the hinata diaries

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


Continuing on my long overdue trip blogging, Philippe and I arrived at Port Said in Egypt after 9 days of sailing from Colombo.

This might sound really daft, but the first thing that struck me upon entering Egypt, via the Suez Canal, was just how much sand there was everywhere - on the streets, blanketing vehicles, choking even the mangy looking wild dogs roaming the alleyways.

Second, it was bloody hot, even though we arrived in the evening. This wasn't helped by my well-intentioned attempts at modesty, covering up at the port in long sleeves, jeans and a headscarf only to be surrounded the next day in Cairo by Russian tourists prancing around in hotpants, spaghetti straps and stilettos.

Coke that's ice-cold and not covered in sand, how I love thee! Actually I hope it was really Coke and that the Arabic doesn't actually say Caramelized Camel Pee.

Third, Egyptian people are really hard to deal with. Our captain had warned us several times on the ship that nothing gets done in Egypt without tips or the odd 100 cartons of free cigarettes (most other ports only require 20-50 cartons to get through customs apparently) and, true enough, we found ourselves fighting for every little thing just to get around.

"No, for the last time, we don't want to visit your cousin's papyrus museum"
"No, we are not going to pay you any more than the metered fare"
"No, I don't believe you don't have change for my bill"

Honestly, having bargained our way through China, India and most recently Sri Lanka (where the bellboy at the Kandalama literally stood in front of our car, preventing us from leaving until we had tipped him sufficiently), I'd thought I was fairly thick skinned when it came to defending my right to not be cheated, but Cairo literally had me alternatingly screaming or scowling in frustration.

My impressions were nothing but heightened when we arrived at our first stop - the Pyramids of Giza. Sand and heat aplenty, plus what appeared to be a festering ground for trainee touts, from the lanky teenagers acting as policemen demanding to see our entry tickets where entry tickets weren't even required to the grinning men on smelly, malnourished camels trying to rent you a ride from pyramid to pyramid, even when the pyramids are barely 100m apart along well-paved roads. Here's one such charming gentleman:

The one thing that Cairo does have going for it though, is good food. In particular, good food that is usually hard to find in our little corner of the world.

Ok, so it has splendid Islamic architecture too, but you can't eat that, can you?

So, after a head blazing, joint aching morning hiking around the pyramids, we headed off by funky taxi (an honest driver for a change! must be the soothing cow spots on the dashboard) to the sprawling bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, led by visions of mint tea, bags of jewel-coloured spices and mountains of perfumed sweets.

Khan al-Khalili is a sprawling warren of store-lined streets and alleys, stocked with every thing from religious literature to tourist kitsch to cheap made-in-China household sundries. Passing our first few stores, I'd made a mental list of not-so-awful souvenirs or potentially cute home decor that we could attempt to acquire:

Camel stuffed toy for baby Gabriel...

Oriental leather slippers or gilded shot glasses for Tam and Sa...

Funny fez for Aaron...

...only to have that list shorten each time we passed another store selling the exact same thing, with the gradual realization that what I thought was charming then would later turn out to be unforgivably tacky or, at the very least, simply too curious. Eventually my list got scratched down to zero. And so we simply focused on what we could eat.

First stop, the revered Cairo institution that is the El Fishawy Coffee House. While host to numerous Lonely Planet pilgrims, the coffee house fortunately also had its fair share of locals, lingering over shisha and mint tea. This, more than the pyramids or the cantankerous touts, was what Egypt was about - thick, candy scented smoke, steaming hot tea in the middle of the afternoon, peeling walls and chipped mirrors boasting a blissful ignorance of the passage of time.

Refreshment pit stop over, we then wandered through the souk in search of more food to eat or buy.

Philippe turned out to be a bit overzealous and, while I was engrossed in a neighbouring spice shop, skipped over to this vendor to inquire about how to eat his wares.

They were loofahs :)

Ok, some real food! Fresh baked bread...

More bread...

Coffee vendors...

And finally, an assortment of honey covered desserts. Just as well we didn't have this in the morning - the sugar rush from one slice alone would have sent me running up and down the pyramids.

We rested our feet and took in some much needed airconditioning at Cafe de Najib Mahfouz, named after Cairo's famous novelist-philosopher and the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Apparently one of his writings was actually titled The Khan Al-Khalili which, if the cafe's elaborately carved heavy wooden doors and gilded tables were anything to go by, might've been a swirling mix of intrigue and exoticism. Or maybe not, who knows.

