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.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Book Marks: Malaysia's Not-So-Small Press Scene, Plagiarism, Etc.

"The small press scene in Malaysia is, as it turns out, not so small after all," says TimeOut KL, which has a good write-up of the current state of KL's local publishing scene. Thank you, Ng Su Ann and TimeOut KL.

On a related note: Sandakan-based author Sahidzan Salleh, author of the mystery thriller novel Delirium talks about the book, his writing career and the difficulties of getting published in Sabah.


  • A piece on Iran's "lawless" publishing sector, where foreign books are apparently being translated and published without permission. This stood out because sometime ago, the company received a request to publish what looked like English workbooks from a Middle Eastern author. Turns out they were "adaptations" of stuff by Longman, who we notified and they informed us that this fellow isn't authorised to republish these books. I hope they found him and shut him down.
  • In Europe, there's a court case going on which might determine if it's legal to resell e-books and, by extension, software and other digital material.
  • It seems there's an audiobook boom happening. According to Digital Book World, "Publishers submitting to the Audio Publishers Association (APA) Sales Survey reported a production increase from 7,237 titles in 2011 to 35,574 titles in 2015—a nearly 500-percent increase. Sales revenue of audio has been continuously gaining as well, with nearly 21 percent growth reported for 2015 over the prior year."
  • At the Kuala Lumpur Trade and Copyright Centre (KLTCC) fair, Anna Katarina Rodriguez, the deputy executive director of the Philippines' National Book Development Board (NBDB) reportedly said that in her country, "It's expensive to love books." Here are some of the reasons.
  • "In the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission." Joy Lanzendorfer's story in The Atlantic dives into the issue of plagiarism in online book publishing, which she argues is mostly driven by profit. Lanzendorfer cites one alleged plagiarist who says she was inspired by Amanda Hocking, one-time poster girl for e-publishing success. I'm pretty sure Hocking wrote her own books, at least. There's also the recently reported case of B. Mitchell Cator, who was also accused of plagiarism.
  • "Startups can't explain what they do because they're addicted to meaningless jargon", blares a headline in Quartz. "These words sound technical and informed," the writer, Josh Horwitz, states. "But they mean nothing, and they make it difficult for ordinary people to understand what a company actually does. In an effort to either sound smart and attract investors, or to simply dress up an otherwise boring product, startups that rely too much on jargon end up alienating the users they want to attract."
  • In Lucky Peach, Andrea Nguyen's beautiful and detailed long read about the history of pho. Seems I was not alone in wondering if Malaysians can write just as much about our own dishes.
  • "Dystopian themes are not entirely new in Arabic fiction," according to Alexandra Alter in The New York Times. "But they have become much more prominent in recent years, publishers and translators say. The genre has proliferated in part because it captures the sense of despair that many writers say they feel in the face of cyclical violence and repression. At the same time, futuristic settings may give writers some measure of cover to explore charged political ideas without being labeled dissidents."
  • A journalist's book on the 2002 Gujarat riots was trolled (and probably still is) on Amazon India, likely by the country's nationalist types. Another attempt to kill a book by a thousand one-star reviews.
  • A short story about a cow and chewing gum by an Indian academic beat 4,000 other contestants to the £5,000 Commonwealth short story prize. Yes, I can see how it could.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Bread, Butter And Brownies At Bandar Kinrara

first published in The Malay Mail Online, 06 June 2016

I was slurping beef noodles at a neighbourhood shop when the phone buzzed.

"Hey, I'm arriving at the train station at 1:30pm," said makan kaki Melody via WhatsApp. "Can pick me up? We can go to PL's café," she added, referring to a friend and mutual acquaintance she'd met during a freelance gig some years ago.

I had to wait a bit at the train station, no thanks to a delayed ETS train. The café had better be good.

The Coffee Sessions at Bandar Kinrara opened last April

Since she'd heard about this place, Melody had been chomping on the bit to go there. She knows the people who opened The Coffee Sessions at Bandar Kinrara and according to her, PL bakes some great brownies. Runs in the family, I was told. Plus, the menu looked interesting.

We did get lost briefly en route, but managed to find our way there.

The sign says "Established 2015" but Melody was told the establishment was just a month old at the time of our visit. Planning began last year but it was only in April this year that the café got off the ground.

