Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 3

(Pictures to come later; for now, enjoy the text.)

"Pictures are for illustrative purposes only."

Like a talisman, this disclaimer is used by many F&B establishments to disavow responsibility for discrepancies in what they serve - food, drink, rooms, and so on between what is depicted in promotional materials and reality.

Online, the photos of the rooms in the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel were pretty. They were, after all, the only things many had to go on when selecting accommodation besides TripAdvisor reviews, not all of which were glowing.

Back at our rooms at the Swiss Heritage - which was Swiss only in name and, perhaps, Christmas decorations - after our mid-afternoon walk around the Jonker Walk area, some of those TripAdvisor brickbats were confirmed.

My room smelled musty, the air felt and smelt damp, and one wall sported a brown watermark - proofs of water seepage and poor ventilation. Windows opened to the next room's windows and a narrow air well of sorts. Inside, it's hard to tell whether it's night or day. Funny, considering how the original Straits Chinese architecture had features that maximised air flow and natural light.

One side of the bed creaked loudly, threatening to cave in under the weight of any enthusiastic bed-jumpers. A Pyrex panel on the bed head for covering the embedded fluorescent lamp had come loose.

Other than that, the place looked new. Recently renovated, we were told. I loved the showers (with rain shower option, yo), and the bathroom had a new working hair dryer, which I used to warm up when the air conditioning got too cold, which was often.

Then, there's the noise. The staff and neighbours tended to get loud on occasion, and at least one other building nearby was in the process of getting new again. Among us, Wendy was most perturbed by and most vocal about the din. By the time we went out for dinner, she was contemplating moving out.

I wasn't too concerned with the state of the rooms, though it felt too much like one of those polished and expensive studio apartments cropping up in the country. I lay in bed, nursing my disappointment over a bar of "artisanal" chocolate from a nearby chocolatier. Had I taken a closer look at the package, I would have left it alone.

Good chocolate imparts an intense, somewhat spicy, charred-earth smell and sandy mouthfeel that remains for a few minutes, indicating a substantial amount of cocoa solids. Bad chocolate has less cocoa solids and "vegetable oil", and goes down like chocolate-flavoured candlewax.

At least there was dinner: the famous satay celup. Melody also convinced us to case at least one other hotel in the city, perhaps for future visits, either before or after eating.

Wendy's eyes glinted.

This evening, Sam drove. I would take the wheel the next evening as we were only four people, so it didn't make sense for both our cars to be out. With the clipped tones of Star Wars droid C-3PO directing us via Waze, we made our way to what Melody's acquaintance said was a satay celup institution.

Parking wasn't hard, nor was getting around. Scheduling the trip on weekdays was smart. The dinner, sadly, disappointed.

I was expecting satay celup to be skewered meat dipped in chilli and peanut gravy - which is just satay. What I saw instead was skewers of assorted bits of raw and precooked food: prawns, cockles, squid, fishballs, meatballs, otak-otak and even broccoli florets, plus a boiling pot of satay gravy - set into a recess in the centre of the table - to dip them all in.

Here, satay celup was just steamboat. About as Melakan and exotic as chicken rice balls.

The air went out of my sails quickly as we settled down to eat. Comparisons were made with the notorious Sichuan hotpot. Looking at the roiling hellbroth of peanuts, chilli and oil in the centre, it was hard to disagree.

"In China, they tend to cook with a lot of oil," the well-travelled Sam recalled. "I lifted one side of a plate of half-eaten fried rice and-" the fingers of one hand mimed an explosion, "the oil pooled at the other end."

We made short work of our dinner and went on to find things that were more Melakan, like this fried oyster place within the vicinity, whose awesomeness ensured it would be constantly walled off by hordes of expectant diners. Again, we were guided there by the voice of that fussy protocol droid.

"You have arrived!" C-3PO eventually announced through Sam's smartphone. A few robotic bleeps from R2-D2 followed. "Oh my stars!" he exclaimed in reply. More bleeps. "It is you! It IS you! ... Uh, what a desolate place this is."

No kidding, 3PO.

The fried oyster place was closed.

For the next ten minutes or so, everyone else was Googling other alternative destinations on their phones. Melody, meanwhile, looked up the opening hours for the oyster place. Consternation filled the car as we discovered how much updating some of the sources needed.

"Closed on Tuesdays!" Melody finally wailed. Another search revealed more places that took Tuesdays off. We wondered if there was a conspiracy among the hot hawker stands to go on holiday on Tuesdays.

I could've kvetched about how we could have done all this research months before we got here, but I wanted to live, and it was too far for me to walk back to the hotel.

Melody suggested a change of pace by casing a hotel, so off we went after 3PO was given new coordinates.

Where a pleasant surprise awaited.

I put away my phone, giving up on taking more photos. Not that there was much to photograph up here anyway with my less-than-awesome gear.

