Sunday, December 22, 2013

22 Dec 13 (Sun) - Rice Balls and Beef Noodle

Today marks the Arrival of Winter and so it is called the Dōngzhì Festival or Winter Solstice Festival. It usually falls three days before Christmas Day. One of the traditional activities is to make and eat tangyuan or rice balls. So to celebrate, I made rice balls in ginger soup. And to reward myself for the work done, I cooked beef noodle using the last packet of the beef powder I bought from Korea last year. Happy 冬至 everyone!

Some ingredients...

... that were used to make into these colorful balls...  

... which were then cooked in ginger soup to become tangyuan!

After the making and cooking of Tangyuan, rewarded myself with one of my comfort food, beef noodle.

And finally, I'm getting into the mood for Christmas!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Review: A Noodle Story

Read about this ramen stall "A Noodle Story" when I was reading an article about ramen in MyPaper (page A17) today. So happened that I went to Amoy Street Food Centre for lunch with my colleague and I remembered about this stall. Managed to find it and both of us decided to give it a try. The price for a bowl of ramen range from $5-7.

Despite that it is classified under the category of ramen, the noodle was actually Chinese egg noodles. There were a lot of toppings such as Japanese char siew which was really soft and tender; hot-spring egg which was very soft and the yolk slightly runny; Hong Kong wonton with shrimps as fillings and finally the crispy potato-wrapped prawn.

The stall owner took pain to arrange the toppings and garnish very nicely which made the whole eating experience very enjoyable. The soup that came with the noodle was very tasty too. I was really very full after eating the $5 version. For those who are bigger eaters, can give the $6 and $7 versions a try. Recommended on the basis of its uniquely Singapore style.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

26 Oct 13 (Sat) - Red Dragon Fruit Ice Cream

I was hooked onto the Philippines red dragon fruit since two weeks ago after the fruit seller recommended me the fruit. Actually, I have eaten that before when I was on holiday with my little big sis's family to Gold Coast two years ago. Somehow, eating the fruit reminded me of the wonderful time I had during that trip.

Red dragon fruit or known as Pitaya roja or Red-fleshed Pitaya is also known as Hylocereus polyrhizus. I have been eating it on its own or blending it to drink as juice. Given that Halloween is coming, I thought why not try something different with the fruit, especially with its pretty pinkish-purplish color. So I decided to make ice cream out of it, and it turned out to be the best DIY ice cream by far due to the creamy, gooey texture.

260g Red Dragon Fruit Puree
80-100g White Sugar
Juice from 1/4 lemon
200ml Whipping Cream

1.  Combine red dragon fruit puree, white sugar and lemon juice in a pot and bring to boil over low heat
2.  Continue to simmer over low heat till thicken slightly and off the heat
3.  Leave the mixture to cool completely
4.  Use a whisk to whisk the whipping cream till foamy
5.  Add the whipping cream into the cooled red dragon fruit mixture
6.  Whisk the mixture till well combined
7.  Transfer the mixture to a container of your choice and put into the freezer
8.  Take out after six hours to churn with a spoon or leave it in the freezer overnight

Just to share, this is the nifty little gadget I used for whisking the whipping cream. Got it from Daiso, PS. Ah...! Good news for hand/wrist work.

---------------- Edited on 28 Oct 2013 ----------------

Brought half of the ice cream to office and was hoping my food buddy, CC, would be around to give me honest comments. Unfortunately, she was not in office today. So I offered the ice cream to a few other colleagues who appreciate desserts.

TYY said, “I've never had red dragon fruit before so this was a nice intro to it. Nicer than white dragon fruit! I'm not really a dragon fruit fan but this was a nice palate cleanser.”

NYP commented that it tasted like sorbet while GL simply kept repeating that it was nice. SWT said it was yummy but a bit sweet while KH said it was creamy and not too sweet.

At home, I found that the ice cream texture was like that of the gelato when out of my freezer, however, it was harder when it was out of the office freezer. The only conclusion I had is that the office freezer was colder than mine. Lol. Anyway, seems like this ice cream received quite a lot of positive comments.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

25 Aug 13 (Sun) - Scrambled Egg White with Fish and Seafood Sticks

Was reading the newspaper few days ago when I saw a picture of this dish called Scrambled Egg White with Fish and Dried Scallops. It was a promotion by the Paradise Group to celebrate their 1st year anniversary for the suburban outlets at Causeway Point and Lot One Shoppers’ Mall. The dish looked good and so decided to try it out this weekend. I didn't have any recipe and so searched the Internet for one or something similar.

Managed to find something similar and did some modifications since I didn't have dried scallops and didn't want to make too big a portion.

