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Monday, 26 November 2012

The London Foodie Goes to Malaysia - Penang

Penang is considered by many to be the most gastronomic destination in Malaysia. Street food is undoubtedly Penang's main attraction for KL urbanites and international visitors alike, and with Air Asia flights costing as little as £20 for a one way flight from KL, it should feature in any gourmet Malaysian itinerary.

A relatively large island, Penang was home to fewer than one hundred fishermen until it was settled and developed by the British in 1786. Its capital is Georgetown, a UNESCO world heritage site, which boasts the largest concentration of pre-war houses in all of southeast Asia. Most visitors stay either in Georgetown (see "What to Do" below), or on the northern beach at Batu Ferringhi where the resort hotels are.

Where to Stay

Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

I stayed at the five-star Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, located on Batu Ferringhi  Beach in the northwest of Penang, around 20 minutes drive from Georgetown.  Opened in 1973 as Malaysia's first deluxe hotel, it was closed for 21 months and given a £20m refit to re-open in 2006 as a  luxury resort, with a 30 acre landscaped garden overlooking the sea.  It is part of the Shangri-La hotel group, which owns hotels throughout Asia and the Middle East.

The decor of the hotel is luxurious, as befits its five star status, but in an elegant local style.  Its distinctive Minangkabau architecture is home to artefacts of Malaysian culture including traditional jewellery, batik-printing moulds, and coral sculptures.  The gardens are particularly impressive, the hotel having been built around some massive trees thought to be over 200 years old, between the building and the sea.  More recent planting has served to provide a great deal of privacy for guests and pool users, and has some unusual features including bamboo topiary.

The hotel has two different grades of accommodation - the original building, known as the Garden Wing, and since 2003, the Rasa Wing with some additional exclusive features. These include larger rooms, a separate private swimming pool for those aged over 16 with a free soft drink waiter service, and complimentary afternoon high-tea, pre-dinner cocktails and canapés. 

I stayed in a Rasa Wing  Premier room, which had an oversized balcony bathtub and private veranda, as well as a massive interior bathroom, wet room, living area and bedroom.

I loved the spacious and elegantly decorated room, but particularly enjoyed having a soak in the balcony bathtub during a fierce tropical storm. The view from the balcony was also stunning, overlooking the gardens, swimming pool and spa.

We had breakfast in two areas  - a la carte at the Ferringhi  Grill within the Rasa Wing, and in the Spice Market Cafe in the Garden Wing. Both were good, with the Ferringhi  rather quieter and more formal, the Spice Garden offering a wider variety and a more relaxed feel.

I had the feeling that whichever part of the hotel I had stayed at, I would have had a great time.  However, I felt that the upgrade to the Rasa Wing was well worth the extra if only for the fantastic Negronis and glasses of sparkling wine we had during the cocktail hour of 6 to 7pm, with accompanying Asian tapas.

On one of our evenings there, we had Roti Jala Rolled Cone, Ginger Chicken Rice Paper, Curry Potato Samosa, Salmon Fillet Terikaki and Russian Filled Potato. These all tasted freshly made and delicately flavoured.

Golden Sands Resort

Next door to the Rasa Sayang, and also owned by the Shangri-La group of hotels, is the Golden Sands Resort.  It has been a favourite family holiday destination in Malaysia for locals and visitors for many years. Surrounded by tropical gardens, it has one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in Batu Ferringhi.

View from my room at Golden Sands Resort
We spent two nights in this hotel, and stayed in a deluxe sea-facing room with a private balcony offering great views of the beach, pool and gardens.  Although not overly luxurious, I felt that the room was tastefully decorated and of a good standard for its class.  It also had a flat screen TV, DVD player, satellite TV, an iPod dock and free broadband internet access.

The hotel caters for young children with a Kids Club offering educational programmes for children aged 4 to 12.  There is also an indoor entertainment complex equipped with drop slides, multiple sections of modular play equipment, and a game zone.

These areas are supervised, freeing up the parents who can relax by the two lagoon-shaped pools, or enjoy some of the activities available at the hotel including paragliding and canoeing, golf, three tennis courts and cookery lessons.

I felt the breakfast was quite something at the Golden Sands, with a huge buffet of dishes including Nasi Lemak, Congee, Roti Canai, Dim Sum, as well as western favourites like fried bread with cinnamon and butter, and waffles with maple syrup, cooked English breakfast as well as a wide variety of juices, yoghurts and cereals.

The Garden Cafe is the hotel's all day dining option, serving local as well as international dishes, while Sigi's Bar and Grill on the Beach offers child friendly options such as burgers, fish and chips, wood-fired pizza, and other dishes to munch on by the pool or beach.

