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 am craving the sun.
There I’ve said it.
To most people that might not sound very unusual. But you need to remember that sun worshipping is not a common activity for most people blessed with year-round sunshine as I have been all my life – having spent more than half of it in Goa and the past eight or so years in Dubai.
In India and the UAE you spend most of your time trying to avoid the sun. Add to that the incredibly rare occurrence of rain in Dubai and it really is no surprise that I have spent most of my holidays over the past few years practically chasing precipitation – rain, snow, fog, anything – wintry weather, comfort food and warm, sweet drinks have featured rather heavily on the holiday agenda.
But in the past few weeks, as an unusually chilly Dubai winter has given way to the first hints of a searing summer, I have found myself wishing more and more for the white hot sunshine of South East Asia.
And to what is irrevocably entwined with thoughts of sunny holidays spent in that colourful, chaotic part of the world – a LOT of food!
Like these gorgeous BBQ pork ribs from Bali…
Is your mouth watering yet? I found this photo while going through my holiday pics a few days ago and I can’t physically stop myself from salivating every time I look at it.
Or this one.
There are plenty of reasons why these ribs – the signature dish of a restaurant called Naughty Nuri’s in Bali –are absolutely legendary.
Let me start with the anticipation – you watch these great hunks of meat get basted and grilled in a smoky pit, the scent of roasted spices wafting over in bursts to your terrace perch every time the wind turns. Don’t wear something you love to this restaurant. One, you are going to want that smoky smell to stick to you as long as possible and two, there is no way to eat those ribs daintily so wear something you won’t mind getting a great big blob of BBQ sauce on.
And speaking of the sauce, it’s unlike anything I’ve tasted before – an aromatic sticky marinade, stuffed with tropical spices that is converted by the grill into the perfect charred and caramelized consistency so that it no longer just coats the meat but becomes a part of it, with just enough dripping through the ribs on to your plate to make you want to lick it.
I did say there was no ladylike way to eat this, right?
Naughty Nuri’s is an institution in Bali, having started of the green hills of Ubud before opening another outpost in Seminyak, in the chic area of Batubelig which is where I encountered it.
The restaurant is incredibly laid-back – don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing a table with a group of strangers – people are there to do one thing, eat! And you can be sure that one sight of that scorching hot BBQ pit will convert you to the communal dining trend (don’t worry, you won’t have to share your plate!)
With piggies protruding from every corner of the restaurant, you are left in no doubt as to what is the star dish on their menu. My friend ordered a tuna steak and although it looked pretty juicy, I can safely say I didn’t feel the need to steal from her plate because my own juicy platter of ribs completely dominated my thoughts for the entire time it survived – which wasn’t really for very long, considering it was probably one of the most tender pieces of meat that’s ever touched my plate.
The restaurant is also famous for its quenching lychee martinis which the waitresses will shake rather vigorously at your table – the staff take putting the naughty into Naughty Nuri's seriously.
Let’s just say if I were to put together a perfect meal to accompany a perfect day in South East Asia – those ribs and lychee martinis would feature pretty high on the list!
There are few things in life that get me more excited than food, and fewer foods that get me more excited than roasted suckling pig!
So it comes as no surprise that my entire Bali itinerary has been fashioned to ensure that I make it to the legendary Warung Ibu Oka in Ubud in time to gorge on a plateful of their specialty - babi guling - roasted pork that’s so soft it just eases off the fleshy body of a whole-roasted hog and is paired with red-gold crackling, mealy offal, a shallot, lemon grass and spice stuffing and the famous secret sauce that’s ladled over the entire dish to tie it all together. Mmmm… this is what I expect to be the gastronomic highlight of my three day trip to Bali.
Which brings me back to why Warung Ibu Oka has somehow managed to dictate my entire island itinerary…
The plan for Bali was simple. Sea, spa, sundowners and shopping … lots of chatter in between. Two stops – chic Seminyak and the emerald green heart of Bali, Ubud. And it is here that the plan got derailed ever so slightly, with the discovery of the little warung or restaurant that serves (arguably) Bali’s best version of babi guling. There may be other contenders but I’m quite happy to take Anthony Bourdain’s word that this is the best.
The thing is Warung Ibu Oka, for all its fame, believes in the magic relationship between supply and demand. Keep the product quantity fixed and the demand will always outstrip supply. Which is why those 10 or so freshly roasted pigs that make their way to the restaurant everyday need to be snapped up and swallowed before anyone else gets to them. And people get to them very quickly, I’m told!
And so my Bali itinerary came to be carefully planned to make sure we have a whole morning in Ubud dedicated to doing nothing... cough, cough, that is having nothing to do that might prevent us from reaching Ibu Oka early enough to cut through the hungry hoards and cut straight to the chase – the oh-so-succulent slices of spicy roasted pork :) I can't wait!
Has anyone tried Ibu Oka’s famous roasted suckling pig and was it worth the hype? I'm hoping it is... but then again, it's spicy roasted pork. In my world that can hardly ever be a disappointment :)
There are some things you eat that get stored away in a very special part of your brain. It's the part that lies dormant until an extremely inconvenient moment (usually when you are snowed under at work, or in church, or having your nails done) basically a moment when feeding yourself isn't something you can easily accomplish and you are left silently salivating and incredibly distracted.
For me that moment came - as it often does - on an extremely busy Thursday afternoon. In the midst of thoughts about press releases, corporate bios, Q&A documents and presentations that needed to be put to bed before the end of the working week, there popped up the memory of two dainty, flower-embossed sponge cakes I'd eaten almost five years ago in Malaysia. The memory of the cakes wasn't as distracting as the memory of their yummy filling - the incredibly addictive kaya jam.
