All posts by Jayna Valen

Writer . Blogger . Yoga Acharya . Artist. Traveler

Restaurant Review: La Cocina (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

by Jayna Valen

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This Spanish cuisine restaurant has been a Subang Jaya icon for quite awhile now. I remember that more than a decade ago it was in USJ 9, within the Taipan Business Center. I was in college back then, and working part-time in a call center situated right behind the restaurant.

La Cocina’s head chef, Mr. Jega, sometimes stood outside the restaurant, in the junction-alleyway that I walked through to get to work. He was a friendly man with a ready smile, making small talk and always inviting me to come in and try the food. I always promised him that I would, but I didn’t think it would take me more than 10 years to finally step in! Hence, this is a long-delayed review.

La Cocina recently moved to Taipan Triangle in USJ 10. It’s my mum’s favourite restaurant, so we went there for dinner last week. I noticed that it’s gotten a cool new look – clean contemporary without compromising on the Spanish passion.

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Ambience and Service

I like the new makeover. The interior is spacious, unfussy and tastefully decorated, with artistic touches in all the right places. It makes for a very pleasant dining atmosphere that’s both rustic and modern at the same time. Service staff were friendly, polite and attentive. I felt that the décor could use a little more of that hot-blooded, Flamenco vibrancy of Spain. But hey, that’s just me and my usual flamboyant taste.

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Food

My mum had Pescado Fritos, which is essentially fish and chips (RM26). I ordered two dishes: the Queso Manchego (RM27.90), which is pure sheep milk cheese from the La Mancha region in Spain, and the Lamb Lasagne (RM27.90).

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Both main dishes were quite good. I wouldn’t say outstanding, but they were pleasant on the taste buds. The fish was firm and succulent, the fried batter crispy and not too oily. The lasagne could’ve done with a bit more minced lamb, but overall tasted great.

The cheese was excellent! It was soft and crumbly, flavourful without being overpowering. The serving size for the cheese was surprisingly small considering the price, so I made a mental note to check the prices of whole-wheel Manchego to see if the cost was justified.

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They stock an impressive selection of wines too. If you become a member of their wine club, you’ll enjoy discounts on selected wines and special corkage rates.

Summary

My overall experience here was quite delightful. It’s too bad that I forgot to have a look upstairs, but judging from the pictures on the website, it looks pretty impressive. I may consider going back to try one of their paellas sometime if I can get a friend to split the dish with.

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Special mention on the quality and freshness of all raw produce used in the dishes, as this imparted the lively burst of sun-energized ingredients into the final meal. Which, to me, makes all the difference in the end.

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My Ratings:

Food (Lamb Lasagne): 7/10
Food (Fish and Chips): 6/10
General Cleanliness: 10/10
Ambience: 8/10
Service: 10/10
Price: 5/10
Location (Subang Jaya, Kuala Lumpur): 7/10
Will I go back again : 7/10

Update: I received a nice message from Chef Jega himself! How lovely indeed.

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Related Links:

La Cocina – Spanish Restaurant and Bar

Restaurant Review: Bali & Spice (Subang Jaya, Malaysia)

Restaurant Review: Alexis Bistro and Wine Bar (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Devi’s Corner (Bangsar, Malaysia)

*Photo credit: Main image of paella dish is taken from La Cocina’s official webpage.

Restaurant Review: Bali & Spice (Subang Jaya, Malaysia)

by Jayna Valen and Vas P.

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So it was one of those weeknights when Vas and me were doing that back and forth thing about dinner plans.

“So where do you wanna go?”
“I dunno. Where do you wanna go?”
“Anywhere. Where’s good?”

Silence. We crack our heads. Then suddenly she’s like, “I know the perfect place! It’s nearby! Can you do large portions?”

I roll my eyes. But of course. I can literally eat my body’s weight worth of anything when hungry enough.

So we drive over to Da Men Mall in USJ Subang Jaya. It’s brand spanking new, but a pretty lame excuse for a mall in terms of shopping. However, since we were going there for food, whatever. We parked and made our way to this restaurant called Bali & Spice.

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Ambience And Service

It appears that Bali & Spice is under the management of the same group of restaurants as Ole-Ole Bali, which I am familiar with (branches in Sunway Pyramid and Empire Shopping Gallery). Just like their other restaurants, the first thing you notice is the gorgeous Balinese décor. I don’t know why, but I just have to meddle with the bronze gong at the entrance each time I go to one of these places. Yes, the gong is real AND nobody ever stops me when I do that. How cool is that?

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I really have to commend the management for the stunning interior décor of their chain of restaurants. The wall art, furniture, menu design and everything, literally perfect. From the woven mengkuang placemats to the fresh ginger lilies in glass vases, an impressive effort. A 10/10 from me for ambience, vibe, visual and styling. Service was excellent. The serving staff were all attired in traditional Balinese clothing in keeping with the theme.

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Food

THIS. Food like this is what I call value for money, time and effort spent in eating out. I ordered the Jimbaran Grill (RM39) and Vas had the Ikan Salmon Bakar (RM37). Generous portions, reasonable prices. The Jimbaran Grill consists of grilled white fish fillet, large prawns and squid accompanied by two types of sambal (spicy paste). If you’re a seafood buff, this dish is a must-try. It’s such a divine pleasure to the tastebuds.

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The seafood was perfectly seasoned and spiced, cooked impeccably and presented beautifully. I’m great at detecting individual flavors in spice blends, but these dishes gave me a good challenge. I could taste the tang of lemongrass and ginger flower, but everything else was a pleasant mystery. I say the chefs deserve recognition for their outstanding culinary skills. Great job!

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I took a bite of the salmon. It wasn’t as satisfying as mine, but good nevertheless. I think salmon in general isn’t the best fish for Indonesian-Malay cooking styles, considering the oily flesh. Still, no complaints. We had matching Indonesian salads that accompanied the dishes. Not sure what that’s called, but it goes great with the sambal.

