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Elephants In The River
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Luang Prabang

It’s still the mid-nineteenth century in the Old Town in Luang Prabang. At least that’s what they like you to think. One of the more upmarket bars even advertises itself as taking you “back to the elegant good old days, the great colonial days..” No wonder the French love it here.

Nevertheless, the reputed charm is not without merit. The beautiful temples seem to spring up on you on every corner and the young orange-robed monks that work and worship in them lend further gravitas to the streets lined with elegant colonial architecture, fancy cafes and bistros. The traffic is minimal (a blessing in Asia), the buffet-style street food is interesting if hygienically dubious,  the night market contains some of the best merchandise we’ve seen on our travels and climbing the hill in the centre of the old town at the right time can provide a stunning sunset view. Yes, the town certainly has charms.

Eco-tourism appears to be a growth sector in Laos in general, and in Lang Pruabang in particular. Aside from ‘fair treks’, where some or all of the profits from the tour are given to the villages visited, and the usual mountain-biking and kayaking options, Elephant treks seem to be one of the most popular tourist destinations. These ‘camps’ are really fairly luxury riverside parks, complete with cabins, restaurants and – of course – elephants. Here, visitors get to meet, greet,feed and ride these (apparently) rescued logging elephants as part of their ‘mahout training’ – a mahout being an elephant rider/handler.

We were lucky to be able to afford a two day stay (thanks to our friends for the wedding present – you know who you are!) and so it was that we found ourselves riding elephants in various ways, with varying degrees of elegance. We visited ‘Elephant Village‘, chosen mostly through its reputation for looking after its elephants and its commitment to rescuing and caring for former logging elephants who, as they become unemployed, face a bleak future, if not death. They have also had something of a bleak past, and we were constantly assured, through the literature and the guides, that the seemingly mundane existence of hauling fat Germans, French and Brits around is far preferable to the animals than their former work.

Our first task was to practice mounting and riding on the animal’s neck. These Asian elephants, although smaller than their African relatives, are still immense beasts. So, despite their apparently placid nature, we both maintained a huge degree of respect and after getting a leg-up from the elephant and resting our hands on it’s huge head, we both felt in awe of it’s power and personality. It was remarkable to be astride such an iconic animal though, and even the short trudge around the camp (novice riders, you really don’t want a fast elephant) was an unforgettable experience.

More sedate, although blisteringly hot in the sun, was the elephant ride, where a park bench seemed to be strapped to the animal’s leathery back and, in good-old colonial style, we mounted from a platform and set off down and through the river. At ten years old, our elephant was one of the youngest there and showed it with a great deal of immature stubbornness. Elephants may never forget, but in standing in the hot sun in the river for ten minutes without moving, we wondered if this one would remember the way back.

After another short bareback walk to take the elephants to their jungle home (they knock off at 2.30pm, perhaps something they wouldn’t have done before), a meal and a few beers around the campfire, it was back to the ‘Elephant Lodge’ to bed, ready for an early start on Day Two.

At seven in the morning, the intense heat of the previous day had left the air and the river steamed as the sun came up. Before we knew it we were having a morning stroll on the back of an elephant again. Without the crowds of the previous day, and in the early morning sun, taking the elephants down to the river was nothing short of magical. Here we were dunked, splashed and thrilled in an exercise that seemed to genuinely please the elephants and the mahouts too. Washing elephants on a Wednesday morning was a bizarre and quality experience that it’s unlikely we’ll repeat and is perhaps a colonial hangover we’re pleased remains.

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Taking It Slow – Northern Laos

There are some people and places that you just cannot rush. Sometimes this is because the terrain, weather or lack of infrastructure is preventative; sometimes it’s because the people just like to take things slowly; more often than not it’s a combination of the two. Laos is a prime example of a slow-moving people in a sometimes tricky environment, trying hard to get to grips with the ever-speedier demands of modernity as it begins to affect their daily lives. But the people of this beautiful country are not the surly, lethargic type. More so they are simply happy to do things at the pace they’ve always been done, and their happiness and relaxed tempo is infectious.

We’d arrived in Laos after a sardine-tin of a bus journey, and were happy to find a half decent room in our overnight stop of Muang Khua. Although we’d got off the main tourist trail here in this remote northern village on the Nam (River) Ou, the size of the place and the large handful of western tourists (many French) gave a distinctly traveller-town feel to the small number of restaurants and bars. Here, when our food eventually arrived, we enjoyed our first Beer Lao and our first taste of Lâap, a beautiful and spicy salad with minced chicken, full of garlic, mint, coriander and chillies. Then, like a scene from a 60s American TV show, a local dog followed us down to the river and guided us through the gardens and back streets of the village, where we were met with smiles and greetings at every corner. As we got back to the restaurant, the animal almost seemed to give us a nod as it left us to pad back happily to its residence. Typically for Laos, there was no tip required. An impressive footbridge and picturesque scenery sent us to our bed with our pulses already slowing to Lao pace.

