Onwards to Surakarta

The Tugu Monument

The Tugu Monument

The family had a long restful night. The evening had ended well, with foot reflexology massages for all and we cheerfully looked forward to the rest of our trip. Sam was in high spirits too. The local football team from Malang,  Arema had won against Thailand and he was in a celebratory mood.  It was a bright sunny day and we rejoiced in the sun as we stepped out to visit the Tugu monument right across the hotel. I don’t recall seeing so many pink lotuses in full bloom ever before. It was a beautiful sight.

We were driving onwards to Solo today and no sooner than we began our road trip, the weather turned cloudy, and wet with rains. In retrospect, we probably chose the wrong time to be in East Java – It was peak monsoon season. Nevertheless, monsoons made the whole landscape green and fresh and the fog and cloud added to the mystery and beauty of it all. And then there was ginger tea.

Ginger tea at one of the warungs

Ginger tea at one of the warungs

All through our drive we crossed road side warungs, small shops that sold, hot tea, cold bottled drinks, candy, cigarettes, snacks that sometimes doubled up as wartel or warnet depending on whether they offered a telephone or internet facility. We stopped for a photo shoot and some tea on our way at the town that was known for its green apple orchards. I have never seen an apple tree all my life and I was hoping to catch a glimpse of green apples on trees but the weather spoilt our chances. Our scheduled visit of a walk through an apple farm was literally washed out.


The green corn and rice fields that passed by as we drove

We were going to be on road for over 8 hours and we had to make the best of it.  We enjoyed the country side that looked green with corn, sugarcane and rice fields for long stretches of land. It seemed to me that that the farmers in East Java were a happy lot.  The highlight of our drive was our lunch at a town called Nganjuk. At first it looked like no one had stopped for lunch at that hotel for the day, but when they laid out our lunch I was impressed beyond words. We had explained to the chef of this bistro how we were vegetarians and that meant no shrimp, meat broth or eggs even (It is a big challenge for them to make a dish without a meat broth, shrimp paste or eggs) This is where I discovered the magical urap-urap. Sam did warn us that if we wanted to avoid fried food, then Java was the wrong place to be. Fried food is omnipresent in Javanese cuisine.

The awesome lunch

The awesome lunch

On our way Sam engaged us in interesting tit bits about Java. At some point in our conversation, we mentioned Maxx and wondered why we hadn’t spotted any dogs at all. Sam told us about the hadith and Quran and how Muslims strictly follow what the prophet has urged them to follow. I thanked my Indonesian helper at home a million times for she is fond of Maxx and will never ignore his needs.

I seldom miss noticing the various regional accents that creep into the way we speak English and with Sam it was no different.  Many words he spoke took time and repeated listening, to understand. Those were the times I appreciated the effort it takes for people who speak English as first language to understand the way the rest of speak English, when it is not our first language.

Even though we were driving past large towns, the roads that connected these towns weren’t typically highway. It seemed to me that there were houses built on one side of the highway throughout, which meant shops, children, pedestrians, cyclists and two wheelers doing what they did best- randomly crossing of the road, riding too close to fast moving traffic. I even saw barefooted men who dashed across the road right in front of the commuter.  As we drove by many shops and sign boards it was difficult to miss how many Indian sounding names I was noticing- Rajawati, Wijaya, Kartika, JayaSakti, Dewi, Kusuma, Poornama, Surya and Sri. Even the toilets have Indian names-  Wanita for the ladies ‘room and Pria for the men! I asked Sam about the names and what he said about how boys and girls were named as infants I found interesting.

The  Javanese alphabet

The Javanese alphabet

Most Javanese names for men ended with an O sound – largely because their alphabet, the Huruf Jawa had such sounds. So a Java is Javo, Bramha is Bromo and Siva is Sivo. You get the idea.  Most Javanese have only one name without a surname. Now you know Sukarto, Sukarno and Susilo are Javanese names. Also boys are named after the most recent and big event happening around town at the time the baby was born. You will find many boys in Java that have been named after active volcanoes or something as mundane as the day of the week they were born. So it is likely that you will meet a Sinen, Suhlasa, Rabu, Khamis, Jummat, Sabtu, or Minngu which are also the names of the days of the week. Sam added that infant girls however are usually named after flowers or something as ‘genuine’ as that. I found out that Sam had two daughters and so I was curious what they were called.  He had to enunciate and repeat the names thrice for me to note it down. Their first names were beautiful and would have made Steve Jobs proud. Irlanda Padmaningrum and Iloka TiktaPamunkaas.

We checked into the Novotel Solo before the evening was late. Akank spotted a beautiful digital piano in the lobby and instantly cheered up. Post dinner, she even gathered the courage to request that she play it and the hotel let her.