In the daytime, the interior is bright, comfortable and inviting. Spanking new, not yet worn down by droves of people. By the time we left, however, occupancy was about 80 per cent. This place seems to be a hit with families.

Curry Leaf Pesto Pasta with slices of roast chicken

Despite recovering from a bout of food poisoning, Melody insisted on trying the Pasta Carbonara with chunks of smoked duck. I was curious about the Curry Leaf Pesto Pasta and—is that bread and butter pudding?

Now it was Melody's turn to be apprehensive. "Can finish or not?"

"No problem," I assured her.

Then, she spied something over my shoulder and went to take a look. I found her a minute later, discussing something with someone I was later introduced to as PL's sister. The makan kaki was excited because they had brownies, and from past experience she was confident of their quality.

Creamy Pasta Carbonara with chunks of smoked duck

The flavour of the Curry Leaf Pesto Pasta wasn't strong at all even though the fragrance of curry leaves was palpable. However, I had let the dish and the slices of roast chicken dry out while taste-testing and photographing the other items.

About halfway through, Melody and I swapped pastas; she found the curry leaf one more appealing and cleaner-tasting. I couldn't agree more. While the carbonara was tasty (oh g*d, the smoked duck!), the pasta had too much sauce which was also a bit sour.

I also felt that rich, gamey meat like duck is more at home in pastas that aren't as rich, such as aglio olio or a drier carbonara that doesn't use cream. Did I mention that the smoked duck was served in chunks, some of which still had a layer of fat and skin?

The "Chocolate" Brownie — I think saying "chocolate" is redundant

I'd temporarily abandoned my pasta because of the baked goods. As Melody expected, the brownie shone. Delightfully chocolatey, with walnut inside and out and a drizzle of caramel on top. So powerful, it temporarily overpowered my strong, fragrant "small white" (they don't have flat whites).

Just when I thought this couldn't be beat, my bread and butter pudding arrived.

To filled stomachs, the square of baked chopped-up croissant looked big — at least, compared to other B&B puddings I've had before. Half of it was drenched in a smooth, luscious vanilla custard, while the other half was dusted with icing sugar. More of the custard pooled around the soaked half which was dotted with several raisins.

So. Good.

Bread and butter pudding — highly recommended

Melody and I were graced by the presence of PL herself who had come over with a few friends. From PL's sister and one of the staff, I had learnt that they added "a bit of" lemon juice to the carbonara, which I felt made even less sense. How would the astringent juice cut the richness of the duck in a bath of egg yolks and cream, if that was the intention?

And at RM6 per slice of brownie and RM7 for the bread and butter pudding, the items were a steal—and because they were having a promotion that day, I got the latter at a discount. "Looks like they're baking for love," Melody said, still shocked at the prices.

Still, they are new, and they'll have plenty of opportunities to evolve the menu.

"So, good leh?" Melody said smugly, reminding me of my initial scepticism and how grumpy I was while waiting and stewing at the train station.

"You sound like you're trying to make a point," I noted.

"From your reaction to the food, I think my point has already been made."

I let her have the last word.

The Coffee Sessions
2-G, Jalan BK 5A/2C
Bandar Kinrara
47180 Puchong


Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Incident Of The Nearly-Ruined Butter Chicken

I'd first learnt about butter chicken from a crime novel. Then, scouring the Internet, I found and watched butter chicken get made in some YouTube videos, and soon an itch began to form. My recipe for butter chicken would be a mix from those videos.

But while marinating the chicken breast, catastrophe. I threw a rule of thumb out the window: when seasoning, start small, then adjust from there.

I had a near meltdown when the marinade of salt, pepper, yoghurt, chilli powder and turmeric powder tasted like the sea - a few times. Three cut-up chicken breasts, rushed home from the supermarket, threatened to go to waste.

However, the show must go on. I hadn't had much of a chance to cook a meal last weekend and the inner chef was chafing. The chicken was marinated overnight, and I decided to skip the salt in other parts of the recipe should my worst fears come true.

Thinking that this dish would fail anyway, I was all, screw it, put it together anyhow you like. You can do a few other things with the marinated chicken.

The first time murgh makhani or butter chicken is getting done in
this kitchen. And it did not start out well.

