Saturday, April 18, 2015

UK Blog Awards 2015

I have to admit, I still feel like a relative newbie where it comes to blogging. I've been posting on here since March 2014, but it still feels like a miracle when people I don't know tell me they like my writing or photography. Even more miraculously, sometimes these comments lead to striking up friendships, both online and in real life. I've been hugely lucky in that the fellow bloggers I've connected with so far have been super lovely - the kind of people you instantly click with in real life. Viv of Vi Vian's Food Blog is one of them! I initially came to her blog through her food envy-inducing Instagram, and was lucky enough to meet her last night, when she very kindly invited me to join her at this year's National UK Blog Awards as she'd been shortlisted in the Food & Drink category. 

We rocked up at this year's venue, the Montcalm Hotel just off Marble Arch, and upon finding each other, headed straight for the canapés. Because food bloggers bond best over nibbles, obvs. I tried a shot of cauliflower and truffle soup, mini sliders, and an impressively large bowl of creamy mushroom and artichoke risotto. In terms of drinks, I got into party mode with a lurid red vodka concoction, and the champagne flowed freely all evening.

Yeah, I clearly didn't need to be told twice...

Hopefully you'll have clocked the 'Eat Me' and the gargantuan disembodied Cheshire Cat head, and worked out that the theme was Alice In Wonderland! Fitting, as this month marks the 150th anniversary of this seminal oneiric text. (That sentence just made me nauseous. I've been in the library all day today, can you tell?)

The reception room was filled with trees bedecked with imitation wisteria and cherry blossom, which I loved. Seriously, give a blogger a tree bursting into flower and cue transports of delight - even if the tree is fake. They'd be so lovely at an indoor wedding!

Speaking of lovely, I'm so happy I had the chance to meet Viv - we chatted the possibility of a Malaysian supperclub, her experience in the food world as a chef-restaurateur, her aversion for all things cheese-related (travesty!) and I swooned over pictures of her heartbreakingly adorable baby. 

Next came the ceremony! Viv didn't win, but as the hosts said, everyone who was on the list last night was really a winner in their own right. It's testament to Viv's amazing reviews that she was shortlisted as one of the best food bloggers in the country!

We toasted Viv and fellow shortlisted food blogger Kiran (of The Swindian) on making the cut after the awards with champagne. And I swallowed a Mont Blanc cube on a soup spoon (curiouser and curiouser...) in one. Then it was time to fall down the rabbit hole.

There was a GoCompare photo booth at the event but it had been shut down after the we decided to make our own booth. Rules? Pah! 

^ Regarding my odd sprout-like of the fun consequences of my hair drying weirdly in the wind. #asianhairproblems #spiderhair #doeswhateveraspiderhaircan

A terrifyingly convincing Mad Hatter from the Tim Burton school of Alice got up close and personal with Viv and Kiran. Our cue to leave, weighed down with goody bags (my favourite element of partying since c. 1994).

Thanks for inviting me to the UK Blogging Awards, Viv! As always, I feel hugely lucky and humbled to be able to make friends through blogging. I can't wait for our next foodie meetup, hopefully featuring lots of Malaysian goodies and absolutely no cheese at all!

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Books In Brief

Today I'm reviving a series that I haven't visited since last autumn (gulp)! I feel that this little space doesn't adequately reflect how much time I devote to reading, and wanted to share three books that I've particularly loved recently. If you're looking for a read that will grab you and force you to feverishly relinquish your loved ones and duties until you resurface days later, glassy-eyed and unwilling to let go of the book, look no further. These three are well-written, blessed with fantastic plots and characters, and you'll find yourself reluctant to leave their worlds behind: the hallmark of a truly good book for me. 

Station Eleven (2014) - Emily St. John Mandel 

"What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot."

