A SunnyHills pineapple cake convert

IMG_20190129_131059.jpgAlong with the upcoming Chinese New Year comes a slew of must-have goodies to celebrate the occasion. Having so many snacks can make decision making tough.

I used to face this dilemma until a few years ago when I decided to narrow down the goodies to just a few — mandarin orange, bak kwa (hopefully from Lim Chee Guan), kueh lapis (only from Bengawan Solo), and pineapple tarts.

Many know my fancy for pineapple tarts, giving me opportunities to try various brands over the years. One of my current favourites is the LE Pastry‘s golf ball-sized version. These tarts come with moist pineapple filling housed in a buttery crust.

IMG_20190129_131215.jpgAnother brand is what I’d like to talk about today. A business associate of mine gave me a box of SunnyHills pineapple cake from Taiwan. The box came with 10 individually-wrapped pieces. I’ve always been impressed with the pride Taiwanese companies devote to their packaging — they’re on par with the Japanese.

My first experience with SunnyHill years ago wasn’t memorable — the filling was a little too sour for my liking so I’ve never bothered looking for it when I’m there.

IMG_20190129_131324.jpgFilled with the apprehension from my initial encounter, I gently took a bite and was prepared to be hit by the sourness. But, the pineapple filling wasn’t sour at all. In fact, it was sour-sweet, the best kind of taste for a filling. Too sweet and it feels like jam. But not this. It was just what I like for my pineapple filling.

The pineapple was nicely shredded so it gives a good bite feel and is great for chewing.

Made with New Zealand grass-fed butter and fine Japanese flour, the crust is buttery and slightly crumbly, which makes it easy to bite and eat without crumbs dropping everywhere.

I’m sold. SunnyHills has redeemed itself. I may make an added stop in my next trip to Taiwan.

The truth is that you do not need to fly all the way to Taiwan to get your SunnyHill pineapple cake fix. You can get it in Singapore at 391 Orchard Road #B2-27A Takashimaya Shopping Centre, Ngee Ann City, Singapore 238872.

 

 

 

 

 

Otter-ly amazing note taking

Otter.JPGTranscribing recordings is one of the most tedious and dreaded tasks. One minute of voice recording can take three or more minutes to transcribe and that’s not talking about recordings that are hard to make out or filled with background noise.

I’ve done this during my air traffic control days when I had to listen to taped transmissions and write down word for word what was communicated between the controller and pilot.

Later on, I had to do this when taking minutes during meetings and as a journalist when playing back interviews.

It is no wonder then that I was intrigued when I read about Otter, a smart note taking software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to transcribe conversations.

Ten months on and I feel that this app is worthy of a review.

Developed by US-based AISense, the graphics processing unit (GPU)-powered app  records speech and transcribes on the fly when connected to a wireless network. Just looking at the voice-to-text makes me leap with joy.

It’s not 100 percent correct, probably around 70 percent (though the company claims that it’s 90 percent), but that itself saves lots of time. Reasons why it cannot get it fully correct may be because of sound volume or quality, slurring, mispronunciation, or accent.

Otter is free on iOS, Android and the web and comes with 600 minutes of free recording each month. If you need more, you will have to subscribe to a premium plan.

As one who does a fair bit of voice recording, Otter is utterly amazing. It’s a time saver and a dream come true.

Rewarding switch from iPhone 7 Plus to OnePlus 6T

sideviewHaving just moved from an iPhone 7 Plus to the OnePlus 6T, I have to say that the migration process was a difficult one because of the different operating systems. I attempted various methods – back-ups, free transfer software and even chat exports – but not all my data managed to be transferred over.

Aside from this porting hiccup, the shift to OnePlus 6T has been a rewarding one. The Shenzhen-made device is a gem and comes with features that I really like.

