Frog Legs and Porridge

IMG_0196I will be shooting almost everyday for the rest of my stay here and will not have time to cook. As my thoughts turned to packing, I began to give away things from my kitchen.  Though I will miss cooking, I am excited to try some of the local restaurants that my friends have been telling me about.  There are many unique and delicious places in Johor if one knows where to look.  My Singaporean friends often drive across the border to eat the more authentic pepper crabs, braised duck rice noodle or crispy fried pork chop with preserved beancurd in Johor. 

Tonight, my friend Russel and his wife Judy took me and another friend to a place that specializes in frogs and porridge.  I am not exactly a frogs fan— as a matter of fact I have always been a bit squeamish about the idea of eating frogs — but I went along out of curiosity since they had been raving about it.  Am I glad I did!  It was one of the most delicious meals that I have had in Johor.  It’s interesting how we become more adventurous and game to try things when we are traveling.  That was what I did and I was amply rewarded by the experience. 

We ordered frogs in two different flavors —  Kung Pao and Ginger Scallion, along with some of their other signature dishes such as Steam Egg Custard, Crispy Pork Chops, Tofu in onion and scallion oil and Otak-otak. Their Otak-otak was especially tasty because it was made of fresh fish fillet mixed with spicy fish paste.  We ate the flavorful dishes with a pot of porridge with sesame oil and ginger.  In about 20 minutes, we finished the first pot of porridge and had to order a second pot.

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The four of us pigged out for about US$35 and could hardly move after we emptied all the plates.

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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Budapest Fast Food — Caviar

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I had the most sinister kind of nightmares last night and woke up scared out of my wits and longing for a warm body to turn to.  I fumbled for my phone and face timed Peter in San Francisco.  Words seemed completely useless as I tried to describe the images, the sounds and the sensations that I lived so vividly in the nightmares.  Peter listened sympathetically while he brushed his teeth, getting ready for bed — what a sweet and reassuring sight.  I was so happy that I caught him before he went to sleep. My stories didn’t make much sense, but the effort of recounting the nightmares made the perverse phantasm lose potency, much like the sun disperses the fog.  Dreams don’t belong to the realm of words, voicing them break their spell.  No matter how you try, you can never truly reconstruct precisely the ephemeral dreams with words.  Once spoken, they are gone.  That’s why you should never attempt to tell the ones you want to keep.

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It was hot outside and for most of the day I stayed in the room and binge watched House of Cards — occupying myself with other people’s nightmares.  After 6 episodes, I needed a break.  A little aimlessly, I walked along the now very familiar Kiraly Ut. and turned on Bajcsy-Zsillinszky Ut. toward the St. Stephen’s Basilica.  That was where I noticed a little sandwich shop called Durcin Szendvics, where for less than a dollar you could eat an open-faced caviar sandwich.  The place looked like a fast food chain, but you could see the Basilica from there (if you craned your neck a bit).  I enjoyed my caviar sandwiches in the sun as the saints peered down at me.  Had the restaurant used better bread — which is available everywhere in Budapest  this would have been a gourmet sandwich.  But I can’t complain.  Caviar for less than a dollar.  Where else do you find that? 

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The Best Italian Food in Budapest

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I took this picture on our way to the restaurant, which is a couple of minutes from here.

I love the long summer twilight in Budapest, where al fresco dining is popular and dinners turn into parties.  John Fusco, our show creator, invited some of us to his favorite Italian restaurant Da Mario for dinner.  Many years ago, John was taking his then 13-year-old son on a horseback journey through the steppes of Mongolia when the vision of Marco Polo was born to him.

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As we enjoyed our mouthwatering food, John told us about how he had discovered Marco Polo’s original testimony in the vault of the ancient San Lorenzo Church where he was buried.  In the testimony, there was a list of objects including the golden tablet from Kublai Khan that Marco Polo had bequeathed to his daughters.  Where are those valuable artifacts now?  John’s next project will be to find out their whereabouts.  I envision him to be the next Indiana Jones — only better because John is a badass martial artist.  

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I ordered grilled vegetables for starter and seafood soup as the main course.  The soup was perfectly flavored with a variety of the freshest fish, shellfish and calamari. It was large enough for two people to share, but of course I devoured it all by myself.  I also sampled pasta and pizza from my friends’ plates.  If you want excellent Italian food in Budapest, this is where you will find it.

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Toward the end of our dinner, I suddenly noticed thousands of magically glowing birds flying in the night sky circling atop the magnificent Gothic structure of the Parliament.  Many in our party also turned to gawk at this incredible sight, and a lively discussion ensued: 

“They are bats.”

“But bats don’t glide like this.  They must be birds.” 

“Most birds are not nocturnal, what are they doing this time of the night?”

“They want to show us how beautiful they are.” 

“But what is the biological advantage in that?”

“They are feeding on the insects in the sky.”

“No! It’s a mating ritual!  A lot of sex is going on up there right now!” 

“This is not the mating season.”

