Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Nimble Fox

Seated next to me was Joseph. He was returning to Hamilton, south of Auckland. The music from his headphones was so loud, I could easily recognize the tunes. They were mostly modern rock songs from the 90s (and an Air Supply number). As I immersed in the Lonely Planet guide most of time, there wasn't much interaction between us...until the last hour before the plane landed at Auckland when he sprung a question. Here for a holiday?, he asked. In that hour, we talked about my itinerary and driving in New Zealand. I was mostly worried about the weather because November is a wet month. I asked if I should be concerned about the rain. A redundant question, I know. But I was hoping for an optimistic answer; an assurance. Well, this is the Land of the Long White Cloud, he said. I couldn't make out that remark. Later, when I checked into the hostel at Queenstown, the warm receptionist asked of my plan for the next day. Happily, I told her that I'd be leaving for Fox Glacier and asked if rain was to be expected. She smiled, then shrugged. Puzzled yet again, I'd finally given up asking about the weather for the rest of my trip.

Waking up to Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu on a sunny morning was one of the best moments I had this year. What's more when the air was cool and crisp. A light breakfast later, I began my scenic drive to Fox Glacier.

From Arrowtown, I trailed the winding, steep Crown Range Road (on a basic 1.3L automatic car, this proved to be a challenge) to reach the golden plains of Cardrona and later, the shimmering blue twin lakes of Wanaka and Hawea. For a few hours, I'd completely forgotten about the rain.

The sky rendered grey as I entered the village of Fox Glacier. The road turned misty, forcing me to slow down and turn on the windscreen wipers. Soon, it began to drizzle.

It was my intention to reach in the late afternoon. With a few hours of sunlight to spare, I was able to make an excursion to Lake Matheson - where on a clear day, promises a mirage of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Not on that day, unfortunately. The light rain had washed out the reflection. Even if the rain had stopped, Mount Cook would still be blanketed by thick, low-hanging clouds. Clearly, it wasn't my day. I was disappointed and solaced in the car munching a large bag of salt and vinegar potato chips.

The rain got heavier later that night. And my glacier walk was just a few hours away. I was terribly worried that the walk would be cancelled.

In the morning, the sky was bright again. Excellent, excellent! I took a look at my watch. It was 9:07 am. My walk would begin in 3 minutes! There was no time for a bath or brushing my teeth. I scrambled to wear my pants, put on my jacket and dashed for the door. I'd even forgotten about my passport and daypack. As I ran, I took a look at my watch again.

This time, the watch showed 7:00 am. I still had on my thermal pants and jacket. Outside, it was raining. I was obviously dreaming but I couldn't figure out which part of it was a dream. More importantly, in reality, the rain got heavier and there was no sign of it stopping in the next 2 hours. I envisioned a large WALK CANCELLED notice hanging outside the guide station. It wasn't about the money gone wasted that got me upset but the thought of having travelled thousands of miles to get here to fulfill one of my life dreams; just to be ruined by the rain.

There was no more optimism left in me. I dragged myself to the station, in the rain, for reporting. The station (which also functions as a souvenir shop and cafe) was warm and crowded. Before I could approach the receptionist, a staff instructed the full-day walkers to proceed to the left side for check-in. Yes, that's me! The walk would proceed despite the rain! I can't really describe how happy that announcement had made me.

Because it was raining, we were provided with raincoats and more serious-looking crampons. There were about 20 full-day walkers that morning. Later, we were divided into two groups. I went with a Brazilian couple (they were on their second honeymoon), two Taiwanese girls (who wanted to skydive in Queenstown), and the newlyweds from America. Our main guide was Megan from Canada. She was accompanied by a more experienced guide, Jono from Tasmania. Besides giving Megan a masterclass in guiding, Jono was also tasked to pave new routes for the coming walks.

They have a name for the full-day walk. It’s called the Nimble Fox. Given the slippery surfaces, I guess we weren’t as nimble as we would have wanted to. Slowly, we ascended the glacier in the heavy rain.

The science of the formation of glaciers is not difficult to understand but the visual effects that these compacted snows create are often magical. And they are always embellished with a spectrum of blue hues. Glaciers only appear blue because of the colour’s short wavelength, which can be reflected faster and not absorbed, as with colours of longer wavelengths; like red or green. To experience and understand better the science of this rare, natural phenomenon are the reasons that made me come to Fox Glacier.

The course was not easy to complete. And if unguided, proves to be extremely dangerous. Megan and Jono did most of the hard work; axing the ice to sculpt flights of stairs to make our climb easier and safer. It’s also important to be aware of the crevasses. One slip is all it takes to have one fall into the bottomless depth. And it’s easy to forget about safety, especially one is distracted by the beautiful ice pinnacles and seracs. That’s why we walked in a line, so that we can look out for each other.

We found a good spot for lunch and obviously hungry, I chomped my Jimmy’s meat pie fast. Apparently, Jimmy’s is one of the most well-known pies in New Zealand. And it was tasty, with the gravy mixed with a good amount of cheese. I only realized that the rain had stopped when the strong reflection of sunlight on the ice pained my eyes. I told Megan that I’d expected the walk to be cancelled due to the rain. She explained that in the case of showers like this, walks usually proceed. I’d continued to say how worried I was about the weather throughout the trip. Sometimes, we just got to have some faith, Jono interjected, while peeling his orange.

The glacier terrain is dynamic. It moves a considerable distance daily and therefore, there’s never an exactly same route, only similar. And that day, we were lucky. As we made our way to the highest point of our walk, Jono found a new path that led us down a fresh crevasse of perhaps just three meters deep. To reach this spot, we had to climb over another pinnacle, at an almost right-angled slope. We left our daypacks behind (to reduce weight) and began the climb; one at a time.

The view of the newly cracked glacier was amazing. We were allowed to land ourselves at the bottom of the crevasse to take some photos. Surrounded by the blue walls, I imagined myself walking on a frozen seabed. The few minutes spent down there were priceless. So was the taste of pure water dripping off the melting glacier.