The girls felt different. Melody posed, Cleopatra-like, on a large circular sofa for Sam, whose photo-taking skills ("Make me look hot!") and cameraphone (Apple, mah!) she admired.

Around us, the wind raged. I was convinced it would wrench our gadgets off our hands, sweep them away to the city below and brain an unlucky passenger or vehicle.

We were thirty floors up in an alfresco lounge, the Sky Garden, at the Swiss-Garden Hotel and Residences Malacca. Fierce gales greeted us when we scoped out the infinity pool, the family pools and the water recreation area and followed us up here - could've been our proximity to the ocean. The floor next to the infinity pool was wet and puddled - did the wind splash all that water out of the pool?

The hotel and apartments were attached to The Shore, a newish shopping mall situated in a piece of land surrounded by river. I was a bit sulky to learn we'd be spending some time in this mall after looking at the hotel - weren't we supposed to get away from that?

However, at the elevator lobby, we met an older gentleman and what I thought was his assistant. A conversation was struck up, and Melody kept it going. Her curiosity about the current topic would arouse a similar interest among others, which tend to lead to unusual situations.

When he learnt we were curious about the hotel, the gentleman introduced himself as the executive sales manager of that very hotel. "So you're gatecrashing?" he said, and we were all nods and "Yes."

Accustomed to antisocial behaviour in KL, we did not anticipate him personally showing us the pools and, later, the rooftop lounge and got one of the staff to "show us around" (read: stand there while we roamed, gawked at and photographed the place).

Of course, none of this happened without a little grilling on the way. "You're not planning on opening a hotel, are you?" he asked us at one point.

We were a little taken aback by that. Industrial espionage, here?

As if we could.

Eventually, Melody's line of questioning also raised a couple of flags. "Cut to the chase," said the manager when we took the elevator up. "What exactly are you looking for?" Understandable, since he could've been in trouble for showing us around if we had been the wrong type of guest.

Melody revealed her secret identity as a freelance writer with a pen in several publications' inkwells and explained that we were shopping for hotels in the city. I suspect she was emboldened by our success at "sneaking" into the E&O in Penang and being wowed by it. I reckoned a weekend at the E&O was something one would have to save up for.

The manager was more relaxed after that. We'd learnt how young the hotel was (just over a year old at the time of our visit), so not much was done to market it while the kinks were being ironed out. Once we arrived at the 30th floor, he and the assistant left us.

As far as rooftop lounges go, Sky Garden's décor was relatively modest compared to, say, that one in 1Utama. Big cushioned chairs, water features, a bar, wooden footpaths and more, surrounded by colour-changing lights. But it was open to the elements - too much, if you ask me - and what a view.

Then, my fear of heights kicked in and made my hands tremble and sweat. I put away the phone, not trusting myself to keep a firm grip on it. The ladies, however, had a ball.

Coming down from the high, we gathered at the lobby. We still could not believe our luck. The rooftop visit was more than we'd bargained for. Then, we learnt how much each room cost per night.

We had to restrain Wendy, who was ready to move her luggage from the other "Swiss" place we were staying in.

We could empathise. For just a few ringgit more, we'd have a pool, gym, rooftop view, swankier surroundings and no noisy neighbours or construction cacophony. But that would also mean forfeiting what we paid for our original accommodations. And we were already a day into our sojourn in Melaka.

It wasn't worth the trouble. We'd anticipated being unable to see or experience everything in this city, so we made a point to return and stay here - provided the prices didn't rise too much by then.

Witn that, we browsed around in the mall, which had an aquarium and two food courts, one for Chinese cuisine. I went along; the Sky Garden visit made me amenable to following the girls around. They posed with life-sized figures from Snoopy and window-shopped. We continued to make plans for Melaka Part 2 on the way to the parking lot.

Incidentally, Swiss-Garden Hotel and Residences Malacca hosted the contestants of Miss World Tourism 2015/16, who were here, I think, for the finals that Thailand couldn't host for some reason. Memories of Melaka still fresh in my mind, I was incensed by the noise some groups were making about the event "promoting" vice and whatnot.

Their "concerns" and shallow notions of piety paled in comparison to the hospitality and generosity (and, perhaps, courage) the manager and his assistant showed to four clueless chumps from KL.

Don't mess with Melaka, yo.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1, followed by part 2. Part 4 to come.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Raya Weekend Cooking: Pasta From Scratch

I've talked about pasta dishes so much I doubt anyone wants another pasta story from me. But bear with me, this one is different because...

A wild ball of pasta dough appears! How will it turn out after
some kneading, resting, cutting and boiling?

A couple of recipe videos managed to convince me that it was easy to make your own pasta and that it tastes better than store-bought. Knead an egg and 100g of flour into a ball of dough, flatten it out, cut it into rustic pasta strands, boil, season and enjoy.

What the videos didn't mention was how HARD it is to knead the dough to the right consistency, and that you need to rest it for maybe one hour, not half. I had to rest the dough twice, adding a little water to knead before wrapping it up in cling film.

