Saturday, June 16, 2018

Malaysia Road Trip - Caves of Gua Tempurung

The Caves of Gua Tempurung
When you reach a milestone in your life's journey, you want to commemorate it.  My friends and I decided to celebrate our Big 50 by going on a road trip to Malaysia together.  If ever you want to pretend you’re 18 again, there is no better company than the people you were 18 with in the first place.  It was an adventure like no other, a chance to remember the years we have spent on the journey of our lives together, as we climbed through the highlands of Malaysia and into the limestone caves at their centre.

We departed from Singapore in two groups - one by car and the other by air, to meet in Kuala Lumpur where we would spend the night before our trip proper began.  Our plan was to spend two nights in the highlands, before moving to Ipoh for the night, then making our way back to Singapore.  Food, fun and friendship were all on the agenda.

But first, we drove off to Gopeng, the launch point for the caves of Gua Tempurung.  There's a pretty good write-up on the caves and their origins here, so I'm not going into all that detail.  Suffice it to say that these limestone caves were created many thousands of years ago, discovered by man and used to mine tin, hide during wars and during the Malayan Emergency period, before becoming one of the major tourism draws in the state.

Indeed, the caverns are magnificent.  Soaring caverns, stalagtites and stalagmites can be seen in this cave and I can confidently say I’ve been to the top and bottom of the caves.  There are four alternative treks, ranging from the easy one to toughest.  We were on the third option, considered "Exciting and Challenging". The first part was the “easy” part, where we walked into the huge cavern, bigger than any cathedral.   Stairs - lots of them - take us up to the top of the cavern, so near we could *almost* touch the ceiling.  Water drips slowly, and we see where stalactites/stalagmites are forming slowly, over millions of years and slowly meet, thicken and become massive pillars.

Then we walked down all the stairs to reach the bottom of the cave.  Here we squeezed through little tunnels, to where the underground river flows through the "caverns measureless to man".  We had to crawl through in places, on elbows and knees through the water-filled tunnels to reach the larger caves beyond.  And then we came to a point where we had to slide down the side of the cavern.  Shall we say that I was exceedingly grateful that the guide was there to catch me at the bottom.  We finally got through the last tunnel, to emerge back into the huge cavern from which we emerged back into the main campsite of the caves - wet, dirty, scraped and bruised, but with a pleasing sense of accomplishment.

We’d gone with Radak Adventures, and the guide took us back to their campsite near the caves to clean up before we went back to Gopeng.  The campsite is by a large river, where we rested and waded (and had a snack).  If you ever think of going to Gua Tempurung, some practical stuff to remember - bring a torch, wear old clothes, preferably a long-sleeved top and pants which cover the knees (I wore leggings) and shoes you don't mind getting totally soaked (and which dry fast).  I wore my Crocs sneakers and they were perfect.  If you want to bring a camera, make sure you have a waterproof bag.  I left my cameraphone behind - hence the lack of photos in this post; the one above was taken by a friend of mine.

More photos of our KL hotel, and of the caves here.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Teochew Food in Malacca - Teo Soon Loong

When you have a group of two, it's harder to have a good variety of food when eating at Chinese restaurants.  So with our group of four, it was a good time to go try out the food at Teo Soon Loong, a well-known Teochew restaurant in Malacca.  It used to be in a tiny coffee shop on Jalan Hang Kasturi, just round the corner from Jalan Hang Jebat, but has shifted out of the Old Town to a newer, much larger restaurant in a newer part of the city (on the reclaimed land area).

Our hotel got us a car via Grab - a modest RM6 only.  We drove well out of the old town, through undeveloped plots to a small cluster of buildings.  I was not really expecting a large crowd but when we got there, the restaurant was packed!  Good thing that we had a reservation (via our kaki in the jewellery shop).  We had to wait for our table to be ready (we were a little early) and so had ample time to review the menu.

