Sunday, February 26, 2006

Healthy Reds & Greens

Having had a wonderfully restful day, which basically involved pottering around at home and spending some quality time browsing at the local library, I came home this evening very determined to spend no longer than 20 minutes in the kitchen fixing up dinner!
Healthy Reds & Greens

And so, a simple salad it was, taking inspiration from the Grapefruit (Vietnamese Pomelo) Salad I recently had in Hanoi. Didn't spy any pomelos at my supermarket nearby, and went with Ruby Red Grapefruit instead, which is a little bit sweeter than the yellow variety of grapefruits but more tart than pomelos. I prefer the Ruby Reds, their lovely luscious pinkish color giving no hint at all of the acidity within.
  • Washed, rinsed and spun-dry some butterhead lettuce leaves and plated them. Spin-drying using the salad spinner was quite theraupeutic.
  • Shelled and deveined the prawns and cooked them quickly (cooking didn't even take more than two minutes) in a pot of boiling water. Removed cooked prawns from pot and drained.
  • Sliced rind off the grapefruit and removed the luscious segments in thin wedges.
  • Shredded some basil leaves and thinly sliced one red chilli.
  • Chopped some roasted cashew nuts (didn't have any roasted peanuts at hand, but the cashews tasted just as great, if not better)
  • And since I was trying to re-create a hint of my recent Hanoi food adventure, made some semblance of the Nuoc Nam Cham (fish sauce dip) as a dressing for the salad - stirred together 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, 5 to 6 tablespoons of water, 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar, 2 heaped tablespoons of brown sugar, 1 tablespoon of lime juice and the thinly sliced red chilli, until sugar dissolved.
  • Tossed the grapefruit, prawns and basil leaves with half of the dressing, and placed on top of the plated lettuce leaves. The rest of the dressing can be served at the table and added based on own taste. Sprinkled the chopped cashew nuts on top of the salad and it's chow time.
Fresh succulent prawns, lettuce leaves with bite, juicy segments of grapefruit, crunchy nuts, a hint of heat from the sliced chillies, all bound by the salty sweet fish sauce dressing - 15 minutes tops for preparation, another 5 minutes to take the shot, and I was plonked with yummy plate in front of the square box showing my current favourite korean drama serial! Now this is a totally relaxing Saturday night!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Embrace a New Day

Embrace the Day
"throw open your windows to a bright new morn!"

but I am writing this post at 1.30 a.m. on an extremely early Saturday morning (well, actually my Friday night is ending a lot later than usual)......
but I didn't stay out late partying, I was at work till really late......
but now that I'm home, I can't get any shut-eye as the brain hasn't registered that it's supposed to rest......*sheesh*

Posting this photo of the cheery colorful windows at the MICA building on Hill Street, I'm telling myself that this long long day will end very soon, and the bright shaft of morning-light creeping its way across my bed in the next few hours will bring forth a weekend which shall be savored like a single bar of rich dark chocolate in tiny rationed bits......

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Morning After

Taking an early morning stroll along Clarke Quay over the weekend, I spotted this row of empty Bacardi Breezer bottles all lined up on the wall parapet of the bridge. With the colorful green and orange labels, I couldn't resist taking a shot of these bottles - hints of the great party which was probably had on this bridge the night before.
The Morning After
With the local policemen now keeping a look-out for teens who stay out after 11 p.m., could this have been a last-ditch attempt by some teens for a taste of freedom?

Took my shot and scooted out of the place before the trash-police arrive and book me for littering!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

the phos and the buns

Straw Hats A string of mini straw hats sold in a souvenier shop in Hanoi. This picture was shot at a nearby street while waiting to go in for the Thang Long water puppet show. If you are really interested in this traditional art form developed probably eons ago by rice-paddy farmers at the Red River Delta as an end-of-harvest celebratory performance for the masses - just click on the link above for more information. Tickets at SGD2.00 per person are not expensive at all, but personally, I was really trying hard not to head towards slumberland during the show - a quaint act (seriously, what other word can I use for a bunch of puppets bouncing up and down in a huge pool of water while being manipulated by the puppeteers behind the scene, soaked in waist-deep water) but one of those experiences I would not care to repeat again!

