Friday, April 30, 2010

April 4, 2010: Melaka

Our one full day in Melaka dawned fine and hot - too hot to go adventuring anywhere for breakfast, so we settled down for a fairly disappointing buffet at our hotel. It was all pretty meaty, but we did get to have our first sample of kaya, which was a pretty tasty treat (although not pictured).

The main plan for the day was to wander through the Lonely Planet's Melaka walking tour. Our first stop was Hokkien Huay Kuan, an impressive Chinese guildhall decorated lavishly with warriors and tigers.

Then it was a quick jaunt out of Chinatown to the historic town centre by the Melaka River.

The centrepiece of historic Melaka is the Town Square, surrounded by the Dutch Stadthuys, the Queen Victoria Fountain and overrun with Melaka's famous blinged up tri-shaws.

Then it was up the hill to the ruins of the 16th Century St Paul's Church. Perched on the top of the hill, the church ruins catch the sea-breeze and are probably the coolest part of the town. They're also impressively moody and atmospheric.

Down the other side of the hill is the last remaining chunk of the old Dutch fort A'Famosa built in 1512.

Having worked up a hunger with all this walking, hill-climbing and sweating, we decided to break up the walking tour and track down some lunch. Weirdly, the map in the Lonely Planet guide to Melaka had a whole section of the town missing, but luckily the streets were numbered logically, and we managed to track down Mei Lin Vegetarian Restaurant without too much trouble.

It's a mock-meat Chinese restaurant with blessed air-conditioning and an astonishing menu - there were dozens and dozens of wonderful sounding dishes. Clearly most of the Westerners who come through their doors are a bit hopeless - despite our best efforts, we were forced to eat with forks, as soon as we pinched chopsticks from a spare place setting the waitress came by and cleared them away - twice! We settled on three dishes - two mains and an entree. First up were the 'chicken' satay sticks (RM6, ~$2). The faux-chicken was well put together, but was really just a vessel for the wonderfully spicy and peanutty sauce.

We couldn't resist ordering the fanciest thing on the menu as one of our mains - the chef's speciality ginger fish (RM28, ~ $10).

This was the most amazing faux-fish I've ever tasted, with tender 'flesh' and slightly crispy skin, swimming in a rich ginger and coriander sauce. The fish had been embedded with a few big chunks of ginger as well, giving it a depth of flavour that took it well above the usual fake fish delights.

Finally, we also went with the Ayam Masak Merah (red-cooked chicken, RM8, ~ $3), a tomato and chilli based dish with just the right amount of bite.

We had a cracking lunch at Mei Lin - possibly the best faux-meat meal that I've had anywhere, and certainly the best value. As we were about to leave, one of the other customers friendlily grabbed us and told us about two other nearby vego places: MG's cafe and Simple Life, neither of which we ended up trying. Still, MGs hadn't turned up in my internet searching during our Melaka-planning, so it was good to know that there were some other well-located options out there for vegos spending more than a day or two in town.

Re-energised, we headed back out into the heat to finish our walking tour, wandering mostly around the streets of Chinatown. The dragons adorning the Eng Choon Association building were a particular highlight.

Again the heat started to knock us around, so we ducked into a cafe for our first shot at a weird Malaysian speciality: Cendol.

Cendol is an icy concoction made up of coconut milk, green noodles, red beans, sugar and shaved ice. It's a little strange, but incredibly cooling and quite tasty. We'd return to cendol a few times in the coming days to help us get through the sweltering Malaysian heat.

We had a bit more walking left in us, swinging by the Cheng Hoon Teng temple:

and past the Kampung Kling Mosque (where we heard the evocative call to prayer).

Then it was back to the hotel for a quick rest before dinner. Unfortunately we didn't have a Friday night in Melaka to sample the famed 10-dish vegetarian feast at Selvam (which goes for a ludicrous RM6 or $2), but we decided to check this restaurant out anyway.

The vegetarian thali came in at RM6 ($2) each, and was served up on a coconut leaf and with no cutlery.

The thali consisted of a big pile of rice, two fairly dry vegie dishes, a daal, some pickles and fresh naan breads. Having watched a few more coordinated people calmly polish these off with their bare hands without smearing it all over themselves, we decided to brave it without begging for cutlery. It wasn't a pretty sight, but we quickly stopped caring, too caught up in the spicy delights in front of us. Life's pretty great when you can stuff yourself to bursting point with curry, have a lassi and a beer and still walk out having spent less than $6 in total (for both of us!).

We wandered home via the Chinatown markets, grabbing some dessert in the form of Melaka's Portugese-inspired custard tarts, which were small enough for us to squeeze in and tasty enough for us to want seconds.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

April 3, 2010: Tokyo to Melaka

After a brilliant 11 days in Japan, it was time for us to bid Matt adieu and journey out to Narita for our flight to Malaysia. We'd decided that we really wanted to go to the Jonkers Walk night market in Melaka during our time in Malaysia, which basically meant jumping in a long distance cab at KL airport and heading down south to the historic capital. We were staying right in the midst of Chinatown, just one block away from the famous night market, and by the time our cabbie had found his way through the traffic, the market was in full swing.