The next morning we had been told to turn up at 8.30 for the ferry-boat downriver to our next stop of Nong Khiaw. The long narrow boat had a much narrower plank of wood low down on each side of its bows, and it was on this we sat for quite a while before the driver decided it was time to leave. Sadly devoid of the seemingly prerequisite chickens for this voyage, we were relived to be able to pick a couple up further downstream. According to the man who sold the tickets, the ride was due to take three hours. After just 15 minutes of a somewhat cramped low plank journey, that was beginning to seem like quite a long time. In reality also, the total ride was nearer five hours. Still, you can’t rush in Laos.

In between shifting buttocks to allow blood to continue flowing to the parts it must, the journey showed an old-fashioned kind of life on the river, backed by some incredible mountainous scenery. Workers panned for gold on the shores, masked divers fished, water buffalos wallowed and children played with such joy one would think it was their first trip to the water. Behind them, the land of Northern-eastern Laos, still littered with thousands of unexploded American bombs from half a century ago, loomed with giant limestone karst shrouded by cloying fog. Still time ticked more slowly as the boat progressed towards its destination, its noisy petrol motor the only nod towards anything vaguely modern.

Surprisingly, our joints and limbs functioned enough on our arrival at Nong Khiaw for us to establish that, in this larger but equally charming town, there was no means for us to get any cash. This was a problem as we’d already spent most of the kip we had changed at the border. After inordinate inspections of our remaining $20 note, various potential money changers decided its slight rip would be too much trouble to explain to the bank. In the end we had to rely on the kindness of other travellers (thankyou Kim and Francoise), as well as a deal cut with the very nice owner of an Indian restaurant who needed someone to pay for his phone calls to Madras and would swap cash for a PayPal transaction, and a natural 24 hour wait for a cash advance from the only hotel in town with a visa machine. You can’t rush these things.

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Eventually solvent once again, and happily free of traffic for almost the first time in Asia, it was once more onto bicycles. As we rode around the neighbouring villages with few cars and motorbikes on the road, it was a pleasure to take our time (like Laos time but slightly faster) and greet plenty of friendly locals along the way. After all, our limbs wouldn’t get much of a workout the next day as, armed with a pillow each, we were to catch another small narrow riverboat to Luang Prabang. The estimated journey time: a mere seven hours. No rush.

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Welcoming Waterways – Cycling in the Mekong Delta

It’s not often that you get treated like a good luck charm, welcomed with open arms everywhere. It’s even less common for this to happen when you’re a red-faced sweaty mess, but happen it did in the waterside villages of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, as we (accompanied once again by Den and Babs) cycled through during the Lunar New Year’s Tet holiday. For mile after mile (and we did a few) we were assailed with shouts of “Hello!” and the occasional “What your name?” from the children and families who lived or were visiting along our route. Some even ran after us, pleased by their interaction with Westerners who, at this most omen-heavy time of year here, symbolise wealth and prosperity, making our passing lucky and full of promise for the locals.

But our celebrity did not come about without at least a bit of effort on our part. Firstly, we couldn’t pronounce our guide’s name. Phuc, which apparently means “happy” in Vietnamese, was himself from this land of the nine dragons, and he lived up to his name (Happy, not Phuc). Cheerfully, he encouraged us with our clumsy handling of the bikes on the narrow bumpy paths, and happy to wait as Babs pushed over every bridge or one of us fell into a bush. He even joined in with a game of cards, although he drew the line at charades.

The rice fields flank the rivers of the delta and the water is a
way of life for the people. Monkey bridges are both practical walkways and playground; boats are houses, shops and status symbols; the waterways are back alleys, washrooms, highways and restaurants. And yet there were still hundreds of people on motorbikes, as even in this watery rural idyll, life struggles to go on without two wheels and a 100cc engine.

Sore bottoms were the only real complaint by the end of the day though, as we dispensed with the bikes and took to the water to head towards our homestay accommodation for the night. Here we were warmly welcomed again and, after a refreshing cold shower, and when we’d got over the fact that a large bath of snakes was just a thin wall away from our bed, we headed for dinner. It was a fully interactive dinner too, with our host showing us the way to make tasty spring rolls and rice pancakes. With fish soup, pork and plenty of the region’s ubiquitous rice, we would only be sorry that some of the cockerels at the house hadn’t gone into the pot that night, as their timekeeping seemed to be noisily askew for much of the early hours.

When our own clocks defied the rowdy birds and we got up, we boarded another boat for a pleasant couple of hours around the snaking tributaries of the Delta. The rivers were quiet due to the holiday season, as was the floating market, but we got a sense of how important they are to the life of the area. Large evil-eyed cargo boats looked expectantly towards future business opportunities. A small boat drew alongside and, like a perculating pirate, pressed us into buying tasty sweet green tea and suspicious Vietnamese coffee. Yellow Tet flowers bloomed from boats, festively festooned and purposefully closed up, their owners enjoying family time on dry land or below deck. Elsewhere, a few traders plied tropical fruits across the water, advertising their wares on the end of a long bamboo cane. It may have been less than bustling, but it was captivating nonetheless.

