Tuesday, March 29, 2016

5 Things I Learned from My First Indonesian Meal

It's been a tradition for me to take a vacation in L.A. once a year, and while there, try at least one cuisine my inquisitive palate had never experienced. Of course, I'd love to travel around the world and sample ethnic dishes in their real birthplaces. But to accomplish that, I would have to first carry out some really wicked schemes, such as doing a body swap with Andrew Zimmern, the TV host of Bizarre Foods....or worse, marrying Trump. For now, I'd rather just place my globetrotting dream on the back burner and appease my gastronomic curiosity by paying yearly visits to gorgeous Los Angeles, a city with one of the most diverse food scenes in the country. My L.A. trip this year has come and gone. I flew a plane in Hawthorne, pigged out in Thai Town, took selfies on Venice Beach, suffered a little asthma attack on the Tree of Life trail, and oh yes, I also had my first Indonesian meal at Simpang Asia and learned some interesting lessons from it. 

1. Never dine at a nice restaurant right after witnessing a plane crash - Unfortunately, that's what I did, and it slightly dampened my palate's enthusiasm. Not to imply that I didn't enjoy the food at Simpang. I did. It was good, but it could have been fantastic if I hadn't eaten it in a state of semi-shock. What's worse than a bad lunch is a great lunch not fully appreciated. 

2. Banana leaf can take us all the way to Bali - Appearance-wise, Simpang seems to be nothing but a modern bistro. No bamboo ceiling. No rattan seatings. No Wayang puppets hung on the walls. They could as well serve spaghetti or tacos, and it wouldn't clash with such a neutral ambiance. One tiny detail that gives this eatery a lovely Indonesian touch is their banana-leaf-lined plates. This plating style might not have the same magical impact on other diners, but it definitely worked for me. While eating my Nasi Lemak in L.A., I took a virtual trip to a farmers market in Bali where sarong-clad Balinese enjoyed their banana-wrapped meals under colorful parasols. See, with a piece of banana leaf, delicious Indonesian food, and rampant imaginations, you don't need money for airfare. 

3. If you love Thai, you'd adore Indonesian - The flavor profiles of Thai and Indonesian cuisines are distinctly similar. Lots of bold spices. Intense levels of heat. Out of their extensive menu, I got to try two things. The Nasi Lemak was beautifully composed of fragrant coconut rice, tender curried chicken, hard-boiled egg, red chili paste, and fried baby anchovies that might totally creep out some sheltered Western eaters. The Mantep Padang also came with rice and chicken, but its accompanying sides were more exciting--zesty green chili paste, egg and kale curries, and Sambal beef steak so well-seasoned and spicy it could simultaneously bring smiles and tears. 

4. Es Cendol is a heavenly drink  - I don't usually describe non-alcoholic drinks as heavenly. So when I do, I wholeheartedly mean it. 

To those who have no idea what it is, this beverage might seem unappetizing and borderline poisonous. It looks kind of like some murky milk with dead green worms floating in it. Well, those "worms" are pandan jelly, which doesn't have any taste in itself, but does add texture and a sweet piney aroma of the pandan plant to this drink. And the reason the coconut milk seems "dirty" is because it's sweetened with palm sugar. You drink it with a large straw the same way you drink bubble tea. Take a big sip and your life will feel good (even if it isn't actually good, even if it sucks, even if you've just seen a plane crashing and burning right before your eyes). 

5. It's about damn time for America to embrace Indonesian cuisine - Many Americans eat chow mein and General Tso chicken on a weekly basis. Many also know what Pad Thai and Pad See Ew are. Sushi bars are ubiquitous in most cities. Pho has become so mainstream fewer people now mispronounce it. Even chicken tandori and lamb samosas are no longer that exotic. It's time for Indonesian cuisine, which is just as spectacular as all of the aforementioned, to gain its popularity in this melting pot. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Flying a Plane and Witnessing a Crash

Turning 36 is huge. It's when you cross that threshold between youth and middle age. Some may insist middle age doesn't begin until 45. Yeah, they can keep telling that to their emerging crow's feet. I have no trouble admitting I'm not young anymore. However, that doesn't mean I would now stop shopping at Forever 21, or glare (with bitter envy!) at prettier and younger peeps on the streets, or get hooked on Botox treatments and start to look like John Travolta in the O.J. show. I'm not even planning to do sensible middle-age stuff, like having children or buying a house. If anything, this transition has made me hungrier for adventures and more resentful at everyday tedium. I've lived half of my life already (well, approximately); I'd rather not spend the second half enduring boredom. So to celebrate my 36th birthday, I decided to take a flight lesson with Pacific Blue Air at Hawthorne Airport near L.A. This adventure, my friends, turned out to be not at all minuscule. 