From dough to bowl, the process took a whole afternoon, and I did chores afterwards. My arms were feeling it for a while. I can see why Italians of yore went "Meh, I'll just toss this with some olive oil and cheese" after making a batch of this. A good idea, though.

Getting the flour into a dough didn't take long but, my, how the dough STICKS. I would knead it again after a failed attempt to roll it flat, then stored half in the freezer, in case 100g was too much for me (it wasn't). The resulting portion was snack-sized and it was almost 5pm when I tucked in.

When I finally arrived at this stage, my heart did belly-flops.
Watching DIY pasta come together in real life is incredible.

As you go along, it's easy to get lost in the kneading, especially if you have issues to work out. At some point, you might even feel it's ... fun.

Three rounds of kneading and a bit of rolling and ... can it be? Is it ... ready? Yes, it is! The strands were ragged and unevenly rolled but they were ready. This is technically a bunch of Chinese egg noodles, since I didn't use durum wheat semolina.

I remember dining at a place in Penang called Cozy in the Rocket, where I saw the chef make pasta from scratch and was mind-blown. I'm still not close to that level, but this still feels like an accomplishment.

Yes, once cooked they looked and tasted like pan mee. The strands almost doubled in width and thickness in the boiling salted water, but took half as long to cook as store-bought linguine. Tastes better too, but I think that's because it was seasoned with Blood, Sweat and Tears and that special ingredient: Personal Satisfaction.

Actually it's just olive oil, a clove of garlic (grated), powdered
Parmesan, black pepper and a dash of mixed herbs. But it
tasted like satisfaction. Sweet, sweet satisfaction.

But this portion was still half of the dough I'd made. The other half's chilling in the freezer and probably not kneaded enough. I'll have to deal with it soon...

22/07/2016   I've since found out that this kind of pasta has a name: pasta all'uovo, or "egg pasta" (jidan mian in Chinese). Mais bien sûr.

I also came across this piece by someone who takes her pasta more seriously than me. That's a lot of dough she went through.

Full portion of pasta dough from 100g of flour, mostly rolled out.
Any flatter and it might stretch wider than the counter.

But after this batch, I determined that the dough had not been kneaded enough because I had not been tracking the time. So for the next batch, I stopped at intervals to check how long I'd been working on the dough.

The dough stretched better when rolled. Well, I did spend 25 minutes kneading it. I started sweating around the twentieth minute. Despite flouring the dough and the strands liberally, the pasta was still sticky and hard to unravel.

Same amount of flour and egg, yet I ended up with enough pasta
for two - or three people. What gives?

Ah, so there's supposed to be a drying period, like in this recipe? I'll explore that.

This time, I decided to cut up the whole portion into strands. However, I was puzzled at the amount I ended up with. Easily more than twice the amount of the previous batch - just enough for two hungry people.

Home-made pasta with home-made basil pesto

More than twice the portion, more than twice the satisfaction. But 25 minutes of kneading? Probably because I'm no Zangief.

Perhaps it's time I take up a workout regime. But I suspect I'd be working on another batch of pasta much sooner than picking up a pair of weights. It's much easier, and I get to eat my exercise equipment afterwards.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 2

(Pictures to come later; for now, enjoy the text.)

Wandering towards another junction at Jalan Hang Kasturi where the A' Famosa Chicken Rice Ball Restaurant was located, I spotted a familiar sign and the miles we'd travelled seemed to have vanished.

No way that's an Inside Scoop sign!

So it appears that the KL-based independent ice-cream enterprise has joined the invading hordes that descended upon modern-day Melaka, itching to take advantage of the endless flow of foot traffic from visitors. We would later encounter an outpost of Sangkaya, another start-up and coconut ice-cream outfit from the Malaysian capital.

We patronised neither. It didn't feel right somehow.

Instead, the ladies (all three) browsed around one of the shops that sold prepacked local goods with the usual marked-up prices: coffee, biscuits, cencaluk, sambal, pineapple tarts, durian tarts and the like. They also sampled a kind of seaweed jelly, the "pour into hot water and mix" variety. Again, not cheap for the portions each packet produced.

A queue in front of a shoplot - and the heat - drew us in. At Kedai Aku Dan Dia, an elderly gentleman was plopping handfuls of bright green balls of flour into a pot of simmering water. In a pastic container, more such balls were being rolled around in shaved coconut.

We'd found an onde-onde vendor, sited at 25, Jalan Hang Kasturi. Also called (appropriately) buah Melaka, these grape-sized, shaved coconut-covered balls of glutinious rice flour held shavings of brown, sweet and smoky gula Melaka. The green came from the extract of the pandan (screwpine) leaf, touted by some as this country's equivalent of vanilla.

("Appropriately, because buah Melaka can also mean the Indian gooseberry, which is greenish in colour.)

Unfortunately for us, the last of the current batch was sold. Well, not all. One little fellow remained in the container. The vendor offered us the lone onde-onde, which Sam took up.

