Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ya Kun comes to Dubai at Ibn Battuta Mall

At long last, Singaporean kopi & kaya toast chain Ya Kun Kaya Toast has come to the UAE. For me, that means no more rationing bags of coffee and jars of kaya personally lugged from Singapore.

I'm not sure as to what extent I was involved with their decision to set up in the UAE, but I have been pestering them to do so for a couple of years. Let's just say that a few weeks before opening, I was phoned up by one of their people to notify me and invite me to Like their Facebook page, and was welcomed with a digital banner announcing my arrival when I did.

The cafe is located in its own (appropriately Sino-esque) hut, in the middle of the restaurant garden outside China Court in Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall. There's plenty of outdoor seating for the cooler months, and lots of greenery and water around, reminiscent of the Singaporean ambiance.

The restaurant's interior is spacious and comfortable, done up in Ya Kun colors. It does not have a stewing kitchen, so no laksa and such at this one. No problem, because the menu has everything for which I primarily patronized the chain. The only thing left to see was how authentic it would be, especially given the local re-branding that dropped "kaya" from the name.

I and my friends went for the usual coffee set. I sprinkled the egg with pepper and drizzled it with soy sauce, just like old times. The toast was perfect, the sweet kaya layers letting the butter melt ever so slightly, while keeping it away from slices of toast cut to just the right thickness. The kopi was slightly off, as per my recollection; I asked for an additional dash of condensed milk, which fixed that.

They also gave us a hearty potato curry sandwich, on the house. Actually, I've never had this before, as I mainly went to Ya Kun for the kaya toast and kopi, but it was pretty good.

I was not quite done, for there was one long-time-no-see left: yuanyang, a Southeast Asian mixture of coffee and tea.

2014SEP11 UPDATE: No updates online since Ramadan, and the phone's not working. A call to Ibn Battuta confirmed the worst: it's closed, after barely a year of operation. I wonder why, because it was a fairly busy location, the economy's picking up, and there were always a good number of customers whenever I visited. Oh, well.

2014SEP13 UPDATE: After digging around their Facebook Page, it seems they're only closed for relocation. A relief, but I wish they prominently mentioned this on their Facebook Page and website.

2014NOV12 UPDATE: Ya Kun HQ has confirmed that the franchisee has shut shop permanently. What a shame. Hope someone else picks up the baton someday soon.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dr Caroline Tagg on metonymy in texting at BUiD

University of Birmingham's Dr Caroline Tagg, who achieved fleeting notoriety a few years ago for her so-called "PhD in texting", talked about her study of the communication medium at the British University in Dubai today. As a sometimes student of linguistics, I enjoyed a few parts of the talk, such as the breakdown of the types of metonymies (e.g. substitution of effect for cause) and their relative popularity, and the effects of register on the use of metonymy. The study was comprised of just SMS texts, though; it would be interesting to see how metonymy is used in more current messaging media. I would also like to have seen a comparison between how metonymy is used in messaging compared to how it is used in phone or face-to-face conversation.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Historical celebrity legend Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival feast

As a long-time Chinese history geek and not-as-long-time kitchen geek, I decided that this year's Chinese Mid Autumn Festival would be the perfect time to bring two of my biggest passions together. I would put myself to work on a possibly unprecedented culinary project, where history, legend and food intermingled at the dinner table.

It's not my first historically-oriented meal; I pulled together a Mayan meal around the time of the last purported doomsday, and did a meal themed on the Three Sisters of traditional Mesoamerican agriculture last year. But this one would be special, because each dish has a legend associated with its conception - a legend specifically associated with a significant figure in Chinese history.

I'd had this in the back of my mind for a while, having already arranged for Chinese beverages weeks before. The morning after Mid Autumn, I began preparations for an historical dinner that would go down in history.

Jiao'er Soup and the legend of Zhang Zhongjing

Legend has it that Nanyang got really chilly during one winter solstice. So cold that the people were suffering from chilblains of the ears. Thankfully, there was a doctor in the house. And not just any doctor, but renowned Han Dynasty physician Zhang Zhongjing (张仲景), whose hometown Nanyang happened to be.

He could not handle a whole town of shivering people with the local clinic, so he had a cauldron set up over a fire, and whipped up a special "food therapy" of dumplings stuffed with meat and herbs, cooked in a soup. He served the soup piping hot to each person, along with two dumplings - which he shaped rather like ears - calling it 祛寒娇耳汤 (chill-expelling "tender ear" soup). The hearty, herbaceous dumplings and the hot soup (and possibly the shape of the dumplings as a psychological supplement) made everyone's ears warm again, and the winter solstice tradition of jiao'er (娇耳) soup began.

