Soju bombs and veggie epiphanies: Slow Food Korea

We begin with soju bombs. A Korean friend shows us how to line up two metal chopsticks on a mug of beer, and balance a shotglass of soju on top. Then, she bangs her fist against the wobbly table dislocating the chopsticks so the shotglass falls into the beer mug. “Now drink,” she grins. We obediently lift our soju-spiked beer.

I’m in Namyangju, a lush-green town about an hour away from Seoul, in South Korea to attend Slow Food’s first AsiO Gusto, which brings together small-scale sustainable producers, chefs and opinion-makers from 40 Asian and Oceanic countries. While most of the days are devoted to conferences dedicated to finding ways to protect food traditions and their custodians, mealtimes are reserved for exploring local food. Barbeque and soju bombs, just like Psy and Gangnam may be Korea’s best known exports, but they’re just one facet of an ancient, traditional and sturdy food culture.

Of course we try the barbeque, though. Popular culture is popular for a reason — it’s fun. At night we walk to an open air restaurant close to our hotel, drawn by their dramatically crackling fire. It’s cold and the owner — noticing us shivering — runs into the kitchen and emerges with bright fluffy blankets for each of us. The little round metal table has a cavity in the centre, into which a waiter places a tray of hot coals, covered with a grill. While the kitchen prepares the meat, we go into a side room, dominated by a loud television, and fill bowls with the traditional line up of starters: kimchi, sprouts, mushrooms, spring onions to take to our tables. When the pork belly and chops arrive, they’re spread on the table grill to finish cooking, after which we pull out the blistering pieces with long tongs and eat them wrapped in lettuce, along with fat green chillies, sharp fresh garlic and a dipping sauce made with sesame oil.

Contrary to the Korean food stereotype, it’s not all meat. Lunch is often bibimbap, a bowl of rice artfully topped with bright vegetables, julienned cucumber, dark spongy mushrooms, long crunchy sprouts, emerald spinach and intensely orange-red bigochujang (chili pepper paste.) Salt is minimal and nothing is fried, but the vegetables are fresh, local and organic so flavours are intense. Slow Food’s focus is re-introducing people — especially children — to the joys of unprocessed food. Epiphanies from home-grown vegetables sound ridiculous, till you actually taste one. I become a convert at a silent lunch, served by cooks who walk into a conference on ‘Food and Spirituality’ bearing flowers and candles. They hand each of us a clay tray. My heart sinks as I survey the meal: raw vegetables and barely-salted sticky rice with beans wrapped in a lotus leaf. Then I bite into the pumpkin, and my eyes widen at its sweet, intense, powerful flavour. The lotus stem is crisp, yet moisty. The mushroom, firm and juicy. For the first time in years, I cheerfully finish all my vegetables. And I don’t even need a soju bomb to end the meal.

Tteokbokki, snail cream & curly fries: Exploring Seoul

I’m going all Zero Dark Thirty on the egg-bread man. I narrow my eyes and take a step forward. “So is it baked?” He’s unfazed. “Try one,” he says in Korean, smiling widely. They look delicious. But I need answers, and it’s too early in the interrogation to snack. So I shake my head firmly. He hands me one anyway. As I pay, I turn to Narae Yun, my friend-guide-interpreter in Seoul. “Ask him how he makes egg-bread.” She translates. He shrugs, pulls another tray out of the oven and chuckles mysteriously. “Fine. I’ll figure it out myself,” I say sulkily, taking a bite and expecting it to taste like breakfast. However Gaeran Bbang is a world away from conventional eggs and bread. It’s light, fluffy and sweet, with an unexpected streak of salt and hit of fragrant spices. Reminiscent of donuts, nursery rhymes and Sunday mornings. I’m foxed. And more determined than ever to extract the recipe.

“Try again,” I ask Narae, holding up my notebook in an attempt to look intimidating. “He says there are 10 ingredients,” she translates. “Nutmeg?” I ask. He smiles. “Cinnamon?” Smile. “Mace?” Smile. I lean forward and glare, “Then what is in the batter.” As Narae listens to his answer, nodding her head thoughtfully, I smile victoriously. She turns to me seriously, “He says to tell you Indian women are very pretty.” Foiled. And now I’m too flattered to pick a fight.

Like Mr. Egg-Bread, Seoul is unexpectedly charming. I’m warned about insurmountable language barriers, live octopus dinners and dog soup before I go. A few days in the multi-faceted city prove that the stereotype, like most stereotypes, is a caricature of the truth. While admittedly all three features exist, they’re certainly not the norm. The pulsating city is a blend of the familiar and exotic, especially when it comes to food. From my hotel in Hongdae, the hip university quarter, I explore coffee chains offering frappes, espressos and waffles, as well as quirky cafes. (Over breakfast a guest even tells me about a café where guests can pet lambs as they drink their cappuccinoes.) After shopping for quirky cocktail rings, ‘Gangnam’ style ankle socks and trying on South Korea’s famed ‘snail cream’ at a bright cosmetics store, Narae and I wander into a chic restaurant designed to look like a nursery school. The short menu offers interpretations of street food. We order tteokbokki: chewy glutinous rice tubes (called tteok) and fish cakes soaked in Korea’s signature fiery gochujang sauce. “All of us ate this after school,” says Narae, adding, “The idea is to remind people of their childhood.”

Nostalgia seems to be a popular theme here. The food is closely linked to history, and locals are as sentimental about the past as they are enthusiastic about the inevitable wave of Westernised food. It’s an interesting balance: traditional tea houses, retro restaurants and multinational donut chains, all packed on any given night. Since we’re dabbling in history, we decide to eat Budae Jjigae for dinner. “It’s Soldier Stew,” says Narae, as the waiters hand us bibs to tie around our necks. I’m eyeing the bib suspiciously, as the table grill — a standard feature in most traditional Korean restaurant — is fired up, and the dish set on it is filled with spam, sausage, ham, rice cakes, kimchi inexplicable slices of American cheese and a broth. “We were very poor after the Korean War, so we made soup with whatever we could buy from the American soldiers,” says Narae, breaking a pack of instant noodles into the mix. The incongruous mixture of U.S. army rations spits and sizzles (hence the bib) as the ingredients merge and the broth cooks down, transforming the dish into a hearty stew.

