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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Best Cheap Eats in Kuala Lumpur

From humble street stalls to value-for-money restaurants, here are the best places to fill up in Kuala Lumpur that’ll cost you less than a taxi ride across town.

A slice of Sarawak in Bangsar

If you set out to find the epitome of a neighbourhood eatery in Bangsar, the Sarawak laksa stall inside the Nam Chuan Coffee Shop food court is your best bet. The laksa (RM8) here is built for rainy days: a heap of chewy rice vermicelli arrives in a spicy, coconut milk-based soup that is crowned with shredded chicken, huge prawns, ribbons of sliced omelette and lashings of chopped coriander. Owner Christina Jong has been doling out bowls of comfort for more than 16 years – her version of Sarawak laksa doesn’t get any more authentic than this.

Vegan mixed rice in a temple

A heads up: don’t come here expecting a leisurely meal or doting servers. The neighbouring office crowd flocks to this budget-friendly canteen located at the back of Dharma Realm Guan Yin Sagely Monastery for one of the best vegan meals in the city. The mixed rice buffet (from RM5) displays more than 50 dishes, including vegan mock-meat items. Come on a Friday for lei cha (which literally translates to ‘thunder tea’), a Hakka rice speciality served with an assortment of chopped vegetables and accompanied by a ‘pounded’ tea drink.

Nasi dagang in a Malay settlement

The unpretentious Chunburi Seafood (7 Jln Raja Muda Musa) restaurant in Kampung Baru – one of the last Malay villages in the heart of the city – is famed for its Kelantanese nasi dagang (nutty rice cooked in coconut milk, from RM6), which is traditionally eaten as breakfast on the east coast of Malaysia. Diners pair the rice with a variety of fish dishes, especially the gulai ikan tongkol – a tuna curry that woos you with a rich depth of flavour. Chunburi is consistently crowded during lunchtime; grab a mango and coconut rice dessert from the sweets stand while you wait.

Pisang goreng for a midday snack

The best way to treat a king banana? Fry it to a golden crisp. Stall owner Uncle Chiam has been catering to a steady stream of office workers, students and construction workers every day for the past 34 years. Sourced all the way from a farm in Pahang, the bananas (RM1.40 per piece) are deep-fried in a heavy batter, giving them a satisfying crunch while maintaining a caramelised interior within. Round out your pisang goreng snack with some fried kuih bakul (rice cakes).

Beef noodles with a side of nostalgia at Soong Kee

The battered restaurant signage and tinted windows make this old-timer at Masjid Jamek feel like a true find. Beef noodles are aplenty in KL but it’s the noodles, and sometimes soup, that help define each particular style of this local staple. Go for the dry version (RM7) at Restoran Soong Kee (facebook.com/SoongKeeBeefNoodle): springy egg noodles coated in dark soy sauce are topped with minced meat, and served with your choice of beef balls, sliced beef, cow’s stomach or tendon in a light-tasting broth.

Fluffy chapati in Little India

For cheap and cheerful refuelling, nothing beats a fluffy chapati at just RM1.80 each. Sure, you’ll find a much cheaper version of the unleavened flatbread elsewhere but the price at Authentic Chapati Hut (3 Lorong Padang Belia, Brickfields) is justifiable – the chapatis, cooked fresh on the griddle, are moderately chewy with perfectly browned crispy spots. They’re basically blank canvases to mop up curries or the restaurant’s signature chana masala (chickpea curry). Save some space for their pillowy naan bread too.

A belly-warming pork noodle

You can still score a decent bowl of pork noodles in the city even when you’re strapped for cash. Machi Pork Noodle (33 Jln 34/154, Taman Bukit Anggerik) outshines its contenders by cranking out a heady, cloudy pork broth that comforts you like a big warm hug. The noodles (RM6), cradling a poached egg in the centre (ask the waiter for it), are fortified with the addition of minced pork, pork balls, various pieces of pork offal, pork slices, fried lard and a flurry of chopped spring onion. Fortune favours the bold – break the yolk and stir through for a silkier and thicker soup.

Pair vegetarian nasi lemak with masala chai

A nasi lemak without the requisite fried anchovies and hard-boiled egg sounds almost blasphemous, but the vegetarian version (RM2.50) at Annapuurnam Chetinad Restaurant (74 Lorong Maarof, Bangsar) will prove you wrong. A warm, nutty fragrance permeates the air as you unpack the wrapping of the dish to reveal a mound of hot fluffy rice cooked in coconut milk, with peanuts, sliced cucumbers, a piece of mock meat, and a spicy sauce that packs flavour and heat in equal parts. A masala chai (spiced milk tea) seems like a sweet ending to a meal – until you spy the jars of murukku (crunchy Indian snacks) at the cashier.