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Summary

I would highly recommend any of the restaurants under the same management. The overall quality and service has remained great over the years. Food isn’t overly spicy either, so it’s a perfect place to take your foreign guests.

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My Ratings:

Food (General): 9/10
Food (Jimbaran Grill): 10/10
Food (Ikan Salmon Bakar): 8/10
General Cleanliness: 10/10
Ambience: 9/10
Service: 10/10
Price: 8/10
Location (Subang Jaya, Kuala Lumpur): 7/10
Will I go back again : 10/10

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Related Posts:

Restaurant Review: Alexis Bistro and Wine Bar (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Restaurant Review: Fuel Shack (Bangsar South, Malaysia)

Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Devi’s Corner (Bangsar, Malaysia)

Restaurant Review: Alexis Bistro And Wine Bar (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

by Jayna Valen

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Our group of eight decided to have an early Christmas team dinner, so we made a reservation at Alexis @ The Gardens in Midvalley mall. We were a little surprised when the waiter ushered us to a table outside the restaurant, but it didn’t bother us too much so we accepted the spot. However, if you don’t like the idea of dining in the middle of a busy mall, do specify it when making your reservation at the Midvalley outlet.

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Ambience and Service

The restaurant décor is chic-minimalist with a hint of lux, per Alexis’s usual vibe. The mood lighting is perfect for long, relaxed conversations. A little noisy, but perhaps that’s just a seasonal thing as it’s close to the holidays and the mall is crowded. The staff were helpful; they were kind enough to ‘rush’ an order of strong coffee for my boss who was having a bad migraine.

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Food 

They have an impressive wine selection and an interestingly varied tapas menu. I had the Slow Roasted Duck Magret (RM48) – it was well cooked and succulent, but the portion was ridiculously small considering the price. It was gone in literally four bites. This dish is a real disappointment in terms of serving size. I’d never order it again.

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My colleague Esmond had the Sarawak Laksa at RM29. It was a big portion and looked really tempting. He said it tasted good, though not exactly on par with the traditional dish (Esmond is from Sarawak). Choi Wan had Angelhair Aglio Olio (RM45, regular-sized portion), which she remarked was satisfactory. It came with this cool-looking crayfish thing, which was cleanly split in half and seasoned liberally.

Syirah ordered the Slow Cooked Lamb Shank (RM72), which came with pilau rice, pomegranate and smoked capsicum. I tried a little. It was tender and came off the bone easily, but it was too bland for Syirah and me. Considering that we’re Indian and Malay by ethnicity, we’re probably too used to stronger spices when it comes to lamb.

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Other dishes that came our way were Baked Button Mushrooms (RM20), Fried Calamari Rings (RM24) and three orders of steak in varying weights (Striploin Grain-Fed @ RM70 / 220gms, Ribeye Black Angus @ RM85 / 220gms, Tenderloin Grain-Fed @ RM92 / 200gms). My buddies gave the food an average to above-average rating.

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For dessert, we tried their famed Tiramisu (RM17.80). It certainly lives up to its reputation! This dessert was exceptionally good, and the serving size was generous. It had an interesting chiffon-pudding texture, topped with coarsely chopped nuts and drizzled over with a caramel-like sauce. Rich, creamy and flamboyant on the tongue, I imagine this would go great with a good, strong long black or espresso. Completely worth the price and I would say it’s quite the masterpiece.

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Summary

I’d definitely go back, but unless they do something about the duck serving size, it’s off my choice list for good. Pity, it was rather delicious and I love duck. Will definitely consider a takeaway for that divine Tiramisu in future. Do note that it’s notoriously difficult to find parking spots in Midvalley on weekends, so if you’re visiting this outlet, it may help to go a little earlier (plus make reservations in advance).

My Ratings:

Food (General): 7/10
Food (Slow Roasted Duck Magret): 6/10
Food (Slow Cooked Lamb Shank): 4/10
Food (Dessert – Tiramisu): 10/10
Food (Baked Button Mushrooms): 7/10
Drinks: 8/10
General Cleanliness: 10/10
Service: 8/10
Price: 5/10
Location (Midvalley, Kuala Lumpur): 6/10
Will I go back again : 8/10

Related Posts:

Restaurant Review: Fuel Shack (Bangsar South, Malaysia)

Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Devi’s Corner (Bangsar, Malaysia)

Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Moorthy’s Mathai (USJ, Malaysia)

 

Hatha Yoga For Weight Loss

by Jayna Valen

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“Can yoga help me burn fat?”
“I need to get thin fast. Does yoga help?”
“I can’t seem to lose weight no matter what. Will yoga work?”

As a hatha yoga instructor, these are questions I get asked a lot. Excess body weight problems are among the curses of modern living. Lifestyles have become more sedentary, diets more unhealthy. Most of the processed garbage available on supermarket food shelves are devoid of proper nutrition and chock-full of unpronounceable toxins, preservatives and synthetic additives.

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The ideal yogic lifestyle is based on balance and moderation in all aspects of life, but city living has the scales completely tipped. Our bodies now struggle to cope with all that filth, to deal with every negative thing we force upon it while having to perform regular bodily functions. Our systems are malnourished, intoxicated, worn-down, underworked in some parts and overworked in others. Is it any wonder that human metabolism is going haywire?

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Can I Lose Weight With Yoga?

Generally speaking, yes – yoga usually helps most people lose weight. This is because the practice of yoga itself corrects numerous imbalances within the body, from endocrine system issues to a sluggish digestive tract.

However, results of weight loss can vary greatly depending on a number of things, such as:

• How often one practices yoga
• The type of yoga practiced
• The depth of individual yoga practice
• Underlying health conditions (eg. hormonal problems)
• Lifestyle factors (eg. dietary habits, stress levels, consistency of routine)
• One’s natural bodily tendencies and constitution (eg. various doshas per Ayurveda)

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How Can I Maximize Weight Loss Using Yoga?