The next day, I head to Gangnam to meet my hipster friend Joy Miryeo, who’s still recovering from last night’s party. Holding her head, she gingerly suggests we begin with lunch — a spicy seafood stew ideal for hangovers. The restaurant is stylishly dim, and reportedly a favourite with K-Pop stars. A heavy tray filled with squiggly octopus, juicy prawns and knobbly crab is set on the table grill, along with the ubiquitous tteok, sprouts and minari (Korean greens). As the broth thickens, it becomes increasingly rich, powerful and moreish.

We wander through Isadong’s warren of art galleries and souvenir shops after lunch, admiring the fish-shaped Bungeoppang (sweet cakes filled cinnamon-laced red bean paste). There are peculiar spiral cut potatoes, dipped in cheese and chilli powder. And dramatic but fairly tasteless ice cream hooks: foot long curly cones filled with vanilla ice cream. I sneakily eat a steaming Hotteok pancake, stuffed with molten brown sugar, cinnamon and chopped nuts as a pre-dinner snack.

Dinner is Samgyeopsal at a noisy restaurant, where we swap stories and do soju (the local rice wine) shots. Equipped with dangerous-looking scissors and tongs, Joy expertly cuts luscious strips of pork, and cooks them along with kimchi on the table grill. Following custom, we wrap the meat in lettuce and sesame leaves along with sliced onions, sprouts and kimchi, before dipping it into a trio of powerful sauces.

Emboldened by the soju, we continue to party at Prost, a rollicking bar in Itaewon, popular with backpackers, tourists and American soldiers. More proof that Seoul has a flair for bringing diverse elements together — whether they’re ingredients, cultures or nationalities — to create an alluring brew.

Treasure Island: Koh Phangan

This is the island time forgot.

More significantly, this is the island McDonald’s forgot. No regimented French fries, conformist fried chicken and skinny lattes here. Instead we roll out of bed and slouch across to Rambutan café next door, for strong local iced coffee, sweetened with condensed milk, served in a tall glass clinking with chipped ice. Two fat puppies tussle under the table, coming up every five minutes or so to rub their cold, wet noses on our knees.

The lady that runs the restaurant takes our order with a shy smile. As we start on our coffee, her husband bows and disappears, like a zippy little magician. We watch him zooming towards the local market on his scooter to buy ingredients for our breakfast. Brown, airy omelettes served with crusty garlic bread fluffy, brushed with a generous amount of golden butter. Pad Thai, bright with flavour. Fresh, local, regional. It doesn’t get better than this.

We’re in Koh Phangan island, Thailand, famous for its notorious Full Moon parties. It’s a ‘girl gang holiday’ (five of us in all) and we decide we’re too grown up for Full Moon’s drunken shenanigans, involving buckets of vodka, fluorescent body paint and overly-rambunctious 18 year olds. So we fly into Surat Thani and take a three-hour ferry ride to the island as the moon begins to wane. The party crowd is heading home, resplendent in striking tattoos, golden tans and Ray Bans. As they leave, massage parlours empty, restaurant lights dim and beach bars grow quiet.

Thailand’s a conveyor belt for tourists. Everything geared towards quick and profitable service. Whether you’re in a gaudy Bangkok bar or waiting in line for a pancake from a vendor in Pattaya, you’ll be served with impersonal efficiency. Eventually you get so used to the practical commerce of tourism, you stop expecting to make connections or have conversations. In Phangan, we rediscover the joys of travel. And food.

After cautioning us against hurling his TV through the window, Canadian Scott Williamson, who runs Baan Tai Backpackers, where we are staying, draws us a map, pointing out the best places to eat. Fresh cheap sushi at the night market. Mexican tacos with frozen margaritas down the road. And an honest to goodness French restaurant right opposite the hotel. Our reaction: ‘But… But why would we throw your TV out of the window?” Well, this is Koh Phangan. Party island. You never know.

As it turns out, we’re probably his best-behaved guests, despite our penchant for frightfully pink Bacardi Breezers with breakfast. Fortunately, the island is so laid back, no one seems to mind. At chic Nira’s Café by the pier, as we eat fluffy pancakes sprinkled with tart, sweet lemon sugar, the waiter asks my Breezer-addicted friend if she’d like a cup of coffee. It’s 8 a.m. after all. Then he notices her drink, and laughs, “Ah. Alcohol. That’s better!” Nira’s was started by a couple who took the wrong boat, landed in Phangan by accident in the 1980s, and fell in love with the island.

We hear stories like that all the time. And wonder if we’ll be able to get on our planes home when the time comes.

Every restaurant charms us in different ways. The French restaurateur at Franck’s introduces us to Calvados, an Apple brandy from Normandy, served with hot water and honey to deal with bad throats caused by too many beers at the neighbouring pool bar. In crazy Haad Rin, site of the full moon party, we find a shack on the beach, where they serve a pancake bigger than our faces.

Later in the week, we shake ourselves out of our island stupor, and head to Koh Samui, an hour away by ferry. Our cab drops us at Chaweng beach, right opposite McDonald’s. That’s when we realise this is the first food chain we’re seeing all week. Breakfast is at a fancy hotel buffet — featuring food as disappointing as the hotel is pretty. We relocate to trendy Arc Bar for lunch throbbing with funky house music and Louis Vuitton tourists. The food’s tasty and stylish, designed for jet setters who want to nibble on demure canapés as they work on their tans. Frou-frou ham and black olive sandwiches with icy Caipirinhas.

