01 October 2014

Crazy about Pasta, Tomatoes and Anchovies

I've been cooking pasta quite frequently for lunch because it is a quick and easy dish to prepare, allows me to use up leftover bits of ingredients lurking in the fridge, and since I discovered the wonders of anchovies. I can't seem to resist buying pasta every time I walk down the pasta aisle, especially since the variety available in the supermarket has really grown over the years. So this recent habit has proven useful in clearing the many stashes of dried pasta that have been accumulating across the kitchen. 

Along with buying too much pasta, I usually obsess over making sure I have at least a couple of cans of diced tomatoes in the kitchen. Ed knows my obsession very well and knows better than to stand between me and a shelf full of canned tomatoes ON SALE. I can't help it that they are so incredibly handy to have around for last minute pasta sauces or late night gazpachos. But I do admit that it is ridiculous to have anxiety attacks over whether I need to replenish my stock. I think my all-time high must be 6 cans of tomatoes... just hanging around. I fear my latest anchovy phase might join the ranks of canned tomatoes. 

But they really are just. so. incredible. I add only just enough to get the umami kick and this almost imperceptible layer of flavour that leaves people wondering and wanting more. It is like I have finally discovered the magic ingredient (that is not msg) to bring my pasta dishes up one notch. 



Inspired by the amazing mushroom pesto pasta I had in Perth, I concocted something similar from white button mushrooms, hand-chopped cilantro and parsley, mixed with minced garlic, a generous dollop of tahini, and some anchovies of course. I also broke up some frozen beef and added it to the mix. This was delicious, especially with a heavy-hand of parmesan. 

It also kept surprisingly well in the fridge. The next day, I just added a little more olive oil and some water, reheated it over the stove and added some chilli for a good spicy kick. (Pictured below) I reckon it tasted even better than the day before! Overnight pasta usually gets too soft and even mushy, but the Bavette held up superbly. (Another reason to stock up?)


Unsurprisingly, I also made a tomato-based pasta. I combined just a few simple ingredients - minced pork, anchovies, canned tomatoes and parsley. A deceptively basic dish that was so good I could eat the sauce on its own. 


The many dishes one can come up with, with just those few staples is endless! Okay, maybe not endless, but surely plentiful. And then today, fate led me to this recipe for a Chinese Sausage Carbonara aka Lap Cheong Carbonara. Maybe lap cheong will be my new fetish? 

30 September 2014

Cilantro flatbread

I love the idea of making bread, I really do. The image of a smooth ball of dough slowly rising in the oven, and eventually splitting apart to unearth more doughy goodness... is very alluring. 

But almost all bread recipes require a fair amount of forward planning. By that I mean you have to start hours in advance so that the dough has enough time to relax and grow. Skipping this step would be disastrous as the yeast needs time to work its magic, creating many tiny little pockets of air. 

Then comes flatbread to the rescue. A work of art that delivers all the starchy deliciousness you are looking for, but which can be done in under half an hour.

And since I often have all the ingredients necessary, these can be made even for a quick supper - delicious with tzatziki or hummus. This is so easy I actually look forward to making it. And I give this many bonus points because Ed always asks for seconds when I make this. 

Cilantro Flatbread
Recipe adapted from Epicurious
Makes 8 flatbreads

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups (or more) unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3/4 cup (or more) plain whole-milk yogurt
Olive oil (for frying)

Method
Sift first 4 ingredients into medium bowl. Stir in cilantro. Add yogurt and stir with fork until small clumps form. Knead mixture in bowl just until dough holds together, adding more flour or yogurt by tablespoonfuls for soft and slightly sticky dough. Turn dough out onto floured surface. Knead just until smooth, adding flour along the way if the dough is too sticky, about 1 minute. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces.
Roll each piece into ball, then roll each dough piece out on floured surface to 4 1/2-inch round. Brush large nonstick skillet generously with olive oil; heat over medium heat. Working in batches, add 3 dough rounds to skillet; cook until golden brown and puffed, adjusting heat to medium-high as needed to brown evenly, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer flatbreads to platter; serve warm.


17 September 2014

Tomato Anchovy Pasta

Talk to any Chinese home cook, and chances are that they will admit to having cooked a noodle soup dish to finish up leftover bits of ingredients in their refrigerator. Like fishballs, tofu, bits of mince meat, or limp and almost yellowing vegetables. I am no exception. This was a useful skill I picked up from my mum and frequently practised in my university days. 

Ed is very (sensibly) particular about not wasting food and gives me plenty of grief when he sees me throwing away anything from the refrigerator. Not that he would stop me - moldy anything is impossible to salvage - but a brief lecture would usually follow. Sometimes I resort to throwing it away secretly and hope he never notices. That works... sometimes. 

