Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Birthday at the Goose 'n' Duck Ranch

It was Dirk's birthday last weekend. He had a royal surprise thanks to his extremely competent wife-to-be and a bunch of scheming friends who plotted for weeks to ensure that this birthday would be one that Dirk would never forget.

First, the stake out at Goose 'n' Duck Pub at Chaoyang Park West Gate where Dionne lured the unsuspecting Dirk into a trap of confetti...


The birthday boy still reeling from shock (excellent! Mission accomplished)

We then hopped on the bus for the Goose 'n' Duck Ranch out in Huairou, about an hour's drive away from downtown Beijing. The Ranch is popular with the Beijing folk, both local and expat, because there are loads of fun things to do, such as:

Water strolling...

...aptly demonstrated by this weekend warrior

There was also a respectable enough looking swimming pool at the far end of the Ranch. Just mind the surly swimming pool lingdao and his besotted group of pool attendants. When will the Chinese ever understand that being hospitable is a pre-requisite of working in the tourism industry and switching off music playing at reasonable levels at 3pm is only going to piss people off?

Swimming pool at the Goose 'n' Duck RanchLazy, hazy days by the pool

Of course, there was fun to be had on dry land as well. Some of us released our inner Schumacher at the go-kart track.

Martin holding court with his adoring audience while getting a final check from Ofer

Ofer giving Martin tips on cheating to win. And I learnt this weekend also that Ruud is the only white guy I know who can squat properly.

In the meantime, I was starting to fall in love with a not so little guy called Arthur, a curious 5 month old Pit Bull Terrier.

"Mmm... that Schnauzer would make a great snack"

Look at that wee face!


Arthur and I

Time passes quickly when you're having a good time and before long it was dinnertime. Food at the Ranch was like that of a mess hall at best and its whole pig on a spit satisfied the most voracious of meat eaters.

Cheese!

This guy is helping himself to yummy pig skin dangling off what's left of its face

And when night falls, bring out the glo sticks!

Vinao so lovin' his neon sticks

Someone has a way too unhealthy obsession with her glo sticks

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Ten things I did not know until I went to Cambodia

Oh Sacred Book of Angkor, give me strength to channel my inner Lara Croft and discover the secrets that lie within

1. Cambodia operates on a dual-currency system usually favouring the US Dollar over the local Riel.

2. Because of #1 most transactions from accommodation to haggling over tuk-tuk fares are conducted in USD making it a hell lot more expensive than even touristy Thailand. :-(

3. Angkor Wat is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a gateway to discovering Cambodia's many breathtaking temple complexes. My favourite is Bayon in Angkor Thom, a fantastic stone forest with vivid bas-reliefs topped with face-towers. While we're on the subject of temples:

4. Khmer obsession with 85 degree steps that feature prominently in their mountain temples. And wow have I seen some big old trees!



Angkor Wat
Apsaras are celestial dancers. Sculptures like these adorn all of Angkor Wat and all the Khmer temples in the surrounding area
Having a breather to take in the beauty Angkor Wat and the surrounding rainforest

Max makes the long, arduous trek to the peak. There's no turning back now. His life dangles by a thread... Will he make it?
Yees! Ain't no mountain (temple) high enough!

King McVillian surveys the temple grounds

Jo @ Bayon, Angkor Thom. This is probably my favourite temple.

One of the numerous face-towers at Bayon

Khmer history comes to life at Bayon!

Nature reclaiming what is hers - massive buttress roots of a silk cotton tree

Nothing but a tree hugging hippee! Any tree that grows that big deserves a hug from me!

5. No one speaks French despite nearly one hundred years of colonial rule?!

6. Everyone speaks really good English?! Compared to China there were no major signage cock-ups, the street urchins charmed visitors into buying things unlike the mini Sanlitun thugs yelling 'Fark Yoo!' at passersby who dare deny them of loose change. Which brings me to:

7. Cambodian children are probably the most adorable and charming I have ever come across. I generally think that children are devil's spawn but it's impossible not to like the Cambodian kids. Smiles ever at the ready and just bursting to say 'Hello!'as we pass them followed by 'Good bye!'

