I have never been a risotto person. Somehow the idea of rice that has been cooked to a congealed consistency with vegetables that have lost their bite or protein that has leeched its flavour has never really appealed.
Moreover, back home - as in most Asian countries - rice is a sideshow to the main culinary event – meant to be doused in curry or infused with the flavours and aromas of generously-spiced hunks of meat . It has always defied logic to me to fill up on a bowl of risotto before even hitting the main course. This was perhaps the strangest element of the entire Italian meal plan I encountered on my first visit to Europe many years ago – why serve me a bowl of starch before getting to the really good stuff?
So lurid yellow risotto a la Milanesa? No. Pea-green risotto that, honestly, is one of the most unappetizing dishes one could ever be presented with? Definitely not. Slick, black squid ink risotto? Maybe – only because I quite like the metallic, briny taste of squid ink.
Red seafood risotto?
Now we’re talking :)
The dish responsible for changing my mind on the virtues of risotto was a dish of tangy, tomato-ey, red risotto eaten in Perast.
Imagine the scene: The Restaurant – Conte, one of the most perfectly located restaurants I have ever come across, fronting Boka Bay winking and shimmering in the late afternoon sun, dense green hillsides of the Bay’s famous fjord-like formations dipping headlong into the water, retro-style airplanes gracefully performing some sort of celebratory airshow overhead (we never quite figured out what the occasion was) while zippy little speedboats cut through the glassy waters. I could have been favourably inclined by the setting, but that risotto tasted perfect!
The dish is something you won't struggle to find along the Montenegrin coast – influenced as it is by its Venetian maritime heritage and its close proximity to Italy – but the red risotto we ate in Perast was by far the best version we tasted.
A mound of plump rice coated in a sweetly tart tomato sauce and studded with shrimp, squid and mussels – surprisingly light and perfect with a glass of the crisp local white wine. It’s the only risotto I’ve ever eaten that made my mouth water even hours (well weeks, cause it’s still watering now as I am writing about it) and spurred me on to order the seafood risotto a few more times during our time in Boka Bay, although sadly we didn’t find another one that compared.
Needless, to say if I ever find myself in Perast again, a trip to Restaurant Conte is definitely on the cards :)
And while on the topic of tables with a view, here are three of my waterfront favourites:
Tataku Vave, Easter Island - Chile
This restaurant on Easter Island is the place to go to have a sunset meal – perched on wooden decking that juts straight over a rocky coast just outside the island’s only town, Hanga Roa. The restaurant’s juicy ceviche pyramids are only outdone by the spectacular view of the luminous blue Pacific waves crashing just metres away.
Foreign Correspondents' Club, Phnom Penh - Cambodia
This legendary sundowner spot by the Tonle Sap does a good line in Asian-style tapas. But more than anything, grab a bar stool overlooking Sisowath Quay and the river beyond and get ready to drink in the view.
Rock Bar, Bali - Indonesia
Touted as one of the world's top bars - and for good reason - you can dine on stone pots of noodles, punchy Asian sea food and Balinese-spiced bites, washed by the spray of giant waves pounding the rocks below you. The bar's hot reputation means it does get insanely busy around sunset, but head there later in the evening and you can enjoy a fairly chilled out dinner suspended over the wild waters of the Indian Ocean.
I’m a breakfast person. Always have been and always will be. It’s a rare day indeed (and in my world a sad one) that I have to start getting things done without having a bite to eat.
In fact, let me rephrase that – it is a rare, sad, grumpy and unproductive day if it begins without breakfast. I really don’t get much done on an empty stomach.
Unsurprisingly, finding a great breakfast spot on holiday is something I take particular pleasure in. Nothing heightens that lovely feeling of being poised at the beginning of a brand new day in a brand new city than finding a lovely place for breakfast.
I was in Istanbul a couple of weekends ago and was on the lookout for Kaymakçı Pando, a little café tucked up the streets of the Besiktas quarter of Istanbul, not too far from the grandiose Dolmabahçe Palace.
