Delicious Indonesian Home Cooking

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My friend Russel and his wife Judy invited me to their house for lunch today.  Their Indonesian housekeeper Yati is a fantastic chef.  I have had the pleasure of sampling her food many times before, but never took any photos because the food smelled and looked so enticing that I was always too eager to begin eating.

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Yati was frying the chicken when I arrived at their house.  The whole kitchen was so aromatic that it put my salivary glands in overdrive.  She explained to me that the chicken had first been marinated and boiled before being fried.  Historically, the Indonesians didn’t keep raw meat because it would spoil quickly in the hot weather.  The meat had to be cooked immediately, then left to be cooled either under a net on the table or in a screened cabinet.  It will later be fried at meal time or whenever one is hungry.  Be it cuisine, architecture or art, it is interesting how the core of any enduring style evolves from function.  We change, we improve, we create new forms and narratives, but we always return to our original reason, our ancient roots for sustenance and inspiration.

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Today’s menu:

Semur Daging Sapi (Tangy Beef Stew)

Ayam Goreng Kuning (Golden Fried Chicken)

Tempeh Goreng (Fried Tempeh in black sweet sauce)

Sambal Goreng (Vegetables in sambal)

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Tempeh glazed in a sweet and spicy sauce

Indonesian cuisine is amongst the most intensely flavorful of all foods. Yati uses a myriad of fresh spices, many of which she grows in the back of the kitchen — turmeric root, galangal root, coriander, candlenuts, lemon basil, chili peppers, shallots, lemon grass…  Her freshly made sambal sauce is especially good.  It could make anything taste delicious.

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After today’s lunch, I could see myself coming back to Russel’s house at mealtime very frequently in the next couple of months. 

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Russel is a very successful and renowned photographer in Singapore. We became friends almost 26 years ago at the inaugural Singapore International Film Festival.  He was the only friend I actually met in a bar.  I don’t drink and almost never go to a bar; I am also extremely shy and never talk to strangers.   For some reason I was at the hotel bar that day and Russel came over to introduce himself.  He just started out his career as a photographer and he was going to have a photo session in LA, where I lived.  It must be his warm, cheerful and straightforward personality that put me at ease with him.  Throughout the years, he has been to many of my film sets and I have seen him warm up many of his subjects and make them feel comfortable to produce his best work.  Since that day, Russel and I have collaborated on many magazine shoots, but more importantly, we have been pigging out together whenever we see each other.

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My first shoot with Russel in LA

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photographed by Russel in Phuket

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In Singapore

Beauty and Love in Budapest

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After two weeks of eating in the restaurants, I finally moved back to the apartment where there is a kitchen.  I invited a couple of friends over and cooked a ton of vegetables which are usually lacking when eating in restaurants in Budapest. The tomato-egg stir-fry that I made — the most basic comfort food during my Shanghai childhood — finally alleviated my craving for home cooked food.

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After dinner, we went to an organ concert at the St. Stephen’s Basilica.  I had never before heard Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor through such magnificently booming organ pipes. The vibration shook my bones.  I was awestruck.

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We were on our way to get a post concert drink when serendipity had us run into some members of our cast and crew who were having a birthday celebration for Michelle Yeoh at a restaurant.  The ex Bond girl is playing a kick ass fighting nun in Marco Polo. 

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Michelle’s Hungarian friend knew the restaurant chef, who prepared for us sumptuous dishes that were not on the menu: minced pork stuffed paprika, beef stew, ratatouille with mixed peppers… My second dinner was an absolute feast. 

I don’t remember who started it, but after a few bottles of wine (and three sips of limoncello for me), we began taking turns to define the two most over used words with the most expansive meanings: beauty and love

Michelle Yeoh’s assistant said to Michelle, “Beauty is Michelle.”  No wonder she had worked for Michelle for 11 years.

“Beauty is what arrests you for reasons you can’t quite articulate — it’s unreasonable,” said Tim Yip, our costume designer.

“It is the purgation of superfluities,” someone quoted Michelangelo.

“Yes, it must be simple.”

“And everlasting.”

“But beauty is fleeting.”

The discussion went on and on, and no one could completely agree with the other because what lends beauty its luster is precisely this ineffable quality that escapes analysis and speaks to the imagination.

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Two years ago with Peter in Budapest on family vacation

Then we came to the definition of love, which is so all-encompassing and amorphous at the same time that anything we said paled in comparison to what we intuited it to be.  Looking back, we sounded down right corny, but we all took a moment to think about love — each carrying a private memory or longing that tugged at his heartstrings.  I immediately thought of my children, my husband and my parents, who are all far away but rooted deeply in my heart as I am rooted in theirs. 

