Indonesian recipes

In Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, I did a cooking course with some fellow travelers. The course was run by Nella and Sri of Rainforest Guesthouse. Here are the recipes and results.

Nella and the ingredients
Nella and the ingredients

Gado gado
Gado gado


Potatoes, diced
Baby corn, chopped
Carrot, diced
Green beans, chopped
. Boil for 10 minutes

Sanc (? Bok choi?)
. Add
Cucumber, chopped
. Add last and lightly blanche

2 eggs
. Hard boil then quarter

Turmeric seeds
Kencan (related to ginger)
2 fresh chillis
. Fry, then drain

. Deep fry

Fish stock
. Combine with other ingredients
. Grind

Coconut milk
. Boil
Palm sugar
Crushed lemon grass
Lime leaves
. Bring to boil
Soya sauce

. Deep fry, then drain
. Chop

Present as:
Eggs, halved
Tomatoes, chopped

Randang chicken

Randang chicken

Dry chili
Fresh chili
Thai onion
Coriander seeds
. Blend
. Fry in oil for 1 minute

. Chop and add to fry
. Cook 5 minutes

Lemon grass
. Roughly crush
. Add to pan
. Cook 5 minutes

Potato, chopped
. Add to pan
. Cook 2 minutes

Star anise
Palm sugar
Lime leaves
. Add to pan


Coconut, desiccated
. Dry fry until brown (10 minutes)
. Grind to paste

. Add Coconut to pan of Sauce

Cinnamon stick
Palm sugar
Soya sauce, dash
. Add to pan



. Blend

Tomato, chop
. Add to blend
. Fry

. Add to blend

Small fish (anchovies), deep fried
. Add to blend

Peanuts, deep fried
. Add to blend

Shallots, chopped
. Add to blend (for color)

Sam-I-am as an Egyptian tout

I do not need to buy an ankh
I’ll keep my money in the bank

I do not want a granite cat
I do not want to buy your tat

I do not need another scarab
Go away you scamming Arab

I will not visit temple Horus
My wallet is not so porous

I do not want to see the Sphinx
Your selling style really stinks

I have no fear of the mummy curse
I worry more about my purse

I know that many tombs were found
I would prefer to keep my pound

I’ve paid for stories of King Tut
Now my wallet is firmly shut!


Thanks to Mark, “King of Rhymes” for his invaluable assistance with the couplets.

El Capricho

I spent last weekend in Madrid with some friends from Zurich. Spain is in the same timezone as Western Europe and Switzerland but when returning from a weekend there, it still takes a few days to get over the jet lag. We went for lunch at a recommended restaurant and found the place empty when we arrived at 2pm. We thought that that meant we had chosen an unpopular location. It turns out we had just chosen an unpopular time: by 3pm, the apparent lunch hour, the place was full. Similarly, dinner starts at around 10pm. Bars get active around midnight and night clubs don’t really get busy until around 2:30 or 3 in the morning. After sampling a bit of the nightlife, we were getting to bed at 5am and getting up around noon: just in time for breakfast.

The food schedules were particularly important to us. The driving motivation behind the trip was culinary. Madrid was really the warm-up and a good place to get out taste buds into a Spanish mood.

Our first dinner was a wonderful selection of  tapas. We sampled various sausages, hams, cheeses, meatballs, and tortilla. This was all washed down with a very decent bottle of Rioja. The outdoors restaurant of Lateral in Puerta del Sol lived up to is reputation as some of the best tapas in Madrid and was everything was cheap, cheap compared to Zurich.

Still in the tapas vein, we had an afternoon snack the following day at a small speciality eatery. The menu prominently displayed the 6 items they had on offer. The first was a very pleasant house wine and the other five were Gambons – prawns – prepared in various styles. We placed our order and watched as the prawns were cooked up in front of us. A collection were fried up whole on a grill while another handful were tossed into a small ceramic pot to be fried in a rich garlic sauce. Tasty beyond description!

The breakfast highlight was at San Ginés, a colorful little cafe hidden in a side street near Plaza Mayor. The place is famed as Spain’s most famous chocolateria. They serve over half-a-million cups of hot chocolate a year. The chocolate is served warm in coffee cups and has a syrup-like consistency. The breakfast is completed with churros – pastry deep fried to crispy perfection.

