Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kuala Lumpur - My views

I guess you know the story. You plan a vacation to some distant foreign land. You take a flight, get into a taxi or if you can afford it, the hotel or airline send you a limousine and you are whisked to your hotel. You eat at a few fancy restaurants, visit the obligatory tourist spots, visit a few shops and move on to your next destination.

However, there is one major transformation in us. When we travel, we become overnight experts on the destination we have just visited. We have our favourite tips, insiders secrets and recommendations which we are more than willing to spout to all in earshot. All this is based on a superficial visit which is sometimes as short as two days and sometimes as `long’ as a week. I join that band of travellers. This is my, un-informed, biased and prejudiced view based on a stay in a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I have no knowledge of real life in KL, it’s hardships, it’s joys and it’s problems.

South East Asia has 4 big cities. Jakarta does not count, in my view. Hong Kong by far is my favourite and the most vibrant and exciting. Next up would be Singapore. Bangkok is great fun too. Last of the cities is Kuala Lumpur. All these cities are within easy reach of India with at least one national airline flying from India to each city.

Kuala Lumpur is a 5 hour, gave or take a few minutes, flight from Mumbai. Kuala Lumpur airport is a long way away from the city centre some 50 kms away, but that distance is easily covered by way of a super smooth highway that leads straight into the city centre. It does take about an hour but that is par for the course in almost any city. Landing into Kuala Lumpur is one of the prettier sights. Mile upon mile of dense green Palm tree plantations.

Kuala Lumpur has an area called the Golden Triangle. As far as visitors go, this is the place to be, this is the sanctum sanctorum of sorts of Kuala Lumpur. This is where most big hotels are, where the shopping malls are and where the, sorry to use a cliché, iconic Petronas Towers are. This is the place to stay. The Golden Triangle includes the area known as KLCC and Bukit Bintang. What does one do in Kuala Lumpur? Answer, frankly, shopping, shopping and more shopping. There does not appear to be much else to do, well you could go to Chinatown and buy a fake Rolex watch or Louis Vuitton bag. The thing to do is spend your time walking and window shopping in the malls. The two biggest and best malls are the Pavilion in Bukit Bintang with the smaller Starhill Gallery next door and the Suria Mall at KLCC. The KLCC is the Convention Centre area around the Petronas Towers. As far as Malls go, these are quite good. Do not ask me if the prices are high or low.

The Petronas Towers in the afternoon. The squat buildings in the foreground are the Suria KLCC Mall

The Petronas Towers in at twilight. 

The Petronas Towers at night. 

The fountains in the KLCC complex

The clever government in Kuala Lumpur has made life even more fun and convenient for shoppers. A brand new elevated walkway now connects the Suria KLCC Mall with the Pavilion Mall. You can walk from one mall to the other without fear, in delightfully cool airconditioned comfort. The distance of about 600 meters is covered swiftly. This is what a walkway shoud be. No hawkers, no beggars, no Paan stains, no Pan Parag wrappers, just cleanliness. It was a pleasure walking this, even Senior Mrs Stonethrower was pleased with this.

The elevated air conditioned walkway

Inside the walk way

Thought this was funny. `Lintas' means walk in Malay.

One feature of the Malls in South East Asia is that most of the big ones have some really decent restaurants inside. OK, let me make one thing clear. I do not want to eat French food in South East Asia. Neither do I want to eat modern, fusion Pan Asian food. So I am quite happy going to the classic restaurants serving Asian food. An example being Din Tai Fung which is located inside the Pavilion Mall.

I often find myself comparing Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. Both have top hotels, though Bangkok is cheaper than Kuala Lumpur as far as hotels are concerned. Both have fine local food, spicy to keep our Indian tongues jumping and the food has strong Indian overtones. Both places are good for the shopper. Kuala Lumpur is, by comparison much smaller than Bangkok. Kuala Lumpur has a definite sanctum sanctorum while Bangkok has points of interest virtually all over. Bangkok has far more tourist sites with temples and Buddhas of all kinds all over. Kuala Lumpur is much more modern with swanky buildings and far more westernised in infrastructure. The horrible traffic gridlock that plagues Bangkok is not a factor in Kuala Lumpur (or, at least we didn’t encounter it).

