Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tell-A-Tale (Part 38): Uncle Ho’s Fine Foods

Seriously, we weren’t that keen in making a makan list for the weekend in Ho Chi Minh City. There were just too many things to see and do! Cramping everything into 60 hours would surely lead to premature fatigue and worse still, a loss of appetite. Except for a pre-planned fine-dine Vietnamese restaurant, we pretty much went with the flow.

Cool or what, eh?

The fact was, we were confident of bumping into at least one good eatery on any street that we walk on come day or night, just like any other Asian cities. And we were right! The years of statistics lessons had finally paid off. We had a good time sampling some of the more common (and stereotypical..haha!) eateries in the city; within the Dong Khoi and Ben Tanh Market vicinities, to be exact.

The coffee at Trung Nguyen was excellent. Not much of a coffee fan but the rich taste of Legend was good enough to keep me happy (and awake) the whole day. We were informed that they do have a branch at Liang Court! Thank goodness for an Asian coffee chain with substance!

A random find in the Ben Tanh Market at 5 pm. The market was closing in for the day, but yes, shopping can wait. Not much to shout about but the rice noodle, chicken and pork were sufficiently tender. We found an even better stall a few hours before we depart for Changi!

Yes, this was the better stall that got our tastebuds rejuvenated. Besides the soup noodles ( I had the Hue version, which was slightly spicier), we sampled some side dishes like the barbecued pork slices that crossed between satay and bak kua, chao tom or prawn paste on sugarcane, grilled chicken thighs and the ever popular goi cuon or summer rolls. Good, inexpensive stuff. I was eyeing on a particular rice dish which was topped with stewed pork belly and some preserved vegetables. A local man chomping it with much gusto convinced me of its authenticity but my stomach begged to be spared for it was about to yield. Oh well, next trip then, pretty belly baby.

The Ben Tanh Market was our reference point. From here, we could reach our hotel on foot within 15 minutes and it was just 5 minutes away from a street of tour agencies. Pho 2000 was conveniently located next to the market and had somehow magnetised with our (perpetually) hungry spirits. And since Bill Clinton had his first taste of pho here, I thought we should just succumb to the hype and give it a try. Well, the pho certainly didn’t disappoint with the gigantic portions and smooth strands of flat rice noodle.

Surprisingly, it was the cha gio or fried spring roll that got us excited. Delectably crispy and filled with well spiced meat, onions and wood ear fungus, we almost called for a second plate. Oh, one should not forget the sweet and sour lime dip for that tasty juxtaposition.

This was the fine dine place that I wanted to try; Lemongrass Vietnamese Cuisine Restaurant. I read about it from Lyrical Lemongrass (the restaurant was closed on the day of her visit), Cumi & Ciki and the guidebook. You know it’s going to be a night of haute-ness when a lady dressed in traditional Vietnamese costume greets you with the soothing sounds of the dan tranh (think gu zheng). And how ironic of me to order the common banh hoi, a simple ensemble of rice vermicelli, peanuts, chilli paste and grilled pork. Nevertheless, it was good, when coated with a fragrant, slightly sweet soy sauce.

I was glad to have ordered the fried rice with coconut as well. Definitely uncommon (for the Vietnamese cuisine illiterate me, at least). Imagine fried rice with grated coconut AND freshly scraped coconut flesh. Exotically good. At this point, I realised the restaurant’s clientele made up of mostly foreign tourists.

Don’t get me wrong. We were mostly stuffed after Lemongrass. But after a few circles around the blocks of nightstalls outside Ben Tanh Market, it was time for some thirst quenchers (beers) and seafood to go with it.

We had some really fresh clams and mussels for only S$3 per dish! If only time permitted, we would have dined here again, the following night. Slightly touristy but absolutely atmospheric, street-style. Watch locals and tourists bargain their way to absolute frenzy while savouring that juicy bite of shellfish.

You can never get enough of pho. It’s the conveniently digestible scrumptiousness that makes every bowl a pleasurable experience. At around 10 pm the next night, supper was at the most famous pho chain in Vietnam, Pho 24. I had the one with everything moo; tendon, lungs, tripe, brisket and stomach. The broth was rather mild but still good.