Our ultimate culinary destination, however, lay 300km north of Madrid in the countryside near León. El Capricho is famous for serving the best steak in the world. Working cows are retired at the end of a life of labour and then allowed to live out their latter years being well fed on grass and taken care of. After slaughter, the meat is then well aged and cooked with the greatest care. The result is promised to be the finest beef available.

After a four-hour drive from Madrid we arrived at the restaurant. The entrance of the restaurant overlooked the kitchen, a wonderfully characterful room which clearly showed the owner’s love of food. Capsicum overflowed the baskets in the corner.  Cloves of garlic hung to ribbons trailing down from the ceiling. The main meat-cooking grill was set into to a niche in the wall, with the heat supplied from a wood fire below. On a benchtop by the door, a hoof of an animal leg was held in a vice with the remainder of the leg covered by a cloth. Under the cloth you could see a partially carved leg of ham.

We proudly told the waitress that we had traveled all the way from Zurich to experience this restaurant and had reserved months in advance to ensure getting a place. Somehow, however, our reservation had been misplaced. We waited for a moment as they did some checking. Visions flashed before our minds of traveling halfway across Europe and having to end up eating at a McDonalds roadside diner. Lost reservation or not, the staff were kind us enough to take us in anyway. We were taken into the dining area downstairs.

The restaurant is wonderfully atmospheric as it was converted from a wine cellar. Most of the tables were tucked into alcoves that once housed barrels of wine. Since the restaurant was fully booked, we were taken past these and given the VIP room with statues and ancient wine making equipment on display behind glass walls.

On our way to the restaurant, we had been discussing how willing we would be to push our budgets. We had heard that the most expensive item was a 500€ steak. Would anyone spend that much on a steak? Should we get one to share? When the menus arrived, we had an unexpected shock: the prices were extremely reasonable! Starters and desserts were generally less than 5€ and there was even a four-course-and-wine “Recession Menu” for 20€. The philosophy of the owner became apparent: prepare the best possible quality meat and share it with as many people as possible. After coming such a distance for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, price was not our major constraint. We searched for the most expensive item we could find which was the “Working cow” steak priced at – a still surprisingly reasonable 158€ a kilogram.

Given our confusion over the menu, we were happy when the owner/cook suggested to prepare us a meal based on his recommendations. He presented us a 3kg piece of raw steak that he thought would suit us for the main course. The flesh was a deep red and a thick, thick layer of fat along its side recommended it as a quality piece of meat. The mystery of the 500€-steak was thus solved: rather than being an expensive single dish, this magnificent piece of meat would feed the table. The meat was then taken away to be tempered at room-temperature – an essential step to bringing out the full flavour.

While the main was being prepared, we were given a plate of ham to start. This was delicious. After a few days in Spain, we had already started to become snobby about having great ham. This certainly met our expectations. Dark meat with a rich and pleasantly salty flavour.

The ham was accompanied by a lovely bottle of wine. Since the meal was going to be less expensive than we first imagined, our wine budget grew to compensate. We had an excellent 110€ bottle of 2006  El Bosque Rioja.  As good as it was, I couldn’t definitively say whether it was better that the 30€ bottle of Rioja we had in Madrid. Similarly for the 260€ 2003 La Cueva Del Contador that accompanied the main – a wonderful wine, but not 8-times better than a cheaper bottle.

The main course was our eagerly anticipated piece of beef. The chef brought the cooked steak to the table and proceeded to carve it into thin slices. The meat was cooked rare – the inside raw and the outside seared and salted. The meat was incredibly tender with the crusty surface imparting the flavour from the wood fire and the salt dissolving in the mouth to impart round-out the flavours. The fat was served separately and could be eaten alone (yes, it was that good) or to enhance the flavour of a mouthful of beef. Another combination was to a slice of roasted capsicum/pepper with the beef. Even the hot chips were excellent – cooked to perfection.

The meal was completed by an excellent dessert platter – so good that we shared 3 rounds in the group. Egg custard tart, cheesecake, rice pudding,  and the table’s favourite: the three-chocolate cake.

At the end of the meal, the chef returned once more to ask if we were satisfied with our meal. He received a spontaneous, and well-deserved round of applause from group of very grateful diners.