It does not help that I love cooking a variety of cuisines. This means that while I have a few lady's fingers and tomatoes left over from the Indian fish head curry dish I made the day before, I also have a few stalks of italian parsley (from making a Spanish octopus salad) or dried shrimp (from the Peranakan rempah udang last week). It would require a really creative person to come up with a dish that can combine all of them. Alas, I am no such person, but I do my best. 

This is where pasta - the Italian equivalent of the Chinese noodle - comes in. While thinking about what to cook for lunch today, I rummaged through my refrigerator for some inspiration and found a small tin of anchovy fillets - a tin I had originally intended to use on some pizza one day. A day which never came about. Combining it with the few lonely stalks of italian parsley and half box of cherry tomatoes seemed like a delicious flavour profile for a pasta dish, and it was!



I had never cooked anchovy fillets over direct heat before, since I always eat mine grilled whole on pizza, or neat if they are simply pickled instead of cured. (I really adore pickled anchovy, which can usually be found near the deli section of supermarkets. I'm salivating just thinking of it now.) So I didn't expect the cured anchovy fillets to melt into the sauce, but it made for an incredibly delicious sauce packed with the tang from the tomatoes and salty fermented flavour from the anchovy. I was very pleasantly surprised by how well all the ingredients came together, and will definitely make this again. 


Tomato Anchovy Pasta
serves two

Ingredients
160g dried short pasta 
(I used a mixture of casarecce and fusilli, both of which had similar cooking times.)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
A 55g tin of cured anchovy
200g cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
A tablespoon of chopped italian parsley (or more, if you wish)

Method
Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente, keeping some of the pasta water. (Be generous with the salt. I use 1.5 teaspoons for every litre of water.)

While the pasta is cooking, heat olive oil in a large saucepan. Add sliced garlic - it should sizzle gently the moment the garlic hits the oil.  
When the edges of the garlic are turning brown, add anchovy fillets. Feel free to mash it up. When the anchovy fillets are starting to break apart, add cherry tomatoes and stir to combine. 

When cherry tomatoes have softened slightly (they should still be able to hold their shape and yield slightly to pressure), turn down the heat to low, add drained al dente pasta to the saucepan and toss until pasta is well coated in the sauce. Add reserved pasta water if necessary i.e. if the pasta seems a little dry. 

Garnish with italian parsley and serve warm. 

15 September 2014

Rempah Udang



Since getting home from our two month escapade, I've been cooking far more often than when I had a regular job - double the joy there. It is truly blissful to feel inspired to cook fish head curry simply after seeing a really handsome piece of fish head, AND have the luxury of time to do it that very day. Or to be able to take all afternoon making prawn mee even though a good bowl is just a few minutes away. 


Since I left my job, many have asked me how I have been occupying myself. I suppose this curiosity is natural, since I used to spend a good 50 - 60 hours a week at work. The best part of having all that time is that I now have the time and energy to reconnect with old friends, and deepen relationships with people who matter. How better to start than with my own family. 


One of the items on my to-do list, crafted when I was still in Australia, was to finally attempt Rempah Udang. Spending an entire afternoon doing that with my mother was exactly how I envisioned my first foray into Rempah Udang to go. 





Using my trusty go-to Peranakan cookbook by Philip Chia, we mixed, chopped, pounded, steamed, fried, and rolled our way to many irregularly shaped and sized banana leaf parcels of glutinous rice and dried shrimp deliciousness. It was also a great learning process for my mum and I as we got better with each new parcel we created. We found it a real challenge to ensure there was just the right amount of glutinous rice (read: not too much)  and dried shrimp (read: as much as possible), while still ensuring the shrimp was fully encased in the glutinous rice. We might need a few more rounds to nail this, but it was certainly good enough to give away to friends and family. But the best part of it all really, was spending all afternoon in the kitchen with my mum, the way we used to do when I was just a wee girl helping her prepare the Saturday dinner. 

