Monday, June 28, 2010

Coptic Cairo

With a metro station located right opposite this historic native Christian sanctuary, it’s definitely one of the most accessible locations that I know of in Cairo.

It was a sunny afternoon. Strolling out of the Mar Girgis station, I’d never thought that we’d be late.

At the ticketing booth, an old lady reminded me that the Coptic museum was closing very soon. That much, I understood. And it was very kind of her too, to refuse me a ticket. I was disappointed of course, and was already planning to reshuffle my itinerary just to make it into the compound the following day. As we walked back to the station, I saw a group of, presumably tourists, entering via the south entrance. We followed suit.

And I stepped into Coptic Cairo.

So, it was just the museum that was closing, not the churches.

Facing us was the Hanging Church, perhaps inspired by the Hanging Garden of Babylon. Basically suspended by the watergate below, the tall church was of an intimate size. It was interesting to see art pieces combining Biblical figures and Arabic words - a first for me. There were more tourists than worshipers in the church that afternoon but the atmosphere was still very much tranquil. It was a shame that we missed the Ben Ezra Synagogue after visiting the Hanging Church.

We found ourselves heading north, passing the churches of St. George, St. Sergius and St. Barbara. The Greek Orthodox Cemetery had thoughtfully designed tombstones and was a peaceful and pensive seclusion, one that contradicted perfectly the congested, bustling downtown Cairo.

It’s easy to enjoy a few hours, even a day here in Coptic Cairo. The serenity and sights of a unique heritage and its people are a treat. I was at peace.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Azure, Alexandria

On one hand, the city tells the illustrious story of her past that coalesced the ways of, among others, the ancient Graeco-Romans, Egyptians, Christians and Muslims. It's here where ships from the Mediterranean and Red Seas meet, where Alexander the Great spread the Hellenistic culture  across the centuries old Pharaonic land that led to the great dynasty of the Ptolemies, where Cleopatra once reigned and where Napoleon began his march to Cairo  in the Battle of the Pyramids.

The sun was up but the trunk roads leading to the city were unusually quiet, a juxtaposition that took me by surprise, given her status as Egypt's largest seaport. The only objects that lived among the deserted, dusty blocks of old shophouses were the drying fishing nets, moving to the pattern of the wind. She appeared passive, perhaps fatigued by the tumultuous ages she'd had to witness.

However, the city grew noisier as we made our way to Pompey's Pillar and The Serapeum. The Roman column and the once resource for Pagan literature seemed less extraordinary but to really appreciate the structures is to understand their existence. Our enthusiastic guide, a PhD student, was a good storyteller. The tour would have been perfect had we brought some chips to go along with her engaging tales. We moved further to the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa, which was flooded with hundreds of tourists that spoke mostly Spanish and Italian. This necropolis is another testament of the integration of Greek and Pharaonic beliefs - impressions of Anubis, Osiris, Horus, Isis, Persephone and Hades filled the vast underground world, which I believe at one time, must have been stored with hundreds of corpses. Alone, standing under the dim lights and be surrounded by the countless dark hollows that once were filled with sarcophagi, frightening is not about the haunting of the spirits but a  sense of desolation that commands this space. No photos were allowed here.

As we travelled along the scenic but busy coastline of Al-Corniche, I showed the guide a picture of the Pharos lighthouse and asked if we were going there. She looked confused and later, let out a laugh. I obviously didn't do my homework well. You see, the lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World but was toppled in a major earthquake back in the 12th century. The fort named Qaitbey that accompanied the once lighthouse remained.

Fort Qaitbey was of a bright hue of brown, the perfect contrast to the amazingly blue sky. The guide asked if I would like to feel like a king for a minute. I was then directed to climb onto a high stand, facing the window on the second level of the fort.

Overlooking the eastern harbour, this was where the king delivered his speeches to the people of Alexandria. The view from where I stood was beautiful.

At the other end of the fort, the Mediterranean Sea greets.

We left the past and headed to the last stop of our journey, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina - a modern version of the destroyed Great Library of Alexandria, which was apparently the largest library in the ancient world built during the days of Ptolemy I. This architectural marvel that infuses Egyptian elements like hieroglyphs is now the country’s main cultural centre and library.

Unlike the quiet entrance into the city, the Bibliotheca is buzzing with young, stylish Egyptians that brim with such livelihood and optimism. This was the other side of the beautiful seaport that I'd seen that day.

If I had more time in Egypt, I would have liked to spend another day here.

A day that's free from touristy activities, to just relax and enjoy the view of the harbour. And of course, to have a good seafood meal that does not come with soggy fried calamari, fried rice and chow mien.

On our way back to Cairo…..

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tian Tian Lai (天天来)

As we all know, the Puduraya bus terminal is currently under some major reconstruction and a temporary terminal has been set up at one of Bukit Jalil National Stadium's vast carparks. The inconvenience caused is immeasurable but for the sake of a better, proper bus terminal that I can be proud of, I'm going to bear with this. As much as I'm looking forward to it, I wonder if there's any plan to tackle the other problem that, to me, seems to be more obvious and necessary - the perpetual congestion along Jalan Pudu that leads to the bus terminal.