Towards the end of our journey, the sky was grey again. And it started to drizzle when we neared the shuttle bus station. It’d been such an eventful day; from the dream to the rain to the spectacular glaciers to the newfound friends. Now, I felt that my Aotearoa journey had finally begun. I was looking forward to my next adventure. Was I still worried about the weather? Sometimes, we just got to have some faith. Sometimes, we just got to have some faith.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Home of Middle Earth

Fantasy adventures, be it in form of books or movies, do not interest me much. I did watch Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy though, but for the special effects and hype. After my visit to New Zealand, I wanted to watch them again, not because I have a newfound love for fantasies but just to be awed once more by the spellbinding, surreal sceneries. For me, it's not easy to describe the natural beauty that is New Zealand, so I thought I should begin my journey with a selection of photos taken as I made my way across this magical land; the home of Middle Earth.

NZ 647

Lake Matheson, Fox Glacier

Fox Glacier

Milford Sound

Wai-O-Tapu, Rotorua

Waimangu, Rotorua

Thursday, November 24, 2011


A worthy, value-for-money Japanese set lunch. The last time I was impressed by such a deal was back in 2008, when Lyrical Lemongrass, FatBoyBakes and I met for an eight-course kaiseki lunch at Fukuya, Bangsar One. I did find out later that Fukuharu also belongs to the owner(s) of Fukuya. That explains the similar minimalist interior, warm hospitality and affordable, homey Japanese food.

If not for FBB's dive wife (she's an admirable runner too), who'd highly recommended the set lunch, I wouldn't have travelled the distance to come to the TERRACE, given how horrendous the traffic can be like along Jalan Ampang. But more importantly, I wanted to catch up with her and share my recent running experiences.

After a run earlier in the morning, I was certain that one set lunch (Japanese, especially) wouldn't be enough for me. But I was assured that the portions here are huge. The dishes rolled out one after another, starting with the salad, chawan mushi, choice of main dish (I chose the saba shioyaki, or grilled mackerel sprinkled with salt) and a bowl of hot soba (one can choose rice instead). The selection was J-typical but the ingredients remained fresh. Especially at only RM38+, there was nothing left to complain about, really. But of course, the stomach was only half filled, at best. But that's not their fault.

Somewhere between deploring the erratic slopes along the Putrajaya Night Marathon route and planning for the insane Western State 100 Mile Endurance Run (it will not materialise, believe me), we were served the mini kaiseki appetizer platter, which I'd absolutely forgotten. It was surprisingly a plateful. And of relatively good quality too. Among others, the salmon sashimi slices (and cubes - with a wafu-style dressing and served in a shot glass) were considerably fresh, the riceball-coated deep-fried prawn came à la minute crispy and there was even a cut of well-seasoned roast duck. Now that's what I call worthy.

Our fervent discussion on running went on for some time (covering Asics/Saucony shoes versus the world, introversion of runners, strategic locations to hide hydration bottles while running, etc), paused only for dessert (part of the set). It was a simple, flavourful scoop of vanilla ice cream, interestingly drizzled with black sesame sauce.

Fukuharu brought back good memories of Fukuya at Bangsar One. Both restaurants offer unbeatable set lunches in a relaxed setting. Personally, I think that this is a better option for a weekend gathering of few friends than to splurge on a chic restaurant where just the appetizer of colourful foams and a deconstructed iced lemon tea cost more this set lunch.

TERRACE at Hock Choon
241-B, Lorong Nibong off Jalan Ampang
50450 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yut Kee, finally.

Dad said that he used to despatch chicken to Yut Kee from his employer's stall in the old Central Market. He would get a free meal every time he's there. People were more sincerely generous in the old days, weren't they? According to dad, the pork chop and egg roll were really good. All these years, he had never mentioned about Yut Kee (and I never asked why), until I suggested that we have lunch there a month ago. I took the family to Yut Kee a week after my first visit with a couple of friends. Having learnt that the best time to avoid is around the lunch hours, we took a slow ride to reach at 2 pm. Surprisingly, the famous pork belly roll was still available. What luck!

It's a very typical coffee shop but while many would see a more slowed and relaxed tea time, Yut Kee was still very much a high speed production line, churning out dish after dish. Despite the overflowing crowd waiting at the shop's front, I thought they operated efficiently; from allocation of seats to taking orders to the payment process. This system (which seems intuitive but nonetheless requires sufficient manpower and good coordination to work) that they've adopted shortens the waiting time significantly and puts the customers at ease. It's a major plus, really. I can't remember how many times I'd sworn that I'd be damned if I had to revisit some badly managed but prideful eateries in town.

As we sat down, Dad began observing the surrounding, obviously looking for familiar faces but couldn't recognize anyone. He said the workforce had been replaced by, perhaps the next generation. There were four of us at the table, with eight dishes to share; including the westernized roast pork belly, which I thought was very good. It's all in bite - the crispy crackling, the aroma of lard melt bursting in the mouth and a nutty taste of the filling. The apple sauce gave an interesting sweetness to the salty meat. Of course, when one's at Yut Kee for the first time, one has to try the perennial favourites such as roti babi, Hailam mee and belacan fried rice. I didn't think much of the roti babi filling (which could do with more filling and seasoning) but the soft, encapsulating bread coated with a thin layer of egg was nice. I thought the roti was skillfully prepared. The taste is to be enhanced with a dip of the Worcestershire sauce.

On this second visit, I'd decided to try other less popular dishes on the board. Less because they were not seen on every table, unlike the roti babi and pork chop. I'd ordered the beef noodles served with a generous amount of meat and tripe, soft radish and a clear stock, and the Cantonese-style fried noodles with enough wok hei to keep me intoxicated and happy.

Let's talk a bit about the all-time favourite pork chop. The first bite unravelled a well-marinated piece of tenderized pork. The construction was traditional. From my (limited) pork chop experiences, the brown sauce is usually mild, bordering tasteless, even. That's not the case at Yut Kee though. The caramelized gravy was rich and flavourful, and went really well with the otherwise bland potato wedges and assorted boiled vegetables. Oh, not to forget a sprinkling of the appetizing Worcestershire sauce too. However, Dad did mention that the pork used to be crispier, but perhaps due to higher demand, were pre-cooked, hence the softness.