I’ve never had this much of pho in my life. Nor the tonnes of (Thai) basil leaves that came with the rice noodles. It’s certainly a healthy, delicious diet, if you ask me.

From affordable street food to extravagant fine dines, it's good fun all around.

Until next time, Ho Chi Minh City!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tell-A-Tale (Part 37): A Weekend In Uncle Ho’s City.

We talked to an old Thai couple over lunch, before heading to the Củ Chi Tunnels, Greater Ho Chi Minh City. You can’t really compare this city to Bangkok, the old man said. Give it some time. It is afterall, still a very young place, ya. Those words weren’t really processed as I chomped the stir-fried pork dishes and fried rice presented in front of me. And we continued talking about our respective itineraries for the days to come.

At the final hour before the plane landed at Changi, I picked up the guidebook again. This time, a thorough read on the authors’ interpretation of Vietnam’s history instead of checking the list of recommended pho spots that I'd given a miss. I began to understand the man’s words that day. In fact, it has brought a strange sense of intimacy, knowing the relation I have with the city. We were both children of the eighties.

Development, not any different between us, is a result of experiences. We grow through the trials and tribulations that confront us on a daily basis. But to compare my twenty over odd years to the rebuilding of the city formerly known as Saigon, it would be negligibly microscopic. The city, torn by wars and colonisations, was reformed through the Đổi mới economic policy in the eighties. It liberalised free-trade enterprising and had since achieved healthy, progressive growth, thanks to the influx of foreign investments and booming local, private businesses. Check the labels attached to your sportswear and electronic goods; you’ll probably see the made in Vietnam print.

After lunch and a ninety minutes bumpy bus ride, we reached the entrance to the tunnels. The tour guide, Typhoon (who resembled Bobby Chinn, in my opinion), briefed us on the impressive construction with pride. The two hundred kilometres underground network of high complexity was an important part of Viet Cong’s success in withdrawing America from the tragic war that sacrificed an unimaginable number of civilians and soldiers. The video presentation, recorded in the sixties, may come to a shock for many; with troops preparing for war with happy faces and the presentation of awards to honour the heroes who killed the highest number of enemies. In a broader sense, it was a symbol of patriotism among comrades, just like in other wars involving other nations. And Vietnam had definitely shown its love for motherland valiantly through its resistance towards the few colonies.

We were at the Ben Duoc underground tunnel complex, the headquarters of the Saigon – Gia Dinh Regional Party and had travelled about a hundred metres in the tunnels of almost complete darkness. Claustrophobia was the least of our worries, I can tell you that. A truly remarkable experience and made me wonder if it is darkness that we must endure before we can ever see the bright sky again. Haven’t we learnt enough from the dark history of our neighbouring countries to understand that we should make more sensible and peaceful judgements? We live in knowledgeable times, people. Embrace it.

I realise that I had randomized my itinerary which actually began with a visit to the Cao Đài Great Temple, four kilometres east of Tay Ninh. A colourful sanctuary which housed a religion that combines the elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam, embodied with local Vietnamese beliefs. The ultimate goal of a Cao Đài devotee is to be released from the cycles of reincarnation through the good deeds preached by the religion. Perhaps the most symbolic representation of Cao Đàism, the left eye acts as a guide and the reason for the choice of the left side is the closeness of it to the heart, as compared to the right eye. The list of saints recognized by the religion includes Victor Hugo and Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

We stayed on for the afternoon ceremony, which was filled with songs and prayers. This is a happy religion, said Typhoon. I guess in the world of religions, skepticism is an unavoidable curse and it is only through understanding and respect that we can live harmoniously as one. The new discovery, to me, was definitely an interesting one.

The full day tour of the Cao Đài temple and the Củ Chi Tunnels (excluding entrance fee) cost us a mere US$8.

Back in the city of Ho Chi Minh, it only took us a few hours to complete some of the nearby tourist attractions on foot. The Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace, the main post office and my favourite, the Ben Tanh Market which is basically a roofed bazaar for everything tourist and local.