We cycled a little more to finish our tour, again with shouts of “hello” coming loudly from almost every house. It may have been that our presence as a happy omen was the reason for the warm greetings as we wobbled our way around the narrow roads of the Mekong villages, but it seems that the genuine warmth of the people there was the more likely reason. They probably take great pleasure in making anyone feel welcome.

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Bikes, Bites and BBQs – Street Food With The Allambie Kids

As the flower displays have sprung up around Ho Chi Minh City and the orchids have begun to bloom for Tet (the Lunar New Year festival,) we have continued to spend time with the children from Allambie. Cinema trips, the zoo, bowling and games in the park have all helped us to get to know this fantastic group, and for more information on the work done at Allambie, click here to have a look at our post from a couple of days ago.

For some of the older kids, working in tourism represents a great future, so we were more than happy to have them practice on us with a tour of the culinary variety from Nhi, Thiet and Sa as they showed us how to really do Vietnamese street food in Saigon (and have fun at the same time!)

The night nearly got off to a terrible start. We’d arranged to meet near where we are staying, in the tourist and backpacker-centred District 1 of the city. With the streets thronged almost to choking point with motorcycles, the arrival of our guides on pushbikes was soon followed by the sight of Nhi, floored in the middle of the road with her back wheel under a taxi. This resulted in panic from us at first, until she pulled herself free and shrugging, Sa told us, “It’s OK, it happens to us all the time.”

Road crossing traumas dealt with, and a wheel straightening later, it was time for us to mount up. This was not a straightforward process, as it involved each bike taking a pillion passenger on the rear luggage rack. Helen is small enough to make a feasible load, and so went on Nhi’s bike. Thiet had Yeti (another helper and friend of the orphanage) on the back. This left me with the prospect of perching behind Sa, a girl half my size, and expecting her to pedal. I did the chivalrous thing and offered to swap – I almost instantly regretted it. Being on the back of any vehicle in Saigon is a passive and fairly exciting event. Actually having to navigate, let alone pedal an overladen bike, through some of the most intense traffic I have ever experienced is something I’d rather never repeat. Normally I’m a fairly red-faced chap after physical exertion, but by the time we’d gone around a roundabout that makes the Arc Du Triomphe look like a quiet boating lake and found ourselves on the wrong side of the road a fee times, we arrived at our first food stop in District 3 with me in the previously unheard of post-exercise state of being quite pale. The arrival of the food soon changed that.

We had tried a fair bit of street food in our week in Saigon, but at our first stop on Vo Van Tan Street, well away from the other westerners in the city, we knew we had to rely on the kids to order. With threats of duckling foetus, chickens heads and other such delicacies being served up on Vietnamese streets, we were glad that we were in such capable hands.

First up were platefuls of spring and summer rolls. Some were fried (Bo Bia) others beautifully wrapped in thin transparent rice paper and filled with slivers of pork, juicy prawns and fragrant vegetables (Goi Cuon). As Sa ordered confidently, we tucked in.

Next were delicious dim sum-like parcels of pork (Ha Cao) which were intense in flavour and melt in the mouth in texture. True to the interactive nature of Vietnamese cuisine, Sa, Thiet and Nhi showed us how to mix up a soy and sweet chilli dip from the condiments on the table, which was then combined with the fresh herbs brought with the dish.

Finally for this stop were what turns out to be an Allambie family favourite: Bot Chien Trung. Combining what seem to be two of Vietnam’s best-loved ingredients, rice and egg, this is essentially a rice cake omelette. Whilst that might not sound too thrilling, imagine it smothered in soy and sweet chilli sauce (another two favourites here) and the way in which this become fast comfort food becomes clear.

The speed of the street food is another of it’s defining characteristics, and is made possible by the ladies (they usually are) who man the small portable kitchens. Whilst the room we ate in looked like a no-frills cafe, the part that was on the street was where these dishes were created, and as we waved goodbye to the vendors, Sa suggested it was time she drove. There were few arguments from me.

After a brief stop to see a large pagoda temple, our next food came on an incredibly busy street around District 10. Here, on tiny chairs on a busy pavement, as Sa got her breath back and I felt guilty, we ate Teie Nyt Lot Ga Nuong. Put simply, these are eggs cooked in their shells on a BBQ. At first, we were unsure about this, as the eggs seemed to have turned a grey-green colour inside, but logically this just seemed to be a result of the smoke permeating the porous shell. Once peeled and dipped in salt and chilli, they were pretty tasty, so next time you think of slapping a burger on your barbecue, maybe plonk a few eggs on for 20 minutes or so (maybe practice first though and make sure you do as they do here – put a small hole in the eggs first so they don’t explode!)

