Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jewish Cuisine Food Tour in Brookline

This tour was run by the same company that did the Russian Food Tour I went on in January. Before we get started I have to say right away that my objective with the Jewish Food Tour was very different from the Russian Tour. I knew very little about Russian Cuisine and I feel like I know Jewish Cuisine very well indeed. So instead of discovering new things to eat, I wanted to discover where I could go to get some of the Jewish food items that I love.

Brookline is about an hour from where we live in New Hampshire, so unfortunately I'm not going to be popping down to a deli there on a random afternoon to get corned beef or bagels. BUT, now that I know where to go it would be easy to stop by one of the stores we visited if I happen to be in the Boston area.

We met at the corner of Harvard and Commonwealth Avenue. Brookline is a close-in Western suburb of Boston. I'm starting to feel more familiar with this area. The Missouri Alumni Association has their watch parties at a bar in Allston, which is right next to Brookline, and Newbury Street, with the best Boston shopping, isn't far away either. Its taking awhile, but it seems like Boston's confusing streets are slowly falling into place.

The entire tour took place on Harvard Avenue. This area of Brookline is very Jewish. It seemed like almost every store we passed had some sort of Jewish affiliation. We started the tour at Rubin's, a Kosher deli. We didn't actually taste anything there, but we peeked inside and were treated to a basic explanation of what keeping Kosher was all about.  From Rubin's we walked down Harvard to a beautiful store called Kolbo, that specializes in Judaica, which is anything Jewish. They sold dishes, Seder plates, candlesticks, mezzuzahs, you name it. Their stuff was really nice!

Now it was time for the first tasting on our tour. Kupel's Bakery has lots of delicious treats, but we had bagels with lox and cream cheese. The bagels were excellent and so was the lox. Yum!

Right after this we went across the street to The Butcherie, an kosher butcher and grocery store. This store was similar to the Russian grocery store we visited on the Russian Tour, but instead of lots of items with labels in the Cyrillic alphabet there were lots of things with Hebrew lettering. One thing I saw here that I'd never seen before was frozen gefilte fish.

From the Butcherie we were able to try several different food items. We tried a roasted eggplant dip, hummus, and chopped liver. I LOVE chopped liver, and we had leftovers so I got to take them home with me! I'm still enjoying chopped liver on crackers as my afternoon snack!

We also tried an Israeli snack called peanut butter puffs. They looked like cheese puffs, but they tasted like peanut butter. At first they tasted odd to me, since the taste and their look didn't coincide, but once I got over that they kind of grew on me.

After this we walked on down Harvard, past a Conservative synagogue, on to Coolidge Corner, where Zaftig's and Rami's could be found. Zaftigs is another Jewish deli and restaurant, and Rami's is a falafel stand. We sampled Zaftig's matzo ball soup. It was excellent! From Rami's we each had a pita sandwich, consisting of lovely fluffy pita bread, hummus, falafel and salad.

Our final stop was a Boston ice cream shop called JP Licks. JP Licks is Kosher, so it fit right into the tour. We sampled maple walnut ice cream, red velvet cake ice cream and another chocolate type of ice cream. It was just as yummy as everything else on this tour.

There was supposed to be a Jewish wine tasting at the end of this tour, but alas, that shop had gone out of business, so this was the end.

The food on this tour was really, really good, and I definitely met my objective as far as knowing where to go in Boston for good Jewish food. But, unfortunately it was pretty cold on the day of our tour, and for some reason on this tour we were not allowed to actually eat inside any of the establishments whose food we sampled except for Kupel's bakery and JP Licks. Our guide said it was because they were too crowded (and they were), but its just too bad they couldn't have figured out a way to accommodate us. We ended up eating our samples huddled on nearby apartment stoops, and attempting to stay warm. Other than that this was a good tour, but if you are interested in going on it you might want to wait until it is a bit warmer outside!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Singapore Redux

I really thought about not bothering to write a blog post about our weekend jaunt to Singapore. After all, this was my 4th trip to that wonderful city-state. What more could there be to write about it? But, after 2 weeks in KL, the contrast was so striking! I guess I am inspired, after all.

KL is.....fine. I mean no disrespect to this striving city of 6 million. There are a lot of things to like about KL, including the gorgeous mountainous jungles surrounding the city, the striking iconic buildings, the massive, airy (and comfortable) malls, and the interestingly diverse population. But KL is also fairly dirty. You can't drink the water. The traffic is awful, and the mass of highways is so confusing that we thank God every day that we had the good sense to get a car and driver for Lee.

The minute you land in Singapore you know you are in a very different place. Second best airport in the world (after Hong Kong), we speed through customs and are soon in a comfortable taxi, speeding along a bougainvillea-lined highway to our hotel.

Lee usually stays at the Regent or the Sheraton hotels, near Orchard Road, the big shopping area. But we decide to try something a little different this time and choose a small boutique hotel called Naumi. This was a good choice. Our room is very comfortable, there is a rooftop pool, a nice bar, and a good free breakfast. We are right next door to the venerable Raffles Hotel, and close to the River Walk and the Ocean, both great places to go for a run.

