Monday, July 16, 2018

Time, the essence of taste and life - 时间的味道

In my journey to obtain a deeper understanding of food, something I didn't used to value kept ringing in my head - time.

Time is in everything.

In marination, fermentation, ageing, curing, brining, freezing, braising, proofing and everything else you can think of. Even thawing frozen meat/fish is best achieved slowly over a day or two in the lower warmer echelons of the fridge.

The meal is ruined if you don't wait for the ingredient to warm up to room temperature before cooking, and precious cuts of meat will be completely wasted if you don't give it time to rest after grilling/roasting.

Fruits develop the right flavour given time to ripen naturally, animals/fish too, if given the luxury to take their own time according to what nature designed for them.

A good meal, in other words, is often the taste of time. Patience is therefore, the true test of one's dedication to achieving the best.

Delicious, unforgettable beef bourguignon, courtesy of @carolparismikki.

Take this pot of beef bourguignon for example, it had been on the stove for 2 full days before I had my 10 minutes of enjoyment devouring it. If the cook or the guest did not have enough patience, the entire dinner experience would have been completely different.

Isn't life the same?

Isn't life the gentle simmer that can be more effectively-understood only after one has gathered experience and maturity through the accumulation of time?

Time is the essence of everything.

To build up a company from nothing to a reliable entity in the marketplace.

To foster a strong relationship with people.

To have sufficient practice to master a skill.

To nurture your little ones into responsible adults.

To win hearts and prove your credibility.

And of course, to cook delicious pot of beef bourguignon to make friends and family really really happy.

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在我找寻美食真谛的旅途里,通过视频,书籍,文章,跟厨师的交谈当中,有两个字一再被重复:时间。

时间有味道吗?尝得到吗?

时间彻底融入了食物的一切,从焖、炬、烤、腌制、发酵、冷冻, 都少不了对时间的掌控。连达到解冻最好的效果,都要通过在冰箱里低温长时间才能取得。耐心,也成为了烹饪最重要的品德。


就拿这碗简简单单的台湾肉燥饭来说吧,如果不是在炉灶上足足两天,采用最好的有机猪肉 (也就是说猪只有自由活动的空间和适当的时间来自然成长),这碗饭也达不到我想要的滋味。

人生不也一样吗?难道人生不是通过长时间累积的经验跟智慧,才能好像红葡萄酒一样越老越香醇吗?

时间穿透了生命的一切、是万事欠缺的东风。

把一间公司从一无所有培养成在商场上可靠的品牌。

把孩子教育成对社会负责任的一份子。

把婚姻,朋友,家庭、各种人际关系经营好。

把一个求生技能掌握得得心应手。

让自己赢得漂亮的诚信与口碑。

这样样都急不得,不能缺少耐心与时间的酝酿。

时间有味道吗?

有。

那就要看你有没有用心去品尝了。

Friday, July 6, 2018

Stranger in Bangkok: Phase 2

Many people like to ask me, "What do you do in Bangkok?" followed by, "What company do you work for?"

I usually do not know what to say, because I know the answer will not be an interesting one. Even though I work in the agricultural industry, one that is relevant to more than half the population in Thailand, to most, it's still considered a low-profile "niche" market.

The conversation gets even more awkward when I reluctantly tell them my company name.

So there you go.

I moved permanently to Bangkok mid-2010. It took us 8 years, to start from zero, to finally move into our own premises. Consider this a major milestone in our journey, but this is one decision that came with a story of its own.

The owner of the group of companies I work for has never visited our branch in Thailand before. The only time I saw him in my first 6 years, was at my wedding, where he shook my hand and offered his blessings. Otherwise, no matter how I encouraged him to come, his reply would be, "You young people need to fight the fight."