Change, the only constant – Journey to a fitter me.

changeAt the end of two months, I had made considerable changes to my diet. Here are some that I can crow about.

I had gotten addicted to having tea at a local tea shop that has its chain of stores at every mall here. Inevitably, every time I spotted the place, I would saunter in for a cup, whether it was tea time or not. What was special about the tea was that they made it with condensed milk (a fact that my coach would not let me forget for a long time later).  Even at home, I switched to using condensed milk for my tea (I had a 10.30am itch for tea every morning) to meet the same standards I so loved.  At the shop, I never stopped with just tea. I almost always ordered it with a thick toast slice with dollops of peanut butter on it. teatoastBy far, that may have been the hardest  habit to knock. Occasionally, I still have an occasional tea at my pet tea hangout, but now ask for the non sweetened version (sans condensed milk). As for the morning tea itch at home, I am over it ( after 20 years!). I have begun enjoying flavored (apple, cinnamon, peppermint, orange, peach, strawberry) black tea.

I quit sweetening my oatmeal with honey and began using cranberries instead. A quip on honey that my coach loved to quote every time – A moment on your lips, forever on your hips! My coach recommended that I use agave nectar as substitute for honey when needed.

I topped my oatmeal with flaxseed meal, to up my fibre content – I learnt that having more than one bowel movement in the day is a good sign and not something to be embarrassed about. Tells you that you are eating whole and not refined foods.

I stopped helping myself to unlimited servings of fruit.  Any food in excess quantities can cause weight gain. That partly explained why despite my healthy lifestyle, I was piling on kilos!

I stopped including sweet corn in my salads and by extension, also stopped cornflakes from my breakfast cereals. Corn has simple sugars and if your insulin metabolism is not optimal, it can spike the sugar levels in your blood.

I upped my water intake. This may have been the toughest habit to make. I am still working on it to become a habit.

I began including black eyed peas in my meals. Lobia – black eyed peas – is the poor man’s protein ( inexpensive, high protein food – you get the drift). Sanjeev Kapoor’s Lobia rasedaar is a treat to make and eat!

We still ate out on the weekends as a family, but I stopped drinking my calories. Often, we don’t realize that the drink we order with our meal is almost as calorie heavy as the meal itself.
saladI began to eat exotic fresh salads at lunch. I used quinoa, bean sprouts, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, red pumpkin, walnuts, almonds and sunflower seeds in my salads. There was never a dull day with the varieties I tried. My coach called me an atypical south Indian who did not miss her rasams and sambars.

For a brief 3 months, I gave up phulkas at dinner.  I learnt that the gluten in wheat can inadvertently cause many health problems – I am sure you can google the rest of the details on your own. Instead, I ate whatever vegetable (subji) I cooked with yoghurt. I am still not big on rotis or anything made of wheat and eat it sparingly. I also began experimenting with jowar, bajra and other millet flours as a substitute.

Though it was tough in the beginning, I slowly gave up bread rolls with soup. I still miss the butter croissants that I so loved to sink my teeth into at breakfast. Refined flour that makes these delectable rolls and bread is processed food and my coach is dead against the foods that belong to that category. To make me feel guilty and remind me of its effects, she points to my belly and says that it is covered in layers of maida (refined wheat flour) from the inside.

Here is something my coach advised me about belly fat –crunches

1) There is more to it than plain old stomach crunches to get rid of your abdominal blubber.

2) The fat around your abs is the last place you lose weight when you eat/workout sensibly.

3) If you start losing inches around your waist, it is almost always, fat loss.

In a few weeks after I tinkered my diet and had begun eating wisely and compounding it with two days of hour long sessions at the gym (what I did there, I will write in another post), I experienced my first reward. I weighed 2 kilos lesser than what I had weighed in a long time.  I was high. I had never managed to lose weight on my own without being on some fad diet ( GM diet anyone?) and that temporary loss always came back when I got back to eating regular food.

The two kilos I lost after I had made changes to my ‘regular’ food, never came back and slowly kept dropping. Under all the layers of adipose, I knew it in my bones, that I was on my way to a fitter version of me.

The seventh post in this journey is here.

Six months too late – Journey to a fitter me.

calenderI finally decided not to procrastinate anymore, for the sake of my sanity. I text my coach-to-be  if I could sign up.  As luck would have it, she was busy with other clients and did not readily have time slots available to accommodate me.  In a country full of fitness conscious expats, that did not come as a total surprise.  The coach had a reputation of helping people discover their th‘inner’ self.

She added me to a wait list of (almost) fat motivated people who want to hit the road to fitness, running.  I waited till her text one day asked me if I was open to working out in the afternoons. Afternoons!  I was trying to get over a snooze habit after lunch, every afternoon and that suggestion sounded like the afternoon Snooze God had finally blessed me with a boon.  snoozeMy next obvious, over enthusiastic, question was, how soon could I start. It was only 11 30. Do you want to meet me this afternoon? I asked nonchalantly. Not so fast, she warned me. Not until we have had the ‘talk’.

