Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spain for foodies


Spanish restaurants dominate world’s top 10 list, so is it time for a tasting?

090423-SpainBasqueCountry The Basque Country (above) is famed for its cuisine. Munoz (below) fuses Spanish with Chinese flavours.

It used to be that when one thinks of Spain, it’s flamenco, tapas, bullfighting and Gaudi’s dripping La Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona that comes to mind. Soon, one can add fine food to the list of associations, if it hasn’t been already. On Monday, it was reported that Spain’s El Bulli had topped S Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the fourth year in row. More importantly, three of the top five restaurants were from Spain. Mugaritz and El Celler de Can Roca took fourth and fifth place after Britain’s The Fat Duck and Denmark’s Noma.

So, is it time for foodies here to loosen their belts and pack their bags for a tour of Spain? Today sat down with up-and-coming chef from Madrid David Munoz — who is in town for the World Gourmet Summit this week — and his wife Angela Montero for their take on the culinary revolution in Spain and tips for travelling gourmands.

090423-SpainMunoz Indeed, Munoz, who co-owns Madrid’s award winning DiverXO restaurant with Montero, is very much part of Spain’s new wave of innovative cooks, fusing Spanish with Chinese ingredients to produce startling flavours. His potato omelette looks like a tiny Chinese dumpling, to be enjoyed with a sip of jasmine tea.

Why do you think Spanish restaurants are so highly rated now?

There’s been a burst of culinary innovation that started with Ferran Adria from El Bulli. He opened the way for chefs to experiment with their cooking. Also, there’s been a liberalisation of thinking in the past 10 to 12 years. The Spanish had been oppressed under the Franco government, but now people are experimenting with things — in food, in fashion. The young make an effort to learn English. It’s a new way of thinking.

Where should travellers go for a culinary tour?

Madrid has a lot of places now. Catalonia and the Basque Country are also good regions for food.

The Basque has incredible cuisine. Even in the a pub, they eat very well. They have a way of cooking, they do a lot of stews. They have very good gastronomy and now, they have very good restaurants. Mugaritz and Arzak, the fourth and eighth top restaurants in the world, are from this area. Travellers should try the cod. It’s salted then cleaned with water. When cooked, the flavours are very different. A lot of people like it this way.

Any tips for finding the best places to eat?

When you see a country, you take a guide but you only see what the guide shows you. To know what’s going on, talk to the people. Ask where they eat. You have to interact with them to find out what’s best.

What must visitors try?

Iberico ham. It’s what distinguishes Spain from other countries. In Catalonia, they eat espardenta. It’s a small animal found inside a sea cucumber. Chinese people would eat the outside and throw away the inside. In Spain, we eat it. It’s very expensive — one kilogramme costs €150 ($293). It tastes a bit like baby squid. Very nice. Jennifer Chen

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 23-April-2009

Into a deep blue dream


Kota Kinabalu waters offers divers rich sightings

Justin Lee,

090423-MalaysiaJacks You see it on television — schools of fish swirling in formation like a tornado against the light, turtles languidly winging past spiky beds of coral, sharks, ever elusive, materializing out of the blue. If you live in Singapore, you’ll know that these wondrous scenes need not be confined to the goggle box. Awesome marine life abound in South-east Asian waters, with some of the most stunning to be found off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.

Take the world-class diving destination of Sipadan, which I decided to explore a few years ago. Accessible by boat from the city of Tawau, Sipadan is a diver’s dream because of its location and geographical formation. The island is the tip of a mountain rising a few thousand feet from the sea floor. The surrounding coral reef is home to a diverse marine ecosystem you won’t find anywhere in the world.

Before I jumped into the water with my scuba gear, I was told by the resort manager: “If you don’t see a turtle, you get your money back.”

He didn’t issue the guarantee without cause. Sipadan has a sea turtle nursery that allows visitors to see how they sleep, mate and hatch. Visitors can also participate in the growth of turtles by releasing newborns into the sea.

090423-MalaysiaSharks Needless to say, I saw plenty of turtles during my time in Sipadan. I had come to swim with schools of barracudas and jacks and catch a glimpse of hammerhead sharks — which, along with manta rays and whale sharks, forms the “Holy Trinity” of sightings. I got my wish but more of my shark-crossing experience later.

Sipadan today has a cap on the number of divers allowed on the site to protect its natural resources.

If you can’t go, consider other Kota Kinabalu gems such as Layang Layang, a spot famed for its hammerhead sightings. The shy sharks are hard to spot and divers can be on site in the thick of hammerhead season and not see them.

When it does happen, there is no mistaking the moment. The hammerheads literally come out of the blue; their silhouette is unmistakable — horned torpedoes that strike both excitement and fear in swimmers.

When I was lucky enough to spot the sharks, my heartbeat quickened and I irrationally yelled “Hammerheads! Yes! Finally!” into my mouthpiece. Irrationally, because my words came out in a stream of bubbles that no one understood.

Seeing the approach of a hammerhead is both an awe-inspiring and terrifying moment. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be shark breakfast or throw up my own.

Then, my fellow diver exhaled, his breath rose in noisy bubbles like a curtain of silver beads. That was enough to spook the hammerheads. In a flash, they were gone, back into the deep blue.

Looking around I saw what they left behind — a group of ecstatic divers. If there ever was a state of diving nirvana, this was it. Television doesn’t even come close.

Best from the surface

If you don’t have a diving licence but would like to take in the sights of a coral reef, Malaysia also offers some great spots for snorkelling.

090423-MalaysiaSnorkeling My favourite is Redang Island. The site is part of a marine park, so the reefs are well protected and in good health. Snorkellers can see a wide range of marine life — barracuda, parrot fish, jacks, turtles — in crystal clear waters.

