Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chiang Mai Sunday Market

Another Spring Break is upon me, and I have yet to finish telling you about last year's Spring Break in Chiang Mai, Thailand... or even Spring Break from 2 years ago in Japan. I'm wondering where next year's Spring Break will find me.

The very first thing we did in Chiang Mai was the Sunday Market to get a feel for the town. We hopped in a songtow and took a ride to the Old City which is surrounded by a fortified wall.  Granted, the busy Starbucks where the driver dropped us off didn't really scream "exotic Southeast Asia," but once we crossed Tha Phae Gate, the feeling of I-could-be-anywhere dropped away, and the ambiance of Chiang Mai wrapped itself around us.

Chiang Mai Old City
Looking out at the New City through Tha Phae Gate

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Rat the Size of a Toddler and other Australian Animal Lessons

I had really meant to bring the kids to a zoo much earlier in our visit to Australia. As it was, we never got around to it until our very last full day when we found ourselves with some time to spare before our flight-that-wasn't-to-beKangaroo Island Wildlife Park (called the Parndana Wildlife Park at the time of our visit in January 2013) seemed like the perfect place to check off one final item on our Australian Wish List.

And what a visit it was! It was highly educational. Here are some of my favorite photos.

Lesson 1: Is that a rat the size of a toddler?

Kangaroo Island, Australia
What a gigantic white rat! Or is it?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Prayers of Hope for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Normally, I post some fantastic travel story on Thursdays, or I show you a little more about Malaysia where I now live. Many people in the USA where I am from are unfamiliar with Malaysia, and it's been a bit of a mission for me to educate the world about what Malaysia is like. Now, Malaysia is making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and I can't bring myself to write a jolly post for the week.

As I'm sure you know, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on Saturday night during a red-eye flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Five days later, no trace of the plane has been found. My last few travel posts have been about my own family's trip from Malaysia to Beijing last October, albeit on a different airline. I can't help identifying with the passengers on that plane. I'm sure that the same question has crossed other travelers minds. What if I had been on that flight?

Beijing, China
Memories of our own trip from Malaysia to Beijing

I remember when my parents were visiting Europe and scheduled to fly home on September 12, 2001. I got the days mixed up and thought that they were flying home on September 11. When the attacks on the World Trade Center began, I vividly remember calling their phone in Texas and leaving a frantic message on the answering machine. "Are you home? Did you get home? Do not get on a plane!" They probably couldn't understand me; I was so hysterical. What if my family or friends were on a missing flight?

Wednesday night's update in a string of sometimes confusing and contradicting reports indicate that an unidentified blip was caught on military radar 200 km northwest of Penang at roughly the time that MH 370 disappeared. Could it be the missing aircraft? Did it turn back towards Kuala Lumpur? The search area has expanded from the east coast of Malaysia over the the west coast and the Andaman Sea that surrounds Penang. No, I have not seen any search planes or boats. Penang is in a heavy shipping lane and populated enough that someone would have noticed if the plane went down within sight of the island, so the rescuers are focusing on the vast expanse of water instead. Still, I cannot help looking out my windows to the Straits of Malacca spread out before me in hopes of spotting something   a life raft, fragments, or, God willing, the whole entire plane floating by.

Looking out from Penang towards the mainland
Looking out at the Straits of Malacca, waiting and searching

There has been an outpouring of support from the people of Malaysia. Radio stations broadcast people's phoned-in messages of hope for the missing plane between songs. A local mall is holding a paper crane origami event on Thursday and Friday. They aim to offer up 5000 cranes, 5000 wishes, and 5000 prayers for the 239 passengers and crew members. University students stood near the flight path of planes taking off from Penang International Airport holding up signs that proclaimed, "Pray for MH370."

Captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah, pilot of the missing flight, attended Penang Free School. Over a thousand teachers and students there gathered to pray. The Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs went off to separate areas in the school to supplicate their respective god(s) for the plane's safe return.

As is typical in this day and age, people expect total transparency and updates on the search and rescue efforts. News updates are given over the local radio every 30 minutes. The New Straits Times website adds multiple new articles an hour with all the latest information. Sometimes it's about area fishermen pledging to do everything they can to help with the search and rescue mission. A group found a badly damaged life raft floating 10 nautical miles from Port Dickson on the west coast of Malaysia on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it sank while being transferred on board the boat operated by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Other times, it's about family members of the missing losing control of their emotions and giving in to grief and despair.