  1. Super fast: Without a bloated OS, the OnePlus 6T provides a quick boost when the phone needs a restart. I’m not a gamer but a fast phone always has its perks – downloading, uploading with media running concurrently in the background do not slow down the phone, nor does it heat up. These features were often caused my iPhone 7 Plus to lag.
  2. Sensitive sensors: As one who has played around with the OnePlus 6 as well, I have to say that while I miss the fingerprint at the back of the phone, the on-screen fingerprint sensor is pretty neat. This feature, coupled with the facial recognition feature, serves as an alternative when attempting to unlock the phone. Of course, remember to have a dry screen and finger when using the fingerprint feature as the sensor is a tad insensitive when in contact with water.
  3. Flexible modes: The reading mode provides an intuitive way of reading with colour and brightness adjustments. Making the screen black/white is much easier on the eyes when read content (especially content without pictures). Brightness will also be set to auto when this mode is activated making it gentler on the eyes in whatever environment you’re in.The gaming mode, when activated, can provide several features that may disrupt an ongoing game. Notifications, answering calls via speaker and the disabling of automatic brightness also can be set accordingly and these features can enhance your gaming experience further.
  4. Long battery life: The battery life of the phone is neat with a full charge (on high usage) lasting more than 24 hours (media playing and social media tracking) and is definitely one of the perks of this phone. The fast charger also charges the phone in about an hour from 0 to 100 percent.
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  5. Intuitive camera features: The rear camera serves as a useful camera, with features like the pro mode (provides guides on angling photos) and the night mode. The pro mode provides an opportunity for users to manually adjust the ISO, white balance and shutter speeds, which is useful for those who have an eye for photography. However, for an individual like me, the auto modes are sufficient and the pro mode is used mainly for photo angling guides.
    day photoThe night mode is something that has improved from the OnePlus 6 to OnePlus 6T but as an individual without steady hands on the camera, a slight movement causes an awfully blur image. A tip I’ve learnt is that there is a g-camera app somewhere out there which I may install someday – perhaps it will be a feature that raises the quality of my night photos!Night Photo.jpgAll in all, I’m glad to be back to the Android family and the OnePlus 6T has definitely boosted my Android experience.

 

Airbnb surprises

Travelling has not been the same for me and my family since the advent of Airbnb in 2008. While there have been horror stories of staying in such accommodation, my experience so far has been positive.

Over the years, I have stayed in Airbnb in a number of cities across four continents — Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States. I’m often amazed by the homes and feel honoured to be able to experience living in a real home instead of hotels.

As someone who is unlikely to use a five-star hotel’s facilities, I’ve found that Airbnb accommodation meets my needs best.

During our trip to China in December, my family spent time in Airbnb homes in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai — and each came with surprises that thrilled us. These are not expensive accommodation, just homes that cost less than S$100 per night — which is really affordable for our family of four adults.

Our criteria were:

  1. Location: Close proximity to public transport and eateries
  2. Privacy: No shared apartment, please. We value our privacy.
  3. En suite bathroom/toilet: For convenience and comfort.
  4. Big enough for four adults: There must be enough beds for all of us and space for us to maneuver. 
  5. Clean: Read reviews to find out what others say.
  6. Wifi: Staying connected is crucial for us but do note that there is a firewall in China.
  7. Washing machine: So that we do not need to bring too much luggage as space is needed for our purchases.
  8. Air-conditioner/heater: Depending on the weather, it is needed to make the room more cosy.
  9. Within budget: We were looking at S$100 per room per night.

After checking out dozens that seemed to match our requirements, we read reviews and dropped messages to ask those who listed for clarifications. 

Let me share a little about what surprised us at each of those that we finally decided on.

In Suzhou, we stayed in a mixed development complex with malls on the lower levels and homes/offices higher up. 

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Leveraging the benefit of its height, this loft apartment came with a projection system and four cinema seats. We could have caught movies using the entertainment system but there was a 50-inch flat screen TV on the lower level that makes it more conducive for watching.

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Our Hangzhou apartment also came with a XGIMI projector that produces crisp images and great sound. But what really stood out from this loft unit was the furnishing on the upper level. A rocking lounge by the window provides a cosy setting for reading a book, catching a nap or watching the happenings outside. At that level were also a table and two chairs that’s perfect for tea and a children’s tent with toys. This unit is very family friendly.