Rempah Udang
Makes about 30 parcels
(Recipe from Peranakan Heritage Cooking, comments in italics mine)

Ingredients
Banana leaves as needed 
(I bought $1 worth and it was more than enough)
Dried bunga telang
(These are flowers to dye the glutinous rice blue, but they are more for its aesthetic value. I omitted them since they are quite difficult, but not impossible, to find.)
Water as needed
600g white glutinous rice, soaked for 4 hours
250ml coconut milk 
1/2 teaspoon salt
60 bamboo cocktail sticks

200g dried shrimp, rinsed and drained
4cm bulbous end of lemongrass
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
200g shallots, peeled
2cm knob of tumeric, peeled (or 1 tsp ground tumeric)
2 tablespoon cooking oil
2-3 tablespoons dried chilli paste (see recipe below)
100g grated skinned coconut
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon sugar

Method

Wipe banana leaves clean, scald in hot water or over an open flame to soften the leaves and prevent them from tearing when folded. Cut to obtain about 30 square sheets, each at least 9cm x 9cm. (You may want to cut them only when you are rolling them, so that you can adjust the size of each sheet to your preference.)

Place dried bunga telang in a bowl with 100ml of water. Leave to soak for about 15 minutes or longer if you want a deeper blue. Strain to obtain water for colouring. 

Rinse and strain the glutinous rice. Place on a steaming tray. Mix coconut milk with 50ml of water and salt. (The recipe called for 100ml of water, but the glutinous rice was more stodgy than I would have liked it.) Pour over glutinous rice. Using a teaspoon, drop spoonfuls of blue colouring randomly on rice to colour it in patches.

Steam rice for about 45 minutes or until rice is tender and cooked. Set aside to cool. While rice is cooling, prepare filling.

Heat a wok and dry-fry dried shrimp until fragrant. Leave to cool, then grind until fine using a mortar and pestle or blender. 

Using a mortar and pestle or blender, grind lemongrass, garlic, shallots and tumeric into a paste. (For all my pounding needs, the Ultrapride does a fine job.)

Heat oil in a wok and add ground mixture and dried chilli paste. Stir-fry until fragrant. Add ground dried shrimp and grated coconut. Stir-fry until golden brown. Add salt and sugar.

To make parcels, spoon 2 tablespoons of cooked glutinous rice on a banana leaf square and press it down lightly. Spoon enough filling in a line along the middle of the rice, then roll banana leaf up neatly to get a cylindrical parcel. Secure open ends with cocktail sticks. Repeat until ingredients are used up. 

Grill parcels for 1-2 minutes or until leaves are lightly browned just before serving.


(For chilli paste: soak dried chillies in hot water for 30-45 minutes, drain well and grind finely into a paste.)



01 September 2014

The Grand Aussie Tour

With some (okay, a lot) of time on our hands, Ed and I thought we would take a not-so-short trip to unwind, recharge and reflect. We contemplated numerous options - we ruled out Europe since we'll be heading in that direction next year for some work; we considered Alaska but got freaked out when we read that we'd have difficulty booking accommodation and especially renting a car if we hadn't already done so at least three months in advance; and we would have done a Grand South-East Asia trip if our friends did not remind us that we could always visit various parts of our neighbouring countries over many short trips given how accessible they were from Singapore. 

After much contemplation, and fighting our inner desire to go to the less travelled path, we chose Australia. Neither of us had been there much in our adult years. We thought we had plenty of time, but it turns out the two months was just enough to scrape the surface of the huge and beautiful country. We went there with certain expectations but had them surpassed and lapped, and achieved more than what we thought we would.

There are plenty of guide books and internet resources for places to spend the night in, things to see and food to eat in Australia. We found ourselves visiting Urbanspoon very often when deciding where to eat (nearby) for crowd-sourced reviews and ratings, and were recommended Beanhunter for the coffee-joint equivalent. They gave more up-to-date information such as the opening/closing hours or whether the standard of the food dropped. 

There were still a few things that really stood out to us. These were places we would certain return to in future when we visit Australia again. 


Perth - City


Eat: The Mushroom Pesto Papardelle at Cantina 663 (663 Beaufort Street) was sublime. It was packed full of flavour from the generous serving of mushrooms and pesto, which had plenty of flat-leaf parsley (one of my favourite herbs). I licked the plate clean. It helped that the restaurant had a really cool, laid-back vibe. We saw lots of pate going to other tables, which we would probably have ordered if the portion was not so gigantic. But what a happy problem.


Adelaide - Kangaroo Island and Barossa Valley

Clockwise from top left: Koala at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, Snake skin and Kookaburra at Radical Raptors, and Seals at Seal Bay Conservation Park


See: Kangaroo Island isn't teaming with kangaroos but there are plenty of wildlife to occupy your time. Just a short 45 minute ferry ride away from a jetty south of the city, it was definitely worth a journey down. 


Eat: There's something particularly gamey about the pork in Australia that made us avoid it. But when we were told that the pork belly at Cafe Y (Barossa Valley) was wood-fired and cooked over two days, Ed was intrigued and ordered it. I'm so glad he did because it was divinely tender with a delicately sweet glaze, and none of that gaminess. The manager, Elias, was also beyond hospitable and entertained us with stories of the resident geese and chicken. He also recommended getting some of the 20 year-old muscat from the Yaldara Estate just next door. We couldn't be happier with our purchase.