If you’ve decided to try yoga for weight loss, congratulations! I guarantee that you’ll benefit from yoga immensely, and in many different ways.

The best way to achieve maximum weight loss through yoga is to apply yogic principles to ALL aspects of your life. This is so that an ideal balance in all bodily systems can be achieved. When all bodily systems work together harmoniously, excess body weight will eventually start coming off. My yoga guru always told me that the body has its own intelligence, and I have personally experienced this.

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The late Swami Vishnudevananda, one of the most revered gurus of traditional hatha yoga, famously detailed 5 points on how to achieve a balanced yogic lifestyle:

Proper Exercise (yoga asanas or poses)
Proper Breathing (pranayama, breath control)
Proper Diet (ideally sattvic food or a vegetarian diet)
Proper Relaxation (savasana between asanas)
Positive Thinking and Meditation

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When your body is in a state of ideal balance (or close to it), weight loss will be effortless. With continued practice of yoga, the body will usually pare itself down to a weight that’s healthy for the said individual body type, then maintain itself effortlessly, as long as yogic principles are practiced continuously.

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Remember, it’s a real possibility that your ideal body weight may never make you look ‘slim’, ‘thin’ or ‘skinny’ – but that’s completely okay. Real beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. A healthy body and mind is what makes a person really attractive, so don’t place too much emphasis on weight loss. Rather, focus on getting yourself healthy on all levels. Enjoy your yoga practice and it will do wonders for you!

Related articles:

5 Main Benefits Of Traditional Hatha Yoga

Stretching Safely For Complete Beginners

Kitchiri, The Best Sattvic Detox Food

Do Crash Diets Really Work?

Embracing Swedish Culture: The Art of Fika

by Jayna Valen

How Sweden Got Me Hooked On Fika

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I’m a person who’s constantly evolving. I tend to adopt snippets of culture from around the world easily, embracing ways of life and practices that move and inspire me. This is especially true of places and societies that I’ve had the privilege of immersing myself in and experiencing the native culture first-hand, as a local.

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Sweden changed me in more ways than I can coherently describe. I became so Swedish that I underwent a permanent personality overhaul. I lived in Stockholm for a number of months and experienced life in the Scandinavian capital from the standpoint of a local Swede. From picnics in Skansen to buying acrylics from Clas Ohlson, from butter-frying kantarell to my ready acceptance of unyielding laundry schedules (tvättstuga stories for another day), I dove in with enthusiasm. One day, someone asked me what was the thing about Swedish culture that fascinated me the most. My answer? Fika. Hands down!

Those unfamiliar with Swedish culture may mistakenly consider fika to be just another regular coffee or tea break. Undeniably, that’s what it involves – a spread of coffee, pastries, jams and other snacks that’s shared with family or guests.

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However, the best part of fika is that it’s an excellent way to hone your skills in (and experience) the art of conversation – something which is all but dead in today’s smartphone-obsessed society. It’s almost a subculture in itself, made up of those who truly know how to indulge in and embrace the art of fika.

The authentic fika experience is a concept as sophisticated as the Swedes themselves, and reflective of their discerning palates. Am I exaggerating? Hell no. Just ask any self-respecting Swede. Better still, go to Sweden and observe this interesting phenomenon for yourself. Heck, you can even do it at your local IKEA.

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Funny thing is, I’ve been practicing fika all my life without realizing it. I love long, deep conversations about anything. I’ve always invited friends over for coffee (green tea for me) and snacks – I just didn’t call it fika back then. Sweden just taught me how to fine-tune the art of hosting, attending and enjoying fika. Has it been a life-changing experience? You bet. Then again, everything is for me.

So, What’s Fika?

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Fika is basically a break that involves quality food and the good-company-good-conversation combo. The real art of fika lies in the ability of the host (and often, the guests) to successfully merge food, drink, company and conversation to create unforgettable experiences. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to fika, the best sessions I’ve had are when everyone is feeling warm and relaxed, respected and included. Then, the conversations begin to flow like magic.

There’s no fixed time to have fika in Sweden, though they generally have it twice a day – late in the morning and sometime in the evening. If someone invites you over for fika in Sweden, here’s what you can expect:

1. Good-quality coffee, tea or other beverages (usually more than one type).

2. A spread of food that usually includes pastries, jams, butter, fruit, cakes and more. If your host is non-vegetarian, you may also see food like gravad lax (cured salmon) or cured meats.

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What always surprised me about fika with various people in Stockholm was the variety and quality of the food served. Swedes take their fika seriously, especially if they’re hosting it at their homes. Hosts who invited me over were of the opinion that having instant coffee for fika was borderline sacrilegious (that probably doesn’t apply to everyone in Sweden).

My Fika Experiences In Stockholm

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I’ve had the privilege to have fika with some really amazing people. What’s great is that the experience of fika differs significantly, depending on the people involved.

For instance, fika with my good friend Tony Särkkä, a black metal musician, was always an experience that reflected his fine tastes and artistic inclination. Like me, he was a gourmet tea enthusiast, so fika at his place meant anything from Japanese sencha to white Darjeeling. He had an exquisite dining table made of reflective black glass, which showed off the fika spread wonderfully – vegan butters, almond and oat milk, fruits, nuts, pastries and an assortment of traditional Swedish breads.

We often spoke about books, art and music. Leisurely, sometimes pausing to watch the snowfall through the window. There were times when we wrote poetry together. We delved into topic after topic deeply, unhurriedly. Fika was our way of spurring the creativity of our minds and exploring novel ideas or concepts. Tony has since passed on, but I will always remember him fondly as the first person who introduced me to fika, and forever cherish the conversations we had.