Then, for some reason, she lost her grip on the thing. It was as if it was trying to escape, like a fleeing Mexican drug lord.

A few close calls later, my gaze fell onto her upturned fist. My gut clenched with the assumption that it was empty, but her hand was occupied. With a shout or two of triumph, she popped the slippery onde-onde into her mouth.

"Mmm~! So good," Sam moaned as she chewed. I think the struggle made it even tastier.

The vendor's kind gesture assured our return to the shop, some fifteen minutes later, where we bought two bags or ten pieces for RM4. However, the girls only finished one bag, leaving me with another. The contents were still hot, so I let them be.

While waiting for the next batch of onde-onde, we looked around. Some of the shops we browsed included The Daily Fix, located inside another of the refurbished old houses in the neighbourhood.

The front housed a knick-knack shop, selling things that included odd pieces of wood, each for massaging specific parts of the body. Some of these massage aids had "suggestive" shapes; others would feel right at home in a ninja's utility belt. On the scene were some expensive pillows, covered in casings styled after sacks of flour, sugar or rice of yore.

"Why on earth would anyone want these?" I asked.

"They're very nice," Sam said. "They look authentic."

"Yes, when you want to pretend you're a dockhand, carrying these around and sleeping on it after a hard day's work."

Trust hipsters and the Gen-Y to hip up the rough and gritty.

The café took up part of the courtyard and the back half of the property. It sported the familiar Instagrammable rustic chic shared by many other establishments of its ilk. A mutual acquaintance spoke well of its offerings, so we made a note to drop by, which we did, before packing up for the trip home.

Sweaty and fatigued from walking in the hot afternoon, we took refuge in Christina Ee's, where we cooled down with cendol. Their place and their version of the dessert looked more humble than the other icon farther along Jonker Walk, the often crowded Jonker 88, and its durian cendol.

A layer of cooked adzuki beans, buried under a mound of shaved ice, crowned with a medusaic mass of green strands of pandan jelly and drizzled with melted gula Melaka and coconut milk. Also, no durian, but what the heck. This was just what we needed. A few spoonfuls later, the heat receeded and we felt energised again (carbs are great), though we did feel bad for ordering just two bowls to share between us.

Over that same bowl of cendol, we talked about life and the growing appeal of ginger as one ages (gets rid of wind in the gut), along with plans for the next stages in our fluid itinerary. I'd tune in and out time and again to snort at the tour guides who were helping tourists pick "better" brands of white coffee, biscuits and other merchandise.

Before I knew it, the onde-onde been forgotten long enough for them to turn cold and soggy from condensation. Still yummy, though, as I learnt back at the hotel. Unmelted bits of palm sugar crunched along with the coconut as I bit down, popping the chewy glutinous rice layer and filling my mouth with a comforting, earthy, syrupy sensation.

This is nothing like what we'd find in KL, or anywhere else we'd been to. And it's just two hours away.

Of the many oversold historical aspects of Melaka, the Baba-Nyonya is arguably among the most visible. They are part of a group collectively known as Cina Peranakan - local-born Chinese who have adopted aspects of Malay or indigenous culture. My attachment to the Chinese heritage in Melaka might have origins in my Penang-born mother's Cina Peranakan roots.

Peranakan in Malay means "local-born" and usually applies to people of other places who are born here, such as the Jawi Peranakan: Indians and those of Middle Eastern origin.

The Cina Peranakan community in Melaka is particularly famous, partly due to strong PR and marketing efforts. You'll find museums showcasing Baba-Nyonya heritage, restaurants serving "authentic" Nyonya cuisine and shops selling Nyonya attire, such as beaded shoes and the figure-hugging baju kebaya. But it's the cuisine, I believe, that looms the largest in the imaginations of visitors.

I find such displays of heritage shallow, which is no one's fault. Many tourists are only interested in the look, feel and tastes of Peranakan Chinese heritage, hurrying by as they do from one attraction to another, afraid to miss out on something else should they linger too long at one spot. Few have the stamina and time to delve deeper, and it's not just the foreign visitors. As such, I feel many of these showcases rarely offer more than just glimpses of a bygone era.

There's an impression that a lot of our history has been steamrolled, bulldozed and sold off in the name of progress before the level of devastation was deemed serious - and even then, progress hasn't slowed. Many origin stories about the people, cuisine, events and architecture have been lost. In spite of the efforts of a handful of tireless, devoted history buffs, activists, academicicans and stalwarts in the shrinking communities, we're losing more of our collective heritage as time passes.

Why the blue colouring? Why these designs? Why build it like this? How did the Baba-Nyonyas' Malay-Chinese patois develop?

Few seem to know for sure. Replies such as "It's always been here" or "that's how it is done" aren't enlightening or reassuring.

One day, there will be no answer at all.

And I'm not sure what we can do besides rant about it in self-indulgent "travelogues" like this one.