Melbourne - Phillip Island


See and Eat: Having had very little luck in previous fishing trips, we were slightly hesitant about going fishing for trout albeit at a farm (Rhyll Trout and Bush Tucker Farm). But they couldn't have made it easier with their indoor pond. We succumbed to the indoor experience after braving the winds (since this was in winter) for about half an hour with nary a bite. They helped with everything, even casting the line which was easier said than done. We couldn't even hook the live bait of earthworms! Overall, the experience was seamless, and the fish tasted incredibly sweet. But I couldn't help thinking how unlucky those two specific trout were that morning. 


Tasmania - Hobart and Launceston


Eat: On our first night in Tasmania, we decided to treat ourselves to a meal at Garagistes. We were incredibly fortunate to have entered early as the restaurant was almost fully booked. Sitting at the bar, we had a great view of the entire food preparation area. We could fully appreciate the precision required in the plating of each dish, and the effort put into ensuring the flavour of each component of the dish was exactly as intended. The service staff were also particularly attentive and hospitable.





See: The photo says it all. Just a short car ride away from the town, a breathtaking view awaits. If you're lucky, you may even see snow!


Stay: Relbia Lodge was a lucky find. While we usually stayed in the heart of town, I decided to take a risk with Relbia Lodge after seeing the stunning photos on their website. It turned out to be just a relaxing 15 minute relaxing drive away from town and a really stunning piece of property. The interior was very tastefully done and more importantly, had an incredibly well-equipped kitchenette. Our hosts, who stayed just up the road, also made sure we were comfortable while still respecting our privacy. 

Sydney


See: The Queen Victoria Building (QVB) is hard to miss amidst all the tall and cold buildings. It was such a great respite from the noise and rush of the streets; and a treasure trove of cafes and boutiques to browse at your own pace. The detail in the architecture is also worth a few moments of awe.  


Eat: With an incredibly high rating on Urbanspoon, and just a hop and a skip away from where we stayed, Buffalo Dining Club was an easy decision to make. We ordered their gnocchi and cacio e pepe. Both were flawless and left us both full but wanting more. This was definitely a place I would return to, despite the slightly curt service. 
We definitely enjoyed our time in Australia thoroughly, but after two months away from home and our two lovely cats, we were eager to stop living out of a luggage. And now we're home, and I could not be happier.  

04 August 2013

Brain Broth


The actual name of the recipe is 'Brain-Boosting Broth', and I wouldn't have chanced upon it if I did not end up with much more fennel than two people could consume (courtesy of my mum who got an incredible deal at Pasar Bella).

Wanting to find a way to use up more fennel (there was only so much fennel salad we could eat in a week), I went to my usual trusty source - Epicurious. The recipe looked simple enough, so I used the largest cast iron pot I had and set to work. It smelt and tasted delicious - the sweetness from the vegetables, warmth from the fennel and earthiness from all the herbs came together very well. I used it as a base for a risotto on one night and froze the leftover. 

When Ed was feeling peckish this weekend, I made a pasta soup out of it and added some diced green peppers and fresh dill. Good for the body, good for the brain. Also good for the wallet. 


Brain-Boosting Broth

Ingredients


8 quarts water

3 carrots, coarsely chopped
2 white onions, coarsely chopped
2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
2 bulbs fennel, coarsely chopped
1 parsnip, coarsely chopped
12 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
Stems from 1/2 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch green onions, green and white parts
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, cut in half lengthwise
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 cloves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon ground turmeric

Method

Combine all of the ingredients in a large stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours.

Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve. Use immediately, refrigerate for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 1 month.

29 July 2013

Deconstructed Chocolate Ice Cream





Ed had been sick the past week and was ordered by the doctor to rest at home. In need of a perk-me-up after a miserable lunch of instant noodles (albeit two packets worth), he rummaged through the refrigerator and found some Chocolate Sorbet I made using a recipe from David Lebovitz, as well as a packet of Hokkaido milk we bought on a whim because we were curious about its taste (and whether it was worth its cost). Thinking of an affogato, I suppose, he combined both and voila - Deconstructed Chocolate Ice Cream. He excitedly shared this bit of news with me while I was buried in emails at work and I couldn't wait to try it when I returned. 

It was indeed delicious down to the very last drop of chocolate milk it ended up in. Although I'm not sure if the Hokkaido milk made much of a difference. I think some full cream milk would work just as well. 