How To Host Fika At Your Place

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I personally think everyone should embrace the art of fika. At least, try it out – it’s fun. And you know what? It’s so easy to do. All you need is the following as a base, but remember, the more variety of food and drinks, the more interesting your fika will be. Fika can even be done like a potluck, where everyone brings a dish.

Fika essentials:

A good-quality drink of your choice, like coffee or tea (I don’t recommend alcohol for fika)
Some good food. A diverse variety of things to eat makes for pleasant sense indulgence, besides encouraging interesting conversation.
A comfortable place to have your food and drinks with your fika guests. A couch, a café or even a nice shady spot under a tree are perfect.

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Candles are optional but make a great addition. Then, invite some people over! This is where the art part comes in – the art of choosing / combining various food and drinks plus keeping good conversation going.

If your fika guests aren’t the talkative type or are just plain shy, gently get them to open up. Introduce interesting topics to discuss or bring something to the fika, like a good book or a poem. Encourage everyone to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions. Keep things pleasant and light-hearted – fika is not the time to bring up sensitive topics or start heated debates. If the conversation takes a negative turn, gently steer it back to something more conducive.

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Want to incorporate the art of Swedish living into your current lifestyle? Fika is where you start. It’s easy to organise, fun, sophisticated and a great way to bring people together.

How to Hand Wash Silk Sarees

by Shrishthi Brahmarupa

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I’m not sure where this myth (that silk can’t be hand washed) came from. If one is careful and does it the right way, most natural silk can be hand washed with no damage to the fabric.

I wash my silk sarees with baby shampoo, then protect them with a good quality hair conditioner. That’s right – those regular hair products you put on your hair every day. In fact, most silk fabrics (not just sarees) can be washed safely this way.

How does this work? Just like hair, silk is a natural fibre and doesn’t require harsh detergents. Regular laundry detergent will strip silk of its natural sheen and weaken the fibres, leaving it more prone to damage. Dry-cleaning is harsh, because strong chemicals and solvents are often used. Besides being potentially damaging and leaving chemical residue on your sarees, dry-cleaning can also be expensive. I use Johnson’s Baby Conditioning Shampoo and some drugstore-brand Italian conditioner which I bought in bulk during a sale. I’ve also used Loreal Elseve and Tresemme shampoos and conditioners, with great results.

If you’d like to know why I started hand-washing my silk sarees, scroll down below for the full story.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I cannot guarantee that your silk saree won’t be damaged by hand washing, as I am unable to see and judge the fabric. This article is solely based on my personal experience and current practise of hand washing my personal collection of silk sarees. Please read the precautions below to avoid damaging your sarees if you choose to hand wash them. If your saree is very expensive, intricate, rare, old or has sentimental value, it may be better to have it professionally cleaned.

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What You’ll Need:

• Baby shampoo (any variant)
• Good-quality hair conditioner
• A large pail
• An old towel
• Hot weather (or an indoor clothing drying device)

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Method:

1. Fill your pail with plain water (warm or cool) up to ¾ full. Add roughly 1 tablespoon of baby shampoo into the water. Use your hands to the shampoo in mix well.
2. Immerse your silk saree into the shampoo solution. Submerge it completely. Gently stir it around in the water using your hands. You can squeeze, knead and lift the fabric if required as long as you’re gentle. Don’t be too worried; silk is stronger than it looks. The key is to always be gentle when handling wet silk. Never tug, pull or wring wet silk.
3. After 2 – 3 minutes of cleaning, it’s time for rinsing. Lift the entire saree out of the pail in a heap with both hands. Let the water drain from the silk naturally for a few seconds, then place it somewhere to continue draining (while still in a loose heap). Never, ever wring your silk saree.
4. Fill the pail again, but this time with plain water. Immerse the whole saree again, using your hands to work the fabric gently for about 10 seconds, then lift it out again and drain per Step 3. Note: You can rinse once or twice; it’s entirely up to you. I do it twice to get all traces of shampoo out.
5. Fill the pail for the last time, while the saree is drip-draining. Add 1 tablespoon of hair conditioner into the water and stir vigorously. Depending on what conditioner you use, you may work up a froth or foam – that’s fine. Ensure that the conditioner has dissolved well into the water. You can add the conditioner while the water is running to ensure it mixes better.
6. Dip the saree into the conditioner solution. Work it for a few seconds, then lift out and drain again. Allow the saree to dip-drain a little longer this time, about 5 minutes. For the final draining, I like to ‘pile’ the fabric over a bathroom rail so more water leaves the cloth. Don’t leave the silk wet for longer than 10 minutes – dry it as soon as possible.
7. If you live in a hot climate, line dry your saree in the shade and secure it with clothes pegs. It’s best to dry it during midday, between 11am and 2pm when the sun rays are strongest. It should be sufficiently dry in about 20 to 45 minutes.
8. If you’re using an indoor drying device (like a laundry-room drying closet), lay the saree over an old towel first. Then, roll the towel up from one edge with the saree inside it (like a Swiss roll) and squeeze so that the towel absorbs the water. After that, unroll the towel and hang the saree in the drying device. Keep the temperature on mild to medium heat to prevent fabric damage. Absolutely DO NOT tumble-dry or spin-dry silk sarees – the fabric will develop permanent creases, and possibly shrink or tear in the process.
9. Once your silk saree is dry, you may fold it up and store it as usual. Steam ironing is best for silk sarees. If you’re using a regular iron for your saree, it’s safer to iron over a thin piece of white cotton fabric (like muslin) to avoid burning the silk.