If you believe the Wikipedia, butter chicken (murgh makhani in Hindi) was some Indian restaurateur's attempt to repackage left-over chicken tandoori some six decades ago. As this was India we're talking about (they do wicked things with spices), the result became a hit and has travelled the world thanks to the diaspora - and the Internet.

(I'm sorry, boys and girls, because I didn't take enough pictures of the process, as I'd decided this would be a culinary clusterf*ck, no thanks to my possibly oversalting the chicken. Bear with me. I'll even skip a few steps for you.)

First, I took out my frustrations on several tomatoes, including one that had been in the fridge for a week and was still fine, though the skin was beginning to wrinkle. When they refused to blend in the blender, I pushed them in with my hand - with the blender off.

I ran the resulting mush through a sieve and instead of a puree, I got tomato soup - or a gazpacho base. Watery and not pulpy at all. I'd left a can of tomato puree alone because I'd thought all the salt I'd need for the dish would come from the chicken.

I was wrong.

The pieces of chicken I'd tasted were salty, but on the outside. The salt hadn't gone in too deeply, and I did - had to - discard almost half of the marinade I didn't use. This is supposed to be the "left-over chicken tandoori" you're supposed to "rescue".

If that sounds a bit Bollywood, well, figures.

Right away, after chopping up the second yellow onion, I realised I had too much, but since no other vegetables were available, fine. I left half the third onion in the fridge, which I cut into half-rings to be thrown into the dish to finish.

While the masala was being pan-fried in about two tablespoons of butter, I got the rice cooker going. I hazarded one pinch of salt into the boatload of chopped yellow onion, now more yellow because of the turmeric-tinged melted butter in the pan.

Next, in went the grated ginger and garlic, followed by the spices: cumin powder (one teaspoon), coriander powder (one tablespoon), chilli powder (two tablespoons) and pepper (about 32 shakes). This might be the first time I'm preparing a curry dish without curry powder.

I tossed the spices into the onion off the heat, then returned it to the flame and poured in the tomato juice - let's call it what it is. Simmered it for a few minutes, then in went about 100mls of cream. Then the chicken went back in.

A taste. Yes, you guessed it. More salt, but carefully.

I believe one problem with added salt is that when it finally shows up strong in a dish it is already too late. Once concern is the level of sodium, which things like cream and sour stuff can disguise.

Towards the end, the remaining onion and two more tablespoons of butter went in. I'd added some water earlier because I wanted more sauce.

No one to share this with, but that's okay. The leftovers
tasted as good after 24 hours in the freezer.

This butter chicken of sorts didn't turn out to be the disaster I'd envisioned. But look at all the onion! And my fingers smelled of butter for over half an hour afterwards.

Butter chicken is not easy at all. But not impossible.

Friday, 3 June 2016

ToKB Café: In A War Against Limited Food Choices

I'm sitting here, surrounded by assorted war paraphernalia, distracted by the weight of the cold metal sheet under the pages of the menu. Several of these are taped together - a recent modification, I suspect.

Two large model planes hang from the ceiling - upside down, I note - from cables attached to their wheels. Antique military motorcycles sit on ledges or catwalks, while more seats are hidden behind sturdy metal fencing, from which a couple of helmets or framed photos hang.

Ten-hut, soldier! Welcome to the ToKB Cafe. They're setting up early (about
a month old, I think), so they haven't quite found a way to properly set up
the decor. Can't imagine what the pilot's going through.

I see tiny plastic army men perched atop the metal frames around me or on huge steel drums. All around, looms a sense that the interior designer is trying to convince patrons they're in an army mess hall or a bunker.

One doesn't come across a war-themed café often, less so within walking distance from one's workplace (I can walk it if it's about ten minutes away). But one visitor didn't seem impressed, and this fellow, from what I understand, is hard to not-impress.

That carved Harley-Davidson probably costs more than the real thing.

I'd been to ToKB Café before, after reading what Mr Hard to Not-impress said about it. Short for "Tastes of Kota Bharu", the café serves up fare from the capital of the Malaysian state of Kelantan. Some are familiar, like nasi kerabu and nasi dagang, while some, like laksam, aren't.

But what's a concept café without its own signature items?

