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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Food Fast: A Ramadan Novice Goes Without

Aug. 27 (Jakarta Globe) I was invited to review a Ramadan buka puasa (breaking of the fast) buffet this week and decided I could only do it justice if I actually fasted. I’d recently arrived in Indonesia on the occasion of last Ramadan and knew little about it apart from that it was a month-long renunciation for Muslims.

Having decided to fast, I wanted to learn more so questioned Muslim friends and colleagues and read Islamic Web sites. I’d previously known that Ramadan involved renouncing food and sexual relations between sunrise and sunset but hadn’t realized it was a total abstention from drinking also, including water.

Not only that but one is expected to avoid immoral behavior and anger and exhibit patience, tolerance and compassion. As one friend told me, “You basically have to rein in your emotional outbursts and be more tolerant.”

I read on the IslamiCity.com Web site that fasting is prescribed in the Koran “in order that you may learn piety and God consciousness.” It went on to say that the act of abstinence was not meant to starve those fasting, but to be “an act of worship like prayer. It enables people with plenty to empathize with those who have very little in this world.”

I can’t fault any of those reasonings and, despite not being Muslim, felt I would also benefit from fasting with those precepts in mind.

Preparing for the fast

I asked friends observing the Ramadan fast what best to eat for sahur — the predawn meal — and got as many answers as people I asked.

“Eat plenty of fiber and succulent vegetables and fruit but no protein.”

“Eat a balanced meal with protein.”

“Treat it as an evening meal.”

“Eat what you regularly would.”

“Eat whatever’s in your fridge.”

All my advisers were clear on the need to drink a few glasses of water and avoid tea and coffee because of their diuretic effects. I seldom eat breakfast, having coffee and a few squares of chocolate in lieu most days, and eating what’s currently in my fridge would constitute a fast anyway so I made a trip to the store and bought fresh fruit — pineapple, oranges and mango — and a bottle of pomegranate juice. I prepared the pineapple the night before, leaving the mango and orange for the morning.

And I should have had an early night but a friend I hadn’t seen in years was passing through Jakarta for just one night so I went for dinner with her and her new husband instead and went to bed not long before midnight, having set my alarm for 4 a.m.

Too early o’clock

I’ve been wakened by the call to morning prayer outside my bedroom window every morning at around 4:30 a.m. for the past year, so didn’t think a half hour earlier would be a big deal. But it wasn’t easy to drag myself up and I definitely wasn’t accustomed to eating at that time. I took the pineapple, mango and an orange from the fridge, decided using a knife was beyond me at that hour and couldn’t be bothered peeling the orange, so ate chunks of pineapple while standing at the sink then took a glass of juice and one of water to my computer room, which overlooks a mosque. By the time I’d drunk both it was imsak — about 10 minutes before the morning call and time to begin my fast. I assume most Muslim families rise a lot earlier than I did to eat sahur. or they wouldn’t manage much food.

Following the subuh (dawn) call to prayer, I practice some God-consciousness of my own, then fall back into bed for a little more sleep.

6 a.m.

My usual morning routine is to rise about 6 a.m., check and answer e-mail (many of the important people in my life are on different time zones) then head to the pool with a cup of coffee, four to six squares of chocolate and the morning paper. My morning swim wakes me and I enjoy what passes for breakfast while perusing the paper. I’d thought I would miss the coffee this morning but it’s not a problem, though I do find myself at work earlier than usual without my usual routine to follow. Being patient and tolerant is going well so far, but I am the only person in the office.

Midday

The call to prayer began a few minutes ago so I took a break to go outside and be thankful for the people and advantages I have in life. My friend and desk-mate has told me how fasting can become such a tranquil cycle that by the end of the month it’s almost a disappointment to stop. Because family members all rise to share sahur then meet again to break the fast, quality time together is more common during Ramadan. Add in the calming and focusing effect of the ritual prayers and I can already see that the process would be beneficial.

In practical terms, it’s the daily habits that are harder to break so far than actually eating or drinking. The main time I leave my computer screen most days is to refill my water glass and I have to consciously find something else to do to allow myself short breaks. I’m missing my morning coffee but not particularly hungry, although I often forget to eat till late if it’s a particularly busy day so an empty stomach is nothing new. One of our interns has been baking for us regularly over the past few weeks and she’s brought a banana cake in today, which would go perfectly with the coffee I’m not drinking.

5 p.m.

It’s a little less than an hour until maghrib (dusk prayers) and half an hour until a Muslim friend and I will head to the Ritz-Carlton Pacific Place to break our fast. I’m looking forward to eating, although far from ravenous, and will enjoy a cool glass of water, or even juice. It hasn’t been too difficult though, and my major problem was changing ingrained habits, rather than craving food or drink.