Where to Eat

Famous for its street food, Penang's hawker specialties are endless, and if this more casual style of eating is your thing, Penang is bound to tick all the boxes.

Some of Penang's specialties include Assam Laksa (a hot and sour fish soup), Hokkien Mee (prawns in chilli noodle soup) and Inche Kabin (chicken marinated in spices and then fried). Penang as well as Malacca are the culinary centres of Nyonya cuisine in Malaysia.

Whether staying at the Golden Sands or the Rasa Sayang, the hotels have two restaurants each, catering for different styles of eating and budgets.  Golden Sands has casual, family oriented dining options in the Garden Cafe (set price for a buffet style dinner) and Sigi's Bar and Grill (a la carte menu). Rasa Sayang has an upmarket buffet at the Spice Market, and a western fine-dining option at the Ferringhi Grill which is said to be one of the best restaurant in Penang.

Spice Market Cafe at Rasa Sayang Resort

While staying at the Rasa Sayang, one of our most memorable dinners was at the Spice Market Cafe.  Fixed-price buffets change daily, but on the night we were there, there was an excellent fish and seafood themed evening, with plenty of freshly shucked oysters on ice, crab, lobster and a sushi and sashimi counter.

Sushi Counter at Spice Market Cafe, Rasa Sayang Resort
The dishes were varied, including some Chinese, Malay, Nyonya and western favourites, like Wok Fried Garoupa Fillet with Macadamia Nut, Saffron Rice Salad with Seafood, and a whole station dedicated to a wide selection of desserts including Nyonya Kuih, cakes, waffles, chocolate fruit dips and a tempting variety of ripe tropical fruits.

On another night, after an overly boozy cocktail hour at Rasa Sayang (which ran to three), and several Negronis later, we stumbled across a collection of hawker stalls at the nearby Long Beach Food Court.  We made for the Chinese Cuisine stall, where I had one of the best (and cheapest) meals of my trip.

The Crispy Belacan Chicken at a mere 10 Malaysian Ringgit (£2.50) was richly flavoursome,  with a pronounced umami character from the belacan, as was the Kangkong Belacan at 8 Ringgit (£2), and the seafood rice also at 8 Ringgit.  It is definitely a place I would seek out if I should ever return to Batu Ferringhi.

During a visit to Georgetown, we were advised to avoid the touristic street food options at Gurney Road, and instead to try the hawker stalls at New Lane.

There we had an oyster omelette and char koay teow.  I thought the oysters were disturbingly gelatinous, and the char koay teow was far from memorable, but then they cost almost nothing and I guess you get what you pay for.

We had some hawker stall recommendations in Georgetown made by my friend May, of Malaysian by May, which unfortunately we didn't have time to pursue.  These are below:

The best Hokkien Mee - Penang specialty ( Prawn Mee Soup) is on Jalan Burma ( Burma Road) at Swee Kong Coffee Shop, directly opp the Pulau Tikus Police Station. Daily except Thursdays. From 6.00am to 8.30am.

The best Char Koay Teow is of course the Lady With the Red Beret on Lorong Selamat. Daily 11.30am to 5 ish.

The best Nonya Restaurant is Rumah Perut on Kelawei Road.  Otherwise try E.T Restaurant on Rangoon Road. It is a steamboat restaurant but for the locals who know, they serve home cooked Nyonya Food. i.e. Joo Hu Char, Gulai Assam Fish, Lor Bak, Assam Prawns. Also - Mama's on Abu Siti Lane. 

The best BBQ crabs are in a run down rustic seafood restaurant on the way down from the beach: The Sea Pearl Lagoon Cafe in Tanjong Tokong. Have the crabs, salt baked prawns, the oyster omelette from the stalls and the char kway teow.

Whatever else you may eat in Penang, one thing you should not miss is the Ice Kacang.  We had a lovely example of this at the Rasa Sayang hotel. This is a sweet and refreshing dessert made from shaved ice, vanilla ice cream, sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, palm fruit, strips of dried nutmeg as well as colourful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup and rose syrup.

What to Do

Visit to Georgetown

Wherever you stay, a visit to Georgetown is essential, with many colonial buildings still in existence, as well as a thriving Chinatown with it original shophouses and mansions, Little India, and the elegant Eastern & Oriental Hotel.

Relaxing on Batu Ferringhi Beach

In Batu Ferringhi, there is the beach during the day, and shopping and eating in the evening.  There is a coastal road with numerous simple stalls along the way, as well as a few internet cafes, trinket stalls, tailors'  shops and street food hawkers, as well as some more formal (and relatively expensive) seafood restaurants. 