Me and three of the best saleswomen in Cambodia. They were persistent but always very sweet in convincing us to purchase postcards and souvenirs.

Max "Handsome Man" McVillian and our favourite sales girls. The Yashow/Pearl Market/Silk Market crew could learn a lot from these young women

8. I never knew that pubs/restaurants could keep live crocodiles in a sunken pit! Dead Fish in Siem Reap is a cool little place in town for good Western and Thai/Khmer food and traditional Cambodian dances in the evening.

The Dead Fish in Siem Reap

Jo @ The Dead Fish

9. Meandering cows and idyllic kampong scenery came as a side dish to USD 1.50 stir fried instant noodles. Stir fried instant noodles appear to be jostling with amok, a tasty broth of fish cooked in basil, lemongrass and coconut milk served with rice, as Cambodia's national dish. Both can be found in most establishments.

Waiting for my nutritious meal of stir-fried instant noodles lovingly prepared by the matriarch of the family who own the stall

Adorable little Cambodian girl chilling out with her mum next to the stall.

Even the cows are friendly! This one loitered and poked around as Max and I had lunch while a couple others grazed nearby

10. The motorcycle as a common and effective way to transport pigs to the market! I just want to know how they manage to strap the pig - sometimes up to four - on the motorcycle in the first place. Most that passed us by appeared subdued enough, as if having resigned to its sorry fate. Others were not quite ready and put up a bit of the fight, all four trotters kicking madly and squealing with all its might.

This little piggy went to the market... and was very unhappy about it. Meat eaters take note: this is your bacon along the supply chain in all its horrifying squealing glory.

Pig on motorbike in the distance (click on image for a clearer view)

More pictures from our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

An ordinary afternoon in Siem Reap. Tuk-tuk drivers waiting for their next fare and not very much else going on

Siem Reap countryside by tuk-tuk

Breakfast at Cafe de la Paix. Max ordered breakfast menu II - coffee, orange juice, freshly baked croissant and bread, with butter and jam, fruit salad and yoghurt. Just what a tomb raider needs to kickstart his day!

A little slice of heaven in my breakfast - waffles with caramelised apple and vanilla cream. Pure ecstacy...

Max in front of a traditional wooden house with the Sacred Book of Angkor. The book is so named because it was instrumental in guiding us around the vast and diverse temple complexes and decoding bas-reliefs.

"Mine! Mine! All mine! Bwahahaha!"

Bottled water - check. Sacred Book of Angkor - check. Humongous silk cotton tree roots in the background - check

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Going out with a bang

I've always known that the Chinese loved their re nao but ever since the government lifted the 12 year ban on fireworks within city limits this Lunar New Year, things have been downright ridiculous. You would've thought that the people who invented gunpowder would put their creation to a more worthy cause, like developing alternative energy sources (plausible), detonating landmines (I'm just making it up as I go along here) or ... something!

I wonder what is the reason behind this about-turn in regulation. Do firework manufacturers have a powerful political lobby? Is there a tax levied on the sale of fireworks which translates into revenue for the State? Were lawmakers who grew up during the difficult years of political upheaval in the 60s and 70s so deprived of the joy of setting off fireworks in their backyard - which had been turned into makeshift smelting centres - that they decided to give themselves a second childhood? I don't want to be a chunjie Grinch or anything, but let's weigh up the pros and cons of fireworks.

Pros

  • Erm... they're nice to look at? So are Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffyd.
Cons

  • Unnecessary decibels in a city obsessed with car horns, where conversations are yelled and not spoken, recorded announcements on loop are blared out from shops and the chorus of round-the-clock renovation/construction assault our tortured ear drums 24-7.
  • Air pollution. Nuff said.
  • They are an utter waste of money with no returns whatsoever other than the abovementioned. I haven't any figures on fireworks spending but it would not be unreasonable to assume that they run into the millions. This money could've gone to a better cause, like charity. Heck, like having a nice, romantic dinner with your wife! Whatever, there are countless ways to boost the domestic economy without going out there and setting off a bunch of explosives. Update: Estimates suggest that Beijing residents will spend up to RMB100 million on fireworks over the festive season.
  • They are inherently dangerous unless one is from the bomb disposal unit. And still, mishaps do happen.
  • As a dog lover, it's upsetting to see them running for cover from the loud noise. (I'd do the same if only there was enough room under my bed for Sam and I.)
I really hope that the government will realise the madness of lifting the ban on fireworks and reinstate it in the following year. In theory, there's nothing wrong with a bit of firecrackers. I used to play with them in my grandparent's garden in Ipoh when I was a wee un. The difference is that 1) Ipoh has a population of less than 800,000 (and KL 1.4 million for that matter) 2) without a single dominant monoculture, not everyone celebrates the same festival at the same time in the same way i.e. we realise there are other ways to have a jolly good time besides making excessive noise 3) we lived in houses, not densely populated apartment blocks.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Asian markets besides the Hang Seng and Nikkei