Growing up, I was privileged enough to have eaten quite a fair amount of Hainanese noodles cooked by an aunt of mine. It's quiet different from my usual Cantonese and Hokkien mee with the noodles simmered over a longer duration and served soupy but less starchy than loh mee. Yut Kee's Hailam mee was different. The soup was reduced to an almost stir-fried consistency. Still, it was a tasty treat, especially when eaten with the topping of some fragrant, crunchy fried shallots.

The extensive menu at Yut Kee is posted on a larger than life whiteboard hung on the sidewall. So far, I've only tried a small fraction of it. For me, every visit is to try something new, and to discover something old but gold as well. Here, especially when dining alone or in a small group, chances are that one would be sharing a table with older loyal customers that are happy to share their tales of Yut Kee or recommend some dishes. Tourists also flock this coffee shop, which I think is a good choice. It's definitely a more identifiable Malaysian experience. Truly Asia what?

I didn't ask Dad what he thought of today's Yut Kee. He seemed pleased though, whopping one dish after another. Perhaps for him, there was a taste of nostalgia in the food too.

Take away the hype, the rustic interior (which is one of the attractions of this coffee shop) and endless free publicity, I will still be back at Yut Kee, simply because the food is good and affordable (especially in this part of the city). Not many good old coffee shops like this survive the test of time so I really hope that they'll stay for long time. And I'm confident of that, unless of course, there's a forced, unwise plan to demolish this row of shophouses in the name of development.

Yut Kee
35, Jalan Dang Wangi
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Friday, November 4, 2011

Chinese mitten crabs at Capital Restaurant

...or hairy crabs, as they are usually known as.

I knew I'd be late, given the rush hour madness at the MRT stations. The heavy wooden toy set (it must have been at least 6 kg) that I'd lugged all the way from Paragon wasn't very helpful in increasing my pace. So I decided to take the good old bus to get to Capital Restaurant instead. Not a bad idea. In fact, it was brilliant. Not only was the bus relatively spacious (as compared to the over-packed trains), the ride was also smooth and fast. I reached much earlier than expected and could afford to withdraw some cash, try a bowl of fishball (the stall called it fish bakso) noodles from the People's Park food center and identify some of the most competitive money changers in the adjacent complex. It was a very good start to the dinner ahead.

The name Capital (首都) itself has already given an impression that it's been around for decades. New restaurants don't bank on names like this. They prefer something, anything that catches your attention or raises an eyebrow. I'm sure one who's reading this can instantly name a few. Well, I happen to think that there's a certain rustic charm to a name like Capital. And to have survived so long in this dynamic F&B business on this little red dot means something.

This is at the fringe of Chinatown, an area that I'd only passed by, but never took notice of the shoplots. If not for wanting to try hairy crabs, I wouldn't have known the existence of Capital. Some hotels in town offer hairy crabs too, but I don't think the prices are as affordable as here.

What's the correct procedure to dissect the crab to fully savour its taste? Do we taste the fur on the claws? Is there a particular sequence to eating the legs, claws or roe first? I came absolutely unprepared and tried to do some last-minute research online but the mobile broadband service was down. So many burning questions unanswered! The shameless stomach was growling. I had to get started. It was me, a pick and a pair of scissors against steamed hairy crab number XXXXXXXXX from the Tai Lake in China. I strategized by digging the remains of my secondary school biology knowledge and mostly logic.

Firstly, I cut the hairy legs. Followed by the mitten claws. Now, I was left with the body. Gosh, this sounds like Natsuo Kirino's Out already! I separated the shells by gripping the upper half and pulled the lower half. It was easier this way as there was a dent on the lower half that could fit the tip of my index finger. With one gentle pull followed by a crack, a molten, golden mass of roe was revealed.

We, the hairy crab virgins, decided that the roe was as rich as a salted egg yolk. I even suggested that it's a crustacean version of the steamed salted egg bun. The flesh was sweet, subtly. The dip of ginger and black vinegar provided a refreshing contrast. A small Chinese cup of ginger tea was served after we were done with the crabs. The Chinese believe that ginger will dissipate the wind accumulated from consuming the cooling hairy crabs. It was one fiery cup of tea, for sure. On average, it took us about 30 minutes to devour the fist-sized crab, which weighed about 200 g, if I recall correctly. The neighbouring table sat a couple attempting 3 (or 4) crabs each. I wonder how long it took them to finish all the crabs.

I think we made the right choice of having the crabs as our first dish. Some prefer to have it last. I'm sure, if served last, we would have been full and less enthusiastic about spending 30 minutes digging for crab meat and roe. And inevitably, some precious parts would have been ignored and wasted.

The rest of the recommended dishes were mostly Cantonese fare. My favourite was the roast duck, which must have been showered with boiling oil, post-roasting, for that extra crisp on the skin. Coupled with well-seasoned and succulent meat, I thought it was fantastic. I wouldn't say that pork cutlets in coffee sauce, sizzling venison with scallion and spinach soup with 3 types of eggs are representative of classic dishes served at Capital but they were still delicious. Perhaps the captain thought that young people like us (how much more shameless can I get?) would prefer more familiar, modern dishes.

With a full and now, quiet stomach, I left Capital with the 6 kg toy set still in tow. I didn't mention earlier that the toy was purchased for work purpose and unrelated to the dinner. I just had to bring it along since I was already in town. The next morning, I carried it through a 500 m walk, 1 MRT and bus ride each before reaching the office. Along the way, I'd also reminisced about the golden roe and roast duck. And that really made the journey less exhausting. You may call me cheesy now.

Capital Restaurant
323 New Bridge Road
Singapore 088759

Monday, October 24, 2011

Putrajaya Night Marathon 2011

MAKE THAT CHANGE is an online reality show (there must be a more appropriate word than show) held in conjunction with the recent Putrajaya Night Marathon. Every runner participating in this programme aims to win the prize money to make a difference in someone's life. The runner who garners the most support for his/her cause, as quantified by the highest number of online votes, will walk away with RM6000.