If you encountered this page by chance, I suggest starting at Part 1. Part 3 is here.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Messing Around In Melaka, Part 1

29 December 2015...

As we drove further into the city, we couldn't believe what we were seeing.

What's with all these signs saying "Don't Mess with Melaka?"

I didn't think much of it when Melody and I spotted the first few signs, but as we approached the city centre of Melaka, they kept popping up.

Browsing her smartphone, Melody learnt through social media about the similarities between this "campaign" and "Don't mess with Texas". The designs for each sign were identical, from the slogan to the state flag and silhouette of the state at the bottom.

Melody winced at the blatant copying. "It's practically the same."

Perhaps, as I discovered belatedly, because it is the same.

Earlier in 2015, Melody, Sam and Wendy had talked about taking a road trip to some place in Malaysia; I just went along with whatever they decided on. We picked the historical state of Melaka, since Sam and Wendy rarely went there. The last time Melody and I were there was in ... 2007, I think.

Was it so long ago?

Yes, Melaka it was, despite my memories of it being this Disneyfied tourist attraction for rubes who I felt were there more for the novelty of being in a historical city rather than the history of the city itself.

When I was a kid in school, I'd read that the kingdom of Melaka was founded by a prince from Palembang (somewhere in Sumatra in present-day Indonesia) in 1402, and that he'd killed the ruler of Temasek (modern-day Singapore) at the time. These days, some believe he was a legit ruler of Temasek until he was driven away by the Majapahit empire around 1398. Others have theorised that the name he was known by, "Parameswara", was a title, and that he may have been a jumped-up pirate with no royal blood.

However, what is universally agreed upon was that, while exploring a spot in the Malay peninsula, he was inspired to name his new digs after the tree he was resting on: Phyllanthus emblica, otherwise known as the Malacca tree or Indian gooseberry. Seems he had witnessed a mouse deer kick his hunting dogs into a nearby river and thought, "This will be my new digs - even the mouse deer here are bad-ass!" Today, the tiny ungulate and the tree are immortalised on the state's coat of arms.

This kingdom became an empire, which would soon be known for legendary figures such as Tun Perak the prime minister, the warriors Hang Tuah and company, and some Chinese princess whose retainers are said to be ancestors of Melaka's Chinese. The seafaring Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He stopped there often in his trips to the western edges of Asia.

Melaka thrived until the Portuguese invaded in 1511, seeking control over the spice trade. The Dutch came by over a century later (in 1641), followed by the British (in 1824). The foreign visitors left behind a wealth of traditions and heritage, as well as whole communities, in Melaka, which is now the focus of throngs of domestic and international visitors each year.

The state's government has tried to capitalise on this, though some attempts at development have been criticised for allegedly endangering some aspects of Melaka's rich history. One particular scheme was heavily decried. I also learnt that some remnants of the state's former colonial eras were uncovered by development projects, though the related online articles seemed to have gone 404.

The lobby of the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel, a blend of old and new

For KL-ites like ourselves, it was far enough from the capital to qualify as a bona fide getaway. In spite of myself, I was looking forward to the road trip. Partly because I didn't have to wake up at 6am or something like that. Plus, the old Chinese quarter of Melaka is very much like parts of my birthplace, Penang - perhaps more so.

As the date approached, Melody set our imaginations and tongues afire with accounts of wholesome Melakan Nyonya cuisine. "You MUST try the ayam garam cili from So-and-So Place! The flavours, OMG Is. To. Die. For. Then there's this place some blogger recommended; she went there TWICE, which she never does unless it's GOOD..."

Little did we know we'd be stalking this blogger's trail once we were there. Right, like we knew where all the good stuff was.

Because she was loaded with work, Melody handed the task of securing accommodations to Wendy and Sam. A place Melody had checked out several months ago was vetoed because of a suspected bedbug infestation. But what to do? Sam and Wendy (whom I shall collectively refer to as The Ladies) were scarred by a previous encounter with the little terrors and were adamant.

Lulled by the pictures and copy online, we settled on the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock (formerly Heeren Street), known for its collection of such hotels and guesthouses, along with the odd café.

Uncharacteristically, Melody and I arrived first. The Ladies' ETA was stretched by a coffee break in Seremban. The hotel's own parking lots were all occupied, so we were given directions to another lot a bit farther down the road, which also hosted a car wash and an old mansion that served as a tea shop. Someone was playing a Chinese musical instrument at the balcony when we parked.

The dining hall of the Swiss Heritage Boutique Hotel

We waited for The Ladies at the lobby, which was the main hall of the repurposed home of, I reckoned, some Chinese tycoon. Old-looking wood carvings and furniture retained some of the charm from those years. Guests were allowed to lounge on single-seat chairs or one imposing ornately carved three-seater. Reminders of a modern age included a pair of modern electric massage chairs and Christmas decorations.