By good fortune, my random choice of drink turned out to be incredibly good. I need to look up the name but it's essentially a warm, thick milk, almost like a lassi, that's scented with almonds and coconut. You get a little pack of condiments - nuts, raisins and toasted shredded coconut - to toss in, and the end result is practically a hug from your grandma in a glass.

And, before we knew it, it was dinner time! Dinner was at the Zamalek branch of Abu El Sid, a sexy, Arabesque chain of 3 restaurants across Cairo that bring out the best of the city's see-and-be-seen crowd.

While the decor was undoubtedly glamourous, the food turned out to be disappointing. We had falafels, hummus, a yoghurt dip, stuffed vine leaves and the house specialty of grain-stuff pigeon, all of which were average at best. The funky lighting which had so awed us upon our initial entry also eventually threatened to throw us into fits of epilepsy, so we ended up rushing through our meal and leaving a fair bit on the table.

Oh, and a note on the wine. Don't ever ever EVER attempt to drink Egyptian wine. I'm no wine expert, but this was just plain vile. Water from the Nile, downstream from a camel settlement, would possibly taste better.

Although apparently Egyptian beer is pretty good.

Changed hotels the next day in order to check out the Mena House Oberoi at Giza, a gorgeous and stately former hunting lodge of royalty-turned-luxury hotel.

Lunch was good and light - the usual suspects of hummus, yoghurt dip, cucumber salad and the like, but refreshing after a couple of sticky days.

And what better way to celebrate the end of stickiness that an afternoon by the pool, gazing cocktail in hand in the distance at the same pyramids we so painfully trekked around the previous morning?

Yeah, I know it looks like Vegas, but that really is the real Great Pyramid of Khufu in the background.

Date trees! Lining the hotel driveway.

Spent our final evening too lazy to stray from the hotel, so ate dinner at one of the hotel's restaurants that had a cultural show thrown in, just for the kitschy fun of it. Most of the entertainment came from us trying not to choke on our food while the visibly bored staff members went through the motions of dancing, clapping and hooting to Egyptian techno music.

My own personal favourite? The spinner man, who was not only highly skilled in the art of continuous twirling, but who also managed to peel off layer after layer of twirly skirt to turn himself into the human technicolour prata.

And so we reached the end of our little Cairo adventure. It was exhausting and frustrating; it was exotic and intriguing. Would I do it again any time soon? Probably not. But I will be on the lookout for more good Middle Eastern food, and making myself a cup of hot mint tea every now and again. Spinning prata man to entertain me while eating or no.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Finally getting around to post on last month's cargo ship holiday. By way of a refresher, Philippe and I spent 10 days on board the Marseille-registered CMA CGM LILAC as Phase 2 of our summer break - Phase 1 was 10 days in Sri Lanka, our boarding point; Phase 2 the ship trip across the Indian Ocean and up the Suez Canal; Phase 3.5 a couple of days in Cairo and Phase 4 three days in Istanbul before flying home.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the ship. We'd opted to travel by container ship in order to experience the joys of cruising without the commercialization - the whole cabaret-casinos-buffet dinner shtick that comes with passenger cruising. Instead, we would have the ship to ourselves as the only fare paying passengers, and the opportunity to catch up on our reading and with each other in peace. We were also excited by the route, the opportunity to sail through the Indian Ocean and up the Suez Canal like sailor merchants of yore.

And so, on a dark and humid Sunday evening, we boarded the LILAC at Colombo Port, and arrived on the deck of our new home for the next 10 days.

Not being much of a technical person, I really can't tell you too much about the dimensions of the ship, except that we were told it can carry up to 3,000 containers, which is small by modern standards but considered large up to a few years ago.