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Precautions:

Take note that not all silk can be hand washed safely. Most Indian sarees, such as kanchipuram and tussar, are sturdy fabrics and can usually be hand washed if one is gentle and careful. If in doubt, wash a small, hidden part of the inner corner and iron it while damp to see how the fabric is affected. Alternatively, you may cut off the blouse piece and wash that first to test how it stands up to hand washing.
Deep colors, especially red shades, are HIGHLY likely to run. If you have made the decision to handwash your silk saree anyway, prepare for the fact that a lot of the color may bleed into the washing water. There’s no reason to panic; I find this is usually the excess dye coming out. If the saree is of good quality, handwashing will not fade the color. Just remember to wash it separately so the dye doesn’t stain other items. If your saree has many bright, contrasting colors (such as yellow and blue), it’s best not to hand wash it for the first wash as the colors may bleed into one another.
• If you have sarees of similar colors, they can be washed together if your pail is big enough. Use ample water when it comes to washing silk sarees to ensure any dye that bleeds into the water is diluted and less likely to stain.
NEVER put pure silk sarees into a washing machine, not even in a laundry bag. Machine washing and drying is too rough for silk.

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Why Hand Wash Silk Sarees?

Hand washing is much gentler than dry-cleaning. The latter utilises chemicals and solvents which can be damaging to delicate silk fibres.
Your sarees will last longer. When you add hair conditioner, you’re effectively adding a coat of protection over the silk fibres. This helps shield the fabric from wear and tear, sun damage and pollution. The hair conditioner also adds a natural sheen and body to the silk, keeping the fabric supple.
Remove chemicals left over from the manufacturing process. I am severely allergic to many types of synthetic substances, hence why I wash anything that will come into contact with my skin. Even if you don’t have allergies, it’s always better to have less factory-manufactured chemicals involved in your daily life.
Improves the fabric texture. Many Indian silk sarees are highly starched. This makes it look good for display in the showroom, but can be annoyingly stiff to drape. I personally prefer the soft feel of natural fabrics. I find that once washed and conditioned, silk sarees are easier to work with and hug the curves of the female figure beautifully.
It’s good exercise. I’ll admit, it’s tough work – all that rinsing, draining and refilling. Not to mention the weight of heavy silk once wet! Washing one saree is alright – wash a few at once and you’ll realise how many calories you’re burning. I welcome the work: it makes me appreciate my sarees better and keeps me fit. Anyhow, I don’t trust my prized pieces in anyone else’s hands.
It’s way cheaper than dry cleaning. All you need is shampoo and conditioner, sunlight (or a dryer) and some effort on your part.

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Image: Actress Tamanna Bhatia in a silk saree

My Story

My mum, sister and I jointly own a few hundred sarees – we lost count a few years ago. Many of those are made of silk. When I was little, mum thought nothing of sending her silk sarees for dry-cleaning regularly. It was such a hassle; she always had to travel back and forth between laundrettes, especially during wedding season.

I noticed how the texture of the silk changed after just the first cleaning: the silk often lost its natural sheen and sometimes changed color. Upon draping, it fell flat and ‘dead’. Not very nice, as silk fabrics should look and feel lustrous. I guess that’s what strong chemicals does to delicate fabrics.

The first silk saree I bought was a single-shade piece with a gold border. I was 18 years old and bored to death in a saree shop in Chennai. The shop workers were enthusiastically spreading out length after length of cloth all over the place, creating colourful heaps and mounds of cloth around the store. My mother was picking the pieces she wanted.  I had a headache just looking at the colors; dazzling, vibrant reds, blues and greens in every imaginable combination.

Eventually, my mum had picked out a stack of sarees for herself and was ready to pay. The shop owner felt bad that I had chosen nothing for myself, so he came over with his workers to see if they could help me find something I liked. They must’ve felt sorry for me – an awkward teenager in jeans and a black heavy metal t-shirt, in a country where females wore feminine things and fresh flowers in their hair.

I told them I had only one thing I mind: I wanted a cream or white saree with a gold border. They were disappointed as they didn’t have it – they had every shade except what I wanted. I told them not to worry about it and was about to leave. Suddenly, the shop owner smiled and told me to wait a bit. He said he had a special piece that he was sure I would like. I was sceptical but I decided to see it anyway.

He disappeared into the warehouse, then came out with this lovely piece in his hands. It was shimmering gently under the lights, the color of fresh sandalwood paste. It had a simple frosted gold border. The saree wasn’t white, but I fell in love with it immediately. It was elegant and resplendent, with the natural sheen of new, untreated Indian silk. I wore it a few times, mainly for occasions like Janmasthami and also for a stage play I acted in, called Jaganatha Priya Nataka, during the years I was active in ISKCON.

After a couple of uses, I decided (unwillingly) to send my precious saree for dry-cleaning, simply because I didn’t know any better back then. The result? It wasn’t completely destroyed, but the fabric came back lacklustre and ‘dead’. It had lost its natural sheen and fell flat upon draping. I was heartbroken – it was a rare piece, both by color and design. That was the first and last time I ever sent a saree to the dry-cleaners. I have been hand-washing all my silk sarees ever since.

Hiking Equipment Review: Deuter AirContact 40+10 SL

by Jayna Valen

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My Experience

I’ve been hiking and backpacking since forever. The funny thing is, I never bothered to ‘invest’ in a proper backpack. I just bought whatever was on sale in the market, would fit on my back and had sufficient space for a bunch of stuff.

That worked well enough for a while, until I ran into some annoying issues. My Lonsdale backpack held up surprisingly well over  years of travel abuse, but the PVC interior lining turned to dust one fine day for no apparent reason. As a person with allergy issues, this was a complete disaster.

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I’ve seen friends and travel partners who had it worse while on the road with me: bags falling apart at the seams, zips and buckles getting damaged, rats chewing through canvas, monkeys learning how to unzip compartments on unattended bags, back problems due to uneven distribution of carrying weight, etc.

Space was also an issue with smaller backpacks, as you’d eventually need a bigger piece of luggage for check-in, which can be a hassle when you need to travel quickly with minimal fuss. Also, wheeled luggage bags can be a nightmare when it comes to rural places. I’ve had to drag a 30-kilo bag through village sand paths (the wheels won’t work), broken cement, damaged roads, mud, potholes, up lengthy flights of stairs, cow dung and worse.