Station Eleven begins one wintry night in a theatre in Toronto. A rapt audience watches a performance of King Lear, unaware that the world's population is on the brink of being crushed by a deadly strain of swine flu. Mandel doesn't dwell on the horrors of this disease but rather places her focus on the human reactions and relationships before, during and especially in the aftermath of the apocalypse, weaving a host of seemingly disparate storylines around this central event, the last night of the world as we know it. What I love about this novel is that although you might expect life to be rendered unrecognisable by the plague, the remainder of society continues to cling to the threads of our collapsed former civilisation. Shakespeare, classical music and literature are adapted to the needs of the new world - even Sartre's famous 'Hell is other people' gets a rewrite: 'Hell is the absence of the people you long for' -  and chillingly, a museum memorialises laptops and mobile phones, technology forced into obsolescence by the plague. This is a perfectly crafted, touching piece of apocalyptic fiction, well worth the cloud of hype that's surrounded it over the past year. 

The Little Friend (2002) - Donna Tartt

'It was the last picture that they had of him. Out of focus. Flat expanse of green cut at a slight diagonal, with a white rail and the heaving gloss of a gardenia bush sharp in the foreground at the edge of the porch. Murky, storm-damp sky, shifting liquescence of indigo and slate, boiling clouds rayed with spokes of light. In the corner of the frame a blurred shadow of Robin, his back to the viewer, ran out across the hazy lawn to meet his death, which stood waiting for him - almost visible - in the dark place beneath the tupelo tree.'  

This is the Donna Tartt novel that most people haven't heard of - her second after The Secret History, preceding The Goldfinch. The novel opens with the murder of a little boy (named Robin - hence the title) but isn't centred around the event. Instead, the focus here is about the people it affects, years later. The story revolves around the escapades of his sibling, the twelve-year-old Harriet, in a sleepy backwater town in Tartt's home state of Mississippi. Harriet, a baby at the time of Robin's death, is fiercely determined to avenge her brother, and impervious to the fact that her vendetta may be misdirected. Hijinks ensue, including one very memorable moment with a king cobra. As usual, I can't help but approach Tartt's writing as if spinning out a particularly delicious ice cream - her plots and characters are beautifully crafted, her prose so eminently readable (yet not self-indulgent), and I never want her books to end. Luckily, they're quite long, so there's lots to enjoy! Next up, The Goldfinch - I can only hope it's as good as Tartt's first two novels.

The Circle (2013) - Dave Eggers

“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” 

When one of the most exciting tech behemoths in the world offers small-town Mae a job,  it feels like a miracle. Her new company, The Circle, is an unholy mash-up of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, and its 'campus' comes with all the perks you might expect at the coolest social media company in the world: an in-house GP, rooms of free products to test and borrow, theatres and nightclubs, and a space for the hottest musicians, comedians and writers to perform their material for The Circle's employees. Hell, if they advertised a grad scheme I'd probably sign up in a heartbeat. But of course, in fiction, if you're presented with a utopia, it's always too good to be true. As a social media company, the Circle encourages sharing everything online - doing so increases one's online rank and thus celebrity. As her sharing levels spiral out of control, Mae finds herself propelled closer and closer to the dark truth at the heart of the Circle. As a blogger and someone who shares fairly extensively on social media channels, I found Eggers' writing a fascinating comment on our computer age - and how our obsession with online transparency might easily morph into a 21st century Big Brother state.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Brunch at The Modern Pantry

One drizzly morning back in March I took my parents out for a Mother's Day surprise meal in Clerkenwell. Much hemming and hawing over various Google, TimeOut and newspaper reviews had led me to The Modern Pantry. And guess what? Turns out Asian-tinged brunch in an airy Georgian town house was exactly my parents' cup of tea. Mum was bursting with compliments about her choice - the much-raved about prawn omelette - and my parents even had a little explore of the place, heading upstairs to nose around the Modern Pantry's function room for future dinner parties. But anyway. You must be wondering what we had to eat...

For the table, a Cornish crab, smoked mussel and endive salad drizzled with a brown crab, umeboshi and seaweed mayonnaise, garnished with garlic crisps. Perfectly light, utterly delicious and practically a magnet to seafood enthusiasts like the Lims.

For my mother, the sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette with toast, green chilli, spring onion, coriander and what I am assured was an incredibly authentic, powerful smoked chilli sambal. (Trust her, she's Malaysian). I had a mouthful and oh my, the combination of sweet prawn and smoky chilli was seriously addictive. 

For Papa L, a spartan choice of poached eggs and toast, accompanied by pan-fried halloumi, slow-roast tomatoes and wilted spinach. Can't go wrong with the classics.

