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.

The Best Sandwiches in the World Here in Budapest

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We might have found the world’s best sandwich joint on a narrow cobblestoned street in the old Jewish quarter of Budapest: Bors Gasztrobár.  We went there for the first time yesterday after our visit at the Hungarian National Museum.  Audrey doesn’t like museums in general.  The only one that she’s ever truly enjoyed was Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, where they exhibit clever mechanical gadgets and toys of a bygone era.  Visiting the Hungarian National Museum was not exactly something on her to do list here. 

Audrey was tired, hungry and in an irritable state after three hours in the stuffy museum.  It was a 15 minutes walk from the museum to Bors Gasztrobár, and when we arrived we saw a big crowd waiting in and around the tiny joint.  There was no place to stand, let alone sit.  I almost regretted going there. 

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Much to my relief, the line moved quite fast and the menu looked really interesting and enticing.  The atmosphere, too, was youthful and pleasant.  The two owners and their two staffers handled the orders with a light-hearted briskness, but nothing was rushed.  They acted as if they were the hosts of a party — just having a great time with their guests. 

Audrey ordered Ham Baguette, and I ordered French Lady.  We had wanted to take the sandwiches back to our hotel to eat, but they arrived piping hot in paper bags.  It would be a shame not to eat them right then and there. The Ham Baguette had in it veal ragout, hamburger sauce, home-made pickles and cheddar cheese, while French Lady had in it raspberry onion jam, roast chicken and Edamer cheese.

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Audrey’s eyes lit up when she took her first bite and devoured her 12 inch baguette sandwich in a matter of minutes.  Between bites she declared that this was the best sandwich she’d had in her entire life.  I couldn’t agree with her more.  Those sandwiches were peerless — perfectly crunchy on the outside, cheesy and saucy on the inside, and simply bursting with flavor.

Sandwiches are not something I usually get excited over, but the first thing Audrey and I uttered to each other this morning was how delicious those baguettes were.  I had a rehearsal today in the outskirts of Budapest and immediately after we came back, we went to Bors Gasztrobár.  It was 3:30 in the afternoon and the place was less crowded.  We ordered exactly the same sandwiches that we had eaten yesterday.  I suppose we will move on to other sandwiches eventually, but for today we just wanted to relived the experience of yesterday.  And amazingly we did.

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Let me not forget to mention the price.  It is just as unbelievably good as the food.  The most delicious sandwich in the world costs 780 forint, about US$2.80 each. 

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After all the heavy restaurant food that we have been eating, I had a craving for pickles.  Since I didn’t have a mason jar, I made a quick pickled radishes in the mugs.

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Pickled Radishes

Ingredients:

1 bunch fresh radishes, thinly sliced

1/2 small daikon, sliced

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

Radish leaves, tender parts only

1 cup or more rice vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoon sugar

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Preparation:

Mix the vinegar, salt and sugar in a container.  Marinate the carrots and radishes for 30 minutes or longer.

We discarded the marinade and and squeezed a little lemon juice on the radishes.  Then we ate them with the tender radish leaves like a salad.  It was a much needed and refreshing change from the heavy Eastern European diet that we’ve been keeping.

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Palatial Bookstore & Braised Cauliflower

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Audrey and I found the most amazing book store today within a few blocks from our hotel.  It is called Alexandra Bookstore.  We later learned that Alexandra is a chain of bookstores and the one we came upon is located in an Art Nouveau building that was once the Paris Department Store.  The café on the third floor, Lotz-Terem, is decorated with beautiful chandeliers and a fresco-style ceiling, painted by Károly Lotz, a prominent 19th century artist of German origin who lived and worked in Budapest.  I have been to many bookstores around the world and this is certainly one of the most palatial and grandiose.  What’s most interesting is that bottles of wine are sold along side the books — what splendid intoxication of the senses and the mind.

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Since we couldn’t read most of the books there, we browsed for a while and then had lunch in the cafe.  Sitting there sipping my coffee, I felt as if I entered a time capsule of an earlier era.  The atmosphere of the entire space suggests a reverence for books — I suppose reverence is not really the right word — one is simply reminded of the wonderful pleasure of reading.  I am so glad that we wandered in by chance.  I see myself going back there again and again in the months ahead.

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In the past few days of exploring the city, I found that the people here truly appreciate their authors or at least they did.  I have seen streets, restaurants, parks, and even dental buildings named after them.  I have also seen bronze statues of Hungarian writers all over the city.  I would google the name of a statue that I passed by and quite a few times it was an author.

Palace-like bookstores and streets named after authors — for someone who loves books, how can I not fall for this city?

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People also revere their musicians here. Audrey imagining Liszt as her piano teacher.

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Audrey getting chummy with a famous Hungarian author on the bench.

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After days of heavy restaurant food, Audrey and I stayed in our apartment and cooked some vegetables for dinner.  Since I only have the most basic ingredients, I made this simple braised cauliflower and bell pepper with olive oil, garlic and spaghetti sauce.  It’s quite delicious.  There is no measuring tools in the little kitchenette.  I cooked in the old fashioned way — by tasting the food until it was perfect for me.

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Braised Cauliflower

Ingredients:

1 small cauliflower, florets of

1 large red bell pepper, diced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

Olive oil

Spaghetti sauce

Salt

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Preparation:

Heat olive oil on medium high.  When the oil is hot, add crushed garlic and stir until aromatic.  Add cauliflower and bell pepper and sauté for about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add salt and continue to stir for a couple of minutes.  Add water and close the lid for 3 to 5 minutes depending on how soft you like your cauliflower.  If you like it on the crispy side, shorten the cook time.  If your cauliflower is large, sauté in two batches.  Add spaghetti sauce and stir until all liquid is absorbed.  Serve immediately.

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Audrey said that she would read more and love reading more if she could read her books here.