I first salted about 400g of chopped Chinese cabbage, and allowed it to strain dry, then squeezing the remaining moisture out (this is important, because you don't want a dripping filling when it comes time to make the dumplings). I then mixed it with 300g minced pork, half a cup of chopped scallions, a tablespoon of light soy sauce, a teaspoon of sesame oil, a pinch of ground pepper, and a teaspoon of cornflour, to make the filling.

For the dough, I dissolved a teaspoon of salt in 150ml water, and folded it into 300g flour, adding water until all the loose flour was part of the dough. I left this to rest for 15, kneaded it again, let it rest for another 15, and rolled it into a long cord, from which I cut smaller pieces. Meanwhile I started boiling a pork stock.

I rolled each piece into a flat circle, placing a little filling in the middle, and folding over, dabbing water on the inner edge to seal the semi-circular dumpling.

Finally, I slowly dropped these into the boiling stock, and let them cook until they expanded and became firm. Served hot, two a bowl, as the doctor ordered.

Longjing Prawns and the legend of the Qianlong Emperor

A man steps into an ordinary restaurant in Southern China during the Qing Dynasty, clutching his jacket around him. He orders a plate of stir-fried prawns, and shakes off the volatile weather of the day so far. Just then, he remembers the handful of leaves he picked from a field not far from the nearby West Lake of Hangzhou. He tells the waiter that he would also like some tea, and absentmindedly opens his jacket to pull out the fragrant Dragon Well tea leaves. As he does this, the waiter's jaw drops, for under the plain outer jacket is the dragon robe of the emperor of China.

The waiter might have heard tales of the Qianlong Emperor (乾隆帝), who was known for his frequent exploits in disguise. In fact, one of these excursions is said to have resulted in the tradition of tapping the table with three fingers to thank a fellow diner for pouring you tea. But here he was, at their restaurant.

From this point, things descend into chaos. Waiter starts steeping tea. Cook starts with prawns. Waiter can't hold it in anymore, and tells cook about emperor sitting outside. Cook loses cool, and mistakenly dumps tea leaves into prawns, thinking them to be culinary herbs. Waiter brings stir-fried prawns to emperor. Emperor recognizes distinctive aroma of Longjing. And Longjing Prawns (龙井虾仁) was born.

I washed 600g raw, peeled prawns, patted them dry with a strong paper towel, and let them marinate for 15 in a mixture of 3 tbsp egg white and 3 tbsp cornflour. In the meantime, I let 3 tablespoons of Longjing tea (gosh, I'm so glad I still had them) steep in 3/4 cup of boiling-hot water. I strained out the leaves, and set aside about 6 tbsp of the tea-infused water for the stir fry.

I tossed the prawns  marinade and all, with 3 tsp cooking oil over high heat, until they were about half-done, then set aside. I cleaned the wok, and put the prawns ack in, with the tea leaves, tea water, 3 tbsp cooking wine, 1/2 tsp salt, and a little chopped scallion, stir-frying to completion over high with another 3 tsp cooking oil.

Best served super-fresh, so I prepared this just before serving.

Mantou and the legend of Zhuge Liang

Of the great names that come from the Three Kingdoms period, the name of Zhuge "Kongming" Liang (諸葛 "孔明" 亮) stands tall. Synonymous with intelligence, cunning, resourcefulness and loyalty, the "Crouching Dragon" followed the longstanding (and somewhat typically Chinese) tradition of the master strategist, joining the likes of Jiang Ziya, Sun Tzu, and Zhang Liang before him in shining as bright as - or brighter than - those they serve.

After a successful campaign against the southern barbarians led by Meng Huo, Kongming was leading the Shu army on its return march. As they approached the violent waters of the Lu river, locals told them that an offering of human heads would appease the river deity, who would then permit them to cross. Kongming, unwilling to decapitate even his war captives for this purpose, had his men roll dough into human head shapes, steam them, and toss them into the river. The deception worked, and they were all able to cross the river and reach Shu safely. He named the buns mantou (蛮头), meaning "barbarian head", which was later renamed with the homonym 馒头.

I started by culturing a mixture of 3/4 tbsp of yeast and 3/4 tbsp of sugar in 4 tbsp of warm water for 15 minutes, then mixing with 3 cups of flour to make a dough. After leaving the covered dough to rise for about an hour and a half (with it doubling in size, and pushing it back down mid-way), I rolled it into a long sausage and cut out small rolls.

