Thursday, 28 April 2011

Packaging Style in Brunei

I'm an advertiser's dream.  I'm so easily swayed into making purchases based almost solely on the attractiveness of the item's packaging.  Brunei - indeed, most of Asia - is great for retro-styled supermarket items, and I can occasionally be found roaming the aisles of local supermarkets with my camera in order to capture them!

Here's some Andy-Warhol-style displays of tins.  It amuses me that the Sardines are 'Ayam' brand...  Ayam means chicken in Malay!

Tinned mushrooms always seem to have lovely labels here.  There are often some strange-looking mushrooms inside the tins too.

Rose syrup - love it or hate it, it's found everywhere here.  It tastes like liquid Turkish Delight.  I'm solidly in the 'love it' camp, and particularly enjoy it mixed with crushed ice and condensed milk (known for some reason as an 'ABC').   This is the only brand I'll buy... obviously because of the sheer beauty of its label!

And then there are the items bought so that I could keep the fabulous tins.   These Lucky Spot crackers are OK to eat (if a little bland and uninteresting), but the tin is now used for storing home-made biscuits.

My lovely Shake Hand Brand curry powder tin is now a pencil tin on the computer desk.  Look at the fabulous retro-font that they've used for 'Curry Powder'.  This is actually very tasty too and we use it a lot.

This tape tin is from school.  I asked for some more sellotape for my classroom and it was brought down from the office in this marvellous tin!  Again, superb retro-styling - and just the right size for a kitchen utensils holder.

I'm not quite alone in this fascination for packaging...  An author and cookbook write who shares the love is Jake Tilson.  I first heard of him when I picked up a copy of his book Twelve Kitchens in TK Maxx, at some ridiculously cheap price.  The book is beautifully written with some lovely recipes, but more to the point is beautifully presented in a collage style, and includes many photographs of gorgeous packaging.  Some pages can be seen here on Jake's website

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Hot Cross Buns

Easter is proving to be a strange time here in Brunei.  In the UK the shops are no doubt filled with the secular signs of the season - chicks and rabbits and chocolate eggs - and churches across the country will be preparing for the most important event in the Christian calendar (and oh how I miss my church-choir days at this time of year).  But here... nothing.  Not even a day off work on Good Friday or Easter Monday.
My only Easter egg has been a lone Cadbury's mini-egg which was perched atop a chocolate-crispy-cake nest at Book Club last week (thanks Lis!).  Still, I suppose I should just take the view that it's much healthier not to be stuffing my face with chocolate this year, and virtuously nibble on some fresh papaya instead...

But I couldn't let the season pass without some culinary celebration.  We've planned a roast for Sunday (chicken, because the only joints of lamb we could find were vast frozen legs of it which would never fit into our tiny oven) and I'm making a fresh lemony drizzle cake, which always puts me in mind of Spring. 

In previous years I've made a Simnel Cake, but somehow didn't fancy that this year.  The recipe I like to use includes a lot of dried fruit, notably pears, and I just haven't seen them in the shops here.  So last night - on Good Friday itself - I decided to have my first ever attempt at Hot Cross Buns and I turned straight to Nigella for inspiration, 'Feast' to be exact.

The recipe can be found here, on Nigella's own website

You begin by heating milk and butter with cardamom pods and cloves.  I threw in several extra cardamom pods as I love them and I was worried mine might be losing their flavour (although they are a relatively 'new' purchase, being only 18 months out of date!)  The recipe also calls for the zest of an orange, but I didn't have any so added a tsp each of Boyajian Orange oil and Lemon oil.  The smells wafting from this pan were incredible!

This recipe proved an excellent way of using up some of the things lurking in the cupboards:  My Canadian friends will recognise these 'Club House' brand spices, which dates them to our time living in Ontario from 2006-2008...  but they have no use-by dates, and still smell fragrant and delicious, so I will just keep using them.

I used Pumpkin Pie Spice (which is a heady mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves), plus some extra cinnamon.

I also grated in plenty of extra nutmeg - my favourite spice I think.

The sultanas were looking a little dry and unappetising, so I had the brainwave of putting them into the warm buttery milk to rehydrate.  This was an excellent idea, apart from 2 fatal flaws...  it meant that I could no longer see the cloves which I was meant to take out once the milk had cooled a little, and it also meant that the fruit became very squidgy, making kneading the resulting dough rather a messy affair!

Anyway, I think I managed to locate and remove all the cloves - after a traumatic childhood incident where I bit into a whole clove which was lurking in my bread-sauce I have a horror of doing the same thing again. Well, I put 3 in and after much searching got 2 and a half out, so there'll be a certain Russian Roulette element to eating the finished buns...