The pedestrian crossings were not as intimidating as some had put it. Perhaps the years in Kuala Lumpur had prepared me for the traffic here. Typhoon, in one of his tell-a-tales, told us the secret to a safe crossing. Look into their eyes and don’t run. Was his advice pragmatic enough? Well, yes. Almost. I’ll say common sense helps too.

We stayed at Dong Khoi. The more posh district, some said. When you have just a weekend in a new city, accessibility is your priority. Of course, if I am here again, it will be exploring the backpackers district of Pham Ngu Lao and perhaps, complete the Ho Chi Minh experience with a visit to the Mekong Delta.

Walking around the city, we noticed quite a number of construction sites in the midst of those famed old buildings with a French accent. Come lunchtime, one will notice the high number of workers, regardless of status and uniform, having a cup of coffee or a bowl of noodles on the five foot ways or some local cafes. As the evening draws near, restaurants and food stalls are bustling with groups of diners, savouring delicacies that are both local and international after a day at work. And that’s good news for the communist-capitalist city because at the end of the day, prosperity is a simple measurement of the wellness of the people, above everything else.

The final hour on the plane, the guidebook and the recollection of images of the streets had put the words of the man I talked to over lunch into perspective. Given time, I’m sure the new Saigon will emerge as one of the top cities in the region.

An inspirational one, at that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Annalakshmi @ Temple Of Fine Arts

Athithi Dhevo Bhava

The guest is God.

That love for all is priceless, so is the food here at Annalakshmi. You eat as you like, pay as you feel. From the friendly faces of the voluntary helpers to the delicious, home-cooked vegetarian food, it’s all about spreading the joy of goodness in this part of the universe. For the volunteers, it’s to attain some peace and harmony as well, through the act of selfless service. Visitors like us are in for an experience that leads to better understanding of a peace-loving culture and an education in Indian vegetarian cuisine. Not forgetting a visual spectacle in the Temple of Fine Arts.

Without a glance at my improper attire of short pants and slippers, we were welcomed into the house of love. I sincerely apologise for my shameful ignorance.

As I dazed through the colourful, mouth-watering Swayamvara buffet spread, a kind lady of utmost radiance asked if there was a particular dish that I was looking for. The fact was, all I ever wanted were already well presented before me. Resam, kulambu, stir-fried vegetables, thayir, dhal, sambar, podi, raita; the right complements to the pulao rice, dosas, iddlis, puris and chapattis. And some payasam to end the meal. In between, one can order the ubiquitous lassi, among other beverages.

Personally, I love the pulao for its fluffiness and taste. The chapatti was served soft, warm and fragrant. Fantastic. The food at Annalakshmi was exceptional. All dishes were cooked to humble perfection and that's really appetising.

Perhaps it’s true that food tastes best when cooked with love. For me, it was a divine state of taste that I will remember for a long time (especially after several visits to substandard Indian vegetarian restaurants).

Radiohead describes it best.

Everything in its right place.

116, Jalan Berhala
50470 Kuala Lumpur

Check out their informative website here.

Click here for Masak-Masak’s Annalakshmi experience.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Haji Kadir & M. Baharudeen Sup Tulang

street food would be good... no need fancy.. but want something really "out of this world" as in cannot get anywhr else

I thought red the moment I read her e-mail.

We loved the sup tulang (mutton bone marrow stew) at Haji Kadir. It was sweet, almost barbeque sauce-like. The bits of meat attached to the bones were addictively flaky, complete with some chewy cartilages for fun. One has to have the baguette to complete the tulang experience, the same way we have our man tous for chilli crabs. Extracting the bone marrow has got to be the most interesting part. We looked around for references and managed to suck out some of the greyish brown matter out of the bones, eventually. The regulars would grip the bones with all five fingers while basing the joints on their palms. This was followed by tilting of the bones before the suction begins, to allow a better flow. For me, it was truly an experience that reminded me of my virginal attempt at eating banana leaf rice with my bare hands.

If all else fails, just ask for a straw.

Red is a serious business here. Just take a look at the mee goreng and you’ll know what I mean. Before eww-ing and yuck-ing at it, I believe we should ask ourselves why some char siews are red in the first place. Anyway, the taste was really good, with just the right amount of char and salt.