Poor old Sa was still insistent that I shouldn’t be let loose on the streets on her bike, so despite me being a bit heavier after all the food, She still somehow managed to pedal me around. So, after a few hair-raising crossroad incidences and a number of dodgy looks from locals, we arrived at our final culinary stop. Here, somewhere towards the north of the city, rice pancakes and juice were the order of the day. By now we were getting full and although the pancakes seemed to be a favourite of the kids, I found them hard going, with strong flavours of shrimp paste and chilli. Helen, Nhi, Thiet and Sa, on the other hand, scoffed theirs down…

 

Drinks came in the form of Taro juice, a tapioca base, flavoured with different fruits. As we drained the last of them, Nhi relieved Sa of my weight on the bike and we arrived back in District 1.

We have have to say an enormous thankyou to Sa, Thiet and Nhi for a fantastic evening. These guys have a brilliant attitude, great sense of humour and are genuinely some of the most kind and welcoming young people we’ve met. Suzanne has done an unbelievable job at Allambie and all the children are testament to this. Please take a look below to see how you might help Allambie, and if you’re ever in Vietnam, don’t be scared by the street food – even the green eggs are delicious – but maybe avoid the chicken heads…

We think Allambie is a fantastic project and we are proud to have helped out in a small way. Take a look at the video below (click here if you can’t see it) and click through to www.allambie.co.uk to find out more about how you can help. Alternatively, you can donate directly below.


Click here for information on how to donate quickly and safely by text message!

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Risks, Ricecakes and Reunification – Early Days In Saigon

For those of you not familiar with the classic 1980s video game “Frogger”, it involved guiding a frog across a hectic road full of cars, bikes and lorries, with the aim being to get to the other side without being squished. If you fancy a game, click here. For us here in Ho Chi Minh City (the official name for what everyone else knows as Saigon) a computer is not necessary. Simply nip out onto the pavement – a frog costume is optional – and consider crossing the road, swarming as it is with a determined taxis, umstoppable buses and constant stream of fearless motorbikes. Helen, a self-proclaimed frogger expert in her time, prefers the more aggressive approach to road crossing; I on the other hand, am still apparently only on Level Two, and tend to opt for the slowly-slowly approach. When old ladies grab your arm to help you across the road, you know that it’s a tricky game. Joysticks not required.

Once road crossing has begun to be mastered, Saigon is providing some very welcome features. Firstly, gone is the intense stickiness of Indonesia and Malaysia. Here, the weather is warm without being oppressive, meaning that sweating out the cheap beer that’s available everywhere is not so immediate. Meanwhile, the food is a delight, and a visit to the market for lunch or dinner can yeild such delights as pho (noodle soup with herbs, coming in pork, beef, chicken or seafood varieties), enormous prawns, delicious summer rolls, satays, clams or our particular favourite bahn beo. At first we were unsure what was on the plate, which cost a whopping 14,000 Dong (around 40p). The texture and taste suggested scallops, and the zingy sauce was flavoured beautifully lightly by the fresh herbs. With a bit of later research however, it became clear that, like most Vietnamese food, these are a rice based dish, specifically they are steamed cakes – the fishy flavour came from the small filling of chopped shrimp. As delicate as sushi and the fastest food we’ve eaten so far.

Bahn beo being prepared.

Bahn beo

Beef Pho

Summer Rolls and a cheap beer!

Shrimp Noodle Soup

In between the eating and death defying trips across the road, we’ve taken in many of central Saigon’s sights in the first few days. The War Remnants Museum was a sobering reminder of the brutality of the Vietnam War and gave an insight into why those tumuluous years will probably forever mould the consciousness of the people here. The Requiem exhibition of photos by war photographers who sied in the conflict was a particularly horrific affair.

Similarly, although a more disappointing experience, our visit to Reunification Palace showed how, despite Vietnam’s economic reforms, the history as told by the victors in the conflict is still being constantly reminded to the people and tourists in Saigon. Kept as a timewarp monument to the fall of the city in 1975, the rooms in the palace seem to have been left virtually untouched. Here, and in various parts of the city, placards and photo storyboards tell of the success of national unification under the victorious North Vietnamese. However, when red flags are dwarfed by a backdrop of fast rising skyscrapers and finance centers, and billboards for banks and electrical manufacturers seriously outnumber the hammer and sickle banners, perhaps this is a history that is slowly being consigned to the past.

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Satays-faction – Bali Asli Cookery School

Since we were joined for New Year in Bali by some of our family and friends, we’ve been eating, drinking and generally making merry in the Seminak area. Our retreat, which was refreshing in so many ways, is over and life is slowly beginning to get pleasantly busier once more. Time to pack those backpacks again.

