Saturday, July 25, 2009

EAT , not slay the Dragon !

I first came upon this fruit growing in Ho Chi Minh in 2003 on a holiday. We sailed on the Mekong and one of our stops was a village. We stepped on solid ground and were shown around. The villager showed us the longan. Oh, how I love the luscious, juicy fruit! Then he pointed to the dragon fuit. At first glance, it looked weird and so unwieldy ! A cactus sprouting red, globular -like fruits. Around the village the dragon fruit made a conspicuous presence, dangling in rows on ropes and hanging wherever possible.

Back home, the fruit is no more a novelty item as Malaysia is also an important grower. I found out it was introduced into this country since 1997. But Vietnam tops the world in cutivating this fruit, at 10,000 hectacres.

By and large, the plant requires a tropical climate. It's quite a common sight to see dragon fruits grown on a large scale in open areas.

The dragon fruit shown here are grown by some students from the Economic Empowerment Programme (EEP) of Selangor Cheshire Home. 1000 plants are on this plot of land. Besides having classes for IT skills, they learn how to look after the plants. The acquired skills will be useful when they are ready for employment after their tenure is over.

I was lucky to snap some pics of the fruit in different stages of growth. Known also as pitaya, the dragon fruit is named for its colourful red scales tipped with green like those of the mythical dragon. There are 3 species :

1. Hylocereus undatus - with white flesh
2. H. polyrhizus - with red flesh
3. Selenicereus megalanthus - with yellow flesh and yellow skin.
The red flesh of H. polyrhizus contains anthocyanin, an oxidant which promotes good health.

In fact, I tried to grow the dragon fruit in my garden from a cutting. I found a sunny spot and used the pole of clothes line to act as the support. Alas, I didn't try hard enough. It was a malnourished, skinny plant. Nothing much happened.

The dragon fruit is a climbing cacti with aerial roots. It therefore needs pillars for support. Cuttings are buried 2 feet deep, leaving about 4 feet above the ground. A special wire, wood or concrete bracket is made at the top of the pillar or a motorbike tyre can be used.

Dragon fruit requires 100% sunlght and the fruits can be covered with netted bags to protect them from fruit flies and mites.

Dragon fruit is a day long plant and it's large showy flowers bloom only at night. They can be more than 30cm long! It takes 35 - 45 days from flowering to fruit harvest.

The fruits are ready for harvest when 60% of the scales on the fruit turn red. The fruit are graded by weight:
Grade AA for fruit 500 -800 g each
Grade A - 350 -450 g
Grade B - 250 - 350 g
Grade C - less than 250 g. Use them for making cordials, syrup and jam

I have only eaten it as a fruit - scooped out of its skin or as a fruit salad. I enjoy the 'nutty' taste of the seeds which are much like the those of the kiwi fruit.The fruit is known for its high vitamin C content, minerals and high fiber.

You might like to try it as a smoothie with lime or lemon to taste. The flowers can be dried for making a tea, or cooked as a vegetable. After removing the spines, new stem shoots can be cut diagonally and fried as a vegetable or used to make soup.

Enjoy! Be in the pink of health!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Glory of Bunga Raya

We call our national flower, the Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, Bunga Raya. The word bunga means 'flower' in Malay whilst raya means 'big'. This beloved red beauty was declared our national symbol in 1960 by the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

The 5 petals represent the 5 Rukun Negara ( 5 Principles of Nationhood) of Malaysia. They are:
1. Belief in God
2. Loyalty to King and Country
3. Supremacy of the Constitution
4. Rule of Law
5. Mutual Respect and Morality

The flower can be found imprinted on the notes and coins of the Malaysian currency. Nestled in the Lake Garden is the Hibiscus Garden for the public to appreciate the beauty of the different varieties . In the city, the lights are fashioned to look like hibiscus on the top of lamp posts.

Lately, the media was abuzz with news of a massive 3 tier crystal fountain that further elevates the status of the Bunga Raya. I checked it out at the Pavilion, THE shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur.

The fountain has certainly found a 'home' where the world can view. It stands smack in a great location - at the entrance of the Pavilion . Locals and tourists flock to this area of Bukit Bintang which is in the golden triangle of the city.