All the accommodation on the ship was in the column-like area, i.e. the broad "chimney" space you'd find in a child's line drawing. In our case, this area housed 5 floors, each floor marked by a poster of a different region featuring the graphic profile of a CMA CGM ship against some exotic setting in a stylized French cafe poster style. Starting from the bottom:
- Accessible only from the outside, my favourite-named Poop Deck ("you said poop, hurhurhur...")
- Amerique du Sud (South America) - the Main Deck with crew quarters and the storeroom (aka booze and cigarette paradise)
- Baltic - the "ground floor" with the kitchen, officers' and crew's dining and mess rooms, and the admin office
- Tour du Monde (Around the World) - additional crew quarters
- Liban (Lebanon) - a couple of officers' cabins and, most importantly, our room - the owners' cabin
- Caraibes (the Caribbean) - the bridge, from which all the charting and navigation is done

Our room was very comfortable, with a twin bed, sofa area, writing desk with shelving, closet and attached bathroom. It wasn't particularly fancy, but was clean, well appointed and had the air of a homely ski cabin. Indeed, throughout the trip we were treated more like guests in a family inn than as commercial passengers getting in the way of day-to-day operations. The 24 Filipino crew and Croatian officers were always friendly, and ready with offers of a guided tour around the ship, funny anecdotes from past sailings, or just a generous smile even as we tripped over their tools and pressed buttons we weren't supposed to.

One reason for their perpetual good humour must have been the food. Meals were served promptly three times a day (breakfast from 7-8am, lunch from 12.30-1.30pm, and dinner from 7-8pm), and all were whopping affairs, with lunch and dinner particularly following a standard formula:

- On the table: fresh garden salad, assorted cold cuts and cheeses, a bottle of Greek wine
- Soup of the day: vegetable soup, or chicken noodle and the like
- Appetizer: typically something very light, like, oh, pizza, or lasagne!
- Main course: seriously heavy stuff, e.g. steak with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables
- Dessert: cheesecake, or banana pie, or chocolate mousse, in portions that would make Hard Rock Cafe proud
- Fruit basket: plums, oranges, apples, bananas, help yourself!

Likewise, breakfast consisted of fruit juice, cereals, yoghurt, bacon and eggs, cheese and cold cuts, coffee or tea... you can imagine we never went hungry.

We soon settled into a daily routine organized around meals.

Post breakfast would be a trip up to the bridge for a morning discussion on the day's route with the captain. Having pored through the charts and examined the various instruments as if they were actually intelligible to us, we would then descend for reading on the deck with our brand spanking new "carry them wherever you feel like plonking down" Lafuma deck chairs, with nothing but colourful Lego block rows of containers and the wide open sea around us.

After lunch would be a couple of hours of brainless DVD watching on our laptop, making full use of the ship's 300-strong DVD library. Another trip up to the bridge to check on our progress, then down to the poop deck to explore the ship, look out for whales and dolphins (both of which we did see!) and watch the setting sun in reflective silence.

Dinner would conclude with a chat with Captain Malasic and his wife, then it's back to our room for more reading and a DVD movie nightcap.

Repeat for 10 days.

The one exception during the trip was Barbecue Night. Once each sailing (i.e. from China to Istanbul or vice versa), the crew organizes a barbecue on the open deck, featuring an open roast. The crew was kind enough to time barbecue night during our stay, and we had the honour of having an entire goat roasted. (Due to logistical reasons, we eventually departed the ship prematurely, without time to take the requisite final tours and photos, so I never got to visit the kitchen's cold store, but I'm sure it must be a weird and wonderful place if there are whole goats lying around.) Add to that an endless supply of duty free alcohol and tobacco, and the incessant roar of the waves created by our passage, and the scene was as lively as any pub at the end of a working day.

All in, it was a wonderful trip. We got to see the daily workings of a full-fledged container ship, we travelled down the exotic and historically significant sea route, and passed such rarely visited destinations as Somalia and Ethiopia, we were well fed and well rested, and we got to meet incredibly warm and wonderful people.

The port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Should the crew or officers of the CMA CGM LILAC ever come across this humble post: thank you for the wonderful trip and memories!

A prelude to my next post on Egypt...

For every port of call, the ship had to hoist the local flag... There's even an entire cupboard on the bridge full of flags for every country.

Sailing down the Suez Canal, which was even narrower than I imagined... one way, one lane only!

View from the ship - Coke branded outposts and just enough sand to say welcome to the land of pyramids.

The port pilot - his job is to take over the steering from the captain once we're near the port, and to ensure the ship docks safely. In other words, valet parking for ships!

Egypt post akan datang!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Guest chef Halima!

Question: So what does someone who was born in Algeria, raised in Brazil and Cuba, and schooled in France make for a casual dinner at home?

Answer: Amazing food that's fast, simple, and an absolute riot of flavours.