I had to reschedule my return trips. No more midnight express coaches back to KL because the only means of public transportation available at the stadium around 3 am is the taxi but I don't want to spoil my very early morning with futile, frustrating bargains. And it would be insane to ask a friend or family to travel all the way here to pick me up.

Inevitably, I resorted to the earliest departure from Singapore on Saturday morning, at 8. With the clearing of customs, a compulsory 30 minutes stop and getting to town via the LRT all thrown in, it's no wonder that I only managed to reach the Plaza Rakyat station (where the Puduraya terminal is located) at approximately 2 pm.

With half a day wasted on travelling, I felt that I deserve a good meal. Not fastfood that's easily available nor some MSG-rich hawkerfare but something rewarding that's worth the trip back home. I thought hard but nothing registered in my mind. Dad sprung up the magic words that got my world halting for a while (thank goodness I was not driving). He suggested Hokkien Mee.

The Jinjang Selatan wet market was where I spent most of my childhood. The infamous goreng pisang (fried banana fritters) here is still as good and to me, it's one of the best KL has to offer. There's a new fried noodles stall located inside a coffeeshop that had my folks returning regularly for lunch. It's famous for the fried fish soup with rice noodles, actually. Although it's not as aromatic (aka oily) as the more popular ones in town, it certainly fared well in taste. With heaps of preserved vegetables, fried fish, tomatoes, evaporated milk and dried sour plum flavouring the soup, I guess the perfect word to describe it would be INTENSE. Brownish, almost pale, the look of the Hokkien Mee didn't entice me, to be honest. I like mine dark and sticky. Then again, I've learned that dark doesn't always ensure a serving of flavourful Hokkien Mee. And this newfound truth revealed itself yet again, here. Despite the complexion, it was full of wok hei and came with intestines and a generous amount of fried lard cubes, making every bite extra crunchy and aromatic. The savoury stock, combined with sweet dark soy sauce, provided the noodles  with a delicious dressing. And the egg noodles tasted like egg, unlike...nevermind, I'm not going to condemn that well-known Hokkien Mee stall any further. This was an unexpected find that I have Dad to thank for. And Happy Father's Day, by the way.

Weeks later, I found an answer to my midnight coach plight but at the cost of a more expensive ticket. Fine, it's a price that I'm more than willing to pay than to bargain for hours for a ride home. Or to have to waste half of my Saturday on the road. Welcome back, freezing cold, sleep-inducing midnight coaches! And 2 full days of fun and food, with family and friends.

Tian Tian Lai (天天来)
Jinjang Selatan Wet Market
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Friday, June 11, 2010

K Ki

Here's a delightful dessert shop that needs no further introduction, really.

Antoinette - Ethereal white chocolate mousse with mango puree and sprinkled with pistachio and crystalized ginger

Mont Blanc - Semi-sweet chestnut cream with almond tart base

Kinabaru - Exotic combination of coconut mousse, passionfruit creme and chocolate sponge.

K Ki
No. 7, Ann Siang Hill
Singapore 069791
Tel: (+65) 6225 6650

Click here for a thorough review by Ice.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chef Tam

Ask me about my graduation day and I’ll probably need to dig out my photo album to remember the details but this, my first taste of a lobster, I can describe it instantly.

In the early 90s, a very generous relative treated us to a Cantonese feast at the Tropicana Golf and Country Club’s Chinese restaurant helmed then by Chef Tam, or known as Tam Si Fu to his largely Chinese-speaking clientele. Dishes served that night included giant white crabs and, yes, lobsters. I remember exclaiming the unparalleled sweetness of its meat, which I should now properly characterize that taste as being umami. Such exhilaration that I told my folks that I was not planning on brushing my teeth that night, to have that taste linger in the mouth for as long as it could.

In the years that followed, through some winning bets, we’d been fortunate enough to be invited (again) by the relatives to dine at Chef Tam’s restaurant, which had moved several times since. Every meal here was a lesson in modern Cantonese cuisine and a discovery of new dishes; like shabu-shabu geoduck and steamed multi-star grouper.

Not surprising that our lives, not unlike those shown in the family dramas on television, flashed before our eyes. Although we can now afford to dine here occasionally without depending on lucky strikes, everyone seems to be too busy for dinner on weekends or has moved to a new city.

One fine day, we’d decided to revisit this Si Fu. A reunion like this called for the Hong Kong-born chef’s signature dish that we’d loved all these years – stir-fried lobster with superior stock. A good stock can only add to the flavour of the dish but it’s the skill that ensures the succulent meat be tender and coated just thinly with the lightly starched, golden stock. Although the dish was visually a simple blend of garlic, stock and lobster; the taste was very much sublime. What's more when the lobster was brought in fresh from the nearby live seafood wholesaler. New discovery number 1 this time around was 蝴蝶腩 or butterfly brisket. A search on the internet revealed that it's a cut near the stomach and mostly available in Hong Kong. Rendering in a claypot with scallion, shitake and ginger might sound tad conventional but it worked well, providing a flavourful, soft bite of the meat. New discovery number 2 came steamed with the classic soy sauce/fried garlic oil dressing - the 燕子斑 or swallow (as in the bird) grouper. It was perfectly cooked to have each flake still retaining some steam and moist. Why swallow? I don't know but I believe it has got to do with the size of the fish. I'm definitely looking forward to more of this sweet breed in the future. The head, tail and legs of the lobster were not wasted and used to umami-fy the yee mee or egg noodles, which was stir-fried with some aromatics like scallion and sliced ginger. Good stuff, of course.