They call it a motorized glider or an air trike, which is an open aircraft for two people. It can fly either low or high, either with or without the engine. And in a moment of peril, parachutes can be released. Flying it was like riding a motorcycle in the sky. My body could sense every gust of wind through that oversized pilot suit. We flew to Manhattan beach, waved at sun-bathing sea lions and dipped down a bit to befriend some sharks. My flight instructor, Henry, was the one flying it almost throughout our 30-minute lesson. But for about 3 - 5 minutes or so, he let go of the steering bar and I got to be in charge of piloting. I was confident, totally confident. But truth be told, confidence doesn't guarantee competence. The bar was pretty heavy for me to maneuver (Yes, even for my brawny Pilates arms!). I unintentionally made a few sharp turns, flew in circles for a little while, and before we became unwilling lunch to the sharks we earlier befriended, Henry (who was probably thinking "Oh, you hopeless little woman!") took back his control and flew us to safety. The whole flight I felt safe, carefree and electrifyingly liberated......even during those few minutes of my subpar performance. 

Then less than 5 minutes after our landing, while waiting for Henry to download my flight photos from his plane-mounted cameras, I heard someone yell "holy shit!" Looking up, I saw another air trike that had just taken off losing its balance and swerving down onto the ground. 

Yes, one of the most amazing moments of my life was closely followed by someone else's greatest tragedy. Shortly after I celebrated my birthday, another human met her demise right before my eyes. The wreckage caught fire instantly. I wasn't close enough to the scene to smell the smoke or the burning jet fuel, but the air around me just reeked of mortality. I soon learned there was one woman in that crashed aircraft--an experienced student pilot who had flown by herself multiple times. She was in full cardiac arrest when the ambulance arrived and later pronounced dead at a hospital. 

My reaction was more of shock than sadness. I left Hawthorne Airport and tried to enjoy the rest of my day, but my happiness felt vaguely inappropriate after such incident. And this is going to sound unbearably cliched, but yeah, witnessing someone die like that made me want to live more meaningfully and never postpone life. I'll finish my collection of interlinked short stories. I'll try to wriggle my way into the food writing business. I'll be more patient with my opinionated mother. I won't get annoyed next time she urges me to have children (Well, I will probably get annoyed but I'll try to respond more respectfully). I'll learn how to swim butterfly. I'll order that French dish I don't know how to pronounce. And I'll fly an air trike again. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Maple Lemon Muffins Made with Greek Yogurt

For a few years, I used to write baking recipes for a how-to website. I enjoyed doing that quite a bit until I didn't. The earnings were pretty nice for a while until they weren't. One day I simply quit and took a break from baking.......until this morning. I ended my two-year hiatus on the spur of the moment. Looking in my fridge and pantry, I thought to my barely awake self, "Why not bake some badass muffins today?" The baking powder might be more than two freaking years old, but it'd been kept tightly lidded in a cool and dry place. What could be the danger? It wasn't spoiled milk or rotten meat. At worst, my muffins just wouldn't rise. Death from food poisoning wouldn't be my fate (right?).

So I dug up one of my old muffin recipes, made a few tweaks and excitedly shoved my batter-filled silicone molds into the oven. The muffins did rise gracefully and come out not just edible but tasty. Very moist. Very scrumptious-smelling. Not very sweet, which I like. But I wish they were a bit more lemony. (Note to self: use more lemon zest next time.) Another good thing about these maple lemon muffins is that they're lower in fat and calories compared to regular muffins. But let's be real; they're still muffins. I'm not going to tout them as a healthy snack. I'd rather say they are less unhealthy. Yeah, that sounds more accurate.