The locals I know are upset about how the government seems to be bungling the search and rescue operation. They had hoped that this emergency would give Malaysia a chance to shine and demonstrate its capabilities in the world. Instead, they've come up with nothing. The Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's House of Representatives) has gone from observing a moment of silence in honor of the missing flight to members of the opposition party accusing officials of mishandling the incident and calling for the Prime Minister and Acting Transport Minister to present themselves to the next day's session to provide an explanation.

In the end, what everyone wants to find out is where is the plane. We hope that somehow the passengers and crew are safe. That six days out, this story will have a happy ending. That's what I'm praying for.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Great Wall of China Toboggan Ride

Whenever my kids go to one of those upscale ice cream shoppes, their eyes grow wide, and they start asking for everything. What starts out as a simple outing to get a scoop of ice cream turns into a Bambi-eyes request for the ice cream and the mix-in and some hot fudge sauce on top.

On the Great Wall

That's kind of what our visit to the Great Wall of China turned out like. For many folks, visiting the Great Wall is a bucket list travel aspiration. Just getting to the Great Wall is enough. But thanks to my kids' circle of well-traveled classmates, they knew that the Great Wall had more to offer. There was no need for me to go online to figure out ways to make the excursion exciting for children. Asking around on the playground was enough. One activity kept coming up over and over again.

Slide down from the top of the wall on the toboggan run. 

Mutianyu, slide system, luge
Oh yeah, a visit to a Wonder of the World and a toboggan ride

What's up next? Water slides down the Pyramids of Giza?

How about getting up to the top? In all my Great Wall daydreams, I am already standing on the wall. I never considered how I would actually arrive there. Should we walk up? Goodness sakes, no way! 

Ride up on the cable car or chair lift.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu, gondola
Enclosed Cable Cars from the parking lot to the top 

So, this little bucket list item turned out to be visit the Great Wall and go up on a chair lift and ride a toboggan down. Can you see why the kids were excited? It's as if we went into that ice cream shoppe and said triple scoops, mix-ins, fudge sauce, and chocolate-dipped waffle cones for everyone.

Visiting the Mutianyu Section

We drive about 1.5 hours from Beijing to reach the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This 2.3 km stretch is the longest restored section of the wall, and everything I read indicates that it's less crowded than the other sections closer to Beijing that are open to tourists. A tamped earth wall was built here in the sixth century, but it was upgraded during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) to a granite fortification with 22 watch towers spread out approximately every 100 meters.

As we pull into the car park, I gaze upwards at the wall snaking its way across the mountain pass about 100 meters above us. To get to the ticket office, we walk through souvenir stalls selling all sorts of Chinese memorabilia including the "I climbed the Great Wall of China" T-shirt that I buy my daughter at the end of our visit. (A week later, I regret not washing this black shirt separately from the rest of the laundry as I pull out a load of now-grey clothes from my washing machine.) 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Souvenir stalls

At the bottom, we have three choices for getting up to the wall.
  • Walk up the footpath with 4000+ steps for 30-40 minutes
  • Ride the enclosed cable car up to Tower 14 with option for return ticket down
  • Ride the chair lift up to Tower 6 which includes toboggan ride down
Tip: The cable car and the chair lift are operated by different companies. If you plan on going up on one and returning to the bottom on another, buy both tickets before heading up to the wall.

Going to the Top

We decide on the chair lift and hop on. During the 10 minute ride upwards, I look around taking in the view. The surrounding mountains cloaked with autumn colors on this late-October afternoon are a sight to behold. After the bustling crowds of congested Beijing, Mutianyu is relaxing and literally a breath of fresh air.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Riding on the Chair Lift

Finally, we are on top of the wall. Jump for joy! This Great Wall moment is one of the reasons why I desperately wanted to visit China and was willing to go through all the hassle of applying for a visa... and getting rejected, reapplying, and paying the ridiculous rush fee despite having turned in the paperwork weeks beforehand.

Walking on the Wall

While the restored Mutianyu section of the Great Wall has a mostly smooth walking surface, there are still stair steps as it follows the ridgeline up and down. Lots and lots of steps. Merely getting from Tower 19 to Tower 20 involves 450 steps. In other words, don't bother bringing a stroller for your little one. 

The Great Wall stretches far into the distance

Here, the Great Wall stands 7-8 meters tall and is 4-5 meters wide. This width supposedly enabled a large number of troops and messengers to pass through the route, but I'm thinking that the steps and the narrow doorways of the towers probably served as bottlenecks. This section is unusual in that it has crenelations on both the inner and outer walls, allowing soldiers to fire on the enemy who were approaching as well as those who had breached the wall.