We chose a mixture of recommended dishes (off the internet) - the pork ribs with bittergourd (really tender, highly recommend), the braised Teochew duck (it was good but not as good as the pork), cai por hor fun (good wok hei but not enough cai por for me), braised noodles with oysters (I know, two carbs but we couldn't resist) and sweet potato leaves cooked with ginger (to be honest this was a revelation - I really enjoyed the freshness of the vegetables and somehow the gingery flavour complemented it well).  Indeed a suitable dinner for our last night in Malaccca.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Buying Manek Potong Shoes

Every time we visit Malacca, we end up visiting this little Kasut Manek (Nonya beaded shoes) shop down Temple Street called Lim's Trading.
Down Temple Street
But it was always an exercise in window shopping.  For myself, I was determined not to buy another pair until I had finished making my own.  And that took years!  As for my dear friend, she makes her own shoes most of the time!

But this year I was determined that I would buy a pair of "Manek Potong" shoes.  For the uninitiated, "Manek Potong" represents the utmost pinnacle of beaded shoe craftsmanship.  The beads are smaller than the standard machine made beads, and even the better quality Japanese Beads.  Apparently they are made somewhere in the former Czechoslovakia, cut by hand such that the facets of the beads are less regular and reflect the light differently as a result.  Because the beads are smaller, the patterns on the shoes are more intricate as a result.  The beads are also difficult to get, because the Czech factory which made them has discontinued the line... ... at least that's what we are told but somehow there are rumours that there is a new source ...

Anyway, Mr Lim is well known in Malacca/Malaysia for his beaded shoes, as this New Straits Times article can testify.  (The article also gives a little more background on beaded shoes, which I'm not going into here as I've done so on a number of times on this blog already).  In 2012, he received the Unesco Seals of Excellence for Handicrafts in recognition of his work.  What is so unique is that rather than just use the "traditional" patterns, he designs his own beautiful designs, of goldfish swimming with water and seaweed rippling around them, of birds and flowers amidst the foliage.  You can choose yourself a pattern, and he will sew it up for you, get the cobbler to make up the shoe and post it to you.  I have to say that I was tempted to do that but fortunately I found the perfect shoe in terms of fit, design and style so I bought it on the spot (for a pretty penny, I should add). Here it is:

Birds and flowers - my Manek Potong shoes

In my humble opinion, they go nicely with my new turquoise kebaya and orange sarong :-)

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Malacca Bunga Raya

It's the Year of the Dog!
For someone who goes so often to Malacca, is there anything left to write about?  Indeed, I am quite embarrassed sometimes that I seem to be going to the same old places year in, year out.  But this year was slightly different.  First, we were going with a group of four instead of a small little group of two, with their own added set of interests and priorities.  It was nice taking them to our favourite spots but equally, it was great to find new areas we had not been to.  Before this, we were getting into a "Malacca-shaped rut".  Second, it was just before the Chinese New Year and so the shopping opportunities opened up were quite different!  New Year goodies galore (as though Malacca wasn't filled with foodstuffs for greedy Singaporeans to buy already)!

So this year, our new discovery was Jalan Bunga Raya, just north of the Malacca river and near all the Kampong Jawa cooking equipment shops we discovered on a previous trip.  Bunga Raya was the old shopping street of Malacca, but the tourists deserted it for Jonker Street's charms and the locals were drawn to the newer malls with all the supermarkets and chain stores.  So today there is a sort of quietness about the place, where the shops seem to hark back to yesterday and their proprietors slowly greying together with it.  There is some rejuvenation, however, with new businesses starting up even as the main Jonker area gets more crowded and the benefits from the UNESCO status spill over out of the old town into the surrounding areas.  So there are newer restaurants and hotels starting up here.  We will see how it goes.  
Lanterns along Jalan Bunga Raya
We were, however, here in search of New Year lanterns and other decorations, which my friend wanted to deck her home with for CNY.  A local (I think it was either our hotel concierge, or our jeweller) recommended Jln Bunga Raya and so we walked over.  It was evening, the street was dark and many shops were closed or closing. But as we proceeded, suddenly a few brightly lit shops appeared, all the better to show off the beautiful lanterns, of silk, paper or a felt-like material (made out of recycled cloth).  

