Saturday, March 14, 2015

Adventures In Bolognaise

Emboldened by the relative success of my attempts at making purple carrot soup and mushroom soup, I moved on to another challenge: pasta bolognaise.

So I'm a little late to the bandwagon.

Several meals of lamb bolognaise spaghetti at a nearby café sort of convinced me that hey, this is doable (not to mention the expense). But not with lamb. Not yet.

Thank goodness for the YSK meat mart nearby for this straight-up pork bolognaise I attempted one fine weekend.

First, season the mince. Salt (not a lot), pepper and mixed herbs by McCormick, and work it with the hands until they are all evenly distributed. These three seasonings should be okay for whatever four-legged animal you'd want, or even chicken.

Pork bolognaise cooking away, while the cooked pasta waits
impatiently; sorry, no pictures of the interim steps

Then, ball it up and smack it down into the bowl several times; this tip came from Mom, which I assume was primarily for meat balls, but it's quite satisfying to lay the smackdown on the mince anyway.

Heat some oil in a pan and drop the meat in. No fear of it clumping into a grotesque misshapen burger patty if you stir it often to break up any huge bits. If your meat is frozen (like mine), you might want to cook it just a wee bit longer, but not too long, because it's going to bubble along with the sauce.

Take it off the heat when thoroughly brown and plate it. Might be good also if you lined the plate with several paper towels to catch any fat that would otherwise pool at the bottom or be absorbed by the mince in the lower layers.

Now, the tomato-based sauce.

Toss in one yellow onion, chopped, and sauté until soft. Then add the aromatics: chopped garlic and shallots, and sauté for a few minutes. The kitchen should start smelling real good.

Then, in goes two chopped tomatoes. I didn't bother with skinning or removing the seeds, since they were small (should've bought two more at the market). Smoosh the tomatoes as they cook.

After a few minutes, in goes the stock or water, followed by two heaped tablespoons of Hunt's tomato paste. Stir and let it boil. When the sauce starts to bubble, dump the mince in, and stir. Let it boil a bit, then reduce to a simmer. Depending on how thick you want it, simmering time could take between 30 and 45 minutes. Stir the sauce from time to time.

With this, the number of pasta-serving places I tend to visit
went down by ... three quarters?

In the meantime, cook your pasta al dente. I made the mistake of making the pasta almost after I set the sauce to simmer, but since I was the one eating it...

When the sauce has reduced to your liking, take it off the heat, taste and adjust seasonings. Making it a habit of adding less salt helps. Heap your sauce over your pasta and serve.

It came out fine, because I didn't overdo the salt and continually tasted the sauce at almost every stage of its preparation. Some things to note, though:

  • Probably too much minced pork for one serving. Stomach's not the near-bottomless pit it used to be. Should've also put it on a plate with several layers of paper towels after browning to absorb the excess fat.
  • Used too much water, so the sauce took longer to simmer down. In the end, the bolognaise was wetter than usual and not very tomato-ey. And there's still a small bowl of leftover sauce in the kitchen.
  • Pasta was too soft because I cooked it too early. Should've waited until the sauce was ready first.

This whole dish, sauce and all, took me about an hour and 15 minutes to prepare. Crazy! But worth it, I guess.

Since then, I've made this dish a couple more times, including a version where I blended the cooked sauce ingredients in a blender before bringing it up to a simmer and tossing the mince in. This version cooked a bit faster and yielded a thicker sauce, but didn't taste quite right after I allowed a lot of the meat juice and fat from the mince to drain on paper towels.

The third bolognaise followed the first, albeit with the addition of a little butter and cheese that was shaved from a block of mature cheddar that flew out of London - thanks, Melody! Don't ever do this with the individually packed "cheddar slices" - it won't be the same.

So ... if any of you restaurant owners are wondering why you don't see me around these days - not that you often do - wonder no more.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sir Terry Pratchett (1948–2015)

Oh, bugger.

Author's photo (left) from Penguin UK; The Truth was among the
first - and, perhaps, among the best - of his books that I'd read

I first knew him and his works through my sister's copies of The Truth and Witches Abroad, years before I ventured into journalism (briefly) and publishing. Who knew I'd go into both?

