Coconut Mango Rice Pudding

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The local schools have stopped classes for a few days because of air pollution, and all of us have been advised to stay indoors whenever we can.  The forecast is that the haze will last for at least another month. To chase away the gloom, I set out to buy some flowers for the apartment.  According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “We are made immortal by the contemplation of beauty.”  Immortality seems too enormous a claim, but I do believe in beauty’s curative powers.

I love orchids and have always had them around the house when I am home.  I naively thought there must be amazing orchid selections in this tropical town, but it turned out that people here don’t really care about orchids. 

First I went to a florist, but they carried mostly silk flowers and some cut fresh flowers.  Then I went to a nursery that had a couple of pathetically drab hanging orchids that would only make one sad looking at them.  According to the owner of the nursery, orchids are not worth the trouble because no one buys them.  He sells mostly bonsai trees that symbolize longevity, or “money trees” that bring wealth.  I ended up buying a small “money tree” from him simply because it’s got robust green leaves.  The third place I visited did have a few small orchids — the kind Trader Joe’s at home sell for seven dollars each including the porcelain pot. This flower shop sells it for sixty five ringgit each.  That’s the price of a full body massage for an hour.  I’m puzzled by the fact that flowers or other plants are considered extravagant in a place with such abundant sunshine and water. Or “extravagant” is the wrong word completely — perhaps flowers or plants are simply irrelevant in people’s lives here.  This town was build on land that a few short years ago was tropical jungle and plantations, but now the pool in this luxury service apartment is decorated with plastic trees. 

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My two orchids fit perfectly into my two tea mugs

After my orchid hunting adventure, I made myself a coconut mango rice pudding.  Malaysian mangos are in season.  They are so sweet that I hardly need to add any sugar to the dish.  I made the black rice with half coconut milk and half fresh coconut water.  When the rice is cooked, I added the sliced mangos and mini bananas.  Simple and delicious. I imagine a little ground cardamom powder would add another dimension to the pudding, but I haven’t yet stocked up my little kitchen with spices.

With my orchids and my pudding, I could almost forget the hazardous haze outside my window. 

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Ingredients:

Black rice

Coconut milk from can

Fresh coconut juice

fresh ripe mangos

mini bananas (optional)

Pinch of salt

Sugar

Preparation:

There is no measuring utensils in the kitchen.  I  made the rice pudding by feel.

Cook the rice with coconut water  and a pinch of salt according to package direction.  Add coconut milk, sugar and stir and cook until creamy.  Turn off stove and stir in sliced mangos and bananas.  Garnish with more fresh sliced mangos and bananas.

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The merit of the dish is the quality of the mangos. These mangos made the simple recipe worthwhile.

Marco Polo Kitchen

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Chef Duyen making green papaya salad

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Fish wrapped and baked in turmeric coconut milk and fresh herbs

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I had a tour of the Marco Polo kitchen and met the people who cook two meals a day for many hundreds of us cast and crew.  It was pre-lunch hour and the whole place was an organized frenzy — every pair of hands was busy slicing, chopping, stirring, tossing, kneading, frosting.  I was surprised to see that our morning sausages are actually homemade from our own kitchen.  Every cooking station fascinated me and I lingered for quite a while.  I wanted to stay longer, but felt like a sixth toe and somehow in everybody’s way.

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Homemade sausages

When I first arrived in the studio, I met our assistant head chef Duyen Hackett and she asked me what I would like to eat when I am filming.  I said simply delicious healthy food — without much expectations because of previous experiences.  Therefore I was happily surprised by what I found waiting for me in my dressing room at lunch hour.  The fusion flavored foods she had prepared for us in the past few days were really tasty and healthy.  We are sometimes many hours late when we break for lunch and the dishes have often been sitting in my room for quite a while before I get to it, but they have all been quite yummy.  Or have I simply been too hungry?  I’ve always finished everything on my plates.

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Lunch was over two hours late, but the grilled dory fish, shrimp avocado mango salad was still yummy

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We are in an area where fresh seafood is abundant.  After all the pork knuckles that I ate in Europe, I was ready to switch to fish.

Duyen has promised to give me a few of her favorite recipes in the next couple of days. I will share with you soon!