The airline food had been a mixed bag (note to self: from now on always order the 'Asian vegetarian' meal), so we were both ready to find some food. The market is chock full of little food stalls, but we were pretty overwhelmed on our initial wanders - lots of street-meats cooking away and masses of people everywhere we turned. My eye was caught by the words 'oyster mushrom' on this stall:

...and a quick perusal of the 4 menu items reassured us that we'd found one of the vego-specific stalls. We opted for a couple of spring rolls and a couple of vegie cakes (grand total RM7; ~$2), which were served chopped up, thrown in a plastic bag and drizzled with chilli sauce, to be eaten with a couple of wooden skewers.

The rest of the market was pretty hit and miss - lots of cheap nonsense, but also a load of cool looking food stalls: fruit skewers, weird drinks, durian lollies and dozens of little hot-plate based places. Our next stop was one of the two guys cooking up turnip cakes (which we'd been introduced to via Toby's vegan version).

Our two cakes (RM2.00, $0.85 each) were prepared fresh - he was churning them out. This was the one stall on the strip that explicitly promised 'pork free' food.  Toothpicks were the serving implement of choice this time, and this was another fried sensation. I guess when you make the same dish repeatedly thousands and thousands of times, you get pretty good at it.

The heat and the cooking smells and the people were starting to wear us down by this stage - it was quite a change from the snow we'd seen in Kyoto a few days back - so we hunted down something to drink.

At RM1.20 (~ 40 cents), the sweet sour lime and plum juice was just the ticket - tart and refreshing. By the time we'd finished our drinks, it was bed time (we'd been up very early for our flights), so we headed back to our hotel - like us, the edible-nest swiftlets that lived in the foyer had decided to hit the sack.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

April 2, 2010: Hiroshima to Tokyo

On Friday morning we embarked on our longest Shinkansen journey yet, returning from Hiroshima to Tokyo. We continued eating some of the snacks already opened, and in addition sampled these dried beans from the Nishiki Market.  The stall holder had warned us in hesitant English that these contained wasabi, which was fine by us, though we did entertain the possibility that it might be a lot more wasabi than our non-Japanese taste buds were accustomed to.  Actually, they were delicious - no hotter than the wasabi peas we've sampled in Australia, less sweet and just as addictive.

It was mid-afternoon before we found our way back to Matt's house. He'd left us a note, suggesting we take ourselves and our camera to the nearby bridge. We did just that on our way out to an early dinner booking.

My suspicions were confirmed as we approached the bridge - the cherry blossoms were finally in full bloom!

From there we travelled on to our much anticipated 6pm dinner reservation at Bon. This restaurant is best visited after making a phone reservation in Japanese, and Matt had helpfully enlisted one of his more fluent friends to make arrangements for us during the week.

We knew from the outset that our meal at Bon was likely to be a memorable one.  The English menu that we were provided later explains:

Fucha Ryori is a distinctive tradition within Shojin Ryori, the vegetarian cuisine of Zen Buddhist monks in China and Japan.  About 300 years ago it was introduced to Japan by cooks who came from China with the monk Ingen, the founder of the Chinese style temple Manpukuji, at Uji near Kyoto. This was the first temple of the Obakushu Zen sect in Japan, and since its establishment the authentic tradition of Fucha has been handed down by devotees of the sect.

The two characters used to write "Fucha" mean "drinking tea together with all people", but the word is also used to mean a meal eaten in Chinese style (each dish is served from a single large bowl) which begins and ends with tea, aiming to create friendship and peace among those eating together.

At Bon we have tried to develop a style of Fucha Ryori which, while suggesting aspects of Zen the basis of this tradition, also provides for the tastes of the general public.  In particular, we aim to provide the fine dishes from the best obtainable seasonal ingredients.

The name of our restaurant, Bon, means "Buddhist believer" and was chosen as a sign of our respect for the origins of Fucha as a way of Buddhist practise. 

We were welcomed by two middle-aged ladies in kimonos and led to our own private room, which was laid with tatami mats.  (Michael was greatly relieved to discover that, in spite of the traditional setting, the low table concealed a deeper floor space where he could stretch out his long and inflexible legs.)  Here we were left alone for some time to contemplate the table settings before us:

Of course we hadn't a clue what the paper said and after a few minutes of settling in, wondered if we should inspect the items before us.  Michael set the paper aside and opened the box underneath it, revealing what appeared to be our first course.  Like so many bento boxes before it, it looked almost too pretty to eat, and without some signal from the staff I was reluctant to start.  But more minutes passed and Michael decided to dig in.  I offered a weak protest ("They haven't offered us tea yet, don't you think they'd have poured us tea first if we were meant to eat yet?") before following his lead and ultimately being caught by one of the staff as she returned to invite us to a tea ceremony.  Damn.