"He will be missed" is an understatement.

...Oh dear L*rd, someone wrote this eulogy of sorts and it's awesome.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Marks: Being Opinionated, Fifty Shades Banned

John Scalzi thinks "you won't sell books if you have an opinion a reader doesn't like" is "terrible advice".

It’s terrible advice in part because it's simply not true — there are best selling writers in every genre who express opinions that outrage and annoy whole packs of people, and have since before they were best sellers, and yet they sell books nonetheless — and in part because it's reductive. It's an argument that posits that once a writer enters the stream of commerce, the most important thing about that writer's life is their ability to sell books. Everything else about that writers' life suddenly takes a back seat to that single commercial goal.

So what if a writer is or has written or said something that's "polarizing"? Big deal, Scalzi seems to suggest, and not just because he feels that writers are supposed to have something to say.

To write publicly is to be judged and to be criticized and to be polarizing. If one avoids speaking on public issues in social media only out fear of alienating readers, all one does is possibly delay such judgment. Judgment will happen for what you say and also what you don't say. Judgment will happen for what you write in your books and what people assume you meant when you wrote those words, regardless of your authorial intent. Judgment will happen based on who people think you are based on the fantasy version of you they have in their head, which is almost always more about their own fears and desires than anything that has to do with the actual person you are.

So you might as well say whatever the hell you like, if you like. If nothing else, then the fantasy versions of who you are might be closer to the person you actually are.


After much has been made about the movie, Fifty Shades of Grey - both the books and film - is now banned in Malaysia.

Note that it has been several years since the trilogy was released in the country, where dozens of households might have read or owned at least one volume. That's like closing the barn door after the horses have bolted, headed for the hills, grazed and sired three generations.


  • H is for Hawk: A Q&A at National Geographic with Helen Macdonald, who also sat down with Salon for a tête-à-tête.
  • The longlist for Bailey's (hic!) women's prize for fiction is out. It's a strong one, according to The Independent. The Bookseller has a bit more about the selection and notes that, among other things, half the books are published by Penguin Random House.
  • A conversation with author Hanya Yanagihara and her editor Gerry Howard about author-editor relationships.
  • Peter Hessler went on a book tour in China with his censor. It's just like you'd imagined it.
  • If I get to read Cat Out of Hell I won't review it; after Ron Charles's take on it, who could do better?
  • Jeffrey Archer accuses Bollywood of stealing his bestselling storylines ... which Bollywood tends to do on occasion.
  • Kazuo Ishiguro on memory, censorship and why Proust is overrated.
  • Bill Bryson's new book, The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island, is coming soon.
  • Mein Kampf to be reprinted in Germany for first time since World War II as an annotated historical document. Of course, not everybody's happy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

My Overseas Union (Coffee) Garden

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 24 February 2015

Last year, when makan kaki Melody pointed out that PJ Section 17's marquee café Butter+Beans was opening a chain in my neck of the woods (now you know where I live), such was my disbelief that I had to see it for myself.

Butter+Beans' new branch at Overseas Union Garden, saving my
fuel money for more coffee

I've been in and out of this steeped-to-the-roots Chinese neighbourhood for years and I never thought Third Wave coffee would arrive here before all my hair turned white.

But Butter+Beans isn't the only Western-style café nearby.

The first to open was Doors Café, an offshoot of Doors Music + Tapas in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The weird murals of caffeinated three-eyed aliens and various doors of different colours lent more quirk to Doors, making it more of a hangout and a "chillax" joint.

I'm confident whatever they serve at Doors won't turn you into ... those

Doors Café KL
No 51, Jalan Hujan,
Overseas Union Garden,
58200 Kuala Lumpur

Mon – Wed, Sun: 10am – 10pm
Fri – Sat: 10am – midnight
Closed on Thursdays


Tel: +60 3 7972 2779


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Melody and I returned for a peek after a huge dinner (elsewhere). Since I last visited, they've added lots of items on the menu: pastas, sandwiches, baked eggs... those kinds of things. Unfortunately, the kitchen closes at 6pm, so no dinners.