Deconstructed Chocolate Milk

Ingredients
2 1/4 cups (555 ml) water

cup (200 g) sugar

3/4 cups (75 g) unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
ounces (170 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Full cream milk

Method
  1. In a large saucepan, whisk together 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the water with the sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Bring to a boil whisking frequently. Let it boil, continuing to whisk for 45 seconds.
  2. Remove from the heat and stir in the chocolate until it's melted, then stir in the vanilla extract and the remaining 3/4 cup (180 ml) water. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend for 15 seconds. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. If the mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.
  3. To serve, scoop as much chocolate sorbet into a glass, and pour as much milk as you like. (I find the ratio of 2:1 of chocolate sorbet:milk works well.)

Where to Go in South Africa - The Land of the Truly Beautiful


South Africa, oh South Africa. Where should I even begin? Ed and I left for our honeymoon more than a year ago today. It was such a special, unforgettable experience that lifts the edges of our lips everytime we talk about it. And I know I must thank my lucky stars for landing such a gem of a husband who planned the entire trip on his own, with some help and advice from a sweet lady called Amanda from Travel for Life.  

In brief, we started our trip from Johannesburg, travelled down to Cape Town before doing a self-drive down the Garden Route towards Port Elizabeth. From Port E, we flew into Kruger National Park for 4 straight days of the not-to-be-missed safari experience before flying back home. If I could redo the whole trip, would I have wanted to change any part of it? None. With some careful planning and under Amanda's sound tutelage, Ed had created an itinerary that wasn't too rushed, had just the right balance of sight-seeing and eating (if I had a larger appetite, I swear our holidays would be all about the eating).

There's a reason why 'sight-seeing' had never been high on my agenda during vacations. Not being a culture-buff meant museum hopping did not call out to me. And as spoilt as it sounds, destinations that promised 'beautiful scenery' hardly excited me past the first hour. To put it bluntly, they don't change much. Yet, South Africa has changed my world view. Everywhere I turned, it was a postcard calling out to me. Neither my Leica X1 nor my trusty Canon 400D could capture what my eyes were drinking in pixel by pixel. So what have I been recommending as must-go places to friends who have since travelled to South Africa as well?

Pretoria - Cape Town

Stay and Eat: The Rovos Rail 

Our cheery waiter would chime 'cheese time!' to signal the onslaught of a delicious selection of cheeses that punctuated the end of every lunch and dinner in this charming, Victorian-styled train. We spent 3 days and 2 nights on this train, journeying from Pretoria (just over half an hour from Johannesburg airport) to Cape Town, stopping by Kimberly town along the way. While they were strict about mealtimes and where the meals could be served, there was a never-ending supply of beverages and snacks, including my favourite biltong (dried beef), throughout the rest of the train. Apart from the rooms, the train had a dining car (pictured), a lounge car (for many lovely hours of scrabble) and of course an observation deck to enjoy the always evolving scenery. The first morning I woke up in the train, I could not help but marvel at the sights. Even though there were no televisions or internet access, there was never a dull moment on the train. Being mushy and gross honeymooners, of course, this was the perfect start to the trip to allow us all the time we needed to just bask in each other's presence.


Incredible Ostrich Salad
And the food was incredible - it would have amazed me in any restaurant and simply floored me considering this was on a moving train. (Don't worry, they slow down after dinner to ensure a good night's rest.) We're working towards their 28-day Cape-to-Cairo train ride perhaps 20 years later. 

Eat: La Colombe


Having received top place in San Pellegrino's 50 Best Restaurants in the World (and many other awards since then), we booked a spot at the restaurant the moment we arrived in Cape Town. We were fortunate to snag a couple of seats as the restaurant was booked out the rest of the week. If not for that fact, Ed and I would probably have revisited the restaurant while we were still in Cape Town - this would have been very unusual for us given the limited amount of time and calories we could spare. 



Unlike a couple of other renown restaurants that we tried in South Africa, which were quite tasty and adventurous but perhaps just a tad bit too adventurous for our comfort, La Colombe delivered stunning dish after stunning dish in their set menu that pleased our tummies as much as they pleased our palates. They were each beautifully and thoughtfully presented, with incredible flavours in every bite. When they call it a Smoked Chocolate Torte (pictured above), they really mean it - when you try it, you'll know what I mean. The best part? It wasn't even as expensive as you would expect of a place which has been accumulating so many accolades.

See: Boulders Beach



On your way to Cape Point - which I reckon must be the most popular tourist attraction - you just have to stop by Boulders Beach. Having lived in a densely populated city all my life, where the only animals I see are the usual domesticated pets or the animals in the zoo behind glass confines, it was truly a delight seeing penguins frolicking (or more like ambling) with seagulls in their natural environment. 