Rambutan welcomes us back to Phangan with open arms and spicy pork fried rice. When we finally leave the island, they give each of us a hug and a postcard. The message scrawled carefully across the back: “Thank you very much. May you succeed in life. We hope to see you again. Love you so much.”

How can we not go back?

 

Thai Safari

Pad Thai

We break down mid-safari. Since this isn’t Masai Mara, we’re ridiculously laid back. Besides, it’s stifling in the bus. So we saunter out, watched by astonished deer. And Japanese tourists. They drive past in meticulously sealed vans. We wave cockily. Till a pair of stocky wildebeest charge at us. Unfortunately our response is more Britney Spears than David Attenborough. Though to be fair, Spears probably wouldn’t have squealed like a little girl.

A passing ranger shoos them away like they’re goats, and the wildebeest obediently take their high jinks elsewhere. Hopefully not too close to the lions. Oh, yes. Did I mention there were lions? And tigers. Lying side by side in a detached stupor barely 200 metres away. (Bangkok’s Safari World is a strange and troubling place.) Apparently it’s a ‘picturesque African wilderness setting’. I’ve seen more realistic African vistas on Dora the Explorer.

It begins to thunder in the distance. Just as the scene gets a little too “Jurassic Park” for our liking, a replacement bus arrives. And a good thing too. Otherwise this column would not have been about having lunch. It would have been about being lunch.

Lunch by the way is as mystifying as our safari. We’re proudly told it’s an ‘International buffet’ set in a tropical forest. We end up eating fried rice under plastic trees. Why is tourism always so bad for a country’s cuisine? Logically, it should be a great impetus to showcase the best you have to offer. However, it’s a universally accepted fact that ‘touristy’ places generally have bad food, sullen service and ludicrously high prices.

Fortunately, it’s just as easy to avoid a tourist trap as it is to trip into one. Google makes planning a foodie-holiday really easy. Read articles, food blogs and follow local websites to decide where to eat. If there’s a restaurant you want to try, you can find the website, check the menu and even make a booking before you travel.

When you’re travelling, keep away from the tourists. Tourists tend to have a herd mentality, and very few of them move beyond the areas they are bussed to. They do all their shopping, eating and drinking around the key ‘sights’ of the city. Walk for ten minutes away from the discounted souvenirs and ticket counters, and you’ll find yourself amid the locals. Then just stop someone and ask for a recommendation.

We take a train into the heart of the city looking for dinner. Walking down Sukhumvit, we’re channelling Mike Tyson’s version of ‘One Night in Bangkok’. That’s how we find Nancy, a wise-cracking, Panama-wearing, cocktail-juggling roadside bartender, who fixes us icy margaritas. We sip them regally, seated besides a main road watching traffic whiz past. It’s unexpectedly relaxing.

Following her directions, we end on a bustling neon street, where vendors sell sizzling satay under bright pink lights. I’m a little wary of satay. I’ve learnt to make detailed enquiries about innocuous deep-fried objects served on sticks in South East Asia. Especially when they’re served beside deep-fried bugs.

Yet, I slip up in Pattaya. We are at a night market, torn between candy coloured sunglasses and oversized hats, when we see the satay seller. It looks delicious, and she assures us its chicken. “Fair enough,” we shrug, ordering two. The first is chewy and tube like. “Intestines,” I squeal, going green. “Yum, Yum,” says my friend, chewing her way happily through them, and simultaneously trying a hat so big it looks like it’s swallowing her head. I try the second stick. Deep fried chicken skin.

We ramble on, and make friends with the sweet corn lady. She shaves it off the cob and tosses it with pepper, salt and slices of coconut, ending with a generous squirt of lemon juice. There’s a street band playing, and crafty entrepreneurs fill buckets with ice and cold beers to sell them to passers-by. It’s 2 a.m., and we’re in oversized hats accessorised with ridiculously pink bows. It seems like the perfect time to eat pancakes. The pancake lady doesn’t bat an eyelash as we approach, looking like a pair of batty escapees from the sets of Pride and Prejudice. She swiftly pours out batter in a pool of golden butter, slices in ripe mangoes and tops it with a generous dollop of condensed milk.

We’ve lost the tourists. To be honest, we’ve also lost ourselves. “Ah well,” my friend The Hat shrugs. “Let’s just get some more intestines.”

Seriously Slow Food

Terence working his way through a plate of Hokkien mee

 

I kissed a snail. And not in that metaphorical ‘someday my Prince will come’ sense. I mean an honest-to-goodness crustacean (or would that be mollusk?) from a plate of stir fried spicy sea snails.

I blame Terence entirely. He made it look so easy. “Just scoop up a shell with sauce, and suck,” he says, languidly working his way through the first few. “We call them chut, chuts,” because that’s the noise you make when you eat them,” he laughs. Later, I’m told “chut chutting” also means ‘kissing a snail’ in Cantonese. They taste musky, of dark water and deep fish tanks. The sauce is thin and fiery, a clever foil to their chewy heaviness.

This adventure begins at the Taman Paramount railway station, in Petaling Jaya, a Malaysian city adjoining Kuala Lumpur. We’re meeting Terence, who is the co-founder of ‘Food Tour Malaysia’, (http://www.foodtourmalaysia.com/) which focuses on guiding tourists through the country’s intimidatingly diverse cuisine. And I’m keen on exploring a world beyond gleaming food courts set in shopping malls, where I’ve been eating little besides Char Kway teow, sweet Kaya toast and steaming teh tarik, ever since I landed in Kuala Lumpur.

As we walk to Terence’s car, he explains why we’re in the more prosaic Petaling Jaya instead of glitzy Kuala Lumpur. “Most people work in Kuala Lumpur, and live here. So it has a much more local flavour… The restaurants are home grown and passed down from generation to generation. Recipes are guarded.” He adds thoughtfully, “Chinese cooks are like Kung Fu masters. If there are 10 secrets they will only tell you eight.”