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After two loft units, our Shanghai rental home was entirely different. Set in a 1950s building, it is located a short walk from the Bund. The room was a stark contrast to the building’s facade. It was tastefully done up in a modern style with two queen-sized bed. But what really stood out for me was the spotlights on the ceiling of the bathroom. In cold wintry conditions, this brought so much warmth us when we were taking a bath. In fact, when we were cold after a trip out, we just stood there to heat up.

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One thing that all three homes had in common was the kettle. The nondescript white kettle is big, functional and especially useful in winter. 

These three homes continue to build on an enjoyable streak for us in our travels. My family and I simply love staying at such accommodation — for the reasonable price and experience.

Here are a few tips on choosing an Airbnb stay:

  1. Determine your criteria: Decide on your budget and requirements.
  2. Review each unit carefully: Look at the photos and description.
  3. Read reviews: What others say matters a lot but do consider the nationalities of the reviewers as well as they may have different expectations from yours. For instance, while some may find food in the vicinity too spicy, it may be just what you like if you’re from Southeast Asia.
  4. Ask questions: When in doubt, message those who listed. They are usually very accommodating and would answer questions promptly. And if they don’t get back in a timely manner, that may just be the signal for you to reconsider.

The joy of travelling is in the experience. And the right accommodation can set the right tone for an enjoyable trip.

 

Cremia ice cream on my mind

Cremia.jpgEver had a taste that lingers on your tongue and mind long after you’ve eaten something? For me, it was the memory of a creamy ice cream that I ate in Osaka in December 2017.

Though a year has past, the thought of that smooth, rich Creamia ice cream that I bit into on a cold winter’s day on the grounds of Osaka Castle is still firmly etched on my mind.

Imagine my thrill when the corner of my mind caught a sign that read “Cremia” in a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Sun Moon Light Center in Shanghai.

It wasn’t only me but my family as well as we all shared that moment in Osaka — strange as it may sound, but somehow Cremia and winter became synonymous after that Osaka experience.

As we were a little full, we made a mental note that we will eat the dessert another day.

No joy
That day came very soon — the next day in fact (guess we just couldn’t wait) — and we decided to check out one of the KFC outlets located along Nanjing East Road. To our disappointment, it was not available there. What’s more befuddling is that the staff doesn’t know about that ice cream either.

A check with two other KFC outlets along that stretch yielded similarly fruitless result.

We were devastated but decided that we must have our Cremia fix even if we have to return to that outlet in Sun Moon Light Center.

Visual contact
Thankfully, the wait wasn’t long as we found what we were looking for at a KFC outlet along Guan Quan Shopping Street in Suzhou.

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This time, we bought and ate it on the spot and the ice cream tasted just as we remembered — heavenly!

Cremia is a premium soft serve ice cream made from fresh cream from Hokkaido. Its rich flavour delivers a full-bodied mouth feel, making each bite a delight and leaving a great after-taste.

Priced at 25 yuan (about S$5), it’s a little pricey for a take-away cone but this is no ordinary ice cream nor cone. The cone is made of cookie and crispy yet soft for a comfortable bite.

Since that first treat, we managed to have it twice more during our trip, including buying one from a KFC outlet along Nanjing East Road, just one hop from the last one that did not carry it.

Original better
At one of the stops, we tried the chocolate version which is not exactly chocolate ice cream but vanilla ice cream coated with chocolate powder. That takes some getting used to because all of us choked when we bit into the chocolate-powdered portion — the powder just ran down our throats. The chocolate also adulterates the vanilla flavour.

Hands down — our preference is the original vanilla version.

Ohhh…that bowl of good rice!

IMG_20181223_173014.jpgJust a bowl of good rice.

The name cannot be more in your face. It says it all. This chain called “Just a Bowl of Good Rice” serves really good rice. And that’s coming from someone who is trying to wean himself off rice.

We stumbled upon this outlet by chance while shopping in Wanda Mall in Suzhou. Located in Basement 1, it doesn’t really stand out from the many other food and beverage establishments.