See: Two Oceans Aquarium


Photograph by Sven Lennert
Kelp Forest (taken from the aquarium's official website)
That being said, I've always been quite proud of our Singapore Zoo, Night Safari, Bird Park and Underwater World. So when Ed suggested going to Cape Town's Two Oceans Aquarium, I did not have high expectations. But it was money well spent. I loved the touch pool with marine creatures like coral, sponges and starfish; and the microscope exhibit. My favourite was undoubtedly the Kelp Forest exhibit featuring kelp plants growing as tall as trees, and swaying gracefully in harmony with the movements of the water

Stellenbosch

At Muratie Vineyard, snacking on their house salad and Springbok Carpaccio

Stay and Eat: Majeka House and Makaron

As we travelled along the Garden Route, our travel advisor wisely planned pit stops along the way to break up the long drive which would culminate at Port E. One of these pit stops was at Stellenbosch, which turned out to be the perfect base for more culinary adventures. Apart from the wide variety of vineyards to visit (some research beforehand is they had advised) and farms for olive oil tasting, there are plenty of highly recommended restaurants (some situated within vineyards) nearby to try as well. 




But we really didn't have to travel far because it turned out that the beautiful hideaway we stayed at - Majeka House - had a highly acclaimed restaurant called Makaron that we naturally had to try. And try we did. The seafood we ordered were impeccably fresh, and the risotto done perfectly. However, we probably most enjoyed the Baileys Milkshake (pictured above) we ordered to end off the meal on a sweet note. It had a generous amount of Baileys, was thick and rich without being too cloying. We couldn't have asked for a better end to any meal.

Drink: Melissa's



When it rained, Melissa's hot chocolate was all we needed to soothe our dampened spirits. 'Nuff said. 

Eat: De Oude Bank Bakkerij



And when in the vicinity of Melissa's, this bakery/cafe is not far. Despite the fact that it was almost always crowded when we dropped by, it was still a pretty good spot to relax after browsing the nearby shops for antiques and interesting knick knacks. Ed had their salad, which he enjoyed thoroughly and declared his all-time favourite salad. 

Eat: 96 Winery Road



But speaking of tasty salads...... Quoted from Frommer's South Africa travel guide, 96 Winery Road is 'one of the most unassuming and unpretentious restaurants in the Winelands... (with) informal atmosphere; unfussy, delicious food'. I was instantly hooked with the description and knew we had to pay it a visit even though it was slightly off the beaten track - thank goodness for the GPS. True to the description, our lunch was delicious. Ed had a steak with a rich cream and brandy sauce while I had a duck and cherry pie with the addictive port and black cherry sauce. Both dishes were incredibly comforting and made the drive out there entirely worth it. But even if they didn't have steaks or pies, I would return.  Just for their salad. (Pictured above.) It hit all the right notes in texture (crisp greens with crunchy pine nuts and tender roasted peppers) and flavour (saltiness from shavings of parmesan and olives with refreshing cucumber slices and peppery rocket leaves). It was truly the most perfect salad I'd ever had and would return in a heartbeat when we return to Stellenbosch one day.

Eat: Dornier Bordega


Dornier Bodega Restaurant was another unpretentious spot featuring uncomplicated food prepared with the freshest ingredients. Set against a backdrop of mountains, with children wrestling each other barefoot, it was difficult not to relax and just enjoy the moment. They had a problem with fairly large bees at the time (which would occasionally land on our food), but assured us that they were handling it and that it was getting better.
 

Swellendam


The initial plan was to drive straight from Stellenbosch to Plettenberg Bay. It would have been a five and a half hour journey by car, but Amanda knew better. She arranged for a pit stop at Jan Harmsgat for a night, so that Ed wouldn't have to drive all 500 KM (!!) in a day. As we alighted the car after an almost three hour drive, and were greeted by three adorable dogs that belonged on the property, I silently thanked Amanda in my heart.

Stay: Jan Harmsgat



And I didn't thank here merely for the fact that we didn't have another three-hour long journey ahead of us, but also because she helped us choose a stunning guest farm to break at. When Ed first told me we were going to be staying at a 'guest farm', I imagined a nice quaint little spot for us to rest for the night. Quaint definitely didn't cut it. Surrounded by lush and never-ending greenery, and greeted by a wild peacock that tended to snooze in the warmth of the chimney top as well as three dogs that roamed anywhere anytime, I fell in the love with the place. They were also so kind to book us into the Wine Cellar Room when they knew we were on our honeymoon. It was a little far out away from any nearby town, so we took our meals at the in-house restaurant and were not disappointed.