As if I wasn't flustered enough, I clumsily put one of my slippered feet on the entry boards to the tea room and squeaked "Sumimasen!" when I was corrected.  Once inside, Michael struggled to fold his legs under him and I worried that I'd sat in the wrong place. The lady performing the ceremony - the one staff member who spoke a little English - smiled, gestured and said simply "Relax".  I wanted to, and her good grace in the face of our cluelessness certainly helped.

The tea ceremony was short, though quite formal and conducted largely in silence.  Our hostess gestured discreetly when it was our turn to eat or drink and at the end offered a few words of explanation, before returning us to our dining space.

Here we were finally asked for a drinks order, and provided with the 12-course menu in English.  The boxes in front of us, listed after the tea ceremony (whoops!), were clearly Shao Ping, the appetiser, and now we were allowed to eat them.  The hostess pointed out the green garnishes that weren't edible before leaving to fetch our drinks.  Yes, it was clear that we'd need this kind of hand-holding for the remainder of our visit.

She returned with these tiny cups of plum liqueur with ice, which we hadn't specifically ordered but were very pleased to try.  Apparently it's made at the restaurant and, boy, it really put the supermarket-sourced plum liqueur of our second night in Tokyo in its place.  This was something else, fragrant and sophisticated.

The second hostess (who didn't speak English) came to retrieve our boxes and instructed me to eat the black thingies on the end of the inedible green garnish before she would take it.  She made it clear that we were to eat the greenery served with our Shan Tsu course - a carrot soup with small and very dense slices of smoked tofu on the side.

Next came Shun Kan, a 'decorative presentation of cooked vegetables'.  What a stunner, huh?  I don't think I've ever seen food presentation more intricate than this.  The first hostess explained that ingredients and preparations are chosen seasonally, with the current menu celebrating cherry blossom season.  It's certainly evident here (and keep an eye out for the cherry blossom motif in the other dishes too!).

I must admit that not all of the flavours appealed to me.  The little ceramic pot at the back was full of a seaweedy soup, which Michael enjoyed but I didn't like at all.  I wasn't fond of the texture of the pink jelly on the right of the plate either.  But the tiny croquette, crumbed with crushed nuts was lovely and inside the rolled leaf in the centre was honest-to-goodness MOCHI!  Possibly my best mochi experience yet.

The Un Pen, 'a rich, traditional 17th Century Chinese soup', was another textural challenge for me.  The vegetables were nice, weakly salty, but the thickened broth didn't appeal so much.  I convinced Michael to help finish mine off - I was sure that I'd be struggling to fit everything in tonight.

The next several dishes all seemed to be part of the On Sai phase of 'water cooked vegetables of the season'.  First was this basket of sashimi-inspired vegetables, all of them bright, fresh and crisp.  The two accompanying flavoured jellies were almost off-putting in their staggering resemblance to seafood. 

These croquettes were stuffed with mushrooms, I think, and carried on the cherry blossom look.  I've no idea how they posed that zucchini-ish vegetable like that.

More amazing cherry blossom vegetables, this time with edible foil and a shell that wasn't for eating.

Ma Fu turned out to be chilled sesame tofu very much like the one we tried at Okutan in Kyoto, its denseness countered with a wasabi garnish.  This one was also set in a vinegar broth that made a cleansing finish.

Although this was not the tempura we were expecting, it fit into the fried theme.  The main feature was some very tasty, handmade faux-fish made with yuba.

We needn't have been concerned, though, as we still got tempura! (This was the Yu Ji course.)

Impeccable presentation yet again, I think this one deserves two angles to appreciate.  The net of noodles was terrific, if difficult to eat politely.

By this time I was very, very, full and almost despairing at the four further courses predicted on the menu.  Mercifully three of them arrived in one sitting - So Ju (miso soup), En Sai (pickles) and Han Tsu (white rice).  Though they were lovely (the pickles were quite special), I was spent and could do little more than pick at them listlessly.  When our hostess returned I was baffled to hear her offering more rice.  More?!  I'd barely made it through a quarter of my first bowl.

Naturally I perked up at the prospect of dessert.  (Though I can assure you it was a barely perceptible 'perk' - I really was incredibly full.)  It arrived on a dauntingly large platter but was appropriately light.

Cherry blossom icecream - dairy free and not too rich, it reminded me of the cashew-based icecreams I've made at home (though I don't think it was actually nut-based).

Fresh fruit!  The one thing I still welcome at the end of a large meal.  The apple slice had been poached in something delicious.

Finally, fruit jelly.  It had a firm set and I gave up, defeated, part-way through.

We declined our hostess' offer of further drinks and eased our way out.  By this time it seemed almost natural to bow my thanks to the women.  It had been an honour to be served such beautiful, beautiful food by such gracious people, even if we had paid (23000円 ~ $263 total) for it.  It was a very special way to spend our last night in Japan.