The above shot though is not a true representation of the shopping paradise in Hanoi. Unfortunately, I have no pictures at all of this shopping mecca - cos' there were too many beautiful things to reach out and touch, too many shopping bags to carry, and no hands left to flip out the camera and snap. The shopping is incredible, especially in the Old Quarter, with lots of beautiful lacquerware, embroidered and beaded bags, silkwear, linen, porcelain, pottery, etc. all at very reasonable prices that would certainly keep the womenfolk very busy and happy. For the non-shopping men, take a stroll instead through the city's teeming art galleries, or just enjoy the side-walk cafe culture. Just as an illustration, we were at Hang Gai one afternoon, and our very patient local guide wanted to bring us for coffee at this side-walk cafe no more than 100 metres away but we were so distracted by the many shops on both sides of the street that it took us about 2 hours to walk to that coffee-shop. Any husbands or boyfriends reading this - do beware!

On a day set aside specifically for shopping, womenfolk are usually quite impatient and thus meals must be the "fast-food" type, requiring cafes or food-stalls with following modus operandi = "minimum menu items" (no time to discuss or mull over the orders - just give us 6 bowls of whatever), "quick service" (just plonk those bowls onto the table double quick), "delicious" (to allow for slurping and wolfing down at great speed). Single dish street food are thus the best bets.
Pho Bo
For breakfast, we highly recommend a bowl of Pho bo (beef noodle soup). A bowl of thin rice noodles (the flat type) topped with bean sprouts, slices of raw onion, lots of herb leaves, mint leaves and chopped coriander and spring onion, and thin slices of cooked and raw beef. What makes this dish incredibly 'slurp-worthy' is the beef broth (probably simmered for hours with beef bones and beef brisket, ginger, onions, star anise, cinnamon bark, salt and pepper). Coming home to Singapore, I have tried various pho bos served in a few Vietnamese eateries in town and have yet to find one that can truly replicate this wonderful tasting bowl that we had from this stall at 45b Bat Dan.

Bun Cha
Bun Cha (pork grilled over hot charcoal stoves served with bun, rice vermicelli) from Dac Kim (1 Hang Manh Street) will do very nicely for lunch. The grilled minced pork balls (some appeared to have been rolled in wild betel leaves), and some grilled streaky pork belly are placed on top of rice vermicelli topped with fresh greens - a few spoonfuls of the fairly oily sauce is added onto the noodles and mixed with a few spoonfuls of the nuoc nam mixture (fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, lime juice) with slices of raw papaya (I think?) to help cut through the oiliness of the dish. As a side, we tried the fried spring roll (top right hand corner of pic) with minced pork. Both dishes are very meaty. Nice and tummy-filling.

Bun Bo

Glutinous Rice PacketsIf by tea-time, a certain gnawing pang is creeping up on you, Bun Bo (pic above) found at Bun Bo Nam Bo, 67 Hang Dieu Street (in the Old Quarter), is somewhat like a dry version of pho bo. Thin slices of beef are served on top of rice vermicelli topped with lots of fresh herbs, beansprouts (taugeh), fried garlic and chopped roasted peanuts. The whole bowl of ingredients is stirred with a tasty sauce mixture of fish sauce and vinegar (add their yellow sliced chili for volatile fire).

In the same stall, we also saw this green bundles of wrapped cooked glutinous rice packets, which we understood are eaten as a snack by the locals. More food for the shopper on the go!

And with tummies filled, hunger sated, energies rejuvenated, the onslaught of Hang Gai, Hang Bong, Hang Truong can continue unabated!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Jewelled Remnant

Finishing up a glass of red wine after dinner on the junk anchored out at Halong Bay, Vietnam, I couldn't help but notice the play of lights against the wine glass and the last drop of red wine within, creating a lovely shadow of a sparkling pink sapphire against the crisp white linen.