Getting the Best of Both Worlds in the Maldives

Appreciating the Maldives’ natural riches

Nicknames aside, the etymology of the word ‘Maldives’ refers to the remarkable geography of this scattered archipelago. The ‘garland islands’ are indeed draped like a necklace across the Indian Ocean, hanging below the teardrop-shaped earring of Sri Lanka. And this is a treasure crafted from only the finest materials: white-gold sands with a turquoise trim, diamond-clear waters and sparkling sunsets framed by a curtain of palms. Every second spent here is a pinch-me moment.

The Maldives is the world’s lowest country in terms of elevation, and therefore first in the climate change firing line, which makes its natural wonders seem all the more precious, particularly when you meet the wildlife. Keen spotters, snorkelers and scuba divers should head to the southernmost atoll, Addu (also known as Seenu), to see spinner dolphins, sea turtles, whale sharks and white terns – a striking seabird found nowhere else in the Maldives.

Addu is also home to some of the islands’ most novel landmarks – a nine-hole golf course with lagoon views, one of the longest roads in the Maldives (a whole 16km, best travelled by bike) and the nation’s tallest mountain, which looms above Villingili, a staggering five metres high.

A taste of the inhabited islands

Staying at a luxury resort for 24/7 pampering is part of the Maldives experience, but spa treatments and five-star dinners are only half of the story. To really get a feel for island life, you need to visit one of the officially designated inhabited islands, where most of the islands’ 345,000 people make their homes. Until 2009, government restrictions meant visitors to the Maldives needed a permit to explore and stay on non-resort islands, but today, many inhabited islands are open for day trips or even overnight stays, and 50% of resort staff are required by law to be local, making island culture far more accessible.

After living it up at the Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa on the southern atoll of Addu, I joined local guide Azmy for a cycle tour of Addu City – a sleepy string of inhabited isles just across the lagoon from my blissful bubble – for a gentle introduction to the ‘real’ Maldives. In this laid back ‘city’, an unhurried island vibe pervades (there’s only so much pace one can gather this close to the equator) but political street art, a multitude of mosques, busy tea shops and welcoming smiles reveal an unexpected community buzz.

‘We don’t lock our doors here – everyone knows everyone,’ explained Azmy with a smile as we parked our bikes outside his family home. I’d wangled an invitation in order to see – and try out – an undholi, the traditional Maldivian swing seats found in most houses in the atolls. Azmy’s wife and mother-in-law seemed bemused by enthusiasm for trying out the fancy wooden hammock in their living room, but were graciously accommodating. And yes, it was as good as it sounds.

A wealth of history and culture

People on Addu generally speak excellent English, as the British ran various military bases on Gan island between the 1940s and 1970s. Azmy’s grandfather worked there as a cook and his father, a local councillor, hopes to open a military museum one day to tell the story of the base, considered a hardship posting for British airmen because of the remote and secluded location.

But there’s plenty of history to discover even without a museum. As we pedalled, we passed a disused post office blanketed in moss, poppy-strewn memorials, a retro-looking cinema (still in occasional use), and an eerie old quarantine centre for sufferers of ‘elephant foot’, a mosquito-borne malady only officially wiped out in 2016. Needless to say, I declined to take a closer look at these last facilities.

These days the RAF barracks form part of Equator Village, one of many budget resorts springing up across the archipelago, and the airstrip has swapped bombers for commercial planes. Gan Airport received the first international passenger flights from Colombo in late 2016 and tourism is expected to boom in the southern atolls, so now is a good time to come and beat the rush.

Make time for Malé

While island life is what the Maldives is all about, the capital, Malé, remains the central transport hub and it’s well worth a stopover to see its miniature take on ‘big city’ life. It may only cover 5.8 sq km, but compared to the far-flung isles, this densely populated speck in the ocean is positively cosmopolitan. Residents often juggle two jobs, commuting by moped through traffic-clogged streets overshadowed by high-rise banks and office buildings. Markets bustle. Tarmac sizzles. The call to prayer cuts through the urban thrum.

Most Unexpected Neighborhood in Las Vegas

Chinatown Plaza, where it all began

When exploring Chinatown, the best idea is to start at its birthplace: the enormous and ornate Chinatown Plaza (lvchinatownplaza.com). With its colorful, dragon-adorned, Tang Dynasty-inspired gate and gleaming statue commemorating the classic tale Journey to the West – including the Monkey King – it’s a favorite place for photos. Popular restaurants include Harbor Palace Seafood for oceanic delicacies and Sam Woo BBQ for smoky meats. For an eye-boggling stroll, head into Ranch 99 for a display of pan-Asian foodways.