The quickest way to get to Redang is by Berjaya Air from Seletar Airport. The plane ride is 90 minutes long. The overland journey is 11 hours.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 23-April-2009

Spring pilgrimage

Some Like It Hot

Revitalising onsen and outdoor activities make Kusatsu an all-season playground

Amir Ali,

090423-Kusatsu Kusatsu town is built around the Yubatake, or onsen source.

Visit Japan, and you would be remiss to overlook the time-honoured Japanese habit of communal bathing. And one of the best ways to experience this would be to visit one of the many onsens that dot the countryside.

As much of the land is volcanic, hot springs — onsen, in Japanese — are a focal point of many communities. Fresh spring water that is naturally heated by volcanic activity has long been harnessed by the Japanese for its public baths, partly because of its heating properties in colder months, but also because of its mineral properties — it is often both acidic and sulfurous — which are said to nourish the skin, revitalize the body and, because of its high temperatures, cleanse as well. And because of its geothermal nature, onsen water can often provide power to entire communities.

090423-Kusatsu2 I visited one such town recently. Kusatsu, in Gunma prefecture north-east of Tokyo, is one of Japan’s three most-beloved onsen resorts according to Hirano-san, my Japanese guide to this little town of 7,000 inhabitants. Despite its size, Mr Hirano told me some three million tourists visit Kusatsu and its onsen every year. That’s an average of 250,000 people a month in space that’s a fraction that of Singapore.

In the shadow of active volcano Mt Asama and spread over just 50 sq km of deciduous mountainside, much of Kusatsu town is built around a marvellous onsen source, dubbed Yubatake. This startling, steamy outcropping of volcanic rock that’s nearly double the size of a competition swimming pool is the source of much of the town’s onsen water, which emerges from the ground at a searing 90° plus Celsius. Wooden channels built atop the Yubatake serve to cool down the water to a more bearable temperature. More than 30,000 litres of piping hot water flows out of the Yubatake and Kusatsu’s other onsen every minute, ensuring a fresh, constant supply of onsen water to the whole town.

Strolling around the Yubatake, there are a few souvenir shops and small restaurants, as well as a konbini or two, but Kusatsu is refreshingly devoid of the commercialism I have come to expect of modern Japan. Your best bet for a souvenir would be manju — brown buns filled with sweet bean paste — which, in Kusatsu, are steamed using onsen water. But, for me, the real attractions of the town are its many inns and hotels — nearly all of which have their own onsen — as well as the mountain’s outdoor activities.

Set 1,200m above sea level, Kusatsu’s climate endows it with four distinct seasons, each with its own attractions. I was lucky to have been able to experience Kusatsu near the end of the four-month ski season. And though the temperature was pleasantly mild, at about 3° Celsius during the day, and sunny, there was abundant, powdery snow to dust the various pistes of Mt Moto-Shirane (2,171m) just a few minutes up the road. Avid outdoor enthusiasts, take note: When not covered in high-quality snow (and snowboarders), the slopes are the backdrop for breathtaking outdoor hiking during summer and autumn, with the stunning aqua-green caldera of neighbouring Mt Kusatsu-Shirane as one of the highlights.

There are more than 170 places to stay in Kusatsu, ranging from massive, western-style towers to delicate, traditional Japanese wood cottages — and nearly all of them have an onsen in which to soak your cares away. Indeed, some are built atop their own sources of onsen water.

For the traveller in search of an authentic Japanese getaway, it is worth booking yourself into one of the more traditional ryokans (inns), complete with personalized table service available in your room.

Two of the best hotels I saw were the Boun ( and the Kanemidori ( — the former have elegant appointments, while the latter have both exclusivity and a central location on its side.

If you want to try onsen localstyle — away from the confines of a hotel-based bath — check out the Sai No Kawara, a massive, open-air onsen open to the public. Be aware, however, the men’s bath is in full view of a major tourist walking trail. But the ladies’ bath is obscured.

Being a small town whose main industry is tourism — 90 per cent or more of its visitors are Japanese — you would think that, surely, night time activities are sorely lacking. And you would be right. Although there are a couple of bars in the bigger hotels, with karaoke and even some disco facilities, your best bet at night would be to go to an onsen, let the mineral-laden waters fill your pores and rejuvenate your skin, and go to bed warm and extremely rested. Indeed, restful is perhaps the best word I could use to describe my time in Kusatsu — a town small in size, but packed with pleasures. From its amazing mountainside vistas to its sophisticated ski and snowboard facilities to its superb onsen, Kusatsu really is as good as that age-old cliche: A winter wonderland.

Getting there

From Tokyo Station in the capital, take a 1-hour Shinkansen (bullet train) ride north on the Nagano Line to Karuizawa — a pretty little town modelled on a Canadian skiing village. A coach will take you up the mountain pass to Kusatsu — a scenic 1 hour journey. CTC Holidays has travel packages that include Kusatsu in the itinerary.

Onsen etiquette

090423-WomenBareBath The first thing you should know when you go to a traditional onsen is that you must be nude to enter. The baths in Kusatsu are single sex, though there are mixed facilities in Japan. Before stepping into the bath, sit down at one of the many washing nooks, and shampoo and shower yourself squeaky clean. You will be provided with a small washcloth upon entry. This can be used to scrub yourself during the shower or cover your privates as you traverse from locker room to shower to bath. However, it is frowned upon to introduce this cloth into the onsen water. The best place to stash it would be folded neatly on top of your head.

From TODAY, Traveller – Thursday, 23-April-2009