If you stay, like me, at the Rasa Sayang Hotel, there are two adult and one children's outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court and golf course, and a nearby water sports centre offers water-skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, windsurfing and deep-sea fishing.

There is a health club with a full range of gym equipment, a hydropool, sauna and steam room, as well as daily Tai Chi classes.  Children can make use of the Adventure Zone indoor supervised playground located between Rasa Sayang and the next door Golden Sands resort.

The Rasa Sayang Spa is large, with 11 private villas, offering Himalayan barley rubs, healing stone and traditional Malay massages.  The interiors are luxurious, with granite walls, timber flooring and silk furnishing. I unfortunately did not try any of the treatments at the spa during my stay so I cannot fully recommend them; although if the high standards everywhere else in the hotel are anything to go by, the treatments at the spa are also likely to be very good.

Travel Essentials

Direct flights from London to Kuala Lumpur are available with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines.  Middle Eastern airlines provide indirect flights at lower cost, with a 60-120 minute stopover.  For example Etihad (changing at Abu Dhabi), or Qatar Airlines (changing at Doha).

Penang can be reached most easily from Kuala Lumpur by flying with AirAsia (http://www.airasia.com) (approximately £80 return).

Package tours including flights from the UK and accommodation at Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa and Golden Sands Resort are available from Kuoni Travel (http://www.kuoni.co.uk), and Virgin Travel (http://www.virginholidays.co.uk).

Interesting sites about Malaysia:

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Giving Thanks

Words and Photography by Felicity Spector

It’s all about the turkey. And stuffing, possibly several kinds, sometimes confusingly known as dressing if it's cooked outside the bird. And the cranberry sauce: if you’re lucky home-made, if not, it might be that bouncy kind that comes right out of the tin in a perfectly jellified cylinder.

Then there are all the side dishes: like mashed sweet potato with added maple syrup, topped with marshmallows grilled till they’re sticky. Regular mash. Green bean casserole. Brussels sprouts, better known as ‘butter delivery vehicles‘. A dish involving corn, usually with lashings of heavy cream. And gravy, possibly several kinds.

And that’s before you even get to dessert.

No wonder Thanksgiving preparations begin weeks in advance: food magazines and newspaper supplements are completely devoted to special recipes, and new twists on cooking the turkey, from brining to deep frying. The New York Times even sets up an emergency hotline, to answer all those last minute cooking dilemmas. This is one holiday which unites the whole of America around the dinner table to give thanks for the bountiful harvest. Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday back in 1863: nowadays it’s a two or three day extravaganza, allowing people enough time to travel home.

Most families have their own traditions, whether it’s Grandma’s secret recipe for apple pie, or a pot of greens that no-one ever really wants: if it’s not on the Thanksgiving table, it just isn’t Thanksgiving.

This year I was invited to a fabulous spread by a big Jewish family in New York’s Upper East Side. They ushered me into the overheated kitchen to view the preparations. A vast organic turkey was resplendent in the oven, crowned with a huge tent of foil. On the shelf below, a home made bread stuffing that had been several days in the preparation. There were heritage carrots braising in a gigantic Le Creuset pot, more veg steaming away on top. A starter of corn chowder was almost ready to go. There were two kinds of mash, and bowls of spiced pumpkin butter from a farmers market in Ithaca. Tragically, I had to leave for the airport moments before dinner was served.

On the BA flight to London, I opted for the turkey dinner, which managed to be a uniformly beige colour, and tasted of - well - not much. The pumpkin pie was a better effort, but I was craving a proper Thanksgiving feast.

Luckily, some of London’s top American cooks were laying on some excellent pop-ups, and I had managed to book into two of the very best. I went straight from my transatlantic flight to Beas of Bloomsbury’s atmospheric Maltby Street kitchen, inside a cavernous railway arch in Bermondsey. The invitation had helpfully advised: “Dress to eat! I'm talking elastic pants, clothes you can burn afterwards--nothing that couldn't be cleaned after a tumble in the washing machine!”

The food was all brought to the table in huge dishes for us to help ourselves: every so often Bea emerged from behind the ovens to encourage us to eat more. It was pretty hard to resist the array of favourite family recipes, the brined, spiced turkey, the three kinds of stuffing each one as good as the one before, the roasted sprouts and glazed carrots, the tart cranberry sauce which was a perfect foil to the sweet potato mash. Bea explained the green bean casserole to one couple who’d never tried it before. “Normally this would use the cheapest ingredients”, she said. “Green beans from a can, tinned mushroom soup, even tinned onions. But obviously we make everything from scratch, with a mushroom béchamel over freshly steamed beans, and we shred the onions down before frying them crisp.” The result was delicious, and a million miles from the old fashioned canned mush.