Kaymakçi Pando, unsurprisingly sells kaymak – the luscious Turkish clotted cream that feels and tastes like something between creamy butter and breakfast cream, along with other typical Turkish breakfast favourites. The café is no more than a small room piled with tables and chairs, with the owner tending a giant bowl of steaming milk at the entrance, walls plastered with cuttings from various papers praising the Pando’s famous kaymak (and pictures of the cows I assume the milk used to make it comes from), and a ceiling fan slowly whirring above – I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect place to sit down and plot the rest of my day.
The old owner is a descendant of the Turkish Bulgarian family of Sestaki and it was his grandfather who learned to make the creamy kaymak from working for a rich pasha under the Ottomans. The clotted cream treat is as much a favourite now as it was then – served with a generous helping of honey.
We of course opted for the bal-kaymak (the sinfully delicious kaymak and honey combo) as well as a hearty portion of Sucuklu Yumurta (fried eggs with spicy sujuk sausage), all served with fresh bread and juicy tomatoes, cucumbers and local cheese. Heaven on a plate!
The charming Kaymakci Pando will definitely make it to my list of favourite breakfast spots, and in tribute to it, here are the others that would join that list:
Longuinhos, Margao - Goa
Okay, you may accuse me of being a bit biased here, but there are fewer places in the world I could end up for breakfast that would make me happier than my very own family restaurant back home in Goa. From the mellow morning light filtering through the large windows, the familiar sounds and sights of my home town waking up to a new day and the smell and taste of what few would dispute are the most delicious sausage rolls in the whole of Goa, Longuinhos definitely ranks up there in my list of favourite breakfast spots. Add a steaming coffee, crispy meat and prawn patties and a few croquettes to the plate and you get a great taste of how many busy Goans start their day.
The FCC, Phnom Penh - Cambodia
With its breakfast balcony taking in the gently flowing Tonle Sap, the most vivid blue skies stretching beyond and the laid-back vibe of Cambodia’s capital seeping out of every inch of this colonial-era gem, The FCC Phnom Penh is definitely the place to begin discovering this fascinating city. Order a fried egg sunny side up, a smooth dark cup of coffee and a roll slathered with tangy lemon curd and get out your book – this breakfast spot is made for lingering morning meals.
Il Lago, Geneva - Switzerland
The bright frescoed walls of the cozy Il Lago restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues Geneva form the perfect backdrop to grab a moment watching the beautiful people wander across the Place des Bergues, en route to (what I imagine) are their jobs making fancy watches and passing UN resolutions (ok, I admit, there may be other things people do in Geneva). But I digress… my point is that Il Lago serves up the most perfect Bircher Muesli I have ever eaten -sprinkled with jewel-like fresh berries - and the lightest croissants too. I think I actually picked the crumbs off the plate so I wouldn’t waste them!
Mana Nui Inn, Easter Island - Chile
My memory of the little B&B I stayed in on Easter Island will forever be tied to breakfast on Easter Sunday, when the owners placed little chocolate bunnies amidst our breakfast spread. In addition, a view that dreams are made of – pristine Pacific waters and huge clouds gathering in the dawn light – and a daily changing menu of freshly squeezed tropical juices like guava and banana, platters of cheese and cold meats, pancakes, fresh buns and eggs, made this little morning hall one of the most memorable places I’ve ever had the pleasure of tucking into a delicious breakfast.
What are some of your favourite breakfast spots around the world? I'd be happy taking notes :)
A few years ago I booked myself in for my first holiday cooking class ever. The
city was Phnom Penh and although an incredibly charming place, learning about
its past can be a rather grim lesson given its starring role during the Khmer Rouge's gruesome reign. I thought a cooking class may help redress the balance and serve as a happier introduction to the Cambodian capital.
I was right.
Tucked away in the streets behind the National Museum, the Cambodia Cooking Class turned out to be a surprisingly fun way to begin my trip to the country.