100g egg white (2 medium size eggs)
4 seafood sticks (only the red portion)
20g shredded fish
20ml chicken stock
pinch of salt and sugar
1 tsp cornstarch dissolved in 1.5 tsp water
1 tsp Chinese wine
1 raw egg yolk

1.  Combine egg white, seafood sticks, shredded fish and mix well
2.  Heat some oil and pour the egg white mixture in
3.  Stir continuously with a whisk to prevent coagulating till it is 70% cooked
4.  Strain and set aside
5.  Heat some oil, add chicken stock, salt, sugar, cornstarch and wine
6.  Stir well to thicken mixture, add the cooked egg white mixture and mix well
7.  Off heat and transfer to a serving plate
8.  Top with a raw egg yolk

Ideally the dish should be eaten with Chinese black vinegar, unfortunately I didn't have that. Did some digging and found this little story behind the dish.

A long time ago, the king of China wanted to try crab. Since he was based in Northern China, there was little access to seafood. Actually, even if they had crab, his subjects would not dare serve it to the king because if the king gets careless and bites the shell, the subject who served him the crab would be killed. The dish was concocted by the family cook of a Shanghai general using fish, scallop, egg white and black vinegar. They sent the dish to the king who loved it. This is why the dish's Chinese name is Artificial Crab.

Cooked a vegetable dish and today's meal was Chinese cuisine consisting of Scrambled Egg White with Fish and Seafood Sticks, Oyster Sauce Choy Sum and Lingonberry Drink with Blue Sago.

Browsed the Paradise Group webpage and found another promotion called The Chef's Challenge. The middle dish on the first row was the one I saw few weeks back that prompted me to try the experimental Chilled Sweet Potato in Pumpkin Soup.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

17 Aug 13 (Sat) - Spanish Omelette (Tortilla Española)

I totally had to blog about this because I finally managed to cook this successfully at the third attempt. I guess this is what people say about the third time's a charm.

Besides the seafood paella, the Spanish omelette, which is known as Tortilla de Patatas or Tortilla Española in Spanish, is the other dish I that I couldn't forget after my recent Spain & Portugal trip so I searched the Internet for the recipe. Found a few, read them and the basic ingredients and steps are the same.

My first attempt was using the purple sweet potato because I didn't have any potato on hand and I was too eager to try cooking the dish. Sliced the sweet potato thinly to fry but I didn't use enough of it to cook the omelette. Also, I had probably over beaten the egg such that the side of the omelette fluff up a lot during the cooking. The end result was a crumpled and sweet omelette with a purple color interior. The exterior looked nothing close to those that I had eaten back in Spain. Conclusion: FAIL.

The second attempt was done at my little big sis's place last Saturday using russet potatoes. She did the cutting because she wanted to use the potatoes to cook her favourite dish - minced meat potato. So the potato slices were round and rather thick. Took a few slices to cook the omelette and again I failed. The potato slices couldn't line bottom of the pan nicely and again I made the mistake of over beating the egg. The end result was a crumpled and crumbling omelette because the potato slices were falling out of the egg. Conclusion: EPIC FAIL.

Interestingly, there was an article about this dish in The Straits Times the next day, recipe included. I was so happy and cut the article out to keep.

Little big sis gave me the one and only leftover russet potato since she had no use for it. So finally I managed to find the chance to do the third attempt of the dish today. I pondered over what had gone wrong in the previous two attempts and made some modifications to the way I cook it today.

Instead of slicing the potatoes, I cut them into strips of about 0.5cm thick. Then I just lightly beat the egg enough to combine the yolk and white without creating too much air bubbles. The rest of the steps were based on my memory of those recipes I had read and the amount of ingredients used were based on my own estimations.

Using about two tablespoons of olive oil, some salt and pepper to taste, I fried the potato strips till soften then added in the shallots slices (because I didn't have onion on hand) and fried till they became transparent. Drained the oil to be used later and set the potato strip aside in a bowl to cool. Then lightly beat an egg, adding a little bit of salt and pepper to taste.

After the potato strips were cooled enough, I chose those thinner and smaller ones to add into the beaten egg and added just enough pieces for the egg to cover them. It came to be about half of a medium size potato. Instead of heating up the oil and then add in the mixture, I added the oil to a 12-cm pan and then poured the mixture in, spreading the potato strips evenly so that the egg mixture covered them before turning up the heat.

I cooked the omelette over low heat and once the side of the omelette was set, I used a spatula to loosen the side and bottom of the omelette. Then took a plate that was bigger than the pan, turned it upside down to cover the pan and flipped both over so that the omelette fell onto the plate. Added a bit more oil to the pan before sliding the omelette back into it to cook the other side which took about two to three minutes.

Off the heat and transferred the omelette to a serving plate to take photos. This time round, both the exterior and interior of the omelette looked much closer to those I had eaten back in Spain. Perhaps, a slight adjustment the next time will be to cut the strips a little bit thinner.

Another interesting thing I found out was that the type of potato that was called for in most of the recipe is the waxy kind but the wikipedia states that the starchy kind is more ideal for the dish. How ironic. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

28 Jul 13 (Sun) - Pumpkin Mochi Cake and Sitr-fried Beef with Ginger & Spring Onion

Had leftover pumpkin so made mochi cake using the purple sweet potato mochi cake recipe. Steps are about the same, just that there was no need to add water since pumpkin retains water well after boiling. Pumpkin mochi cakes looked better because of the nice golden color.