Browsing the papers, we also learnt more about the "Don't mess with Melaka" campaign, which, among other things, promised a war against litterbugs and humiliation for repeat offenders. Bold moves by the current state government, which I think has to struggle to break out of the shadow of the previous administration and its famous leader.

"Don't mess with Melaka", explained in The Star

The Ladies finally arrived. Perhaps it's my old age or their personalities, but I seem to effervesce whenever they're around. Fun is sure to be had in their company. Sam is the more gregarious of the two, and readily spouts aphorisms and homespun wisdom borne of years in customer service. Wendy's the more reticent one, but speaks pithily with purpose.

We left out bags at the counter and wandered off to dip our toes into the ambience of Jonker Walk, a prelude to the full-body immersion we'd have on the next day.

That is, if a "dip" were possible in a city that swallows you whole into a merry-go-round of the old, refurbished and brand-new the moment you step onto its streets.

The heat. G*ds, the heat.

Thank goodness for air-conditioned spaces.

But it seemed as though such places have multiplied since my last visit. Driving into the city, I was struck by how little sky there was in the view compared to ... well, eight years is a long time.

After decades, Melaka was being invaded again: by progress. More cars, more people, more freaking tour buses. And more storeys. I had not seen those high-rises there before. We'd end up checking those later in the night but first, lunch.

Melody, Sam and Wendy hadn't eaten much before hopping into the cars (Sam's and mine). I had just enough foresight to eat a full breakfast, so I wasn't perturbed by the crowds at The Melting Pot, a family restaurant along Jonker Walk that served - what else? - Nyonya cuisine.

The Melting Pot along Jonker Street

This was where Melody had the "OMG you gotta try this" ayam garam cili on her last visit, a few months earlier. We also opted for a cencaluk omelette, fried with onions and a unique concoction made with brined tiny shrimp or krill; and a kangkung belacan: water spinach stir-fried with a paste of fermented shrimp. We all ordered the "small" portions, in anticipation of snacking on other stuff later on.

After a while, though, I was puzzled by the delay. Shouldn't at least one of the dishes be scooped from a pot? Who makes small batches of rendang or curry to order?

The wait. G*ds, the wait.

It didn't take long for all four of us to get hungry. To pass the time, we made a sport of guessing which orders went to which table, while cracking light jokes at the faces of disappointment from those who got passed over.

When our orders finally arrived, I was surprised that we had just enough energy to capture the moment on our smartphones before we fell upon our dishes, plus rice, with groans of relief. These days, quipped a social media maven, the cameras eat first.

At left: cencaluk omelette and ayam pongteh. The latter was the
best version of the dish we'd had on this trip.

The cencaluk barely registered in the omelette, which was fine, because it went well with the spicy (and salty) ayam garam cili. The chicken was more of a really dry rendang, with seemingly less coconut milk.

I had little comment on the other dishes apart from "How tasty!", "This works well", and "Nobody's having this, right?" I was also glad I couldn't see any whole cencaluk shrimp. One version of this condiment was a pile of bent white-pink creatures whose black pinhead-sized eyes stare into your soul and potentially rob you of your appetite.

Ayam garam cili, and it was good

We were hungry, but that's not why the meal was satisfying. Melody's recommendation was spot on.

So it was that, flushed from the afterglow of a sated hunger, we reluctantly picked ourselves out of our seats and went back into the white-hot afternoon and packed pavements.

I didn't set out on this trip to write a travelogue, which explains the dearth of pictures of the usual: crowded streets, refurbished buildings, the tourist attractions and must-go spots. Yet, after two weeks and some feverish typing later, the first draft was hammered out. I suppose I wanted to squeeze out what I could from the holiday, and perhaps I've let a lot of memories of my travels rust away. Oh, what I could've told you about my work stints at Jakarta and Bangkok...

Since I'm not expecting a whole lot from a bunch of travel diaries of a trip that's gone stale (this happened before the New Year), I'm reproducing it with whatever photos that were taken. As for the contents, my travelling companions agreed that it's quite accurate.

Proceed to part 2.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

A Date (Or A Few) With Banana-Oat Smoothies

As the fasting month of Ramadan approached, dates began appearing at supermarkets and selected stores. After seeing a recipe for an oat, banana and date "shake" online, I was itching to try making a version of it.

Banana-oat-nut smoothie, starting out as a batch of overnight oats.
The banana can go into the jar, or not.

Dates are incredibly sweet. According to Wikipedia, dates are 80 per cent sugar(!), but also loaded with other vital minerals. Most dates sold here are dried ripe ones, but the folks at the chain fruit stall MBG brought in fresh dates at one time.

The ripe fresh fruit is crunchy and sweet but leaves the mouth dry and with a slightly astringent-bitter aftertaste, like after drinking teh kosong kaw. Dried dates are sticky, chewy in texture, sweet, smoky or woody, but mostly SWEET - eighty per cent sugar, okay?