The morning began with a visit to the local wet market where we learnt about some of the more exotic ingredients used in Cambodian cooking (like fishwort - a mint-like herb that adds a fishy taste to your salad, and salt eggs - eggs that have been aged underground in salt until they reach a gelatinous consistency). We watched frogs and tiger fish being carved up (the more squeamish may wish to give the meat and fish market a miss) and discovered what went into the ubiquitous spice blend called kroeung that makes its way into many Cambodian curries (essentially a mix of dry spices like cardamom, star anise and cloves, along with ginger, galangal, fresh turmeric, garlic, shallots, lemongrass and kaffir
The rest of the morning was spent pounding the afore-mentioned kroeung with wooden pestles, stuffing and frying delicious ube (purple yam) springrolls and making very pretty versions of the quintessential Cambodian dish - fish amok - with bright, blue skies filled with rain-gorged clouds forming a perfect holiday-in-South East Asia backdrop.
I was hooked.
The next year it was the turn of Vietnam and a cooking class once again found
it's way onto my itinerary in the gorgeous town of Hoi An.
The Red Bridge Cooking School class also began with a market tour - marked this time by an acquaintance with delights such as flying fish (and the not-quite-so-delightful scent of barrels of festering fish sauce!). A boat trip up the Thu Bon river deposited us at the Red Bridge Restaurant - the site of the cooking class - where we made Vietnamese fresh spring rolls, banh xeo (Hoi An's popular
savoury pancake) and an egg plant gravy, and learnt to fashion vegetable decorations that looked like badly drawn versions of the ones created by the instructor. This was followed by the highlight of the afternoon - eating the results of all our hard work :)
Next month I hope to be heading to Bali and I'm planning to once again squeeze in a cooking class into my rather short four-day trip. The plan so far is to try the Paon Bali Cooking Class - less highly recommended than the Bumbu Bali course, but one that seems to be a better fit in terms of both, time and budget. A market visit (if we choose the morning class), a short introduction to Bali's rice growing rituals and a chance to learn (and eat!) upto eight indigenous dishes - all for 350,000 (approximately US$37) sounds like a pretty good deal to me :)
If anyone has done the same class - or any other they'd highly recommend in the Ubud area - do let me know. And for those of you thinking of trying your hand at a Bali cookery class in the future, look out for a Paon Bali post in a few weeks :)
Where to eat and what to do if you find yourself with 24 hours in Siem Reap, Cambodia's sleepy yet seductive northern town:
9.00am: Breakfast with butterflies
Hot tropical sun, immodestly green foliage and colourful, fluttering wings form the backdrop to the appropriately named Butterflies Garden Restaurant, probably one of the most charming places I've ever breakfasted in. The quiet garden restaurant is tucked away on the eastern banks of the Siem Reap river, under a canopy of green netting that houses hundreds of live butterflies flitting around as you sip a fragrant cup of Cambodian coffee or devour a fruit-and-syrup doused pancake.
In and around the area: Early morning strolls along the banks of the narrow river, shopping for tourist tat and hidden gems among the piles of silk cushions, paper lanterns, Buddha prints and ornate opium pipes that tumble out of the stalls at Siem Reap's Old Market.
11.30am: A bite of banana rice cake in Angkor
These sweet rice cakes moulded around a piece of banana and cooked in a banana leaf are the perfect snacks to fuel a morning of Angkorian temple discovery. Some versions are better than others, so try a few before settling on your favourite roadside rice cake vendor.
In and around the area: Take your pick - from the ruins of Ta Prohm, woven through with giant roots and tree trunks, the sprawling Preah Kahn complex, the enigmatic face towers of Bayon or the jewel in the crown of Angkorian architecture - Angkor Wat, there are hundreds of stunning temples, ruins and monuments to explore in what used to be the seat of the mighty Khmer Empire.
2pm: Run (for some) amok
Pop back into town for a quick lunch on Cambodia's quintessential dish - fish amok. This coconut curry spiced with chilli, lemon grass, kafir lime and turmeric, steamed in a banana leaf bowl typifies exactly what's right with Cambodian food - all your favourite Asian flavours presented with a twist. Bar the super-touristy name (Pub Street), Siem Reap's main restaurant strip has a great collection of places where you could try this dish. My top pick would be Khmer House Restaurant for a homely vibe and generous portions served on pretty blue & white crockery.