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Needless to say, I’d had enough of that. I can’t believe I didn’t get a proper backpack sooner. I HATE my stuff falling apart mid-travel. So, when I came across a random Deuter backpack sale at Sunway Pyramid, I got myself not one, but two bags (50 and 70 litres). Malaysians will know why I did this; Deuter bags are notoriously expensive here. At 50% off the regular price, it was a steal.

I was also curious with regards to quality and performance. I’m always sceptical when it comes to hyped-up mainstream things. Was Deuter really the gold standard for hiking bags, or was it all just meaningless marketing and branding fluff?

Here’s my review of the Deuter AirContact 40 + 10 SL model (for women).

Test Trip Details

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I backpacked alone to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia for 4 days and 3 nights. While this doesn’t count as a challenging outdoor hike, it wasn’t a walk in the park either. My bag weighed a total of 13 kgs – I packed it to maximum capacity for testing purposes.

What the travel involved (per way) was a 10-minute Uber trip to the train station, a two-transit train ride totalling 2 hours of travel to the central bus terminal (TBS), an 8-hour bus ride to the island jetty, a 40-minute speedboat ride to the island, then walking by foot along the beach for another 20 minutes to the chalet. It was a lot of getting to, then on and off various modes of transportation – more tiring than it sounds.

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Comfort and Design

Amazingly comfortable as the hip and shoulder straps are well-padded, highly adjustable and can be customized for length and fit perfectly. The AirContact models are also designed for optimum air circulation to prevent excessive sweating during wear – this would be great for long hikes in hot weather.

Aesthetic-wise, I loved the blue color. All the female-model bags come with a cute yellow flower that’s actually a hair tie – how ingenious! There’s a contoured steel spine structure that fits your back curvature and gives the pack some structure. Most bags come with a handy water-proof rain cover, which is great for repelling mud too.

 

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Capacity and Weight

I was surprised that there was less space than I expected for 50 litres. However, when packed to full capacity, 13kgs was about as much as I could carry comfortably on my back (I weigh 45kgs, am slight in build with fairly good core strength). The bag itself isn’t the lightest model either, as it weighs almost 2.3kgs by itself – consider another model for long hikes.

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What’s really great about Deuter designs is that they have tons of mini compartments, loops, clips and spaces which you can literally stow, fasten or hang ANYTHING imaginable. The only limit would be your ability to carry the weight.

Durability

The material doesn’t look very long-wearing, but then again I know from experience that the nylon is light but extremely wear-resistant. The seams and stitching are pretty sturdy.

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Summary

I was pretty spent after my trip back, but it was a good kind of tired. I felt like my core got a really good workout. I could actually notice the difference in my abs! More muscle tone and flatter. Overall, no regrets, though I’d recommend a lighter model for longer hikes.

If you see one on discount, buy it! Absolutely worth the money. In the words of a good friend, the proud owner of a Deuter that has survived over 15 years of hardcore outdoor life:

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“These bags? They last forever”.

 

Related Links:

10 Tips for Women Travelling Alone in India

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

Deuter (Official Page)

Travel Review: Boracay, Philippines

by Jayna Valen

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Boracay! The jewel of the Philippines, some say. Cerulean-turquoise waters, tropical sun, over seven thousand islands, fresh seafood, succulent mangoes and all the great things Southeast Asia has to offer. The place has always been a mystery to me, and I’m glad I finally set foot there.

Scenery, view and island vibe

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The best thing about the combination of tropical sunlight, lush volcanic-soil vegetation and clear seawater is the way the colors come alive. Emerald-chartreuse greens punctuated by lazy seabirds, sparkling sapphire waters fading into the golden-white sand. A literal feast for the eyes. It’s the kind of island where you can sit around all day, eating dragonfruits and letting the purple juice run down your chin, taking in the dazzling brilliance of your surroundings and just do absolutely nothing. Yes, it’s that beautiful.

Vibe-wise, it’s laid back. Quiet and relaxed. Not overly crowded with touristy types. Most people on the island appear to be simple village folk. They live fuss-free lives, plying their trade, usually selling local produce and seafood. It’s a far cry from the booze-and-drug-fuelled-party-hype of Balinese and Thai beach nightlife; nothing like the backpacker islands on the Malaysian East Coast either. Boracay is like a legendary island princess – exotic, mysterious and modest, whose real beauty is to be seen and appreciated by the chosen few. Don’t come here for crazy drunken nights and full moon parties.

Food

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Seafood is cheap, fresh and plentiful. Prices are reasonable at tourist-standard spots. The main area in town where most restaurants are based is called D’Mall – not quite a mall, more like an open-air area of eateries, souvenier shops, clothing stalls and the usual stuff catering to tourists.

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If you’re from Malaysia or Indonesia, be prepared for the ‘unusual’ taste of some dishes. I’m adventurous and adaptable enough, but I’ve heard many complaints along the lines of ‘Filipino food tastes very weird”. There’s a mini supermarket in town where you can buy stuff like toiletries, milk, cookies, instant coffee, bread and crackers. I found that prices at this place were quite high.

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I’ll be honest; I didn’t quite like the fish and chips fried in coconut oil (yes, coconut oil of all things – The Hobbit Tavern) and the bland soup featuring a sad chunk of chicken with the life boiled out of it (Jeepney). On the other hand, the grilled squid was great, with just the right amount of flavor and tangy zest (Jeepney), as was the seafood pasta (The Hobbit Tavern). Stay away from the soupy stuff and you should be fine. Food in general is not overly spicy.