Halima, an old college neighbour of Philippe's in Marseille, came to stay with us for 10 days last week as her first venture into Asia. Not that you could tell it was her first trip to the region - by the second day she was ordering kopi like a local, ravenously wolfing down curry puffs (6 in one sitting!) and launching into philosophical discussions with our neighbourhood food reflexologist.

Like a good cultural ambassador though, Halima decided to share some of her own home cooking, and subsequently took over our currently much neglected kitchen to whip up a casual Sunday dinner at home. The dishes came from all over the world, but were united in that they all represented some form of comfort food to her.

This was our menu for the evening, together with the primary regional influence:

  • Mechoui ya - Grilled pepper and tomato salad. A traditional Algerian dish that can be found in any household
  • Guacamole - South American
  • Cucumber and yoghurt salad - Mediterranean
  • Beef keftas - North African
  • Grilled eggplant and tomato salad - Mediterranean

Like most traditional home cooking, many of the recipes can be modified in various ways - a bit of garlic there, some onions here - and none of them need any precise measuring of ingredients or even a specific cooking method - it's all to taste. But here's our version, enjoy!

Mechoui ya (Grilled pepper and tomato salad)

As a prime example of how dishes can be modified, mechoui ya simply means 'grilled salad' - anything goes.

Start by grilling red and green peppers. I usually throw my peppers directly on the gas flame until they're charred, then chuck them in a plastic bag to steam up for a while before slicing.

Halima's approach was similar but with more drama - fill a frying pan with a fairly deep layer of oil, add the peppers, then cover with a tight fitting lid. Smaller peppers work best for this. The hot oil will pop and splatter over the inside of the lid, thereby searing the rest of the pepper not sitting directly on the frying pan. If necessary for a more even charring, turn the peppers over after a few minutes and repeat. Just be sure the oil has stopped exploding before you do that!

Exploding oil

Gorgeously charred peppers

We'll end up peeling the skin off anyway, so get your peppers nice and burnt on the outside so they'll be tender on the inside.

Toss the hot peppers into a plastic bag, and seal to let steam. Once it's cooled down, you can easily peel the burnt skin off, and your peppers will be nice and soggy... like this!

Soggy peppers ready for eating

Last step, slice the peppers, throw in some chopped tomatoes and red onions, dress liberally with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Let sit for an hour or so for the juices to mix, and then you're set!

Aside from being very pretty and incredibly tasty, the salad can also keep for a while, perfect for preparing in advance or for making something on the weekend to set aside for fuss-free weekday dinners.


Mush up an avocado or two with a fork, add chopped garlic, some salt, lemon juice and olive oil, and you're done! Cream optional.

Cucumber and yoghurt salad

Sliced cucumbers, Greek yoghurt, pinch of pounded garlic and olive oil. Because of the yoghurt, the salad can have a strong sour aftertaste if you eat it straight away, but this disappears once you've let the salad rest a while (in our case, in as much time as it took to run to the cinema to watch The Devil Wears Prada before returning for dinner, but in reality probably much less - I'm guessing an hour would suffice).

Beef keftas

In our case, approximately 2 stalks of parsley, freshly chopped, and one red onion to 600g of minced beef. I know parsley is rarely considered the coolest herb, but it's really surprisingly how a generous dollop of fresh parsley can transform a dish. Philippe's a big fan and I'm a convert now as well - in salads, with fish, and now with red meat.

You can add an egg as well, which would give the impression of more tender beef.

Shape into mini-burger sized patties...

...then fry or grill till nice and browned.

Our final additional dish was an eggplant and tomato salad, very simply, eggplant charred on a gas flame with the skin subsequently peeled off, then tossed with chopped tomatoes and a generous amount of finely chopped garlic. As it was a last minute addition, we ate this warm as opposed to the chilled pepper salad, and the contrast nicely brought out the different flavours.

A slice of dark rye bread to soak up all the juices, and your tummy is set on a trip around half the world. Total cooking time for everything: an hour, tops. You spend more time at the table with your fork suspended in mid-air, trying to pull yourself away from one dish to try another - it's all fantastically yummy, guaranteed. Best of all, it's so simple, even the worst kitchen dummy couldn't muck up, yet plated nicely or upsized for a larger dinner party, could be incredibly elegant and/or exotic as well.

Merci Chef Halima :)