Sunday, January 28, 2007

Luncheon and Dragons

This particular Sunday was extra special. It was a day of collating all the pictures, IMovies and such from our recent Kota Kinabalu trip. Tita Socky volunteered her house to host all the chaos.

My mom prepared her Cadios beans with pork and this time she added ham bone from last Christmas, yummy. The ultimate in comfort food for our family. She also prepared her most requested Roast Pork. My husband was very excited indeed. I prepared my Maja Blanca. One of the simplest desserts to prepare. Here's the recipe:

Combine and mix well in a bowl:
2 cups (or 250 ml) coconut cream (there's no shame in using the canned variety)
1 cup cornstarch
1 big can of evaporated milk
1 can of condensed milk (you can use the low fat kind)
1/4 cup sugar
1 can cream style corn

Mix mix mix. Until the cornstarch and the sugar are dissolved.
Transfer to a non-stick pot over low heat. Continue mixing so that it doesn't stick to the pot, keep an eye on it or it will burn. I like to use a heat-proof spatula when mixing (Available at SM for P100). When it's almost gelled together (about 15-20 minutes), immediately transfer to a greased container. Let cool and refrigerate. That's it. No muss, no fuss. Dessert making for dummies.

Poch also prepared Fettuccine with aligue (crab fat) Oh, my arteries will forever be damaged. Pero masarap eh :-) She also made salad with mango poppy dressing. My husband launched a discussion about eating poppy seeds. Per Mythbusters, eating poppy seeds two days (?) prior to a drug test will render you positive for narcotics. Better stay away from poppy seed cake when renewing your driver's license. You know, just to be sure.

Merienda is a cornucopia of lunch left overs, Australian chocolates with wine, Colombelle white wine and buttered toast with matamis na bao (coco jam) from Pan de Manila. First time I tried it. Good eats. No wonder my pamankins were lapping it up. Who cares if our stomachs were a jumble of foods not meant to be eaten together?!

We had an added bonus of dragon dancers complete with drums and cymbals making rounds within the subdivision. It turned out that it was Fiesta time. What a treat! The kids were screaming with excitement.

Ah, Sunday is the best day of the week. A day full of food, family and dragons. What could be better?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Exploring Indonesia, Part 3: Within Jakarta

While we were in Indonesia. I decided to do a bit of souvenir shopping. After seeing some handicrafts from some Indonesian stores here in Manila, I decided to try my luck finding some handicrafts for the house. Browsing through my map (which is available for free at the airport), I went to an open-air antique market in Surabaya. About 20 minutes away from the hotel.

Upon arriving there, I was disappointed to find just a short stretch of stores. However, it did not dampen my shopping spirits. There were a lot of unique antique brass items and curios, traditional Indonesian puppets and some wood crafts. I had my heart set on the wood crafts. After browsing through all the stores I was able to buy an adorable sunkla made with teak wood and with rooster details (with feet) for 125,000 rupiah (P680). Sunkla is very similar to our sunka but with less shells. I have yet to research on how to play it. Of course, I also bought the standard wooden Indonesian mask and small wooden statues of an Indonesian man and woman in costume which my nephew christened as dead soldiers. Yikes!

I have no idea if the stuff that I bought were real antiques but they were nice and cheap enough. Remember to bargain by at least 40% their asking price. Walk away if they won't give you the price that you want. Most of them are desperate to make a sale and will eventually give you a lower price. The sunkla was originally 350,000 rupiah.

If you are traveling within the city, take a cab. The buses are quite confusing and not everyone speaks English. Always bring a map with you and mark to place that you want to go to and show it to the driver. Remember to ask "argo"? (meter) Otherwise, they will rip you off. Taxi cabs are more expensive in Jakarta than here in Manila. Prepare to pay at least double for the same distance.

Happy antiquing!

Some welcome finds

I love going to the supermarket. I particularly love going to South Supermarket in Alabang. Every time I go there I find something new. Most items are not found in your typical supermarket. Last week I found Foie Gras in the frozen section. Geez, those things cost a mint. If you love cooking fattened duck liver, you've just found your super market heaven.