Once we unpack we take the MRT, Singpore's clean and efficient subway system, over to Orchard Road. We want to eat lunch in the food court underneath Takashiyama, the Japanese department store. On the surface this is a good idea, but I get completely overwhelmed by the number of food choices. We grab a table and I wander around but can't make up my mind. Much of what is available is completely foreign to me. In Singapore there are no worries about getting sick from the food, but I'd like to get something that tastes good to my Western palate. After all, this is the country that has a building shaped like a piece of Durian!

Finally I fall back on the time-honored tactic of foreigners in an Asian land. I look at what people are eating at the surrounding tables and ask a lady that is eating a rice and beef dish where she got it. It's not a bad choice, hot, sizzling, and spicy. Do I remember what it was called, however? No.

Now in a more adventuresome mood, we decide to grab some dessert as well. Asian desserts are not as sweet, and trend toward flavorings involving red bean paste. But I found a stand making pancakes with different fillings, including chocolate and banana. AND, we get custard filled creme puffs from Papa Beard, an odd-sounding brand name to be sure, but very yummy. We've had them before in Taiwan, and they're just as delicious here.

We go back to the hotel and go up to the pool. Initially it looks a little spooky, an infinity pool that looks like its spilling right off the 10th floor of the hotel! We sit in a shady cabana, but even so it gets pretty warm and we have to get in the water. The water is COLD, shockingly so. We can only stay in for a short while.

That evening we decide to try something different. We've booked a table at a highly regarded Greek restaurant name Blu Khouzima. It's a little hard to find, but once found it is indeed delicious. We get a grilled cheese and fig appetizer, and a smoky grilled eggplant dish that makes me want to go home and figure out how to cook. For our mains we get some lamb chops and an amazing "beef steak" that is so flavorful, tender and juicy that I can't stop eating it even though I'm stuffed. The only downside is trying to get a taxi back to the hotel. This can be difficult sometimes in Singapore if you are not in the downtown area. We finally have to beg the restaurant to call us a taxi, otherwise we might be there still.

Sunday morning I go for a run along the river walk. It's nice, but warm and humid. I wanted to run 6 miles, but cut it a little short, figuring it was better not to get overheated. We need to work up an appetite before lunch, so we decide to check out one of Singapore's many excellent museums. There is a Peranakan Museum that sounds interesting so we decide to go check it out. The Peranakans are the original native settlers of Singapore. Anyone of mixed ansestry that is a native Singaporean is considered Peranakan. They could be like the Baba-Nonyas of Melaka, Chinese and Malay, or the could be Indian-Chinese, Malay-Indian, you get the picture. They have a rich history and the museum addresses their culture, food, religious practices, clothing, etc. as you can imagine its extremely varied! I especially liked the exhibit on fashion, including the beautiful batik sarongs and lace tops called kabayas. Part of me wants a kabaya, although I'm afraid it would be like the sari; when would I wear it?

Now its lunch time and we're ready to hit the Maxwell Hawker stand. You've probably figured out by now that a visit to Singapore is all about the food. The hawker stands are great. There is so much variety, and it's clean and safe too.

Unfortunately on a Sunday a lot of the stands are closed. But I've been doing a lot of research and even though some of the best ones aren't open I still want to try some different types of food.

Lee goes and stands in the line for Bee Hoon, an amazing fish stew that we've had before. I look at the line for Tien Tien Chicken Rice, but even on a Sunday it's just ridiculously long, so I decide to experiment again. I get some Char Toui Pork with rice and several types of chili sauce. This is pretty good, basically barbecued pork. Then I go over to a neighboring table because they have something that sort of looks like a spring roll. I asked them where to get it, whatever it is and they point me to the right stand. Rojak Popiah turns out to be an interesting dish. I watch them make mine so I know what's in it. First they take a thin wheat pancake, they spread some chili sauce on it, followed by minced pork, chopped hard boiled egg, rice and a sweet fruit sauce. They roll up the pancake and cut it into bit-sized pieces. It's surprisingly good!

Finally I get us one more thing. Carrot cake is actually daikon radish mixed with potato, egg and onion, and fried. This sounds like an excellent idea but it turns out to be pretty disappointing because it's pretty mushy. I think I could make this better than the hawker stand did!

Not surprisingly we are incredibly stuffed after this meal. We go back to the hotel because we need to rest up for the last meal of the trip, chili crab!

I probably have at least five blog posts about chili crab, but I won't force you to look back through my two blogs to find them! Singapore chili crab is a wonderful dish. Take a big south china sea crab, steam it, crack it, and pour a spicy-sweet sauce all over it. You may find this dish in other countries, but everywhere else that I've tried it pales in comparison. And yet...

This time we decide to try a different restaurant. We usually go to Long Beach, but decided to try Jumbo instead. All the restaurants in question are open-air establishments along the coast. Tables are set out on the grass in East Coast Park, and God knows what happens if it rains. "You get wet" Lee says. Fortunately we've never had to deal with that.