As I go through all the paper in my office in preparation for the move, in my bid to save every piece of reusable paper or clip, I recalled all the things I did to build this up. I had to do every damn thing, cos there was just me. All the late nights. The lonely evenings I spoke with the neighborhood dog. The systems I set up to make sure I did everything necessary. The talking to passers by to help me unload thousands of boxes of goods, which had to be done regardless of weather or time. The betrayals. The helplessness. All precious precious memories, good or bad. I realized my survival instinct forced me to block out the process to focus on achieving acceptable results, resulting in me forgetting much of the journey. I wonder whether that's a good thing. Or maybe I am just getting old. #workinginthailand #strangerinbangkok
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Fast forward to September 2016. A special training event organised by our principle brought me back to my head office in Bintulu, Sarawak. As usual, big boss shook my hand. This time, he spoke, "It's time to find our own place."

He had finally given me an instruction! My one and only royal edict. I sprung into action.

It took nearly 2 years, and here we are.

In our own place. Bigger, better, and more importantly, gives us a sense of belonging and a platform to propel us into greater heights. Whether that happens though, is an unknown.

What I know is, behind this sense of achievement, is the fact that we have never been tighter in cash, and never been more in debt.

Stranger in Bangkok: Phase 2, starts, now.



Friday, June 15, 2018

Great Wall of China with kids: 慕田峪 Mutianyu is the choice

Songkran is the best time to stay in Bangkok. Not because of the festivities and watergun battles (ok, maybe that too), but because everyone who is not from Bangkok would have gone back to their respective hometowns and work comes to a standstill, resulting in a less-crowded city with little or no traffic jams. However, for some reason, this year, I swapped a staycation in downtown Bangkok for an incredible 6D5N trip to Beijing involving 2 families, 4 adults and 4 kids (aged 3 to 7).


I contemplated discussing in detail my entire itinerary like I did in the past for Hua Hin and Khao Yai, but no, because nothing in Beijing matters more than leaving our footprints on the Great Wall of China. It was personally, my 3rd time on the Great Wall, though the 1st 2 times were literally decades ago and obviously without the kids. So, with this post, I hope to give you as many tips as I can, to make a trip with kids to the Great Wall an unforgettable one.

The little one taking a breather.


1. Choose Mutianyu

There are 3 popular entrances into the Great Wall, with Badaling (closest to Beijing city) being the most popular of them all. Having experienced it myself, I would personally endorse taking a longer drive and go to Mutianyu instead.

Firstly, it is much much less crowded, which makes a hell of a difference especially during peak seasons, be it for comfort or photo-taking purposes (see the first picture above).

In the cable car.
Secondly, I recommend taking cable car up to Tower 14, followed by a leisurely stroll down to Tower 6 before taking the really fun and relatively-long Toboggan ride (no pictures allowed there) back down to the entrance area. It will give you a chance to take in the grandeur of the Great Wall during the stroll through many watch towers.

Stroll on the Great Wall

2. Timing

April usually isn't the most popular time to visit. It's approaching spring, but not quite spring yet. It can also get a little cold and windy high up on the Great Wall. But after this visit, I feel that it could be the perfect time to visit. It is less crowded, and even if the trees are not at their colourful best, the leaves and flowers are beginning to sprout, so it's not total gloom.

Spring is around the corner.
It's also good to note that we shot right down to Mutianyu from the airport at 7am right after disembarkation from a red-eye flight. Some might see this as a risk, given we have so many kids in tow, I feel that arriving at Mutianyu before 10am felt like a good decision, as the crowds have yet to build up and we could avoid the scorching afternoon sun.


3. Prep the kids before the trip

Thanks to my genius wife, my kids were shown documentaries and songs about the Great Wall of China (and other famous sites in Beijing) before the trip, so much so that by the time the trip came, they could already sing songs about the Great Wall and understood its significance.

Snacking in one of the watch towers.
Even though my little girl is only 3, and required me to carry her up and down uneven steps for long distances during our stroll, it's still more than surreal for me to see them actually running and playing on this monumental construction, one that means so much to our pride as Chinese. I wouldn't change the experience for anything.