I used to think I was very bad at making bread products, I felt that yeast and I just didn't get on, but since moving to Brunei I now feel myself to be quite the expert!  I'd love to claim that it was my superior culinary skills, but sadly that would be wrong.  It's just that it's really warm here, perfect for proving bread. 

Unfortunately, as the dough had its second rise, my previously round buns splurged out into weird shapes.  I didn't think there was much point trying to force them back into the correct shape so just drizzled the crosses on as best I could and chucked them into the oven.

When cooked they had a quick sugary glaze which I hope goes a little way to disguising the fact that the bun pictured above was the only vaguely circular one of the 12...

Today, Easter Eve morning, I enjoyed a Hot Cross Bun with a hot strong coffee.  The bun was warmed in the oven and slathered with salted butter.  I'm really pleased with these - they taste amazing, full of spices and moist fruits.  They're heavier, more doughy than the buns you'd buy in a supermarket, but I think that's always the way with home-made breads.  I'm looking forward to trying them toasted as well.

A very Happy Easter to you all, wherever you may be and however you may be celebrating.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Myanmar Salads

Salads in Myanmar aren't quite like salads I've ever eaten anywhere else.  For a start, the main ingredient of perhaps their most famous salad dish is pickled tea-leaves!  I had heard about this dish, known as laphet, and was determined to search it out.  However, it was nowhere to be found in Yangon - or perhaps it was on the menu but it was written in Burmese script?!

Anyway, the first we saw of it was when we reached Bagan, and stopped to grab a drink at a roadside stall.  Hanging from the side of the stall were these little sachets...  yes, labelled only in Burmese, but I felt sure that this was it.  We bought a packet and decided to sample it with our pre-dinner lager that night.

As you can see, it looked slightly sinister...  The tea-leaf paste was mixed with crispy fried peanuts, sesame seeds and broad beans.

But if there was ever a case of something tasting a LOT better than it looks, this was it!

In fact, we went straight out to supper at a vegetarian restaurant we had found in Old Bagan (The Moon) and I ordered a large plate of the same salad (Rob had pumpkin curry).

This salad was even better than the stuff in the packet.  It had lots of extra ingredients - I had a chat with the restaurant owner and took notes while he told me what was in it:  pickled tea-leaves (of course), peanuts, sesame seeds and pumpkin seeds (both toasted), fresh chillies, crispy fried garlic, raw garlic, fresh tomato and fresh lime juice.  It was the garlic that really elevated it to new heights I think - fried garlic has such a distinctive taste, and paired with the raw garlic (in vampire-scaring amounts) gave the salad a real lift.

I've been trying to research more detailed recipes for this salad, but they seem fairly few and far between.  However, I have noticed that in many restaurants the salad is served in its constituent parts and either assembled by the diner, or tossed together at the table (see video below).

I see from the video that dried shrimp can also be added, but I think I'd prefer it without; those shrimp can be very pungent.  We bought several more small sachets of the salad, but also a larger bag of the pickled tea, along with a bag of the crispy nuts and seeds, so we'll definitely be having a go at it now we're back at home.  Of course sourcing the pickled tea-leaves might be somewhat of an issue in the future, but I'm sure there are ways and means... and perhaps I might even try making some myself?

However, in the absence of a ready supply, the Myanmar salad can be created without the addition of tea.  We also ate it in several other versions, notably made with lemon.

This was a base of shredded white cabbage, mixed with ground peanuts, peanut oil, toasted peanuts, fried and raw garlic, and large chunks of fresh lemon.  Wow, this was zingy - a perfect refreshing lunch on a hot day.  Another variation was made with a local leaf called Pennywort.  We saw this in a supermarket and didn't recognise it as anything we'd seen either in the UK or Brunei, but the salad was made with similar ingredients and had a delicious savoury flavour.

I've always been someone who would rarely think of having a salad as a main meal, but these salads in Myanmar went a long way towards changing my mind!

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Myanmar Curries

Considering that tourism isn't a big thing in Myanmar (yet) I was surprised to see lots of restaurants, particularly around Inle Lake, advertising pasta and pizza, clearly in an attempt to appeal to visiting Westerners.  Now I didn't go to Myanmar to eat Italian food, but after nearly 2 weeks there I was almost beginning to see the appeal...  as most Myanmar food seems to consist either of curry or salad.

Salad?  Don't pre-judge, these salads were some of the most amazing foods I've ever eaten...  but that's for my next blog-post!

