in Asia outside of Vietnam itself! The place captivates before you even sit at the table as it's housed in an old colonial bungalow and done up in blue and white china homeware and crockery, it's a bit like eating in someone's house. The food, like the individual beef pho served in ceramic burners, the sugarcane prawn rolls skewered into pineapple and the spring rolls, are all cooked to a refined perfection.

Another place I like to eat at is the Baan Kanitha Gallery for unpretentious and quality Thai food. The restaurant has two locations, one in Sukhumvit and the main location, which I like better, in South Sathorn Road. The setting is family friendly, though fairly classy and their green chicken curry, tom yam soup and red cargo rice specialties are some of the best I've eaten. The menu while extensive, is not expensive (each dish is about $8 SGD) and they've won 8 consecutive best Thai food awards from Bangkok Entertainment Magazine.

Other more upscale places to eat Thai food would be the Blue Elephant restaurant and Celadon at the Sukothai hotel or the Dusit Thani restaurants but I usually don't go there unless I'm long on time and short on imagination. For more places and recommendations, check out Aun's excellent suggestions and numerous Bangkok posts on Chubby Hubby.

I feel like Bangkok can be a mad city and if you've never been there before, here are a couple of tips to the travel-wise so that you don't get yourself in a mess. One, it's more real Asia than Singapore or HK so yes, they try to cheat you and you shouldn't be flashing cameras, maps or cash around in an open street. Two, don't be too friendly and don't listen to tuk-tuk drivers or cab drivers recommendations. Never listen to their recommendations because they get commissions from many tourist junkets. The number of times I have benefitted from even entertaining one of their recommendations is oh, about zero, or else in the negative digits.

If you are taking a cab, check that the drive has started the meter. If you are taking a tuk-tuk (an open-air taxi, or a moped connected to an boxseat), negotiate a fee first, or it will inveriably be some ridiculously sum by the time you get there. If it is rush-hour and boy, you haven't experienced rush-hour until you've been in a Bangkok jam, always look out the window to judge the street traffic first and if it's not moving, take the BTS (sky train system).

I've been stuck in jams for more than a couple hours before with taxi drivers that have fallen asleep and because the BTS is slightly more expensive, most locals don't ride it, which makes it the most comfortable, fast and convenient way to get from place to place. Stop at the nearest BTS station to where you're headed and walk the rest of the way, you might save yourself an hour and a severe headache.

Lastly, most locals and cab drivers speak poor English. They understand the popular tourist destinations but even then, you have to say firmly that you want to go there (and nowhere else) and be on alert for if they drive you awry anyway. If you don't speak Thai, carry a cellphone and the phone number of the places you are trying to get to. Then call ahead and get the proprietor to explain where their exact location is. Have fun!