Ingredients (Makes 12)
160g Pumpkin, cut into chunks
60g Sugar to taste
80g Glutinous rice flour

1.  Boil pumpkin till tender, off the heat, drain and remove the skin
2.  Add sugar to the warm pumpkin and mash to make into puree
3.  Add glutinous rice flour bit by bit to the sweet pumpkin mixture and mix well to get a non-stick dough
4.  Divide the dough into twelve portions
5.  Roll each potion into a ball and press each one with the base of a cup to form a flat disc
6.  Spread some black sesame seeds on top of each disc
7.  Heat some oil and pan fried both sides of the disc till brown slightly over medium-low heat
8.  Check that the center of the disc is not raw then remove from heat
9.  Best serve immediately or warm

Also since I had leftover beef from yesterday, attempted the stir-fried beef with ginger and spring onion recipe by NoobCook. All went well except that I forgot to add Chinese wine at the end of the cooking. The result doesn't look like the picture in the NoobCook website. Wonder if I had added too much dark soy sauce.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

27 Jul 13 (Sat) - Chilled (Purple) Sweet Potato in Pumpkin Soup

Bought the Japanese pumpkin yesterday and with the leftover purple sweet potato from last week, I finally got to re-create the dish I saw from the newspaper couple of weeks ago. I didn't have any recipe so the whole dish is based entirely on my own estimation. Used about 170g of the pumpkin, cut them into chunks and boiled till tender. Then removed the skin, added 4 teaspoons of castor sugar and mashed them with a fork to create a puree.

After that, took one purple sweet potato that weighed about 120g to boil till tender. Peeled off the skin, cut into small pieces, added 4 teaspoons of castor sugar and mashed with a fork. Prepared a pipping bag with a with a star-tip nozzle. Added milk to the mashed sweet potato to create a smooth consistency that is suitable for piping. Filled the piping bag with the smooth paste and pipe on a serving plate a simple swirl by creating a circle and squeeze out the paste while slowly twisting the wrist clockwise, coming into the centre to finish off. Repeated the piping process with smaller circles till I got a small cone shape. Ok, I got to admit, I don't have good piping skills.

Added milk to the pumpkin puree to make it more watery and then poured it at the base of the sweet potato. The setup looked nice because of the contrast in color. Taste-wise, the chilled pumpkin soup was actually quite refreshing and complimented the rather filling sweet potato.

Some things to note:
  • Make sure the mashed sweet potato is completely mashed with no small bits left. Using a food processor or a blender will be good. This is because those small bits will block the opening of the nozzle and making it impossible to pipe properly.
  • Using a blender to blend the milk and the pumpkin puree will give a smoother consistency

After all the hard work, went on to cook my favourite beef noodle as a reward (lunch) to myself. Lol.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

21 Jul 13 (Sun) - Purple Sweet Potato Mochi Cake

Found a pack of Vietnamese coffee in the pantry and bought a can of condense milk while doing marketing this morning. Started the day with a nice cuppa before diving into the next session of cooking therapy.

Had some leftover seafood from yesterday and so did a simple pan-fry to the white fish and scallops as well as quick boil to the prawns and vegetables.

Managed to get some purple sweet potatoes from Cold Storage, Vivo City, last Friday but I forgot to get the Japanese pumpkin. So instead of trying to do that dish I saw on the newspaper few days ago, I used them to do the pan-fried mochi cake instead. The look of the cakes wasn't very nice because of the color after pan-frying. Perhaps next time can create a marble effect by adding pumpkin-flavored dough? Hee...

Ingredients (Makes 12)
160g Purple sweet potatoes
60g Sugar to taste
70g Glutinous rice flour

1.  Boil sweet potatoes till tender, off the heat and retain the water
2.  Remove the skin of the sweet potatoes and cut into small pieces
3.  Add sugar to the warm sweet potatoes and mash
4.  Add glutinous rice flour bit by bit to the sweet potato mixture and mix well
5.  Add warm water to the mixture if it is too dry to get a non-stick dough
6.  Divide the dough into twelve portions
7.  Roll each potion into a ball and press each one with the base of a cup to form a flat disc
8.  Spread some black sesame seeds on top of each disc
9.  Heat some oil and pan fried both sides of the disc till brown slightly over medium-low heat
10.  Check that the center of the disc is not raw then remove from heat
11.  Best serve immediately or warm

---------------- Edited on 22 Jul 2013 ----------------

Woke up earlier than usual this morning to heat up five mochi cakes using frying pan to bring to office. By the time I got to office, the cakes were already lukewarm. Messaged to SWT and asked her if she wanted to try and she came over to my cubicle. I was rather surprised that she asked for second helping. The feedback she gave was that the taste of the black sesame seeds overpowered the taste of the sweet potato. It was unless towards the end that she could taste the sweet potato.