We wandered in and out of a few shops.  Most sold fabric and other haberdashery or craft items, but during the CNY period, pushed all these day-to-day goods to the back of the shop and instead stocked up on the decor for CNY.  Not just lanterns, but banners, tassels, paper cut pictures, and (since it is the year of the dog) lots of little stuffed dogs too.  Business was reasonably good for the few shops which remained open; I suppose either locals or well-informed tourists made their way here to get their CNY decor.
Down the Malacca River

Bunga Raya isn't exactly a short walk from our hotel in Heeren Street, so I didn't really expect to walk back the next day in the hot sun for lunch.  But that is what we did.  We were going to Manis J, the restaurant owned by the proprietor of the shoe shop, J Manik (of course at her suggestion).  It was a pleasant stroll by the river, lined by the old buildings (and some new extensions), which were decorated to catch the eye - some with brightly coloured murals, and others with fun/gimmicky items such as this one which featured old cars - Minis and Beetles.

Lunch itself was really quite good.  We had all our old nyonya favourites - Ngoh Hiang, Ayam Buah Keluak, Chap Chye, Hee Peow soup etc.  And for the hypercritical Singaporeans we are, there were no complaints.  Everyone ate happily.  And I don't think it was the long walk.

Lunch at J Manis

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Sinpopo at Joo Chiat Road

In Singapore's highly competitive restaurant scene, it is quite difficult to write about food because somehow they get outdated quite fast!

Fortunately, unlike some other establishments I've written about, Sinpopo is still going strong.  Although, it looks as though they expanded the menu since I went...

Sinpopo is run by the folks behind Awfully Chocolate but this is completely different in concept, serving "old style" Singaporean food with a twist.  I came here with two lady friends and we had a good gossip, over luncheon meat crisps (terribly unhealthy), deep fried wantons  (scarcely less so), the crab meat bee hoon (my fave) and for dessert, gula melaka cake and brown butter sugee cake.  Washed down with Katong Jelly drink (red agar agar jelly in a 7-Up and soda mix).

Whilst I did feel that the gula melaka cake really brought out that gula melaka flavour, I was not sure that the brown butter flavour was really that prominent in the sugee cake.  Rather, the brown butter flavour was more obvious in the thin layer of butter cream icing the cake.  I was intrigued however by the whole idea of "updating" sugee cake using brown butter and so I was inspired to make my own version of brown butter sugee cake!

First of all, I had to learn how to brown butter.  Fortunately there's a pretty good guide here on Serious Eats.  Briefly, butter is melted and then boiled over the stove till the water evaporates.  As the melted butter continues to boil, tiny little particles of milk solids emerge and as these brown, they impart a nutty, caramel flavour to the butter.  However, you need to watch it carefully to make sure that the little flecks of milk solids don't burn!

My Brown Butter Sugee Cake
Having browned the butter, I then went on to make my sugee cake, which I've written about here.  I soaked my semolina in the browned butter and then made my sugee cake as per normal.  As usual, I did not put any icing or butter cream on the cake which enabled me to taste the "natural" flavours of the cake.

The verdict?  The colour of my sugee cake was a little darker than in the past - not so much a bright sunny yellow but a slightly browner shade.  As for flavour - well, I enjoyed the buttery flavour of the cake, but again the brown butter flavour did't really emerge.  I suspect that with the traditional marzipan and royal icing, the buttery flavour would be overpowered by the strong almond flavour.  It's probably better to take it to a different flavour profile altogether, add brown sugar in place of some of the white, and top with buttercream made with browned butter.. hmmm, seems to be what Sinpopo has done :-)


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