In balance, I do like Kuala Lumpur even though it is small. It is, in my prejudiced view, less interesting than the other three cities, but, it’s way more bang for your buck than anything in India.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Din Tai Fung - Kuala Lumpur

Din Tai Fung. 

If you have been following this blog, you would know that this is a Chinese restaurant originating in Taiwan. This is a Dim Sum Restaurant. I have blogged about the branches in Bangkok and Hong Kong. We were in Kuala Lumpur where Din Tai Fung has some 4 branches. We went to the branch at the Pavilion Mall located at Bukit Bintang, the dead centre of Kuala Lumpur.

Before delving into the joys of the food at Din Tai Fung, here is something to think about. Malaysia is multi ethnic and multi cultural with both factors playing a large role in politics. The Constitution declares Islam the state religion, while, protecting freedom of religion. Without making any value judgement, Islam forbids the consumption of Pork and Alcohol. Despite Islam being the state religion, getting alcohol in Malaysia is no problem. Pork is not as widely available nor is it served in all restaurants. Restaurants, shops and food outlets have prominent signs stating that they are `Non Halal’ thereby indicating that alcohol and/or pork may be served. I did not feel that there was any stigma of any kind in eating pork or drinking alcohol. In fact, one of the most popular malls is the magnificent Pavilion Mall where there are several bars, many of which are open onto the public thoroughfare. No one has a problem. Something, we puritanical, or, depending how charitable you are, hypocritical, Indians should think about.

Din Tai Fung restaurants are similar in concept and decor. At the entrance you have a large glassed enclosure where masked and hair netted chefs are busy making the signature Xiao Long Bao dumplings. One chef rolls out the small dough balls into small circles, much like an Indian `Puri’. Another chef places the meat filling on the rolled out dough, and a third chef seals the seams and creates the finished dumpling. The fourth chef lines steaming baskets with a cloth and places dumplings inside ready to be steamed on order. It is fascinating to watch.

This is the steaming table where the buns are steamed

At the entrance of the restaurant is a hostess who hands you a menu, a clipboard with an ordering sheet clipped on it and a pencil. This is after she has filled in the number of guests on the table as well as a serial number on the sheet. While you wait, you are expected to fill in the sheet with your order. A display on the wall shows the number which corresponds to you sheet. Once your number is displayed you hand over the order sheet and take your table. A waitress then checks your order and soon, the food is flying to your table.

The clipboards in the foreground 

Sharpened pencils to give out to waiting diners

A sharpner to keep the pencils `pointy'.
The order sheet given with the clipboard

Close up

The table has a few condiments. Vinegar is the unusual one. This is used to douse the julienned ginger that arrives.

The finely sliced ginger doused with the vinegar

First to arrive was the famous Drunken Chicken. This is a cold dish which comprises of a poached chicken breast. This poaching is a typically Chinese technique. The chicken is sliced and doused with a Chinese Shaoshing Wine. Simple, cold and delicious.

Drunken Chicken

Next, came the famous Xiao Long Bao a delicious dumpling filled with Pork and a rich Pork stock. You pick this up carefully so as to not break the skin and let the liquid out. Add some shredded ginger and vinegar and pop the whole thing into your mouth. You pray that you will not be burned by the hot stock in the dumpling, when your mouth fills with the savoury stock. Then the sharp ginger and sour vinegar jump in to cut the richness. It is a delightful sensation and very tasty.

Xiao Long Bao

We had ordered two soups. HRH the Queen of Kutch had ordered a Glass Noodle Soup with Tofu and Pork Sausage. This was a clear soup with a great broth. The Pork Sausage was extremely tasty. I ordered a Hot and Sour Soup, which turned up with loads of Chilli Oil and a Pepper Shaker for me to add Pepper as I wanted. You know what? No one asks you `Veg’ or `Non Veg’ when you order the soup. Superb soup.