A drop of red wine

This particular shot brought back sweet memories of the six Gorge(ou)s gossiping late into the night while sipping on our glasses of red wine, sharing life anecdotes, and laughing with carefree abandon. To me, that little sparkle of red represents the precious jewel of friendship shared!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Upscale Dining in Hanoi

Nam Phuong Appetizer Based on our shortlist of restaurants worth visiting in Hanoi which had been highly recommended by friends of friends, fellow foodies, other food bloggers, in torn scraps of articles from magazines (especially airline inflight magazines) - we are that crazy about food - we zeroed in on Nam Phuong and Emperor Restaurant as the must-trys in our first sojourn to this city.

At Nam Phuong, its Cold Appetizer is Vietnamese-style pork sausage cum ham, but Chinese-style presentation. Nice bite to the ham. Nothing much to shout about.

Grilled Beef in Bamboo Cylinder Personally, I preferred the presentation of the Grilled Beef in Bamboo Cylinder (bo nuong ong tre), which arrived at the table served in a bamboo cylinder with side dishes of herbs and rice vermicelli and sheets of rice paper. Tender, well-marinaded with lemongrass, brown sugar and fish sauce (I think), serving the beef with the vermicelli and herbs in the form of a wrap with a dipping nuoc nam sauce, is like having a healthier version of the Bun Bo (grilled beef rice vermicelli) served on the streets. Not too bad at all.

Grilled Beef Wraps

Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane The Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane (chao tom nuong), is quite a traditional local dish hailing from the old imperial capital of Hue. At the top right corner of the grilled shrimp paste is a mound of Lotus Stem Salad (goi ngo sen), which I liked very much. Hardly found in Singapore, the lotus stems have a crisp, crunchy succulent texture that lends itself very well to salads.

Lotus Salad Pictured on the right is the Shrimp Salad with Banana Flower. I've said it once and I will say it again and again - when in Vietnam, you must savor their salads, fresh, flavorful and appetizing, I swear they are the only Asians (apart from the Thais, who unfortunately have a heavier hand when it comes to spicing up their salads) who can give the Westerners a run at the world championship for salads.

Simmered Pork and Shrimp in Claypot (heo kho to voi tom), this is another local dish with multiple layers of flavors being discovered as you savor further, tender melting pork, sweet prawns, a touch of nuoc nam, a tad of spicy heat, silky layer of gravy but not too oily. Very appetizing with plain fluffy white rice.
Simmered Pork & Shrimp in Claypot
Emperor Restaurant, within walking distance from the Hanoi Opera House, is situated in a refurbished French colonial villa, with a beautiful tree-lined courtyard. Exuding old world charm, dining in this courtyard with its romantic ambience is probably best enjoyed by couples, and the 6 'noisy' Gorge(ou)s proceeded instead up a winding wooden staircase to the second level dining area with its lovely Asian-accented decor.

Fresh Spring Roll These were lovely fresh prawn rice rolls, but I'm pretty sure better value can be found on the streets of Hanoi.

The Hue Spring Rolls on the other hand were ingeniously presented, each fried crispy spring roll pierced with a toothpick into a hollowed out pineapple, which is lighted from within using tealights.

Hue Spring Roll

Of all the salads we had in Hanoi, these two scored the highest in presentation and fared very well in the taste-test too. The first is the Emperor's rendition of the Banana Blossom Salad with Dried Beef, and if you're thinking of beef jerky or our local bak-kwa, you will be surprised as was I by the tender yet flavorful strips of beef (probably well-aged beef may be a better description).
Banana Blossom Salad
The second below is the Grapefruit Salad (goi buoi), which is actually the Vietnamese local pomelo more sweet and less sour than the pomelos found in Singapore. Do you see the chopped roasted peanuts and mint, basil and laksa leaves in both salads? Standard ingredients in most Vietnamese salads.
Grapefruit Salad