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Asian Wilted Lettuce Salad

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In anticipation of tonight’s Mid Autumn Festival pig out, and in repentance of this morning’s large starchy breakfast, I cooked myself a tasty Asian wilted lettuce salad for lunch.  I enjoy wilted lettuce salads because they resemble the lightly sautéd vegetables that I grew up on, and they are more flavorful.  Since the lettuce was wilted and less voluminous, I finished two heads of butter lettuce all by myself. 

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I don’t have any measuring utensil and made the dish by feel — tasting and adjusting as I went. 

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Ingredients:

2 small heads butter lettuce

2 red and green chili peppers each, minced or sliced, seeded if you want it less spicy

2 cloves garlic, minced

4 stocks green onion, finely chopped

1 tbs peanut oil or other cooking oil

2 tbs crushed peanuts

2 tsp fish sauce

2 tsp rice vinegar

Juice of 3 limes

1 small pack of brown sugar (from the hotel tea tray)

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Preparation:

For the dressing, I mixed fish sauce, sugar, rice vinegar and lime juice.

For the wilted lettuce, I heated some cooking oil in a wok and sautéd minced garlic, green onion and chili pepper until aromatic.  I then toss the butter lettuce in the wok and stir for 30 seconds on high heat.  Turn off stove and pour in the dressing and toss to coat.  Transfer to a large plate and top with chopped peanuts.  If you want it to be a more substantial meal, you can add boiled eggs on top, too.

Today is Angela’s lunar birthday.  In a famous Chinese poem written by Su Shi on a Mid Autumn Festival almost a thousand years ago to his brother, Su Shi telepathically wished his brother a long life through the moonbeam “但愿人长久,千里共婵娟.”  I’m sending my birthday wish to Angela via a different kind of moonbeam called “the internet,” which seems infinitely less poetic.

I found this picture of Angela on her 4th birthday at home.

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And this one in her prom dress. How she grew up seemingly overnight!

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Happy Lunar Birthday, Angela!

Missing My Moon Baby

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Tomorrow is Mid Autumn Festival when the moon will be at her brightest for the year.  In China, millions of people travel home from wherever they are to reunite with their families on this day.  The perfect full moon symbolizes the circle of togetherness and harmony.  It is the most auspicious day on the lunar calendar.  And my older daughter Angela was born on Mid Autumn Festival 17 years ago.

Yesterday, Angela had an accident that frightened me.  She bruised, cut and almost blinded her right eye on the freezer door.  As I struggled to concentrate on the scene that I was playing today, my mind wandered thousands of miles away to San Francisco.  I messed up my dialogue for the first few takes, but in the end my homesickness, my longing and regrets guided me toward the underlying emotions for the scene, in which my character’s sons were missing and she was full of regrets.

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When we broke for lunch, I found the most healthy and delicious lunch waiting for me in the dressing room.  This was such a treat after suffering from months of bad catering in Budapest.  I ate as I FaceTimed my family.  My husband, the prawn lover, was envious when he saw my lemongrass grilled prawns.  My favorite was the pomelo salad with sweet spicy Vietnamese dressing and crispy onion.  The fruit is grown locally and it is in season.  I can’t wait to try them in different salads and share them with you!  I will consult our chef and possibly learn a few dishes from her.

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Lady’s Fingers & Some Other Musings

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On the long flights that I took recently, I was able to re-read Wuthering Heights.  I found the saga from more than 200 years ago surprisingly readable — a bit like watching a TV series, except no one has to actually film it.  It’s no wonder that was how they passed idle time and lived vicarious lives in the olden times.

After spending a few days in Shanghai with my parents, I arrived in our final location: Iskandar, Malaysia.  The whole area was a tropical jungle only a few short years ago.  We finished filming Marco Polo 1st season here last summer, and there has been many new buildings erected since I left.  There are large floor-to-ceiling windows in the newly erected concrete structures that rely on around-the-clock air-conditioning. Compared to the traditional houses that rely more on low thermal building material and natural ventilation, these are definitely not sustainable.  I am staying at a brand new building where I have four air-con units blasting all the time.  My apartment is not designed with the northeast or southwest wind in mind.