Glass Noodle Soup with Tofu and Pork Sausage

Hot Sour Soup

The last two dishes ordered were the obligatory Kailan with Oyster Sauce and to balance the vegetable a Pork Cutlet. The Kailan was as expected. Green, hot and doused with the sauce. The Pork Chop was savoury and went well with the Kailan.

Kailan with Oyster Sauce

Pork Cutlet

All this was washed down with two Tiger Beers.

The quality of food, in our collective opinion, exceeds the food available at Royal China as well as at Yauatcha [both in Mumbai]. The style of food is similar in as much as it falls within the overall `Dim Sum’ category. This is not fine dining, though the food quality most certainly is. This restaurant is just a notch above a fast food restaurant in terms of service. You place the order by writing it down yourself. You simply hand over your order to a passing waiter. The food is served to you by busboys. No restaurant managers mincing around. No one asks you if you are enjoying your meal, nothing. Food is served, plates cleared and then, you take your clipboard to the bill desk and pay the bill. Meal over and you are out. Brilliant. No talking, no chitchat no time wasting.

Also, lastly, have a look at the bill. It is 116 Malaysian Ringitt which is Indian Rupees 2,100/-  Try and have a good Chinese meal in that much money with two beers thrown in in Mumbai. By the way, if you want to get to a more `granular’ level as merchant bankers love to say, the two beers cost MR 27 which is Rs. 500/- or Rs 250/- a beer. Reasonable? Who says India is cheap?

An excellent meal. Din Tai Fung is really a good restaurant. You must visit a branch.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu.

Where, what? Read on. A short geography lesson follows.

Kota Kinabalu is in Malaysia. Malaysia itself is divided into an East Malaysia and a West Malaysia. East Malaysia generally comprises of a section of the island of Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island in the world. It is a huge island which is divided between 3 countries. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Kota Kinabalu is in Sabah District in the Northern region of East Malaysia and is located on the island of Borneo. Got it? All clear? Have a look at the maps I have so lovingly inserted.

Why here? East Asia has a few beaches. We all know Hua Hin, Phuket, Langkawi, Krabi, Ko Samui, Ko Samet, Bali. These are highly popular and Indians are sold holidays here regularly. Kota Kinabalu is unusual, inasmuch as it’s a great place to visit but, for some reason, Indians are not sold holidays here. The bulk of the holiday makers to Kota Kinabalu are Chinese and Japanese and a smattering of Australians. It’s a bit of the beaten track. An aunt of HRH the Queen of Kutch had told us about Kota Kinabalu. So we finally made it here. Mind you it is a 2 ½ hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. So, its far, as much as Mumbai Calcutta if not more.

A usual large resort hotel. All the boxes can be ticked. Multiple restaurants including one which has buffets for all meals. The usual pool bars, a grill restaurant by the sea, a Sunset Bar marooned on a far corner of the property, an infinity pool and a Spa. Water sports available at the hotel by the Hotel, no need to deal with touts and dodgy equipment.

Kota Kinabalu is also home to Mount Kinabalu a 4000 meter mountain. This is a protected wildlife park and nature reserve. You can climb to the peak in a 2-3 day trek if you like. This is much like Mount Fuji which can also be climbed by anyone in decent physical shape without requiring special mountaineering skills. No I was not attempting this.

Borneo is home to the Orang Utang. Quite often, baby Orang Utangs are either separated from their parents or abandoned, in other words, they are orphaned. The wildlife authorities in conjunction with the Shangri La resort at Rasa Ria have set up a unique refuge where baby orphaned Orang Utangs till the age of 6 are rehabilitated. This was something we visited. The jungle is really dense, hot and humid. This was the first time I have entered a tropical jungle. It was extremely debilitating. The heat and the humidity were incredible even for us Bombay wallahs. Anyway, what they do is have a sort of tour where visitors are taken into a viewing gallery. The Orang Utangs are fed by the rangers at 11 am and in the afternoon. At this time you can see the Orang Utangs in their natural habitat. These animals are generally wild. You are not able to touch them though they may come close. The refuge had 6 babies. Two came up to have their feed. They were young 2 and 6 is what I heard. Extremely agile, their swinging from branches was a sight to behold. I managed to get a few photos. Very cute animals.