On Monday, thirteen of us set off on mass to the small fishing village of Candidasa. After the traffic filled and tourist-centric environment of the Kuta area, we are now beginning to experience more of the real Bali, with quieter streets, less hassle from hawkers and many more acres of rice paddy. With such a big group of us, Helen and I took advantage of the fact that we could easily go our separate ways for a day, pretty much for the first time since we set off in August! So, as she prepared for an energetic day of cycling with Louise and Rory, I was up early with Julian and Rich to do the traditional British boys’ activity of a Balinese cookery course at Bali Asli Cookery School and Restaurant.

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Set up on a hill overlooking rice fields in the foothold of the mythical Mount Agung, Bali Asli is a new venture by chef Penelope Williams, who hopes to change some of the ways that Balinese restaurants and villas approach their methods of serving and sourcing food for the tourist market. An Australian who has worked in top restaurants around the world – she trained under Gordon Ramsey at the Savoy in London – Penny has lived in Bali for a few years now and, having fallen in love with the culture and cuisine here, she rejects the import style of cooking in many Balinese tourist restaurants and prepares only local produce from the market, or grown by her or her neighbours outside her serene restaurant. In doing so, she says she is promoting Balinese cuisine and culture without exploiting the land or its people. “We embrace our community,” she writes on her website, “supporting those who fish, farm and forage in the nearby fields, ocean and jungle.”

So, true to this philosophy, it was nearby in the local market that our day began, albiet without cameras – we’d left them in the car after the 25 minute drive from Candidasa. Helen and I had been to local markets in the Canggu area, but none were as bustling or thriving as the one in the town of Amlapura. Here, Penny gave us a guided tour of the somewhat hectic market, introducing us to the local fruit and vegetables, breakfast dishes, sales of live fish in fairground-like plastic bags, and handy pre-made offerings for the busy two-income Balian household. Having avoided the rain and enjoyed our short experience of the sounds and smells of local food commerce, we headed five minutes by car up the hillside to the small village of Gelumpang where Bali Asli peeps out with an open side across the unpopulated fields towards the sacred mist-coated mountain.

Refreshing drinks were the first port of call, as we were presented with cinnamon and clove-infused snake fruit soda (complete with a sugar cane stirrer), ginger tea and, something of a revelation, ginger coffee. The latter tastes less like coffee and more like a rich hot chocolate, the bitterness of the black coffee tempered by the heady sweet and spice of ginger. These drinks accompanied the many Balinese sweets and spicy breakfast foods we’d brought back from the market, many wrapped delicately in banana or palm leaf, some with sticky rice, papaya and banana. We shared and devoured these tasty little packages.

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Next it was down to the serious business of tasting the local ingredients we’d later be cooking with. This was led with humour and knowledge by Penny as we learned about varieties of local rice, limes, leaves and chillies, Balinese spices, natural healing properties and the flavour balancing ingredients such as sour tamarind, sweet palm sugar and salty soy sauce.

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Our cooking began with the base for many Indonesian dishes, a spicy paste called Bumbu – Balinese Bumbu in this case. Containing small amounts of the many fragrant local ingredients we had just tasted (such as candlenuts, nutmeg, shrimp paste, tamarind, lemongrass, chilli and kencur) the paste is prepared by grinding like a pesto in a traditional pestle and mortar called a ulekan. This Bambu was one of three we made which then became the base for dishes such as Sate Lemat Be Siap (chicken sate on lemongrass skewers), Bumbu Kacang (peanut sauce), Pesan Be Pasih (spiced fish fillet grilled in banana leaf), Urab Paki Kacang Metah (fern tips with grated coconut and red beans) and Tum Tahu (spiced tofu banana leaf parcel). The ingredients were fresh and delicious and, with help from Penny, we learned some top tips for effectively balancing the three main flavours of any cuisine, salty, sweet and sour.

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Our final task – before consuming all these goodies – was to cook arguably the best known of Indonesian dishes, Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice). Perhaps appropriately for this time of year, this is a dish born out of the need to use up leftovers, fried up with rice. Here’s Penny’s recipe that we used, although you could just see what’s in the fridge…

20g diced chicken breast
1 cup steamed rice (cooked and cooled)
10g leek, sliced
1/2tsp chopped garlic
5g large red chilli
10g sliced onion
5g sliced Asian greens (spinach or cabbage could substitute)
10g carrot, sliced
10g green beans, sliced
1 small red chilli (hot!), seeds removed and sliced
2 eggs (one for omelette, one for mixing)
1 tbsp sweet soy sauce (Kecap Manis)
3/4 tbsp soy sauce (Kecap Asin)
3/4 tbsp sesame oil
1tsp Bumbu Bali (you might have to improvise with this one!)

1) In a wok, preheat 2 tbsp peanut oil (veg oil would be fine – not olive oil though) until almost smoking.

2) Add chicken and stir.

3) Add the vegetables.

4) Add the Bumbu.

5) Crack in one whole egg and stir with the back of the spoon until dry and crumbly.

6) Turn off the heat.

7) Add the rice, sauces and mix with the flat back of the wok spoon or spatula.