For added visual appeal, I stretched these out and rolled them over themselves.

Leaving enough space between the uncooked rolls, I let them steam until they darkened, expanded and became firm buns. They go great with any sauce, or even by themselves.

Dongpo Pork and the legend of Su Shi

Su "Dongpo" Shi (苏 "東坡" 轼) was a star of the Song Dynasty. An accomplished statesman (a causeway across the West Lake bears his name), he was also a writer, painter, poet, and more.

The legend goes that Dongpo was presented with pork and wine by the people of Hangzhou, in gratitude for the public works he had constructed. He began stewing the boiled and browned pork with the wine, but was interrupted by a visiting friend. His friend challenged him to a game of weiqi, in which Dongpo got so engrossed that he forgot the meal he had cooking. By the time they were done, the pork was so tender and delicious that it became famous as another of Dongpo's gastronomical achievements. And so, Dongpo Pork (东坡肉) was created.

I cut about 800g of raw pork belly into 3-inch-wide cubes, simmering them in boiling water for about 10 minutes, then browning them in a pan with hot cooking oil.

I then brought to boil a mixture 6 tbsp light soy sauce, 6 tbsp dark soy sauce, 3/4 cup cooking wine, 150g brown sugar, grated 1.5 inch piece fresh ginger, and 12 sliced spring onions. Once the sugar dissolved, I reduced the heat to simmer, and added the pork cubes I had reinforced by tying on all sides with strips of blanched spring onion.

I simmered this for almost 4 hours, adding water to keep it from going dry. Not as good as in Hangzhou, but a unanimous hit, nonetheless.

Mooncakes and the legend of Liu Bowen

Around the middle of the 14th century, China had been under the rule of the Mongols for close to a hundred years. As natural disasters and court intrigue weakened the Mongol dynasty, rebellions erupted across the land, the most significant of which was that of the Red Turbans. One of the most charismatic leaders of this rebel army was Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋), a commoner who would soon be emperor. Zhu had in his employment another famed master strategist of Chinese history: Liu Bowen (刘伯温).

To overthrow the Mongols, they required all the rebels to coordinate their attacks and strike the Mongols at the same time. Liu hatched a scheme whereby they would bake messages into cakes (variously, as embedded slips, or in parts pressed into the surface of each cake, so multiple cakes could be assembled into the full message), telling everyone to begin the uprising at the Mid-Autumn time.

The plan worked; Zhu went on to become the founder of the illustrious Ming Dynasty. And thus, the mooncake became a Mid-Autumn tradition.

For the filling, I mixed up 1 cup each of apricot preserves, chopped pitted dates, desiccated coconut, and raisins. Not the most traditional filling, but I had few options. In any case, you should see what they put in mooncakes nowadays.

To make the mooncake dough, I mixed 4 cups flour, 3/4 cup milk powder and  1 tbsp baking powder, and 1 tsp salt. In another bowl, I beat 3 large eggs with 1.25 cups sugar, then added a cooled mixture of 3/4 cup melted butter and 1.5 tsp vanilla extract. Folding all this together gave me my dough, which I let sit in a refrigerator for a few hours to set.

I cut large coins out of the rolled dough, and flattened each out to make a wrapper for a suitably-sized lump of filling, pressing the sealed cake into a flat cylinder.

I didn't have an elaborate cake press handy, so I just carved "明" (the name of the dynasty founded by Zhu) into the top surface of each cake, before glazing with a basic beaten egg-and-water mix, and baking at 190C for about half an hour. Not traditional-tasting either, but they went down VERY well with my guests.

I still had a stash of flower tea from Suzhou, which was perfect for washing down the dishes we enjoyed that night.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

September at The Laughter Factory

I had performed as a warm-up last year in Singapore with funny Eastender Imran Yusuf as part of Comedy Club Asia's line-up. Having witnessed that, I could not miss his first ever run in Dubai (incidentally, on his way to Singapore again), as part of the lineup of The Laughter Factory. Imran, quite physical and emphatic, had some nice new material since I watched him last, especially the hilarious bit about being a godfather to a child of Christian parents, and other funny bits about his South Asian heritage. He had some long build-ups to punchlines, although the patience pays off.

Diminutive caulkhead Andy Askins was up next, and I think he easily stole the show. He had some incredibly clever material and off-guard punchlines that he delivered in an awkward, soft-spoken sort of deadpan. His black humor songs sealed the deal.