We are spending 5 nights here. Just simple rest and relaxation. No running around, just swimming, water sports and eating. Of course drinking at Happy Hours.

Next we go on to Kuala Lumpur. Shall report from there.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A good coconut curry

I am half Manglorean and half Hindu Goan - you could say I am a Mango. Both communities use a lot of coconut in their food. Coconut based curries either - with ground coconut or coconut milk with lashings of Tamarind as a souring agent, vegetables with grated coconut as a garnish, coconut based chutneys, and, tempering of dishes with coconut oil, all formed part of the food I ate when growing up. As a child I remember servants grating coconut on that unique coconut scraper squatting on the floor. I also remember, quite distinctly, being allowed to fill a blender with the scraped coconut, adding water, blending, and then with my small hands squeezing out the milk. A lot of the food from the Manglorean side used coconut oil as a cooking medium. I have no problem with that. In fact to this day we use coconut oil at home for several dishes. Obviously eating Thai food with its coconut milk based soups and curries are no problem for me. I do like coconut, though, I must confess, I am not too fond of coconut sweets or the horrid coconut desserts that the Thais love.

As a youngster, either the servants or my mother, or a selection of aunts, used to make rather delicious coconut curries. The curry was a base in which invariably there was a protein. The protein could be non vegetarian - fish, prawns, mutton [goat], and chicken - if this was the Goan style or it would be vegetarian and have beans if it was Manglorean. Sometimes the Manglorean style vegetable curries would have potato, sprouted beans or cauliflower. All delicious.

I used to look forward to Manglorean weddings because often you got `Batata Sukke’ a potato curry. Soon the Manglorean wedding had Punjabi food so that was that. Coconut curries became flavours of a bygone time. Coconut curries became rarer and rarer. Mangloreans soon marched on Paneer Tikka Masala.

I often wondered why it was so difficult to get a decent coconut curry at home anymore. Often I was told that the coconuts of today are just not like what they were 15 or 20 years ago. I did not really believe that, but, since I had no personal experience, I could not question the answer. My own opinion was that with advancing age, the mothers and aunts used short cuts to make curries. Servants on the other hand became younger as old retainers who knew how to cook this kind of food soon retired or died or became drunks. No new servant knew how to make a decent curry, and to make matters worse, no one had the patience to train them. The next generation of women had not much of a clue on how to cook a decent coconut curry. The young ones wanted to make pizza or a `baked dish’ or Fajitas and Tacos. In many cases the oldies were either alone at home and simply did not have the energy to make a coconut curry or the oldies lived with the next gen and was fed Nachos. All this meant no curry at home.

The only place where one could get a decent coconut curry was at the Manglorean and Gomantak restaurants that sprung up everywhere. Apoorva, Trishna and Mahesh were Manglorean and Saayba, Highway Gomantak, Sachin and Gajalee were the Gomantak/Malwani style. So much so that if you go to these restaurants today a large proportion of the guests are mummies and daddies, old mummies and daddies who cannot cook and do not get old style food at home.

I did think it was a ridiculous state of affairs. But try as much as I wanted, getting a recipe that worked was next to impossible. No mummy or aunt ever made a dish with ingredients that were measured. Frankly, that was just part of the problem. The real problem was they had simply not made a curry in years and had lost all touch.

I really wanted to make a decent coconut curry at home. It cannot really be all that difficult. To my mind it was essential to get a proper recipe, what I call a codified recipe. By this I mean a recipe that has definite measurements, a recipe that has been tested and most importantly has been given by a real chef.

Indian cookbooks on Indian food are a complete waste of time and money. I have only two that make any sense and where recopies are codified. One is Prashad – Cooking with Indian Masters by Jiggs Kalra and the second is Cooking Delights of The Maharajas by Digvijaya Singh. Both books are excellent. The rest that I have, Bilkis Latif on Andhra Food, Kaumudi Marathe on Marathi food, Sabita Radhakrishnan on Tamil food, the Calcutta Cookbook and Parsi food by Bhicoo Manekshaw are rubbish. Indian cookbooks brought out by Mahila Mandals do exist, but are badly written in every way. Indian cookbooks on foreign food are utterly and totally ridiculous.