Grace Tabitha Lim Clark ran in hope to win RM6000 to help manage the medical expenses of her friend who is suffering from lupus; a cannibalistic, autoimmune disease that attacks, among others, the lungs, kidneys, blood and brain. Grace herself is suffering from a similar disease. Jiana Jimain joined the race for her orphan friend who has cancer, in stage 4 now. The effect of chemotherapy has deprived her friend the chance of attending the convocation for her diploma. Despite the hardship, she continues to pursue her degree and Jiana hoped that the prize money would assist in settling her medical and study fees. By winning the RM6000, Christine Lim would be able to fund her friend Jet, an aspiring business coach, to enroll in a course in Singapore, which would enable him to improve his skills and use them to guide others in achieving their goals. Karen Loh and Yim are two celebrity runners. I've read a lot about them in the local running blogs. They participated in this programme to contribute to the development of the Orang Asli's welfare. Both Karen and Yim ran the full marathon. Prior to that, they'd completed the 100 km North Face duo (each ran 50 km) challenge in Singapore, an ultra endurance trail race, in the morning, before returning to Malaysia for the night marathon. You can say that they've each run almost 100 km in one day. I have great respect for all of them.

Everyone has a reason to run. Mine's frivolous, almost selfish, as compared to these runners. I just wanted to have a full marathon practice before the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon in December. This, the Putrajaya Night Marathon 2011, was my first attempt at 42.195 km.

I did what I could to train for this race. I was inspired by Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors. Like him, I would run 10 km almost daily and sometimes more, but never less. After a few weeks, I increased my mileage to around 14 km per run. I started picking up running tips from the internet and friends. Honestly, I can't remember the last time I was so engrossed in something. Especially after a hard day's work, training seems like a chore. Most of the time, really! But when I step out and start pounding the pavement, there's a sense of rejuvenation and that's always exciting. I have my favourite routes. The best (and most torturous) are those are lined with restaurants, where the roads are filled with delicious aromas of Chinese stir-fries and smoking barbecued meat. At a certain time, I would pass by a construction site and be greeted by an invigorating smell of curry cooked by the foreign workers. I bet the curry tastes as good as it smells. These days, I listen to simple, relaxing tunes on the radio as I run. Upbeat songs are for shorter distances, like 10 km. I tried listening to symphonies too (totally dig Bach's Air) but unfamiliar concertos in all sorts of majors and minors make the runs uncomfortable. And I would lose pace. So, sing-a-long ballads work for me, for now.

The night marathon was to be flagged off at 8.00 pm that Saturday. I came early, as I always do for every run, to check out the facilities. There's not been an affinity between me and this administrative city but I must say it looked stunning. I imagined the night scene, filled with colourful lights as I cross the finish line in front of the Palace of Justice (if I finish, that is). The weather was cooling, thanks to a shower a few hours ago. After applying the usual anti-chaffing gel, talcum powder and blister patches, I had a few sips of water, stretched and walked to the starting line.

In the first 10 km, many runners, young and old, overtook me but that's fine. A marathon is about consistency. There's still an awful distance of 32 km ahead, so it's good to start slow and steady. I was happy to have stayed within my targeted pace. By the way, the cut off time for this marathon is 6 hours. I'd hoped to finish within this period. Of course, a sub 5 hours will be sweet.

21 km. The half marathon distance. And the farthest that I've run in my life so far. Some resorted to walking by now. I lost count of the slopes. There must have been 5 or 6. The atrocious inclines had greatly impeded my pace. But that's just part of the test. Or fun, some might say. Just take a deep breath, loosen your hands, bend forward slightly and launch ahead with a smile. The street performers, traffic marshals and cheerleaders helped to ease the pain. Thank you!

22 km. I had to be careful and listen to my body more from this point onwards. As my body was facing a new, longer, unknown distance, I wouldn't know how it would react. Maybe my legs would cramp. Or I might just have the dreaded runner's diarrhea. Worse, the old painful side stitches would return to kill me. I switched on my MP3 player for some distraction.

During the training months, I had to pay special attention to my diet. It's not as serious as it sounds, really. I just had to eat more regularly and carbo-load myself before each evening run. Tea breaks in the office would be my dinner. To chomp down a big plate of fried meehoon and kway teow with eggs (or radish cake, occasionally) and sambal while all your colleagues sip a tiny paper cup of coffee did feel odd. Running tonight, eh?, they'd ask. During the last 3 days of the tapering week before this marathon, I thought about consuming more good fats for fueling and protein to build muscles. Salmon and avocado sprang to mind instantly. I made some sort of guacamole as a dressing for my salmon flakes, which I'd cooked with lots of onions and garlic. This was the filling for my sandwich. Sides were simply some lettuces, tomatoes and 2 eggs. A few hours before the night marathon, we had a family dinner...that's at 3 pm! At my request, mum had prepared a delicious potato and pork stew, and steamed pomfret to go with rice. I had specifically wanted potatoes for its carbohydrate, sodium and potassium. It was one nutrients-packed and filling dinner!

25 km. My pace was still decent. My legs felt lighter. I was excited and anxious at the same time. Soon, I would cross the 30th km. For many, this is the point when they hit the wall because the amount of carbohydrate, in form of glycogen, stored in the body depletes almost completely. Fats will then be the main source of energy. And fat burning causes fatigue. It would feel like running with bricks tied to the feet. More had stopped running and walked from this point onwards. The next rehydration point was not far ahead. I tore my first pack of PowerGel (strawberry and banana flavour) and slided it down my throat as I continued to anticipation of the wall.

The expressways were hazy at certain points. Humidity was high, but that's to be expected in a night marathon. Since sponges are not offered at every rehydration point, I had kept one in hand and dipped it into the cups before squeezing it on my head. Especially when the water was cold, this was very refreshing.