We begin at his favourite Malaysian hawker centre. It’s dinnertime, and customers relax over sentimental soap operas on television while chatting with the cooks over dinner. As I watch a bowl of cockles breathe heavily, Terence gestures to a stall owner and he brings us a handful of warm banana leaf packets, held together with toothpicks.

“Otak Otak,” says Terence, explaining how the stingray is marinated, wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. It’s spicy, with sharp definite flavours: kaffir lime, red chillies and smoky charcoal. We’re given small blue bowls of aromatic lamb stew next, tasting of coriander, pepper and golden fried onions. Of course no Malaysian meal is complete without nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and served with crisp anchovies, peanuts, a boiled egg and generous dollop of spicy sambal that stains the rice red.

The next stop is the rambunctiously energetic Chinese Restaurant Ahwa, known for using coal fires to give their food an unmistakable edge.

There are cheerful yellow-orange paper lamps dancing between ceiling fans like pineapples on parade. We begin with tall glasses of cool barley water, and refreshingly tangy lemonade spiked with dried sour plums.

Terence orders vegetarian Popiah rolls, rice crepes stuffed with shredded jicama, a Mexican Turnip, stir fried so its unusual nutty flavour and juiciness is a contrast to the crisp cucumber and bean sprouts, all topped with a thick sweet bean sauce. There’s also a plate of boiled squid, curling at the edges, tossed with spinach and covered with big handful of crushed peanuts. We also eat Kwao Teo in a glistening glutinous sauce, embedded with coral prawns. And chicken satay served with an addictively sweet-salty peanut sauce, spiked with galangal. The snails make their appearance at this stage. They’re followed by another challenging dish-fried Hokkien mee, thick noodles blackened with rich soy sauce, and cooked in pork lard. It’s a cult dish is Kuala Lumpur, and Terence’s infectious enthusiasm — the same reason I’m a crustacean’s kissing cousin — inspires me to try a few bites. Let’s just say I expanded my horizons, and then went back to eating satay.

Dessert is at a bustling night market, alive with chatter and randomly placed tube lights. We head to a Chinese sweet soup stall, featuring massive bowls from which you serve yourself. We try sweet red bean, mung bean and peanut soup, sitting on unstable plastic chairs and soaking up the sense of community.

“Indian?” asks Terence. It seems like the ideal way to end the night.

The Indian hawker centre’s reassuringly familiar, alive with Tamil music and girls in raucously coloured skirts. We’re served hot masala tea and sweet appams, with a jiggly core of coconut milk and jaggery.

I chat with the store-owner in Tamil. “What’s he saying?” asks Terence, curiously. I plot my revenge. The joys of turning tables on a local when you’re abroad!

Kuala Lumpur: Going Underground

With Jennifer (centre) after a spectacular dinner.

For how long can you admire the Petronas Towers? Following tourist trap tradition in Kuala Lumpur, we have a drink at the chic Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, dutifully gasping at the startlingly pretty towers while sipping on over-priced cocktails.

Then, we rebel. Hop into a cab and head to Jennifer’s Underground Supper Club. We’re determined to make the most of our ‘city break’ by exploring layers of Kuala Lumpur independently. There has to be more to Malaysia than the staid KL-Cameron Highlands-Batu Caves-package advertised mindlessly by hordes of over-enthusiastic travel agents.

We drive away from the city’s sparkling skyscrapers into quiet residential areas filled with sprawling bungalows. Jennifer Palencia aka ‘Jen’ is part of the first wave of cooks in Asia opening its homes to guests. Underground restaurants such as this allow people to experience unconventional settings and unexpected food. I found Jen on Facebook, and booked the dinner online. Even as we draw up to the house, I’m not quite sure about what to expect.

Natasha, Jennifer’s eldest daughter, is standing at the door in a stripy apron welcoming guests with smiles and hugs. Featuring three fat tabby cats, who stalk around like stern food inspectors, the setting manages to be both formal and welcoming. We walk into a living room draped in golden light from chandeliers twisted with flowers. Every surface is covered with quirky knick knacks ranging from polka-dotted porcelain gumboots to a big pot flashing with tiny golden fish. As we’re assigned our places on a long tables set with professional precision, featuring gleaming wine glasses and a regiment of cutlery, the room fills with soft jazz music. The artist is Mia Palencia, Jen’s second daughter and a popular jazz singer.

Everyone’s dressed up in pretty dresses and stiff shirts. Jen’s youngest daughter is sitting on my right, along with a group of her friends discussing the best places to grab a snack after a night of clubbing. They open a bottle of wine for everyone. The generosity is as unexpected as it is endearing. It quickly feels like we’re having dinner with friends and family. An astonishing feeling in a city where we know nobody.

On my left is a charismatic young man who works for Facebook. “And don’t even think of telling me you hate the new timeline,” he groans, mock rolling his eyes, before enthusiastically helping me plot my next few meals in Kuala Lumpur. His charming housemate pulls out her iPhone to give directions.

In the meantime, Natasha arrives holding up and explaining the first course: mushroom tartlets, with buttery pastry. The evening unfolds like theatre. There are risotto balls, savoury madeleines topped with plump caviar and moreish truffles of chevre and cream cheese rolled in crunchy crushed almonds then wrapped around juicy grapes. And these are just the highlights.

By the time we hit the entrée, luscious Portobello mushrooms filled with a blend of ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes, we’re on a food high. While we eat the main course, roast beef served with billowy Yorkshire pudding, Natasha introduces her teenage brother Christian Palencia (So that’s four children in all) who strums on his guitar, and performs a couple of original songs. He’s cutting his first record this month (I’ve been listening to him on SoundCloud ever since I got back).

Despite protests on being stuffed, we manage dessert (And some of us manage two). Apple pecan buttercrisp pie scented with cinnamon and served with ice cream. And flaky French pastry topped with vanilla bean flecked Chantilly cream and berries.