The Grilled Beef in Betel Leaves (bo la lot) as shown in the pic below does not look great, but here, looks are truly deceiving. The ground marinaded ground beef mixture is wrapped and rolled in betel leaves (daun kaduk), threaded through bamboo skewers and grilled. Due to the marinade mixture, the ground beef is again meltingly tender and flavorful, complementing the unique, slightly spicy and pungent flavors of the betel leaves.
Grilled Beef in Betel Leaves

Steamed Garoupa with ChilliWe also tried the Steamed Grouper with Chilli served in a banana leaf parcel, and Sauteed Tiger Prawns with Tamarind Sauce. Both dishes were quite okay but not outstanding or unusual and certainly did not warrant the high prices that we paid for them (each dish costing about US$7 to US$8).

All in all, we did enjoy ourselves at both restaurants, and certainly would not mind dining at them again on future trips, as they represent the culinary wave in Vietnamese chic-style restaurants springing up all over Hanoi currently. For comfortable stylish ambience, good food prepared and served in style, these two places are worth a visit and especially if you have a business expense account (doesn't require an excessively generous one)!
Be prepared to pay around US$12 to US$15 per person at Nam Phuong while splurging about US$16 to $20 per person at Emperor.

Nam Phuong
19 Phan Chu Trinh, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84-4) 8240926

Emperor Restaurant
18b Le Thanh Tong Street
Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam
Tel: (84-4) 8268801

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Bay of the Descending Dragon

Calm If you can spare a 2-day trip out of Hanoi, then a visit to Halong Bay should definitely be on the cards. For more information on this natural site, take a clicking trip to Wikipedia here.

About 170 kilometres east of Hanoi, the trip to Halong Bay by coach should have taken only an hour and a half at most, but with current speed limits on the nation's highways restricted to no more than 60 kph, be prepared for a really slow leisurely 3-hour drive along the countryside.

Beautiful limestone islands and outcroppings surround this calm and serene bay. According to local legend (as narrated by our local guide), Vinh Halong (otherwise known as the Bay of the Descending Dragon) was so named after a family of dragons had descended from the heavens to help the locals fight foreign invaders. The dragons spitted out jade and jewels which turned into the limestone islands surrounding the bay and kept the invaders out.
On the Bay
One can choose to do a day-trip (if pressed for time) but for us, the overnight stay on a junk anchored out on the bay was a nice respite from our usual hectic city-life. We had booked with Huong Hai Junks Company, and were pleasantly surprised that with a minimum booking of 6 persons, we had the entire junk to ourselves. There are about 5 bedrooms, all situated on the lower deck, each with attached bathrooms and hot water, the dining room is on the next level and finally a very comfortable sun-deck on the top level allows one to enjoy the sea-breezes and the warmth of the sun (very welcomed during the winter week of January). All meals (two lunches, a dinner and a breakfast) are served on board. Picture above was taken from our junk just as dusk approached. Absolutely serene, isn't it?

A word of warning though, entertainment on board the junk is truly up to the individual. The men might like to do a spot of fishing but if you are a bunch of 6 women like us, endless conversation and gossip into the night is entertainment enough.

While on the bay, we visited an enormous cave grotto called Hang Dau Go. The huge cavernous interior has three inner chambers and spectacular displays of stalactites and stalagmites. Some of them are shown in the pics below. Very awesome! The one below reminded me of a huge atomic mushroom cloud.
Mushroom Cloud

This one, with its blue lighting, looked like the craters of the moon.
Moon Crater Blue

Finger or More?

This one, I will leave to your own vivid imagination! But you can probably picture the fun and giggles the six Gorge(ou)s had with this one :)

On exiting the cave grotto, I also spotted this limestone formation of a pair of legs dangling over the ledge.
Dangling Legs
And finally, a shot of the six Gorge(ou)s doing a bit of vigorous morning boxercises on the deck of our junk! Our local guide collapsed totally in laughter after taking this shot, and so did we after all that high-kicking stuff!
Morning Boxercise