A block away, Chengdu Taste (facebook.com/Chengdu-Taste) serves some of the most chili-laden, incendiary dishes in the entire state of Nevada, let alone in Las Vegas. Specializing in Sichuan-style cooking, it also features dishes like pork dumplings in broth spiked with namesake Sichuan peppercorns. These feisty spices actually make your mouth numb, adding definitive tingle to the eating experience.

For aficionados of Thai cuisine, nearby Chada Street (chadastreet.com) is at the crossroads of classic cuisine and edible experimentation. In a pretty, wood-lined dining room, dig into adventurous appetizers like Goong Share Nam Pla — a blend of raw shrimp, fish sauce, garlic and chili. In the vibrant Kang Ped Yang, duck meat meets red curry sauce, pineapple and cherry tomatoes. Blending hearty and light, Yum Moo Yor is spicy salad with pork meatloaf. Of course, mainstays like Pat Thai noodles are served, too. The restaurant also has an extensive and lauded wine list.

The other, other Vegas strip

Vegas is a strip mall kind of town, so if you haven’t filled up in Chinatown Plaza, head a few blocks west to Mountain View Plaza, another strip with great options like District One Kitchen & Bar (districtonelv.com). Many restaurants in Chinatown trend to the traditional, but District One is thoroughly modern while retaining its Vietnamese heritage. With a cool décor defined by vibrant street art, District One serves some of the most renowned cuisine in all of Las Vegas, especially its fresh, seasonal seafood including sea snails and razor clams. Noodles abound in bowls of pho, including one with a whole lobster, and on plates like Crispy Birds Nest Noodles slathered with wok-fried shrimp, chicken and beef. Head to the bar for some advanced mixology.

How about a conveyor belt dinner? Don’t be alarmed, no robots or factory food is involved at the highly interactive Chubby Cattle (chubbycattle.com). Specializing in hot pot dishes with a Mongolian flair, this eatery features mini-plates of ingredients that course along a moving belt. When something you like passes near, grab it and add it to your personal receptacle of simmering broth that comes in flavor-profile choices like ‘The Beautiful Tomato’ and ‘Heaven and Hell.’ If you’re a newbie wondering how long to cook sliced lamb or exotic mushrooms, the staff can provide advice.

Sample Japanese noodles and sushi (and burgers too)

For Japanese cuisine, Raku (raku-grill.com) and its nearby sister restaurant, Raku Sweets, are pilgrimage-worthy destinations. On the savory side, rustic Raku specializes in robata-style grilled viands like Kobe beef tendon, Kurobota pork rib and fish belly. For dessert, Raku Sweets is a sugary dreamscape in a gleaming, hypermodern room. Here, elaborate sorbet confections and macaroons look like artworks. Edible ones, that is.

Lovers of fresh noodles are flocking to Udon Monzo (facebook.com/marugamemonzolv) in the Center at Spring Mountain, a lengthy, block-long collection of businesses. The Japanese restaurant specializes in handmade pasta strands that are spun and twisted in the air throughout the day. Looking in on the display kitchen, merely pick your choice of soup from shrimp tempura to curry. From there, watch cooks boil your fresh udon to order. The menu is also filled with deep-fried sides from soft boiled eggs to eggplant.

While sushi dens are strewn about Las Vegas, including Chinatown, none tops Yui Edomae Sushi (yuisushi.com), a secluded temple of fresh fish just off Spring Mountain Road. Be prepared for a somewhat austere interior, as the gemlike food is the shining star. This is sushi as it’s done in Tokyo at the highest level, and an omakase chef’s choice dinner sets the mind reeling. It’s also a pricey place to match the quality, so budget ahead. Fun fact: the elaborate interior wooden door was crafted in Japan without the use of nails or even glue.

And if you just want  to try the great American hamburger with a Japanese accent, head to the funky and fun Fuku Burger (fukuburger.com).

More surprising Chinatown stars

Just like the Asian extravaganza of Chinatown is unknown by many Sin City visitors, so too is the fact that there’s plenty of top-notch entertainment off the Strip. It’s not all about casino showrooms here, believe it or not. The respected Las Vegas Little Theater (lvlt.org) is one of the best options around for taking in stagecraft, with a schedule that ranges from works by big-hitters like Terrence McNally and Neil Simon to up-and-coming writers. It’s an intimate and rewarding aesthetic experience located in the back of the Center at Spring Mountain.