The end of October turns out to be a beautiful time of year to visit. The crowds from Golden Week earlier in the month are gone, and the trees are changing colors. Perhaps being a soldier stationed on the wall was not so bad if you got to stare at this all day.

The view looking north east from the wall

The summertime is reputedly hot and more crowded with foreign tourist. My son's friend walked the wall one winter and declared it "the coldest he's ever been." One of my mama friends visited in late March and was surprised to encounter snow. While her older kids enjoyed the sight of their first snowfall (and the younger one cried about freezing toes), they were disappointed to discover that the toboggan run closes when it's snowing, raining, or for other bad weather conditions. 

Great Wall of China
Mountains start to fade away

I rein in my teen boy while we are up there. Faced with all this expansive scenery and the top of the Great Wall stretching out before him, all he wants to do is run. He longs to go up and down steps from tower to tower as fast as he can. Instead, he has to make do with going no more than one tower ahead and waiting while the rest of us caught up. Poor guy, because this mama is quite slow, stopping to take photos every few steps.

Exploring Watch Towers

Tower 5 of the Mutianyu section has a covered 2nd story

Most of the watchtowers are a single story with stairs leading up to the open rooftop. Tower 5 is unusual in that the 2nd floor is also covered. Back when the Great Wall was still in use as a defense system, lookout guards were stationed on the towers. If they spotted attackers approaching, they lit a signal fire on the roof to warn the surrounding towers. Since the towers were built on hilltops, it was easy to see the smoke during the day or firelight at night. Any guard who saw a signal fire built his own fire in order to pass along the message to alert the troops to ready for battle. Lanterns on poles and flags were other ways to communicate between towers. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Looking out from a watch tower

The average Chinese man is shorter than his Western counterpart. Plus, people who lived four centuries ago when the towers were built were shorter than modern folk. Put these two together, and you get granite doorways that were much too low for hubby to walk through upright. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Watch your Head! 

Tower 1 has not been restored, and its derelict state shows how much work has gone into improving the wall for today's tourists. Visitors are not permitted on the section eastward from Tower 2 to Tower 1, but some explorers and photographers ignore this as the wall's rustic ruins makes for wonderful photo ops. 

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Visitors climbing on top of the ruins of a watch tower

The Graffiti Problem

Unfortunately, many people decide to commemorate their time at the Great Wall by scribbling or carving their name into the granite bricks. Have a little respect, folks.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Almost every brick on this watch tower had graffiti. Most of it is not Chinese.

In order to help protect the wall, Chinese authorities announced this week that they have set aside specific areas near Tower 14 where graffiti is permitted. This move will hopefully limit the area of damage. A proposed plan also involves touch-screen electronic graffiti walls for tourists to go crazy leaving their mark where it can presumably then be erased with the touch of a button.

Finally, the Toboggan Ride Down

The end of our walk culminates with the much anticipated 1580 meter (almost 1 mile) toboggan ride down. The carts accommodate both single or double riders, and my girl decides to ride with her dad. Pushing the lever between your knees forward releases the brake to let the toboggan start sliding down the track, and pulling it towards you makes it stop. Adjust your speed by how far you push it. Before we arrived, I pictured Olympic luge-worthy downhill speeds. Following my girl, it turned out to be a rather slow-paced ride since it took a bit of strength to push the lever forward enough to go fast. Luckily, her oldest brother was ahead of her and could shoot downhill as fast as he liked.  Overall, it's a safe ride for kids, although two L.A. Lakers managed to injure themselves in separate accidents while visiting a few weeks before us.

Great Wall of China, Mutianyu
Getting ready to ride the toboggan down

The Great Wall of China did not disappoint. In fact, it turned out to be much more exciting than what I would have expected when it went on the bucket list decades ago. If you're looking to check the Great Wall off your own list, I highly recommend doing it at Mutianyu. The only thing that could have made it better would be a deluxe ice cream parlor at the bottom.

Related Posts:

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox, "Oh the Places I've Been" on The Tablescaper, and Friday Postcards on Walking On Travels. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Baking the Perfect Loaf of Bread

Don't you love the smell of freshly baked bread? Tearing it apart and smearing it with softened butter. The way the crispy crust crackles and breaks as you take your first bite. Your mouth is flooded with the taste of fields of autumn wheat. Do you like hearty breads with a denser crumb, not the fluffy, white pillows that pass for bread at the supermarket?