Cookbooks on Indian food published abroad are excellent. Cyrus Todiwala, Atul Kochar, Vineet Bhatia, Udit Sarkhel’s book on Bengali food, Mrs. Balbir Singh and Madhur Jaffrey are all top class books. Camellia Panjabi book 50 Great Curries is also very good. Good codified recipes.

I had bought Vineet Bhatia’s book some years ago and had been making several of his recipes, South Indian Sambar, Cabbage Foogath, Shikampuri Kebabs and many more. Then last week, HRH the Queen of Kutch and I decided to give his recipe for South Indian Style Chicken Masala a try. I cannot tell you how utterly good the recipe is and what delicious results it gives. So much so that I was inspired to write this post. The recipe focuses on coconut. You use the flesh you use the milk and you use coconut oil in the tempering. The curry is a coconut curry and makes no bones about it. The brilliant bit about the recipe is that the curry is a very versatile vehicle. You could make a delicious chicken curry or an equally lip smacking vegetarian one with potato or cauliflower or double beans or even a Rajma. This is a really good recipe.

If any of you want to eat a curry that you remember from your childhood, or if you simply want to make a good curry go ahead and make this. I have only one request. Do not eat it on the day you cook it. Please cool the curry, put it in the fridge and eat it the next day. The curry will be much much better as all the flavours will have calmed and assimilated.

Here is the recipe

South Indian Style Chicken Masala – Vineet Bhatia
Serves 4 generously


For the Coconut base

5 to 6 dry red chillies or simply use chilli powder appropriately
150 grams fresh coconut grated [Half a coconut weighs between 130 to 150 grams so that should be enough]
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2.5 cms or 1 inch Cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds

For cooking the coconut base

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds [yes that is a lot]
1 ½ tablespoons heaped of ginger garlic paste or ¾ tablespoons each of finely chopped ginger and garlic
1 medium onion thinly sliced [Ideally shallots or Madras Sambar Onions of an equivalent quantity]
1 sprig curry leaves washed and chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tomato pureed
200 ml thick coconut milk [a Tetrapak is fine. A tin of Thai coconut milk much better]
1 tablespoon Tamarind pulp [or more to taste]
400 grams chicken breast cut into strips [much like potato chips]

For the Tempering

2 tablespoon coconut oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds [yes that is a lot]
1 sprig curry leaves

Possible alternates to Chicken

Boiled double beans
Boiled Rajma
Boiled Potato and/or Cauliflower and /or peas


For the Coconut base

Take two heavy bottom fry pans. In one pan add the grated coconut in the pan and dry roast it, stirring from time to time till the coconut turns a light brown and has a nutty smell.

In the second pan toast the spices for the coconut base. If you are using chilli powder do not toast this. Simply add it into the blender.

Blend the contents of the two pans without any water. Once the mixture stops working add as little water as possible till you get a very fine paste.

Job done.

For cooking the coconut base

Heat the oil in a largish pan and add the mustard seeds. When they start popping add the ginger garlic [paste or chopped] and sauté a bit. Now add the onion [or shallots or sambar onion] and the curry leaves and sweat till they soften. Add the turmeric powder and then the Coconut base you have made. Keep stirring, be careful it sticks and it bubbles viciously so it may splash on you. Cook this for some time till the water sort of dries out and the raw flavour is gone.

Now add the coconut milk and bring to a boil.

The curry may be very thick. If so add some water to thin it down. The curry should have the consistency of a Chinese Sweet Corn Soup, about as thick as that. Add the Tamarind check the salt.

Now you can add the Chicken or the possible alternative to Chicken.

Once the Chicken is cooked [if using] or when the curry reaches a boil again if using the alternatives it’s time to temper.

For the Tempering

Heat the coconut oil in an appropriately sized pan. When hot add the mustard seeds wait till they start to pop and the curry leaves. Pour this into the curry.

Job done.

To eat

Ideally, as I have said, try and not eat it on the day you make it. Please cool the curry, put it in the fridge and eat it the next day. Heat gently adjust the seasoning.

This is great with plain hot boiled rice.