Ingredients (for 6 muffins)

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (Use the bleached version if you prefer; it won't make any difference in terms of taste and texture. I use unbleached flour just to shush the whiny health-conscious voice in my head.)
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup sugar
a pinch of salt
1 tbsp poppy seeds (This ingredient is only optional. The poppy seeds lend the muffins a mild nutty flavor and some lovely freckles. That's about it. Absolutely omit them, though, if you're about to undergo a blood test for opiates. These tiny seeds won't get you high but they might cause a false positive. Remember that one episode of Seinfeld where Elaine repeatedly failed her drug tests?)
1 large egg
1 container (150 g) plain non-fat Chobani yogurt
1 container (150 g) maple Chobani yogurt
2 tbsps lemon juice
1 tbsp grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsps vegetable oil

  • Preheat your oven to 400-degrees F. 
  • In a large bowl, use a whisk or a fork to mix all the dry ingredients (the first 6 ingredients) together. 
  • In another bowl, whisk together the other ingredients until well blended. 
  • Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture. Use a spoon or a rubber spatula to fold the two mixtures together until the muffin batter is evenly moist. Don't over-beat or over-mix the batter; that will make your muffins come out on the dense side. 
  • Put the batter into silicone molds or paper-lined muffin tins. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 - 30 minutes. Why such a wide range of baking times? Well, every oven is different. At 400 degrees, some ovens get only moderately hot whereas some others might be like Lucifer's fiery pit. My muffins took 26 minutes to bake, but I can't tell for sure how long yours will take. To avoid a muffin catastrophe, check your muffins after 20 minutes using the old-school toothpick method. If the inserted toothpick comes out clean, they're done. 

Nutrition Info (Calculated with MyFitnessPal Nutrition Calculator)

Serving size: 1 muffin
Calories: 213
Fat (g): 7
Cholesterol (mg): 35
Sodium (mg): 150
Carbs (g): 31
Sugar (g): 21
Protein (g): 8

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


What can we expect to find at South? Isn't the title pretty self-descriptive? Yes, they serve southern comfort food. Yes, fried green tomatoes and hush puppies are on the menu. And yes, they sure know how to deep-fry stuff. (But no, none of the staff talks with a southern twang.) Deep-frying might be deemed a lowbrow cooking method by some, but still, it requires mastery. I've eaten a few too many soggy, oily, dry, and even burnt deep-fried things in my lifetime. When I come across restaurants that not only steer clear of those mistakes but excel at turning simple ingredients into golden scrumptiousness, I am deeply grateful. South, no doubt, is one of those places.

The fried chicken (Oh, that fried chicken!) is beyond reproach. Tender, lightly battered and exquisitely crispy, it far surpasses its accompanying sides of unexceptional biscuit and kale greens. The shrimp Po'boy is another dish that validates their deep-fry expertise. Plump golden shrimp, fresh shredded cabbage, a good splash of spicy remoulade, all stuffed in a lovely bread roll--it's a gorgeous sandwich to look at and a satisfying one to devour. The Chef's Burger with leek-shallot jam and mustard-sauce slaw is pretty darn messy to eat. But is it worth it? Well, considering the succulent bacon confit, sweetish brioche bun, and that beautiful crust on the burger patty....yeah, it is. Just use lots of napkins or lick your fingers often or put on some gloves, and you'll be fine. The pulled pork and sausage gumbo is a hearty, meaty dish, mightily high in protein but deplorably low in sodium. Everything else is well seasoned, why so stingy on salt with this one? (I shall order it again sometime to find out whether it's a one-time mistake or a serial offense.) Once done with the savory, a slice of pecan pie is a great dessert to grab. Nothing's special about the crust, but the filling is quite divine. If my palate is correct, there is condensed milk in it rather than just basic corn syrup, which renders it doubly decadent.

Food aside, South is also a very welcoming spot. Tucked away in a quieter part of midtown Sacramento, parking here is usually convenient no matter what time of day. The abstract paintings make the decor casual and hip, while the bench seatings with accent pillows add a homey touch. Speaking of accent pillows at a place famous for fried chicken and po-boys, isn't that audacious? It's either that they have so much faith in their greasy-fingered customers or they don't mind adding pillow-case cleaning to their long list of daily tasks. Last time I was there, the pillows were spotlessly clean. And I conscientiously kept them that way throughout my meal. I don't know about the guy at a nearby table with BBQ sauce dripping down to his elbow, though. He seemed utterly oblivious to his own sloppiness and how it might affect his surroundings.

So yes, try South if you're enthused about deep-fried goodies. Have some fried chicken, drink some beer, enjoy some pie, and to be kind, keep your oily fingers off their pillows.