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View from my floor to ceiling window

 It seems to me that architects often design the kind of buildings that sell the best at the moment.  I suppose most of them are not ambitious visionaries who give posterity any consideration.  I’m afraid that the commodification of everything inspires myopia in our creative vision — be it architecture or movie making.  After my Communist era, there was a period in my life when I worshipped the market.  I have now grown weary of it and fear it’s ever growing reach.  We are limited by the perceived commercial viability in everything we do.  Perhaps that’s why this blog is important to me.  I cultivate this tiny piece of land to grow and share what I love, and not what will sell in the market.

When I began typing, I was planing to write about the verdant tropical greens, the alternating blazing equatorial sun and passing showers, the nicely appointed apartment and the beautiful infinity pool, but instead my mind veered into a less optimistic place that resulted in this ranting.

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Traditional Malay house

Let me end on my favorite subject. Since I have not yet had time to stock up my kitchen, I had blanched lady’s fingers and instant noodles for dinner.  After blanching the okra for about 1 and half minutes to 2 minutes, I added a little premium oyster sauce and pure black sesame oil.  Sometimes that’s all it takes, especial if the vegetable is garden fresh.  Have you ever seen any lady’s fingers as fresh and as long as those?  

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Oyster sauce and sesame oil is like the Chinese version of balsamic and olive oil

This is a region famous for piquant and pungent foods from a confluence of Chinese and Malay cultures.  I look forward to share my discoveries with you soon.

Noodle Salad with Roast Chicken & Chili-Scallion Oil

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Peter and I were in the car heading out for a lunch date when Angela called. “Can we go to the Farmers Market?” She asked in a sleepy voice.  Peter began to tell her that we were on our way to lunch when I interrupted him, “Sure, Angela, we are coming back right now. Let’s go to the farmers market.”

I almost felt flattered that Angela wanted to spend time with us.  She is usually too preoccupied with her friends, school work or daydreaming to spend much time with us.  We turned the car around and dropped whatever lunch plans we had to answer her last minute invitation.

We are at this stage of parenthood.

For dinner, I reached back to my Sichuan roots and made this flavorful spicy chicken noodle salad. For the vegetarians in the house, I used baked tofu instead of roast chicken.  If you like spicy food, you must give this a try.  It is simple and delicious.

When I was setting the table, the girls were giggling and running back and forth between their rooms and the dining room.  When they finally settled down to eat, they were both wearing big sweaters, sitting hunchbacked and covering their chests with their hair. They couldn’t stop giggling.  Then I saw that they were both wearing earbuds, covered by their long hair.  It turned out that they were trying to circumvent the rule of no TV and no cell phone at the dinner table.  Are we really so tedious to talk to?

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The vegetables in the salad were from the farmers market. After reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I am more keen on eating locally grown organic food. The industrial food chain, though unavoidable at times, is simply unsustainable.

Soba Noodle Salad With Roast Chicken
And Chile-Scallion Oil

Ingredients for Chile-Scallion Oil:

3 scallions, thinly sliced

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1 to 2 star anise pods (optional)

3 dried red chili peppers, crushed into flakes (you can adjust the amount of peppers according to how spicy you want the dish to be. Mine is relatively mild because Peter doesn’t like it too hot.)

1 tablespoon graded fresh ginger

1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (optional, but really add a distinct Sichuan flavor to the dish if you can find them.)

1/3 cup vegetable oil

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Noodles And Assembly:

6 oz. Japanese soba noodles or ramen, or udon (I used soba with buckwheat and yam)

2 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

2 cups shredded roast chicken breast (I used Costco roast chicken)

2 scallions, thinly sliced

2/3 large English hothouse cucumber, thinly sliced

4 – 5 radishes, trimmed, thinly sliced

1 cup or more cilantro leaves or any sprout

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Preparation:

Chile-Scallion Oil

Cook all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat, swirling pan occasionally, until scallions and garlic are just golden brown, about 3 minutes. Let cool; transfer oil to a jar.

Noodles And Assembly

Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling water according to package directions; drain. Rinse noodles under cold water, then shake off as much water as possible.

Whisk soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and oil in a medium bowl until sugar dissolves. Add noodles, chicken, and scallions; toss to coat.

Toss with cucumber, radishes, and cilantro and drizzle with chile oil just before serving.

For a non-spicy vegetarian noodle salad with scallion oil, try my Shanghainese version.

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Adapted from bon appetit.