She offered to come over the following week for a one on one conversation. I imagined she would want to check the condominium’s gym facility, even though she had hinted that one never really needs a gym to work out. In all my earlier attempts at keeping fit, the first thing I would do is to sign up a gym membership. That was needed in India with its pedestrian unfriendly roads and choc-o-block traffic. I would only use the gyms back home for the cardio machines and very irregularly some weight training. But ever since we had moved to Singapore, I have never needed to look for a place to enjoy a walk. 

That Apple is me , since that was the shape I was in then.

That Apple is me , since that was the shape I was in then.

The “talk” finally turned out to be a TNA really – jargon for the people in the world of corporate training for ‘training need analysis’. Before rolling out a training program, the trainer meets with the group of people to be trained to gauge what the base level of the group is to help design the program to achieve a set of identified goals. This is precisely what the meeting was about.  In retrospect, that is the first step any of you who want to sign up with a coach or trainer should insist on. You can even  judge how effective she will be in your case based  on how thorough and detail oriented the TNA talk was.

We spent close to two hours with her list of FAQ’s to clients. She let me describe my meal patterns and food I eat in glorious detail, without a twitch on her face. Nevertheless, she had a sparkle in her eyes that was unmistakable. To a novice, like I was then,  the sparkle was misleading. I read it as ‘go on, give me details, so far so good, there aren’t too many flaws in your meal or exercise plan’. Where as in truth it was to be read as ‘Are you freaking kidding me? Everything about what you eat is wrong and can be corrected!’ booksandmeThere were questions about my current activity levels. Thanks to Maxx and my morning walks with him, that did not look too bad. Maxx has a strict vet who insists on seeing his waist cave in towards his stomach when she has an aerial view of him. Golden retrievers, like humans, tend to gain weight around their waist if they don’t watch what they eat. Unfortunately doctors, unlike vets, don’t seem to point it out to you before it is too late!

Then there were questions on my current health problems, of which I had none- or make that, none that had manifested itself symptomatically. One of the reasons that may be the cause of my futile attempts to shed weight, could be the faulty working of my endocrine glands and their secretions, she pointed out. I also told her about the odd ankle discomfort I was experiencing from time to time- which I attributed to a sprain that was caused during my attempt to fall in step with the other participants of the Zumba group or maybe even keeping pace with Maxx.

At the end of our talk, she referred me to an endocrinologist and a podiatrist both of whom I had to consult before I began my sessions with her.  By then, we had agreed that she would be my fitness guru.  As it turned out, my visit to the endocrinologist and podiatrist brought forth some issues that had to be addressed. I began my medication and also had to have custom made orthotic inserts in my shoes (my arches had fallen).

“We will begin next week”, she announced. And before I could celebrate, she allotted me some work to do. The odd bit about that was, I had never – ever- attempted what she was suggesting I should. While I was not convinced that it was really needed, she insisted with a wink that it was absolutely crucial and I would see why, once I got started. And then she uttered what were to become the two most dreaded words I had ever heard up until then, in my journey to a fitter me – Food Logs.

More about that in my next post. If you found this post useful, let me know. Don’t forget to share your thoughts with me in the comments section!

The fifth post in this journey is here.


Wine and Chocolate indulgence -Part 2

The Wine and chocolate indulgence was conducted by a stylish dessert bar here in Singapore. The chef was a young lady, who had travelled to learn how chocolates were made around the world. Interestingly she shared with us three chocolate recipes that did not use the traditional milk-sugar- cocoa powder concept alone.

My learning from the chocolate indulgence took me on a steep curve.

Lesson 1 : The bitter chocolate base that is used in making chocolates differs based on the percentage of cocoa in it. They come from exotic places like Madagascar, The Rhone valley and Venezuela!

Valrhona Manjari  is extra bitter with 64% cocoa and is superior base chocolate to make high quality chocolates. These are cocoa beans from Madagascar. It has an Orangey flavour and highly acidic if eaten plain.

The plain Valrhona is a high-grade luxury chocolate from the Rhone valley of France. The cocoa percentage of the Valrhona differs.

The Araguani is a fine blend of cocoa beans from Venezuela .It has 72% cocoa and is very bitter.

Lesson 2:  The PATE A BOMBE is THE base used for many mousse, chocolates and cake recipes!

Ok, if you are new to the terms in baking and chocolate making like I was till last evening, Pate a bomb will sound like jargon. The term is used to describe egg yolks beaten with sugar syrup and then aerated. Just like the term Meringue is used to refer to whipped egg whites and sugar.