When you hear the word 'curry' you probably immediately think of spices, and heat...  but the curries in Myanmar don't really fit this description.  They're more tomatoey (tomatoes are grown a lot in Myanmar, notably in the floating gardens on Inle Lake) and, whilst I think they are subtly seasoned with spices, they lack any chili heat.

Harvesting tomatoes by canoe on Inle Lake (shot taken about a second too late, but never mind!)

We ordered curries several time and in various restaurants.  They always had the same sauce, and we always had to ask for extra chili!

I'm aware that this is a bit of a luke-warm write-up, but don't get me wrong, I liked them.  They were tasty and often made with interesting alternatives to meat, but they were just all a bit same-y.

Here's my tofu curry.  Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd say!  I didn't intentionally go vegetarian on this holiday, I just ended up eating lots of vegetarian food - partly because we found 2 excellent veggie restaurants whilst in Bagan, but partly because there was a lot of nice vegetarian food available.  The tofu here was local to Inle Lake and was made with yellow split peas, giving it an unusual texture more akin to polenta.  You can see the little dish of dried chili in the background.

Here's Rob the following day, eating the same dish while I sampled Egg Curry (same sauce, different protein!).  He's not looking that impressed is he, but to be fair he was on the road to recovery after a nasty bout of D&V (hence me eating alone the previous day) and was still a bit nervous about eating anything at all.

I can't find any kind of 'Burmese Curry' recipe that looks anything like the curries we ate, but I suspect it's something that could be relatively easily recreated at home.  I think I'd make a paste of garlic, ginger and turmeric, and fry it with some diced onion before adding diced tomatoes and dried chillies.  A lovely addition to many of these curries was chopped spring onion, added just before serving.  Much as I enjoyed the tofu curry, and the hard-boiled-egg option, my favourite variation on the theme was pumpkin - cubes of pumpkin or squash simmered in the sauce until meltingly tender.

I think I'll give it a try.

Let Them Have Cake - Baking in Brunei

I love blog-world.  Most of the people who read this blog are people who I know in 'real life' - it feeds to my Facebook profile, so my FB friends can see it, various family members in the UK read it, and several of my cooking-forum friends also pop in and say hello.  However, occasionally a 'stranger' happens upon my blog, and sometimes you get to chatting...

This has happened with my new blog-friend Ben.  Ben found this blog whilst looking for information on macarons (this post to be specific), and was surprised to find that I lived in Brunei - because he is Bruneian!  He's a teacher, like me, but to escape the stresses of his job (teaching secondary - I couldn't do it!) he bakes.  He plans to enroll in pastry school one day, but in the mean time he makes - and sells - the most amazing looking cakes, cookies and macarons.

I've been really impressed to read that he always uses the best and freshest ingredients.  These things don't come cheap, and so often it's all too obvious that commercial bakeries here just don't use good quality products.  That incredible-looking cake that you bite into to find bland over-aerated sponge, sickly-sweet shaving-foam-style icing, and nasty fake chocolate - sadly a common disappointment.

But Ben's cakes?  I think they're the 'real deal'!  For any of my friends here in Brunei who might be interested in ordering that special celebration cake, or just treating yourself to something hand-made and delicious, here is a link to what's available.  Ben's phone number is also on the blog so you could make contact via text to place an order.  I'd guess he'd need some notice - he's a teacher as well as a baker.

Ben's Products and Prices.

I wish Ben all the best with this.  Good cake is hard to find here, so it's great to find someone making and selling great quality baked goods.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Myanmar Breakfasts

I always find 'Western' breakfasts in Asian hotels a bit depressing.  Actually no, the 'Western' breakfasts in Asian hotels make me want to throw myself off a tall building, or perhaps under the nearest passing bus, they really are that bad. I think it's worst in Muslim countries, where pork is clearly not going to be on the menu - imagine processed chicken sausages and beef bacon (apologies for any dry-heaving that may result from imagining that) and you'll get the idea.

I'm securely planted in the 'when in Rome...' camp, so when we go abroad we make a point of opting for the local option; and in Myanmar there were plenty of exciting local options to be had!

Exhibit 1 - and possibly the most exciting of all: sticky rice with coconut cream and assorted condiments.

There was both black and white sticky rice, identical taste, but the black one looks somewhat more interesting on the plate.  The rice is rather bland, but a vehicle for the tastes that you add to it.  The coconut cream loosens it up, and on top of that I sprinkled a sesame seed mix that was somehow both sweet and salty.  The other additions were all sweet, the one on the rear of the plate being a kind of almondy egg-custard (divine), and the one at the front being caramelised coconut.  Perhaps the most exciting was the orangey coloured one which was toasted coconut with finely sliced kaffir lime leaves, which was delicious (providing you ignored the lurid colour!).