I’ve been plotting another first on this holiday — signing up for a cooking class. Jen’s tourist cooking classes are fairly recent, but have enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor. I’m back at her house bright and early the next morning. My classmate today is Chris, a hunky young Californian backpacker who’s travelling the world. Over cups of strong coffee in Jen’s living room, he tells me about his adventures in Beijing involving encounters with fried scorpions (Backpackers always have the best conversation openers). We’re learning how to make Malaysia’s staple dish: Nasi Lemak. The kitchen is bright and airy, mercifully air-conditioned and we cook in time to a peppy playlist courtesy a laptop in the corner.

Natasha showing Chris how to make a killer turmeric chicken

The class is deceptively laidback, with lots of banter and laughing, between cooking tips and history lessons. Later, I realise I inadvertently learnt a lot about Malaysia in the process. Jen’s husband Brabon opens by showing us how to make his ‘Fast and furious salad’, a crafty mix of tinned pineapples and cucumbers spiked with chillies, shallots, vinegar and lime. By mid-morning, there’s turmeric chicken roasting in the oven, coconut rice bubbling quietly on a stove, and we’re knee deep in colourful family history. Like much of Malaysia, Jen’s family is a mix of various influences. Her grandfather was Australian, sent to Sabah to manage a plantation. He married a local girl. Her Eurasian father fell in love with a woman of Filipino and Spanish decent.

When he was captured as a prisoner of war, Jen tells us, her mother would swim underwater to set up fishing nets so she could feed her children. Brabon’s grandfather was a Belgian soldier who married a girl from Sabah. Their daughter in turn married a Filipino man and had nine children, the youngest of whom was Brabon.

As we settle for lunch, Christian comes downstairs and teaches us how to tie a batik sarong, while Natasha mixes us rose milk, made with ruby-coloured syrup, thick evaporated milk and lots of ice. They tell us, with unconcealed pride, how Jen was Sabah’s first woman DJ. “We lived so dangerously,” sighs Jen. “We would leave the club at 3 a.m., then take a boat to an island to swim in pitch darkness.” The children grew up running on the beaches and swimming in the sea. “We’re a real Malaysian family,” smiles Jennifer. “We’re American, European, Asian. And we cannot live without our Indian roti-dosais !”

(Find Jen’s Supper Club on Facebook or call them on +60 377287909)

Good Mornington

I start by falling off my horse. We’re riding through the vineyards, tasting crisp chardonnays and heady pinot noirs at every cellar door we pass. I wish I could blame it on the wine. However, I have to admit, I make my unglamorous descent right at the beginning, tasting mud before we even start tasting wine. Fortunately, Toby, my horse, is a perfect gentleman. He waits patiently, standing still and sighing gently, as I’m fished out from between his hooves.

Barring my Humpty-Dumpty moment, it’s a perfect day. The Mornington Peninsula’s rolling vineyards, olive groves and pastures are lit with gentle sunshine, the flowers are ferociously bright, the ground is still plum-pudding fragrant from last night’s rain. This is one of Australia’s favourite picture-postcard escapes — just an hour from Melbourne. It’s difficult to believe it used to be shrub and bush land before the European settlement. Now, the Peninsula is home to roughly 1,35,000 people. A number that swells to 2,50,000 in summer, when the vineyards and their restaurants welcome visitors from all over the world.

We drive through caravan parks, golf courses and small art galleries on our way to the Horseback Winery Tours. The winding mud roads are fringed with wild flowers and hand-made signs advertising just-harvested apples, cherries and ‘punnets of raspberries’. At the stable, we pat the horses’ warm velvety necks, admiring their long eyelashes before saddling up. Or in my case, down. I clamber back on, and we trot through the meadows in a single file. As we wind through forest trails, ducking trees while our horses daintily pick their way through slush the colour of chocolate, the only sounds are birds chirruping, occasional metal jangles from the harness and soft harrumphs.

Our first stop is Ten Minutes By Tractor, where we do a tasting, studiously swirling our way from white to red to sparkling. I wish I could tell you more — but my tasting notes fell off the horse. And Toby and I decided they weren’t worth diving after. What I do remember is, the name comes from the fact that all three vineyards are 10 minutes from each other. Yes, by tractor. The sommelier here also introduced us to WIT, or wine in a tube. A single glass, sealed in a glass test tube so you don’t have to open an entire bottle. Watch out for this — it’ll revolutionise solo drinking. Our next stop’s the pretty Green Olive farm shop, offering fragrant espressos made from beans roasted on site, crusty bread with bush-infused olive oil and a cold cellar lined with homemade sausages.

We also drop by the Sunny Ridge Strawberry Farm, Australia’s largest strawberry producer. Sunny Ridge sets five hills aside for tourists to pick from, between November and April. Guests pay to go out in the fields and pick their own strawberries. Tom Sawyer whitewashes the fence, I snort, grouchily pulling plastic bags over my shoes before walking into the slush with a plastic container. Yet, it’s unexpectedly relaxing. Walking between the rows, lifting dew-drenched leaves, searching for perfectly sun-ripened strawberries. Especially because I eat as I pick. Fresh, juicy and sweet, strawberries never tasted so good.

Lunch is at the Montalto Vineyard and Olive Grove. We dine among 50 acres of fruit-laden vines, olive trees and dramatic installations by local artists. The restaurant, with its timber structure and glass walls, gives the impression that you’re dining in the garden, though there’s nothing rustic about the meal. Stinging nettle risotto with Main Ridge goats’ curd, followed by cardamom and honey glazed duck breast: a clever combination of local produce and global flair.

After all this hard work, the Peninsula Hot Springs seems like the ideal place to end the day. Victoria’s first natural hot springs and day spa centre, it’s a sprawling property with unexpected nooks and crannies hiding small springs, baths and plunge pools of mineral rich thermal water. We’re scheduled for a spa treatment, a kodo massage inspired by traditional aboriginal techniques. It’s done in a wind-buffeted tent set to aboriginal music, conjuring up images of drum circles, fierce forests and red wet earth.