8) Taste and adjust seasoning.

9) Pack into a small bowl and turn out onto the plate.

10) Garnish with egg omelette, fried shallots and pickled vegetables.

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Of course, the proof of the, erm, pudding will be in whether or not the eating of these recipes will be as good in rainy Manchester as they were in rainy Gelumpang, in the cloudy shadow of Bali’s Mount Agung.

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Nighttime Skyscrapers
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Singapore

The smells are exotic and pungent, the names are unpronounceable and often barely hint at the ingredients, the excitement is tingling and the relief is genuine. Our taste buds have arrived in South East Asia and immediately we find ourselves hunting down and partaking in one of Singapore’s favourite habits – eating from cheap hawker stall food courts. With the second habit involving shopping in vast, ice cooled malls, and travellers’ economics being what they are, not to mention our so far undernourished desperation to fall in love with the food we find on our journeys, the hawkers were always going to be our first stop.

Being accustomed to London eating and 21st century British food in general, we now realise that at home we’ve taken the delights of multicultural cuisine for granted. The lack of diversity and depth of flavour in the majority of the South American eating experience left us down and craving the contrasts, spice, textures and variety to which we’ve become accustomed. Time after time we were left disappointed and it was only on a handful of occasions (generally trumpeted on here) that we could say we’d discovered anything close to a culinary high point. The vast supply of excellent Australian produce meant a speedy return to good eating, but mostly of food we were aware of and at prices that made the eyes water more than the mouths. So to find exoticism, aroma, and belting flavour in the inexpensive Singapore dishes, not to mention the sense of collective pleasure in eating, made our first steps into South East Asian food a particularly uplifting experience.

Hawker food used to essentially mean cheap fast food on the street. In modern pristine Singapore however, where even the smallest amount of littering constitutes a crime worthy of a severe punishment, and hygiene standards are upheld vigorously, hawker stalls come lined up side by side in large food courts. Here, locals and tourists alike can mix and match food styles representative of the diverse ethnic mix of this tiny wealthy country. Delicious noodle soups were our lunchtime dish of choice. Made fresh in front of your eyes in seconds, hiding a delicate dumpling and topped with delicate slices of fresh fish and sprinkles of dried anchovies, you can choose the chilli rating yourself by adding dashes of a variety of hot sauces. Filling, quick and super-cheap, in the middle of the day these felt deluxe after three months of ham and cheese lunchtimes. Not a chip in sight.

Culinary temptations at food courts could sometimes provide too much choice though. Our second visit saw our decisions over what to eat lurching from Chinese, Indonesian, Malay, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Indian. We finally settled on the latter but we could have taken a map of the surrounding continent and used a blindfold and a pin and we probably wouldn’t have been disappointed.

The multicultural food represents a multicultural city. There are Bollywood clubs and Hindu temples in Little India, medicine shops and Buddhism in Chinatown and a plummy English accent on the underground metro. All of this is wrapped in a blanket of wealth and a seemingly insatiable appetite for consumerism, as the giant malls bridge the districts.

In Chinatown, between meals, we spent an interesting hour at a large Buddhist temple, watching the monks lead worship and visiting relics and more. Seemingly typical of modern Singapore, the Temple was a multi-story affair, with a plush lift to carry you as far as the pretty roof garden, and CCTV to keep an eye on proceedings. It sometimes felt more like a conference centre than a holy place, but when the incense began to burn and the monks sang and chanted their prayers, we soon realised that this was a new cultural experience for us.

The ease with which Singapore seems to switch from the old the new, and the enormity of its recent development can clearly be seen in its quite awesome CBD and Quays area. The gleaming towers of commerce seem to be in macho competition to be either the tallest or the most futuristic. The inevitable shopping malls and hotels that squeeze the last of the remaining space compete for icy coolness and exclusivity. Nevertheless the architecture is wonderful and the area around the Quays was a pleasure to wonder round. In between upwards gawps at space-aged structures and envious glances into fine hotels, we saw laser shows across the Quays and listened to a jazz gig for free in the warm night. With a cheap meal to keep us going, who said Singapore needs to be expensive?

Our final day’s free wanderings were made somewhat trickier by our first taste of truly tropical rain. Thunder exploded overhead for some time, and our plans of roaming from hawker centre to interesting neighbourhood were supplemented instead with a trip to one of the most enormous department stores that can possibly be in existence. We got lost somewhere between electric toothbrushes and peanut wafers. When we finally found our way out, I briefly considered entering politics, just for the job title…

That evening, despite the rain, we headed to the last of Singapore’s free modern wonders, the shopper’s place of worship, Orchard Road. Whilst the Christmas lights were impressive (Helen had earlier mentioned that they should be aware that she, who has turned on Accrington’s festive display in the past and had years of experience at Blackpool, is a “Christmas lights connoisseur”) the displays of affluence and shopping addiction on Orchard Road will not be our lasting memory of Singapore. Instead we will certainly remember how our mouths watered and our eyes lit up at the array of taste sensations on offer for prices we could happily stomach.