Plettenberg Bay

Stay and Eat: Emily Moon River Lodge



Did I ever mention that very often during this trip in South Africa, Ed and I found our mouths open in awe of the landscape? The view from Rovos Rail, from our car, and definitely from the restaurant at Emily Moon River Lodge (pictured above) floored us at every turn. Every morning and evening, we drank this view in bit by bit, trying to lock it into our memories. (Emily Moon proved a little more difficult to find even with our GPS, because it somehow had a different name in the GPS.) We were constantly spoilt for choice with their extensive menu. When we felt like having something more Asian one night, we took a risk and ordered sushi, which proved to be pretty decent and satisfying. 



The room we had was spacious yet cosy and had a fireplace which entertained Ed for about 15 minutes each night (there's something about starting a fire that most men seem to enjoy). The room was not far from the restaurant, and they provided room service at no extra charge. 

Eat: Bramon Wine Estate



Delicious, delicious, delicious. Set in the vineyard (we were literally sitting among the vines) and overlooking mountains, we ordered a wide variety of tapas for our lunch. Each bite was delicious, and don't miss their homemade breads. Oh and of course, pair it with a glass of something. Their bubbly was perfect.

See: Cheetah Walk at Tenikwa Wildlife Awareness Centre



We didn't know this until we arrived, but it turned out there were many sanctuaries (I may not be using this term the right way) based in Plettenberg Bay, which made our stay there incredibly memorable. A pamphlet featuring a morning walk with a cheetah caught Ed's attention at the lobby of Emily Moon. Looking at the glee in his eyes, I knew this was something I wasn't going to be able to run away from. So we booked ourselves a spot for the next day and I dragged myself there in the morning by 715am (I suppose cheetahs are early 'birds'). And what an experience. I must say we definitely weren't leading the way - during the pre-walk briefing, we were told specifically to just take the cheetah's lead and ensure the leash was slack at all times. At no time were were allowed to pull on the leash, although even if we were allowed to, I wouldn't dare risk my life doing so. In fact, we were also told never to stand in the way of the cheetah, especially not squatting down. So it was certainly dangerous taking the shot shown above. It was a thrilling experience that while I'm not sure I would want to go through again, I would recommend to anyone who hasn't done it before.

See: Close Encounters with Birds of Prey at Radical Raptors



This too, was an incredible experience. We happened to drive by near the time the next flying display was going to happen, and hung around for longer than we initially intended. Thank goodness we did, because we did not expect what was to come. Radical Raptors is a rehabilitation centre for people to deposit birds of prey who were too injured or who were domesticated. While they aimed to release all the birds back into the wild, some were either too injured or too domesticated to survive in the wild. That's when they would be kept at the centre for educational purposes. The person in charge of the flying display was a passionate guy called Dennis, who would release the birds in the mornings for them to have a good stretch of their wings. Including us, there were only about 5 adults and one child watching the flying display (although the child and his parents left halfway after the child seemed too scared by the big birds to continue). Dennis stood only about five metres away from us, and gave us a glove each to take turns letting the birds perch on our fists. This meant seriously close encounters with each bird, and a truly educational and memorable visit.

See: Monkeyland and Birds of Eden




Other good spots in Plettenberg Bay to visit are Monkeyland and Birds of Eden, which are right next to each other. The tour through Monkeyland is guided and is usually with a group of 20 or so other strangers. If you're lucky, you'd be the only persons in the group. And if you're even luckier, you'll have a black howler monkey tailing you the entire journey. Birds of Eden is a large (I believe the largest) aviary where the birds roam free. It took us more than an hour to cover the entire area (and we didn't really stop much either), which was really a pleasant surprise. Up till that point, I thought the Lory Loft in the Singapore Bird Park was an excellent aviary to visit. But I must admit that the Lory Loft pales in comparison to Birds of Eden. 

Hermanus

To Stay: Birkenhead House and Villa



Our final stop before reached Port E was at Hermanus. Ed booked us into the Birkenhead House and Villa, which was situated right at the edge of a cliff and had an insane view of the beach to the left, sea to the front and the mountain to the right. I'm not sure what I had done to deserve such a treat. We had half-board, which meant breakfasts and dinners were arranged for us in the hotel, and free flow of any beverage (including alcoholic ones). They served good food, but even if they didn't the town which was about a ten-minute drive away had many other options. We spent our days visiting the shops in town and lazing in our luxuriously spacious room, soaking in the views.
 