Offered one to TYY and she said it was nice and the texture is similar to those sweet potato balls sold by one of the stalls in Maxwell Food Center. Offered one to NYP and another two KH and they both said nice. KH commented that it was a bit small such that he finished the cake in one mouth. So he suggested that perhaps next time I could make them bigger.

Recipe submitted to Munch Ministry

Saturday, July 20, 2013

20 Jul 13 (Sat) - Seafood Paella

Bought a box of five sachets of paella seasoning during my recent trip to Spain and wanted to try cooking paella. I know that the rice used in paella is different from the normal rice and I had the impression that I would be able to find it in Singapore so I didn't buy the Spanish rice when my friend told me to. How wrong I was. Google about the rice used and found out that Spanish rice are not widely available outside of Spain or Europe. So I had to look for substitute. Some websites recommended long-grain rice while some recommended short-grain rice and that got me really confused. Read the descriptions of the various Spanish rice used for paella and realized that they are short-grain rice hence decided to use Japanese short-grain rice which some websites recommended.

On the box of the paella seasoning was some English instructions but they were vague while those on the sachets were detailed but they were in Spanish. Tried to translate them using Google Translate as well as searched for paella recipes online, hoping to make sense of the instructions and modify them according to my needs. Found one which looked really good and wrote down the ingredients needed. Went to Giant to get the rice, prawns, mussels, white fish, scallops, yellow onion and tomatoes after work yesterday and did my cooking today.

As one sachet is enough for six servings, I used only half to cook for three because I didn't have a big paella pan. Then I realized that I forgot to copy the quantity of ingredients needed in the recipe which I remembered was for four to six servings. So I had to use my own estimations for the entire cooking session. Made the seafood broth as required by the recipe using four mussels with shells, shells of six prawns and 750ml of water. While simmering the broth, grated half of the yellow onion, one small tomato, minced two cloves of garlic, cut the fish into thin slices, washed the rest of the prawns, mussels and rice. The instructions on the sachet stated 600g of rice for six servings, so since I’m only using half the portion so I cut the rice down to 300g.

After the broth was done, I started the actual cooking using the Happycall Pan as a paella pan. Heated up the pan, pour in some olive oil, fried the grated onion till soft and brown before adding the tomato pulp, minced garlic and rice. Fried on high heat for a couple of minutes then spread the rice across the pan before adding in the broth. Used 90ml of broth to dissolve the seasoning and added into the pan. Then went on to add another 450ml of the broth into the pan to cover the rice. Brought it to boil before lowering the heat to let it simmer, constantly shifting the pan over the flame to make sure that all sides are cooked.

Didn't keep track of the timing and added the mussels, prawns and fish in that order when the rice was on level with the broth. Didn't manage to add in all the ingredients I had prepared due to the size of my Happycall Pan. As the rice got cooked and the broth reduced, the mussels were cooked; the prawns and fish slices were half cooked. So covered the pan hoping that the trap heat would cook the prawns and fish slices but only prawns got cooked. The fish slices were still slightly raw. So in the end I had to manually flip the fish slices, covered the pan and turned on high heat for a couple of minutes. Finally the fish slices got cooked but the prawns were overcooked and they became hardened. Off the heat, covered the pan and set aside to let it stand as instructed in the recipe. Went on to pan-fry a few scallops and then topped the paella with them.

The look of the seafood paella was rather good; however, taste wise it was not fantastic. It was a little too bland, rice was a bit too soft and prawns overcooked. My guess was that firstly, the seafood broth wasn't tasty enough, meaning I didn't use enough prawn shells and mussels to cook the broth. Secondly, maybe I had used too much rice and the tasteless broth so ended up with diluted seasoning. Thirdly, the timing of putting in the seafood was not well planned. Oh well… this is after all my first attempt, I shall improve on it with those modifications on my next attempt.

At the end of the cooking and eating, I rewarded myself with loads of summer fruit. Strawberries!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Review: Sophie Bakery (Part 2) and Promotion: Matt's The Chocolate Shop

Blog about my review on Sophie Bakery back in April and made a promise to myself to go back again to try their fruit tarts. So I went back to the shop today during lunch. It was not as crowded as it was back in April and there were more macarons this time. However, the variety of the bread and tarts seem to have shrunk which made me a little disappointed. Nevertheless, I bought a Pineapple & Berries Tart, a Pain au Chocolate for myself and two Strawberry Tarts for a colleague.

The prices of the butter croissant, chocolate croissant, eclair and so on were still the same except for their fruit tarts which went from $4.50 to $4.90. The chocolate croissant was as tasty as the butter croissant but just because of the chocolate filling, it cost $0.50 more. Personally, I feel that I would just go for the butter croissant.

As for the fruit tart, instead of the usual cream or custard filling, this has a crumbly filling and with a hint of almond-flavour, I think. It was good but for the price of $4.90, personally I find it a bit steep. So overall, the food was good but I don't think I will buy again unless I'm feeling pretty rich. However, I don't mind going back for the butter croissant thought.



Extra! Extra!