What drew us to the restaurant was — hold your breath — the fact that there were empty tables. It was dinner time and many of the others were crowded. We were hungry and wanted something warm for our stomachs in the wintry cold.

With a fast food style ordering counter at the front, we were able to take a look at the menu, which is limited, but finding a place to eat was our top criteria.

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I went for a braised pork belly set while my family members opted for beef and chicken sets. As I did not want to over-eat, I shared the rice with my daughter.

The dishes are not spectacular or to-die-for. After all, most pork belly I’ve tasted in China were great — even the ones in the local shops.

What stood out was the rice. Cooked in a claypot, it came piping hot. Even after eating for several minutes, steam still emitted with each scoop.

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The white, fluffy rice has a nice soft bite and tasted great. It goes really well with the pork and other dishes.

Rice at the side and bottom of the bowl was a little burnt, not blackened but browned and crispy, adding any dimension to the bite feel.

Personally, I think the portion is good enough for two persons but a quick glance at the other tables revealed that every diner had a pot in front of them.

Such was the pleasant memory of the rice that we ate it again at other Just a Bowl of Good Rice outlets in Hangzhou and Shanghai.

Thankfully, this is not available in Singapore yet. Otherwise, my diet plan will go haywire. The rice is irresistible.

 

Shanghai Disneyland: Magical and most memorable

The main reason for our December holiday to Shanghai was to visit Disneyland. It’s the final stop in our family’s Disney adventure that started with Disneyland Paris in 1999.

Dubbed “The Happiest Place on Earth”, Disneyland has never ceased to amaze us with each visit — to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Orlando, and Anaheim. The atmosphere makes one feel really young and fresh again and the rides are exhilarating.

We thought we had done the whole Disney thing when we completed the Anaheim leg but who would have guessed that another magical kingdom would be built in Shanghai, the business capital of the Middle Kingdom?

In the run up to our trip, reviews on the China edition were mixed with some giving it five-star ratings while others rambled about the long queues and lack of toilet facilities.

But, that did not deter us as we were just one short of having a full deck.

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Affordable transportation
The train ride to Shanghai Disneyland itself was the first surprise. Our journey covered 17 stops yet we paid just six Chinese yuan each. That’s S$1.20 or under US$1.00. It’s the cheapest transportation to any Disney resort that we’ve been to.

What’s best was that the train wasn’t packed. We were secretly hoping that that’s the sign the theme park won’t be either. Incidentally, we went on a Friday because most reviews said Saturdays were the most crowded.

Like most other Disney parks, the walk to the entrance was long but the adrenaline within us was enough to melt the tiredness away.

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And soon, the all familiar tune was heard and we saw the entrance that marked the beginning of our adventure.

Ticket and photo taking
Our tickets bought through Klook was cheaper than the walk-in entrance fee so do buy in advance if you can. Getting in was just a matter of scanning the QR Code and being issued with a ticket.

The sneaky part here was that our photos were taken when we placed the ticket in the slots at the turnstile. This is how the park ensures that tickets are not misused as tickets are needed for entering the rides.

Nearly everybody headed to the front of the Mickey Mouse Garden to capture that first Disney shot for posterity. Needless to say, we did likewise.

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The walk down Main Street was nostalgic — it’s the same as any other Disney Main Street. The only difference is that the announcements are primarily in Chinese with a smattering of English inserted occasionally.

Thrilling rides
With the downloaded app, we managed to secure Fastpass to our must-go rides. Top of our list were:

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  1. TRON Lightcycle Power Run: We were early for our Fastpass and noticed that the walk-in queue wait time wasn’t long so we queued for it. The futuristic motor bike-style ride was thrilling. It’s a roller coaster with a difference so it gives the perception that you are in control. After our first run, we strolled in a second time using our Fastpass.
  2. Soaring over the Horizon: An Imax-type experience where we were taken on a flight over different parts of the world. The best part was that it’s not just a visual, audio and motion experience but also olfactory with the scent of grass as we travelled over the African jungle.
  3. Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue: This dodn’t set the heart beating as fast but was just as fun as the ride involved blasting away at Emperor Zurg’s abominable bot army.
  4. Roaring Rapids: This is our perennial water-drenching favourite. We were prepared for this ride — we brought our ponchos. It’s wise to buy one from the entrance if you do not have one because you can get wet while going down the rapids.
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure: Not much to do here other than just to sit in the boat and enjoy the trip to an underwater world where Captain Jack’s swashbuckling band of buccaneers duel with monsters.