Picture of my struggles, but we survived! I call this father-daughter bonding, haha.
So there you go, my tips and tricks for conquering the Great Wall as a family with small children. For those who are worried, I hope by doing it and sharing my experience, you will be encouraged to go ahead with your trip too!


Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below and I will gladly answer them if I can.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

Oh Teddy Teddy... and the dream comes true....

The dream comes true?

Nah.... not really. Some things, you never even dream of. If you adore Taylor Swift, or Ed Sheeran, would you even bother to dream of meeting them one day?

This guy, he's the reason why I watch football, and why I love Tottenham Hotspur till this day. Truth be told, the first Spurs match I watched was the 1991 FA Cup semi-final where Paul Gascoigne scored an incredible free-kick to win the match. Nothing to do with Teddy. Teddy took over the reigns from Gary Lineker in 1992 and from then on he became the absolute reason to watch Spurs in honestly not a very good period for the club (of course there was the Klinsmann season but the flame flickered out before we realised).


The reason why I love football.
He was really a one-of-a-kind football player. He was slow, thus played equally much with his brain as his feet. How he saw the game and made his team tick with his link-up play always intrigued me, and because he never relied on speed and took care of himself, he played well into his forties. In case you didn't know, he was the oldest player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League (for Portsmouth at age 38) and also the oldest player to score a Premier League goal (for West Ham at 40 years 8 months and 24 days).

Pick me. Pick me.
I wish he stayed at Spurs for his entire career, but I am pleased that he managed to win everything in the end, playing a huge part in it as well, though people sometimes undervalue his importance for scoring the equaliser and assisting Ole's winner in the 1999 Champions League final (matchwinner gets all the glory).

Anyway, a month ago, at the grand opening of Score Bar, here in Bangkok, I got to play pool with my footballing hero, took pictures with him, and had the honour of having him pick my name out of a glass, to present me personally with an autographed football. Talk about doing the impossible.

No captions needed.
So thank you Score Bar, for this truly #scoremoment, and also to Wilbur for coming along so that I can ditch my camera and concentrate on enjoying the night.

I am eternally grateful.

Photo credits: Score Bar.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Follow the Chef: Charlie Jones, focusing on the basics

Everyone who has been living in Bangkok long enough should know Quince. I personally feel that it had an important part to play in the city's casual dining scene. It was one of the successful pioneers of offering a casual yet classy space that's equally adequate holding a family-style brunch in the day or a cool night out with close friends over some cocktails at night. It has held its ground pretty firmly over the last 5 or 6 years, and that's why they caught my attention when they recently put a 29-year old at the head of its kitchen.

quince bangkok
Charlie Jones
Enter, Charlie Jones, a local from Chiang Mai with a Thai mother and South African father, hoping to stamp his character on a menu at Quince (which needs to please everyone, given its highly-mainstream market positioning and its hordes of regulars). If his start is anything to go by, he's already on the right track. Take his braised-oxtail stuffed donut starter for example, it's not something we typically expect to appear on the table at Quince, but I feel it's going to become a firm favourite in no time.

Despite his young age, Charlie has already spent nearly an entire decade in the kitchen, being part of the opening team at Rocket in Bangkok, and having spent a few years in Singapore at Esquina then Maggie Joan's, before taking over at Quince.

However, he shared that most of his cooking philosophies were honed right at the beginning of his journey, at Elliot's, a cafe based in London's Borough Market, which creates its menu solely on the best ingredients found at the market daily. He learnt that the best cooking, is simply getting hold of the best produce and doing them justice. I love his philosophy, because it is close to my heart, and what I feel is the essence of good cooking.



Charlie is an absolute workaholic who devotes himself to the kitchen. He simply loves cooking. I can see him quietly staying away from the limelight and enjoy his life tending a simple eatery back in Chiang Mai, roasting chunks of meat over slow wood fires, serving a small number of customers every night who will leave wondering why food as "back-to-basics" as his can taste so unforgettable.

Speaking of limelight, the last Bangkok-based chef featured in this series is now BK's Young Chef of the Year. I am not one to make predictions, but I have a feeling it will be difficult for Charlie to run away from attention if he continues his natural progression in this cooking adventure of his, and that's not a bad thing.