Mark Walker, on the other hand, seemed a bit too reliant on, well, graphic humor for my tastes. While he had undeniable stage presence, apart from a few bits about British vs American English and scouse mannerisms, I did not quite find the material to my liking.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jay Wud acoustic night at Blue Bar

Touring Dubai-based rock musician Jay Wud hit up the Blue Bar at Novotel WTC for a special unplugged night, a couple of months shy of the first anniversary of False Utopia.

Jay Wud, who also strums for Saturday night local supergroup Abri and The Funk Radius, played some very enthusiastically-received covers and band originals, supported by fellow guitarist Bojan L Preradovic of Empty Yard Experiment. Attendance for the two-set show was quite thick for a school night; I only managed to find a seat at the periphery of visibility.

Monday, September 16, 2013

thejamjar 3rd Mondays on public art

Can malls be considered a "public space" in Dubai? This and other fascinating questions were discussed at thejamjar's 3rd Mondays event in September. Public art in the UAE, as many artists here will testify, is rare (especially for what is supposed to be a regional art hub), and and fraught with complications in implementation. We watched a short documentary about a Brick Lane public art project, which provided some food for thought about potential locations for placing public art (the idea of using rooftops for the purpose in a city of skyscrapers was intriguing).

As a slideshow of various public art installations from around the world ran on the projects, we discussed the issues surrounding "graffiti permits", cultural/religious influences on the kinds of art that can be displayed in public, commercialization of public art, and the concept of public space in Dubai in light of the climate and mall culture in Dubai.

Expo Sciences International 2013 at ADNEC Abu Dhabi

I checked out the 3-day Expo Sciences International student science fair in ADNEC during a free morning in Abu Dhabi. A lot of students had been flown in for this event, some even representing their countries in their national costumes and handing out mini freebies from back home.

The expo had a noticeably large Latin American representation, which was nice to see for the development of that region. It seemed like every other booth was run by Mexicans, and many of them had interesting original ideas or localized applications of existing ideas. Quite a few entrepreneurs as well, and a few others with explicitly entrepreneurial ambitions.

I saw a lot of schoolchildren being bused into the venue in uniform. While that was a good initiative, I would have liked more members of the non-school-going public to visit. Given the 9-to-6 open hours of the expo on three working days, I doubt that would have been possible. Too bad; science is not just for schoolchildren.

Many ideas presented there were very ingenious, and some were a little scary.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Galleria on Al Maryah Island

I took a little tour of the new mall, The Galleria, in Abu Dhabi. As far as design goes, it's definitely one of the better ones in Abu Dhabi.

 In my experience, Abu Dhabi's mall designs bring to mind labyrinths and/or prisons. In short, while still slightly confusing to navigate, it's a mall that comes close to current Dubai standards. It also does not have any of the usual anchor stores or movie theaters that draw in the general public; rather, it appears to be primarily aimed at those interested in shopping for apparel and luxury items, and who specifically visit with this is mind.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Movie night at The Cribb

Miranda Davidson Studios screened Training Day at The Cribb in Al Quoz today, which also gave me a chance to check out the venue. The place is located at The Football Centre, which made it convenient to get to from the Manara exit. The Cribb is on the 1st level, and is accessible by swipe card, featuring pay-to-use office space run by i360accelerator, aimed at entrepreneurs and mobile workers. The screening was held in the meeting/event room, en route to which I passed several desks, a modest cafe, and a lounge space.

What I saw of the place looked pretty cool and colorful, and well-designed for its intended purpose. Some in the target market (especially those used to the models of Pavilion Downtown or MAKE) might have issues with them having no on-demand pay-as-you-go options for walk-ins, if not with having to pay at all. For those who can commit to frequent and long-term usage of the place, though, the monthly packages are fairly attractive, and, depending on the package, include such perks as branded workspaces, dedicated desks, and free software access, presently starting at about AED 20 a day (which is not too bad, considering that the cafe is reasonably priced).

Cooking Singapore hawker centre food

Singapore's traditional hawker centres bustle with activity all day long, serving hundreds of thousands from that nation of foodies everyday. For a few dollars, one can get a filling meal of one's choice from a vast buffet of options.

During my short stay there (and each time I went back), my staple was always the combination of 皮蛋瘦肉粥 (century egg and lean pork rice porridge) and 菜头粿 (steamed Chinese radish cake omelette, which Singaporeans call "carrot cake"), with a hot, fresh mug of smooth Singaporean coffee (ideally served in a glass mug). Good for any meal or heavy snack; I practically lived on this stuff. Breakfast time, Singapore style.