Take nasi roket, layers of rice and fish curry wrapped up in an elongated cone that tempts one to wear it like a unicorn's horn. The Teh Atom, a pulled-tea beverage sweetened with honey whose mound of froth reminds one of a mushroom cloud. Roti C4, a kaya-and-egg toast combo, explodes with bursts of treacly coconut jam and smooth runny soft-boiled egg as one bites down.

The Teh Atom (left) packs a sweet, smoky wallop. At right, plastic army men
drama. Sergeant: "Get moving, soldier!" Soldier: "Can't PUFF Sarge WHEEZE
It's KOFF too GASP far..." Sergeant: "Prepare for a butt-whacking!"

At least, that's what the images promise. The café even has a Colonel Sanders or sorts, a Kelantanese makcik who has been cooking for three decades.

On my last visit, I'd taken a nasi kerabu to go. Takeaway versions of several signature dishes are compact promises of what the full meals have, nicely wrapped up in patterned paper and sealed with a branded sticker.

ToKB Nasi Kerabu - for me, the Malaysian east coast on a plate or, in
this case, a woven tray. The dryness of the rice and chicken left me
unsatisfied and a little thirsty.

I'm back here now, ready to dine in. Instead of the takeaway nasi kerabu I had a couple of days ago, the full spread is laid out on a woven mengkuang tray lined with banana leaf: desiccated coconut, herbs and vegetables such as torch ginger flower, cabbage and sliced long beans, with saucers of sambal and possibly budu and a fried marinated chicken leg.

But it was a long wait. Do they, like, have two people in the kitchen? And more people are arriving. My atomic tea goes down sweet and smoky - the honey's a nice touch - but I worry about my blood sugar levels at that point. Which part of the body does sugar nuke again?

Sorry, have to leave some traces. I can't digest metal or bone,
and the tray's way too much fibre to handle.

From my nasi kerabu, the quality control seems consistent. The dish is dry and the herbs do little to help. The chicken is scored so that the heat went deep down and, yes, transformed it into jerky. A minor complaint, which can probably be fixed with a saucer of curry gravy, or more sambal and budu.

As I strip the bones as clean as possible, the buzzer rings. An LED screen, part of a table-based waiter-calling system, kept flashing one number. Eerie. And a sign they haven't quite gotten their act together yet.

Takeaway versions of several ToKB dishes for those who can't wait.
Of course, minus the big, big pieces of chicken.

Bill in my pocket, I look around the front. The takeaways table now has boxes of kuih. Okay, seri muka or pulut kaya?

While I pondered my choices, I look around some more. The ToKB crew took great pains to carve out a military concept café, sparing no expense it seems. They did splash on a billboard, and buntings were hung around the neighbourhood. Not to mention the web site, on-screen video presentations in the premises and, my goodness, the car.

Yes, even a car

I suspect the café's backers might be related to whoever developed the building it's in. The marketing that went into it is beyond what many similar cafés can put up. But it also reeks of kitsch, sadly, the way the props were put up. C'mon, army men? Model planes and ships? And is that a carved wooden motorcycle up there?

I also have problems with a mural at the non-smokers' dining area. British and Japanese soldiers are depicted laughing and partying with the café's signature items, with who I think is a smiling Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita on the right.

Dunno how real war veterans gonna feel about this

I don't know what the soldiers who fought in the war would think of that tableau. Nor could I comprehend how they would feel, eating Malaysian east coast fare here. Kota Bharu is also where the Japanese army began its invasion of Malaya in 1941.

"You guys open from noon to 9pm?" I ask the cashier, who replied in the affirmative.

"You have breakfast fare and you're only open from noon to 9pm?" I ask again.

"We plan to extend our hours," he said.

"But you already have breakfast items," I press him. The dissatisfaction from the dry kerabu is showing.

"We don't have enough staff at the moment."

Ah. I see.

I eventually pick the seri muka, one of a few varieties of kuih that appear outsourced from another manufacturer. Maybe I'll come back for the pulut kaya and bingka ubi sometime.

I'm hoping there will be improvements, and more stuff from this place. Though some modern joints have sprung up and food trucks have dropped by occasionally, PJ's Section 13 is a barren wasteland when it comes to dining options and any attempt to liven things up is always welcome.

ToKB Café
Avenue D'Vogue
No.3A, Jalan 13/2,
46200 Petaling Jaya


Now the site of Black Castle Bistro