But the iced chocolate, with a scoop of chocolate ice cream, was still as good — and sweet — as the last time, and the coffee was just right.

Doors' all-day breakfast is particularly filling: puréed sweet potato (I think), pan-seared Russet potatoes with rosemary, two slices of toasted baguette, a pork sausage, two strips of bacon and some salad and sautéed mushrooms (no baked beans).

Several bar seats at the window now had headphones plugged into what look like prototype iPods, offering music in lieu of the food and beverages, but there's no indication of which unit plays what.

I picked one and switched it on according to the instructions and my ears were filled with Mandarin-language café music. In spite of the caffeine, I found myself getting sleepy.

It's enough to make me want to freelance and set up shop here.

The interior of Midsummer Night Café at Jalan Awan Hijau (same row as MyBurgerLab OUG) looks more like a schoolroom, with its desks and chairs of recycled and smoothed cream-hued wood. Seemed apt, considering the boss, Jon, was formerly a lecturer at a college. The chairs' thick seats are hollow, to house a magazine or book.

The interior of Midsummer Night Café

Midsummer Night Café
36A, Jalan Awan Hijau,
Overseas Union Garden,
58200 Kuala Lumpur

Tue – Fri: 7pm – midnight
Sat – Sun: 3pm – midnight
Closed on Mondays

Tel: +60 3 7971 2345

From what Jon said, what he used to teach has little to do with the décor. One wall was decorated with miniature versions of movie posters, most of which were of Hong Kong films. The selection is changed every couple of months.

Coasters, to prevent condensation from cold drinks staining the wood, are actually laminated screencaps from HK films, complete with lines from the depicted characters.

"Why tell people? It's fine as long as you're happy," goes Chow Yun-fat in An Autumn's Tale.

From its Facebook page, interior and overall feel, I thought this was more of a hangout for a Sinophone crowd.

When Jon started Midsummer Night, he was on the brink of quitting his day job and could, therefore, only open in the evenings on weekdays, hence the name. He heard the calling to do something for himself — and maybe other people — after teaching for years.

The menu features a small selection of beverages and several kinds of cake. Specials are written on a board near the counter. One item is called "Dream": frozen coffee cubes served with a pitcher of milk and gula melaka syrup.

The fine coffee and yummy iced chocolate at Doors Café (left); coasting
the afternoon away at Midsummer Night Café with Leslie Cheung and
some strong iced coffee

Another distinct feature was the lack of a voice like Pixie Lott's from the sound system, breathing lyrics about life, love and the universe. What patrons got — the day I was there, at least — was ambient sounds. Right now, it's rain with a bit of thunder, which does little to calm my nerves, jangled by my cold-brewed Colombian coffee with milk.

Four more glasses of lemon-flavoured water later, I feel much better but a bit out of place without a book or homework to occupy myself with. Maybe next time....

"Stop it," Melody chides, after I poke the bear-shaped bean bag (which I named Gilbert) for the umpteenth time while making what I thought were pitch-perfect bear grunts.

Don't feed the bear ... or poke him too much

Some days I prefer simple pleasures.

Then there's Butter+Beans' pastry selection.

We are back here again, weeks after our first couple of visits. Melody, a free-spirited freelancer who often works out of cafés — preferably with free wi-fi and conveniently placed power points — is smitten with her latest "office."

They even brought Food Foundry's famous mille feuilles here, on top of the salmon quiche, fig tart, the kaya and coconut danish (my favourite) and a selection of boulangerie loaves.

Finally, I thought, bona fide treats from a Western bakery and espresso-based coffee, all within walking distance.

So many choices, only one stomach. Oh, the agony.

Butter+Beans @ OUG
No 53, Jalan Hujan Rahmat 3
Taman Overseas Union
58200 Kuala Lumpur

Mon – Thu, Sun: 11am – midnight
Fri – Sat: 10am – midnight

Tel: +60 3 7972 7113

For a while, the breads disappeared. "They didn't sell well," said the manager on duty. "So we stopped stocking them." But she also told me that the central bakery had shifted to bigger premises somewhere in Kuchai Lama, and we could place an order if we were hankering for a baguette.

Why here, of all places?