I recently discovered that there is a correlation between low office/work activity and me taking tentative, virgin steps towards becoming a proper lady who acts her age and away from the heady days of self-flagellation at work during the week and the blur of the Beijing nightlife on weekends. I had until the very recently refused to be tainted by such poppycock as to actually prepare a meal from scratch. But a Christmas present cookbook from Di and somewhat disastrous patch at work resulting in quite a bit of time to spare convinced me that I should at least give this cooking business a go. So, after a leisurely lunch on Saturday afternoon I tagged along with D&D to the fresh produce market in Xinyuanli, not too far off from the Sanlitun Diplomatic Area.

Anyone who's ever been to an Asian market before will know that it is not the most pleasant experience and has been known to turn even the most voracious carnivores into PETA activists. They are a far cry away from sterile supermarket aisles bathed in warm light and individually plastic-wrapped cuts of meat without any hint as to their original hosts. I attribute my herbivorism to two individual visits to Asian markets. The first was a good few years ago when I was back in Kuala Lumpur for the summer holidays. My mother brought me to visit the chicken seller who has supplied the Chan family with our poultry for as long as I can remember. I can't recall her name, it was something generic in Cantonese: Ah Chan, or Ah Mei, or Ah Fong. In any case, we also called her Gai Poh which means Chicken Lady in Cantonese. I recall standing awestruck at her stall, watching her Indonesian hires (a further sign of the forward march of market forces: even the Gai Poh at Pudu Wetmarket has gone global) perform systematic slaughter of sickly battery chickens, living the last moments of their miserable lives with necks poking out of plastic crates, witnessing their own fate through fellow crate-dwellers. Two workers stood on either side of a column of plastic crates stacked about 6 high full of chickens. There was a small opening on the top from which one worker would reach in, grab a bird, snap its neck back, slit its neck and then promptly throw the bird - airborne and still squawking - into a cauldron of boiling water, feathers, blood and dying chickens still feebly flapping their half bald scalded wings against the side of the cauldron, which was really just an old rusty oil drum . The two workers would take turns killing the chickens and throwing them into the boiling water with such clockwork accuracy that only one chicken would fall at any time so that the other worker whose job was to stir the grim contents with a wooden plank would not be overwhelmed by chickens. The stench of cooking feathers, blood and in all likelihood, feces, was so bad that I had to hold my breath so as not to be sick. After the pristine grocery procurement environs of Sainsburys and Safeway, the reality of where my food came from could not be any harsher. Fast forward a few years to the time I decided to explore a neighbourhood market when I first arrived in Beijing and was living on the the 3rd East Ring Road just south of Panjiayuan. I was rather enjoying myself watching the cartloads of watermelons pulled by donkeys just outside the main gates of the market and old ladies grumbling about the prices of Chinese cabbage. I didn't realise that I had ventured into the meat section of the market and came face to face with a host of decapitated heads displayed on some stalls to identify the kind of meat that was being sold. I can still remember a pair of glazed over eyes staring up at me and a long, purple tongue potruding from one side of the snout from a massive hog's head. It was from that defining moment that I decided that if I couldn't kill it, I wouldn't eat it.

The Xinyuanli market was more similar to the one near Panjiayuan in that there wasn't any actual slaughtering going on. But it still turned my stomach to see goat carcasses splayed open in crucification stance and beef ribs resembling a giant, fleshy xylophone hanging from meat hooks above a variety of bovine innards . Di's first stop was the herb lady where such items as dill, lemon leaves, rocket leaves and mint were procured. While waiting for Di I poked my head next door and bought some galangal and lemongrass.

