Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Malaysia & Singapore II: Eating my way around South East Asia

Holidays provide an excellent opportunity to eat. Perhaps that's why I like them so much. With buffet breakfasts, lazy three-course lunches, ice creams, afternoon cake and gourmet dinners all potentially on the cards, it's no wonder the only thing coming home lighter is our wallets.

My two-week trip to Singapore and Malaysia didn't disappoint on the food front. With a variety of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western treats on offer, those who like to tuck in are in luck. Although in Singapore it's sometimes possible to find yourself facing a bill on a par with UK restaurants, there are plenty of budget choices too. And in Malaysia, prices are lower still.

Based on palate- and wallet-governed research, here are my favourite places to eat in Singapore, Melaka and Kuala Lumpur.

Long Beach, East Coast Seafood Center, Singapore
This shellfish favourite has several branches around the island, but this outpost at the East Coast Seafood Center comes with a vista of ships off the coast of Singapore, illuminating the sea at night. Serving traditional chilli crab, salt and pepper calamari, spicy prawns, lobster and more, Long Beach offers tasty, beautifully-presented seafood dishes in belt-busting portions. Crab first-timers may want to ask a waiter to crack open their crustacean, or at least don a bib if they want to attempt solo demolition. The flaky crab meat in its sweet chilli sauce, mopped up with Chinese bread, is a holiday memory I'm still savouring.
Meal for two (including chilli crab) around $100.

 Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Skip the overly-sweet, overpriced Singapore Sling and opt for a slice of elegance: high tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles. Sunday afternoon is the perfect time to relax with a pot of tea, a selection of cakes and sandwiches, and a buffet of sugary confections, fruit salad and Chinese delicacies. It's perhaps best to bypass the average dim sum and load your plate with old-school delights such as bread and butter pudding, battenburg and Victoria sponge. Waiters in smart white uniforms bustle around the room topping up cups of Earl Grey to the soundtrack of a harpist. Truly the most refined way to get a taste of Singapore's (post-)colonial side, darling.
High tea costs $55 per adult.

Little India, Singapore

VIP thali

As C's favourite Indian restaurant, Komala Vilas, was closed for a post-Diwali break, we took a punt on the Lonely Planet's recommendation of Madras New Woodlands instead. A no-frills diner serving South Indian dishes to both Singapore's Indian population and tourists, Madras New Woodlands is a great choice if you're looking for vegetarian food on a budget. The enthusiastic waiter steers travellers towards the VIP Thali ($8), a good way to try a variety of tastes (includes a number of curries, vegetables, rices and comes with a choice of bread). Those with a smaller appetite should try a dosa instead: a type of savoury pancake either served plain or filled with vegetables or cheese, served with dipping sauces.
Madras New Woodlands is at 12 Upper Dickinson Street. A meal for 2 costs $20 or less.

Calanthe Art Cafe, Melaka

This cosy cafe's selling point is its wide range of coffees (hot, frozen and blended), served in the styles typical of Malaysia's thirteen states. But if you keep flicking towards the back of the menu, you'll also find a selection of Malaysian dishes, such as my choice of spicy butter fish. Fried in erm, spices and butter and served with rice and salad, this dish was excellent value at approximately £2, and the cafe's terrace is a lovely place to while away an evening chatting to fellow travellers.
Calanthe Art Cafe is at 11 Jalan Hang Kasturi. Dishes cost approximately RM10. 

Saravanaa Bhavan, Kuala Lumpur

After developing a taste for dosa, I satisfied my craving two days running at Saravanaa Bhavan in Kuala Lumpur's Little India. A short walk from Masjid Jamek and Merdeka Square, this busy vegetarian restaurant has an extensive menu of South Indian dishes (as well as a few Chinese options, including naan bread, that classic Chinese choice...). Curries are served on banana leaves and portions are generous. The service is a little erratic, but I can vouch for both the vegetable and the paneer dosa: delicious, filling and potentially addictive. Follow up your meal with a digestive stroll around Little India's colourful markets and shops, selling everything from 'Dior' mascara to swathes of fabric.
Saravaana Bhavan is on Jalan Masjid India. Dishes cost from RM10-20.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Brit abroad in Italy

In this month's post, Roxanne Bridger shows how to make the most of your time abroad by trying your best to integrate into the local culture.