In keeping with my goal of remaining calm and tolerant, I’ve been much quieter than I usually am, something noticeable to those around me. I feel I’ve also been less productive and have definitely been working and thinking more slowly than is my norm. I feel I’m in a semi-sedated state, which is no doubt ideal for spiritual contemplation but not so effective in terms of output. Even typing these words is taking me longer than usual and, although I don’t physically feel loss of energy, the mental effects are obvious.

The morning after

I was up and at the pool at my usual time this morning, and truly appreciated my morning coffee (no chocolate in my empty fridge), then ate the fruit I intended for yesterday’s sahur as breakfast.

The most important thing that came from my single day of fasting was a greater appreciation not only of food but of all I have in my life to be thankful for. I’m grateful for my friends, and enjoyed the many supportive comments I received on Facebook, especially the “Happy fasting” messages from Muslim friends doing the same. Going without food and drink for a relatively short time was easy physically, but I have a sedentary job in an air-conditioned office and was very much aware of how much more difficult fasting would be for many people. I expected patience might be difficult when hungry and found it to be the opposite, but didn’t enjoy the feeling that my brain was only running at half-speed. And, although I thoroughly enjoyed the buka puasa meal, the experience for me wasn’t so much what I went without, but what I learned.

I feel more connected to the culture and primary religion of the country I currently live in, to the friends and colleagues I spend my time with and to the luxuries I enjoy compared to many of the people around me. I’ll try to hold to the lessons I learned and remember when I next take a bite of food or a sip of a drink to not only be thankful for having it, but to be conscious of and try to help those who don’t.

Restaurant Review: Ritz Carlton Jakarta, Pacific Place, Jakarta

Aug. 27 (Jakarta Globe) I experienced my first Ramadan fast this week, along with millions of others around the world, although mine was only for a day and not a month. I was fortunate to have been invited to break my fast in good company with great food and stunning city views at the Ritz-Carlton Jakarta, Pacific Place.
Throughout Ramadan, the Ritz-Carlton is serving a buka puasa (breaking of the fast) buffet, featuring Ramadan specialities and Middle Eastern dishes. Working with guest chef Hany Mounir from the Ritz-Carlton Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, the kitchen team had prepared an abundance of dishes with which to break the day's fast.
I arrived with a Muslim friend and colleague shortly before magrib (dusk) and we were barely seated when the call to evening prayer began, indicating time to break the fast. My friend Novia had informed me that most people break their fast initially with something sweet and I knew that dates are a popular treat during Ramadan so was not surprised to find plates of dates placed on each table, ready for hungry guests. We were also offered hot tea as we were seated, not usually a favorite drink of mine but, with the addition of sugar — another aberration for me — the perfect refresher after more than 12 hours without food or drink.
A table at the restaurant entrance also held more dates of different type and origin, small pastries and sweets for those who preferred them to fruit and kolak – an Indonesian dessert based around palm sugar and coconut milk, with pandanus leaf for flavor.
The Ritz-Carlton has decorated its restaurant with a Middle Eastern flavor for the Ramadan season, with sheer flowing draperies, Moorish lanterns and some staff in Morocco-inspired garments. The theme is picked up in the Middle eastern dishes, which included lentil soup, a whole baked white snapper flavored with Eastern spices, prawn shish kebab, majboos rice, chicken shawarma, kebbeh and assorted mezze on the evening we dined. Also on offer were a good number of Indonesian dishes, Indian options, a well-stocked salad bar where staff would toss greens to order and a carvery offering roasted ribeye beef — one of the most popular choices on the night — and marmalade barbecued chicken.
The buffet contained a cornucopia of seafood as well, which I took full advantage of. Executive chef Sean MacDougall said it was a deliberate choice to include a good selection from the sea, as it isn't something locals necessarily eat often. And a good selection it was. I started with fresh oysters, prawns and smoked salmon, sampling both the regular and mustard varieties with accompanying shredded horseradish and capers. I then moved on to a selection of items in tiny tasting dishes — Thai prawn salad with featured a prawn on a bed of spicy carrot salad; slices of tuna lightly seared so only the edges were cooked, leaving the center red and moist, and served with a wasabi-based sauce; and fresh Vietnamese-style spring rolls with crisp vegetables and clean spicy flavors (I returned for seconds of those and the oysters). Novia opted for the sushi, which she recommended, and I was also tempted by the salmon sashimi with a teriyaki dressing.
The seafood selection also included, in addition to those already mentioned, a Mediterranean seafood stew and an Indian fish curry. It's quite likely there were more as I didn't have room for the Indonesian dishes, which covered two buffet stations on their own.
There was also an extensive selection of juices, teas and traditional drinks available, although I wanted only water after my initial cup of tea, to rehydrate after my fast.
We did leave a little room for more sweets at the end of our meal, although not enough room to even begin to sample the vast selection. We both chose refreshing sorbets to round off our dinner and I added strawberries coated in chocolate from a fountain. The baklava, tiramisu, custards and other choices all looked delicious, but neither of us needed any more to eat.
The meal would have been enjoyable at any time with its myriad of choices, but I appreciated each distinctive dish even more after having spent the day in anticipation while I fasted.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Restaurant Review: Sailendra, JW Marriott, Jakarta

Aug 20 (Jakarta Globe)
I doubt there is a reader of this paper who is unaware of the bomb attack in JW Marriott’s Sailendra Restaurant on July 17. But perhaps fewer know that the restaurant reopened for business on July 29 and its staff are eager to renew their acquaintance with regular guests and welcome new customers.