In the evening, in my room at the Pepper Moonah Links Resort, I study the silent golf course that encircles my mostly-glass room suspiciously. There’s a helpful notice by the bedside, with pictures of the three varieties of venomous snakes found on the property. Fortunately, I’m quickly distracted. Dinner. We eat at The Baths, in laidback Sorrento, right by the beach. Freshly shucked oysters, with a squeeze of lime. We watch the sun sink in a spectacular show of might and colour, as we drink ‘Stickys’, a glass of late picked semillon.

Driving back to Melbourne, I watch fat cows contentedly scratching their heads against knobbly trees. Horses in sturdy, weathered blankets grazing in daisy-strewn meadows. Paths fringed with purple flowers. And every once in a while, a ‘house for rent’ sign. We stop briefly at the famous bathing boxes, as bright as candy, and dip our toes in the icy waves.

We pass small towns with big signs advertising Friday night barefoot bowling, salsa classes, psychic dinners. Perhaps I should investigate the houses for rent. For Toby’s sake.

Melbourne: More than just Kangaroo Burgers

Hippy gourmet meets hipster-chic. Sustainable, recyclable, biodynamic. And always – unabashedly provocative.

Greenhouse by Joost could be a metaphor for the recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival as well as contemporary Victorian cuisine. A living ‘pop up’ restaurant, the Greenhouse is as flamboyant as it is conscientious. As rooted at it is rebellious. As avant-garde as it is traditional. Sounds as pretentious as it is ephemeral? You’re in for a surprise. Starting with our waiter (who in that uniquely Melbournian way, looks like he spends every lunch break at the gym), flaunting a T-shirt emblazoned with ‘Greenhouse takes the piss.’ Quite literally.

Created by Joost Bakker, Dutch florist turned artist turned eco-warrior, this restaurant set beside the muddy Yarra river has a life span of just 20 days, which is how long the festival runs. One of the focal points of the festival, it’s famously self reliant. To the extent of creating its own energy by harvesting urine from the men’s toilets. It will be used to fertilize 20 hectares of mustard crop, the oil from which will power next year’s Greenhouse.

Entering the restaurant’s Lego-like arrangement of three shipping containers, I weave through vats of basil and stop to admire Joost’s signature ‘plant walls’ filled with pots of strawberries. This building is the culmination of years of research by designers, builders, engineers, scientists, farmers and chefs. Inside, it’s fragrant with the scent of fresh wood shavings. In the flickering yellow light of beeswax candles, muscled chefs flex their tattoos under meticulously ripped t-shirts. The beer is artisan. The food local. The structure cozy. “Our walls are filled with straw bales to keep interiors warm. The floor’s made of old conveyor belts from a factory,” smiles Joost, who pops by to say hello. “And all our wine, beer and milk come in returnable kegs.”

Drinking water from a clunky jam jar and eating baba ganoush off a wine bottle that’s been reheated and reformed into a serving dish, I can almost hear the restaurant breathe. Graffiti above the bar reads “Imagine buildings that grow food.” This is a model building for urban agriculture. Mushrooms spurt from logs along the wall. Above us, the roof garden is lush with lemon grass, basil and rocket. And then of course, there are those strawberry walls. Rene Redezpi, commonly acknowledged to be one of the world’s best chefs and inspiration for the current food foraging trend, cooked a meal here for the festival. It’s a good place as any to start unraveling Melbourne’s unique food style.

Australia’s multicultural immigration program enables it to absorb authentic food cultures from around the world. Being ‘Down Under’ seems to have worked to its advantage. With a wide array of lush seasonal ingredients and a crop of young talented Chefs, instead of being buffeted by transient trends of world cuisine, Australia’s absorbed various ethnic influences, melding them together to create its own distinctive style. It’s not all Crocodile steaks, Kangaroo burgers and Vegemite sandwiches, as the Food and Wine Festival proved.

The event began with the ‘World’s Longest Lunch’ set on a sun dappled long table, along the river. The setting’s earthy, rural, sophisticated. Hats and pearls, sunglasses and summer dresses, a canopy of trees and a carpet of damps twigs and crisp yellow leaves. About 1200 people sit along a 500 metre long table to enjoy the bounty of a very Victorian autumn, cool and sunny.

The meal begins with a delicate tangle of leafy vegetables and herbs, served with smoked trout the colour of coral. It’s followed by Chef George Biron’s Turkey with tomatillos. Over dessert, a vacherin featuring rich cream stained pink with rhubarb, Biron tries to explain the essence of contemporary Victorian food. “This is a cerebral city,” he says, talking of how it’s embraced visitors. “The gold rush brought us Chinese food. The Italian immigrants came next. Now the Africans are here… We’re so lucky. In Melbourne we can travel the world in one evening. One street is Hanoi, the next is Ethiopia.” His Turkey and Tomatillos, inspired by Mexican cooking, are an attempt to showcase new world food. “They were all picked yesterday from my gardens. That’s the ethos here: everyone bringing their best to the table.”

CEO of the festival, Natalie O’Brien, talks of how they’ve hosted over 70 Michelin starred Chefs over the 20 years of the festival. “This is best of Victoria, but it’s also the best of the world. We want to show the spectrum we have: East African, Afghan, Middle Eastern and Asian food.” It’s more than just a database of traditional recipes and venues. “It’s the sum of the small things. The experiences people share.”

Making Passata with Mangia Mangia is all about the experience. In Carlton, the Italian quarter of town, where families sit at pavement cafés eating gelato, we’re introduced to ‘Passata’ at the Museo Italiano courtyard. Despite the incessant drizzle, spirits are high as Angela explains why her family gathers together every year to make this rich sauce of poached tomatoes and basil. “It’s about preserving our tradition. Food is the very essence of who we are. It transcends culture and individuals,” she says, passing around jugs of coffee and a platter of biscotti. She adds, “In two generations there have been so many changes. We used to spend time cooking together. If we lose our tradition it would be a tragedy.” It’s slick marketing, no doubt. The process is embarrassingly simple for a cooking class. Poach, pulp, bottle. So much for “families’ secrets and techniques.” But there’s an all-pervading sense of goodwill in the air as people settle down for a simple, and hearty, lunch of pasta served with generous shavings of sharp Grada Padano cheese and home cured olives.