I had a bread machine for a few years and used it constantly. I've found recipes on-line and tried them out. I even considered bringing Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible back to Malaysia with me after a home visit, but the hefty weight of its hardcover and 640 pages precluded me from putting it in the suitcase.

My main problem is that while I can make a good loaf of bread, how to bake a great loaf of bread was eluding me.

It's that crispy crust that's my nemesis. I just couldn't seem to get it right. Merely putting the dough in the oven gave me one that wasn't crispy enough. My attempts to spray water on the loaf as it baked resulted in a hard outer shelf that made the bread ideal for a doomsday prepper bunker. Trying to compensate for Penang's high humidity made me worry as I added a half cup of flour more than the amount stated in the recipe.

On the plus side, the sunny, un-airconditioned section of my kitchen made a perfect place to proof the dough.

So, what am I supposed to do?

Take a Bread Baking Class at Irrawaddy Fine Foods.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods is a New York style delicatessen located in Penang. I've had excellent lunches there and even had them cater a poolside party I was throwing. Chef Tommes has his own show on the Asian Food Channel called Chalk and Cheese. I would tell you what the show is like but I seem to have stopped watching television ever since I moved here.

In other words, I knew that if Tommes could teach me how to make something close to what he serves at his restaurant, I'd be more than elated.

That's how I found myself in the kitchen above Irrawaddy Fine Foods for the six-hour lesson on How to Bake Real Bread.

The class began with a short lesson on the theories behind bread baking. Here's some food for thought from Chef Tommes himself:
"To make bread, you need patience, skills, experience and maybe even a sensual understanding of the process. Good bakers are silent, patient, and strong people. They can concentrate on their task ahead and let their hands create magic. 'A good loaf of bread let's cheeks turn red.' You can make people happy and children smile when you are the master of your dough." 
Hmm... silent and patient. Perhaps those are my problems because I am neither of those things.

Chef Tommes discussed how there's no general recipe for bread and that a baker has to customize it for each locale. If we followed the exact recipe of a Master Baker from France that produces the perfect loaf in Lyon, we'd be doomed because of the different environment and ingredients in Penang. The available salt, flour and yeast in Penang are not the same as what you can find in France  or America for that matter. Even using Penang's soft rainwater will affect the recipe. Also, as I pointed out, it's darn humid here. It took him months to refine the bread recipes he had been using elsewhere to produce a suitable loaf in Penang.

Bread baking is clearly not a paint-by-numbers operation. This class will hopefully help me understand the nuances involved in making a great loaf.

We started off nice and easy with a Rosemary Focaccia. It is a bread that doesn't require too much finesse or even a mixer. You can do it all by hand. With fingers slick with olive oil, we pushed the dough out on the pan and studded it with garlic and rosemary The group's first attempt turned out fantastic. It was a good start and gave us confidence to proceed to the harder recipes.

Creating an amazing Rosemary Foccacia

Interestingly, Chef Tommes does not use the supermarket variety dry yeast that I've been buying for years for some of his recipes. They instead call for a French-style starter dough to give the bread lift. His starter contains nothing but organic raisins, mineral water, and bread flour. The mix pulls the yeast from out of the air, and the sugar from the raisins feed the yeast. After a few days, you remove the raisins from the starter dough, give it a stir, and start using it in your bread recipes.

He says you only need to make it once in your life and then just pull off a bit for that day's bread while "feeding" the rest so it continues to grow. All the starter dough needs to live is more water and flour. It reminded me a bit of the Amish Friendship Bread people used to give me in America. Like a chain letter, you get a container of starter and a loaf of bread from a friend. Then, it's up to you to feed and grow the starter, use a little starter to make bread, then gift the starter and loaves to the next set of friends to keep the cycle going.