*************************************


"Follow the Chef" is a new blog series where I sit down face to face with chefs and help them tell you what they want to say, in their perspective. My inspiration for this series stems from the fast-changing dining landscape in Bangkok, which is both exciting yet confusing for consumers like us. Do we follow the restaurants, or follow the chefs? I hope I can help you make a better decision.



Friday, April 27, 2018

Ultimate Taipei Eating Guide, according to the Stranger in Bangkok

I had a love-hate relationship with Taiwanese food.

I grew up watching Taiwanese variety shows in Singapore. The "ooohs" and "aaahs" that followed before the hosts even started chewing their food brainwashed me to believe that Taiwan is a gourmet destination made in the heavens.

When I finally went to Taiwan when I was 23, bad food and the rain washed all those fantasies away. I could only tell myself that I either went to all the wrong places, or the food really didn't suit my taste. The only things I enjoyed were the sweets and world-class seasonal fruit. I went again for a couple of short trips in the next few years, but nothing convinced me to change my belief that the variety shows were just a blatant exaggeration.

Come 2018, information accessiblity is no longer limited to TV. Taipei was the chosen destination for my first ever brothers trip. Armed with research from the internet, blessings from friends in the food industry and personal recommendations from some of the best food bloggers I know, I set off, eager to prove myself wrong about Taipei food.

We walked for 4 days and 4 nights, from morning, till we couldn't walk anymore, often until 2-3am the next day, eating non-stop. So, did my impression of Taiwanese food change? Yes, but more on that later.

First, my ultimate Taipei eating guide, solely based on my 4 days and 4 nights:

1. RAW

If you are into fine-dining, the names Alain Huang, Zor Tan and especially Andre Chiang (from the recently-closed 2-Michelin star Restaurant Andre in Singapore) will not be unfamiliar to you. My experience at RAW convinced me that it has to be THE must-try restaurant in Taiwan, and the exact kind of restaurant that Bangkok is sorely lacking, one that combines loud (but classy) interior decoration (including the toilets), an understanding of the top seasonal local produce, meticulate execution, personal service, plus a casual vibe and a palatable price point.

The casual vibe of Raw in the day.

The ultimate kitchen definition.



Food was not perfect, because it never is, in fact, a dish or two were a bit baffling, but it is what it is, and we have to appreciate the chefs for serving us what they feel is necessary for the experience.

In any case, your challenge is now to get a seat. If you have a trip to Taipei coming up, you have to start planning for RAW now.

2. Huang Ji Lu Rou Fan 黃記魯肉飯

When it comes to street food, the Taiwanese braised pork rice has to be one of the most basic staple of all. A shop/stall could be selling anything, but if you need rice to go with the dishes, braised pork rice will usually be one of most readily-available and popular choices.

Pork heaven, washed down with the tastiest of radish soups.

Of the places we ate at in our 4 days and 4 nights, this was the only one we found a reason to patronize at on separate days, despite its slightly-challenging location. My companions even packed another serving to enjoy on the plane back to Singapore!

I tried 2 other versions of braised pork rice during the trip, and didn't finish both as I couldn't help but compare them with the offerings here. I love it that their rice was cooked to perfection, almost omakase-like. A must-try in Taipei.



3. Fuzhou Pepper Bun at Raohe Night Market 福州世祖胡椒饼 

This pepper bun stoked a lot of curiosity in me because I am Foochow by heritage, but I have never eaten this before in my native Sarawak. Furthermore, this pepper bun was awarded a Bib Gourmand by Michelin just 2 weeks before my visit.

In terms of accessibility, it cannot be better. It's virtually the first store after entering Raohe Night Market and the snaking queue means you will not miss it.

