Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Malaysia's delicious food

Malaysia is a real foodie paradise, especially as it's an interesting combination of different cultures: Malay, Chinese, Indian and that mix of Chinese and Malay that is known as Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya cuisine.

When we weren't sightseeing or exploring some aspect of history, or shopping, we were most definitely eating.

When he found out that I was headed to Malaysia, Holger Glaser, Director of Food & Beverage at the Makati Shangri-la, very kindly asked his friends at the Shangri-la resort in Penang and the Shangri-la hotel in Kuala Lumpur for dining suggestions.

I'm sharing their shortlist with Travelife Magazine blog readers so all the foodies reading this will benefit. By the way, Travelife Magazine is organizing a short and sweet weekend tour to Malaysia tentatively set for this November. If you've always wanted to see this lovely neighboring country just two hours away, this may be a good time. Stay tuned to this blog and Travelife's October-November issue for more details. Scroll down to see his recommendations.

taken with our Blackberry camera

This was the best chicken rice I had on this trip.
It was at Fatty Loh Chicken Rice restaurant
in the outskirts of Penang.

That's Mr. Loh himself, chopping up the juicy chicken.

The Loh family posing for a photo for Travelife.

Some of the Travelife team
enjoying a Baba-Nyonya lunch in Malacca.

Baba-nyonya food is very much like Peranakan culture.
It's a mixture of Chinese cooking styles
and Malay spices.

This is a spicy fish dish from
a Portugese restaurant in Malacca.

We visited a Jonker Road chendol shop in Malacca
for a 10 am fix of chendol; but the shop owner
loaded us with spicy laksa and
a hodge-podge of vegetables and fruits
doused with Rojak sauce.

Shangri-la Makati's Holger Glaser recommends:


Chicken rice
Nam Heong Hainanese Chicken Rice
in Chinatown
Tel (603) 20785879

Malay food
Saloma Theater Restaurant
Opposite the Renaissance Hotel

Chinese & Malay food
Madam Kwan Restaurant


Baba-nyonya food
Mama's Nyonya Cuisine

Penang Assam Laksa
at the Ayer Itam Kek Lok Si Market

End of the World
at Teluk Bahang

New World Park
at Penang's Hawker Food Court

from September 2

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with Margarita Fores

with Margarita Fores
and the Embassy of Italy & Bacchus Epicerie
September 8 at Whitespace

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Sushi for breakfast at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

Saturday morning, we woke up in Tokyo with a hankering for sushi so off we went to the world-famous Tsukiji Market, just off Ginza, to have a sushi breakfast. If you think that's rather weird, to have sushi for breakfast, I can confirm that it's rather unusual indeed. Most locals would be horrified at the idea of sushi for breakfast, preferring something more mundane like croissant from the local bakery and yoghurt with fruit instead; and when I was living full-time in Tokyo myself, I never went to Tsukiji for breakfast sushi except when I had visitors from overseas or even Japanese friends visiting from out of town.

But nowadays, I count Manila more like home than Tokyo; so whenever I'm here, which is about every five weeks, I end up doing really touristy things like going to Tsukiji and having all kinds of Japanese food at every opportunity. I usually have sushi every other day when I'm here as I find that's the one Japanese food that's hard to get really good versions of overseas. The other food very difficult to find outside of Japan is a very good tonkatsu. I think it's because the pork is different and the bread crumbs used to coat the tonkatsu aren't fresh. The tonkatsu sauce also makes a world of difference. Respectable tonkatsu shops in Japan make their own sauce, while almost all restaurants serving tonkatsu abroad give you only the bottled kind from the supermarket. More on fantastic tonkatsu in a future blog entry.

The greatest fish market in the world

Anyway, back to my visit to Tsukiji Fish Market. I must admit that it's so much fun to do so. Tsukiji is the greatest fish market in the world, and it's a really interesting place to visit to taste all kinds of food and to see the most amazing variety of Japanese foodstuffs.

Well, this morning, it seems I wasn't the only person to think it a good idea to spend Saturday morning in Tsukiji. The place was teeming with people! So much so that it took quite a while to find a parking spot as all the usual places where taken.

By the time we'd parked the car and gotten to our sushi place in a back alley, it was already full. And the clock had just struck eleven, which usually is a very strange hour to have sushi. But when we entered, the lady who greeted us said, "I'm afraid the only seats we can give you are at the counter." This was perfect, though, as the counter is the most fun place to eat sushi at.

The most expensive meal in the world

Lots of people visiting Tokyo ask me to recommend a great sushi place. Friends who know their food always have the world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro at the top of their shortlist, and this is largely considered the best sushi restaurant in the world. However, if you wake up one day with a hankering for sushi, this isn't the place to go as you'll never get a table at short notice. One month in advance, if not three to six, is more like it. It's a small and unassuming place, and pretty expensive as well.