Making the rice porridge is really easy. I put 1.5 cups of soaked long-grain rice and 5 times the volume of water into a pot, along with 6 sliced garlic cloves and about an inch of peeled ginger thinly julienned, boiling and simmering for a few hours until the rice easily broke up on stirring. I then stirred in about 500g of lean minced pork, 3 tablespoons of oyster sauce, and a little salt and ground white pepper for further cooking until the pork was done and the rice had almost completely disintegrated. It needed frequent stirring to prevent settling. Right before serving, I was cutting up some century eggs and chopping scallion.

There was enough to go around for 10 heavy portions. I served it up hot and fresh in bowls, each with a few cubes of century egg, a sprinkling of some chopped scallion and ground white pepper, and drizzle of sesame oil and soy sauce. A great breakfast and a great comfort food.

The fried carrot cake is not nearly as easy as it looks. Those cubes in the omelette? Those are not cubes of radish. They're cubes of a radish cake, which I had to painstakingly prepare by finely shredding and straining dry 600g of daikon/mooly radish, stir-frying with half teaspoons of salt and white pepper until soft, mixing with 2 cups of Asian rice flour whisked into 2 cups of water, and steaming until it set into firm cake. Which THEN had to be cooled and chilled. Oy, vey.

I wish my cake were firmer, because the cubes did not fry as well as I hoped, turning into lumps in the wok. Anyway, after browning the lumps a little with 2 tablespoons of chopped garlic, I added 8 eggs beaten with half teaspoons of salt and white pepper, and cooked until the eggs set. Just prior to serving, I stirred in a quarter cup of sweet soy sauce, a quarter cup of chopped scallion, and 2 teaspoons of sambal oelek.

I served it with some more sambal oelek on the side, garnished with chopped scallion. I guess I need to refine the cake-making process to get the perfect cubes of radish cake you see in the pictures, but it turned out more or less okay.

And of course, no Singaporean meal at my place would be complete without a mug of hot, rich, freshly-brewed Singaporean coffee from my little stash.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Dance of the Devadasi by Maayavi at Madinat Theatre

Maayavi Dance Drama Concepts' Indian classical dance spectacular Dance of the Devadasi was a through entertainment experience, from start to finish. I'd never before seen a combination of drama and Bharatnatyam, and the plot of this dance drama, centered around the tropes of youthful ambition, budding love, jealous scheming, dashed hopes and tragedy overcome, was heartwarming and familiar, and propped up the dance sequences well.

I did feel that there was a bit too much going on with the lights; I would have preferred something more subtle in that department. Some of the music was embellished with contemporary percussion and effects; I would have preferred more classical music, but the event seems to have been marketed as a fusion thing, so I should have probably expected this to happen. Also, the dialogue was pre-recorded and dubbed into the play, which was a little awkward and unnatural-sounding at times.

As far as what we came for, namely the dancing, the dancers performed well, especially lead dancer Bhakti Harish as the titular devadasi. The scene in which she performs for the visiting prince was, I think, particularly grand and well-executed, including a nice duet dance.

Launch of Capsule Arts Dubai studio in Al Quoz

Dubai's newest art spot, the Capsule Arts studio/gallery in Al Quoz, launched last Thursday with an event that was appropriately decorated with the works of over 20 artists. The organization was founded almost a year ago, and deals in art prints and commissions.

The launch party was held in their new studio, a hangar-sized warehouse with a partial second level, located near Oasis Centre. So many attended, it might as well have been a post-summer arts community regroup event.

Noush like Sploosh (L) and Fathima Mohiuddin (R)

Arcadia Blank (L) and Lama Khatib Daniel (R)

Kate Toledo (L) and Jill Thomas Whatley (R)

Some of Dubai's most well-known contemporary artists were represented among the displays on the walls of the space that night, including a good number of pop pieces and drawings, and even one section of graffiti (via photography).

Fusion piano by Malika Omar at Al Fayrooz Lounge

I dropped by Al Fayrooz Lounge in Madinat Jumeirah to enjoy some nice piano music from fusion pianist Malika Omar before an evening show at the nearby Madinat Theatre. It was still too hot for the outdoors, so I relaxed under hypnotic conical ceiling fans, sipping my brew.

Ms Omar's piano pieces are perfect for the atmosphere of the place. Derived from both occidental and oriental inspirations, her pieces shift back and forth between movements, including frequent changes in tempo and melody to keep monotony away. I even thought I heard extracts of Bollywood tunes worked into some of those classical styles. Quite relaxing, really.