Matt's The Chocolate Shop which is nearby is having their 1-year Anniversary Promotion.
  • 12.5% off all Small Chocolate Cakes
  • 15% off all Medium and Large Cakes
  • 20% off if you order their Medium or Large Cakes at least 1 day in advance

Plus, they added Pandan Butter Cake drizzled with Gula Melaka Syrup to their product range recently

Hurry! Promotion ends 31 July 2013.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

7 Jul 13 (Sun) - Cream of Pumpkin, Pan-fried Steak and Sweet Mash Pumpkin

Saw a picture of a dish called “Chilled Cream of Pumpkin with Sweet Potato” by a local chef from a well-known restaurant last Thursday and it looked really nice. It had the purple sweet potato twirled on a plate of yellow cream of pumpkin soup. Was motivated to replicate the dish and so went on to search for recipes online. Found a few recipes on cream of pumpkin and saw one that was really simple to do so copied that down in my notebook. Went on to search for recipes on mashed sweet potato but I did not have time to study them in details therefore settled to try out only the cream of pumpkin this weekend. Went marketing on Friday and bought a small portion of Japanese pumpkin, a piece of top rump and a few other stuff. My plan was to cook beef noodle on Saturday and use the balance to cook stir-fry beef on Sunday as well as to try out the cream of pumpkin on Sunday.

Japanese Pumpkin

Unfortunately, my plan was messed up due to some unforeseen circumstances, hence had to rearrange my meal plans. In the end, I came up with a 3-course meal consisting of Cream of Pumpkin, Pan-fried Steak and Sweet Mash Pumpkin. The second was a change to my original beef noodle and because I did not want to buy a broccoli just to use a small portion of it, I used choy sum instead. And since the cream of pumpkin called for potato as one of the ingredients, boiled the balance to go with the steak. The last dish, which was a dessert, was really something that came up impromptu.

Cream of Pumpkin

Pan-fried Steak

Bought the other ingredients called for in the cream of pumpkin from the market and started cooking after breakfast about 9:30am. I thought I was going to take a long time to finish the cooking but I was done by 11:15am, including washing and photo taking. Whee! Was pretty proud of the cream of pumpkin because that turned out really well even though I modified the recipe a little by sauteing the onion with some olive oil, pre-boiling the pumpkin to separate the flesh from the skin and replacing thick cream with milk. Since I had some boiled pumpkin left, mashed them with a packet of MacDonald’s fine sugar and surprisingly I got a very smooth consistency so used that as my dessert.

Sweet Mash Pumpkin

Overall, the 3-course meal turned out quite well and presentable given that I was improvising with limited resources. Heh…

My 3-course Meal

Cream of Pumpkin (Serves 1-2)
Adapted from Bestrecipes website

160g Japanese pumpkin, after boiling and skinned
50g potatoes, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1/2 chicken stock cube, crumbled
160ml water
40ml milk
Olive oil

1.  Sauté onion with some olive oil in a saucepan
2.  Place all other ingredients, except milk and pumpkin, in the saucepan
3.  Simmer until vegetables are tender
4.  Add pumpkin and mash while boiling for another 3 minutes
5.  Remove from heat and add salt to taste
6.  Blend until smooth
7.  Add milk and stir through
8.  Garnish with chopped pistachio nuts

Note: The balance of the boiled pumpkin can be mashed with castor sugar while still hot/warm to be made into a dessert on its own.

Recipe for Cream of Pumpkin submitted to Munch Ministry

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

18 & 19 Jun 13 – Day 12 & 13 (Madrid)

Today was the last day of our trip and we didn’t have to check-out till 11am so Kim and I got up slightly later and went for slightly later breakfast before heading out to the nearby super mart. Ever since we bought the mini bottles of olive oil, Kim had been hunting for extras but no luck. Fortunately for her, the super mart had those and Kim bought a few more. Returned to the hotel and bumped into the family with the small boy. They were on the way out to another direction to check out some shops they saw the evening before. Got back to the room, did another round of packing to make sure I got everything into the luggage and those that could not be hand carried be put into the check-in luggage. Message little big sis and got to know that the haze in Singapore had worsen over the last few days. I knew about the haze when friends posted about it on FB.

When it was about time to check-out, we did one last round of checks around the room before proceeding down to the lobby. Today we were supposed to take the local coach to the airport so we had to wait for it to arrive. As the lobby was small, some of the members chose to wait outside. There were two seats in the area between the two glass doors, one connecting the lobby, the other connecting the street. Kim and I chose to sit there with our luggage. I took random shots while she used the Internet connection. Most of the members commented that we had the best seats and some of them asked us to help them look after their luggages which were placed opposite us while they waited in the lobby.