Food in Melbourne is about celebrating variety. The city’s most popular chefs blend traditional and contemporary influences. At the Carlton Wine room we sit in a private dining room in the style of an old-school Gentlemen’s club. Croatian Chef Matthew Silovic’s food is ‘Modern European,’ rife with Melbournian influences. More about meticulously sourced and intelligently combined ingredients than convoluted techniques. The star’s a mixed tomato salad with brittle toasted almonds, puffed brown rice, unctuous blobs of burrata cheese and a sticky olive oil jam. Later in the week we eat at Coda by Chef Adam De Silva, who’s heavily influenced by South East Asia, particularly Vietnam: Rice paper rolls with smoked duck, prawn and tapioca betel leaf and – his signature dish – sugar cane prawn.

Variety isn’t limited to what’s on your plate. The city’s rife with surprising venues. Mathew Bax, who runs the legendary bar, Der Raum, and well as the well-hidden Bar Americano, says Melbourne is a competitive market, but one that appreciates quality. “Anyone can create a short term buzz with a gimmick or nifty location but the real trick is to keep them coming back.… Bar Americano was designed to be fad proof, the interior is very classic. Many of the features are based on the great “old rattler’ wooden trams of Melbourne… Our carpenter restores the old trams and works to create furniture from them.”

Early in the week, we stumble upon another pop-up, the Broadsheet Bar, humming with activity despite, or perhaps because of, its exposed pipes, wobbly makeshift shelves and industrial vibe. Walking along the Yarra later that night, we’re chatted up by the cheery bouncer at Ponyfish Island, a floating pop-up turned permanent bar under a bridge offering crocodile skewers, kangaroo kebabs and Sichuan smoked quail.

There are other festival highlights. DJ’s playing at food truck jams and a lecture titled ‘“How Not to Drink Wine like a Wanker’’ by Dan Sims. Culinary rockstar, the 34 year old David Chang of Momofuku, a Michelin starred serial restaurateur and pioneer of cross-cultural cuisine, takes a Master class on the ‘Flavour of Fire’ and there are reports of journalists bumping into Antony Bourdain wandering about the hotel lobby. We drink champagne at a cocktail party with eight Michelin Chefs, including Tokyo’s Jun Yukimura and France’s Thierry Marx, at the Crown Casino. Stumble upon ‘rooftop honey,’ a project that aims to bring bees back to the city, thus addressing issues of sustainability. And attend a very soggy ‘Cellar Door and Farm Gate’ event, where with wet hair, slushy feet and frozen fingers we sip samples from boutique wineries, specialist brewers and artisan producers.

The taste of Melbourne – and in fact Victoria – is unique because it’s an expression of so many different factors. A multicultural populace. A bounty of fresh local ingredients. An active conscience. What we eat is who we are. What makes Australia so exciting is the fact that this is tantalisingly transient. And proudly so.

Ibiza: Where even sunsets have sound tracks.

They’re battered.

There’s no prettier way to put it. Waiting for my flight out of Ibiza, I watch a procession of , muscle-sore party boys and It Girls ouch and groan their way to Departures. As a blonde Brad Pitt look alike passes out on the bench beside me, his friends stand around helplessly, weakly clutching their six packs and water bottles. After some feverish mumbling, they hoist him up, and wobble to their gate. Think: Saving Private Ryan. In slow motion. With tattoos. And massive hangovers.

A weekend in Ibiza, hedonistic party capital of the world, can be rough.

In the sixties, this island, a part of the Balearic archipelago of Spain, became famous as an idyllic refuge for hippies tripping on flower power, ‘love-not-war’ philosophies and acid – not necessarily in that order. Gradually its distinctive music and anything-goes attitude drew bohemians and rock stars, artists and party chasers, the wild and the reckless from all over the world. If you were hip, cool and anti-establishment, Ibiza was the place to be.

Eventually, the 24-hour raves, fuelled by trance, alcohol and a cocktail of chemical uppers (illegal but absurdly easy to obtain) earned it the tag ‘Gomorrah of the Mediterranean Sea.’ By the late nineties, the Vengaboys were trilling about ‘going to Ibiza,’ but for a large part of the party world, the island was ‘over.’ It had become too accessible, too obvious, too crowded. A metaphor for bad behaviour, desperate partying and juvenile high jinks.

Till now. My friends and I land in Ibiza to find it in middle of a rejuvenation. The hippies and artists are reclaiming the North, along with the likes of celebrities like Jade Jagger. The Gucci tourists are back to sipping sangria over spicy paella in Eivissa Town’s graceful medieval Dalt Vila area, flush with designer boutiques. (We’re told that “rupee squillionaire” Lakshmi Mittal’s yacht is anchored here.) Electronic Dance Music, Ibiza’s greatest export, plays everywhere, a sound track to sunsets, full moons and baking afternoons on the beach. And the clubs, some of the best on the world, are vying with each other to source designer DJs and host supremely riotous party nights.

It seems like the ideal place for three girls to channel their inner hippies. We’re concluding a hectic two week holiday, and after hefty doses of culture, history and architecture in Barcelona and Lisbon, we plan to do little besides lounge about in a zen-like stupor all day, soaking up the music, art and atmosphere. And of course, party through the nights.

This is the start of the ‘season’ – which stretches from June to October. We head to rocking San Antoni to watch sunrise from Café Del Mar. However, with its regulation bouncers and grimly chic waiters it seems rather naff so we amble down a line of sea-facing cafes to find a breezy bar with zingy mojitoes and wonderfully eccentric customers.