"What are you cooking with those?"
"Erm... I dunno. Buying them for good luck. Just in case..."
"Just in case what?"
"Just in case, D."

Indeed, everyone can afford some 'good luck' for less than 2 kuai, which was what I paid the herb lady.

I wanted some salmon for dinner so we made our way over to the fishsellers. Now after that tirade anyone would think that I'm vegan and subscribe to that famous Alicia Silverstone one-liner "Milk is mucus". As I said, I don't think it's right to eat anything I can't kill. Although I have never killed a salmon before (I've never actually seen a WHOLE salmon before, never mind alive) but I'm sure I'll manage by flipping it out of the water and waiting for it to die. I know. I'm lame.

The beauty about this particular market in Xinyuanli is that a lot of restaurants in the vicinity source their food from here. The fish chap from whom I bought salmon (market price that day RMB30/jin compared to RMB110/kilo from a supermarket near my flat) boasted that chefs from nearby Japanese restaurants come to him to buy tuna and salmon to make sashimi. The two Ds also purchased a couple of tuna steaks and a red snapper. The fish chap offered to fillet the snapper (I'm stll getting over the fact that he could say 'fillet') and even dished out advice about how best to cook and prepare the fish. It was amusing to watch him give Mr. D, who has handled a fish or two over the course of his illustrious culinary career, a lesson in basic fish cooking and that the secret to tuna steaks in a jiffy was to panfry each side for 5 minutes in olive oil. You'd never get that sort of personal attention in a supermarket, not anywhere in the world.

One of our last stops, and certainly my most reluctant one, was made at the Muslim butcher as Di wanted to some meat for soup. The stall owner, a hefty Hui man in signature white cap, sharpened his knife even as Di looked down her shopping list for the meat she required. Finally, she decided on ribs for meat on bone. The Hui butcher walked over to the aforementioned monstrous beef rib xylophone (I'm a city slicker through and through and somehow convinced myself that beef ribs were only as big as the ones served in Tony Roma's) and hacked off a couple of racks. As they were about a metre long and Di couldn't very well put those in her pot so she asked the Hui butcher to cut them up into more managable pieces. The butcher, happy to oblige, set the ribs down on a huge chopping block which was a round wooden coin-shaped thing sawed off a large tree. What do butchers use to hack bones into small pieces? Not even the traditional cleaver, a favourite with the Chinese around the world, not least Cantonese kitchen workers (if HK kung fu movies are to be believed) would do. The butcher picked up an AXE that was propped up against his stall next to the chopping board, swung it above his head and brought it down with a crack. Crack! Crack! Crunch! The sound of axe against bone, shards of meat and other fleshy matter flying through the air.

That night I made simple baked salmon and served it with leftover vegetarian curry and rice. The results...

Looking very pleased with myself (and secretly hoping that I wasn't about to give Max a violent bout of food poisoning)

Leading by example and diving into dinner.

Max gives the thumbs up to the first ever non microwavable TV dinner he's had at my home.

Menu in 3-Star Chinese Hotel

Bless. I know they're trying their best but they do have a long way to go. Thanks to my Uncle Kian Foo for sending these pictures, supposedly of an English menu in a 3-star hotel in China.






Although I did not personally take these shots, I can testify to their existence based on a visit Max and I made to the Xinjiang Sulitan Restaurant on Dongzhimennei. We were doubled over in our chairs and having fits of giggles while the staff waited for us to finish convulsing so that she could take our orders. I'm sure it wasn't the first time foreigners had walked into the restaurant as it is located near a rather nice local apartment complex that is home to large communities of underpaid embassy staff and other 2nd-rate foreigners like myself who do not have fat expat packages which include USD3000/month villas out in Shunyi. In fact, the waitress must have seen so many people fall off their chairs in guffaws when perusing the menu that she just rolled her eyes and waited impatiently for me to get over the hilarity that was "Dry Mother Embrace the Eggplant". The food itself wasn't bad and they deserved an A for effort plus top marks for complimentary side-dish of laugther with the meal.