“Body and Soul.”

“Something to die for.”

“Something to live for.”

We interjected between bites and sips, laughing at each other’s mawkish declarations.

“Love is what I’m feeling right now,” John Fusco concluded with a big smile, looking at all of us who had gathered here because he created Marco Polo.

It is mysterious and wonderful how fate brought us here — around a dining table on a cobblestoned sidewalk in Budapest from different continents sharing food, wine and friendship, contemplating beauty and love. 

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With John after dinner. St. Stephen’s Basilica in the background.

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.

Eat and Meet in Budapest

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The restaurant is in a small apartment some distance away from the center in a quiet residential district by the Danube. The Balcony where we had our lemonade and water had a pleasant view of the river.

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Audrey’s new best friend, Benedict Wong – Kublai Khan

I’m afraid last night I led my posse into a tourist trap — a gentle, cozy and innocuous one, but a trap nevertheless.  I was looking for a special and different culinary experience and came across this pop-up restaurant called Eat and Meet on tripadvisor.com.  The reviews were fantastic.  It was rated as #7 out of 1,971 restaurants. I was ready to be wowed.

The hosts are Susie the Mother, Susie the Daughter and Frank the Father.  Since we were never given their full names I am now not sure if these are their real names or just their “stage names” — easy to use and remember for the tourists.

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Susie the Daughter would gently but firmly shush us in mid sentence whenever a dish or wine was presented to give us the history, background or benefit of each item.  After a while, some of us stopped paying attention and carried on with our conversation and Susie was somewhat at a loss as to how to proceed, as if we had deviated from the script.  I noticed that Audrey was always listening even when the region of the wine production didn’t really interest her.  I felt secretly proud that my daughter had good manners and was kind. 

I think for ordinary tourists who are in Budapest for two three days, this contact with a nice local family might be enchanting. But we are no ordinary tourists, and they are no ordinary local family. They are in the tourism business, and we are that strange species called film crew — seasoned travelers who feel at home wherever we happen to film.  We go to work everyday like the locals.  We shop groceries like the locals.  We drive around the city armed with GPS as if we know it like the locals.  A tourist trap was the last place we would like to find ourselves in, though quite a few from our party were rather amused by the whole situation. 

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The appetizers were fresh vegetables, cured meats, fresh and smoked cheese and cold fried pork fat. The main course was baked chicken breast wrapped around prunes, served with stewed apple and rice.  Dessert was a lemony fresh cheese, whipped cream, fruits and semi sweet cookie crumbs.  The appetizers were interesting — probably the best part of the dinner, though cold fried pork fat sounded like something I would make someone eat if he lost a bet.  To be fair, Dan Minahan, one of our producer/directors, did love the fried pork fat and said it was his favorite.  The baked chicken was unfortunately as dry as cardboard.  For 30 Euros per person in Budapest, even with the wine pairing, the food quality was not worth it.  I felt really bad for having led everyone into the trap.  If the family simply talked to us like real people about any topic instead of giving us a rehearsed speech about the food, we would have found the authenticity and the connection priceless.

Thank goodness for friendship and camaraderie, we enjoyed this shared experience and laughed about it afterwards. When I look at the photos I took, I remember mostly of the fun conversation and warm laughter we shared.  After we came back to the hotel, Audrey said, “They probably just hit a low point in their cooking tonight.”  She is always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and made me feel that I might be too harsh in my judgement.

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Palinka helped

We used Uber in Budapest for the first time this weekend.  Audrey and I went everywhere with Uber and found the rides at least 50% cheaper compared to the taxi cabs.  Some in the crew told me that the taxi drivers are not always straight when it comes to fares.  Uber is definitely the way to go.  

London Bridge Is Falling Down, Falling Down…

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On Waterloo Bridge with Big Ben in the background

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On Waterloo Bridge with London Eye in the background

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London Eye

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The Lion King in Lyceum Theater

The reason that I did not update my blog for a while is because I took Audrey on a whirlwind visit to London.  Our four days there were packed  The Lion King, British Museum, dinner parties, shopping and best of all: time with friends.  We stayed with my friends Hanan and Shamim, who were the warmest of hosts anyone could have. They are both foodies, and like mine, their two large refrigerators are always full.  When it comes to eating, Hanan errs on the side of extravagance.  The day we got there, they had a few friends over for dinner, but they prepared enough food to feed a battalion.  Hanan was the first person to introduce me to Lebanese cuisine when we met 20 years ago.  And how we met was an incredible story that I had shared in one of my earlier blogs.  I was so happy to taste her lemony chicken with hummus, fried garlic and pine nuts again.  And her flat bread sprinkled with ground thyme, sumac powder and sesame seeds was so delicious that I had to ask for the recipe.  I will try to make the bread in the near future and share with you my result.