Mystified, we asked the waitress who was completely unimpressed by this phenomena, but she couldn’t give us a definitive answer.  She went inside to ask a colleague and came out to tell us that they were quails who lived in the nearby lake.

“Quails?  Quails are like smaller chickens.  They can’t fly like this.”

“They must be fairies, or angels.”

I sipped a little limoncello and felt satisfied with that answer.  I don’t usually drink alcohol and the few sips made me lightheaded as if I was floating.  I didn’t really need an answer.  The question of who those mysterious creatures of the night were will linger in my mind like a memorial for this gorgeous evening.

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If you click on the photo, you will see speckles of light (flying creatures) above the Parliament Building in the dark sky. I wish I had a better camera to capture the magic sight.  Da Mario is on the righthand side of the photo.

John, his wife Richela and I decided to walk back after dinner.  It was after eleven and I asked if we would get mugged by bad people.  Without batting an eyelash, John said, “I’ll kill them.”

If you want to find out more about John and his Marco Polo stories, please check out his blog.

Budapest Leisure

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I finally ate at The Bigfish Seafood Bistro, a restaurant that some of the cast and crew have been raving about.  And it is fantastic!  I honestly never believed I could get good seafood in this landlocked country until today.  It is a simple concept — you choose your fish from the ice-bed behind a glass counter and they will grill it for you. It reminded me of Peter’s favorite seafood Chinese restaurant in the Bay Area, Koi Palace, where there are tanks filled with live fish and crustaceans.  Peter, the true fish lover of my family, would have enjoyed this place.    

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My friend and I picked a whole flounder, squids and octopus.  They came on a plater grilled with olive oil, lots of garlic and parsley — simple, no fuss and mouthwatering delicious. 

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Zsevago serves only drinks and no food. And it opens only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I suppose the owner values his leisure as much as the customers.

After lunch, we roamed around the blocks and arrived at a Russian teahouse called Zsevago — a nostalgic space that looked like a stage set with old settees, divans and tables covered in old lace tablecloth.  For a couple of dollars, you can come here, order a tea and read in one of the upstair nooks or chat with friends in the living room area — where my friend and I sat.

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I have noticed that Budapest has a rich and vibrant cafe culture. There is a multitude of them within 15 minutes walk from where I’m staying.  While window display of shops in the city are often unattractive, the cafes and teahouses on the other hand are always warm, charming and enticing.  Could it be that this culture values the quality of its leisure time more than material possession?  I seem to sense contentment in the people sitting in cafes and teahouses, where time is ample and its passage sweet.

In today’s constant pursuit of efficiency and distraction, leisure has been exiled from our lives.  But is a life spent in multitasking productivity a good life?  I have my suspicions. 

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After we left the teahouse, my friend showed me the chocolate bar that she had wanted to take Audrey to.  It was closed on that day and Audrey was very disappointed.  Today, I went in her stead, in her white sandals. 

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Dark and atmospheric like an opium den, Noir ChocoBar exuded an air of decadence.   We devoured the mint and lavender flavored iced chocolate with chocolate ice cream.  I didn’t take a card from this place.  I fully intend to forget where it is and never find my way back here again.  The stuff is addictive like opium.

The Butcher & The Mother

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We were served by this owner chef today. Like in this photo, he didn’t smile much, but he did cook very delicious food.

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This grandmother is the inspiration behind According To My Mother.

I came back to Budapest without Audrey — my little companion in all the adventures here for the past month.  I woke up this morning pining for her.  Had she come back with me, we would have looked at the map together and found a new place to explore.  When I opened the suitcase that we had stored here with friends, I saw her favorite white sandals, left here by mistake, and decided to wear them for the day.

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My friend took me to a little restaurant called Butcher’s Kitchen for lunch.  The place is known for it’s sandwiches and fried potato wedges, but we decided to go low carb by ordering grilled pork neck and spareribs.  Like most other times that I went for “low carb” in Budapest, I ended up consuming a lot of carbs.  In today’s case, they were two baked potatoes with sour cream and cheese.  Those were arguably one of the best baked potatoes that I had ever had — crispy skinned, smoky flavored and with the perfect texture.  It was the smoky flavor in particular that made them special.  The joint is worth a visit just for the potatoes.  And the pork was also delicious.  Since Butcher’s Kitchen is less than 10 minutes walk from where I’m staying, I see myself coming back here again to sample the sandwiches in the near future. 

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The day’s best discovery was a tiny cafe called Anyam Szerint — According To My Mother in English.  My friend and I walked by it after lunch and were immediately drawn to the sweet aroma and aura emanating from it.  Audrey would have loved this quaint little nook filled with freshly baked desserts and confectioner’s sugar.  I could see her in my mind’s eye — standing in front of the counter, as I was, in her shoes — having the most difficult time deciding on only one piece.   

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My friend and I shared a cherry pastry that was absolutely scrumptious.  Because it was semisweet, you could really taste the fresh cherries through the airy layers of phyllo.  This is a nostalgic and cheerful place that reminds you of the gentle, warm and pleasurable moments in life. 

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