And finally, some glutinous rice balls for dessert. A sip of the syrup that was heavily infused with ginger warped me back to my first taste it. It felt weird back then, this combination of sugar and ginger. But this time, it was very much comforting. And made sense too, basically to neutralize the richness of the sesame paste filling.

Often, the more experienced palate prefers newer and more exciting cuisines...but of course, whether new or exciting equates to being memorable is another matter. There are only a handful of dishes I had in the past 3 decades that are worth mentioning. Chef Tam's stir-fried lobster with superior stock is one of them. After all these years, I'm glad it's still as good as the first time.

Chef Tam
6A, Jalan Bidara 2/4
Taman Bidara
68100 Selayang
Selangor, Malaysia
Tel: (+603) 6138 8751

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Kababgy Al Azhar Farahat

" unforgettable dinner later that night."

Lebnan Square was all we told the taxi driver. In fact, that was ALL we knew about this restaurant. Plus a vague impression of the plain signboard when Toni’s boss treated them to an extravagant dinner here. Miraculously, we found the shop after circling the block just a couple of times. According to him, it’s the ideal place to bring friends from abroad because the food here is authentic and more importantly, delicious. Diners were visibly local and that’s a good sign. It took us about 20 minutes to get a table, given the high influx of customers. Back home, Chinese restaurants would speedily clear a table by bagging all the utensils and excess food into the often red tablecloth, not unlike folding a tesage bukuro using furoshiki. Here, instead of the red material, a massive piece of durable, transparent plastic sheet is used. Ordering was fun, albeit a challenging one. I can’t tell if the expressionless wait staff was humoured or annoyed by our inability to converse in Arabic but in the end, we managed to have all our dishes served correctly on the table.

It was here that I had my first local flatbread, which would become part of my every meal in the next 7 days. Same goes to the infamous dip of hummus, something that I’d often overlooked back home. Like butter melting on hot buns, a chilled hummus spread on warm bread is simply wonderful. I wouldn’t have known that the warm cup of amuse bouche (well, sort of) was pigeon stock, if not for the explanation from Toni. The flavour reminded me of the brownish chicken gravy served with mashed potatoes, with a twist – a squeeze of lemon juice. It certainly whipped up the appetite for the mains to come. Revising my tour guide, the hamaam mahshi or stuffed pigeon was not mentioned in the list of must-try dishes in Egypt. Well, it should be! It was one of the best things I’ve had here. I’d relate it to a cross between a Chinese rice dumpling and roast pigeon or a reduced stuffed turkey. I’m sure there are many ways to eat this but I attacked the stuffing first. A slit of the skillfully stuffed bird revealed an aromatic filling of perfectly cooked rice, coated only with a good amount of seasoning, fried shallots and cracked black pepper. Complementing the flavoursome rice was the crispy-skinned, juicy pigeon. A simple yet refreshing salad provided a nice cut to the relatively heavy-tasting pigeon, preventing the cloying effect. The usage of a bed of chopped coriander for the roast lamb had the same intent, I believe. As far as I’m concerned, coriander sprigs have never been exploited in this fashion back home. When it comes to fried food or roasts or grills, they are always accompanied by sliced cucumber, tomatoes and lettuce. So, this was new to me. The scent and crunchiness of it worked well with the roast lamb, where the meat remained moist and flaky while the outer layer gave a slight crisp and smokiness. Oh, not forgetting the nice gelatinous part of the joint too. Truly an unforgettable dinner.

The crowd dwindled as the night went on, leaving only a few tables still occupied. It was now much quieter as well. We left after deciding that we couldn’t consume anymore of the constant flow of flatbread and fantastic hummus. Next, we walked around downtown Cairo to catch the Cairenes nightlife that was mostly frenzy shopping and of course, eating. The sight of a bustling bakery really caught my attention. It’s a shame that I couldn’t find time to get some pastries here before leaving the city. The weather changed significantly too, with the winter breeze providing some cool to the streets.

Funny that I couldn’t remember the last time I slept, as I laid in bed that night. It could have been the first few hours on the plane. And that was like…a day ago? I slept soundly with a stomach full of tasty pigeon and fond memories of the pyramids…with my monk bag all packed for the journey to the fabled city of Alexandria the next morning.

Kababgy Al Azhar Farahat
7 El Nile El Abyad St.
Lebnan Square
El Mohandessin
Cairo, Egypt
Tel: (+20) 33 471 278