My colleague Paul and I headed there on Sunday to try the restaurant’s brunch, although some workmates expressed nervousness about our choice of dining venue. I, in contrast, think the hotel is probably one of the safest places in Jakarta right now, a belief borne out when we arrived and not only went through a metal detector and had my bag checked, but were also patted down by security staff.

Restaurant manager Michael Scott said that although the incident had obviously affected numbers, regular guests were returning and the staff were happy the hotel had reopened as soon as possible.

The restaurant had more than 100 guests the day it reopened, he said, and the day we dined, despite being in the middle of a long weekend, it had bookings for 74.

Sailendra is one of three restaurants in the hotel that have weekend brunch available, with Pearl offering Yum Cha and Chinese dishes, and Asuka providing fresh sushi, sashimi and other Japanese dishes. An Asian Brunch Marathon package is also available for both Pearl and Asuka.

But we’d chosen Sailendra, wanting to show our own support for the staff, and arrived to a smiling welcome and an impressive array of food.

After being seated, we were directed to the juice stands, and offered a choice of other beverages from the bar. The inclusion of free-flowing alcoholic beverages adds Rp 100,000 to the cost — about the price of one drink in most high-class establishments in Jakarta.

I began my feast at the seafood bar, where oysters, prawns, crab and green-lipped mussels shared space with sushi and sashimi. I consider fresh seafood, oysters in particular, an ideal indicator of the quality of a buffet and these were great, still tasting of the sea and perfect with fresh lemon and ground pepper. We also had grilled lobster tails with dipping butter brought to the table, and duck livers, which Paul hadn’t tried before. Being a fan of liver in most forms, and especially pate de foie gras, I thoroughly enjoyed the liver, although it was a little salty for Paul.

The only problem I had, in fact, was one of plenty. There was such a good selection that choosing was difficult and sampling everything was impossible. From Western dishes to a fine array of Indonesian, Indian, Thai and Chinese options, it was all any gourmand could ask for. I concentrated on dim sum and Thai options, with fresh vegetables and fresher flavors, while Paul took on the Indian choices.

And when I truly thought I couldn’t manage another mouthful, we got the piece de resistance — apple strudel. It was divine, a perfect blend of fruit and spices in a delicate fluffy pastry, served hot with whipped cream and vanilla sauce.

Brunch will continue throughout Ramadan, although bottles of alcohol will be moved out of sight as a mark of respect for Muslims observing the month-long fast. But if you’re there at that time, you’re obviously not fasting, so remember to save some room for the strudel.

(Tracie Barrett was a copy editor at the Jakarta Globe who previously worked in restaurant and hotel management.)

Sailendra Restaurant
JW Marriott Jl. Lingkar Mega Kuningan,
South Jakarta, Tel. 021 5798 8888
Brunch Rp 238,000 - Rp 338,000
11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Restaurant Review: Sushi Tei, Plaza Senayan, Jakarta

Aug. 13 (Jakarta Globe) As a still reasonably new resident of Jakarta, I get first impressions of many restaurants from the comments of my Indonesian colleagues. So when I said I was going to review Sushi Tei and a good number of those colleagues offered to join me, it boded well for my dining experience.

On arrival at the Plaza Senayan outlet on a Thursday at 7 p.m., the crowd of people waiting for tables was another positive sign. My colleague Ade informed me that the Sushi Tei restaurants are always full, another good sign, especially in the current fragile economy.

We were expected, so quickly bypassed the waiting list and were taken to a table.

The restaurant also offers seating at the sushi bar, where a conveyor belt constantly tempted diners with dishes made freshly by the many chefs on duty.

I’m a huge fan of pickled ginger, as is Ade, so we both enjoyed the copious container of it on the table while we waited for our menus to arrive. This was where I found we’d had a slight miscommunication — the newspaper had been invited to review the restaurant but I’d not realized our meal would be chosen for us. But I would have asked for recommendations anyway, trusting good staff to know their best dishes, and the selection was excellent.

Drinks arrived first, a strawberry soda and a Matcha Fusion, which was a blend of Japanese green tea, green tea ice cream and honeydew syrup.

Both were a little sweet for my taste but I’ve found the palate of most Indonesians sweeter than mine, and the mix of fresh strawberries and soda was refreshing.