And for me, the most delicious brunch I think I've had in my life. Coconut and cassava waffles accompanied by a pineapple and thyme salsa and a mound of coconut yoghurt, sprinkled with peanut brittle. The only adequate adjective for this: divine. 

I ate my waffles with a sneaky side of bacon. So worth it.

Seeing as almost all the food at the table had an Asian twist to it, it was only right for me to order a matcha latte to chase it down. A striking colour, but a tad on the chalky side for me. Next time I'll stick with my trusty chai latte.

For my mum, a Lalani & Co oolong brewed to perfection thanks to this little hourglass, housed inside an antique bobbin. I often find oolong quite bitter, but the strict measurement of brewing time produced a beautifully subtle, slightly smoky flavour.

A perfect Mother's Day experience - with excellent food and attentive service with special touches, like the little box of truffles presented to my mum at the end of the meal. She was definitely won over, and so was I!

St. John's Square is officially one of the coolest areas of London in my eyes. It's home to the Zetter Townhouse, the Bistro Bruno Loubet, the Museum of the Order of St. John (think I'm going to have to indulge my inner medievalist with a visit pretty soon)...

...and now, a favourite brunch spot!

 Thank you to the Modern Pantry for making this year's Mother's Day such a special one. I can't wait to return to sample your Malaysian-inspired rendang mince on toast...oh, and to get some waffles to go!

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Hawker House Closing Night

Last night, I finally got myself down to east London for a glorious night of street food at Street Feast's Hawker House. (And yes...this has got to be my all-time record for celerity of blogging after an event. I'm so proud of myself right now.)

Grazing at places like Kerb and Street Feast makes me very, very happy. It's fussy, unpretentious, and usually cheap, and I was practically raised on a diet of hawker-style food on childhood trips to my mother's hometown in Malaysia. Familiarity breeds content. So I love that Street Feast has been running with this Asian theme at their Hawker House set-up over the past few months. This year it was housed in an old office block in Haggerston. Okay, so not strictly adhering to the al fresco rules of 'street' food, but it's still pretty cool -  the ugly office fittings have been ripped out and replaced with neon typography, candles and three levels of achingly delicious food. And, to my delight, arrows on the stairs dictate the rules of walking in classic Angry Londoner style - keep to the left, this way up, this way down, etc.. I'd actually love it if we had signs like this spray painted on the actual street, just like on this New York sidewalk.

Street Feast know that feasting isn't just about the comestibles, it's about the beverages too. The crowds of young London hipsters make Hawker House so warm that jackets must be quickly divested and drinks ordered. The family (including Alex) and I sipped on spritzers, mojitos and juices of all colours and flavours, which made me long for summer. 

For those seeking a stronger tipple, there's the opportunity to indulge in a little whisky roulette. For £8 you can spin the wheel and have the chance to win a dram worth up to £22 - though you might also get something worth £7...

Since our idea of hawker food is solidly Malaysian in origin, we made a beeline for the Sambal Shiok stall for a chicken satay rice box and beef rendang slider. The taste was pretty authentic and I'm so on board with the idea of Malaysian flavours in a burger. Nasi lemak sliders next time lah! 

After my sister guzzled down a tray of Breddos Tacos and pronounced them muy bueno, Alex and I headed down a level to check out their offerings.

Al couldn't resist this fried buttermilk chicken beauty...

And you know what they say. A thing of beauty is a joy forever... in my mouth.

And after a little stalk of Lisa's blog I knew that I absolutely had to get a cone of Duck 'N' Roll's 'mussels popcorn' with black garlic aioli. 

Rendered in black and white to try and offset my inexplicably mauve face. 

The fried mussels were definitely the most interesting thing I ate last night. The dark creamy aioli complemented them perfectly, and came in what I'm assured is some sort of nut shell...can anyone enlighten me on its origin? Back at the table, my mother and sister took one bite and sent me right back to the stall for another cone. I love my family.

I also finally got to try Bleecker Burger's Angry Fries, drenched in piquant chilli and blue cheese sauce, which I imagine would be the perfect drunk snack. Next time I'll be diving headfirst into their sweet potato fries.