Yong, one of the partners who brought Butter+Beans to this part of KL, felt it was time for the Third Wave in coffee to arrive in this neighbourhood (ditto, Yong). "We didn't know about Doors when we picked this spot," he said.

Speaking to Melody, Ken, the other partner, divulged a need to do something more fulfilling than his high-flying job in the financial sector. He used the term "humanist", which delighted Melody no end.

And few things are more humanistic than caffeinating, feeding and bringing people together under one roof — preferably with free wi-fi and music.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Some Feathers In My (Mushroom) Cap

At every Western cuisine outfit I patronise, mushroom soup is often a go-to thing, especially if it's my first time there and if it's available.

So it's only a matter of time before I made my own Western-style mushroom soup.

Main ingredients for mushroom soup

What kept me back was my paranoia of mushrooms. These look dirty - how do you clean them? Do you even need to? Should I remove the stems? These look like a lot - should I use them all? What if the factory accidentally slipped in a poisonous one?

I know, silly me. But to me, these were valid concerns.

While mulling a method to help me shop for groceries better (like recipe cards), I decided to do a mental one for the day I tackle my favourite appetiser. Once I do mushrooms, I might end up putting it into every other thing I cook: Stir-fries, pasta sauces, sandwiches, curries...

Earlier, the mushrooms filled about half the pot

Right, the ingredients. Brown button mushrooms (200g), some Portobello mushrooms, shallots, garlic, mixed herbs and 500ml of pre-packed liquid vegetable stock. This recipe is loosely based on this one.

Prepping the mushrooms was a bit tricky. Several recipes I referred to don't mention washing the 'shrooms first, but one said to remove the stems from Portobellos (which can be woody and tough, I reckon). So I just showered them with water. Rubbing a brown mushroom cap caused the brown to come off, so I stopped.

ROILING HELLBROTH; note the clean stovetops and the saved
mushrooms, chopped (should've saved more)

When the pile of sliced mushrooms got uncomfortably big, I saved the last three Portobello for later. I used these instead of shiitake for the extra flavour and meatiness, but as I learnt later, it's fine for them all to go into the pot - after the aromatics (chopped shallots and garlic) were tossed in and sautéed with a little oil.

Watching Jamie Oliver cook mushrooms, I learnt that the fungi are like sponges that release their own water into the pot, while absorbing other flavours you throw in. And these 'shrooms release a lot of water. As I stirred, the huge pile shrank by at least half, while a puddle of liquid slowly pooled at the bottom of the pot.

I wasn't sure if I should save it all, so I took the pot off the heat and poured put most of it in a bowl; the rest went into the sink, which, in hindsight, was not a good idea.

Bubbly blended fungal ambrosia, peppered with black pepper

Then the pot went back onto the flames. Several minutes is all is needed, then the veggie stock went in. As it started to boil, I tasted the mushroom water.

Mm-mmm, good.

So back into the pot it went, along with a bit of salt, pepper and mixed herbs. And- uh oh, maybe 500ml of vegetable stock was a bit too much. But getting some of it to boil away would take too long. So I killed the heat and waited for it to cool before blending it up.

Oh yes, save a bit of mushroom to chop up for texture.

Almost like how they do it in restaurants

I made a similar mistake with the "ancient carrot" soup: to get as much soup out of the receptacle, I used water, which went back into the pot for a final boil and a swirl of milk - no cream on hand, and I thought with extra mushrooms, why bother?

Yes, the soup was a bit salty on top of being slightly watery - no cream. Perhaps a future version would also benefit from it, plus more mushrooms and less water.

But it is still good, and it was a huge bowl. But at RM18++ for all those mushrooms and almost RM10 for the veggie stock, the cost of raw ingredients is a bit steep.

Still, I've made something with mushrooms. I can see myself doing this again.

The remaining Portobellos went into a (yummy) mushroom pasta dish

As for the remaining Portobellos, they ended up in a yummy home-made mushroom pasta dish the next day. They're not cheap, okay?

...Yes, this is starting to look like a cooking blog. Maybe it's because I find cooking therapeutic - at the moment. Glad the title still applies, though. (Books? No. Maybe. Later. Kitchen? Yes.)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Book Marks: Watchdog, Books On Fire, And Apa Lagi Mau?