The local coach was really late and when it finally arrived, we quickly loaded our luggage and boarded the coach. While on our way to the airport, Nancee told us that those who needed to do tax refund would have to follow her to a counter to settle the paperwork before checking-in their luggage and those who didn’t need to, can proceed to check-in on their own. So once we reached the airport which was rather fast, all the members except Mr and Mrs Goh, Kim and I, followed Nancee to do the tax refund. After we had done the check-in, we bumped into Nancee who told us that we need to cater about 45 minutes to catch the airport bus to another terminal to board the plane. So we looked at the time and decided that we had some time to spare. Walked around the airport and realized that most of the shops were closed due to renovation.

We saw the shop “Loewe” and Kim went into the shop to find out the prices of the two bags that her sis was eyeing on. After knowing the prices, Kim went on to message her sister to find out if she wanted to buy. So during the time of waiting, I popped into a duty free shop to get a box of Spanish chocolate and then into another shop to get a UK edition of the Cosmopolitan that came with a free pair of shades while Kim went to get snacks from KFC. Then it was about time to get to the platform to wait for the airport bus and just when we reached the platform, Kim’s sister replied telling her to get the bags but it was too late for that.

At the platform, it stated that it would take about 30 minutes to get to the other terminal. Airport bus came and we boarded it to go to the other terminal for our flight. When the airport bus stopped, we thought it was not our stop to alight so we continued to sit because only about 10-15 minutes had passed. An older man who sat next to us told us that it was the final stop and we should alight. He then tried to help direct us to the correct place to get to our gate. While we were on the escalator to go up to the ground floor, there was another board that indicated that it would take about 20 minutes to get to our gate.

After we reached the ground floor, again, most of the shops were closed due to renovation. Within the next 10 minutes, we were in front of the designated gate so I sat to read my magazine while Kim ate her snacks and shared some with me. Soon, members came strolling to the area in front of the gate to wait for boarding. Again, Mrs Chia was complaining about the shops being closed for renovation.

Soon it was time to board the plane and I spent the next many hours either dozing off, sleeping, eating or watching movies. Touched down in Singapore in the late afternoon and I could smell the haze once out of the plane. Little big sis came with BIL to pick me up and I spent that night at her place, sorting out my things and doing the laundry.

Thoughts: The whole trip was so-so compared to my previous two Europe trips. I guess it was because this trip focuses more on big cities rather than small towns and country sides which would have provided nicer sceneries. 

Will I go back to visit Spain and Portugal? Maybe. Maybe not.

Click here for more photos of the trip.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

17 Jun 13 – Day 11 (Toledo and Madrid)

This morning we set off to Toledo, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage and place of coexistence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures. We stopped just outside of Toledo to appreciate the city as whole from afar where we could see the Tagus River. Took photos and walked over to the Puente de San Martín or St Martin's Bridge in English, which is a medieval bridge across the river Tagus to get into Toledo.

After that, we continued on by coach to get to a Damascene workshop where a staff showed and explained to us how damascene was made. Shortly after, we were brought to the showroom where there was lots of damascene jewelry of various levels. The first level is mainly factory made and as the level progresses, it indicates that the piece of jewelry has more workmanship. I bought a level one bracelet for M while I bought a pair of level two earrings for myself. There were also wrist watches and pocket watches for sale but because the shop is more on damascene artwork and not on watches so I didn't see the point of getting one.

We were supposed to leave by certain timing but some of the group members were still busy choosing their pieces while some were trying to made arrangement for the tax refund. Finally we left after much delay and go further into Toledo and along the way; we passed by the Puerta de Bisagra. Then we had to go on foot to the Toledo Cathedral. It was a cloudy day and so I had a hard time getting the perfect photo on the cathedral. Inside the cathedral were many chapels and we were only introduced to a few. We saw the Retable of the Cathedral, the vaulted ceiling, high altar, and reja of the main chapel, in one of the chapels, we saw the grand stand that was used to hold the bible and there were two levels of chairs with different carvings. Also saw painting in the ceiling and the El Transparente of the Cathedral. Unfortunately, the dark lightings didn’t allow us to appreciate these in full. Done with the cathedral and we went to the souvenir shop just across the street for some of us to use the toilet and while waiting, I managed to get another pair of damascene ear-studs. Cut through more small alleys and then we were back to the coach to go back to Madrid.

Reached Madrid and we were driven to the restaurant where we had tapas for lunch. There were altogether 8 dishes which consisted one on seafood; one on salad, one on Tortilla Española, one on sausages, one on mushrooms, one on squid, one on paella and one on creamy potato (I think) and finally end off with a small bowl of ice-cream. After lunch, we headed to the Royal Palace of Madrid and saw a street performer dressed in uniform pretending to be headless. Went into the palace and local guide said that big haversacks had to be put into a locker and so Mr Goh and I followed the local guide to the locker place where I put a 1 Euro for a big locker enough for two haversacks. The local guide pushed the door to the upper locker closed so that I wouldn’t knock my head after collecting the key. So happened that a 1 Euro coin dropped out from that door and she handed it to me, saying it was my lucky day. After that, we joined the rest at the entrance to the palace. A tourist took a photo at the entrance and was told by the security guard that no photos allowed. Apparently, no photography is allowed inside the palace and not even near the entrance of the palace. So this was one of the palace tours where all of us paid full attention to the local guide’s explanation.