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When Audrey told some of the crew members from London that she was going to visit their city for the first time, they asked her what she was going to see there.  I was surprised to hear her answer.  Other than London Bridge from the nursery rhyme, the only things she had heard of were London Eye, Top Shop and Primark.  There is a Chinese proverb 读万卷书行万里路. It means traveling 10,000 miles is as good as reading 10,000 books.  Our London trip has been eye opening for Audrey, who now remembers London as a historically rich, culturally vibrant city with some of the world’s best museums, theaters and restaurants.

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British Museum

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Waffle from the waffle truck in front of the British Museum

As Audrey and I walked across Waterloo Bridge, I told Audrey about how the film Waterloo Bridge starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh was one of the two Hollywood films that I had seen before I left China in 1981.  In my teen mind, the black and white bridge in the fog was the most romantic place on earth.  In those days, Chinese films were made exclusively as Communist propaganda, but before a film went into production, the director could request to watch “foreign reference films” that were strictly forbidden for the general public.  Those discretionary screenings were the most coveted privileges in the film industry reserved for the few top department heads and lead actors.  The only other Hollywood film that I had seen was Julian from Lilian Hellman’s book Pentimento.  Many of the films I saw since then have faded from my memory — sometimes as soon as I left the theater, but those two films from so long ago have been branded in my mind’s eye.  They had been the oasis of my cultural desert.

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I caught a cold on the second day there when Audrey and I went on the London Eye.  I have since lost my voice.  I hope that my voice will return by tomorrow when I get to the set.  

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Hanan, Shamim and their two boys with Audrey and me

Tabouleh Duty

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I was in London filming Judge Dredd when I first tasted the refreshing lemony flavor of tabbouleh.  I took the part of the villain in Judge Dredd because it was a paying job and because it filmed in London.  What’s great about making films is that something wonderful always happens even when the film is not worthy.

Before I went to London, I was on a flight from Singapore to Shanghai.  For some reason, I got to talk to the passenger next to me, which was something I almost never did or do.  Samuel was his name and he worked for Pfizer in Asia.  I remember talking to him about my mother’s interest in flax seed that grew in the Northwestern part of China and if Samuel thought Pfizer would be interested in collaborating with my mother on making the gel capsules.  Samuel was not interested in flax seed, but he chatted with me for the rest of the trip.  He told me that he had a girlfriend in London.  I said that I would be going to London in a couple of weeks and he insisted on giving me his girlfriend’s contact in London.  Her name was Hanan Kattan.

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Hanan and her family

I thought to myself, I’d be crazy to call someone whose contact was given to me by a total stranger sitting next to me on the plane.

Two weeks after the encounter with Samuel, I arrived in London.  It was late autumn and rainy.  I spent a couple of wet days in the the hotel room, with occasional sessions of physical training and costume fitting.  Perhaps I was lonely or perhaps I felt adventurous.  I took out Hanan’s number and called her.  I’ve always been socially awkward and fearful of meeting new people. But I met Hanan on a wet and cold autumn day and we ate tabbouleh and a dozen other dishes in a Lebanese restaurant, and the next day I moved into her family’s swanky apartment in Mayfair London.  This whole thing was entirely and utterly out of character for me.  I don’t even know why I kept Samuel’s card with Hanan’s number on it.  Fate is mysterious.  We have been friends for 20 years.

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Ingredients:

1/2 cup fine bulgur

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cup boiling-hot water

1 cups finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint

2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

1/2 seedless cucumber*, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4-inch pieces

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Boil water with salt and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pot.  Add bulgur when water is boiling and turn off the fire and let the bulgur sit for 15 minutes.  Discard water and let the bulgur cool.

Mix the cut vegetables, lemon juice and olive oil with bulgur and leave in the refrigerator for 1 hour before serving.  If you are pressed for time, you can serve the dish right away, but it gets better after sitting in the fridge for an hour.

PS: The saga of the Pumpkin Man, I’m afraid, is never ending.  Day 4.  I have by now completely perfected my creamy pumpkin soup.  I ate the soup with a dash of cinnamon today.  I can’t believe it, but so far I still enjoy it.

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