The sushi is really good but I wouldn't call a meal here an enjoyable experience. You basically eat what you're told or given, and you're discouraged from personalizing your experience by asking for more soysauce or wasabi, as the people at Sukiyabashi Jiro have very definite ideas about what and how you should eat. You've got to be very brave to even suggest to the sushi master Jiro that his creations need more soy sauce.

More often than not, too, your meal will be over in 30 minutes as sushi is quick to prepare and quick to eat. Travelife contributing editor and perpetual Hungry Traveler Jerome Velasco, who spends a lot of time traveling the world eating in top restaurants, reckons this is the most expensive meal he's ever had when he calculates the price per minute. Scroll down to see my favorite sushi shop in Tokyo.

My favorite sushi shops

My personal favorite is Kyubei, which is not too far from Sukiyabashi Jiro, and easier to get a reservation for. At lunch, too, with the exception of the first seating at 1130 am, it's first-come, first-served, so you stand a chance of a seat if you're patient enough. It's not as famous as Sukiyabashi Jiro, but you'll not spend as much either.

Now when I just want to eat sushi without fuss, and also without spending too much, I go to the Tsukiji branches of Sushizanmai. It's very cheap by local sushi standards, but I've never been disappointed with a meal at any of their main Tsukiji stores (Sushizanmai has branches all over Tokyo) -- especially when I think of the price compared to other places.

So this morning, that's where I went, to one of the main branches of Sushizanmai, just a few blocks away from the market itself. Not all Sushizanmai shops are created equal, and some of them have a real run-of-the-mill atmosphere. But the branch I go to in a Tsukiji back alley has a real sushi shop atmosphere compared to a modern, fastfood atmosphere, and the fish is fresh. I always have the aburi toro -- which is basically tuna belly on rice torched and then sprinkled with salt -- which is probably my favorite sushi. Not all sushi restaurants offer this because you need a blow-torch to do this, but Sushizanmai does an excellent version.

I also love the nori soup here, which is truly unparalleled. Again, not too many sushi places offer nori soup; but when they do, I always order it. I've yet to have a nori soup as good as the version offered in a large lacquer bowl at Sushizanmai.

We left the shop really full and quite satisfied. When we exited, there was already a long line of customers in the hallway and a sign said people could expect to be seated in 30 minutes. Seeing this, I was certainly glad we'd gone ahead with our plan for breakfast!




Monday, August 29, 2011

Prime rib with drama in Tokyo

Last night, a friend took me and some other people to dinner. Since I was visiting from Manila, he asked me to choose the restaurant and gallantly offered to take me anywhere I wanted. I was in Tokyo, the city with the most Michelin stars in the world and where almost every single neighborhood joint is good, and I asked him to take me to Lawry's in Akasaka.

I know I won't hear the end of it from my serious foodie friends, for choosing an American steak place for one of my few dinners in Tokyo when I could have had kaiseki, sushi or even the world's most expensive wagyu steak (Yes, it's in Tokyo. Hope you read about it in Travelife Magazine's August-September issue.).


But somehow, that's really what I felt like having, after ten nights of spicy food in Malaysia, a hodge-podge of meals in Manila, and wagyu and tonkatsu already done in Tokyo. I wanted a really good and proper American steak with all the trimmings. In a very traditional steak house atmosphere.

It also helped perhaps that we'd joined a table of friends for drinks at Lawry's bar earlier; and so the idea of walking a few more meters down a staircase for dinner was the lazy option. But I was in Tokyo for a break from work timed with the long weekend in Manila, after all, and so I thought I could be excused from taking nothing but the easy way out.


Interestingly, Lawry's turned out to be an excellent choice because it offered a properly dressy but also casual atmosphere conducive for talking and relaxing, and a pretty good dinner
besides. It's an American institution for prime rib and in Tokyo, it's all dramatics: red carpet, high-backed chairs, leather banquette tables on the sides, brass lighting, high ceilings and a general feeling that's a cross between a gentleman's club and a red-carpet moment. Besides, for me, it wasn't one of those evenings when the food is the star of the show. I was really just looking forward to catching up in a congenial atmosphere.

I hadn't been to Lawry's in Tokyo in a very long time so I'd forgotten how nice it actually is. But those who've been to Lawry's in Tokyo or in the States are fairly familiar with the Lawry's routine: Prime rib is the thing to have here, and it's just a matter of how much of it you want.

It's a recession in Japan at the moment and so far I've been eating in pretty empty restaurants. But Lawry's in Tokyo was actually healthily full -- not jampacked but with enough people for a lively atmosphere. Interestingly, too, there were not a few families out for dinner even if it was a weekday night. Some couple had brought little children along, dressed quite formally for an adult dinner.