In and around the area: Tuk tuks to take you back to the temples for some more photo ops and poking around impressive ruins.
5.30pm: Sundowners at Angkor Wat
Escape the crowds at Bakheng Hill waiting for the "best sunset over Angkor Wat" and perch in relative solitude on the banks of the moat surrounding the majestic temple to soak in the magic with a drink and some nibbles. Many hotels will pack you a sunset picnic (we got a bottle of wine, chicken satay, cheese & olives). You will find few other evenings compare to the experience of witnessing dusk falling over Angkor Wat.
In and around the area: You won't really feel the need to do much else other than sip and stare.
8pm: Exotic Eats
Frog, snake, crocodile... you can find them all on the menu back on Pub Street and a crocodile bbq may be a good bet for the sake of sheer novelty. For those keen on catching a traditional Apsara Dance performance, the Temple Club puts on two nightly shows that can be enjoyed with dinner on the upper level of this slightly touristy haunt. The food's decent enough and although you could possibly find half a dozen better restaurants in town, the entertainment trade-off may be worth it (the Apsara shows here are free unlike a dozen other overpriced places).
In and around the area: The fairy-light strung night market a few minutes away for more impulse buys and a tickly "fish massage".
11pm: Nurse a colonial hangover at Le Grand Cafe
You couldn't get more French Colonial than this if you tried - an elegant old dame of a building, awnings stretching over the pavement and dark oiled wood inside - grab a cocktail or a cognac and waste away what's left of the evening watching the world go by.
In and around the area: $2 reflexology massages to soothe away temple hopping-induced aches and pains.
I don't like to throw out stuff in general; foodstuff in particular. So when I found a few grains of Vietnamese coffee languishing in the back of my kitchen cabinet this weekend I couldn't quite bring myself to chuck it into the bin.
I had to in the end (as I needed the container for a fragrant new pack of French roast) but it got me thinking about my first glass of Vietnamese coffee.
It was a memorable occasion. Well, mainly due to the fact that dumping a large quantity of condensed milk into my glass seemed to be considered a good thing, but also because the café I first tasted Vietnamese coffee in was probably the strangest café I've ever visited.
Calling it a café is stretching the truth really. I think it was a converted garage, shoved on the side of a little street in Siem Reap. I landed there at the behest of my tuk-tuk driver and guide Han, who was aghast that I and the friend I was travelling with were falling asleep while driving past some of Cambodia's most stunning countryside.
Han felt we needed a jolt of caffeine and sugar to set us right. We did, and I'll be eternally grateful to him for introducing me to ca phe sua da - the super quenching Vietnamese iced milk coffee.
Ca phe sua da is a brilliant invention to answer the need for refreshment in the
tropics. It offers a strong, smooth hit of caffeine on account of its dark roast and drip-filter brewing method which retains all of the coffee's essential oils. And it uses the best all-in-one creamer + sweetener ever created - condensed milk (which also keeps better than fresh milk in hot weather). The sweet, velvety coffee is poured over crushed ice in a tall glass and voilà - the best wake-up call you could have on a languid tropical afternoon.
The coffee itself was delicious but what made the moment really memorable was the setting. As I said, I'm pretty sure it was a garage. It was filled with rows of chairs draped with people - all of whom seemed transfixed by the goings-on flickering on five TV screens at the front - each screen playing something different, none playing any sound. No one seemed perturbed by that little detail though, and they all seemed to be following the particular movie they had chosen to watch without any difficulty at all. It was all a bit strange...
I've had Vietnamese coffee since - in Vietnam, at home, frankly anywhere I get the chance. It's one of my favourite kinds of coffee but none of the places I have drunk it in since have stuck in memory as much as that first glass. It might have been a strange introduction, but it was definitely one that made an impression.
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