Other welcome finds are fresh shitake mushrooms, portobellos, button mushrooms and oyster mushrooms (all great for stir-fry), squid ink that's already pre-portioned in small packages, roe, papaitan kit, huge frozen scallops and a slew of frozen fish fillets. I am most excited by their frozen fruits though, they have frozen cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries that go for P400+ per package. Smoothies, anyone?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Exploring Indonesia, Part 2 : Highland Up Country Tour

My husband is off to work the entire workweek that we were in Indonesia. So while he was toiling away at the office, I decided to take a packaged tour and see the outskirts of Jakarta. I chose the Highland Up Country Tour. It's a tour run by the Gray Line company. The tour costs US$55 inclusive of all park fees and a meal and lasts for about 6 hours including travel time. You can book your tour at any travel agency found in the malls or directly at your hotel. Prices are the same regardless of where you book.

It was a weekday and I was the only tourist availing of that tour. So I have the van, a travel guide and a driver all to myself. They pick me up at my hotel at promptly 9am. You can identify the guides by their very colorful uniforms and they will show you an ID and the payment slip.

Our first stop is Bogor Botanical Gardens located right in the heart of Bogor, 60 km south of Jakarta. It took us almost two hours to get there. I was told that this park is a still major research center in Indonesia. You can see a variety of orchids and centuries-old trees and shrubs. There is one particular "kapok" tree that was a few hundred years old and the roots alone dwarfed me. If you like plants and flowers, this is a nice place to go to. Some of the species of trees and orchids there can also be found here in the Philippines. Their national flower is called "bankay" or corpse. Because of the stench it makes when it flowers. Fortunately it only blooms a few days every three years and can only found in the most remote forests of Indonesia. Sorry, they don't have the flower on exhibit.

The park also houses the Presidential Summer Palace. I was told by my guide that our very own GMA stayed there during her state visit. The palace was quite impressive it's combination of Malacanan palace and the White House and was currently going major renovation when I visited. Tourists aren't allowed in its immediate premises for security reasons.

Our second stop was at Taman Safari Indonesia. My favorite place in all of Indonesia, located in the Cisarua area. It has an altidude of 1,400 meters and is very cool, the place is very similar to Tagaytay. I was told by my guide that rich people have houses and is considered a prime area for vacation homes. And guess what? The spiders that you will see on the electrical tension wires are all extremely poisonous. They have it all over the place. Amazing.

The Taman Safari is a drive-through game park for animals in an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible. Prior to entering its gates, vendors will try to sell you some carrots and vegetables. I suggest you buy some so that you can feed some of the herbivorous animals inside the park. A bunch of carrots costs 3,000rupiah (Roughly P20). Inside, you will see monkeys running about. Zebras will nuzzle your hair and try to get some of the carrots. Llamas, camels, deers, elephants and other animals are very friendly and are used to people giving them food (only the carrots and vegetables please). I even saw a mother and child white rhino roaming freely within its grounds. More dangerous animals are placed in contained environments (not cages) close to their natural habitats . I've seen cheetahs, honey bears (absolutely adorable, think winnie the pooh) and orangutans. Remember, you cannot leave the close confines of your vehicle. After all, these are wild animals no matter how friendly they seem.

Another part of the park is an area dedicated to big cats. Lions and tigers roam freely. I rolled my window down to take a picture of a lion resting and my guide warned me that lions love to eat human fingers and they can easily break the windows with their paws. Ok, thanks for telling me. I very quickly snap a picture anyway. The zoo is quite successful in breeding the big cats. Lions and tigers abound. There were even white tigers there. Very rare. First time I've seen one outside the television set. The animals look very healthy and well cared for. I was impressed. And I would definitely go back again.

Adjacent to the safari is the Baby Zoo which houses all the baby orangutans, lions and tigers born in the park. For 10,000 rupiah (P55) you can have your picture taken with one of the tiger cubs and the baby orangutans. They have a schedule though so you may not be able to get a one on one picture with all of them. There were no lion cubs born during that time. But I got some pretty nice photos with Tito, the cutest tiger cub in the bunch. (There were 3 of them) I almost didn't want to leave but I had a schedule to keep.

Elephant rides are also available if you are adventurous enough. I opted to just have my picture taken and pet the elephants. The elephants are gentle giants and won't harm a fly (I think). There's also a small theme park within the safari. If you are traveling with children, they will have a nice time there with all the rides and the ponies and the baby zebras, which they can pet and ride for a minimum fee. Proceeds go to the upkeep of the park.

Late lunch was served in a restaurant in Puncak. Nasi goreng with grilled chicken. It was nice and not spicy and the serving was huge, good enough for 2 people. The weather was nippy. It sort of reminded me of Baguio and Tagaytay on a chilly afternoon.

