Coconut Mango Rice Pudding



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. 


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. 



Black rice

Coconut milk from can

Fresh coconut juice

fresh ripe mangos

mini bananas (optional)

Pinch of salt



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.


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

Marco Polo Kitchen


Chef Duyen making green papaya salad



Fish wrapped and baked in turmeric coconut milk and fresh herbs



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.







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.


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



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!




Lady’s Fingers & Some Other Musings


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.


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.


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?  


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.

Healthy Chocolate Pecan Pie


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  It is low-sugar, gluten-free, vegan, nutritious and most importantly quite delicious. 


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



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.)


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



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.



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

Cauliflower Steak with Garlicky, Nutty, Cheesy Mashed Cauliflower


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.



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


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.


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



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.


A Slovakian Lunch to Remember



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. 


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.  


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. 




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.