Fresh out of the tandoor into your hand.
I appreciate their machine-like efficiency, ensuring the queue was constantly moving, and pepper buns come out scorching hot from the tandoor right into your hand. The bun is huge, and filled to the brim with pork and leek, so I recommend sharing it, even if it will be a a pain to give any of it away, so that you actually have the stomach to eat more further into the night market. You don't want to be stuffed right after entering!



4. Muachee Bao Bao in Raohe Night Market 麻糬宝宝

You need to open your eyes really wide so that you don't miss this tiny stall.

It's actually just a friendly masked uncle selling the same thing in a small pushcart for more than a decade, but it actually got mentioned by the Michelin Guide, and it was not by chance. Muachee is not something I am not familiar with, but I have never eaten any that prompted me to go back for seconds immediately, until Muachee Baobao.

[Stranger in Taipei] 麻糬宝宝 Muachee Baobao I seriously don't understand how the Michelin Guide works, because Muachee Baobao is just a little stand at the same place at Raohe Night Market selling 1 single snack for the last 10 years and it managed to appear on Michelin Guide's list of recommended eats in Taipei. Muachee is a rice cake made of glutinous rice, the camera-shy owner shapes it like a burger, painstakingly stuffing every piece with black sesame before coating it with ground peanut. It was not overly sweet, and the sticky rice cake did not stick to my teeth at all. What's most impressive is the owner's attitude to serve only the best. "Are you eating now?" he asked. "Errr...." me "If you want me to coat it with peanut and you plan to eat it later then I'd rather you not buy because you will be wasting 60TWD." Turns out that once the Muachee's coated, the ground peanut will start to absorb water quickly, and soon become something that's deemed inedible by the owner. Such a perfectionist! Definitely worth a mention here! And I scored a photo with him even though he made it clear he doesn't welcome photos. Remember to look out for this shy uncle wearing a mask when you are there! #muachee #麻糬 #麻糬宝宝 #michelinguide #绕河夜市 #strangerin台北 #traveltaiwan #traveltaipei #cobrosintaiwan #taiwanfoodies
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5. Urn Chicken 正古早甕缸雞坊

This might not feel interesting to you, but it means everything to me. Free-range chicken (with a lean but meaty body and shiny black feet) smoked in a wood-fire urn at high heat, then low heat, to achieve a crispy skin without losing the original flavours of a good quality bird.

We took taxi from Tamshui Old Street to the shop with nothing else around it just for this chicken, and were not disappointed.

Each urn only cooks 2 birds at a time.

Ooh lala....

6. Peanut Soup with Dough Fritters 油条花生汤

Ah-Balling lovers look here, especially those who go there for the peanut soup, not the rice dumplings. I can't tell you where exactly to buy the peanut soup, but just go for it when you see any, because the sweet peanut soup here is doubly rich and delicious, perfect when dipped with crunchy dough fritters.



7. 别所 Shelter

This was not a cafe-hopping trip, we didn't visit any cafes on purpose. We stumbled upon Shelter when we needed a rest in the midst of our food hunt, and were glad to have spent an hour in this gem of a place.

Short features being played on the screen continuously.

Vinyl records, hipster movie posters enhancing the feel of the place.

Our handsome model enjoying his caffeine fix.
We made our drink choices after thoughtful explanation of virtually the entire menu by the friendly staff and all our drinks impressed. They were pricey (in the vicinity of 200TWD per cup), but we could feel the care that went into the products. Also, they have an interesting array of drink choices from specialty coffee/tea to cocktails and local craft beers, all in the same price range. You could say there is something for everyone.

Note: Shelter is within walking distance from Huang Ji Lu Rou Fan (number 2 on this list).


Special Mention: Pork Leg Soup at Keelung Miaokou Night Market 纪爱四路猪脚原汁专家

This would easily be number 2 if it was in Taipei. Unfortunately it can only be here due to its location in Keelung. For 200TWD per smallest bowl, it could be the most expensive street food we had all trip, but it proved to be most unforgettable. Just walk right to the end of the night market and you will not miss it. It's the only shop selling this dish.



So, was my food trip a success?

Yes!

Did it change my impression of Taiwanese food?