Next stop was a drive through the tea plantations in Puncak, which means "summit". It's not very interesting. Just a bunch of tea trees lined perfectly in the mountains. The tea trees are actually "bonzaid" so that it will be easier to harvest. The only thing that you can do there is take pictures.

If you happen to be the only one having the tour like I was, I suggest to skip the tea plantation all together and just spend more time at the safari. It would be more interesting and fun. Don't forget to bring water and some snacks in case you get hungry during the long ride back.

Exploring Indonesia, Part 1

Indonesia is the largest archipelago in Asia. And it sounds exotic. So when my husband had a business trip there I decided to use up our Mabuhay Miles and tag along. The flight took four hours total including the 40-minute stopover in Singapore. When you enter Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, be prepared to line up at least one hour in immigration. The airport is understaffed and a bit chaotic. If you don't have airport transfers, be sure to go directly to the Silver Bird or Blue Bird taxi counter. And tell them "argo" which means meter. Always get taxis that are willing to turn the meter on. Otherwise, you will be ripped off. Taxis are quite expensive in Indonesia. Be prepared to pay double the amount for the same distance here in Manila.

My husband and I were surprised to see that Jakarta is so clean and well-lit. The roads were wide and huge trees, fountains and parks abound within the city. Very pretty.

We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, Jakarta. The hotel staff is very accommodating and friendly. The hotel is a little old but their service is impeccable. We paid US$90 for an extra night. Pretty reasonable. It has the usual hotel comforts, king-sized bed, desk, chaise, ref with drinks and chocolates, toiletries. We stayed there for seven days. Their breakfast buffet is very good with an assortment of Asian and continental dishes plus a wide selection of breads and cheeses. I love the breads with pine nuts. Yummy. Be prepared for a pork-less menu in all the hotels and restaurants since they are a Muslim nation.

My husband's co-workers asked, why go to Indonesia? There's nothing to see. I beg to differ. Granted, Jakarta is as exciting as stale bread. But there are other wonderful places that you can go to. Some are within reasonable distance from Jakarta, some are quite far.

My first option of coarse is to browse the mall right across the hotel. Plaza Indonesia. If you can splurge on high fashion and uber name brands, this is the mall for you. For mere mortals like me, I opted to explore the food court located at the lower level of the mall. It was lunch time and I was eager to sample Indonesian cuisine. I'm adventurous. So, I went to a kiosk with a lot of locals and British expats lining up. It's looks like the best selling kiosk in the food court. So, I line up and make turo-turo the stuff that I like. Plus I get 2 free side dishes (names I cannot pronounce or spell). I choose a harmless looking curry with side dishes of togue and slew of vegetables with peanuts, they looked so yummy. I sit down and prepare to eat my meal. Whoa! Holy Molly! I thought my lips will fall off. Man, those things are lethal. I couldn't taste anything but the hot peppers. The Brits were looking at me because I was probably blowing steam out of my ears.

At dinnertime with hubby and his co-workers, we decided to explore the streets of Jakarta and ate a small restaurant (the name eludes me). We order an assortment of nasi goreng and told the waitress, not spicy please. I've learned my lesson, their idea of mild is not suitable for international standards. This time, I enjoyed my meal. Kinda like eating yang chow but with a little more pizzaz.

Get ready to inhale Kretek or clove cigarettes (they smell like burned Vicks) everywhere you go. Including inside air-conditioned restaurants and malls. Yep, malls.

The following day, I opted to try a dish called "Ketoprak" it's like pancit but with whole peanuts, peanut sauce and cilantro. Looks and sounds interesting. Plus, it comes with free kropek in assorted colors. I told them not spicy. When I tasted it, it was like eating pancit for dessert. Super sweet. And it has sliced suman mixed in the sauce. Not a pleasant taste all in all. I stuck to nasi goreng and assorted bread, my entire trip. Talk about carbo loading.