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Argentina – Night-Time Land of The Complex Carbohydrate

Buenos Aires is undoubtedly a fantastic city, and Argentina has certainly had a great deal to offer, but for those of us only here short term (less than seven days,) the city in particular offers some confusing and tricky social and dietary arrangements.

Timekeeping and a daily schedule is perhaps the most flummoxing for the short-stayers. Residents of Argentina (and especially BA) seem to keep hours at which even those night-owls the Spanish would flinch. Need to meet granny for a coffee at 1am? No problem. Don’t forget to bring the baby. Need a steak dinner with seven friends at 2am? Go ahead, but you might need to book.

Coming from Peru and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Brazil, where dinner is at 1700 hours and all are in bed before 2200, this requires a major shift in the timetabling of one’s day. No more the rush to see and do everything in the middle of the day – after all, most things are shut between 1 and 6pm. No racing around, walking block after block looking for that gallery or market – if you don’t take it easy you’ll peak too early and need your bed before dinner time.

Which brings us onto the second problem: when to eat? It might sound trivial to those of you in the middle of your working lives and indeed we expect no sympathy, but when travelling, mealtimes can often become a focal point for the day. It’s therefore a slight problem if you get to the point where you’ve saved yourself for a “local mealtime”, only to find that you begin to snore over your steak and drop off over dessert. In general in South America, people seem to enjoy a light breakfast and a hearty and long lunch. The difference in Argentina is that dinner is so late it requires some sort of teatime snack between 5 and 7. For us three-meals-a-day Brits, for whom breakfast is, we’re always told, the most important, we’re already confused.

This brings us to our third issue, diet. Rio aside, fresh food has been hard to find in the last three months. Vegetables are not prevalent in shopping baskets; supermarkets are chocked-full of dried foods, tins and bread; pasta and pizza make up a large part of many restaurant menus; on the road (much like home) the only option seems to be biscuits and pastry. Argentina, in particular, seems to be the land of the complex carbohydrate.

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The large-scale consumption of yerba mate seems to have created one gigantic sweet tooth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the obsession here with dulce de leche. This thick caramel sauce spread is pretty much smothered on everything, and is known as the “taste of Buenos Aires”. It appears in coffee, on cakes and, most prominently, sandwiched between wagon-wheel like alfajor biscuits. It’s good, but it’s sweetness is hair-raising. Elsewhere, ubiquitous kiosks provide endless arrays of chocolate and sweets and ice cream, whilst coffee and cake are acceptable sustenance at any time of the day. For those of us who prefer a savoury snack, empanadas abound and sandwiches are exclusively of the ham and cheese variety. Occasionally, for a further bread fix, a superpancho hotdog can be found. I prefer the triple version…

All this sounds great, and added to the excellent steak dinners and meat-mountain parillas, you may wonder what the problem is. Nevertheless, it all seems like either food for a treat or food for an athlete. There isn’t a great deal of middle ground. Helen thought that it might be heaven to be in a place where cake is served for breakfast and biscuits, ice creams and pastries such as medialunas are the only available snacks. I thought likewise about the prevalence of good red meat, but for both of us we are yearning for fresh food, good salad and perhaps more regular eating hours.

A small section of the dulce de leche aisle

However, this is a fairly minor complaint, and if you look properly and spend the money you can eat many international cuisines in Buenos Aires. In fact, it wouldn’t take long to get used to the lifestyle, timekeeping and diet, but unfortunately time is something we’re running out of.

Come to Argentina, come to Buenos Aires, and to get the most out of it, stay for a while and stay up late.

 

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What’s The Mate?

For a very laid back and friendly nation, Uruguayans have quite a few obsessions. Like the other areas of South America with a strong connection to the gaucho culture, (most notably Argentina and Paraguay) agriculture, and in particular the production and consumption of meat, is both economically and culturally fundamental in Uruguay. In Montevideo, and we expect more of the same in Buenos Aires, a visit to a parrilla means witnessing fire-breathing grills, sweaty machismo men prodding at huge chunks of meat and offal, and a barbecue that looks like a more appetizing version of the aftermath of the execution of a particularly traitorous Tudor subject. After feasting on sweetbreads, rib steaks, sausages and any part of the cow you care to try, the only sensible option is to return home and digest it all in front of the Agriculture Channel on cable TV. No kidding. Maybe you can even buy your own cow in  one of their live auctions.

Parrilla in the mercardo del Puerto, Montevideo. Not a job for girls.

