Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In Two Days

In two days I start lessons at Le Cordon Bleu. Isn’t it exciting? I went to the orientation session last Friday and received my uniform (two jackets, a pair of pants, two aprons, a hat, and two kitchen towels, all with the LCB crest) and a serious-looking tool set.

Of course the first thing I did when I got home was to take a photo of the jacket and the tools to commemorate this landmark day. Next I labeled all the knives and spatulas and sharpening iron and brush and scraper and whatever else are in that heavy tool kit. I also tried out the chef’s knife and the vegetable peeler while preparing dinner that night. The knife was so sharp that I’m seriously worried because I’m known to be dangerous around sharp objects. The Wusthof peeler, on the other hand, was not as good as my OXO one as it didn’t have much of a grip. I might need to bring my own.

When the excitement subsided I started to get a little nervous. I mean, just by looking at all the tools you know they mean business. What if I can’t understand the teacher’s lectures? What if I fail the test and can’t go on to the next level? And what if, gasp, I don’t actually have any talent at patisserie? To calm myself down and stop my brain from going into overdrive imagining all kinds of worst-case scenarios, I decided to get organized and copy down the curriculum into my day planner. To my great relief, the first demonstration involves flan and crème brulee. Having made a very successful crème brulee only last week, I felt my confidence lift a little. As I read on, I found out that the first part of the basic course is almost entirely dedicated to tarts, specifically pate brisee and pate sablee, both of which I am pretty confident about. After all, I am the unabashedly self-proclaimed Queen of Tarts. This made me feel slightly better and I was able to breath normally again. I bet everyone gets a little pre-LCB jitters? I’ll find out soon from my classmates.

Oh, for those who are looking forward to more photos from my LCB lessons, I am afraid I am going to have to disappoint you. We were told at orientation that showing photos taken in class in a public media, either of the teacher demonstrating or of the teacher’s creations, is strictly prohibited. Blogging was singled out as a no-no, and I could swear the teacher looked in my direction (or is it just my guilty conscience?). We are allowed to show photos of our own work, however, so please drop by and see what I made in class. (I am just afraid that they are not going to be as pretty as the teachers’.) Personally I don’t know why they’re being so tight-assed about this. It’s not as if someone will be able to deduce the recipe just by looking at a couple of photos. However, I am trying to graduate from that school so I thought I shouldn’t break any rules lest my chance of getting a diploma is jinxed.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Are We Too Picky?

We recently went to the UK for a wedding and on the way back stopped in Langkawi for a five-day mini vacation. While the hotel we stayed in the London suburb was everything I had ever imagined the English countryside to be, the food was less than satisfactory. But then again, food is not exactly England’s strong suit. So no disappointment there, and we looked forward to the gastronomic treat that's surely awaiting us in Langkawi.

Before the trip, we spent many long hours discussing which hotel to stay in: Four seasons vs. Andaman vs. The Datai. In the end the Datai won because of its reputation of being a non-family oriented resort (ostracize me for not wanting my tranquil hours by the pool ruined by screaming kids!) with tastefully decorated rooms, impeccable service, and excellent food. In fact I read so many travelers’ rave reviews of the food in the Datai that I was practically dizzy with anticipation: laksa, nasi goreng, roti prata, nasi lemak and of course curries and satays. What would I have first?

Upon arriving in the open-air lobby at the Data, we were promptly served a welcome drink, which set the tone for almost all the food we had at the Datai: watery, bland, and lacked character. For a Malaysian resort, there were surprisingly very few Malaysian dishes to choose from, except at the weekly Malay-Night buffet dinner. But even then our dinner had to be ruined by a watery and tastless nee goreng. Mee goreng, people! How can the chef not know how to cook the most basic dish that any hawker can master? One might argue that being a resort that serves an international clientele, maybe the taste is toned down to please the less adventurous diners. Fine, then what about western food? Shouldn’t they be good if western tourists are the main target? Not so again. Every time we ordered a salad, a sandwich, or a pizza, Jason kept on commenting that even my food tasted better. I should’ve felt flattered, I know, but it was really not a compliment for me, it reflected the, once again, bland and tasteless food.

Are we too picky? Have we been so spoiled by the high standard of food readily available in Japan that we take things for granted? We questioned ourselves frequently and especially when we were served dull and uninspiring food at the Datai. But our soul searching was put to rest when one night we decided to break free and took a 50-minute taxi ride to visit a night market across the island in Kuah Town.

It was only a street of about 200 meters (but don’t quote me on it because I am horrible with distance) lined on both sides with hawkers peddling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to freshly made local food, most of which we couldn’t name. To maximize our coverage, we devised a game plan and ordered everything that caught our eyes, but only one portion and split everything 50-50. When we came out from the other end of the street, I was rubbing my stomach with a big grin on my face. Now, that’s Malay food, damn it. Was that so hard for the Datai chef to manage?