Back to the meat of the issue. The Tokyo Cut is the smallest cut of prime rib they have (140 grams), and they have other kinds of cut including the American Cut, the British Cut, and the Traditional Cut. This comes with traditional sidings including a very well-made and freshly done Yorkshire pudding, creamed horseradish and Lawry's famous spinning salad.

The spinning salad is made with what is basically a stainless steel bowl filled with cut-up vegetables like lettuce and beets that's spun on a bed of crushed ice, and then salad dressing similar to a Thousands Islands dressing is spun into it. The dressing is poured as the bowl is spun around, ensuring that the sauce is properly distributed. Then croutons and cherry tomatoes are added on the side, and you're given a container of Lawry's seasoning if you want more flavor. It's quite good, but the attraction is basically the theatrics of it all.


The prime rib itself is served with lots of drama. A foreign chef rolls in a huge stainless steel contraption and then opens one of its sides to reveal about three or four hunks of beef waiting to be cut.
"Would you like the ends or the middle? And how would you like your prime rib done?" They ask. If you want ends, after all, they have three or four pieces of meat to choose from in this trolley alone. The visuals just make you more hungry. At least this is how I felt as I'd initially ordered the Tokyo Cut; then, when I saw all the meat in this dramatic contraption, I almost jumped four sizes larger to the Diamond Jim Brady Cut.

"I should really stop having this prejudice about American food," my friend, the host, said. He's Japanese but he's an avowed Anglophile, and so he basically thinks that British is best whenever there's a toss-up between American culture and British culture.

I guess he said this out of the blue because he'd enjoyed his dinner at Lawry's. I nodded, then added: "And if you think about it, this type of food is actually British. It's the British Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding, horseradish and gravy."

Sunday roast is one of the British traditions I happily follow whenever I'm in London, as I feel it's a very civilized way to observe the end of the weekend and the start of the week. I'll gladly go to one of the very posh places if someone I'm with so wants to go there; but if I have a choice, I really like the Sunday roast at the beautiful little restaurant of the Milestone Hotel in Kensington.

I also used to have the Sunday roast at the Savoy Hotel on the other side of town, just because it's very traditional and proper.

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, my choices for a good prime rib would be the American Club and Oak Door of the Grand Hyatt Tokyo. And, now, of course, Lawry's in Akasaka.

Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue

5 to 6 pm


Sunday, August 28, 2011

The joys of a Tokyo summer -- and a pasta recipe for peaches

Today in Tokyo I was reminded of the joys of a Japanese summer (July and August). Basically it's about good fruit, lots of tomatoes, walking around town in cotton yukata and wooden clogs, cold somen noodles, fireworks by the rivers, and hunting for fireflies in the fields.

Over the weekend, someone gave me a box of grapes from the west of Japan, and if you've ever tasted plump and ripe Japanese grapes, you'll know these are as good as heaven. Nothing tastes as good as Japanese grapes, especially the variety called kyoho, and the best ones are from Yamanashi Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture and from Tokai City in Aichi Prefecture.

Another pleasure of summer is the beautiful and infinitely delectable Japanese peaches (momo) that make their appearance only in July and August. Next to Japanese grapes and passionfruit, which I enjoy in copious quantities when in Thailand, Japanese peaches are just about my favorite fruits in the world. Again, nothing beats Japanese peaches as far as I'm concerned; no other peach comes close.


Of course, Japanese peaches are great when chilled and peeled. But what I really like doing with them is making a very fresh-tasting summer pasta. I first saw this on Japanese television many years ago, when a chef in a luxury bed-and-breakfast in Hokkaido was interviewed on TV and this was one of his specialties; and that very evening, I tried it for dinner, winging it based solely on that very quick TV interview. It turned out fantastically and I've made it every summer ever since. When I have guests over on my rooftop in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo or better yet in my weekend home in Mount Fuji, where peaches are cheap and plentiful in August, I always make this dish to rave reviews.

So I thought I'd share my secret Japanese peaches pasta recipe on this blog, as it's incredibly simple to make and very impressive to serve. Scroll down and see the recipe below.

Travelife's Peaches and Parma Ham Pasta

6 very ripe Japanese peaches
250 grams of the finest parma ham you can find
Boutique extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly-ground French rock salt (Guerande sea salt)
Freshly ground pepper
1 pack Capellini pasta

Peel the peaches and cut up into bite-size slices. Place it in a bowl and drizzle liberally with extra-virgin olive oil. Use the best quality you can find as the taste will really matter since this is not a cooked pasta sauce. Season with freshly-ground salt and pepper, cover and leave in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes.

Slice the Parma ham thinly. Cook the pasta.

Once pasta is cooked, mix in the mixture of Japanese peaches and top this with Parma ham. Serve as soon as possible, accompanied by very cold and dry white wine. Enjoy!