The first dish to arrive was salmon sashimi — four good-sized pieces of fresh, high-quality fish that disappeared quickly. This was followed by a salmon belly soup that was wonderful. The salty miso broth was perfectly balanced by creamy bricks of tofu; salmon belly so tender it almost melted on my tongue; shiitake, enoki and shimeji mushrooms; a green vegetable and noodles.

Next to come to our table was a jumbo dragon roll, which I’d been told by friends is a signature dish for Sushi Tei. The presentation was cute, with a dragon’s head and body fashioned from the ingredients, and was both tasty and filling.

So filling, in fact, that we probably didn’t require anything more, but also received a mixed tempura dish, featuring shrimps, fish, pumpkin, eggplant and carrot, all set off by a crisp tempura batter. The eggplant especially was excellent — the creaminess of the cooked vegetable an ideal contrast to the batter.

By this time I’d acquired a menu to see what else was on offer and was impressed by both the range of dishes and the design of the menu. Each item was accompanied by a photograph good enough to make your mouth water.

The Sushi Tei concept originated in Singapore and the franchise is now in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Sydney and, of course Indonesia, where one company holds the master franchise. Having first opened here six years ago, the company now has 12 outlets, six of those in Jakarta, and Ade tells me each has a different decor and subsequently, a different feel.

Assuming that all have the same high standard and good food, I can understand why so many of my colleagues wanted to accompany me here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Restaurant Review: Vegas Bar and Grill, Bellagio Mall, Jakarta

Aug. 06 (Jakarta Globe) A wager isn’t something I expect to find on a restaurant menu. But when the name of the restaurant is Vegas, it seems only appropriate.

The new menu at Vegas Bar and Grill offers its signature dish, the Gut Buster Burger, for free, provided that the diner can finish what’s on the plate. I’m a light eater so wouldn’t even try to attempt it. But I had high hopes for my colleague’s appetite on the evening we dined there.

Vegas has been open since November but just changed its menu two weeks ago. The changes were intended to reflect the venue’s mission statement — good simple American food with great service in a fun atmosphere.

The fun atmosphere is obvious as soon as you walk in to find an essentially open air venue with a long bar, comfortable sofa seating, as well as more traditional tables and chairs and two pool tables. The large room is surrounded by netting rather than walls and the roof can be opened at will.

This being Indonesia, the open setting means mosquitoes are a problem despite zappers and scent repellants, but the moment a waitress noticed I was being bothered, she brought a repellant spray to the table.

The pool tables were being put to good use by a group of young businessmen, four of whom, the staff informed me, had managed to polish off the Gut Buster on a previous visit. The venue apparently can fit up to 400 customers and would be an ideal place for a party, particularly with 2.5 liter pitchers of beer (complete with an ice-filled cooling compartment) for Rp 130,000.

The fun aspect also comes in with the restaurant’s themed days: karaoke on Mondays, competition play station on Tuesdays and barbecues each Sunday.

The lunch menu is also a bargain, with seven choices for only Rp 35,000 ($4) each.

I’d chosen Thursday to dine at the restaurant and found that it was Ladies’ Night, with two for one cocktails for the fairer sex.

I ordered a Lynchburg Lemonade and found it as good as any I’ve tasted in the United States. My friend chose the same and we ordered starters without first making a game plan for his upcoming challenge. The spicy chicken nachos were tasty with plenty of sour cream, salsa, chicken and cheese, although I personally would have enjoyed more spice. However, I happily eat raw chillies so making any dish spicy enough for me takes it beyond most diners’ comfort levels. Our second starter was jalapeno poppers, which I found had an enjoyable bite.

Our mains were the Gut Buster for my friend and a more ladylike 200 gram Tex Mex burger for myself (burgers are available in 200 or 300 gram sizes). I was tempted by the bbq menu, but Vegas specializes in burgers so I couldn’t bypass them. Both burgers were served with fries and coleslaw and the Gut Buster — 500 grams of meat in the patty and an oversized bun to match — looked truly intimidating. My mother once told me never to eat anything bigger than my head and, for that reason alone, I would have had to pass up this particular treat.

All burgers are freshly made of ground Australian beef on homemade buns and make the fast food travesties that use the same name look and taste like cardboard cutouts in comparison. My Tex Mex came with lettuce, tomato, beef patty and fried onion rings, as did my friend’s monstrous meal, but with the addition of salsa, sour cream and guacamole. The meat was well-seasoned and moist, but even the smaller portion proved too much for me.

My friend, who shall remain nameless out of embarrassment for him, barely managed half of his burger and only a few of his fries. He assures me he’ll do better next time.

Tracie Barrett is a Jakarta Globe copy editor who previously worked in restaurants.

Vegas Bar and Grill
Bellagio Mall, Mega Kuningan