31 km. Runners were more distant from one another now. I could only see 2 runners in front of me. I didn't want turn behind to check. It's not important. To my surprise, I'd overtaken at least 10 runners in the last 6 km. My breathing was still slow and regulated, so that's a good sign. I told myself that the training had somehow yielded some positive results. My legs were even lighter now.

I didn't know if the lightness was an early sign of cramps, so I was slightly worried. I did learn that cramps can be prevented (or at least minimized) by hydrating oneself with water, to dilute the amount of lactic acid produced. At the same time, the body also needs to maintain a healthy level of minerals such as sodium, so isotonic drinks are essential. At every hydration point after the 10th km, I would take 2 cups of water and 100 Plus each. It may sound too much for seasoned runners but I'd rather bloat than cramp. The organizers had also prepared bananas (peeled!) and watermelon, which was very thoughtful of them.

When I saw the Falun Dafa band, I knew we'd looped and that the finish line was not too far away. Thank goodness the second half of the route was relatively kinder and not as erratic as the first. Pain had kicked in. It's a sign that the body has started to complain. I slowed down a little but trudged on. I began to lose interest in the distance. Instead, I concentrated on finishing the race.

Running is a lonely sport, which may be the reason why I enjoy it so much, especially at night. We all pace differently. No two runners will finish at the same time. So, no matter how many friends you run with, at one point, you will find yourself running alone. That's life.

The last few rehydration points seemed deserted. Many elite runners had passed these stations long ago. The remaining cups were still filled with water and isotonic drinks. I had the whole table to myself. Great! Just when I thought that things would be fine, that I'd have a smooth run to the finish line, I saw a steep slope ahead. There were two more behind it.

It's precisely because of this pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive - or at least a partial sense of it. Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

As I descended the last slope, my watch showed 4:20. I still had approximately 2.5 km to go. A small part of me was disappointed. I had, secretly, hoped for a 4:30 finish. With my current pace, this was definitely unachievable. But a sub 5 finish was guaranteed.

To reach the finish line, runners have to make a full turn from Lebuh Sentosa to the main road that leads directly to the Palace of Justice. This was the final and longest km. Here, the atmosphere was not as energetic as before. The cheerleaders and performers were gone now. But each step was greeted by cheers from those who stayed. It felt good, although the body was starting to hurt again. I dashed towards the finish line, hoping the electronic counter would freeze.

There was no outpour of emotion, no kissing the ground, no out of body experience and no high jumps as I crossed the finish line. I don't know if I'd underacted on my part, but I was thankful to have completed my first marathon injury-free. The official congratulated me as she hung the finisher's medal on my neck. This was followed by more congratulations when I received the snack pack, water and finisher's t-shirt. Thank you, officials.

I walked away from the crowd and sat, for the first time since 6 pm, on the curb. Now, my legs felt really heavy. I called a few friends for drinks at our usual Mamak stall at Hartamas and dragged my heavy body to the car.

The simple, primitive act of running has nurtured me. I've become more tolerant, more patient, and more giving than I ever thought I could be....This is what running has taught me, making me-I hope-a better man. Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man.

They say that running a marathon is a life-changing experience. To a certain extent, I think it's true. For me, it's not solely about completing a 42.195 km race but more importantly, the preparation that has been put in until the start of the race. Throughout the training, despite having to sacrifice a part of my social life, I'd understood myself better, both physically and mentally.

This post serves as a reminder to myself, that nothing's easy in life. But if you respect the distance and make enough effort to overcome the challenge, the reward, be it in any form, is often, almost assured.

Thanks FC, for your guidance, the miraculous anti-chaffing gel and Dean Karnazes' Ultramarathon Man. And to S, the speedy litigator, thanks for sharing your inspiring running experiences.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Restoran O & S

Since the last post, I've been running (what's new, HairyBerry?) and more importantly, training for a few races in the coming months. I've progressively increased my mileage and discovered some new running routes around the neighbourhood. The cool evening breeze during this rainy season has been a great motivator too.

September and October mark the most auspicious period for Chinese couples to tie the knot. Besides the wedding invitation, I was also roped into becoming a best man, performer and emcee for a good friend's wedding just two weeks ago. Stressful, well, a bit. And that's because I had to memorise a Bublé number, which was something new to me. But it was really good meeting my primary and secondary school classmates there.

So, despite the inactivity here, no, I'm not dead. In fact, I've never felt more alive.

At the recent pool party, Sushi said that I'm now 1/3 of my previous size. Some friends and colleagues even asked if I've contracted any fatal disease that has caused the shrinkage. Definitely not. I'm just running longer and farther.

Therefore, I need to eat a lot too, to refuel. Weekdays are pretty much the same - bread, fried noodles, soups, savoury cakes, cookies, fruits and a few cups of good old Milo. I look forward to the weekends, usually after a Saturday morning run, when I would spend time catching up with family and friends over brunch. Big brunches, mostly. There was nothing atas about these eateries but that's cool. These are some of the most common hawker centers and coffee shops in KL that serve good food. I'm excited to blog about them all.

For a start, there's Restoran O&S. The main reason that has kept me away from this coffee shop is the crowd. But this time, the parents insisted on revisiting. Arriving at the unGodly late hour of 10 am (because I had to complete my weekend run earlier), I thought we'd have to shed blood and tears to secure a table. Well, we did have to wait but the patrons have been very considerate. They would leave after finishing their meal and not stay put to chat. Or was I just plain lucky that Saturday?

I had to try the infamous assam laksa. Beneath the golden broth were chunks of mackerel and that, to me, was worth waiting for. The more expensive versions served at the local coffee chains don't come close to offering this much of meat, really. I was expecting intense sourness but it turned out rather sweet, perhaps due to the generous loading of ripe pineapple. I like mine sour and hot, but that's just me. We've also had, among others; popiah, beef noodles and char kway teow. Nothing mind-blowing, but they were all good.

Perhaps quality is more definitive, as compared to good. The ingredients used were fresh, the portions seemed consistent and reasonable, and most of all, tasty. The sellers were very friendly too. For less than RM10 (or RM5, even), what more can you ask for these days?