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Local tip: A wonderful Filipino girl at Jeepney did this for me and my friend when we said we were Malaysian. She chopped up some bird’s eye chillies, put the pieces into a saucer and poured some salty soy sauce over it. Then, she squeezed lime juice into the mix and gave it a good stir, before telling us to use it as a dip for seafood. It was literally AMAZING. I would’ve never thought something so simple could bring out the subtle flavours of seafood so well, and it had just the right amount of zing. Perfect!

Places to stay

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Accommodation is easily available, from budget to more high-end places. I stayed at Shangri-La Boracay because my friends work there, and we got the rooms for free (lucky me). And Shang being Shang, there’s nothing much to say about it except everything was literally perfect. The resort is gorgeous, the architecture and landscaping stunning. You’re waited on hand and foot by extremely attentive staff. In other words, Shangri-La = an impeccable experience in all ways. The only downside was that the resort was on the other end of the island, and getting ‘out’ was impossible by foot. However, they had regular shuttles to town for that purpose.

Shopping

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Forget it. If you already have experience travelling in Southeast Asia, there’s literally nothing new to buy here. It’s all the same stuff again and again. Beach dresses, shell jewellery, keychains, wife-beaters, mugs, tote bags and Rasta-themed red-yellow-green stuff (I never figured out Boracay’s obsession with reggae culture, but I bought a Bob Marley pareo anyway because I’m a huge fan). Virgin coconut oil is sold everywhere, as are local dried mangoes. And oh, they have purses made of real, whole bullfrogs, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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Weather

Tropical mostly with occasional rain. Plan carefully around the island’s monsoon seasons as the weather can change drastically. We went out sightseeing one night and were suddenly caught in a full-blown typhoon that came out of nowhere. Best to carry a light raincoat or foldable umbrealla when you’re out and about.

Currency

Filipino pesos. It appears that exchange rates are far better in your own country, unless you carry US Dollars with you. Money changers are easy to find.

Nightlife

I didn’t go to any clubs, but the island seemed to generally lack good nightlife. Nobody tried to sell me drugs or sex either.

Beach activities

There’s the usual like snorkeling, diving, paraw sailing, catamaran, yacht, jetski and more. PADI courses are offered on Boracay, but I decided to do mine in the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia.

Verdict?

Great place to go for a couple, a bunch of friends or with family. Expect slightly higher prices and be wary of the monsoon season (the typhoons in the Philippines are not to be taken lightly). I wouldn’t recommend single travellers to go here as there isn’t all that much to do alone.

 

Restaurant Review: Fuel Shack (Bangsar South, Malaysia)

by Jayna Valen

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So, we went out for lunch last week to this place, which is fairly new. If you want to try it out this weekend, it’s located in this building called Connexion @ Nexus, on the Ground floor between Souled Out and Starbucks, Bangsar South.

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I sulked a little after we chose our table and sat down, and I had a good look at what the other diners were having. It sucked even more once the food arrived. Why? Because this place makes me want to have a boyfriend, especially like this one bodybuilder ex I had.

You see, I absolutely loved the Coke Float, but the Fuel Shack serves it in only one size: freaking GIGANTIC. It was so much more convenient and fun to share large helpings of food when I was dating someone. Plus, when your date has the appetite of a water buffalo, you never have to worry about how you’d look pigging out, nor fret that any food would go to waste. Especially as a chick. So date me someone.

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Nah, I’m playing. I’d rather down my body weight’s worth of sugary carbonated float and welcome diabetes with open arms than risk yet another mess of a relationship, just so I can share a float. Which, by the way, I totally ended up wasting.

But seriously, Fuel Shack people, if any of you guys are reading this – wtf? PLEASE offer realistic sizes for floats. Pretty please. The stuff is delicious, but we’re not whales.

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The food in general is above average. We were a team of 10, so there was a variety of stuff I managed to get a taste of. I asked around and everyone seemed to agree with one thing more or less: the fare was a tad bit lacking in flavor and salt. It was pretty good stuff otherwise, reminiscent of TGI Friday’s and Chilli’s, just a little lacklustre overall.

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To their credit, all ingredients used in the dishes were incredibly fresh, and that’s something I really appreciate when it comes to eating out. The Chilli Chicken Fries (above – RM13) and Nachos (below – RM29) were amazingly good – couldn’t get enough of those. Fried Tempura Calamari, so-so (RM21).

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My Crispy-Skinned Grilled Salmon (below – RM38) had great texture, but the accompanying sauce (which was served separately) had an odd vinegary taste. I eagerly dumped the whole sauceboat over my salmon before I even had a taste, so don’t be the idiot that I was. I chose mac and cheese, sauteed vegetables and mushrooms for the three accompanying sides. Overall, my meal was alright, though slightly on the bland side. Pretty small helping of fish.

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Would I return? I would, since I work so near the place. But considering Bangsar South’s horrendous traffic situation, I’d probably not bother if I had to make a long journey to get here, or eat close to rush hour.

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The staff are lovely people too, good service. Be warned: if it’s your birthday, they’re going to make you stand on a chair and sing into a salt shaker.

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My Ratings:

Food (General): 7/10

Food (Crispy-Skinned Grilled Salmon): 6/10

Food (Chilli Chicken Fries): 8/10

Food (Nachos): 8/10

Food (Fried Tempura Calamari): 6/10

Food (BBQ Chicken Wings, according to my buddy Esmond): 7/10

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Drink (Coke Float): 8/10

General Cleanliness: 10/10

Service: 10/10

Price: 7/10

Location (PJ): 5/10

Will I go back again : 10/10

 

Related Posts:

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Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Moorthys Mathai, USJ 4

Banana Leaf Mythbusters: Sri Ganapathi Mess, PJ

Restaurant Review: Alexis Bistro And Wine Bar (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

Ashram Vacations: An Introduction

by Shrishthi Brahmarupa

Note: All images below were taken at my various ashram visits and stays from 2013 to 2017. The following pictures were taken at Yoga Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh), Dhanwanthari Ashram (Kerala), Meenakshi Ashram (Madurai), Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh) and ISKCON Delhi (East of Kailash, Delhi).