With a flavour and nutrient profile that's more complex than plain white sugar, sweetening smoothies with dates seemed natural. If your blender is weak, however, be prepared to chew chunks of sticky dates instead of drinking a nice glass, cup or mug of rich and thick oat and banana smoothie.

I didn't use too much milk in the overnight soaking process, so the
batch turned out extra goopy.

For some preparations, dates are better sweeteners than honey. And I think I'm getting addicted to date-sweetened oat smoothies.

Dried dates are already chewy at room temperature; refrigerating these and taking them out later will mean waiting for it to soften, lengthening preparation times.

I partly solved this sticky date problem by leaving the dates at room temperature for 15 minutes or so before pitting and cutting them into small pieces. I soaked the pieces in hot water for about 15 minutes and mashed them into a paste - too much trouble for something one would prepare on the go.

To add more body to the smoothie, throw in several of your favourite nuts and seeds: walnut, cashew, almond, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds and maybe chia. Maybe even swirl in peanut butter or any nut butter, or even a healthy vegetable oil - not palm oil, please, because it's in everything, even stuff you don't eat.

Round and round it goes, with a drizzle of olive oil

My combo, apart from oat, banana and date, includes sunflower seeds, cashews, additional oat bran, soaked-in-water chia seeds and olive oil. I prefer to soak the chia seeds in water until they turn into a jelly-like mass first. Dry chia seeds are likely to be tossed out of the mixture by the blades and stick to the pitcher.

No time in the morning to deal with dates? Make a batch a la overnight oats, minus the banana (you can add the banana if you want - and eat it instead of drink it the next day). Soak the seeds, nuts, oats and dates with milk in a jar overnight or six hours, at least; everything will soften enough to be blended with a banana. You can also eat this straight out of the jar, but I find it more fun to smoothify the mix.

Don't use too much of each ingredient. Chia seeds, in particular, are rich in fibre and you don't want your smoothie so thick that the spoon can't move. You might want to chase this mix down with an equal portion of water, as you would when eating fibre-rich stuff.

Save for a few lumps of cashew nut, the smoothie was great. Depending
on the amount of oats, etc., this should keep one full till lunch.

One portion of this was enough to keep me full until past lunchtime. No surprise, with all the carbs and fats that went into it.

It's a little late into the fasting month to post tips, but this is one you can make any time.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Book Marks: Pakistani Books In India, Hierarchy Of Presses

Why are Pakistani authors finding Indian homes for their books? One reason: "Many authors feel that most Western publishers are inward looking, or seek standard humiliation memoirs and third-world stories. In contrast, Indian publishers are willing to take risks with new materials."


  • Is it "Internet" or "internet"? At the company, it's currently "Internet", the same as The Oxford English Dictionary ... for now.
  • Nigerian authors reveal the books that shaped their lives and possibly influenced their writing. Some of these titles are interesting.
  • The hierarchy of presses: how much does who you publish with matter these days? For newly minted academics seeking to publish, the answer seems to be "yes".
  • Man Booker prize winner Marlon James is working on an African Game of Thrones. Sounds interesting.
  • Though he apparently supports Australia's parallel import rules on books, independent Australian publisher Sandy Grant thinks the bigger problem for his country's publishing sector is pricing "and a lack of respect for Australian writing among overseas publishers", rather than the threat to the Aussie literature scene posed by a more open market.
  • "Part of the business of editing is telling people to shut up." Toni Morrison on writing and editing at a time when racial tensions were (still are, really) high in the US.
  • A tale of two cultures: what are the differences in children's publishing in France and America?

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

(Updated) Proto-Shortbread Saga

For a long time, shortbread has been a favourite comfort food. Buttery, crumbly and nice when dipped in cold milk or crushed and mixed with ice cream.

I can't remember the exact moment my affair with shortbread began, but two products are prominent: the stuff from Ayamas, and the fine, crumbly buttery cookies that used to be sold at Dream Centre at the Damansara Utama Methodist Church in Petaling Jaya.

From the latter, I once bought two batches that lasted weeks. This type and the Ayamas version was super-melt-in-the-mouth crumbly, which I suspect was due to rice flour or cornflour. They were tasty, so I was sad when the baker didn't make them any more. But I moved on to the store-bought Scottish stuff, though they weren't as appetising.

Then it started getting more expensive and my appetite for rich and creamy stuff started shrinking.

Three basic ingredients, plus a little vanilla extract I usually level-up
my coffee drinks with. How hard was it to put it all together? HARD.

This concoction has a long history in medieval Britain, Scotland in particular. From The Telegraph, a brief history of shortbread: is a biscuit-like affair, usually consisting of a holy trinity of flour, sugar and butter, but the original shortbread may have been a thrifty treat created from [enhancing] left-over bread dough, or cooked bread that was popped back in the oven to crisp up.

...The name possibly reflects the large quantity of butter or “shortening” used, which stops long gluten strands from forming and creates shortbread's distinctive brittle, sandy texture...