The food kept coming, and we kept eating, before remembering that there were five kinds of pudding still to come. Pumpkin cheesecake, anyone? Peanut butter chocolate cheesecake? Apple crumb pie? There was, miraculously, somehow room for seconds, although Bea had also laid on a few takeout boxes on hand to carry home any leftovers.

The next night, I was just about ready for dinner number two at Outsider Tart’s new Blue Plate diner in Chiswick: a beautifully decorated venue with hand written menus and candles on every table.

After a starter of apple cranberry salad with a moist and spicy pumpkin bread which was frankly a meal in itself, we lined up, massive plates in hand, at a counter which seemed to stretch on for miles. David Lesniak and David Munis, who run the place, had cooked up a total storm. Along with the turkey, the cornbread stuffing and the gravy, there was an incredible pumpkin mac and cheese, and a creamy corn pudding. I counted about 7 different vegetable sides, from braised root veg and autumn slaw to collard greens. The cranberry relish was so good you could eat it by the spoonful. Luckily jars of it will be on sale at Outsider Tart right through till Christmas. Everything was perfectly cooked, and I must confess to popping back for another spoonful of that mac and cheese.

After a decent pause, we ventured back for dessert: you could choose between three kinds of pie, including an apple one, rich with brown sugar, and a pumpkin one with orange and cointreau. I opted for the pecan pie, which the boys make with sorghum syrup, hard to find over here, but which gives a fabulously deep flavour: it was crunchy, sticky, and not overly sweet, with a light, buttery pastry that melted in the mouth.

I had felt cheated, flying out of New York before that sumptuous Upper East Side dinner was served; but after those magnificent efforts from Beas and Outsider Tart, I think I’ve found my Thanksgiving spiritual home. Roll on, November 2013. I’m booking my place for next year already.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Enchantment from Colombia

Words by Simeen Kadi

Latin America has been receiving a lot of British foodie love of late. What with the fact that you can't walk down a high street without tripping into a burrito van and restaurants like Lima (review coming soon) showcasing the finer end of the area's cuisine. And, of course, there's tequila, pisco and cachaca, a spirit which ten years ago entered our collective cocktail consciousness in the form of the caipirinha.

But Colombia has largely remained one corner of South America whose notorious reputation has not been softened by an introduction to its epicurean culture. That could be set to change with the launch of La Hechicera rum in the UK. La Hechicera (pronounced La Etch-i-say-ra) means The Enchantress and was founded by the Riascos family two decades ago; it is the only family owned and pirvately held spirits company in Colombia. And if the sensuous, sophisticated hedonism of the launch party last week was anything to go by, we will all be holding love-ins for Colombia before the year is out.

La Hechicera is a blended rum made in the tropical northern region of the country, a lush area nestled between the Magdalena river and the Caribbean near the industrial and shipping hub of Barranquilla. Aged from 12 to 21 years in Amerian white oak, the spirit is made in small quantities to exacting standards. Sourcing the finest sugarcane and aromatics from around the country this fine rum is carefully crafted and left 'unpolished', meaning it has not been finished off with sugar to round off the flavour of the wood in which it has matured. The result is a very smooth rum, either on its own or in a cocktail. The deep woodiness is sweetened with a note of toffee and a pleasing coffee aroma while hints of orange peel give it a liveliness that slips down very well.

La Hechicera retails at £38 but is still hard to find as the brand's owners get to know UK spirit retailers. However, it is slowly appearing in discerning bars. If you do manage to get hold of a bottle here are a couple of cocktails I tried at the launch, both of which were delectable.



• 50ml Hechicera
• 20ml lime juice
• 20ml sugar syrup
• Handful of basil
• Muddled fresh ginger


Shake all ingredients over ice, double strain into a chilled cocktail glass



• 50ml Hechicera
• 20ml lime juice
• 20ml tamarind syrup
• Sprinkle of nutmeg
• Muddled fresh ginger


Shake all ingredients over ice, double strain into a chilled cocktail glass


La Hechicera rum can be purchased from www.drinksdirect.co.uk  or www.drinkfinder.co.uk

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Vitalie Taittinger hosts at The Groucho - and proves the secret of a good party is champagne & sausages

Words and Photography by Su-Lin Ong

A Friday at Soho’s Groucho Club usually means champagne – and plenty of it.  The place is a-buzz with the sense of deals done and fresh creative plotting, as yet another bottle is ordered before the night is up. It was here where Vitalie Taittinger hosted her party, lavishly serving nine styles of Taittinger.

