A weekend of scuba diving and epic scooter rides

Back at home, viciously hacking at coconuts. Both hands on the knife, don't worry!

At home in Ubud, viciously hacking at coconuts. Both hands on the knife, don’t worry!

This past weekend we had a few extra days off, so we fired up our little scooter and headed off to the most Northwestern point on the island of Bali for a bit of scuba diving.

So proud of our progress...3 hours in.

So proud of our progress…3 hours in.

Up and over the mountains!

Up and over the mountains!

After stopping for lunch (twice) and six hours of bouncing along on the back of our scooter, we rolled into the town of Pemuteran around 5pm. We immediately headed to the dive shop to plan out the diving for the next few days. The remainder of the evening was spent healing our sore bums.

Our lovely dive shop, so professional, so friendly.

Our lovely dive shop, so professional, so friendly.

Orange juice with chocolate sauce? Why not!

Orange juice with chocolate sauce? Of course!

Friday morning found us at the dive shop, getting outfitted with wetsuits, masks, fins, etc. After fantastic PADI Scuba Refresher coursework and a skills dive with our delightful instructor, Adrian at Reef Seen, we were prepared to dive Menjangan Island the next day. We were both so glad we took the full refresher course, it was great to get back in the water, practice some buoyancy skills, and get our confidence back for a full day of diving on Saturday.

Breakfast view from our hotel in Pemuteran.

View from our hotel room in Pemuteran.

Menjangan Island is beautiful. It’s status as a national park ensures that the coral is thriving, we were both really taken aback by the different colors of hard and soft coral. Unfortunately don’t have an underwater camera, but thanks to a very generous guest on the boat, we have some photos of us getting ready to start our second dive. Yay!!

Almost ready.

Checking all my equipment.

I'm always the slow poke when it comes to getting ready.

I’m always the slow poke when it comes to getting ready.

Zev & I all geared up!

All geared up!

Swimming off through the jellyfish, ouch.

Swimming off through the jellyfish, ouch.

The diving was lovely, and although we didn’t see any big fish the different varieties of coral wafting in the current was really breathtaking and all of the tiny reef fish were so colorful flitting about in the clear water.

The ride back to Ubud was surprisingly painless, there was so much to see along the roadside, including fruit bats, Babi Guling (roast suckling pig), and overloaded scooters. We even stopped by a local community center to catch a children’s dance competition.

The sounds of gamelan drew us towards this adorable scene.

The sounds of gamelan drew us towards this adorable scene.

You know, transportation in Indonesia.

You know, transportation in Indonesia.

Another local delicacy, crocodile shaped cheese puffs.

Another local delicacy, crocodile shaped cheese puffs.

Fruit bats

Fruit bats.

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For the low price of $3, tourists can put the fruit bat on their crotch, we refrained. We’re on a budget, folks.

Roast sucking pick, which becomes the famous dish 'babi guling.'

Roast sucking pick, part of the famous dish ‘babi guling.’

Babi Guling

Babi guling, can’t get enough of this.

We’re in Bali

In the two or so weeks since Kuala Lumpur, we’ve flown to Bali, found an apartment, and started volunteering! We will be living in Ubud, Bali for the next 6 weeks and are visiting a friend who runs a chocolate factory. My consumption of hot chocolate has been really out of control lately, and both of my bathing suits had elastic blowouts. These events are completely unrelated, I tell myself…

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Each day we have been getting up early to go running, which our Balinese neighbors seem to think is pretty amusing. We are discovering the local coffee shops and grocery stores. The non-nomadic life is proving to be a delightful change of pace. Personally, I thrive on a regular schedule and always need some regular exercise time and fresh veggies, so life in Ubud has been treating me well. Many of the restaurants in town serve Indonesian food with a healthy slant, as opposed to China where we struggled to find a single green vegetable, even one cooked within an inch of it’s life. Here it’s all about raw, vegan, vegetarian, etc etc. Gimme more juice! I can’t get enough of the yummy food here.

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Since arriving in Ubud we have rented a little ‘villa’ which is essentially a hotel room with a fridge and hot plate. Our property has a pool, which we share with our upstairs neighbor, the only other person on the property. Mornings are relaxed affairs, involving lots of chopped mangoes, papayas, and bananas and the occasional bowl of western cereal.

Today is a national holiday, so we have a 4-day weekend and off on a 4 hour motorbike ride to go scuba diving in the Northwest corner of the island. Last weekend we went snorkeling, and I totally fell in love with it all over again. We both really enjoy swimming out in the ocean and seeing the reef fish flitting about beneath the crystal clear water. I love that you can dip your head underwater and hear all the clicking and minute sounds of the reef life.