After the tour ended, Madeline and the local guide reminded me to collect the haversacks from the locker. So I hurried over with Mr Goh to collect the haversacks and my 1 Euro coin which I had deposited earlier. Then we were given time in the souvenir shop to use the toilets and to do some shopping. Nothing to get so went outside to the Plaza de la Armería to take photos of the Royal Palace of Madrid and the Almudena Cathedral. It was a day with nice blue sky and white clouds and with the black and gold street lamps at the plaza, I took many shots. So glad with the invention of the digital camera, otherwise, multiple shots would be impossible.

Then we made a trip over to the Plaza de España (Madrid), where we saw the Cervantes Monument dedicated to Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. The tower portion of the monument includeed a stone sculpture of Cervantes, which overlooks bronze sculptures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Next to the tower, there were two stone representations of Don Quixote's "true love", one as the simple peasant woman Aldonza Lorenzo, and one as the beautiful, imaginary Dulcinea del Toboso. There was a fountain behind the monument and so Kim and I hurried over to the back to try to snap a few shots. However, we could get far back enough to capture the whole monument with the fountain and also we were facing the sun, thus getting that perfect photo was impossible.

After we boarded the coach, Nancee told us that driver has kindly agreed to take us to see the Madrid Stadium, which was also called the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. This was to satisfy some of the die-hard Real Madrid football fan. We alighted outside the stadium and again, all of us tried to take photo of the stadium. But because we were too close to it, the best we could do was to take a photo of the name of the stadium and the logo of the Real Madrid F.C. Then we continued our journey to the Plaza Mayor, passing by the Puerta de Alcalá. After we alighted, Nancee told the group to gather back at the pick-up point at 8:30pm sharp because it was the driver’s last day with us and if there was going to be any delay, it would be against the law or some sort. She was pretty firm about punctuality this time, saying that if she didn't see us at 8:30pm, the driver would just drive off. After having said that, she also assured the group that they would have plenty of time to shop at the airport the next day.

The local guide then led us to the Plaza Mayor and along the way, we saw the Kilometre Zero of Spain, which was in the centre of the Puerta del Sol of Madrid and we also saw the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree which the local guide told us has since became a representation of Madrid. Reached Plaza Mayor and there was the Casa de la Panadería. We also saw three street performers at the plaza pretending to be three heads on a dish on a table. From there, we were given free time to roam around till 8:30pm.

So Kim and I roamed around, trying to be systematic in our roaming. Along the way, we saw more street performers who pretended to be floating on air. Then we went to the Kilometre Zero spot for photos before doing more shopping. There were a lot of people everywhere and so we didn't really pop into any shops, only randomly popped into one souvenir shop to do some last minute souvenir shopping. After we were done choosing and paying for our purchases, there was only about 45 minutes left before 8:30pm and we were not even half done with the Downtown, plus we still needed to hunt for dinner. Kim still had one more cup noodle to finish, so again I had to get snacks as dinner. In the end, we decided to go to the traditional pastry shop recommended by the local guide to get some pastries and then to KFC to get more snacks. The pastry shop was so traditional that they used paper and string to wrap our purchases instead of using paper boxes.

Slowly made our way back to the pick-up point and stopped by at the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree for some photos. There were 15 more minutes before 8:30pm, so Kim and I just wandered around the place and took some random shots just to keep ourselves occupied. Finally, the rest of the group gathered back and surprisingly, all of us came back. Got back to the hotel, Nancee told us there was a small super mart near the hotel and so a few of us followed her there. As Kim and I had nothing to buy, we went off on our own after knowing the location of the super mart.

Once we got to the room, we quickly checked the floor. The visible tag was gone but Kim said the one at the side of the bed was still there. It seemed that the so-called housekeeping was only to clean what was visible. The only consolation was that the floor wasn't dusty anymore. I bought three pieces of pastries and one of them was so sweet that I didn't finish it. Fortunately, the other two were quite nice and tasty. After eating, did some packing so that we didn't have to rush through the packing the next day.

Thoughts: Toledo was a nice place and I was very interested in the art of damascene. It would have been great if we were given more detailed explanation of the art and also a demonstration of it. I supposed it was such a fine art that workmanship is high so much so that the finer pieces are very highly priced. If little big sis is still working and one who likes to wear jewelry, I would have bought a nice piece for her. The weather was not good enough for us to appreciate the Toledo cathedral. If possible, I do hope to return there for a visit again.

I was really happy about picking up the 1 Euro. Strictly speaking, I didn’t pick that up; it was the local guide who did. Still, it was really nice to be told that it was I who did and that truly made my day. Madrid downtown was really crowded and unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to plough through those people to explore the place.