Best Spice Markets in The World

Rahba Kedima, Marrakesh, Morocco

Rahba Kedima, also known as Spice Square, is the obvious place to head to for brash, bright and brilliant flavourings when in Marrakesh. The mixed spices for flavouring fish and meat are a must for adventurous cooks, while you can also snap up anise, mace and fresh cinnamon for a snip of the cost back home. If you want good saffron, don’t buy the ground stuff – ask to see the fresh strands. It can get pricey, so make sure you shop around before parting with your cash.

Long Bien Market, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi’s labyrinthine Old Quarter is home to a wide variety of spice stalls. But for something a lot more visceral, set your alarm for 4am and head to Long Bien Market on the banks of the Red River. This pre-dawn, wholesale spot is the place to buy the freshest mint, lemongrass, cinnamon, coriander and ginger. This is a working market, meaning tourists are few and far between, so be respectful when taking pictures.

Grand Bazaar, Tehran, Iran

Tehran’s Grand Bazaar can feel like a daunting warren, especially as the day wears on and business becomes frantic. While its carpet shops and mosques are alluring, it’s the spice lanes that are the most evocative. You can buy spices, nuts and dried fruit by the weight or pre-bagged. The best deal is on saffron, which owing to its abundance is much cheaper here than in western countries.

Benito Juarez market, Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca’s oldest market is sprawled over an entire block in the centre of the city. While tourists flock here, this remains a busy, working market, selling a huge array of produce. Dive in and you’ll find a mind-boggling variety of dried chilli peppers in all shapes and sizes, including ancho and chilhuacle. You can also buy ready-made mole paste, a fiery chilli concoction used to create the best Mexican dishes. Just be sure to check import restrictions in your home country before you buy a suitcase load of the latter.

Khari Baoli, Delhi, India

Home to the largest wholesale spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli sits near the Red Fort in Old Delhi. Dating back to the 16th century, the stalls here sell spices, nuts and dried fruits from across northern India and Afghanistan. You’ll find everything from dried mulberries to khoya, a milk solid used in cakes and desserts, as well as classics like turmeric and allspice. The alleyways here are narrow and the pace frenetic, so be sure not to dawdle.

Darajani market, Zanzibar

Zanzibar’s importance in the spice trade cannot be overestimated. To many it’s known simply as ‘Spice Island’ and today it continues to produce huge quantities of ginger, saffron, anise and pepper. At Darajani market, in the heart of historic Stone Town, you’ll find sellers offering these local spices by the sack load, making it the perfect place to stock up. If you want to cut a deal, avoid tourist shops and get ready to barter.

Dubai spice souk, UAE

Dubai’s futuristic cityscape can feel alien to its Middle Eastern roots. Not so in its traditional spice souk, where produce from around the region is sold from overflowing baskets and plastic sacks. The air here is pungent with the aromas of cloves, cumin, cardamom, turmeric, pepper, saffron and nutmeg. If you’re buying remember you’re expected to haggle rather than accept the first price you’re offered. The souk is open daily, so there’s no excuse not to visit.

Egyptian Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul’s Egyptian Bazaar is unquestionably the best place to buy spices in Turkey, and arguably the whole Middle East. Built in 1660 alongside the New Mosque, the bazaar was given its name thanks to most of its wares being imported from Egypt. Today it remains Istanbul’s main spice hub, with 86 shops selling everything from garam masala to green peppercorns. You can also pick up special herb blends and teas. Be sure to bring plenty of ziplock bags, as once you start shopping you’ll struggle to stop.

Mahane Yehuda market, Jerusalem, Israel

Known as ‘The Shuk’, Mahane Yehuda dates back over 100 years. Home to 250 vendors, in recent years it’s become a hip hangout for young locals and tourists. However, it remains steeped in tradition and spice fiends will find plenty to jazz up their home cooking here. Pereg Spices has over 100 different spices and special blends for sale; the sumac, an Israeli delicacy, is a must buy. The Shuk also runs official tours, making exploring its myriad stalls much easier.

Mombasa spice market, Kenya

Kenya’s link to Asia, Mombasa has long been a cultural melting pot thanks to its location on the Indian Ocean. Its spice market, just west of the Old Town, is a hectic experience, but an essential stop-off for intrepid travellers. Expect to find unique curry powders, bright yellow turmeric, masala and cardamom, all nodding towards the area’s cultural ties with the subcontinent, as well as local Mombasa pepper.