Healthy Chocolate Pecan Pie

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Baking is usually associated with childhood memories of birthdays or holidays.  I have often listened with envy when people talk about their grandmother’s great cherry strudel or their mother’s special peach cobbler.  For me, I had never seen an oven before I arrived in the US at the age of 20. The first time that I baked was when I lived with an old couple in Northridge, California while attending college. They generously hosted me for 2 years when I had no money to rent a place of my own.  Their names were Richard and Sandy Hyde. I still remember my own surprise when I bit into the warm chocolate chip cookie.  I couldn’t believe how something this delectable could be made so easily by me.  And the aroma! Even without the benefit of childhood memory or family tradition, I was easily convinced that the aroma of cookies baking in the oven was the conduit to happiness.

I have loved baking since that day, but nowadays I am more careful about what ingredients to use.  I don’t want to kill my family with excessive use of butter and sugar. I was delighted to find this healthy chocolate pecan pie recipe on chocolatecovderedkatie.com.  It is low-sugar, gluten-free, vegan, nutritious and most importantly quite delicious. 

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Healthy Chocolate Pecan Pie

Ingredients for Crust:

2 cups almond flour (200g)

1/4 tsp plus 1/8 tsp salt

1/4 tsp baking soda

2 tbsp xylitol (optional)

2 tbsp plus 2 tsp melted coconut oil (17g)

2 tbsp water

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Preparation:

Preheat oven to 350 F. Either grease the bottom of an 8.5 springform pan OR line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. In a bowl, combine all ingredients and stir to form crumbles. Transfer the crumbly dough to the prepared pan, and press down evenly and firmly with your hands. Bake 14 minutes.  (For a 9-inch pan, increase all ingredients by 1.5. Baking time remains the same.)

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Ingredients for Filling:

1 cup raw pecans + more for garnish (I added 1/4 cup of chopped walnuts for extra nuttiness)

1 package 12.3 oz Mori-Nu silken-firm tofu

2 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/4 tsp salt

2 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot

1/2 cup agave or pure maple syrup 

2 tbsp molasses (I used blackstrap molasses, but you can also use more agave or maple syrup)

2 tbsp cocoa powder

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Preparation:

Blend all ingredients, except pecans, in a food processor until very smooth. Then add the pecans and pulse a few times until they’re chopped. Pour into a prepared pie crust, and top with additional pecans if desired. Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees, for 45 minutes. If you serve the pie immediately, it’ll be very gooey (not necessarily a bad thing). But if you let it chill in the fridge, it firms up quite nicely the longer it sits.

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Audrey recorded me making the pie and said she’d make a cooking show for me.

Cauliflower Steak with Garlicky, Nutty, Cheesy Mashed Cauliflower

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I traveled by car and plane for more than 24 hours — to spend only a few days at home before I leave again for Asia.  On Tuesday, I finished filming on a beautiful location near Zilina, Slovakia and departed for Vienna, Austria around 6:30pm.  When I reached the airport hotel at 9:30, I debated if I should put the luggage down and have a quick visit to Old Town — I had never been to Vienna before.  It was fortuitous that I decided to check my emails before heading out.  What I saw was a disastrous email from Lufthansa to tell me simply that my Wednesday morning flight from Vienna to Frankfurt was canceled.  For the next half an hour, I frantically tried to rebook myself online, but there was no available flights from any airline to take me to Frankfurt in time to catch my flight back to San Francisco.

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Make-up touch up under the red umbrella amongst the chaos on the set.

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Resting on the grass in between shots

It turned out that there was a strike at Lufthansa and no flights from the airline could take off or land on the day I was to travel.  Panic stricken for a moment, I dashed out of my room. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that describes the heart that wants to return home as a flying arrow 归心似箭 — I suppose that was the fastest thing imaginable in the olden times. I thought of the proverb as I shot myself like an arrow across the street to the airport.  After running around like a madwoman all over the airport, I secured a ticket from Austrian Airlines to fly me to San Francisco via Washington DC.  The flight took much longer than my original itinerary, but it managed to get me home on Wednesday night.  The silver lining is that unexpected challenges like that teach us to never take anything for granted. 

For dinner, I made cauliflower “steaks” with mashed cauliflower for the girls, and beef steaks with mashed cauliflower for Peter and me.  The girls loved their vegetarian steaks.  I tasted some from their plates and they were absolutely scrumptious — if I may say so myself.  The mashed cauliflower is so creamy and satisfying that no one could believe it’s just cauliflower.