Kaya is a South East Asian creation and I'm not going to get all politically correct and start debating who actually invented it. Let's just say it's incredibly popular in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and there are versions of it that have a firm following in Thailand and the Phillippines. The word kaya means 'rich' in Malay and anyone who has eaten it will know it's a fair description of this thick, sweet coconut jam.
Kaya is actually less jam and more a coconut custard or curd, as it has an egg base which gives it a rich, smooth texture. It's generally flavoured with pandan leaves or pandan paste and can vary from a caramelized golden colour to a bright leaf green. The version I ate was the colour and texture of dulce de leche and equally- if not more - delicious.
I discovered it at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Langkawi, plopped alongside more commonly encountered jams and preserves. The sponge cakes sandwiched with kaya filling came later - at a restaurant also in Langkawi - and they rank among my most vivid food memories from Malaysia.
So with the image of the cakes now firmly stuck in my mind and the taste of the
jam on my lips, (and armed with a recipe as well as the name of an Asian grocery store in Al Barsha - the weird and wonderful 1004 Mart) I set off to try and find kaya in Dubai... or if push came to shove, make some.
Sadly my quest was rather short-lived. The store did not stock kaya nor did it sell pandan paste or pandan leaves for me to attempt a home-made version. (To be fair, 1004 Mart specialises almost entirely in Korean food and not Malay or Indonesian).
And as it was an incredibly busy weekend and the days since have been equally manic, my quest could not take in any more Asian specialty stores and my longing to eat kaya remains unsatisfied.
I've heard Spinney's sells pandan leaves so I may take a stab at making some coconuty-egg jam at some point.
But if any fellow kaya fans in Dubai read this post and feel like saving me the trouble, please let me know the nearest place I can pick up a bottle... I'd be ever so grateful :)
My mouth's already watering just thinking of all the great stuff I hope to be eating this year! Here are my top 5 picks based on the places I plan on boarding a plane to in 2012:
Pastéis de Belém - Lisbon, Portugal
Some people may tell you the correct term for these custardy little cups is pastéis de nata. Well, technically it is but I'm being more specific. Because anyone who tells you pastéis de nata are the same all over Lisbon is lying. There's only one place to eat them and that's at Pastéis de Belém near the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos a few kilometres outside the centre of Lisbon.
Crisp tarts filled with oozy custard blistered to caramalized perfection, dusted in sugar and cinnamon and enjoyed with a bica (a Portuguese espresso) or café pingado (a bica with a pingo - or drop - of milk) Heaven! The monks who first came up with the recipe definitely had some divine help.
Foie Gras Street Hawker Style - Singapore
Asian street food. Three words associated with some of my happiest travel memories. And while I've chowed down on numerous helpings of char siu bao, deep fried wontons, turnip with XO sauce and even the odd deep-fried snake, this is one thing I can't wait to try - foie gras sold at a Singaporean hawker stall. A friend who recently moved to the city posted a pic on Facebook of a stall called Saveur's at Ali Baba Eating House and I'm hooked. I've never visited Singapore before but I've no doubt it will deliver on its foodie promises with its rich jumble of Indian, Chinese and Malay culinary influences. French finesse + Asian ambience, I'll definitely be heading to Saveur's when I'm in town.
Chicken on Sugarcane Sticks - Bali, Indonesia
When my sister returned from her honeymoon in Bali almost three years ago, she told me all about the awesome time she had. There were stories about amazing breakfasts on the beach, underwater walks and thieving monkeys but I remember one better than all the rest. It was about a piece of chicken wrapped around a stick of sugarcane and devoured at a place called Bumbu Bali. I was so inspired I remember attempting to make a version of the dish using shrimp and lemongrass sticks. It was delicious but what I really wanted was to chomp down on the original version of succulent chicken wrapped around a sugary, grainy core. The story of the Bumbu Bali chicken is one I want to make my own and I'm hoping I'll get the chance to this year.
Bush Braai - Phinda Game Reserve, South Africa
I'm crossing my fingers 2012 will be the year I finally get to go on safari. And while I'm counting on seeing the Big 5, I understand sightings depend on a number of factors. What is less negotiable is the food. I'm thinking spicy boerewors and juicy steaks, smoky from the barbeque and enjoyed with a nice glass of South African red and a giant helping of malva pudding for dessert. Yup, if I don't spot an elephant or two I think I'll still live.
Pintxos - Barcelona, Spain
The heartier cousin of traditional tapas, pintxos are tasty morsels attached to a piece of bread with a toothpick. (The name 'pintxo' means 'thorn' or 'spike' and you save your toothpicks which serve as your tally when it's time for the bill). Personally I thought there was something quite quaint about paying for your bites based on the number of toothpicks you tot up. And yes I know pintxos are Basque and Barcelona is in Catalonia but there's still plenty of places all across the city to enjoy them. Ham, cod, fried squid, stuffed mushrooms, blood sausage, deep-fried mussels, cheese and quince... the list goes on, all piled on little pieces of crusty bread (which offer the added benefit of soaking up all those glasses of wine that go along with the daily grazing ritual). The little streets making up the Las Ramblas area have some amazing pintxos and tapas bars and I'm looking forward to heading back for some more this year.
So that's my list of dishes I can't wait to tuck into. If you know of others I should keep an eye out for while I'm visiting these cities, I'd love to hear about them.
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