What we DID have to deal with this time was bad service, a real rarity in Asia. They lost our order, and in the hour we ended up waiting for our food chili crab lost some of its magical aura. It didn't taste quite as good as it has in the past. Had it just gotten built up too much in my mind? Or was Jumbo not as good as Long Beach? I don't know when I'm going to get a chance to settle this question. It's hard to imagine that I'll never be in Singapore again, but it may be a long time.

Monday morning it was time to head back to KL. My trip to Asia was almost over. By Wednesday I was swinging my way back across the globe, and here I am, once again safe and sound in snowless New Hampshire.

It's great to be snuggled up with Harper in the recliner this evening. I love to travel, but part of the fun of traveling is coming home and appreciating my own kitchen, my own bed, and yes, my own little white dog. Now, if only Lee were here too, things would be perfect!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Segway Tour in the KL Lake Gardens

Today I did something I've always wanted to try, I don't care if the ARE geeky-looking! I road a Segway all around the KL Lake Gardens area. This was lots of fun in more than one way. First of all I got to ride a Segway, which was a blast. Second of all I got to see a lot of the Lake Gardens in a short amount of time. The Lake Gardens are a series of beautiful gardens and parks in the center of KL. It's very big, and since it's always hot and humid here, riding a Segway was a great way to see a lot of the gardens without dying of the heat.

Balan drove me to the National Museum this morning. Neither Balan nor Kumar knew what I meant when I said I was going to go ride a Segway. I had to show him a picture at the end so that he knew what I was talking about. The tour was supposed to start at 11 am, but you never know what traffic is going to be like here, so I had him pick me up at 10, and I got there in plenty of time.

Once I found the tourist information kiosk it was time for me to learn how to ride a Segway. Stand on the platform, lean forward a little to go forward, lean backward to stop. Turn the handle slightly one way or the other to turn left or right. Relax! At first I was very anxious and nervous, but gradually I started to catch on. It's really an amazing device. Its powered by a little electric motor, and a gyroscope keeps in it balance. We practiced going up and downhill (lean forward more to go up, lean back a little to slow yourself going down) and then it was time to take off.

I was on a tour by myself with two guides. One did this full time. His English had a strong Malay accent, so even though he was quite fluent I had trouble understanding him. The other guide was great. His name was Roger. He was a young engineering student and he made sure I was comfortable and confident in my maneuvering ability before we started the tour.

First we went to see a huge rubber tree at the entrance to the botanic gardens.

From there we drove by the lake, and saw several different types of bonzai trees.

We visited the hibiscus garden ...

...and the orchid garden.

Finally we visited a little exhibit of mouse deers, the smallest deer in the world. And I thought the deer in Texas were small!

By the end of the tour I was zipping along confidently, even looping in and out of a series of warning cones! I could go downhill fearlessly, and turn corners without thinking about it too much.

Riding a Segway was really fun and I would definitely do it again. Unfortunately they are way too expensive to fantasize about owning my own. It wouldn't be very practical in New Hampshire anyway.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Petronius Towers in KL

I tried to go up the Petronius Towers several days ago, but they are a very popular tourist attraction here and the tickets to visit the viewing station on the 86th floor are limited and sell out quickly. So I bought a ticket for today instead.

It's actually quite nice that they limit the number of tickets that are sold. This means that only a reasonable number of people are up at the observation deck at one time, and you don't have to stand in line very long either; just show up at the time printed on your ticket, and up you go.

At one point the Petronius Towers were the tallest buildings in the world, but in recent years they have been passed by Taipei 101 in Taiwan, and now by the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai. They are still the tallest TWIN towers in the world, which Malaysians will not hesitate to point out if you ask.

This was your standard "view from the top" experience. The buildings themselves are unusual. They are supposed to reflect Islamic architectural characteristics, but to me they look as if someone in the 1930's tried to imagine what the "building of the future" would look like. They also look like giant bullets, or maybe oversized rockets. They are pretty cool looking, I think!

One thing I found myself observing today was the myriad different styles of feminine Islamic fashion on display among the people touring the towers. I know Malaysia is a popular vacation spot for Muslims, and I certainly understand why. Even though it is ethnically diverse, it is also very accommodating to Muslim sensibilities. Even most Chinese food in restaurants is "halal", ie pork-free! So today I saw full-length black burkas with only slits for eyes, elaborate costumes with long sleeves, long pants, and head-coverings like a nun's, modest pant and long sleeved outfits, but flowing, colorful scarfs for hair-covering, and modest modern dress, with a scarf loosely tossed over their hair.

I found myself wondering what the burka-covered ladies thought as they looked out at all the various styles of dress surrounding them, all of it considered appropriate attire for a Muslim woman by the person wearing it. Did they think that the rest of the Muslim women were missing the mark? Or did they wonder why some Muslims wore fashionable clothing while they were hidden away? It's so far beyond my ability to imagine that I don't really have any idea what they were thinking. I found myself observing their eyes, which in some cases were heavily made up, and seemed very expressive. I saw their shoes peeking out from under their burkha, and noticed their designer handbags too. It's just a puzzle to me, everything about it.


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