From around the web:

My packing list looks exactly like this one  oh wait, no it doesn’t! It doesn’t feature my stained and raggedy jacket, or my blown out undies, or the bedraggled shirts that seem to keep limping along. Oh, if only travel was that glamorous.

Also, Seinfeld’s new show, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, is hilarious.

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Cooking Class in Kuala Lumpur

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We made a quick visa run to Kuala Lumpur in the first week of January. This was our second time in the city, and we quickly fell under its spell again. Based on our memories from our 2010 trip to Malaysia, we remembered a place of cheap and impossibly delicious food, friendly people at every turn, and impressive shopping mega malls. Kuala Lumpur is a shopping destination, and although shopping isn’t our forte, the malls are worth a visit for the food courts alone. On our second visit, the city lived up to our expectations and left us scheming for a third visit.

While we were in town, we made sure to eat copious amounts of spicy, delightfully rich South Indian food. If you’ve been watching on Instagram (@elizaq and @zevowitz), you know we started most days with milky tea and Roti Canai, a breakfast dish of flaky flatbread served with a dish of soupy and spicy, yet delicately sweet curried lentils as a dipping sauce.

We also managed to take an ‘Authentic Malay’ cooking class at LaZat, located in the suburbs of KL and run by Ana Abdullah, a delightfully chatty woman whose personal mission is to spread the art of Malay cuisine to one and all! A rare avid home cook in a bustling modern city, Ana found herself with a constant stream of requests from non-cooking friends to cater events and gatherings. Acutely aware of the perils of opening a restaurant, and genuinely concerned by the loss of traditional recipes and cooking skills she saw among her friends, Ana decided to open an cooking school. She still caters for friends, conditioned only on their children attending her classes to keep traditional Malay cooking alive. Since opening Lazat, Ana has trained and collaborated with countless chefs opening Malaysian restaurants around the globe and diners around the world are eating her family’s recipes.

The most noteworthy element of her class is her insistence on cooking technique and the secret steps that make home-recipes so special. In Ana’s cooking class, it really felt like you were learning how to cook, not just how to make a particular dish. She and her co-instructor Sue are prototypical mother-feeder personalities and the class was a welcome experience for two travelers longing for some home cooking.

The main event of the cooking class was Beef Rendang, a sweet and spicy coconut milk stew traditionally prepared for large ceremonies and events in villages. Like many Southeast Asian stews and curries, Rendang starts with a paste of chilies, garlic, shallots, and other aromatics, which you sauté before adding the meat and liquid. Think Southeast Asian mirepoix or soffrito.

The trick to cooking with Rendang or curry pastes is to cook them until they begin to release oil. Depending on how much you’re making, and the heat of the pan, this can take varying amounts of time. If you don’t cook the paste long enough, you won’t get its full flavor in the dish. Ana explained that you know you’ve done it right when, after you add the meat and water, oil floats to the top of the pot. We all got it right, so I couldn’t tell you what to do if oil doesn’t float to the top though…

Rendang gets reduced twice, once after the addition of water and the second after the addition of coconut milk, and is traditionally served when it has reached a dry, oily paste that is intensely aromatic, sweet, and mildly hot. Mixing it in with steamed rice opens up its tremendously complex bouquet of lemongrass, coconut, garlic, and chilies. The beef is beyond tender and I can only imagine how much better it would have been after a day in the fridge, had we been able to keep ourselves from eating it all.

For dessert, we got to play with a whole bunch of new ingredients and techniques, the end result of which was a rice ball filled with coconut and palm sugar and covered in coconut cream. I’ve never worked with rice-flour before, but have always loved the clean taste and glutinous consistency. Now that I know how easy it is to use, a homemade Mochi is definitely on my recipe to-do list once we have a real kitchen again.

Our instructor, Sue, was as sweet as can be. She took us around the local market and introduced us to all of the local vendors. We were particularly taken by Rose, a real character who ran the local spice shop. She implored us to come back to KL and import a nice American man for Sue to date :).

The atmosphere of the market and the cooking school was so welcoming and friendly that Zev and I began plotting ways to get back to Kuala Lumpur for longer than just a weekend.

Myanmar Cooking Class

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Written a few days ago, when we were without internet:

Happy New Year!

The past few days we have been relaxing at Ngwe Saung Beach in the southwest of Myanmar. Lonely Planet describes Ngwe Saung as having ‘a palpable abandoned aura.’ Although this may be a slight exaggeration, there is so little to do on this strip of sand that one is forced to relax. It has been a breath of fresh air after hectic non-stop travel. We have taken plenty of downtime while traveling, but this is the first opportunity to do so without a smidge of guilt. There are no pagodas that we should be seeing, no one-day-only markets or limited museum hours that we could be missing. Each day begins when the electricity stops and the fan in our room grinds to a halt at 6am. It ends around 9pm when every restaurant in town closes. There is not much nightlife anywhere in Myanmar. I feel confident that when we leave on January 2nd, Zev will have fully mastered the art of relaxing.