To See: Shark Cage Diving


A shot I took of the shark lurking around the cage of divers,
while Ed was hovering over the toilet bowl feeling nauseated
Oh, and we also went shark cage diving. Or at least we tried to. It was a very popular activity among the tourists in the area, and no lack of companies offering the activity. Ed had pre-booked two slots for us so that we could do it the day after we arrived. We woke up early to drive about forty-five minutes down the road to the jetty, and were quite excited although groggy at the same time. In the first few minutes on the medium-sized boat, we were still riding on the adrenaline in anticipation of what we would see. But twenty minutes later, Ed and I were nauseous. Ed, more nauseous than I, had to be persuaded to call for a skipper to come rescue us from the ever bobbing boat. Back on land, and many sips of ginger ale later, we felt guilty about the money we had paid for the experience we never had. But if you asked me, we did not leave the boat a minute too early. If we didn't feel so seasick though, we would definitely have wanted to get into that cage. 
 
Kruger National Park


Before South Africa, I had only enjoyed a safari drive once - at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. We rode in a jeep, were driven around to look for leopards (we were lucky and spotted three), and had to speed out of the park by 6pm or the driver would be fined and suspended from entering the park for three months. We enjoyed ourselves and that experience guided my expectations for the safari experience Ed had planned for us in Kruger National Park. Oh how wrong I was. 

See, Stay, Eat: Singita Sweni



The safari experience at Singita Sweni (just steps away from Singita Lebombo) was incredibly different. Being situated on a private concession within the national park meant that all 33,000 acres of the concession was ours to explore, anytime of the day. No need to speed out by 6pm. We could go out on two drives each day - one at 6am to about 11am and one at  5pm to 8pm - these were when the animals were more likely to be out and about. The drives were not mandatory of course, but Ed and I went for every single one available. And unlike the safari in Sri Lanka, the jeep could go off the roads and onto the rough terrain to get closer to the animals. We had a guide (Nico) and a tracker (Glass) to both answer all the questions we had about the flora and fauna in the area, and to ensure we got to see the Big Five. As leopards were the most elusive of the Big Five, it seemed Glass spent most of the time trying to spot a leopard. 



The picture above shows Glass (extreme right) with two other more junior trackers trailing some fresh tracks they spotted. What is not obvious in the photo is that they were also carrying rifles to protect themselves - a must when on foot. After much hard work by Glass, we did spot the leopard in the end, guarding her most recent but already rotting kill - a Waterbuck. And we were only about 10 metres away. We also observed her as her ears pricked up suddenly when a gust of wind blew across her (apparently because she smelt an animal nearby) and as she quickly dragged her kill to the nearest tree, all ready to pounce up on the tree with her kill if any other animal came too close. Incredibly exciting.





We were certainly rewarded for diligently going for each drive as we spotted some of the Little Five, and new creatures on every drive. There was such an amazing variety of game to see, every drive was unique in their own way. On the last night, we were treated to a star gazing session. The South African night sky is most clear and gorgeously speckled with stars. 


Photo taken from Singita's website
Of course, all this wouldn't have been possible if we did not check ourselves into Singita Sweni. Sweni is one of many luxury lodges under the Singita brand. While pricier than other safari-based lodges, I thought it was well worth the price after experiencing their utmost tender (yet inobtrusive) care. Apart from the daily morning and evening drives, the package included all the food and drink you need (similar to the Rovos Rail ride described earlier). They had a Caesar Salad that was so good we ordered it three times throughout our stay there and even asked for the recipe, which the chef very kindly typed out for us. And they had a duck dish that was so good Ed had two portions in one sitting. We found out that they had their ingredients literally air flown into the resort regularly because it took a half a day's journey just to drive out of the park and reach the nearby town. Given the restrictions (no driving in the public areas after 6pm), all the staff would book into a hotel in town on their days off and return to the park only the next day. Basically, we never felt in want - we were constantly offered a drink or a snack, even out on the safari drives. 

Photo taken from Singita's website
The 'room' itself was really beautiful. It really wasn't so much a room as it was a luxurious wooden house built to fit seamlessly with the nature that surrounds it, and designed to allow full view of the river below and the skies above. I couldn't have asked for a better setting to admire the scenery and end our honeymoon. 

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I'd always felt guilty for putting off writing about South Africa, given how much I had enjoyed the trip. It took me a whole year to get down to it, and I never understood why since I obviously had so much to share. Having completed this post, I now understand why - there was just so much I wanted to share, so much that was beautiful and had to be shared, that it was mentally overwhelming. Reading the travel guide again, I know there is plenty more to see, and I'm confident Ed and I will return one day.