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Cauliflower Steak with Garlicky, Nutty, Cheesy Mashed Cauliflower

Ingredients for Cauliflower Steaks:

2 cauliflowers (use only the center 2 inches of each as the “steaks” and leave the rest for mashing)

Extra virgin olive oil spray

Salt to taste

A few generous dashes of ground turmeric, cumin, smoked paprika, coriander, oregano, cayenne pepper

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Ingredients for Mashed Cauliflower:

The rest of the cauliflower (florets)

4 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed (2 cloves for each batch)

2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (separated)

2/3 cup freshly shaved parmesan cheese

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

2 cups milk (1 cup for each batch)

Salt to taste

Dashes of red pepper flakes

1 clove of sliced garlic and some more pine nuts for garnish

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Preparation:

Preheat oven at 425 F.

Cut off the leaves and the stem of the cauliflowers. Slice a 2 inch thick steak from the center of each cauliflower to make the steaks.

Spray the foil lined baking dish with olive oil. Spray the “steaks” with olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt and a generous amount of the spices.

Roast the “steaks” for 25 to 28 minutes, until browned and tender in the middle.

As the cauliflower steaks are roasting, cook the rest of the cauliflower in 2 batches.

For each batch, heat 2 teaspoons oil in a pan or wok on medium high, and sauté garlic until aromatic, add cauliflower florets and stir for a minute, add salt and 1 cup of milk. Turn stove to medium low and close the lid.  Cook for about 5 minutes or until the florets are soft but not mushy.

Blend each batch of cauliflower with 1/2 of the pine nuts and parmesan in a large blender.  I did it in my Vitamix. 

For garnish, heat the last 2 teaspoon oil in a small saucepan, sauté the sliced garlic until brown and crispy, add a fistful of pine nuts.  stir for 1/2 minute and turn off stove.

Alternatively, you can also roast the cauliflower florets instead of “steaks” and serve with mashed cauliflower.

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A Slovakian Lunch to Remember

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We didn’t film yesterday because it was Constitution Day in Slovakia — a commemoration of the establishment of the Slovakian constitution when Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993. It was a warm autumn day with brilliant sunshine and a gentle breeze — a day that slowly stretched and lingered like the thread from a silkworm cocoon.  Nowhere to rush to, no schedule to follow. After a lazy morning of breakfast and reading, I went down the hotel lobby and ran into some friends.  We decided impromptu to ride the train to explore the region.  We got off in a neighboring village called Stary Smokovec — the kind of village that Disney must have modeled the sets of his fairytales after. 

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By the railway station, there was a quaint little cheese shop where they also sold goat milk ice-cream and goat milk yogurt.  My friends and I shared an ice-cream as we walked across the street to a wooden Roman Catholic church that was so small that it only had 12 short pews.  It was empty except for one old lady sitting at the last row.  I much preferred the peace and simplicity of this tiny church to the pompous, opulent ones that exude money instead of spirituality.  The beautifully worn bibles looked like they had been there since the day the church opened in 1880 — passing through generations of hands before I touched it.  

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Next to the church is the 100-year-old Grand Hotel, where we decided to have our lunch. The place did not look like it had seen much update or renovation since the early 1900s, but it was maintained with care and taste. There were very few people in the lobby other than the impeccably trained and outfitted staff members.  We walked through long silent hallways to a restaurant that was a cross between The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Shining. The immaculate and courteous waiter who took us to our table looked as if he was trained by M. Gustave himself.  As the meal went on, we all agreed that he was one of the best waiters that we had ever had.  He was attentive without being intrusive.  As a matter of fact, he would disappear until you began to sense a need, which he would anticipate.  I ordered spareribs and couldn’t resist to eat them with my fingers, which I’m sure was bad manners in a place like this. But soon after I picked up my first piece of rib, the waiter came with a bowl of lemony water for me to clean my hands. 

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The three of us talked about life — mostly love life — as we enjoyed a perfect lunch.  The dishes were exquisitely prepared.  It is by far the best food I have had in this region.

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After lunch we lay languidly on the tranquil lawn of the Grand Hotel. Time seemed to become thick, sticky and sweet like honey.

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In our world of constant speed and urgency, an excursion like this is certainly tonic to the spirit.

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