To a certain extent.

Still, you have to remember that I equipped myself with a lot of ammo for this trip. I believe the situation will not be the same if I went to Taiwan uninformed and walked into any random shop to have my meals.

So, I have a few tips for you as you plan your foodie trip to Taiwan:
  1. Be prepared. Do your research, trust reliable sources (like this one lol). It will be worth it.

  2. Go with your best pals, ones whom you will enjoy eating with. There are too many things in Taiwan that I cannot imagine myself enjoying if I was eating alone or with the wrong crowd.

  3. Understand that Taiwanese food might not totally suit your palate. For me, Taiwan food is generally bland, especially when it comes to soups and broths, which are usually quite tasteless regardless of how heavy they look or how spicy their names sounded. There are exceptions of course (a few in my list above), but if this is what the locals are used to and prefer, who are we to say it's not good enough?

  4. When it comes to night markets, and this is quoting a Taiwanese friend who gave me a lot of good advice prior to the trip, order what you like. Simple, but true, if you don't like oysters in the first place, it's not likely the oyster at the night market will change your opinion, so order what you like to maximize the experience!

Verdict: My unhealthy love-hate relationship with Taiwan food has become a slightly-lopsided LOVE-hate relationship, and I am very very much looking forward to my next visit already!


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Follow the Chef Project Taiwan: Jeek Pan, walking his own path

Last year, I stumbled upon a video demonstration like I've never seen before. It was a quite shocking depiction of how to cook Taiwanese braised pork, portraying every step like a kind of Kung Fu move, combining the power of cooking, music, calligraphy and video production that left a huge impression, so much so I made the dish myself, even if there was no clear recipe given.




After that, I began following Jeek Pan, the young man behind this video and came to understand that over the last couple years he has been churning food-related productions of all sorts, be it videos, photos, articles, collaborations and even random pop-ups. During this trip to Taipei, I couldn't miss the chance to make this new friend.

This picture shows everything about Jeek--flamboyance and hospitality.

Turns out that Jeek is a 27 year-old chef who grew up in a family which ran a mass-market buffet restaurant, and used to be part of Chef Andre Chiang's team at Robin's Grill-- Regent Hotel. What he does now, though, is a little more abstract.

With his proficiency in photography, video production and social media, he has decided not to 'trap' himself in a restaurant, even if that might be the most tried-and-tested way to showcase one's culinary talent. He feels that doing creative customized food collaborations and inventive random events might be more value-adding for him towards his goal, for the near future at least.

Another common sight of him-- his signature cap and camera.
To most, that is a daring proposition, for a chef to take on the world using online marketing and social media. For me though, being in social media for the past few years, I feel that he has the character and unique image to do well. He knows what he's good at. Moving forward, it's how he can continue to improve and seek breakthrough in both his cookery and production quality.

If his ultimate goal is to play a big part in influencing the public to portray the chef's profession in a new light, to encourage appreciation of cooks as artists/craftsmen rather than a path chosen by ones with no 'better opportunity', Jeek's unique method-of-choice seems like the most efficient way to garner eyeballs.

Stranger in Bangkok X Jeek's Foodmaze

So, for all who are interested, do follow his website, or if you cannot read chinese, his IG account, where he often shares in English, to give him a pat on his back as he arrows ahead in the direction he created for himself, on a road less traveled.

PS. 号外. During our brunch meet-up, Jeek suddenly popped a peculiar question.

Jeek to us, "So, which school were you from in Singapore?" Photo credit: Jeek's Foodmaze

There was an awkward silence from us. Why did he ask? Would he know even if we told him?

"华侨中学 (The Chinese High School aka HCI as it's known now)," Junxiong answered.

"I am also from the same school!" Jeek replied.

!!!!!wtf???????

Life is a tricky little thing. Everyone takes a different road, meeting different people in the process.

Somehow, nothing happens by chance, the Universe will find its way to link the right people together. Never suppress the little hints life drops you along the way, or you might miss out on the biggest prizes.



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