Flashpacker transport options

There are no trains from Saigon to the highlands of Dalat. The journey involves a 7 hour bus trip which means either be an entire day on the highway, or an overnight trip. The bus company targets local and international tourists, so at least wouldn’t be a repeat of my recent bus journey. Still, I wasn’t keen to loose an entire day travelling or suffering a unpleasant night with even less sleep than my travel insomnia would allow.

A quick internet search showed two flights a day with Vietnamese Airlines. Since these flights are mainly filled by locals, the prices are reasonable (US$50 one-way) and, better still, can usually be booked at short notice. After a bit of a struggle, I got myself a ticket for a Monday morning flight.

The good news was that the flight would get me in to Dalat at 07:30 for a full-day of motorcycle touring. The bad news was that I’d have to be at the Saigon airport at 05:30. The taxi from the centre to the airport can take an hour and while I had been waking up at 04:00 I was trying to encourage my body clock to stay asleep at that time.

Budget travel guides, both Lonely Planet and online, were silent on hotel options near the airport. An internet search revealed a number of high-end options. I had been staying in budget accommodation for far in Vietnam, but having come to terms with my flashpacker status, I decided to go for it and booked a room online.

The driver stuffs my backpack into the back of his taxi. “Parkroyal Hotel?” he confirms, looking at my backpack and then from my sandals to my grubby T-Shirt. “Vang,” I assured him. Yes, a luxury hotel for me tonight please! In the taxi I try to make myself look presentable. I put on my best, or at least cleanest, T-Shirt and take off my bead bracelets. I try brush some of the dirt off my backpack and zip away the shoulder and waist straps. It looks a little bit like a shoulder bag, but really is still just a backpack pretending.. There is nothing I can do about my sandals – the only footwear I have with me are my pair of Tevas.

To try and compensate for my slightly grubby looks, I booked myself in with the title “Doctor Jason Haines” (unfortunately, “Lord” wasn’t an option). PhD doctorants can be eccentric can’t they? I’ve worked with academics that wore sandals in far cooler climates than Saigon.

I try to feign confidence as a stroll into the lobby. I’ve stayed in hotels of this class in Europe and had to pay 3 times as much for the privilege – I could stay here a year if I maxed out my Visa card limit. I give my bag to a porter and present my passport – use two hands in Vietnam – to the receptionist with a “Chao buoi toi (good evening)”. I get a friendly welcome, well at least after they’ve seen my credit card. I’m sure the sideways glance he given me is just in my imagination.

The porter deposits my “bag” in my room and I change for a swim in the indoor pool. Back in the room, I hit the mini-bar. To complete my 1st-world neo-tourist-colonist image, I take a Gin and Tonic (“Keeps away the mosquitos, old boy! Don’t want a dose of malaria, what?”).

Over the few hours of my stay I spend more money on tips for the porters and the mini-bar than I’d spent on accommodation the previous two nights. The room is both ludicrously cheap by European standards and ludicrously expensive by Vietnamese standards.

“I hope you enjoyed your stay. Thank you Doctor Haines,” says the receptionist as I check out. No, thank you!


A backpacker is someone travelling independently and on a budget. They avoid organised tours and typically choose simple accommodation and take local transportation.

“Flashpacking” is term that has arisen in recent years to describe a subclass of backpackers. The main distinction is that flashpackers are not so limited by budget constraints. High-end digital cameras and iPods are common equipment. Increasingly a laptop will also be crammed into the backpack between the sarong and the Lonely Planet guidebook.

I don’t necessarily think there is anything noble about travelling on a shoestring. Some travellers take pride in how little they spend on a trip – the mock travel guide “Phaic Than” parodies this by boasting that one of its authors travelled on such a low budget that he actually made a profit on his last trip to Asia.

For me, independent travel is about the lifestyle. You are more open to meet people – both locals and travellers – when when avoiding organised tours and high-end accommodation. A backpack is a practicality and allows you to hop on the back of a motorcycle taxi which is often the best, if not the only, travel option to get to a budget hotel.

Having a tight budget for food might mean missing out on some local food. It will typically exclude the tourist-priced western dishes. I much prefer to eat local food while travelling, but after a few breakfasts of Pho (noodle soup), I feel no guilt about tucking into a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs with local coffee and fresh tropical fruits.