I'd observed other stalls at O&S that had also attracted a stream of patient customers. The food must be good. Hmmm, looks like I'll have to return to try them all. And to beat the crowd, I guess I'll just have to run earlier...or faster.

Restoran O & S
1, Jalan 20/14
Paramound Garden
Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pangat @ Suntec City

It was my first time here. At the counter, I'd ordered, firstly, curd rice. The attendant smiled but I couldn't understand it. Was it an approval of my choice? Or did I just order something regrettable? Next, a side dish. There were a few rare, interesting titles but I wanted comfort food that evening, so I asked for saag panir. None of those smiles or nods this time. In fact, I could feel her slight reluctance to input my order. She did, eventually.

I sat at a nearby table and waited eagerly for my curd rice. I really can't remember the last time I had it. It must have been a year ago. Or longer, even. On a hot and humid evening, the thought of creamy, cold, sourish rice spiced with mustard seeds, ginger, coriander leaves, onions and chillies was very, very enticing.

A smartly dressed man, perhaps in his early sixties, approached my table and introduced himself as the cook. He asked to confirm my order of both the curd rice and saag panir. Politely, he suggested that the combination might be too heavy and proposed that I consider replacing the saag panir with gobi Manchurian.


I've always prided myself for being knowledgeable in Indian cuisine and never had I been challenged this way. My credibility was at stake. I imagined my friends and neighbours from Sentul looking really disappointed with some gesturing the loser sign. And by recommending something with a Manchurian sauce was definitely rubbing salt to the wound. Here's the funny part - momentarily stunned AND confused, I'd somehow agreed to that change.

There's a lesson to be learnt here - that the ego has to be bruised to gravitate one down to earth again. The gobi Manchurian worked really well the curd rice. A sweet sauce like that provides a wonderful balance to the sourness of the curd. Such common sense that I'd failed to see! Imagine if I'd insisted on my saag panir. The richness of both sauces would have been too much to handle. So, thank you, uncle, for making the effort to enlighten this lost child. I shall be back to seek more wisdom and of course, your delicious vegetarian food.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Long DUO Weekend

This time, I knew the words to most of his new songs and sang along happily. That's a Chinese pop concert for you. It's an extended karaoke session that I usually think twice before attending since I can do the same in a private room (with 2 drinks) for less than RM30. But how can one say no to Eason Chan's concert? Call me a conservative but I do feel that the Cantopop scene is declining to a stage where voices are faint, some forced and mostly indistinguishable. The catchy melodies and profound lyrics (well, sometimes) stay but often tailored, these are not representative of the quality of the singer. Eason's gifted voice is one of the very few that I still listen to ardently. He started strong that Saturday night at Stadium Merdeka with 今天等我来, a befitting opening number, which we thought was a new song. In fact, it was sort of a B-side from his early days. I'm definitely attempting this at K next time! There were a few covers that night too, like 好歌獻給你, 寂寞夜晚 and 破曉, which may be unfamiliar to the younger crowd. He did include a few of my personal favourites into the repertoire like 落花流水 and 裙下之臣 BUT where are the other hits like 葡萄成熟时, 大開眼戒, 不来也不去, 岁月如歌, Shall We Talk, 十面埋伏, 淘汰, 於心有愧, 七百年後 and K歌之王? The banters could have been shortened to make way for more of these songs. The atmosphere, despite the humidity, was great throughout the 25 songs set. The KL crowd, to me, has always been enthusiastic, responsive and supportive. The singers themselves acknowledged this as well. Honestly, I was expecting a 3-hour concert packed with more than 30 songs but I forgot that this was not a Jacky Cheung show. So, I left the stadium slightly disappointed. The company of old schoolmates made up for that. To think that we first heard Eason when we sat for our SPM examination. We've definitely come a long way. Maybe I should now stop laughing at my elders who travel to the Arena of Stars in Genting to watch their favourite singers from the 70s perform.

The concert marked the beginning of my long weekend in KL since the lunar new year. There was no preplanned eat list but that turned out fine. For a change, we lunched at Dubrovnik (finally) and found the recommended dishes, mostly dairy products-based, commendable. And for a change to that change, it was Klang bak kut teh for breakfast at Hock Kien, Bandar Manjalara. The famous braised claypot pork belly, to me, could have been more harmonized a dish. The ingredients seemed unevenly proportioned. The aroma of the sesame oil was strong, that's good. But the soy sauce based reduction was bland with some flavours clearly lacking, like ginger, cinnamon and peppercorn. On the positive side, the pork ribs served in the claypot bak kut teh were succulent and huge.

Of all the food that I'd tried over the long weekend, it was the wan tan mee from an obscure 壹记 at Taman Usahawan Kepong that had been most remarkable. The influx of customers was not high that Monday afternoon, which was good. Well, for us at least. 壹记 serves handmade, whole-egg noodles with a couple of toppings to choose from. The simplicity of their menu may not be attractive to many but they've done well with the noodles being refined, springy and without a hint of lye. For getting the fundamentals right, 壹记 deserves a revisit.

What's homecoming without a homecooked meal, right? I had a couple of those, including a large plate of steamed yam cake for tea, prepared by mum. Always generous, she filled the yam cake with a copious amount of steamed yam cubes that gave each cut a nice bite. The cake itself tasted rather plain, so a sprinkling of chopped waxed sausages provided some sweetness and colour. It's incomplete without a dollop of mum's dried shrimp chilli paste. It's a basic, versatile condiment that can be used to cook curry, sambal for nasi lemak, etc. For the yam cake, she added more salt and doubled the chilli. Let's see, I might have consumed more of the chilli paste than the yam cake.

Over the long weekend, I'd also experienced a pleasant, almost seamless passport renewal process at the immigration department in KL. And in between food and meetings with friends, I managed to hit a good running mileage. At the end of this short getaway, I felt recharged. What a difference a day makes, eh? I'm beginning to understand the lament of most employees now....YES, I do need more leave days!