Whether you plan on visiting another country for a few days or several months, the only real way to get to know how other cultures live is to live like the locals do. And that is exactly what I did when I lived in Italy for a few months back in 2009. I think travel should be much more than ticking off a list of places you've visited and famous landmarks you've seen – you need to understand how the locals live their day-to-day life to truly experience a new area or culture.

While I was in Italy I lived in Milan for two months and Tuscany for the rest of my stay. Tuscany is an area rich in history and culture and there are plenty of sights to be seen. But before I had even set off on my trip, I knew these things weren't what I wanted my photo memories to be full of. I wanted my photos to be of the friends that I was planning to make and the fun times we were going to have. Seeing the famous landmarks is only a small part of any trip I take.

Whenever I visit a new place, the first thing I want to do is try the food. I'm a real lover of all things edible and enjoy nothing better than tasting local delicacies. It's one thing to go to a restaurant and try them, but my goal is to try and learn how to cook them for myself. I was really lucky in Florence, as the apartment I was living in was right above a small family-run restaurant. When I first arrived I didn't know anyone, and because I've travelled alone before, I'm not afraid to sit in a restaurant alone and pass the time people watching. So that's exactly how I spent my first few nights. 

Thankfully, Italy has a very welcoming culture and it wasn't long before I had made a few friends and had people to go out for something to eat with. However, there was one person in particular I instantly became friends with: a girl called Carys, the daughter of the owner of the restaurant I lived above. She was incredibly warm and friendly and took me under her wing. She got me a waiting job at the restaurant and taught me how to cook like the Italians. The restaurant was known for its range of ice creams and desserts, and I quickly became a pro at recreating these in my own kitchen. My favourite is the Castagnaccio (chesnut cake), a classic dessert from the chestnut woods of Monte Amiata in south Tuscany. Chestnuts are harvested all over Italy with many regions having their own version of the cake, notably Montella in Campania. This makes for subtle variations in the Castagnaccio recipe. I learned to make it the way they do in Florence, and it has since become my signature dish.

Food is something that connects us all and I was so grateful to have been accepted in an Italian kitchen and feel like part of the Pizzeria Da Giovanni family. I feel that being so close to the locals meant that I had no choice but to embrace the Italian way of life. 

With Carys and her cousins at Pizzeria Da Giovanni

Whenever you are in a foreign place, not knowing the basics of a language can be a bit daunting. It's always important to at least know the basics such as 'please' and 'thank you', but it's worth trying to go beyond the most common phrases and finding out a few of the local sayings. Many regions have their own sayings, and learning these will help you feel part of the community. The first one I learned was while I was sat in the pizzeria, complaining about where all my money was going and how I had been spending it so quick. Carys' uncle, Marco, turned and said to me 'le mani bucate', which translates as 'they have holes in their hands'! A very original way of explaining how people have gone over budget! My excuse was that because I had made friends with people living in the area, I got to know about the hideaway bars they visited and what markets were best on which days. I felt like I had to fully take advantage of this information and buy whatever took my fancy!

Eating one of Carys's family's famous ice creams

For anyone moving abroad for a while, my main pieces of advice are as follows:
  • Learn to cook like the locals, you can be sure to impress your friends and family when you return home. When you do dine out, eat wherever the locals eat. You can sit with them, chat, gossip and share the same meal.
  • Smile and don't be shy about speaking another language. The first mistake is worrying that you look out of place. You might, but that's not a bad thing – people will you see you respect them, and in turn, open up to you more.
  • When it comes to local dress, don't just assume that the shops you will find in the town centres are where the locals shop. Don't be afraid to ask your new friends where they bought that dress that you really like. You will probably be introduced to a range of markets with excellent quality goods that you may ever have found on your own.

If you staying in a completely new place, it may seem like it will be hard to try and fit in but as long as you are willing to make friends, you will. Introduce yourself to everyone you meet. You don't know what doors this could open to an otherwise inaccessible world. Your experience transforms from travel to immersion, and the connections you make along the way will help you with this.

Roxanne Bridger lived in Florence for four months during 2009. She is a travel blogger for, a community of travel experts, enthusiasts and celebrities sharing their tips on the best places to eat sleep and visit, ranging from the best nightlife in Amsterdam to the cheapest hotels in London.
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