For those of us not from South America however, a far less well-known heritage of the gaucho tradition can be seen on virtually every street and home in Uruguay, at all times. No, it’s not a funny hat or big boots with spurs. No, it turns out that those cowboys, and now almost every Uruguayan, like nothing more than a nice cup of tea. To be precise, the beverage in question is called mate (pronounced mat-ay) and is a complicated and important enough affair to require a significant amount of parrafinalia and etiquette. The leaves, tea-like but in truth dried leaves of a species of holly, are parranged in a gourd, infused with hot water from a flask and drunk through a stainless steel straw. Often this is shared around, and topped up so that it lasts for hours. Thus, on the streets of Uruguay and Argentina, and particularly in Montevideo, people of all ages, from all walks of life can be seen doing all types of things whilst at all times clutching their mate gourd in one hand and with their flask tucked under their arm. More enthusiastic mate drinkers invest further in leather carry cases and luxury flasks to cart around wherever they go. It’s a bit like being English and carrying a teapot around all day, but it’s a charming and fascinating habit for the uninitiated to observe.

A couple enjoy a mate in central Montevideo.

We enjoyed Montevideo and Uruguay during our short stay. We wanted to eat lots, and we saw lots of great photo opportunities (click here to see Helen’s choice shots). Above all though, we found the people to be charming, friendly and welcoming. En route to the ferry to Buenos Aires, we stopped for a night in Colonia de Sacremento, a charming and rather quaint historical town with a hisory of smuggling and Portuguese-Spanish colonial rivallry. Photo opportunities were again plentyful here, so grab a mate and have a butchers…

 

 

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A Tale of Two (Or More) Restaurants

It can be tricky to write about our travels without making it seen like are gushing, moaning, worrying or gluttonous. The very nature of the tour we´re on calls for at least one, if not all of these characteristics almost every day. “Oh no, another 20 hour bus journey! Oh, but the sights are just spectacularly wonderful! Oh, but what if…? Oh, but we ate and drank some great stuff!” Southern Brazil has been no exception, but with the comfort and security of a great house in Florianópolis to stay in, and with the much more comfortable lifestyle and amenities brought by the rocketing economic status of the country, it has also afforded us more time to practice the gluttony side of things.

Thus, every day on Santa Catarina we’d walk down to the beach (past the strange daylight loving owls who nested on the ground near the road) and kick up the sand (jumping out of the way of the comedic sand crabs) for twenty minutes or so until we reached the tiny fishing village of Pantolo Do Sul. Here, although it was inexplicably impossible to buy fresh fish at the market, we could sit and watch the fishing boats bobbing on the waves whilst sipping a caipirinha and ordering a dish of something that we hoped hadn´t been long out of the sea.

The most interesting of the eateries here was Arante´s. Apparently founded in 1958 as a general store for fishermen, it´s speciality seems always to have been fried fish with `pirao´, a gloupey but tasty gravy made from fish stock. However it was in the seventies, when students began to visit the nearby beaches regularly but were not endowed with the mobile communications devices of today, that Arante´s began to cultivate its most distinctive feature. Needing to know where the party was, and fuelled by the free cachaca that is still available and just as potent today, the students began to stick notes up for each other on the restaurant walls and at the bar. As more cachaca flowed, so the notes became more poetic and illustrative. Over thirty years later one suspects this has also meant that the owners have never had to buy a tin of paint, as the walls are now covered in booze and fish-insipred artwork and messages, although now the most common subject seems to be how good the booze and the fish are.

Santa Catarina and Florianopolis were good for us; clean, quiet and spacious after the populous and many-flavoured Rio. Nonetheless, the time came to move on and inevitably an overnight bus tooks us eight hours south to the big Rio Grande Do Sul city of Porto Alegre. This large metropolis seems to be home to many students and, depite the rain, we like the place. One of it´s principle attractions for a short stay such as ours seems to be the large old central market. Aside from bursting with better fresh fish (at last, so this is where it all goes!), meat and vegetable stalls than we´ve seen anywhere else in South America to date, it also houses a wealth of eateries of all sizes. These aren´t the dodgy cafes next to hairdressers you often find in English municipal markets, these range from full blown sushi restaurants to extravagant ice-cream parlours. Soaked from the rain and sadly devoid of a kitchen in which to experiment with the afformentioned market-fare, we visited one of these restaurants, Restaurante Gambrinus, for dinner. Unusually for a weeknight, and a main reason for our choice, the menu included feijoada, a traditional stew of beans and beef with pork which we´d been promising ourselves throughout Brazil. Much like cassoulet, but darker and saltier, it was a great way to dry off and worth the wait since Rio.

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More than the food though, the welcome from most people in Brazil has been thoroughly warming. Despite us feeling terrible at hardly being able to understand a word of the language we have often been offered help by complete strangers just because of our lost looks or the fact that we´re from out of town. At Restaurant Gambrinus this warm welcome extended to numerous jokes, slaps on the back, questions about football and royalty, requests of letters from England, group photos even (we think) a refusal of a tip. We were only there an hour! So here´s to the gluttony of travel in Southern Brazil, to the sea, to feijoada, to caipirinha and to Jose C.L. Tavares from Gambrinus in Porto Alegre.

Now, where shall we go for lunch?