Indonesia has a beverage called Teh Bote. Which my husband loves. It's like iced jasmine tea in a Coke sakto bottle. Very refreshing. I noticed also that their drinks are served in small bottles and containers. They're not very keen on super-sized drinks. They're not big on using gloves on fresh fruit juices either (even in an upscale mall like Plaza Indonesia). Be warned. Stick to bottled drinks.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Spa experience

You can say, I am sort of the official tour guide or pasyalan companion of every balikbayan family member who comes to Manila. I take them to the usual spots, Tagaytay, the malls and the tiangges. By far, the most successful and most memorable experiences that we have were at the spa. My cousin AA from Florida stayed with me for a few days after New Year. She's Kikay 2. I am Kikay 1 (I get first billing since I'm older). I took her to The Spa in Alabang. We decided to go in early so that we can soak at the jacuzzi and make chika. We come in at 11am. Lo and behold, the spa doesn't open 'till 1pm. We decided to have an iced green tea beverage at Gloria Jean's while we wait for it to open.

Kikay 2 decided to get the Moor Body wrap and a swedish massage. I decided to get just the swedish massage. Kikay 2 shells out P1,800 for the wrap and P780 for the massage. And was ecstatic to pay such a small amount for a day of pampering. In Florida, a facial alone can cost you around US$50, she says. So into the spa we go.

As we go in, we were given our own flip-flops, towel, robe and a locker key. It's quite pleasant inside. There are dressing areas, plenty of shower stalls, jacuzzi room, a lounge area where you can read and have free coffee, water, hot and iced tea, a steam room (which I haven't tried yet) and toilets. If you have OCD, the place is clean and look sterile, so relax. Kikay 2 and I smuggle in some brownies that I made the day before for sustenance.

Kikay 2 gets her body wrap first while I stew in the jacuzzi and wait for her. If you are planning to stew in the jacuzzi, get ready to stew with buck naked women (mostly Koreans and matronas). I've been there before and wasn't comfortable displaying my goods for everyone to see and gulp, criticize. I was prepared this time and I wore my bathing suit. You either go in in your natural splendor or you bring your own suit.

I get hungry and decide to eat the smuggled brownie while I wait for Kikay 2.

Kikay 2 just finished her body wrap and this is what happened according to her: She was whisked to a private room, the therapist asked her to remove her robe and then proceeds to "paint" her with the moor mud substance whatever, then gets wrapped in cling-wrap (yes, the one that you use for your ulam), and then wrapped again in a foil-like blanket and they leave you to sweat. For an hour. Kikay 2 was wrapped so tightly, she was sweating buckets, and then she gets an itch in her nose, she calls the therapist (she didn't know that she was left alone in the room since her eyes were covered) Miss? (gently at first, after all she is in a spa) Wala pa rin. She called louder. Miss?! No answer. Again she tries, no answer. With the unbearable itch in her nose, she decided to shout... Miss! Miss! Mmmmiiisssssss! Wala pa rin. So, the decided to take matters into her own hands and rolled and squirmed her way out of her prison and managed to scratch the offending itch. And went back to her straight-jacket type cocoon. Finally, the therapist came and told her "Nakawala, ka 'no!". Because she had mud streaks all over her face.

Anyway, as we waited for our massages, we kept giggling in the waiting area and the matronas kept saying "ehhherm" and we couldn't stop.

I would recommend taking your balikbayan friends to the spa. Because frankly, it may be too expensive for them to go in the States. They will feel very pampered and would definitely enjoy the experience.

Personally, I prefer the masahistas or therapists that go to your place for P250 an hour. No hassle in parking and driving and you go can to sleep immediately after. If you're in the BF and Ayala Alabang area, I recommend At your service home massage. Tel No. 809-07-29. They massage up to 1am. Call way ahead of time if it's a weekend since they get fully booked. They require a minimum of 1 and 1/2 hours massage request outside of Ayala Alabang. They bring their own massage oil but you have to provide your own towel to cover your bed and your privates. And don't forget to tell them that you don't want sleepy massage therapists if it's past 10pm. We once had the unfortunate luck of having a therapist occasionally dozing off. From then on, I tell them to give me a live one :-)

The best massage that I get of course is the one that I get for free from my hubby, Eric :)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Kota Kinabalu, a wedding destination?

Kota Kinabalu is not just a place for relaxation. It is also a very romantic place to tie the knot. Imagine having a sunset wedding in a gazebo that overlooks the ocean. An aisle filled with flowering plants and butterflies fluttering around. Truly romantic. Everything that you could possibly want for your special day can be found in this beautiful hideaway.

The price we are told is not very expensive. It costs the same as having your wedding in Boracay. We paid P6,918 per adult on our airfare (Pretty much the same for a Boracay flight). It includes all the fuel surcharges, taxes and airport fees. Warning though, don't expect to be given a free meal or free drinks on board.

