It’s been non-stop visitors since we got back, in case you were wondering what had become of me! First Cindy and Guy from Mumbai, then Louise’s best friend Lulu dropped in after doing some extraordinary free diving to create an underwater apsara installation to celebrate reef protection in Bali, and now Christine and Diego are here for a week before we set off for Burma next weekend. Continue reading
It’s always the waiting and hoping that’s the worst part of anything medical. Luckily for us my waiting is punctuated with a visit from Tommy and his girlfriend, Olivia, en route to Sabah for a holiday. They stop here for the weekend and we tick off some of the tourist boxes – black pepper crab, the Botanic Gardens, a dim sum lunch, lunch in hawker centre, mum’s home cooking. It seems like they had hardly arrived before they left again – but they will be back. Continue reading
In this post we welcome old friends to stay in our new apartment and celebrate my birthday…
After almost 9 months here on and off, we feel we can show people round, and at least know where to go to eat! Ross was away in Basel for the first few days, so we enjoyed the vibrancy of the Naitonal Orchid Garden in sunshine; followed by a delicious lunch in the nearby restaurant, only to be interrupted by massive thunderstorm. Poor old Mr and Mrs B had forgotten their umbrellas so got very wet indeed!
Dodging showers and trying to find taxis seemed to be the biggest challenges of this visit; nevertheless we areyet again stunned by the Gardens on the Bay; lunch in one of the Supertrees affords a sumptuous view. Not as good as the viewing platform at Marina Bay Sands which had to be done despite black clouds all around.
Chinatown is also a must-see in SIngapore, poking round the tat stalls nevertheless affords good bargains while, at the higher end, the intricacies of a specialist tea shop delight. Here Clare bought a dead ringer for the Hare with the Amber Eyes teapot…My more prosaic larger elephant teapot is perfect for more than two people! Thanks Clare!
It has to be done, that famous Singapore Sling. So off to Raffles with some of Mr B’s visiting friends – far too sweet for me and, I gather, all pre-made so a bit of a production line. But the Long Bar is a fun place, even if rather full or tourists, like us! Afterwards to a real find, specialist Peranakan/Straits Malay restaurant, Blue Ginger, where we let the waiter do the ordering and we eat greedily and with gusto.
And so the the birthday: preceding night dinner we feast on chilli crab at Jumbo Seafoods in Boat Quay; then Sunday lunch at one of our favourites, Din Tai Fung, the Taiwanese dumpling house (not as good as the original one in Taipei, but still yummy); and then 20 or so new-found friends, plus one or two older ones from university days, for drinks. As it was Diwali, I ordered samosas, bhajis and pakoras, promptly delivered by Omar Shariff (I wish it was really he, that would have been the best birthday present ever!), and Mr and Mrs B made a few blinis, while Lucie G brought a delicious cake! (see picture up top)
But not all play, dear readers: Mr B had lots of meetings and went out clad in a suit, much to our amusement; while Mrs B, aka Clare Cooper of Art First, and I had a Board meeting and strategy summit on my sofa while I rested my leg on a hot water bottle.
Don’t laugh, you hear me right – I have a large haemotoma on my calf which means I can’t walk or stand for long. A challenge for Monday’s induction meeting at the Tanglin Club which involved a lot of standing about…and even more of a challenge for next weekend’s visit to Mumbai, for our diving in Sulawesi the following week…and the ski season. Painful physio and ultrasound on the menu to try and get my leg back…
I will keep you updated!
We came, we saw, we ate! Thanks to our gourmet guide Jess we managed ot sample many different cuisines; but strangely enough the first meal we had, which was also the cheapest, was the best. Jian’guo 328 is owned and managed by a Taiwanese lady but serves real Shanghai food. It’s tiny and basic, with Formica tables and closes by 9.30. We had beer but I was surprised to see a couple drinking Chablis on ice!