The staff told us that no artificial colouring was used in the making of the red dishes as we showed him our stained fingers. It's all about our sambal, he said. But besides beetroot, I can’t really think of any natural ingredient that leaves a red stain. Heck, even haemoglobins turn brown as they deoxidise.

One of their recommendations, the mutton soup was rather dilute and powdery. Definitely pink in comparison to the ultra reds.

We had so much fun with the reds and even decided that these are the best Halloween dishes one can ever get. In a very delicious way, of course.

Red turned funky as we partied like there’s no tomorrow at St. James Power Station. It was retro night and between us, there were beers, a jug of absolutely throbbing long island tea, shots, and some other intoxication.

Thanks for visiting, Ciki.

Fun begins with you.

Haji Kadir & M Baharudeen
#B1-15, Golden Mile Food Centre

Click here for Ciki’s take.

And here for another good introduction to Haji Kadir’s tulangs.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tell-A-Tale (Part 36): A Party Of Mommas' Great Recipes

The Just Heavenly boys of Nigel and Allan invited a group of us to a celebration of hearty, tantalising food with recipes passed down by their mothers. Here are some of the dishes we had.

Tomato Mee

The thick, non-starchy gravy was appetisingly sweet and sour. Delicious!

Satay Ayam

Just a topping of the sauce on plain, white rice will make one happy, definitely. And when the chicken’s well cooked, it’s a great bonus. I guess in a way, it does remind me of the dip for satays.

Foo Chow’s Red Wine Chicken With Mee Sua

Slurping down the smooth strands of mee sua followed by the bowl of warm soup was nice. I like the large slices of ginger in the soup. It gave the dish a nice flavour and aroma. Not forgetting the medicinal purpose as well.


This was no ordinary Otak-Otak. Instead of just fish paste, this was filled with chunks of fish. Delectably moist as well.

Devil’s Curry

It was my first taste of the infamous Eurasian dish. And what can I say? It was very tasty! One could almost taste the good amount of spices in the curry. What’s more when there were lots of meat in it too. Solid.

Lemon Meringue Tartlets

Expect nothing short of extraordinary when it comes to desserts from the fabulous baker boys. The sweet, cotton soft meringue went really well the lemon filling. It was so good, I had two of them!

Chinese Doughnuts

These fried dainties may look simple enough but take a bite to be addicted by their lightness. A layer of sugar coating just added more fun and crunch.

Towards the end of the official closing time of the party, I was presented with a birthday cake! It was absolutely unexpected. Thank you so much, Just Heavenly, for the gorgeous, lip-smacking chocolate cake!

The baker boys and their business partner, Ann, prepared more than the above. Among the dishes not shown here; the Inche Kaybin (fried chicken with a soy sauce and chilli dipping), Shepherd's Pie, Bangkok Kaya Cake and colourful, stir-fried vegetables. And there were lots of wine jelly too, for those who stayed on until hmmm...minutes before midnight. Yes, it was a party that lasted half a day!

Thank you again, Nigel and Allan for the great time. And for sharing the amazing food that tell of amazing tales!

For recipes on the dishes served that day, check out the latest issue of Flavours. It comes with a thorough write-up on the event as well. Oh, let's not forget those absolutely awesome pictures.

On another note, well, Mother's Day came and gone with the usual crowded restaurants and expensive gifts. Despite all the chaos, I'm sure it is nice to get together once in a while to celebrate one of the superwomen in your life. Of course, it doesn't begin nor end there. Continue to make them happy and that's the best gift, I think.

Oh, Father's Day coming up too. Mark your calendar, people!

Friday, May 8, 2009


The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.

The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground.

The mind is everything. What you think you become.

He who experiences the unity of life sees his own self in all beings, and all beings in his own self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.

The purpose of our lives is to be happy.

My religion is very simple.

My religion is kindness.



Pictures were taken at the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Temple.

Quotes above (from Lord Buddha and The Dalai Lama) were referred to this website.

More pictures can be found here.


May we continue to be enlightened in our own special ways.