Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Tale of Airports and While Up In The Air

For the recent trip back to Malaysia, we transited at two new airports, new to us I mean. The first is the George Bush Inter-Continental Airport at Houston (IAH), and the other, the (Moscow) Domodedovo International Airport (DME). Not only are the airports new to us, so are the place. And courtesy of Singapore Airline (SIA), we can now put these two cities under our belt, even though we did not venture beyond the confines of the airport, or to be exact, the Transit Lounge. However, nobody can deny that we were physically on the ground at these places. That dubious distinction would also apply to Taipei and HongKong (for me since Wify has been to HongKong).

We are not new to the Changi Airport in Singapore, which, as a home-port of SIA, is necessarily a transit point in the route. But what amazed us is the décor, putting space to optimal use for visual pleasure and also some learning experience for the benefit of the weary travelers.

The return trip also means that we spent about 2 days high up in the air, at a height of 35,000 – 40,000 ft above sea level, which placed us at the stratosphere (6 – 31 miles above the surface). And the view out of the window was really spectacular. The wide expanse really dwarfs the human presence, invoking a sense of awe that helps put everything into perspective, or cut us down to sizes, all made possible by having a window seat, not my preferred emplacement, but one that I have grown accustomed to with age, especially when armed with a camera.

Let me then bring you on a whirlwind tour of the airports and the airspace that connects them, a chance at a bird's eye view of the atmosphere up close, and terra firma, from a distance, vertically that is.

At IAH, in the lone star state, or in the parlance of college football, the Longhorns.

At IAH. I was wondering what has chilli got to do with AT&T and mobiles, until I was alerted by Wify to look closer. How uncanny. Then it all makes sense.

One of the eateries at DME, Moscow. But they were out of bound to us as they only deal in Russian rubles. We had better luck at the Tax-free shop, buying some chocolate with US dollars.

The Transit concourse, Changi Airport, with kois swimming in an elongated pond fringed by plants and flowers and graced by Wify.

Wify guarding the entrance to the giant festive decoration, Changi Airport.

Wify trying her hand at one of the hand presses for making motifs of Symbolic Asia out of papers, Changi Airport.

One of the many symbols of Asia on display (hint: learning experience).

Our claim to the grand sending off, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), Sepang.

And now, (drum roll ...), the panorama extravaganza, views up in the air or from up in the air.

A river debauching into the Straits of Melaka, with stationary boats dotting the seascape, watched by distant clouds.

A distant sun beaming down on us at high altitude, the shot captured understandbly without the aid of me looking at the LCD screen. I simply pressed the camera lens against the plane's window in that general direction, and hope for the best.

A sunrise, illuminated by the distant glow on the horizontal.

A sea of icebergs? No, just ice-berg lookalike clouds buffering us from below.

A cotton field in the air.

I caught this plane flying by us. Talk about airspace ... Wonder whether anybody on it saw us too. What are the odds of two people clutching their cameras and fixating on things outside the window at the same time?

Then another one jetted by, leaving a linear contrails behind, though I think this happened on the return trip. Nah, can't be the same guy on his return trip too, but I wonder.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Family Reunion in the Food Haven

Wify and I recently made a trip back to Malaysia, ostensibly as an occasion for family reunion since this was to be our first trans-continental trip in almost six years, and secondarily, to relish the diversified food delicacies that Malaysia as a food haven rightly offers. While there, our primary accommodation has been the homely abode of Wify's sis, Bee Yuan, who has a keen eye for exquisite and yet affordable décor, not to mention an equally demanding palate that searches out gastronomic delights in the vicinity of her environs. At the same time, her husband, Boon Hin, took time from his hectic work schedule to be both the gracious host and the ever-ready chauffeur ferrying us on numerous trips in our food quest, chaperoned by their three affable daughters who regaled us with local tales. And to top it all, these outings were graced by our siblings from near and afar who descended on the same spot on cue.

The result is an exciting trip down the memory lane, rekindling our suspended taste for great and yet economic food forays that has long been held in abeyance (just think currency exchange). And I can find no better way of illustrating our good fortune other than the pictorial account below, in no particular chronological order.

This restaurant (or in the Malaysian lingo, restoran), sits right across from a vegetarian restaurant that we have been frequenting for dinners, but remained closed during those occasions. Apparently, the restaurant that features one of my favorite meals, Lei Cha, a taste I developed while working at the Ampang Area in KL, does not operate during dinner time. One fine morning, we decided to give it a try.

What is Lei Cha, a delicacy popularized by the Hakka clan? Here's an account of its historical origin, and its varied medicinal benefits, courtesy of the San Pao restaurant (click on the image for a clearer read). I always empty the entire Lei Cha onto the rice served in a bowl to partake of the congee-like mix, the tea leaving a lasting flavor in my mouth. I enjoyed so much that I forgot to digitalize our patronage.