The following night, we decided to try Sichuan, so off to the Sichuan Citizen in the French concession, a rustic bistro, quite trendy serving cocktails and wine – we had a bottle of decent Santa Rita sauvignon for the record. As Jess is allergic to meat we stayed fishy – sampling red hot chilli prawns (in their shells so a bit crunchy), a whole tilapia in Sichuan sauce (a bit gloopy sadly); ma po bean curd in Sichuan peppercorns – to die for, mouth numbing hot as it’s meant to be; and some vegetables – plus soused cucumber with garlic & chilli (again – a great favourite this), pickled lotus roots and more greens.
The next night Ross was working late so Jess and I had a girls night – braving the dangerous-sounding Southern Barbarian, famed for its Yunnanese delicacies and wide varietes of Czech and Belgian beers! We stuck to Tsing Tao. Here we feasted on more lotus roots, this time stuffed with a little Chinese bacon as it turned out (sorry Jess!); stir-fried pomegranate flowers in a sour/sweet sauce, with spring onions, totally scrumptious; grandma’s potato galette – quite ordinary, just crispy potatoes; and the house speciality, grilled goats cheese, with a delicate little mint salad in rice wine vinegar, sugar and garlic. One to make at home….
Then we gave Jess a night off and went to drink cocktails on the Bund with Ross’s colleagues, at the Glamour Bar, followed by El Willy’s, a taps bar (their choice). The air con wasn’t working properly so it was hard to enjoy the food with sweat trickling down one’s neck. Some was good – the seared tuna and scallops, plus the marinated fish, but there were a couple of horrors including glutinous patatas bravas and calamari coated in a greasy, thick batter. And to crown it all, it was after this meal that I fell very sick indeed…I will say no more other than sight-seeing with clenched buttocks is no joke! But – and I cant resist saying this – Chinese loos are very clean…
The big night out was to be at Jason Atherton’s (Maze fame)Table number 1, set in a renovated factory in the up-and-coming area by the Cool Docks. People who live in the east always need a change of palate, so we were delighted to go West for this treat. I was, however, put off by having to share a refectory type table with other diners (a very ugly couple who ate noisily and were on their mains before we even got our starters); and disappointed that the waiters had no ideas on provenance of the food I was interested in ordering (was still feeling distinctly queasy at this stage so purity of ingredients rather critical!). Answer came there none, which is always a bad sign. Thankfully, Jess and Andrea loved their main courses, roasted turbot, while Ross and I were slightly disappointed – he with his rack of lamb and me with my sole (still don’t know where it hailed from, but it was on the dry side and possibly FROZEN!). The starters were delicious – tuna carpaccio and scallop ceviche, and the deserts unctuous, with accompanying sauces in little teapots. But if you read this Mr Atherton, I do strongly advise you to pay attention to your brand if you intend to franchise it out. Reputation management and all that…
No trip to China is complete without meandering round looking at street food. On my various wanders round the Old Town back streets, I came across some wonderful looking food, and some great characters….
I also discovered that there is a market for ‘ready meals’ – better than Sainsbury’s any day. Eat your heart out M&S!
Dumplings are all steaming away, ready for buyers…
Or you can buy a yummy stir fry…stock up on some dried fish, or go shopping in a smart store and get sea slugs, hundreds of varieties of mushrooms and all sorts of sickly-looking sweets (the Chinese have a very sweet tooth). And you can round it all off with a slice of cake! Not for me…
Who would turn down a week in Shanghai, staying in a suite in Le Meridien in the centre of town, with free cocktails in the Club Lounge every night? And almost all paid for by the company…the only snag, as accompanying spouse, is that you have to fend for yourself during the working day. And in Shanghai’s heatwave – each day registering between 38-40 C – that’s quite daunting. Especially when half way through you get food poisoning, rendering each expedition a major feat of planning.