Several years ago, I learnt how "easy" shortbread was to make - it only has three basic ingredients: flour, butter and sugar. Mix it all up, bish-bash-bosh, pop i' in th'oven, happy days. The process, however, is more involved than that.

Creaming the butter and sugar by hand is hard work. After all of ten
minutes I was winded and sweating and didn't like the results.

My first attempt at making Scottish shortbread failed because I didn't measure the ingredients, I kneaded the dough too much, and I baked it at a high temperature. The result was a kind of buttery breadstick - solid, floury and unappetising.

(So the Scottish version isn't a firm favourite, but easy to start with for novice bakers with the occasional hankering for an easy-to-make buttery treat.)

Watching a video demo for what looks like roti canai later, I was reminded that kneading dough causes gluten to form, making the dough stretchy like bread, which is not what you want for shortbread or any crumbly pastry.

The second attempt was a little better.

The greasy, sticky mess that went into the oven. The holes I poked
into it closed up, as did the cuts. The results were still soft and
crumbly enough to be cut again.

I got a measuring cup but, as hard as I tried, the dry ingredients won't stay level after much tapping on the counter. Things started going sideways when I tried to measure the butter in the cup, which were in solid rectangular chunks.

Predictably, I guessed the amount to add and - oops - the dough turned out wet after I folded in the sifted flour. Too much butter. Beating the butter and sugar was another challenge. Even after about, like, 10 minutes, the texture was still grainy.

Probably should've cut the butter into smaller cubes to fit the cup.

I took a breather and, afterwards, split the wet dough in half. One portion I wrapped in cling film and refrigerated. To the other, I folded in more flour, bit by bit, until it was less wet.

Tried and failed to get the malted milk shade I liked. Not just
because of the temperature, but also the brown sugar.

Even so, it was a sticky mess I had spread on a baking tray and baked at around 140°C for about 30 minutes. The oven had heating coils at the top and bottom. Once the top acquired the colour I wanted, I switched off the top heat and let it continue baking.

In the end, though, I got golden brown instead of malted milk off-white.

The shortbread turned out greasy - of course - and I could still taste flour. But the crumbly texture seemed right. And it was, more importantly, edible. My older relatives had a taste and the only problem they had with it was the excess butter.

The finished product. Thankfully, not like the buttery breadsticks
I ended up with on my first attempt, which we will not speak of
again, thank you.

Other recipe videos I've looked at had other recommendations and different steps. Some would mix the butter and flour first, into a grainy texture, before adding the sugar (the powdery icing or confectioner's sugar). The butter has to be cold, too, and must not be allowed to melt too much.

Three basic ingredients, lots of hard work.

But I will nail it.

Looks good, but too greasy, compared with the commercially available
types I've had. Didn't have to throw out this batch, though, so
that's something.

Odd, that all the recipes I referred to online didn't say how long the shortbread would keep. No preservatives were used, so I'm guessing it'll be good for, like, up to two weeks from baking time. Was it because they expect it all to vanish on the same day?

20/06/2016   Failing to get good results with a measuring cup, I fell back on scales. Nothing fancy, just an analog scale. I'm not planning on going pro anyway.

I didn't get to look inside the box, so ... pink! But the old blender was
pink too and it served me well.

It's true that you'd only understand and appreciate food when you know how much of what goes into it. I'd planned for 90 grams with the latest batch, but as the pile of sugar got bigger and the needle struggled along the scale, what little planning I did went out the window and tunnelled into the road for sanctuary.

Sixty grams of sugar is a pretty big pile.

I learnt that I didn't have to mix until the sugar completely dissolved. After a few times of doing this I felt right at home - but mixing and folding in the flour by hand still blows, so the dough and the baker took a breather after the former has been shaped, wrapped in cling film and put into the fridge.

Batch #4, out of the oven. The colour's more to my liking because I kept
a closer eye on the product and fiddled often with the temperature.

Most of the references I used don't fold in the flour by machine, and if it's not necessary for the sugar - fine-granuled or powdered - to dissolve completely in the butter, then it's probably best to mix by hand if you're not making big batches.

This round, I kept a much closer watch on the oven temperature and frequently checked on the colour. The dough in the middle still looked underbaked, so back in the oven at 100°C for five more minutes.

I'm pleased with the results, although the latest batch was not as buttery or sweet as Batch #2 - maybe this is how it's supposed to be.

Makan kaki Melody received a few pieces of this batch. "Impressive!" she exclaimed via WhatsApp. "You can sell these."

Looks and tastes fine - and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Wah. That's rare.

Even though shortbread is an established recipe - anybody can make it - that left me gobsmacked. It took me four tries; at least one person might argue that, had I started out with proper equipment, I'd only need two.

Guess I won't be buying my shortbread from now on. Nor will I be making my own so often. Sixty grams of sugar and 120 grams of butter is a lot to put into a single portion, even if stretched across two weeks or so.