For me, independent travel is also about the experience. The broader the experience, the better. This goes for accommodation as well as food. Staying at a high-end resort is also an experience, but for my tastes is too generic and not as much of an adventure as staying in lower end budget options. At the other extreme, very low-end, dingy, flea-filled hotels aren’t generally the sort of adventure one deliberately seeks out.

I’m on the “gadget-freak” sub-sub-category of flashpacker backpackers and I think I started early. I backpacked in 1999 with a CD player and a digital camera. This was in the dark days before MP3 players and when digital cameras were large, clunky, expensive battery eating machines. Laptops were impractical for travel and were without wifi. GPS devices wouldn’t become popular until the US Defence Department turned off the accuracy reducing “selective availability”. (oh dear, I think I’ve written a “kids of today don’t know how good they’ve got it!” paragraph)

For my 2009 trip, I took both my digital cameras: a mid-range one with a good zoom lens and my pocket size waterproof one. I also brought my iPhone which has been invaluable. I think I got my full flashpacker stripes when I bought myself a MacBook Air duty free at the Hong Kong Airport. With free WiFi being pretty much ubiquitous, a laptop is usually the best method for internet access. It also allows me to write, write, write. Bus journeys are a good chance to sort photos, write emails and do blog posts.

I’m writing this on the bus from Dalat heading towards Saigon. I’m going to be dropped off on the way to visit Cat Tien national park. This is not the typical stop, so I’m hoping the driver remembers. I’m a bit reassured as I found the GPS coordinates on the parks official website. By entering them into the GPS app of my iPhone I know that we’re now 54km and 1 hour 20 mins away from the park. Good thing too: I’d like a toilet stop for my bowels which are on an Immodium induced “pause”.

Travel Lady

The Travel Lady taps on her keyboard. “Flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat,” she says, “Is okay with stopover?” I frown. It’s a short flight. “Where is the stopover?” More tapping. “San Franciso,” she says. “San Franciso?!”

I plan to fly the next morning and that’s too late for online booking. I figured that going to a Vietnamese travel agent in Vietnam with a prominent “Vietnam Airlines” sign in front would mean I could book a Vietnam Airlines flight. Not only is my travel agent probably using one of those brain-dead flight searchers that don’t include domestic flights, but apparently she lacks a basic understanding of world geography. And relative costs – she slides a printed quote over the desk: $750.

So, I could take a 50 minute flight for around $50 with Vietnamese Airlines, or spend 24 hours on planes and $750. Maybe I’ll try another travel agent. “Cam-on; Thank you” I say and make my way for the door.

Bus trip to Can Tho

The Friendly Woman sitting in front of me on the bus motions to get my attention. She indicates in the direction of the ticket inspector and makes a sign. She spreads her fingers wide and taps her palm against her first curled in a circle – 50 thousand dong, about $2.50.

The ticket collector comes around as the bus is pulling out.  “150 thousand dong,” he tells me. I tell him the price is 50 thousand and we start to haggle. “I paid 50 thousand to come here,” I lie, not wanting to implicate my undercover accomplice, Friendly Woman.

The bus is stopped and the collector calls over the motorcycle driver who had brought me to the (slightly dodgy) bus station. Since he had already ripped me off for the taxi, I guess they figured I would be gullible enough to trust him for the bus fare. They come down to 80 thousand and I give up by offering 70 thousand. Friendly Woman glances at me when the inspector leaves. I show her 7 fingers and she raises her eyebrows. I guess being overcharged 20% is a lot for her. For me, I avoided the original “200% gullible foreigner surcharge” and I ended up being taken for around $1.

Friendly Woman offers me further advice. She points at my shoulder bag and mimes pulling her own close to her. She indicates in the direction of the Sleazy Guy who is sitting across the aisle from me. The warning wasn’t really necessary. When the bus was still in the station, Sleazy Guy had shifted across to sit next to me. With a serpentine smile and tobacco breathe he nattered at me in Vietnamese. “Fine,” I thought when he touched my arm, “the Vietnamese are open and tactile people. My pale skin and hairy arms must be a curiosity.” When he put his hand on the inside of my knee, I thought that was a bit too open. A stern frown and a firm shove  sent him scurrying back to his side of the aisle. “Great,” i thought, “now I know what solo female travellers have to put up with.” So, no, I didn’t need further warnings to be careful around Sleazy Guy.