Lesson 3: Chocolates can be made in unusual flavours using your imagination!

 The chef demonstrated three different recipes of chocolates with unusual ingredients like vinegar and chillies!

We were also told that we could bring an exquisite twist to the taste when we replace it with orange peel, cognac, whisky, mango puree, citrus peel or any other berries.

Lesson 4:  When you don’t need air bubbles in your whisked mixture, it is always safer to use a spatula than an automated whisk or beater.

Also there is a technique in hand whisking with a spatula. Never start from the outer side of the pan and work inwards. Always work from the middle to the outer so that you don’t agitate the mixture. Agitating the mixture will cause the mixture to ‘split’ the chocolate. The split can be rectified using glucose or water to the mix but not without changing the consistency of the chocolate mixture.

Lesson 5:  No matter how much you have whisked the pate a bombe or meringue, ultimately what decides how well your chocolate will set depends on how you fold in the mixtures into each other.

This is a technique one has to master if you don’t want your chocolates to collapse in front of your eyes!

Lesson 6: You may have whisked up the best of ingredients to the perfect stage and folded it in and set it perfectly. The ultimate success of your chocolate is in the presentation.

I could never imagine using dill flowers to present something as exquisite as chocolate but the smell and taste blends so well with the chocolates served last evening!

Lesson 7: No matter how old your wine or how fresh, no matter if it is red or white, every wine can be paired with a chocolate ganache!

The Tintoralba went superbly well with the Vinegar chocolate and the Pedro Ximenez was delightful with the Chilli chocolate bricks.

If you are dying to try out the recipes, I can be persuaded to share them with you!

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Wine and Chocolate indulgence -Part 1

When the Volvo dealer, sent us an invite to be a part of a wine and chocolate indulgence evening a few weeks back, I signed up immediately. In May, when on my trip to Italy, I had promised myself a wine education and this opportunity presented itself! I was eager to find out what I was going to learn on this special evening and I was not disappointed. As I write this, I am more knowledgeable about wine and can whisk up three varieties of offbeat chocolates if it came to serious entertaining.


The evening started off with wine tasting. The first wine was Tintoralba(2007), which in Spanish means ‘Red Sunset’. It is a wine from Spain, apt choice too, after the FIFA world cup win.

The second bottle of wine was a Sherry, a fortified wine made from white grapes, called Pedro Xeminez (1980)(Pronounced – Pedh-ro Khi-menez). The wine comes from an area called Jerez ( Pronounced Kherez) in Spain. The Pedro Xeminez is grown on white chalky soil and is also called the Champagne of Spain ( The original French Champagne is also grown on white mud)

Lesson 1 : The colour of the wine depends on the weather conditions of the area where the grape is grown.

The Tintoralba, is made in the vineyards of the Spanish province of Almansa. The weather conditions of this area are hot which makes the wine dark in colour.

The Pedro Xeminez  is made from the grapes harvested in the province of Valdivia, Southern Spain. The Pedro is also grown in dry weather. The grapes are picked in September and dried in the sun for a week till the flavors concentrate.

Lesson 2 : Wines change colour with age. Red wines get lighter  and transparent as they age while a freshly bottled red wine will be opaque and dark when held up to a light source. White wine gets darker as it ages.

The bottle of Tintoralba that we were served was bottled in the year 2007 which made it quite dark.

Due to the aging of the wine, the Pedro Xeminez, was very dark, almost rusty amber, in colour. It was a 30 year old wine and the colour looked more like a young red wine than white.

Lesson 3 : The more viscous the wine the more it sticks to the sides of the wine glass. When you swirl the wine, you will see bands of liquid on the walls of the wine glass.

Both the Tintoralba and the Pedro Xeminez  turned out to be viscous wines.

Lesson 4: When you smell a glass of wine, the first breath should be a brief sharp breath. Ponder over the smells that hit your olfactory senses and then take another long breath with your nose just inside of the mouth of the wine glass. You will discern the most identifiable smells that could range from woodsy( because wine ages in Oak casks), fruity, flowery, spicy or earthy.

 The Tintoralba was chocolaty, oaky and maybe also smelt of burnt coffee.

The Pedro Xeminez  had a spicier smell. And definitely smelt more woodsy because of the aging. I could also distinctly smell caramelized banana, fig and other fruity smells.

Lesson 5: All wines leave a sediment at the bottom of the glass. Some are very obvious because as wine ages, they leave more sediment.

 The Tintoralba, (though only three years old ),left  brown dust in the bottom of the glass.

I did not finish the glass of Pedro so did not notice the sediment.

Lesson 6: When you taste a red wine first and then a white wine, make sure you rinse the glass or ask for another glass; when you taste the white first, you can use the same glass without rinsing.

More on the chocolates and how they paired with the wine in my next post!

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