I thought what an innovative idea to have a beautiful fountain showing off the Bunga Raya motifs. Tourism Minister, Dr Ng Yen Yen launched the 3.6m x 6m fountain amidst much fanfare on 4 July to coincide with the MegaSale.

This beautiful Grand Bloom of Fulfillment fountain was conceptualized by Pavilion KL in collaboration with the ancient glassware expert LiuliGongfang.

Artist Loretta Hui-shan Yang who has worked for many years with flowers as her theme was given the task of creating this fountain with hibiscus as the motif. It was a year and a half's labour of love.

Liuli is a term for ancient Chinese glass. Even under ideal conditions, a fountain created entirely from liuli and silicon carbide is no small feat. Finally, the finished work weighing 4 tons was shipped from Shanghai to its present location.

In the cool comfort of Pavilion,on video, visitors can catch the aspirations of the artist and her team who worked against many odds to make this fountain a reality.

The 3 hemispherical bowls represent Malaysia's multiracial culture. In an ascending structure, it symbolizes vigour, mobitilty and the aspirations of Malaysians. The flow of the water symbolizes blessings and prosperity for the nation.

Light is the key element to the fountain. Under the night sky, the oscillating lights will make the flowers appear to dance. Sounds so magical! Even under the afternoon sun, the fountain is a beauty to behold.

This new landmark is already a crowd puller. It is another new attraction belonging to the people of Malaysia. Looking at the fountain, the Bunga Raya is certainly basking in glory with the lights and water at play.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Undye-ing love for Batik

It was one of those days when anything fancy takes flight. I decided to stroll at the Artists' Colony, Jalan Conlay, KL. There one can meet many artists, have a friendly chat, admire their works and do it all so leisurely from one hut to another. I met Jon Bagul in one of the huts he shares with a fellow batik artist. Jon Bagul is a batik tulis (hand drawn)artist and he hails from Kota Belud, Sabah.

I think I woke him from his reverie as I popped my head towards the table where he was seated. In between puffs of his cigarette, he welcomed me. Jon was in his element. Guess I was the first visitor in the mid morning. He introduced himself as John Travolta's kin when I asked him his name. Really, he is Abdul Latif Magit. With pride he said he could dance the floor just like the real John!

For all his cheekiness, he's a soft-spoken guy. Proudly he showed me his album of photos. Since 2002, Jon Bagul's second home is where all the dyes, brushes, cantings and wax reside. The artist spends the entire week , all for the love of batik and to make a living.

My eyes caught the big piece of batik tulis stretched across the metal frame. It's a special order by a Swedish lady. 'She wants it like this piece here,' he said pointing to a 5 feet x 4 feet piece framed. Lovely piece! - of heliconias which are one of my favourite flowers too. When done, it will grace her living room thousands of miles away from Malaysia.

I think batik needs only little introduction to my readers. Although its origins is in the Malay Archipelago, batik is found in many countries the world over. In Malaysia, demand for batik tulis is more than batik chap. In recent years, Malaysian batik has garnered international attention. The late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood's vision to put Malaysia on the world map has seen success.

So, what is batik? It is a wax-resisting dyeing technique used on textile. The cloth is usually cotton but it can be silk. The pattern is left unwaxed. When the cloth is put into the dye, the waxed parts aren't dyed and are left uncoloured. The wax is removed by washing in water. The process is repeated for different dyes till the final result is achieved.

With a canting in his hand, Jon guided the nifty tool and drew the lines and curves. The hot, melted wax flowed fluidly from the small copper cup at the other end of the canting. Believe me, you need steady hands and concentration to achieve that. I've tried before and they were broken lines like sleepers on a railway track! Not forgetting the blobs of wax dripped here and there for the unintentional design!!

As it is hand drawn, no two pieces are the same. One must be prepared to pay the price for this laborious fine art.

Batik is fashion everywhere - be it on the beach as pareos, bikinis or for the high fashion, in homes to adorn - curtains, pillows, deco pieces. As far as your imagination stretches, you can wear batik!

I asked Jon why he was in Kuala Lumpur. 'This is the big city. There's no money in a small place.' And he appears to have made the right move. For how long can one subsist on the love of one's passion without being able to 'cari makan' ( make a living)? He even tried to market his art on his website. Visitors gave him encouraging comments but the 'Wows' weren't good enough without the purchases. So he decided to change strategy. Now he runs a one man business among the other artists in the colony. Tourists and locals pop in and they recognise his talent and orders are made.