Zev’s birthday was on the 29th, which we celebrated by picking crabs drenched in curry powder, gorging on Tiger Prawns and having a spa spree, and of course blowing out a candle atop a slice of chocolate cake.

So maybe we have been doing a few things while relaxing at the beach…. I learned how to drive a geared motorscooter (big thanks to Zev for his bravery as a passenger and instructor), this is a big deal because I have been terrified of driving one ever since I tipped over and nearly squished my sister, the passenger at the time. (Perhaps she can elucidate the unfortunate incident in the comments section, as I recall she has a particularly vivid recollection of what happened.)

We also went snorkeling twice with only once getting scrapped against some sharp rocks.  Marine life spotting has been limited to small fish of different types, a grouper, and an eel! I wouldn’t say that the snorkeling here is great, but the very clear water and thriving coral reefs make it engaging enough for a few hours. And personally, I enjoy seeing the tiny brightly colored coral fish flitting about.

Upon arrival at the beach I embarked on a coconut water binge, vowing to consume at least one coconut a day. So far, so good. I looooove the super cheap coconuts here ($.75) and the vendors will even hack it open when you’ve drunk the water so you can scoop out the translucent flesh. Delish!

Earlier this week in Bagan we took a Burmese cooking class at ‘Flavor of Myanmar.’ Bagan is known for its ancient stupas and temples, but sometimes you can get templed out. The food here has been tasty, lots of mild (and sometimes greasy) curries, and unusual salads including the ubiquitous tea leaf salad which is tart and bitter with pickled fermented tea leaves, fried lentils, sesame seeds, and an assortment of other savory tidbits.

The class began early in the morning with a market visit. Unlike previous cooking classes in which the instructor walks you around and shows various local fruits and veggies while giving the name and purpose, this one had a much more interactive element! We were each given woven bamboo shopping baskets, containing a parasol, a shopping list and 2,000 kyat ($2.40). The grocery list gave phrases in English and Burmese that would come in handy while navigating the marketplace. We learned how to ask the vendors whether or not they had an item, how much it was, and to bargain down the price. With our allotted budget, we each set off to haggle our way around the marketplace acquiring ingredients for the course. It was delightful to interact with the vendors and joke and laugh with all the ladies in the market as they tried to understand our attempts at Burmese.

We returned to the cooking school and received a booklet which had all of the recipes typed out with detailed instruction. After watching a demonstration of the first dish, the ubiquitous ‘Myanmar Chicken Potato Curry,’ we retreated to our individual stations and attempted to duplicate what the instructor had created. It is always funny to see how disparate the final result can be from the demo.

Of all the dishes we made, the Chicken Potato Curry was the most typical and also our personal favorite.

Chicken Potato Curry

Serving: 1

Method of Preparation: Sauté/ simmering in 2inch deep sauté pan

Ingredients:

80g chicken, cubed (ed. dark meat preferred for tenderness and best flavor)

1 medium potato, par boiled until just tender and quartered

1 teaspoon turmeric powder (1/2 tsp for marinade, remainder for cooking)

80g shallots, minced

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 tbsp ginger, grated or minced

1 tsp red chili powder, or more depending on level of spiciness

2 tsp fish sauce (1 tsp for marinade, remainder for cooking)

2 heads lemon grass, crushed

½ cup water

handful cilantro leaf chopped roughly, for garnish

salt and pepper, to taste

Marinate the chicken:

Wash the chicken and cut into medium pieces. Mix thoroughly with salt, pepper, turmeric powder, and a bit of fish sauce. Marinate for 10 minutes to 1 hour.

Cooking:

This recipe cooks quickly, so be sure to have all ingredients prepped and at hand.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the turmeric, and just as it begins to turn color, but before it burns (not more than 30 seconds), add the shallots and sauté until golden brown.  Add garlic and ginger together, sauté until fragrant. Add 1 tsp fish sauce. Add red chili powder and stir; almost immediately (count 5 seconds) add chicken, potato, and lemongrass.  Add ½ cup water to avoid sticking and cover tightly.
Cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove lid, reduce heat, and simmer until liquid has evaporated and the chicken is tender, adding more water as necessary.

When the oil separates from the gravy, remove from the heat. Season with salt pepper, and additional fish sauce, to taste. Discard the lemongrass and serve, garnishing with the cilantro leaves.  Serve with rice.