After the focaccia, our next recipe to attack is Laugenbretzel (German pretzel). No matter how many times I've attempted an Auntie Anne's copycat recipe at home or even bought the kit from the store, I can't get the perfect results. The key part that I'd been getting wrong is the alkaline solution you brush on the dough after shaping them but before baking. I'd been trying to make an alkaline wash in my kitchen out of water and baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) instead of using sodium hydroxide which has a higher pH level. Since sodium hydroxide isn't readily available at the grocery store, Chef Tommes has it available for students to purchase. The finished pretzels tasted divine, but I need to work on speeding up how long it takes me to shape each one.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Chef Tommes carefully brushes the alkaline wash onto the shaped pretzel dough.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Pretzels fresh from the oven

We also bake a Sourdough Rye Bread that depends upon the starter dough instead of yeast to rise. Because the rye flour available in Malaysia is so much stronger than the European kind, Tommes had to fiddle with the proportions of rye versus bread flour. Luckily for me, this type of bread is almost impossible to overbake. It's done when you knock on the bottom and hear a hollow sound. The rye acts as a preservative, enabling the loaf to be good for a week, unlike many other breads which quickly go stale or mold in Malaysia's humidity.

One of the most interesting things we learn in class is how to knead bread. Tommes demonstrates pushing the dough forwards with the heel of the hand and then using the fingers to pull the back edge up and over to the front. He repeats this over and over again in a continuous motion until he achieves the desired "like a velvety soft baby bottom" texture. Kneading works the protein in the dough and is key giving bread its nice, chewy texture. He divides up the dough for all of us to practice. How well you master the technique clearly makes a difference. Even though we are all starting with the same material, some of us (ahem) end up with sticky, tacky dough whereas others get that baby bottom smoothness.

The class shapes the dough by smoothing our hands from the top to the bottom in a cupping motion while rotating it a quarter turn until we have a round mound of dough. For smaller rolls, we cup the ball of dough, palm facing downwards, and make a wide, circular motion on the table to form it just right. We let the loaves and rolls rise in the proofing oven (30 degrees Celsius) until it has doubled in size. To help the steam escape, we quickly score the bread after placing it on the the baking tray.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Slashing the dough helps the steam to escape.

Then comes the best part. Tommes slides the tray into the preheated oven while one of us stands ready with a mug of water. Working fast, he grabs the mug and slings the water across the oven floor causing a giant, hissing cloud of steam to form. He rapidly closes the door to keep the steam contained and then instructs us to not open the door for the first 10 minutes of baking. Moisture is the secret to great crust. Some commercial ovens even have a built-in water mister for this purpose. For the home cook, he suggest placing a bowl or pan of water on the oven bottom before preheating it to create steam. Another alternative would be to have a baking pan already on the bottom rack to quickly pour water into after putting in the dough. I suppose that my old method of spraying water on the dough was too much of a good thing. The water simply needs to be in the air, not directly on the bread.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Chef Tommes explains that moisture is the secret to good crust.

Over the two-day baking course, we also learn to make Sesame Seed Bread, Semolina Bread, and Oregano Bread. These all involve both the starter dough and dry yeast. Since these three loaves have similar recipes, we divide into groups and focus on making just one. We have a little fun, too, experimenting with making large loaves, small rolls, pull-apart rolls that almost look like flowers. Someone even makes what I think must be an armadillo.

By the end of the second day, a little over four hours each, my feet ache from standing on the concrete floor. However, I've learned how to make phenomenal bread. We proudly display our finished goods on the table before us for a group picture. Then, it's time to pack up our share in paper bags to bring home for others to enjoy. Frankly, we produced quite a lot, and I ended up having to freeze some of the loaves to eat later.

Irrawaddy Fine Foods, bread baking class, Penang
Sesame Seed bread, Semolina rolls, pull-apart Oregano Rolls, dark Sourdough Rye and Pretzels

If you're living in Penang, and you want to know the secret to how to bake the perfect loaf of bread, I highly recommend enrolling in one of Irrawaddy Fine Foods' monthly classes. Spaces are limited, so you may have to book a few months out. Along with many loaves of delectable, baked goodness, you'll bring home a recipe book, starter dough, and an apron. A few times a year, Chef Tommes also offers a 6-hour advanced class that covers French baguettes and English muffins.

In addition to bread baking, Tommes teaches a Saturday Kitchen 101 class focusing on different Professional Skills for the Home Cook. My friends who have attended them come away raving. These classes include:

  • Knife Skills
  • Salt and Seasoning
  • Cooking with Eggs
  • Meat Mysteries
  • Fish
  • Potatoes
  • Veggies
  • Oil, Water and Butter
  • Clean, Quick and Safe

Contact Information for Irrawaddy Fine Foods 
Telephone: 04-228-6360
Address: 54a Jalan Chow Thye, 10050 Penang; Open Monday-Saturday 10AM-5PM

This post is part of Foodie Tuesday on Inside Journeys. Check it out for more delicious inspiration.
Web Analytics