It's been 15 years since he started batik painting. Now he is a happier man and I can sense you cannot tear the man from his art. His undye-ing love for batik flourishes daily . I wished him well. Will definitely bump into him again.

Jon Bagul/ Abdul Latif Magit
Kompleks Kraf Kuala Lumpur
Section 63, Jalan Conlay
50450 Kuala Lumpur

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chef For all Seasons

Volunteers and Chef Wan

He peppered his demo with generous helpings of humour. He stirred our souls, mixed stories, jokes with culinary tips as he cooked up a storm with 3 dishes. That morning, the irrepressible Chef Wan did all that at the Selangor Spastics Centre.

Chef Wan cracked us up as he sauntered in. To a room full of 'oldies' ( 50 and above), he remarked with a twinkle in his eyes, 'Aiyah, I thought I was coming to talk to spring chickens!' What do you know ? - that instantly earned him a place in our hearts!!

My friend, Helen

I've only seen him briefly on TV. His broad smile and bubbly personality shines through. Here's a man who left the banking world for his passion for cooking.

Chef Wan,whose real name is Redzuawan Ismail,said, ' I've always loved food for as long as I can remember!' His resume is huge - professional chef, cookbook author, tv personality, critic, actor, ambassador for several brands. Back in 1992, he was already a popular figure with his well-rated show, KUALI. Those 'wok' days have since gained international acclaim - Singapore, Australia, US, Oslo, Stockholm, to name a few.

He was co-host with Anthony Bourdain for The American Food Channnel. And what pride too, to have cooked for the Sultan of Brunei and Bill Clinton. Chef Wan travels widely to put Malaysia on the global map.

'I like simple cakes' and 'use only the best ingredients', said Chef Wan. To kick off, he took us through the steps of making Chocolate Paradise. We certainly appeciated the bittersweet choc used and enjoyed the nutty crunch of the almonds as we each had a piece when it was all done.

Next, he introduced a Balinese traditional food. Chef Wan cooked Lawar (Balinese Vegetable and Chicken Salad). His assistant ,Sally and his son, Riz moved around to get things going. Right after his demo, he had a shoot in Bentong for the Ramadan airing on TV. As the fine paste was cooking on the fire, the aromatic smells of the chillies, galangal, lemon grass floated into the air to tease our tastebuds.

The last dish was Tajine Chicken Magribi - Morocco Style. The chicken was nicely soft and the apricots blended so well in the gravy . This dish is usually eaten with bread or couscous.

We the audience got to witness the special chemistry between father and son. The guiding hand was evident. 'My dad is fun,' said Riz who joined in the mirth and laughter of the morning.

Trust the ever-sprightly volunteers of the Selangor Spastics Centre. They had prepared a raffle as an extended activity. Eagerly we bought some tickets. I won one! - a round tupperware container. Well, guess who won the most prizes? - Chef Wan, with 4 to his delight and our screams of ' shuffle! shuffle' !!! We were certainly having so much fun even when cooking was over.

I came for a food demo. And didn't for a moment think we'd be rollicking in our seats as we listened and watched the master chef at work. I went home captivated.

'Food makes people happy. No matter how big your problems are, you still have to eat.' Thank you, Chef Wan for those parting words.

Here's a recipe to share:
Tajine Chicken Magribi ( Morocco Style)

12 large pieces chicken
Clean and drip to dry. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside
1/2 cup olive oil
2 large onions sliced
1 tbsp fresh ginger minced
4 cloves garlic minced
2 tsp tumeric powder
1/4 cup pine nuts
A pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp white pepper powder
A handful flat leaved parsley chopped
A handful coriander chopped
15 -20 pieces dried apricots
Soaked in hot water for several hours till soft
2tbsp butter
1 chicken cube
1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
1/4 cup sugar or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon juice
1 cup of water

Heat oil in a pan and fry chicken on both side to brown and dish out.
Add onion to the remaining oil in the pan fry
Add ginger and garlic till fragrant
Add chicken in then put in all the other ingredients.
Bring to boil then cook on low heat stirring regularly until sauce thickens