Following my own guideline number one for a successful ownsome trip – go somewhere where you have a chum – here we were lucky to have Louise’s dear friend and neighbour from Clapton, Jess Lehmann, in Shanghai on a WPP scholarship and working for Ogilvy. Firmly ensconced in the French Concession, Jess has become an expert on Shanghai eateries and tips on how to make the most of it. Like having
an after-work foot, neck and shoulder massage, which is de rigeur in Shanghai I learn. Or knowing which of the Acrobat shows we should go to; we went to Circusworld, (no animals, honest). It was truly spectacular but its staging clunky and low budget. And pretty unsafe, not many safety nets or wires in evidence, and seven motorbikes in a wall of death is pushing it! But the spontaneous joy of all the children was uplifting just as the noise in the theatre was unceasing.
Having had a grand reunion on the first night and a delicious meal (probably the best of the trip – but there will be a separate food blog so no more on food here), suitably primed and raring to go, on the first morning I foolishly set out to walk to the Bund, the famous promenade where all the finest merchant buildings of the early 1900s are found. Shanghai was a freeport and it attracted traders from all over Europe,
and after the Russian Revolution there was an influx of rich Franco-Russian aristocrats and Jews; and again during the Second World War. Sadly all my efforts to see the synagogues and the Jewish museum were thwarted by lack of time, high walls and heat.
Sticking to guideline number two, have a clear plan, I had my Lonely Planet neighbourhood walks guide, so resolutely set out to follow the North Bund route, melting all the way despite the breeze, which turned my brolly inside-out (Chinese always shield themselves form the sun with a brolly, as I did, until I found a stall which sold straw hats and a fan!). A fine iced coffee in Victors, the art nouveau bar at the Peace Hotel set me to rights.
Rather deterred by this experience, I thought, aha, guideline number three now – take a tour! The afternoon therefore found me on a bus tour, with only me, the guide and a driver in a posh car. Despite some good ‘sights’, I soon discovered that in Shanghai the sole
purpose of a tour is to take you to places where you will be parted from your cash…so the Jade Buddha Temple (jade effigies); Confucian temple (tea, although the tea ceremony thrown in was delightful and I wavered and bought some fine ginseng oolong, chrysanthemum and jasmine teas,
where the flowers unfold – interestingly all teas can be topped up at least 7 times so they are good value!); silk factory (silk quilts and clothes); pearl factory (pearls) and so on!
In between all this hard-sell, we managed to take in various points of interest; the French concession, the house where the first Communist Party Congress took place in 1921, and some streets in the old town, where the little stalls were preparing their snakes, bull frogs and all sorts of other indescribables for their fate. Most of these houses still have no running water or lavatories, and you can see slop buckets being carried to and fro or left out to dry, as I saw the following day on another old town wander. There are in fact very few old alleys left intact, but on our superb sidecar tour (a joint activity, and highly recommended!) Sammy from San Diego took us inside some of the shared tenements, where the tiling is pure early 20 century, there are communal washing and cooking facilities, and intricate
carving and old furniture is gathering dust and decaying quietly. Soon all these will go the way of the rest – knocked down for mega apartment blocks.
Rather jaded (haha) by this commercialism, I decided to spend the next couple of mornings wandering about by myself. Due to the heat, almost all of the normally crowded places like the YuYuan Gardens were practically deserted,
so I enjoyed ambling around, taking in the serene Chenxiangge nunnery; winding streets; food markets; the Bubbling Lanes; the house where Mao stayed when he first came to Shanghai in 1924 (fascinating photos); the Flower, Bird, Fish and Insect Market
(not for the faint-hearted, although these are all destined for pets, including cicadas,
they are kept in very confined spaces; one hesitates to wonder what happens when they get past their sell-by date).
Talking of pets, dogs really are a fashion accessory here – not uncommon to see dogs with little shoes on, and men in particular mince around with tiny lap dogs on long leads – Chihuahuas, schnauzers, all shorn of body hair. Nothing can beat the pink-eared poodle that whizzed by me in her mistress’s motorcycle basket though.