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Best Blueberry Pancakes

Last week Jason came home and announced, “Someone sent me a free food magazine today. It looks pretty good. I’m leaving it on the dining table.” I took a glance in that direction and saw a thin booklet with a not-so-attractive cover. Those of you who know me will know that I’m a very visual person, especially when it comes to recipe books and food magazines. If my attention is not grabbed within the first 1/20 of a second, I generally won’t give it a second chance. So the magazine sits in a corner on the table for a couple of days, until Jason hogged the computer again one night and the TV wasn’t showing anything interesting. Bored, I reached for the magazine.

Oh boy, the entire magazine (all 32 pages) was printed in black and white on non-glossy paper! Don’t they know I need to see what the food looks like in full color? Ready to toss it into the recycle stack however, my eyes caught a glimpse of color. Alas, on the inside cover were ten little squares of colored photos. Hmmmm, some visuals after all! One image that stood out was a stack of blueberry pancakes, so fluffy and drenched in maple syrup. Having just bought a pint of blueberries, I was naturally on the lookout for recipes. So I flipped to the page titled “Better Blueberry Pancakes” written by Bridget Lancaster. Instead of a mere recipe, I got the entire rundown on the how’s and why’s of what makes a pancake taste good. Bridget was methodic in her quest for the best recipe and I felt like I was right beside her learning through her trials and errors. By the time I finished reading the article, I had my heart set on the pancakes, and a subscription to the magazine.

The next morning, I followed Bridget’s advice and made the best batch of pancakes I’d ever tasted in my life. Even Jason the pancake-hater voluntarily split the extra one with me instead of pretending he was really full and could not possibly eat another bite. But wait for the best part: I think I might have converted him into a pancake-lover!

So what set these pancakes apart? I feel that aside from the recipe, technique also played an important role. In the back of my mind I’ve always known you’re not supposed to over-mix batter, but I’m sure you all know how annoying it is to see streaks and lumps, especially for a control freak like me. But this time, not only did I resist the urge to extinguish the dry lumps and uneven streaks, I made sure I used the largest whisk and instead of mixing, I scooped up the batter in a big circular motion and tapped the whisk on the side of the bowl to drop the batter back into the bowl. This was repeated while turning the bowl 90 degrees each time until the batter is almost homogenous, but not quite. I feel that this is the best way to ensure the batter is handled minimally to help the pancakes to achieve maximum fluffiness.

Another unusual thing about this recipe is that instead of mixing the blueberries into the batter, they are sprinkled onto the pancake while it’s cooking in the pan. You get golden pancakes dotted with intact berries this way instead of something bluish gray and unappetizing. However, one thing I’ll do differently next time is to cut down the amount of milk. I’ve always noticed that flour in Japan has a higher water content. When using western recipes to make bread, I always have to cut down water by about a quarter. I forgot about it this time and as a result, my batter was a tad too thin and my pancakes weren’t as thick as I would’ve liked them to be. Imagine how much more perfect they’d be if they had thickness too!

So here’s the recipe and I hope you find them as good as I did.

1 tbsp juice from 1 lemon
2 cups milk
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1 large egg
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1-2 tsp vegetable oil
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries, preferably wild, rinsed and dried

1. whisk lemon juice and milk and set aside to thicken
2. whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in medium bowl to combine (I also sifted the flour with baking soda and powder twice before mixing with the rest of the ingredients)
3. whisk egg and melted butter into milk until combined. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients and pour in milk mixture. Whisk very gently until just cocmbined. Do NOT overmix
4. heat nonstick skillet over medium heat, add 1 tsp oil and brush to coat skillet bottom evenly. Pour ¼ cup batter on skillet, sprinkle 1 tbsp blueberries over batter. Cook until large bubbles begin to appear, flip and cook until golden brown on second side.
5. Serve immediately with maple syrup.

Friday, September 09, 2005

What a Waste!

I went for a cooking lesson today and out of the five people who signed up only another student and I showed up. The teacher announced that since enough material was measured for five people, we’d have to prepare five servings. A normal person who hears this will assume that the five servings of food will then all be consumed, now won’t she? Wrong!

I swear I’m not saying this just because I’m a pig (which I’ve been known to be at times) but isn’t it so wasteful to cook all that food only to dump them right into the trash? Yup, that’s exactly what we did. We were only allowed to take one serving of everything: three sections of sushi rolls, one inarizushi pocket, 1/5 of the grape jelly dessert, and only one of the five prawns for the soup (the teacher made sure we didn’t throw an extra prawn in the soup). The rest was all chucked in the bin!