There are milder rides for younger children and the faint-hearted but these were our favourites.

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Best Disney food
Beyond the rides, I must say that the food at Shanghai Disneyland was the best I’ve ever had in any Disney park. OK, I admit, I have a penchant for Chinese food but the braised pig’s trotter’s was tender, tasty and terrific!

The food fully justified the ban of outside food from the park. It’s really good and fairly affordable — unlike the outrageous price of less palatable food at other parks.

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Tips on having a great experience at Shanghai Disneyland

  1. Buy tickets online: It’s cheaper and saves time on queuing at the ticket office when you arrive.
  2. Go on a weekday: We went on Friday, which wasn’t crowded. Our friends went on Tuesday and reported likewise. The day to avoid seems to be Saturday when the locals take a break and turn up in force.
  3. Be early: Go before the park’s opening time if you can to avoid the crowd.
  4. Plan your rides: Decide which rides you want to take and get the Fastpass on your app. This helps greatly instead of waiting in long queues for the more popular rides.
  5. Eat early or late: Though the park wasn’t crowded, the food establishments filled up quickly during meal times. Plan to have your lunch before 12pm or after 2pm so that you can snag seats for you and your group. No outside food is allowed in the park.

More than just another tick on my bucket list, this trip to Shanghai Disneyland has been simply magical and most memorable. It turned out much better than I had expected and left me longing for more. If asked which Disney park I’d like to visit again, this would be it.

Hai Di Lao: Sizzling hotpot experience

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No queue? Don’t be fooled.

Dinner at 海底捞 (Hai Di Lao) was on our must-do list while in Shanghai. And we wasted no time because that was where we headed immediately after we checked in to our hotel.

After a check with the concierge on the nearest outlet, we were on our way to the Nanjing East Road restaurant.

For the uninitiated, like me before this dinner, Hai Di Lao is a famous hotpot chain in China and has outlets in Singapore too. I was told that it’s expensive in Singapore but more affordable in China.

We knew there would be a queue and may need to wait for an hour or more but we decided to see if somehow, we could get in faster.

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The waiting area is filled with snacks, drinks and games.

True to prediction, there was a long wait for a table though those waiting were not visible outside the restaurant. There’s a holding room with seats, snacks and drinks for those waiting for tables. And Hai Di Lao even provides Internet access, board games, and shoe polishing and manicure services. Impressive!

The staff offered us a private room for a fee for our large group. As all of us were hungry, we took up the offer — turned out that it was the only room available at that time — and strode right in.

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A snack platter to get us started.

Inside the private room was a table that can comfortably fit 10 persons. A platter of snacks was in the centre — a welcome sight for our hungry troops.

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Just some of the meats that we ordered.

We placed our orders and service was surprisingly fast. A large hotpot was set up with our preferred soups — herbal and spicy szechuan — and the dishes came quickly.

A condiments station in the main dining area housed a ton of ingredients to create our own sauces, as well as pomeloes and greens. My combination ended up tasting like satay sauce which went really well with the meats.

The meats and seafood were fresh. The soups were tasty though surprisingly, my preference is the herbal soup. I generally don’t like herbal soup but this tasted more like chicken soup, which is one of my favourites.

As if the food wasn’t enough, there was entertainment in the form of a dancing noodle maker, who stretched the dough till it became strings of noodles.

Our order was more than enough for us and we finished off our meal with a platter of very fresh fruits — it’s orange season and the water melon and longans were fresh and juicy too.

When we settled our bill, we discovered that we had ordered enough to have our room booking fee waived. That’s the real icing to the cake.

I highly recommend Hai Di Lao for the food and experience. If your group is big enough, go for a room if one is available. It’s worth the time and you get privacy as well.