In the afternoons, more gentle local walks down the E Nanjing Rd, round the People’s Square, past the Park Hotel, watching young and old playing cards and Go, gambling furiously (illegal in China), taking in a strange exhibition celebrating 10 years of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Talking of Art, also visited the area known as M50, a hub of Shanghai art galleries. Apart from it being broiling and impossible to get a taxi back, it was a disappointing expedition. I know Chinese art is big ticket these days but, with one exception, Yang Xiaojian, I found it tacky in the extreme.
So how easy is this to do by yourself? Well, it’s fine if you have a concierge or friend who can write down all your destinations on various pieces of paper (don’t muddle them up though, as I did at one point!); then the taxi driver takes you to where you think you are going. Often it bears no resemblance to where you believe you are headed, so quite a lot of ingenuity is involved to locate yourself as you are unceremoniously dumped on a busy pavement, somewhere…
Then there’s the safety issue: having been told Bali was perfectly safe and was then promptly victim to an attempted mugging, I was slightly wary. But here there are so many people, it’s a safety in numbers feeling. The only time I felt slightly on guard was when I went off piste in the old town, pursuing exciting food stalls, and found myself in a down-at-heel area, surrounded by labourers and unsmiling bare-chested men, no women in sight. So I upped the pace and headed off in what I hoped was the right direction (it was!).
At the weekend, Ross became free, so as well as our side-car tour, we visited the Shanghai Museum, tastefully arranged with riches galore – bronzes, porcelain and intricately carved jade. Not as much as in Taiwan – but then, as the Chinese will tell you, Chiang Kai-Shek stole the best
pieces! We also enjoyed an early morning trip to Zongshan Park to see the elderlies doing Tai Chi, despite the fact the place was a building site, so we decamped to the much more tranquil Jing’an Sculpture Park.
It made me think about modern China, seeing so many old people enjoying Tai Chi, in contrast to the large numbers of mainly young people at the completely renovated Jing’an Temple – it was only rebuilt in the past 10 years, and in the Cultural Revolution was converted into a plastic factory before being burned down in 1972 – who were enjoying throwing coins into the vast cauldron, rather as you would at a slot machine.
Consider that in 2007 40% of Chinese people were under 40 years old; and 20% under 15 years of age; therefore half the country has grown up NOT KNOWING Mao (and the percentages will be higher now). Then remember that most middle-aged parents will not have been in a car or had access to a private phone until well into their 30s. Look around you in the heaving streets (Shanghai has 24 million inhabitants and is the largest city in China) and all you see is people glued to their tablets and androids; every sight you go to, click, clunk, whizz – the sound of camera phones (one woman I saw in the Shanghai museum was taking snaps of every single porcelain exhibit!) taking photos and selfies, fingers posed in the ubiquitous V sign. Jess tells me that digital companies are having to re-strategise how to make money from mobile technology as no one phones or sends texts anymore. Fascinating stuff.
And now suddenly Buddhism and Confucius are back in fashion, having ‘disappeared’ during the height of the Revolution. It must be very confusing. Cynics say that adherence to these old customs can be expedient for business – certainly the monks were pocketing their red envelopes with alacrity at the cleansing ceremony we witnessed in the temple. I don’t think that’s what is meant however!
Take the one-child policy, largely misconceived in the West (it appears more damage was done at a local level by over-zealous implementers than the policy actually set out) as there were always exceptions – for instance for the 54 minorities; now if two single children marry they are allowed to have more than one child.
There is, no doubt, a major concern about the aging population and the in-balance of men and women.
Add to this the modern Chinese phenomenon of the Superwoman – she does not want to marry and have children, but wants to have a mega career and be super-rich and successful. It’s a big problem for the government, along with the Four Es, as Jeffrey Wasserstrom puts it: China has four main challenges – economy, environment, energy and endemic corruption and, in many ways, they are linked.