We asked why we couldn’t take the rest home and were given some lame sanitary excuses. So fine, but there are so many other students at the studio who, I’m sure, would love to get some free food. But that wasn’t allowed either. I’m guilty of throwing out a leftover dish or two at times, but we are talking about freshly cooked, perfectly delicious food here. I really don’t understand.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Tibet Travel Advisory

I know, I know, Tibet was two months ago, and we’ve already gone on another trip between then and now, but what can I say? Didn’t I confess to being a hopeless procrastinator a long time ago? Better late than never, right? Like I said before, Tibet was such an exhausting trip and what little energy I had left afterwards was drained on the post-trip photo-editing saga that took weeks. When everything was done, well, I was just too sick of Tibet to talk about it, hence the two-month lag. Many friends, however, are interested in going to Tibet (a forbidden territory until recently) and asked me all sorts of questions. And I know lots of other people are probably dying to know more about this mystic place too, so I feel obligated to shed some lights and give some advice should you decide to make the journey (plus, it’s been raining incessantly ever since I got back to Tokyo yesterday, so I’m housebound with nothing else to do).

The point I cannot emphasize enough is to do your homework before going. Keep in mind that Tibet, although opened to tourism for a number of years now, is still in a remote area where living and sanitary standards may not be what you are used to back home. If you are like me, who values a good rest after a day of sightseeing, I highly recommend booking the best hotel/guesthouse whenever you can. In big cities like Lhasa and Shigase, four-star hotels provide clean bedding and hot water showers. Once in the mountainous regions, however, things you take for granted (such as running water) is not always available. I’ve taken photos of all the hotels/guest houses we’ve stayed in Tibet for your reference (photo album attached at the end).

Another major concern is altitude sickness. Even in Lhasa, the altitude is 3500m above sea level and if you go to Lake Namtso or the base camp, it can easily get above 5000m. I highly recommend taking Diamox (acetazolamide) as a preventative before and during your visit. The side effects (numbing sensation in fingers an toes and frequent urination) can be bothersome at first but isn’t it so much better than having altitude sickness ruin your trip?

One of the things that really struck me when I was in Tibet (besides the sunny blue sky and beautiful scenery) is how the Tibetans’ lives are entirely centered around their quest to achieve Nirvana and happiness in the afterlife. People devote huge portions of their days to religious activities to the extent that anyone coming from outside of Tibet may find it incomprehensive. It helps if you at least understand a little bit of history and background of Tibet before your trip. It’s no secret that the relationship between Tibet and the central government of China is filled with turmoils over the years. If you are a foreigner, your guide will not be inclined to get into any discussion on the subject of the politics or the Dalai Lhama. You will mostly likely get the official edited version of the history so it is up to you to do the homework to complete the whole picture. Even if you are not interested in the politics, it will still serve you to learn the history and background on Songtsan Gambo and his two wives (Tang dynasty Princess Wencheng and Nepalese Princess Bhrikuti), the Dalai and Panchen Lhama, and the major branches of the Tibetan Buddhism. A large part of sightseeing in Tibet is spent on visiting various monasteries. If you do not have at least some knowledge of the background, it gets boring really fast. After all, all the monasteries look similar without the history behind them.

Other miscellaneous pointers that might be useful:
- Tibetan roads are atrocious and all but disappear once you leave the big cities. If you are prone to carsickness, bring drugs. And don’t even think about renting a car and driving it yourself.
- Tibet is dusty, especially if you travel on unpaved non-roads. Wet tissues and sanitizing gels come in handy because it’s not always easy to find running water.
- Bathrooms in Tibet are disgusting to say the least. It is far more desirable to ask your driver to stop by the road where you can find a tree to go behind.
- Climate in Tibet is extremely dry so you need to have drinking water available at all times. It is a delicate balance to stay hydrated while being able to hold it until you find acceptable bathrooms. My advice is to drink lots when you’ve checked into your hotel (with clean bathroom) for the day and only take little sips on the road.
- Bring a sleeping bag or sheets if you have to stay in a guesthouse. The one we stayed in at the base camp washes their sheets once a year.
- At the last large city before going into the wilderness, stock up on water and non-perishable food. We found it far more appealing to munch on cookies and bread on occasions than to eat what the guesthouse had to offer. Bottled water comes in handy when there’s no water to even brush your teeth with.
- Bring emergency medical supplies such as motion sickness drugs, painkillers (one of the symptoms of altitude sickness is headache) and anti-diarrhea drugs.
- Tibet is not the place to be adventurous when it comes to food. If it smells or tastes funny, don’t eat it! It is no fun to get the runs when you can’t afford to pick and choose bathrooms. Trust me!
- Last but not the least, be patient and go with the flow. We had roads close on us on several occasions for no apparent reasons and all we could do was to wait it out. It’s part of the Tibet experience!

Here are some photos and comments from our Tibet trip.