PS: On Friday at the airport in Manila I picked up a copy of Forbes Asia to read on the plane. The back page is always a collection of sayings, and this month's issue had sayings related to the concept of Home. One of them was especially applicable for frequent travelers like me, who consider hotels and airports almost like home. It's by someone named Christian Morgenstern: "Home is not where you live, but where they understand you."

Best wishes from all of us at Travelife Magazine, the Philippines' leading travel & lifestyle publication. Hope you're enjoying the last of the long weekend -- wherever in the world you happen to be.

from September 2

Join us in Italy this September 8.
Travelife Italy Night
with Margarita Fores
with Margarita Fores
and the Embassy of Italy & Bacchus Epicerie
September 8 at Whitespace
Please call TRAVELIFE at 8138400/ 8922620
to reserve a limited seat


Meeting Mr. Right

Today I had lunch with my friend Hiroko and we went to one of my favorite tonkatsu restaurants in Tokyo for juicy kurobuta tonkatsu with a special grated apple sauce. I hadn't had good tonkatsu in months. I also hadn't seen her in months and there was lots to catch up on.

"I've been very busy going on dates," she said cheerfully, as soon as we'd sat down and ordered. "I decided that this is the year I'm going to finally meet someone compatible. I'm sick of being alone or being with lousy guys."

Hiroko is a real catch, as far as I'm concerned. She's pretty, she runs her own business, travels a lot to Europe, and even knows how to cook well. She once made me a seafood linguine that I've never ever forgotten. It was better than anything I've had in Italy.

But for some reason, she's been unlucky in love ever since a steady boyfriend had proposed marriage and given her a diamond ring, and then disappeared -- only to resurface months later completely in love with someone else. Since then, she'd been on dates but had never seemed to find the perfect match.


However, in Japan, she's not alone. Meeting Mr. Right is big business in Japan as so many attractive and smart women are constantly single and looking, for some reason. Many experts have expounded on this sociological phenomenon and they've come up with all sorts of reasons for this major mismatch: from the effects of the recession and the fact that there are not very many opportunities for singles to meet in Japan to the theory that Japanese men have become more introspective and shy in recent years, and so many of them prefer living by themselves, closeted in their apartments with their computers and books.

I myself am at a loss as to why so many women are single in this society. And not a few of them have given up on relationships and marriage altogether.

But not Hiroko. She had taken a chunk of her savings and joined a matchmaking club in Japan that promised to find her a partner in 12 months or half her money back. There are a lot of matchmaking clubs in Japan, by the way, with different fee structures, ways of introductions and benefits. It's a matter of finding the matchmaking club that's right for you.


"Do you know that there's a matchmaking club specifically for women who want to marry doctors or lawyers?" She asked me. I didn't know this, but it didn't surprise me. Occupation status is a big deal in Japan, and lots of women would like to marry a doctor if they had a choice.

"So, did you join that one?" I asked her. Hiroko shook her head. She answered: "It was too expensive. Beyond my budget, unfortunately."

Apparently, the matchmaking clubs that deal specifically with introductions to doctors and lawyers are more expensive than regular matchmaking clubs. In the case of really top-rate matchmaking clubs that promise introductions to single doctors at well-known hospitals who've graduated from top medical schools in Japan like Keio University or the University of Tokyo, and who are from families of good social standing besides (translation: the father is or was a top executive or the owner of a successful business), the difference in entrance fees can be well over one million yen.


Then Hiroko added: "But I did choose a club that promises introductions to guys making at least 20 million yen."

If such straight talk about money in the Japanese business of love and dating shocks you, don't be because it's quite the norm here. Since Japan became essentially a classless society after World War II, people lost their system of ranking and classifying others. In the absence of such a system, the school you graduated from and how much money you earn in a year are often used as the norm instead.

People discuss this quite matter-of-factly and it's normal for two people meeting for the first time on an arranged date to know each other's income before they've even gotten to know stuff like hobbies, favorite tv shows or favorite foods.

In fact, if you ask a girl for her wishlist on a prospective partner, she's likely to say something like "he should earn at least 10 million yen" or something, without batting an eyelash.


Anyway, Hiroko's club had already arranged two dates for her that she deemed mildly successful. One had been a divorced executive in a multinational company, while the other had been a publishing executive, never married. She'd actually gone out on three dates with the latter and it had started to look promising; but the third date had been dinner at her home and she'd suddenly gotten turned off because midway through dinner, the guy had apparently just walked into her kitchen, opened her fridge and took out a bottle of white wine left to chill. That did it, as far as she was concerned.

I stared at her open-mouthed, not being able to imagine how something could go so wrong from a little initiative with a bottle of wine. Then I said, "If you like him, maybe you just have to teach him more manners."

She shook her head. But she wasn't too worried anyway. The matchmaking club had promised her 15 good introductions and so she had 13 more to go. More on Hiroko and the business of marriage in Japan soon.