This is the vegetarian restaurant referenced above. A corner lot, its relatively open configuration permits free flow of the cool night (about the only time when the weather seems comfy to us, save for the air-conditioned indoor setting) air. The service was prompt, delivering just-cooked delicious dishes in quick succession, and the price tag, extremely reasonable. No wonder we made several repeat visits during our sojourn. The name, Guan Zi, literally means self introspection.

We went to KL only once, to visit a Chinese bookstore for arts supplies. En-route, we made a stop for tea tasting here, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Several foreign tourists came it to purchase tea. The white pot in the foreground contains a famous Chinese delicacy, tea leaf eggs brewed in herbal concoctions that are just what the Sinseh (traditional doctors in the Chinese lingo) orders. "Kedai Teh" is tea shop, while the Chinese character for tea appears next to it.

We were treated to a free demonstration of Chinese tea brewing and tasting by the young sifu (in red), flanked by Wei Joo, our eldest child. The tea shop is stack-ful of all kinds of tea paraphernalia.

And yes, Bak Kut Teh, the toast of the Klang Town in Selangor. "Kedai Makanan" is eatery, used interchangeably with "restoran", while Tatusia is the phonetic equivalent for the name in Chinese, which means "Under the Big Tree", presumably the best setting for savoring the offering. However, being served indoor under a concrete roof works equally for me.

"Bak Kut" means pork rib, and teh, is, no surprise, tea. The pork rib is cooked in clay pot, served with the usual condiment of flour sticks (deep fried in oil) on plates, and Chinese tea served in dainty little cups, complete with rice soaked in the Bak Kut soup (that's the way I like it). The combination works wonder on our palate, necessitating several subsequent trips to the treadmill or the exercise bike, for redemption.

The Legend of Congees and Noodles. They serve both vegetarian and meat congees, and each is delightful in its own right.

On this day, when we were not observing a vegetarian diet in accordance with the Buddhist calendar, we had fish porridge (a local term for congees) served in clay pots, with home-cooked flour sticks (in a basket). Each clay pot of content fills up four mid-sized bowls; so it is rare that a patron would order a pot all to him/herself, we were thus advised by the gracious hostess.

Having dispensed with Chinese food, we now come to the culinary delights of other Malaysian brethrens. First off, roti canai, an Indian food staple that has served me well when I first left the comfort of home and the always on-call Mom's cooking for Kluang located 24 miles away from my home town, for my junior high school. It was my primary breakfast item because of its fast delivery and consumption. Made with a lot of oil, some people may balk at it. No worry, there is an alternative that is served with the same gravy dishes of dhall and curry, which I gravitated to when working in the Ampang area as my appreciation of nutritional balance grew.

Thosai is the alternative for the nutrition-conscious. According to the December 2009 issue of the SIA in-flight magazine (pg. 022), Going Places, that I happened to skim through during our return flight, thosai "has half the amount of calories of roti canai but equally delicious with dhall and curry," to which I concur unreservedly. And those are the hands of my Mom-in-law, a very wise choice by her.

Nasi Lemak, a traditional Malay dish, has found itself ensconced now in the offerings of food vendors of all races, a testimony to its tremendous popularity. The same article referenced above entitled "Trim the fat" that invites readers to "enjoy your favorite Malaysian dishes with less guilt" has the following healthier options to offer: "This dish of coconut milk steamed rice is often served with condiments such as fried ikan bilis (whitebait) [or anchovies?], roasted peanuts and a fried egg. Leave out the first two and replace the latter with a hard-boiled egg." Sound advice, but be prepared to lower your expectations for the reduced package just doesn't taste the same. I believe in occasional indulgence.

Satay, another mainstay of the Malay cuisine, is another must-taste, which we did at the KLIA just prior to our departure for our return flight. For a leaner version, here's what the same issue of Going Places has to say: "The BBQ-skewered meat is a great source of protein and only contains around 140 calories per skewer but you can have a leaner version by skipping the accompanying peanut source - the meat is flavored enough to be eaten on its own." However, I hasten to add the same caveat as above.

And the pride of Malaysian Bakery, Secret Recipe, backed by its inroads into the Asian markets. Truly Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can do credo).

The toast of Secret Recipe, the cheese cake. And the contented smile on Wify's face says it all.

The extended family gathered at the Old Town White Coffee, having high tea the Malaysian way.

Another variation of the three-generational family complement taken at Bee Yuan and Boon Hin's home (the smiling couple on the left in the front row, with Bee Yuan holding Bibi, one of the two family doggies. Try to spot the other one, Bubu).