There is little doubt that on the surface China is booming, consumer goods are everywhere – no self-respecting Chinese middle class girl would buy a fake Louis Vuitton – and surfing the net is an addiction. However, there are restrictions on what you can access as I found when trying to write this blog – even with the hotel VPN which allowed us access to google and twitter,
wordpress crashed every single time. Yet there is a concern over the level of creativity compared to the other Asian tiger, India. While naturally entrepreneurial, recent history has rendered the Chinese very good at following orders and beavering away, but less so at taking the initiative. So which of these two will win out in the end remains to be seen.
Experts say that China is – successfully it would appear – managing the expectations of the young by carefully balancing their economic aspirations with a modicum of control. For that reason it is unlikely that you will see a Chinese Spring or another Tiananmen Square in the near future.
The next blogs will describe our outing to Tongli Water Town and all the food we ate.
In an earlier post you will have seen my new wok; well, I realised that this was not good enough so went and bought a ceramic one with a lid. Thus prepared and armed with a local cookery book and the internet, I unleashed my inventiveness.
Meat is very expensive here, so I have concentrated on seafood and chicken dishes. Most Thai and Malaysian dishes have a curry paste as a base, and I ALWAYS make my own. Even local websites say ‘3 tbsp of red/green/chill paste’ and sometimes even ‘3 tbsp of tomato ketchup’. Such recipes are rejected.
5 star dishes
Beef rendang – cooked lovingly for over 4 hours after several hours of marinating the meat. Melt-in-your-mouth or what! Here with Chinese broccoli.
Tom yam soup – it’s critical to make your own fish broth, out of the prawn shells and heads in this case. I also used oyster and shitake mushrooms, and local fish balls.
Thai red chicken curry; I used turmeric root as well as galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, tamarind,cumin, coriander, paprika, black pepper and, of course, coriander root; a little Thai basil and fresh coriander at the end. I like to add veg to a curry to create a one-pot meal. Yum! This is in fact adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s recipe – the local ones were some of the worst offenders in off-the-shelf ingredients.
Four star dishes
Isaan stye grilled chicken and Nyonya-style bean curd salad, with bean sprouts and snow peas. The salad has a delicious roasted cashew nut and tamarind dressing, while the chicken is marinated in lemon grass, ginger and fish sauce. The bean curd is fried to a golden crisp on the outside and melts when you bite it. Marks lost for presentation, not taste: should have had the dressing on the side and then it wouldn’t have looked so brown!
Sri Owen Khmer grilled chicken with baby pak choi: I also used the other half of the marinade to bbq some pork fillet which was delicious too. Marks lost for too much soy sauce on the garlic stir fry pak choi
Blackened local white fish, with confit lentils and green salad. Decided we wanted to be less Oriental one night – so much lemon grass and fish sauce otherwise. The fish was delicious and one of the cheapest on sale.
Other efforts – unclassified, usually taste excellent but dont look as good as they might! Masterchef, help!
My first attempt at Vietnamese fresh spring rolls. Couldn’t get the rolling-up knack, but later found a video which told me how it should be done…a la prochaine! They tasted as they should, however.
Stir fried squid Malay style, with lots of blachan (fermented prawn/anchovy paste). Too much garnish and too much sauce, it all looks a bit monochrome. but it was sure tasty! I adore squid…
Have struggled with local heroine chef Sylvia Tan, where nothing seems to taste of much; anyway I made her mushrooms and white fungus (couldn’t get black) with seared flank steak and it was Ok; other dishes such as Peranakhan favourite ayam (chicken) tempura have been underwhelming.
Some memorable delicacies eaten out…
First the top dim sum place, Din Tai Fung, popular for Saturday brunch. We are going to Taiwan in May so will check out its alma mater…
You can also get other stuff – Ross has spaghetti-like noodles with a spicy pork sauce; I had hot and sour soup, and we shared the broccoli
Next week’s blog will come from BALI; I am taking a quick break while husband is travelling; an unaccompanied spouse in fact! I shall be visiting one of Louise’s friends and then going to a dive centre in the north and do some scuba. Good opportunity to see the island.