We booked our hotel reservations via Their hotel rates were cheaper by almost US$50 per night than if you book through the hotel directly. So that's an added savings for you. Airport transfers cost 55ringgit per head, per way. The airport transfers would have to be booked directly through the hotel though.

My unsolicited advice? Forget about travel agents, they charge an arm and a leg. Trust me, they don't have your financial interest at heart.

For married couples, it's also a wonderful place to rekindle your love, a second honeymoon, if you will. Be closer to one another. Take long walks on the beach, watch the birds, hike up the mountain, luxuriate in the spa, have a romantic sunset dinner for two at The Coast restaurant. My husband and I truly loved our vacation and is thinking of renewing our vows there. If we win the lotto, that is :)

A harried housewife's dinner

Ok, it's been a very busy day. Husband on the way home from work. I have no energy left for a fancy shmancy dinner preparation at home. I have some sliced fish defrosted and ready to be cooked. I rummage through my refrigerator. I found some pine nuts, butter and some snow peas, carrots and a gamut of other stuff. I decided to do the simplest dish that I can think of. I heat up a non-stick pan with olive oil. Season the fish with three kinds of pepper (it comes with its own grinder), a little sea salt (that my husband bought from his trip in Taipei, of all places), pan fry the fish around 2-3 minutes per each side. Meanwhile, I blanch the peeled and sliced carrots and snow peas. Toss in butter and some of the sea salt. I remove the fish from the pan. Add more olive oil and butter to the pan. Add the pine nuts, in about 30 seconds the pine nuts are toasted (watch it carefully because they burn really fast) and I top it on the fish. If you don't have pine nuts, you may use almonds or just sliced garlic. I put the whole thing in a square plate that I bought for P175 at a Cardinal Ceramics factory store in BF. Presentation in everything. I placed the (semi)"foodstyled" fish with topping in the oven (on low) just to keep it warm while I take a quick shower before the hubby comes home. Needless to say, dinner was a success.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Kota Kinabalu, Shangri-La style

The Shangri-La Rasa Ria in Kota Kinabalu is undoubtedly the best hotel that I've ever stayed in. Each room is very spacious with a super king-sized bed (super being the operative word here), a "sala" which doubles as another sleeping area if you're bringing your child with you, a balcony that overlooks the lush mountainside (or beach front), a well appointed bathroom (sorry, no bidet in sight) and toiletries galore. There's even a bedside clock that lights up as soon as you touch it so that you don't have to turn on the lights to look at the time. My husband specially loved the bath gel that the hotel provided. But my favorite, by far, is the bed.....just plain heavenly. This vacation is one of the rare occasions where I slept earlier than 11pm. I almost fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

The resort is in 60+ acres of land, according to the assistant general manager, who is a Filipina, by the way. The entire property is surrounded by lush mountainside on one side and of course, the beach on the other. The hotel is really geared for relaxation.

The hotel has a "natural" morning alarm clock. Every morning at around 6:30 or 7am, you will hear birds squawking . My husband and I attempted to identify what bird was making all the ruckus. There were so many of them perched everywhere! As my husband and I took our morning walk in the hotel premises, we chanced upon many colorful birds, orange ones, brown ones, plain black ones, black ones with adidas stripes, but alas, a familiar one flew over our heads, the brown maya. Yey! Something that reminds us of home.

My husband Eric was overly excited about the squirrel that we found running on the tree branches. It was the first time in my life that I've seen a wild one (I saw one years ago in a cage). Who knew that there were squirrels in Malaysia?

The hotel also has an orangutan sanctuary located within it's property. The orangutans can be viewed at 10am and 2pm. They charge 50 Ringgit per head as "contribution". My husband and I hiked up the mountain to see them. The trails were slippery and muddy and older couples hiking with us had to stop a few times to catch their breath. Be sure to put on insect repellent since the mosquitoes are vicious and wear rubber shoes with good traction to avoid slipping. We were fortunate enough to see five of the seven orangutans that are in their care. The orangutans are being "schooled" or re-trained so that they can be released back into the wild. The Shangri-la nature reserve is their "elementary" school. They will be later transferred to Sepilok for their "high school" education and then eventually released to the wild. Be warned that the viewing time doesn't always guarantee that you will see them since they roam freely within the mountains.