74, Jalan Metro Perdana Barat 3
Taman Usahawan Kepong
52100 Kuala Lumpur

Friday, September 9, 2011

Steamed Threadfin

I ran the fastest 21 km of my life last Sunday at the Army Half Marathon. As with some of the other recent races in Singapore, the actual distance remains controversial. The fact that some of these routes are not IAAF certified questions the standard of professionalism of the organizers. On the other hand, typical GPS watches worn by the runners do not correspond well with elevations. So, who's right and who's wrong? As the blame game continues, I'm just glad that I ended the last of my half marathons this year with a sub 2-hour finish. Although, I am still considering the PJ Half Marathon in October. We'll see. The Army run was the best half marathon that I had participated this year. Rehydration points were aplenty, the cheerleading squads were energetic and there were even street performances along the way! My new Garmin Forerunner 210 (I got it at a good price at Comex just 2 days before the run!) had kept me running at a steady, consistent pace. But darn that killer slope at Fort Canning that had greatly reduced my speed! Towards the last 5 km, I thought I wouldn't be able to achieve a new personal best but I kept going. My mind, thoughtless.

The run started at 5.15 am and by 8.30 am, after gulping a few cans of isotonic drinks and getting a free massage at the Salonpas booth, I was back at home. Surprisingly, I wasn't as tired as I thought and decided to make a quick brunch before sleeping the afternoon away. Ahhh, just the thought of the sound sleep I had that afternoon feels good. There were 2 pieces of threadfin left and I decided to steam them. I know, I should be rewarding myself with something more sinful like char kway teow, KFC or bak chor mee. But I had to clear the fridge before the arrival of a new week, so I settled for a healthier brunch. Dinner was, yes, char kway teow. And Hokkien mee!

I went with the usual Cantonese-style steaming; minced ginger and garlic as topping, with a drizzle of sugared soy sauce. When the fish was cooked, I turned off the heat, added some hua diao wine and sesame oil before spreading the dish with a generous amount of chopped coriander and scallion. And covered the dish for a few minutes.

Threadfins bring back some childhood memories. As a kid, I was fed with a lot of threadfin porridge. The bones are hard and deathly, so I had learnt the art of simultaneously munching the meat and separating the bones in the mouth with my teeth and tongue before swallowing. And after some time, one will also be able to judge if it's an aged fish, from the texture of the thick skin. Back then, this was an upper-class fish. But I didn't have to buy them because I would get a good, unsold supply from my late grandfather. He was a fishmonger in a wet market. Mum being Hakka, would sometimes steam it with some sweet preserved vegetable and ginger. To be honest, I prefer this style because of the slight sweetness that gives a more interesting palate.

Back to my steamed fish, I vaguely remember reading some online articles on steamed fish served with rice noodle. It's a Teochew-style of cooking, I believe. Coincidentally, I'd frozen 2 stacks of carrot noodle that I made the day before. It was an experiment, by adding carrot puree to the dough, to inject some colour and sweetness to my usual handmade noodle. So, I cooked a handful of the carrot noodles and curled them into the steamed dish. By now, the soy sauce was infused with the spiciness of the ginger and garlic, and sweetness of threadfin, making it a tasty dressing for the noodles.

That was truly an enjoyable Sunday. So much so that I'd absolutely forgotten about the 4th anniversary of my blog. Looking at the amount of posts that I'd written this year, it seems like I'm bastardizing my blog. I'm not. I did mention, in one of my anniversary posts, that a blog is like one's child. Because you love it, you'll put in effort to ensure that it's taken care of. I believe my child has grown up. We've reached a level of understanding that infrequent postings do not equate to a love lost. In fact, I enjoy writing more now than, say 2008, because I begin to understand my priorities. So, I spend, whenever I can, more quality time in collecting and expressing my thoughts here rather than churning posts that mean nothing to me. Happy belated 4th anniversary, Black Tie White Lie.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cooked And Shared A Pot Of Curry

I ran to the Lower Peirce reservoir last Sunday. Nothing unusual of course, except that I’ve not been running in this direction since the beginning of the Hungry Ghost Festival. My friend, a runner and triathlete, had advised me to avoid this route; the winding Old Upper Thomson Road, to be specific, because it’s dark and quiet. Yes, the perfect setting for a ghostly encounter. He’s an experienced sportsman, so I’d decided to take his advice. But it’s also for its tranquility, coupled with the green, natural surrounding and the company of unobtrusive monkeys (and the occasional wildboar) that make this my favourite running route in Singapore so far. At night, especially.

My run began at 8 am (ahah, so this is not a ghost story!) that Sunday, so I completed 14 km around 9.30 am. Brunch at Paradise Pavilion was to start at 1 pm, so I had ample time to shop for ingredients for my curry dish at the neighbourhood wet market. I decided to stop by a tiny shop manned by a middle-aged lady. To be honest, I was rather disappointed with the garam masala that she offered as it came pre-packed. But the cost was only a micro fraction of the Masterfoods version on the supermarket shelf, so it was a compromise.

The lady looked at me curiously as I handed over the plastic basket of mostly spices to be checked out. Boy, what do you want to cook? she asked. I told her of my plan to cook a pot of vegetable curry with yoghurt. She gave me a few cooking tips and seemed pleased that I’m taking on an Indian-style curry. She just didn’t know that that’s the only style that I know of.

Why vegetable curry? I thought a mélange of colourful vegetables would make the dish more photogenic and this post more attractive. This plan of mine was laid out a few days earlier, after reading about the unofficial Cook And Share A Pot Of Curry campaign and receiving an invitation from Keropokman on Facebook.

There were five types of vegetables in my curry – brinjal, cauliflower, long bean, carrot, corn. There were pureed tomatoes too, for a creamy texture; a tip I’d picked up from the lovely Anjum Anand. I’d initially thought of including tamarind paste for a bit of tang and savouriness but replaced that with yoghurt and a light touch of cider vinegar instead. A handful of chopped coriander was mixed into the curry as I left the curry to cool. It’s obviously a simple dish to prepare but the combination of spices like cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, pepper and coriander was really aromatic and appetizing. Soon, version 2.0 will include more fried spices, tamarind paste, curry leaves, chilli paste and definitely more of the full fat yoghurt from the same stall. The yoghurt was so smooth and rich that I’d selfishly saved some to top my own serving.