Monday, June 17, 2013

16 Jun 13 – Day 10 (Salamanca and Segovia)

This morning we had the Salamanca city tour and we started off with visiting the Plaza Mayor of Salamanca. It was considered as the most beautiful plaza in Spain. Then we went to the New Cathedral and the Old Cathedral, which exist just next to each other. The local guide told us about the astronaut and the ice-cream eating gargoyle that are hidden in the carvings of the lateral entrance of the cathedral. It turns out that both the astronaut and the gargoyle are details added by the craftsmen in charge of doing some restoration work on the Cathedral in 1992.

Breezed through the cathedral and we moved on to the University of Salamanca, passing by the Church of the Clergy. We were brought to small plaza to see main piece of the University: La Puerta de Salamanca, the University’s façade. It is carved out of stone, with a highly decorative style and intricate carvings. Of the numerous carvings, we saw the Catholic Kings and were asked to find the frog on a skull. Only a couple of us managed to find the frog. It was said that whoever finds the frog will be able to graduate from the University. The local guide also told us that people choose to come to this university to study Spanish because it is cheap and also it is more authentic without the heavy accent. Nearby we saw the Statue of Fray Luis de León facing the University and the building behind the statue used to be a hospital.

We saw a lot of red writings on the walls and it turns out that students would write the 6-letters VICTOR on the wall to celebrate their graduations. It means Victory. Some were simple while some were elaborated and in very nice fonts. Moving on we saw the Casa de las Conchas and through some small alleys, we passed by some souvenir shops where they sell a lot of earrings, rings and accessories of a design called Charro button. The local guide said that in olden days, people used to wear accessories of this design. Made a mental note of it and decided that I would come back to this shop to get rings for M and myself. Finished off the city tour by returning to the Plaza Mayor where we were given time to explore.

Told Kim that I would like to go back to that shop to get rings and we tried to trace our steps. Unfortunately, we got lost half way because we couldn’t remember which alley to take. So in the end, we just popped into a random shop that sells accessories of that design. Compared to the other shop, this had a smaller range of accessories. Browsed through the rings, tried them on and selected one for M. Then looked through the pinky rings and basically there were only about one to two designs so I was just trying on for size. The shop owner tried to help but again due to language barrier, he just left me to try the ring. Quickly paid for my purchases and went back to the plaza to meet up with the rest. While waiting, Kim asked Mr Chia to help us take a photo together with the modern bronze statue of Architects who redesigned the Plaza Mayor. The rest of the group came back and we set off for our next destination, Segovia.

After we reached Segovia, we were hurried to the designated restaurant for lunch. While walking, we saw many vintage cars passing by. Apparently there was a vintage car event going on. Got to the restaurant, we were told that we need to pay for the drinks. Therefore, each one ordered their own drinks which means I had to drink a bottle of coke on my own. Lunch was cochinillo, Spanish suckling pig, specialty of Segovia. They brought the roasted pig out for us to take photos before smashing a plate to cut the pig to be distributed. Unlike the one that BIL bought during Chinese New Year, this was really juicy and tender and the meat just came off from the bone with the slight push of the fork.

Towards the end of the meal, our local guide came to meet us. He spoke very good English and we started the city tour with the visit to the Aqueduct of Segovia. We had to climb a flight of stairs to get to the top where we got good view. After the aqueduct, the local guide pointed out the The Dead Woman Mountain. A mountain range that separate Segovia from Madrid. Next, we saw the House of the Picos, which reminded me of Toblerone chocolate. Saw the city's old prison which has now been converted into public library, St. Stephen's Church, Roman Catholic Church in the city of Segovia and ended off at Plaza Mayor where we were given time to take photos and do some shopping. Popped into a souvenir shop and bought two magnets depicting pigs before taking photos of the Segovia Cathedral and Teatro Juan Bravo, which is the city’s theater.

Then we headed off to visit the Alcázar of Segovia, which was the inspiration for the castle at Disneyland. There were many rooms with different designs and decorations. I guessed all ancient castles have the same kind of concepts; different rooms have different designs and decorations to represent the different functions of the rooms. Tried to take some photos while following the local guide and listening to his explanations but as usual, I could only catch here and there. Soon we were done with the place and we had to leave for Madrid. The local guide led us back to where the coach was and while walking, Kim made small talks with the local guide, asking questions here and there. Finally, we reached the car park where we passed by a statue depicting a Candido cutting the suckling pigs with a plate, showing how tender the meat was. We boarded the coach, waved goodbye to the local guide and we were on our way to Madrid where we checked into a hotel called Foxa 25.

It was a rather old hotel with rooms that came with kitchen and living room. After settling down, we went down to the restaurant for our dinner before retiring back to our room for the night. Upon closer inspections, it seemed that the room was not properly clean. The floor was dusty, we even saw label tags on the floor and the bathroom shower facility was rather shaky. Lucky for Kim, she brought bathroom slippers while I had to endure the dirty floor. 

Thoughts: Both Salamanca and Segovia are considered small towns so I like them more compared to bigger cities. City tours were too fast to really appreciate the beauty of the small towns. Hopefully I will get to visit these beautiful towns again. The hotel was a big disappointment. It would have been really nice if the housekeeping was done properly and the facilities well maintained.