And Alex and I ordered a couple of Yum Buns: a savoury one bursting with slices of sticky, crispy pork belly and cucumber, and a sweet fried one stuffed with Vietnamese coffee ice cream. We tucked into them before I could remember to take photos, but trust me - both were incredible and I could have subsisted off them alone all evening, they were so filling. I'd like a vat of Vietnamese coffee ice cream for when the weather heats up please - it packs such a kick!

The Hawker House season finished last night (you know me, I'm all about jumping on the bandwagon at the very last minute...) but I'm sure they'll reprise the Hawker love for another year in 2016. 

Meanwhile, Street Feast will be back in the blink of an eye, with Model Market in Lewisham re-opening on 17th April and ventures at Dalston Yard and Shoreditch Yard opening this spring. I for one can't wait to get my street food fix again!

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Return to Cambridge

After graduating last June, I vowed that I wouldn't be one of those grads who sneak back on a regular basis and basically never leave. And although homesickness - uni-sickness? - did set in around October as idyllic punting and college snaps returned in force to my various social media feeds, I somehow managed to put off my own triumphant return until this month. (We're not going to mention that afternoon back in February when I caved and went back to see my friends for tea and cake in between various freak-outs in the Careers Service Library. Shh.)

One of my very first ventures on this blog was a post about my college's annual formal to mark International Women's Day - a particularly special event as we're a women's college. When the invite for this year's formal landed in my inbox, I didn't need much persuading. And neither did my best friends.

Roxy and I arrived back in the 'Bridge just as the sun was beginning to set, casting a golden glow over King's Parade and Market Square. This is the thing about Cambridge. Even on a rainy day it's stunningly pretty, and an unsuspecting visitor would never associate it with the agonies its students go through (I'll just put it out there: two essays a week and at least five or six 3-hour exams in one week at the end of each year.) I actually felt my chest start to hurt as we arrived in town, which I'm going to chalk down to residual stress palpitations (!)

I'll probably never get over how gorgeous King's College is. I mean, look at it. Ridiculous.

On your left, ladies and gentlemen: Senate House, the scene of my graduation last June. Time and its tendency to fly really does scare me sometimes!

Although when we gathered for formal in the Dome, it felt as if no time had passed at all.

Murray Edwards has stepped up its formal game. And I'm not complaining. (Free alumnae dining rights, y'all.)

Photo courtesy of Clare Cotterill

To start...a salad of purple potatoes, sprouting broccoli and polenta with an avocado dressing.

And for our main, sweet grilled red mullet with chakalaka. I personally thought chakalaka was the part of the egg Norman from the Great British Bake Off advocated removing, but apparently it's an African spiced bean and pepper compote. Yum.

The day before International Women's Day also happened to be Japan Day. Our college is partnered with Tokyo's Kaetsu University and has a Japanese cultural centre attached to it, so we were treated to a brief interlude of Japanese hip-hop dance while we waited for dessert. The dancing definitely brought out my inner East Asian fangirl, nurtured during my Oriental Society days at school and something of a secret since then...

And finally, dessert! Continuing the Land of the Rising Sun theme, we were served honey Castella Cake, a type of Japanese sponge, with mango and passion fruit sorbet, coconut cream and grilled mango slices. This one knocked it out of the park. Easily one of the best desserts I've had at Murray Edwards formal (or any other college formal), the flavour combinations were right up my street. It reminded me a little of a refined version of Thai khao niao mamuang, minus the glutinous rice.

No trip to Murray Edwards is complete without a visit to see the resident college beetles.

In first year Imarin and I got in a tiny bit of trouble for running down here after dinner and taking selfies astride the beetles (endless hijinks with the college art were had through our years at college, I tell you) - totally unaware that there was a CCTV camera fixed on us.

Photo courtesy of Clare Cotterill
We're obviously waaaaay more mature five years down the line...

Photo courtesy of Ran Huo

Cambridge, it's been fun. Let's do it again soon? 

Thank you to Murray Edwards College for providing a delicious New Hall Society formal! It was so lovely to have an excuse to see some of the ladies from my matriculation year group and run around college like an undergrad again. I'm already looking forward to next year! 

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