Monday, May 21, 2012

A killer tiramisu and a bit of Sicily in Borneo

The other night we had dinner at Peppino, the fine dining restaurant of the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru resort in beautiful Kota Kinabalu. There are not many fine dining restaurants in this part of the world as KK is pretty much a casual sort of place; but Peppino is one such place.

We'd been out all day checking out the shops. Now everyone's been telling me that KK's more of an eco-tourism destination and not exactly a shopping place so I'd left my expectations at home.

Fortunately, I'd remembered to bring my credit cards. It was practically just Day 1 of our week-long KK sojourn (a.k.a. the Travelife field trip) and already I ended the day loaded with major shopping bags!


Is it just me and my "uncanny ability" to just find more stuff I don't really need even in the unlikeliest of places? Or is KK really a not-too-well-known shoppers' paradise with hidden treasures just waiting to be uncovered?

I went into two stores and a shopping mall yesterday, and I came out with two beautiful dresses and a scanner! I couldn't resist the dresses as they were just my usual strange types and certainly not available in Manila: lovely jewel colors, flowing silks, hand painted designs. I closed my eyes and out came the credit card.


Then just as I was passing by an electronics shop -- I usually never ever go into electronics shop -- an ultra-light made-in-Japan scanner caught my eye because it was on sale; and when I took a closer look, it turned out to be high-speed with a one-button function and powered only via a USB port. Exactly what I needed in my never-ending Travelife! So out came the credit card again.

When I finally got back to my van, I was literally loaded with shopping bags.


Meanwhile, dinner at Peppino was wonderful, although it was rather interesting to be having excellent Italian food in a luxurious restaurant just a few meters from the beach in the distant island of Borneo, thousands of kilometers from Italy. Peppino's chef, Chef Salvatore Coco, is an Italian from Sicily, you see, so the food is the real deal.

He's well-known for several tantalizing dishes including a killer tiramisu which he serves in a martini glass topped with bitter coffee granite and Amaretto foam, and pan-seared cubes of tuna fillet encrusted in nuts and served on a bed of creamy parsnip.

The killer tiramisu

The pan-seared tuna fillet
I looked through the menu and there were many Sicilian specialties on offer that you don't even see often on menus of good Italian restaurants in more cosmopolitan cities in the world like Tokyo or London simply because it's not easy for a restaurant to offer Sicilian food if their chef isn't from Sicily. Sicilian food has an identity all its own that hasn't really been incorporated into mainstream Italian food culture.


Anyway, I noticed that Peppino had pasta with sardines on their menu -- a staple dish in Sicily that every Sicilian mother makes with gusto. Before I holidayed in Sicily some years back, I was really looking forward to having this pasta with sardines because a famous Japanese writer -- I think it was Haruki Murakami -- said he loved it.

I remember flying into Sicily from Rome one spring morning and getting to Palermo, the capital, just before lunch. Of course, the first thing I did after checking in was to get directions for the restaurant that served the best pasta with sardines in the city. When my order arrived, I tucked in with gusto and was extremely disappointed with my first few bites. The sardines had an aftertaste, and the mixture of herbs and fish with noodles wasn't to my liking.


I gave this favorite Sicilian dish a couple more tries in some of the best restaurants in Sicily, as we drove from one end to the other over two weeks and then ended up in a tiny but utterly charming town called Siracusa, where we drove our car onto a ferry for Malta. But that's another story.

Anyway, these bad memories of pasta with sardines never left me and I remembered these when I saw the menu at Peppino. But there we were in KK after a perfect sunset and all was right with the world, so I decided to give the sardines another try.


What a wonderful pasta that was, and how ironic that I had to finally get my perfect pasta with sardines by the beach in Kota Kinabalu instead of in Sicily.

First, we were not in Italy but the pasta was cooked exactly al dente, which makes all the difference in the world. Then, the chef added in the sardines in two ways which completely erased that fishy aftertaste, even for people like me who don't like oily fish.

He cut the sardines into morsels and deep fried each one so that it came out like tiny bits of tempura -- but tempura that didn't at all lose their flavor. He tossed this into the pasta along with the requisite herbs.

Finally, he served the pasta with a spoon full of ground sardine flakes which I was supposed to sprinkle liberally onto my pasta for added flavor. How wonderful that was.

I ate every bit of this pasta and was sorely tempted to get another, if only I had't ordered a veal fillet with pecorino cheese on top as a main course.

Who would ever have thought that I would find my perfect pasta with sardines -- a dish from Sicily -- in Kota Kinabalu? Just another day in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.


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