As the sun goes down in a flaming chaos of colour, a shy Spanish man with a braided beard teaches us tricks on his unicycle, watched appreciatively by the local Don Juan who chats us up using his scruffy dog as an icebreaker. A British playboy, who lives on his yacht, introduces us to passing friends (“everyone knows everyone else here”), and between it all our tousle-haired Argentinean waitress gives shopping tips. This fluid confluence of nationalities is a large part of Ibiza’s magic.

We choose Pacha, arguably the island’s best known club, to party the night away. Although Pacha has clubs around the world, from New York to Munich, its flagship is in Ibiza. It’s Flower Power night, a tribute to the island’s most colourful phase. Bathed in joyful pink, yellow and blue light, the front doors open into a multi-level room where hundreds of people dance to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin… The energy is palpable, the music infectious.

Our charming Polish friend Maciek, a global nomad who has spent six months of a year working in Ibiza for the past 10 years, shows us around the club’s five rooms, capable of holding 3,000 people in all. We dance. We lounge. We sing, ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance,’ with a thousand people, hands in the air. The night ends on the terrace as day breaks, watching the sky slowly turn a delicate shade of blue.

In time-honoured Ibiza tradition, we wake up by afternoon and stumble out with sunglasses, hats and hangovers. There’s a dizzying variety of new age fetishism on offer in town, from snake massage therapy (150 Euros an hour) to nude power yoga. We settle for caffeine instead, sitting placidly at a café, watching determinedly botoxed women in clingy dresses totter by.

The buzz at the café is all about David Guetta, who organizes the ‘F**k Me I’m Famous’ nights at Pacha every Thursday, bringing in the likes of Will.I.Am, Taio Cruz and Black Eyed Peas. Since we’re in the mood for a more placid form of clubbing, we head to Bora Bora beach to snooze in the warm powdery sand while all around us beautiful people in gym-toned bodies and designer swimwear groove to the beat of yet another DJ, in yet another bar.

Maciek drives us out of town to demonstrate why he loves Ibiza on our final day on the island. We glide past wide open fields, quiet beaches and glittering salt pans, Ibiza’s white gold. And always, in the background, the deep blue Mediterranean sea. Our last few hours on the island are spent on Las Salinas beach, soaking up the sun, watching cold jelly-fish laden waves wash upon the shore and listening to a DJ dreamily spin that now intensely-familiar Balearic beat.

 

Ginga and Sardines in Lisbon

Every time a car trundles past, I stand and hoist up my red plastic chair.

This certainly isn’t the most glamorous way to have a drink in Portugal. It is, however, the most atmospheric.

In Lisbon’s Alfama district – a maze of candy-coloured houses exuberant with dangling clothes lines – bars unapologetically ramble all over the street. My friends and I dive into a flurry of skinny lanes, watched by old ladies peering curiously from their windows and plump cats wearing supercilious expressions.

After an hour of rambling, we end up at a particularly charming bar, with its daily menu scrawled on cardboard paper and plastic chairs set right on the road. Fortunately only three cars go by in the time we’re there, leaving me just enough time between moving furniture to gossip with the neighbours and sample some fried cod croquettes.

At the next table, I watch with fascination as an old lady, roughly eighty years old, grandly enters with her dog. She grabs a chair and a beer and then sits down for a languid smoke, the leash casually draped around her shoulders. Beside her a gang of stylish old men with rakish hats order a round of beers. A friend tells us this is how to find a good restaurant – look for the ones filled with retired locals.

The next day, on our way to Castelo beach, we stop at Costa Da Caparica, a scenic ferry and bus ride away from Alfama. Our search of antiquated Portuguese people ends at a tiny corner restaurant where we order the country’s much loved grilled sardines, silvery and crisp, soaked with the unmistakable flavour of a charcoal grill.

Over the week we spend in Lisbon, this becomes a familiar smell. Especially because Alfama district, where we’re staying, is swinging into street party mode as summer sets in and random street corners are taken over by smoky sardine grills. We take deep appreciative breaths, savouring the aroma every night, as we head out for Fado music, pub crawls or merely another evening of knocking back countless shots of Ginga, the much-loved and dangerously addictive liqueur made by infusing ginja berries (or sour cherry) in alcohol.

Later in the week we decide to supplement our childhood history classes by a visit to Belem, from where Vasco Da Gama set out for India. The Jeronimos Monastery, a fantastical tangle of spires and sculptures, is easily one of the prettiest monuments I’ve ever seen.

Once we’ve done tourist thing, José Guerreiro, guide turned buddy from the Pancho walking tour, takes us to his favourite haunt: Pasteis de Belem. Loved by the Portuguese as well as tourists, this enormous café has been making its signature egg custard tarts since 1837.

As legend goes, in the beginning of the 19th century this was a small general store linked to a sugar cane refinery. When the liberal revolution of 1820 closed down all convents and monasteries, someone from Jeronimos began making these sweet pastries as an attempt at survival. This secret recipe has been passed on through generations of master confectioners.

Our waiter at Pasties de Belem proudly brings us a tray and suggests we eat each pastry with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon. Carefully crafted, the flaky, buttery pastry is balanced by a sweet, wobbly interior.

Back in Alfama, we take to rambling through dark alleys to discover new restaurants. One of our best meals is in a hot, crowded Filipino-run nameless restaurant comprising of just two rooms, one of which has unfortunately been captured by a group of spectacularly untalented karaoke singers.

We squeeze into chairs in the main dining room, and are served bowls of deliciously salty olives speckled with garlic along with a generous jug of scarlet sangria. Plates of golden fried rolls filled with mincemeat follow. And then plates heaped with grilled sausages, rice and steamed vegetables. A pot pourri of food traditions – but one that works.

As we leave the gregarious owner laughs as he explains why he has no signboard. “They told me it’s 550 Euro to register,” he says, “So I call my restaurant Hollywood Grill, but only in my head!”

Sho-Buzz

June 2017
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