Coincidentally, I had lunch with a colleague from Bangalore the next day and shared some of my vegetable curry with him. I almost burst into laughter when he said it was very tasty. I’m sure he was just being courteous. He then shared his lunch of more vegetarian curries cooked by his maid (what a lucky man) that made mine tasted like an elementary school science project. Over lunch, we discussed many issues including the curry campaign (of course) and the presidential election. It was an enjoyable lunch, one that I’ll gladly have regularly.

So that’s my Cook And Share A Pot Of Curry story. I had fun that Sunday.

It’s amazing how a Facebook page of such triviality can spice up our lives. As I welcome Cook A Bowl Of Bak Chor Mee Saturday or Fry A Plate Of Hokkien Mee Friday in the future, I should still exercise good judgement before clicking “ATTENDING”, so to not be misinformed and subsequently, misinterpreting and tarnishing the campaign.

Anyway, I don’t see such socio-culinary events taking place in this week. Everyone’s busy choosing their next President. So, happy voting, my Singaporean friends!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Mostly about Chinese fastfood restaurants...

Unlike the previous business trips to China, there were no lavish banquets to occupy the nights. It didn’t matter. Alone, I had a good time roaming about central Chang’an and Shenzhen on foot and tasted some, by corporate standard, cheap food along the way. Rechecking my trip's reimbursement claim, I realize that I am potentially the most (willingly) spendthrift employee of the year.

Chang’an may be just a small town but is well-known for being populous within the industrial city of Dongguan. That’s according to my Chinese colleague. I must explore Chang’an, I promised myself. During the day, I worked mostly from the hotel room and in the evening, I would hit the streets. No hotel food for dinner, thank you.

I would walk about 2 kilometers to central Chang’an. Into the first 500 meters, my shirt would soak in sweat. July in the Guangdong province is hot and humid, so don’t be alarmed to see shirtless local men everywhere, be it on the streets, in restaurants and even in shopping malls. I would have gladly taken off my shirt too, had this not been an official visit. Another observation is the group of line dancers that I passed by daily. Despite the heat, they seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously.

In general, I am all for streetfood but here, I was mostly disinterested because they were all provincial cuisines that are readily available back in Chinatown. Also, hygiene was of a concern. I had to constantly remind myself that this was an official visit, so I had to stay healthy. I decided on something less adventurous but still fun – tackling as many Chinese fastfood chains as I could, starting with 真功夫. Its trademark, a Bruce Lee-like figure, can be found all across China. The food is, as they claim, steamed to retain the nutrients. I think some dishes, like soups, are boiled, then steamed. Anyway, the staff recommended the herbal chicken soup set meal, which included some broccoli and steamed rice topped with minced pork. There’s nothing extraordinary about the soup that came perfumed with the usual Chinese angelica but it was a filling set.

The types of food that these fastfood restaurants offer do not differ much from each other, as I’d learnt in a week. All the menus have a similar listing of soups and steamed rice served with a variety of ingredients including braised pork ribs, stir-fried vegetables, beef slices and chicken cubes. However, I did find some rather noteworthy dishes like the Vitamin C noodle (with a reddish broth loaded with lots of tomatoes and pickled cabbage) at 永和大王 in Shenzhen and lean pork balls with 石解 (Radix Aristolochiae Fangchi, a rope-like herb) soup at 添添聚源味 in Chang’an.

I’d dined mostly at 活力旺, a local fastfood chain in Chang’an. It’s slightly cheaper than the competition and unlike its more glitzy rivals, 活力旺 does not thrive on a formula of modern (and clean) interior, bright displays and creative marketing but simply serves hearty dishes on worn plates and bowls. I really enjoyed the sour and spicy pork ribs soup noodle, served with peanuts, lettuce and dried daylilies. What an explosion of flavours in the mouth! Not numbingly spicy, but it made me sweat a bucket. The rice sets come with a good selection of toppings including bittergourd, yellow chive and some undetermined exotic vegetables. All walks of life dine here; elders, students, couples in factory uniforms, small families, etc. They made my dinners more interesting as I observed their eating habits and overheard conversations that were not too heavily accented.

Being in southern Guangdong, Hong Kong seems like just a few steps away. At Shenzhen, I found some Hong Kong bakeries and cafés, including Maxim’s and Café de Coral. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, after hours of frenzy shopping at 华强北, Shenzhen’s mega electronics market, I replenished at Café de Coral with some generously herbed, tender roast duck and pork belly. It was a random but good choice.

Since we’re on the topic of Hong Kong, I did, after trying so much oriental fastfood in China, plan to lunch differently at the Landmark’s l’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, before catching my evening flight back to Singapore. A check on the airline’s schedule later, I’d decided to forgo Robuchon to catch an earlier flight on the A380. It was my virginal boarding this aviation wonder, so I was quite excited. With some time to spare at the Hong Kong airport, I headed to the reputable (and rather expensive) Maxim’s Chinese Restaurant for their signature roast goose and some dim sum before started shopping for confectionaries and mooncakes at Kee Wah and Wing Wah.

Back to Guangdong. If I were to choose the most memorable food-related experience during this trip, I think it has to be enjoying the pack of mini wife’s biscuits from a local supermarket that cost only RMB5. Considering the price, the biscuits were good. Perhaps freshly baked, the skin was crispy and the filling of glutinous rice flour paste was soft and just nicely sweet. Oh, there were bits of winter melon too! Best deal of the trip, definitely.

Besides exploring Chang’an and Shenzhen, I spent the rest of my free time watching the cable news channels. It was during that week that we were horrified and saddened by the Norway twin attacks, Wenzhou trains collision and Amy Winehouse’s death. Reports on the devastating Horn of Africa famine didn’t making the week any easier. But instead of ending this rather lengthy post with obvious, neutral comments or even suggesting unintelligent remedies to these issues, I just want to be thankful for this safe trip. And a healthy and peaceful life so far. Once too often, I do take these blessings for granted.