We Brits adore luxury fizz.  Sales of prestige cuvée champagnes over £72 in the shops have soared by 14 percent (thanks CGA Strategy Brand Index, Nielsen).  These are wines which sit right up there with grand cru Burgundy or first and second growth Bordeaux, yet often challenge them favourably on price.  And we're spending more on better champagne we drink out and about.  Is that you?

This is the night to prove it.  The blushiest Prestige Rosé NV welcomes us, poured from magnums.  Fruit crumbly, subtle blackcurrant and raspberry flavours give the much needed first glass.  This classic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir/Meunier blend has the addition of 15 percent still red wine.

But it is mainly for a trio of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs which we gather:  the 2000, 2002 and an early taste of the new 2004.  These are limited production, luxury wines from the top grand crus in the Côte des Blancs.  Respect!

This kind of vertical tasting is rare fun.  And when bottles are poured fast and flowing, it is easy to go all out to quaff.  You just know someone will spark off a tease about delicate, floral all-chardonnay champagnes being ones for the girls.  But if you believe that, then you miss the main point of these wines.  Give a moment of thought, and you can appreciate the ageing potential of these wines.  The older vintages have developed more dramatic patisserie-like notes.  

Vitalie Taittinger, who is the daughter of Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, is the artistic director of the House.  She is an elegant and naturally easy host.  You feel you can ask here anything, and she spurs my curiosity when she tells me that it’s the 1999 which is the one to hunt down now.  Ten years or so is the optimum time to wait, to let a Blanc de Blancs really reveal its finesse, she says.

Of the three on the night, it is the Blanc de Blancs 2002 for which I return to for a refill.  Showing brilliantly, this very expressive wine has intensity and lightness, with ripe citrus notes leading to a hint of toasty finish.
Photo: Taittinger

Alongside this trio are other styles from the range.  Random tasting is much of the charm of the party – as compared to a seated tutored tasting.  For me, analysis interrupts more hedonistic enjoyment, especially on a Soho kind of Friday.  Still, it seems respectful to figure a tasting order of the three non-vintages: the flawless Brut Réserve, the rarer Prélude Grands Crus, and the single vineyard Folies de la Marquetterie (named after the Taittinger château nestled in the vineyards), then ending with the Brut 2005.  Somehow I always skip the richer dessert styles; in this case the Nocturne Sec NV.

Feed me generously, and I brazenly want more.  In this art adorned setting – with The Groucho known as a den of creatives - a treat that seems missing from the night’s line-up is a bottle or two from the Taittinger Collection of some dozen flamboyant art bottles; I covet the Matta 1998.  No clues though about the next commissioned artist.  It also crosses my mind, the only better place to enjoy such a full range tasting might be in the Taittinger crayères in Reims – chalk pits from the 4thC AD 17 metres underground.  Perhaps a touch too chilly.

Eats are very much needed on this kind of evening.  If this was in Paris or Reims, we might have overdosed on canapés of white truffle and rillettes; too demanding for my simple tastes when wines are the showpiece.  This is club land in London, so the offerings are golden brown, fried and robust; not too competitive in flavour but there is plenty of texture going on.  Our champagne supper is completed by arancini, fish & chips, breaded crabmeat balls, steaming bowls of creamy chanterelle risotto, plump raspberry tartlets - eat one, or eat four - and flaky mini apple strudels.

And not forgetting sausages.  No party is ever complete without these baby, burn-your-mouth beauties.  Whoosh, gone.

Finally, the question that has to be thrown in.  Did James Bond drink Taittinger or Bollinger?  He is an agent of fickle taste, it seems.  I get a stab at answers from guests.  Whilst Bollinger has been one of the most enduring film partnerships, the James Bond in Ian Fleming’s novels preferred Taittinger, and in Casino Royale it was a 1943 Taittinger that was suggested as probably the finest champagne in the world.  Go on?  But a glass of Taittinger Blanc de Blancs in From Russia with Love was spiked with poison.  Lucky, ours are not.

The party is still going strong way past the intended hour.  Nobody ever wants to leave The Groucho early.

Su-Lin Ong attended on behalf of The London Foodie as a guest of Vitalie Taittinger, The Groucho Club and R&R.

Snap up vintages of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs from Majestic, Harrods, Hedonism, Waitrose, Bordeaux Index.  RRP £147.

Top wine writer Jamie Goode details an enviable vertical tasting of seven of these, 1990 to 2002. http://www.wineanorak.com/champagne/taittinger_comtes_de_champagne.htm

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