Our first hotel was excellent as the breakfast was extensive - and was a buffet!  It meant that we never needed to have lunch - breakfast saw us through until pre-dinner beer and nibbles at 6pm!

Exhibit 2 - Rice Porridge.  An Asian favourite, about which I've blogged before

I liked the oily peanuts that came as a condiment here, although was less impressed by the sweet pickled vegetables that I also mistakenly threw onto it...  Oh well, you can't win them all!

Exhibit 3 - Fried Rice with extras. 

Fried Rice (or Nasi Goreng here in Brunei) is always a winner for breakfast, especially if it's topped with a freshly fried egg.  The best hotels have an egg-chef manning a small burner at all times so you can have a fresh omelette or fried egg at a minute's notice.  The accompaniments to this fried rice were pandan-wrapped chicken (the leafy thing at the front of the photo!), brasied kailan (a local leafy vegetable) and a vaguely Chinese-y pork dish where the pork was melt-in-the-mouth tender.

Wow, I've just realised that all 3 of those dishes were from the first breakfast that we ate in Yangon (in the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel).  The first breakfast that I ate in Yangon to be embarrassingly specific...  Can you see why it filled me up for the whole day?!

Exhibit 4 - Mohinga, or Burmese Noodle Soup.

This was served in all 3 of the hotels in which we stayed, but I think the best we had was in the Bagan Thande.  The rest of the breakfast wasn't that great, I have to admit, but this was lovely - a mildly spicy chicken soup (sometimes with a hint of coconut), served over noodles, and made exciting by the array of toppings.  I added fresh coriander, dried chilli flakes and a generous squirt of fresh lime juice.

Here's Rob with his Mohinga at the Hotel Amazing in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake).  This came with deep-fried gourd and sticky rice with chickpeas, as well as condiments of coriander, sliced raw shallots, dried chilli flakes and fresh lime.

Exhibit 5 -The 'Roadhouse'. 

In our third and final hotel, there was no breakfast buffet (boo!) but there was an exciting menu of 5 breakfasts for which you could place your order the previous night.  If you forgot to place your order you'd end up with the 'American Breakfast'...  which seemed like a good incentive to get your act together and decide on an alternative option.  On the first day I ordered the above - representative of the selection of foods you might get at a roadside stall in Myanmar.  It was all nice, but it was all also deep-fried, which lay rather heavily in my stomach for several hours.  Luckily there was also watermelon juice and a plate of fresh fruit, but even that barely lightened the overall effect.  Nice, but too much.

Exhibit 6 - 'Simply Shan'.

The Shan are one of the largest tribes who live in Myanmar, and this was a typically Shan selection of dishes which I ordered another morning.  This proved - again - slightly stodgy and carb-heavy, but I can't say I didn't enjoy it!  The splodge in the centre of the plate was a mix of potato and rice...  the crisp things were like poppadums, and the purple and white things on the right of the picture were crispy rice-cakes.  All could be dipped into ketchup (perhaps not that authentically Shan?!) or chili sauce.

For the other 2 breakfasts there (we stayed 4 nights) I chose the Mohinga option, which I came to realise was by far the nicest.

What a great way to start the day!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Mingalabar Myanmar!

We're back, and have just been catching our breath after an amazing trip.  I'll try to organise my thoughts more on the matter over the coming days (I'm definitely planning a blog post about the food for example) but I'll start with my overwhelming impression of the place - that of smiling faces.

At first I was a bit nervous - everyone in Yangon seemed to be staring at us.  However, I soon realised that if I simply smiled everyone would break into beaming grins!  The staring was simply curiosity; Myanmar gets so few tourists that they were just fascinated to see us.

Our one word of Burmese - "Mingalabar" (hello) - served us well as we could greet people and prepare for the inevitable follow-up question "Where you from?"  Most Burmese speak a smattering of English as it is taught in schools, but the words that followed our answer ("England") were inevitably "Football!", "Premier League!" or "Rooney!"  Sigh...   They did love to chat though.  And smile!

The 'face-paint' is a kind of sunblock/cosmetic made from tree bark.  Most people wear it, sometimes painted on in patterns.

For a country with not much to smile about - grinding poverty, a dictatorial military government, many people struggling to earn $1 a day - it was beautiful to see such an attitude of positivity and happiness.  I have never felt so welcomed in any other country.