So this online translation service got the attention of Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware and they don't like it. The quality of some sample translations as well as the language in the replies Strauss received to her queries ("...your 'watchdog' is the more stupid thing I have ever seen in my life. Go away you and your dog.") should've been a huge red flag.

Start-up or not, when you launch a translation agency, your people should already be sufficiently competent in the original language (Spanish, from the looks of it) and the language to be translated into. People expect a certain degree of quality in your work almost as soon as you open up shop. The market will not allow you to grow into your role with time.

But going after Strauss because she had reservations about their translation service? Talk about barking up the wrong tree.

"Apa lagi yang JAWI mau?" asks Azrul Mohd Khalib, after hearing that the Federal Territories religious department is seeking an appeal against a court ruling that says its arrest of a bookstore manager was unlawful.

A brief recap: Borders bookstore manager Nik Raina was detained by religious officials for selling the Malay-language edition of Irshad Manji's Allah, Liberty and Love - which was not banned (I think) until several weeks later.

But it seems that ban was eventually set aside after the Court of Appeal ruled that "a ban on the Bahasa Malaysia translation was illogical" since the English version was being sold. Also, she is not the owner of the store and has no control over what goes on the shelves. Borders does, but JAWI can't charge it under syariah law.

It's not just Azrul; many here are probably wondering why as well. "After all," he writes, "not only is the right to be protected from retrospective criminal law a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 7 of the Federal Constitution, it is also a basic understanding of justice that you cannot be charged for an offence that was not yet deemed an offence at that point of time."

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Ancient Carrot Soup

It never occurred to me to revisit my recipe for carrot and potato soup until I spotted something at the Cold Storage in the "new" Jaya Shopping Centre.

Purple carrots.

Lead "actors": potatoes and purple carrots

Oh, how novel, you might say. But I remember reading from somewhere that carrots come in several colours, like corn and rice, and was apparently what the ancients used to eat. And it seems that the lobak ori were mostly purple ones, and the modern orange carrots are mutants, widely cultivated for economic reasons.

The colour of purple carrots indicates its anthocyanin content. Reputed to be a powerful antioxidant, anthocyanins are also found in a variety of food, such as purple corn, blackberries, eggplant peel, Concord grapes, black rice and black glutinous rice. However, the actual contributions of food-based anthocyanins to one's health haven't been concretely substantiated.

Veggies getting tossed with the aromatics before the main event

But, mmm, purple carrots. And a purple carrot soup makes an interesting talking point, even if the nutritional value is hyped up.

Three small potatoes, three small purple carrots (not expensive), shallots, garlic, mixed herbs and the usual seasoning, plus a little pre-packed vegetable stock (250ml; they ran out of bigger packages).

First, the sautéing of the aromatics. After which, the vegetables - peeled and diced - were added.

When the veggies were ready, I poured in the vegetable stock plus some water and brought the whole thing to a boil. After which, it simmered for about 10 or 15 minutes, during which I added black pepper, a bit of salt and the mixed herbs.

ROILING HELLBROTH (and yes, the stovetops need cleaning - done that)

Getting it to cool before the blending took longer. What you get is something that resembles black glutinous rice dessert, albeit a few shades lighter, due to the potatoes. The spuds also provide the starch to thicken it, so no need for cream, yogurt and the like.

The blended stuff goes back into the pot and heated up till it bubbles. Don't let it bubble for long; as soon as you see a few of those pop, stir and stir for a bit and take it off the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

The soup, like Zhang Ziyi says in her Visa commercial, was a bit "too sahltee." I think the heat must've dulled the tastebuds; the saltiness was more evident when the soup cooled. Should I have tasted the stock first to check? Maybe.

I think the soup also needed more carrot, less potato, and a shorter cooking time. A few bits of raw purple carrot on top - plus some croutons or toasted baguette slices - wouldn't have been out of place, either.

Blended and brought to a boil: Carrot Soup of the Ancients

So yes, ancient purple carrots. I think they should be on supermarket shelves - and salad bowls - everywhere.