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Is stress killing you? Do you experience inexplicable aches and pains, depression, migraines, digestion issues and fatigue on a regular basis? If your regular vacations aren’t cutting it anymore, an ashram vacation may be just the thing you need. It can be a hardcore experience for the uninitiated, but I can assure you it’ll be well worth the effort.

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First Things First: What’s an Ashram?

I’m just going to quote Wikipedia’s description here, because it’s so complete:

“Traditionally, an ashram (sometimes also ashrama or ashramam) is a spiritual hermitage or a monastery in Indian religions. The word ashram comes from the Sanskrit root śram which means “to toil”. An ashram would traditionally, but not necessarily in contemporary times, be located far from human habitation, in forests or mountainous regions, amidst refreshing natural surroundings conducive to spiritual instruction and meditation. The residents of an ashram regularly performed spiritual and physical exercises, such as the various forms of yoga.

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Sometimes, the goal of a pilgrimage to the ashram was not tranquility, but instruction in some art, especially warfare. In the Ramayana, the protagonist princes of ancient Ayodhya, Rama and Lakshmana, go to Vishvamitra’s ashram to protect his yajnas from being defiled by emissary-demons of Ravana. After they prove their mettle, the princes receive martial instruction from the sage, especially in the use of divine weapons. In the Mahabharata, Krishna, in his youth, goes to the ashram of Sandipani to gain knowledge of both intellectual and spiritual matters.”

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My Experience

To me, there’s nothing quite as magical as the ashram experience. Meditating in the Himalayas as the starless, obsidian sky bursts into the blazing pink ribbons of dawn. The chanting of mantras in the dark, amidst clouds of rose-sandalwood frankincense. Exotic birds in the mist. Sun-ripened fruits. Losing yourself in the transcendental bliss of meditation.

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I’m the kind of person who burns out easily with the demands of modern-day city living, so I need my ashram breaks. Every ashram is like a temporary second home to me. Over the last 5 years, I’ve stayed at various ashrams across India (the longest stays were in Sivananda ashrams, to complete my yoga certification).

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I’m so used to ashram life that I tend to incorporate parts of it into day-to-day modern living, often without realising it. No hot water in the mornings? Improvise with a bucket of cold water. Too tired for proper dinner after work? I make do with plain rice, yoghurt and fresh curry leaves. It’s a 360 degree turn-around for a woman like me who was raised with the comforts of big-city living for most of my life.

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What’s Ashram Life Like?

It’s austere. Very basic, ascetic-style living. No luxuries or city comforts to speak of – no air-conditioning, hot water, comfy spring mattresses, washing machines, hair dryers. Ashrams in India serve only vegetarian food, often without onions and garlic (depending on the ashram, salt and spices may be omitted completely). Some ashrams provide more comfort at extra charge, but that’s usually limited to air-conditioning and hot water.

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Despite the obvious challenges of ashram life, thousands continue to throng ashrams across India for various reasons – personal spiritual retreats, study of Vedic scriptures, structured yoga vacations and more. Why are regular people who are used to a cushy life willing to rough it out? Simple – the benefits, despite the hardship, are immense.

A temporary ashram stay isn’t a vacation the way you know it. It gives your material-life overloaded, burnt-out systems a break (mind, body, soul) so you can begin self-healing on all levels.

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Generally, ashram dwellers:

1) Wake up during the auspicious brahma muhurta timing (between 4.30am and 5.00am)
2) Sleep on woven mats or thin, natural-fibre mattresses in same-sex dormitories
3) Eat sattvic food (vegetarian fare minus onions and garlic)
4) Hand-wash and line-dry their own laundry
5) Follow a daily ashram schedule, which includes satsang (singing spiritual hymns), yoga classes, spiritual talks or discourses, Bhagavadgita classes, meditation sessions and so on
6) Wear simple, modest clothing on ashram grounds
7) Perform karma yoga (selfless service) daily, usually cleaning duties within the ashram

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What’s the Reason for such Basic, Austere Conditions?

The goal of ashram living is to increase one’s self-awareness and enhance spirituality. Sensual pleasures including rich food, entertainment, sexual activity and indulgence in modern luxuries cause distraction within the human mind and subsequently, a lack of focus.

By intentionally withdrawing worldly pleasures and sense gratification, ashram life effectively tunes one ‘inwards’ and enables one to focus and channel their mental energy effectively. Additional ashram activities such as pranayama (breath control), yoga asanas (physical exercise) condition and meditation prepare the body and mind for transcendental experiences.

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Ashram life is good practise for those wanting to pursue the path of self-realisation on a deeper, more serious level. Consider it a physical, mental and spiritual ‘detox’ from the filth and imbalances of modern living.

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What are the Benefits of Ashram Living? What Changes Will I See?

I recommend that you stay in an ashram for a minimum of 2 weeks to see significant improvement. For best results, a 4-to-6 week stay will do wonders – it’ll literally transform you. However, if you can only manage a few days, it’s still better than nothing.

The first few days will be difficult as your body adjusts to the discipline and unfamiliar routine, but you’ll notice major changes on all levels (physically, mentally and spiritually) within the first 1 to 2 weeks. Most people feel lighter and more energetic. Your energy levels will increase, and you may be as surprised as I was to realize you only need 4 to 5 hours of sleep to wake up fully refreshed.

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The yoga asanas and healthy, meat-free sattvic diet will kick-start healing and rejuvenation processes within your body. Ailments, old injuries, digestive disorders, aches and pains will progressively improve. Stress melts away completely within the first few days.

Some people may experience certain ‘negative’ reactions including skin breakouts, temper flares, digestion issues and headaches in the first few days of ashram living. This is normal as the body is purging itself of various toxins and bad energies accumulated over the years. Skin will begin to take on a healthy glow within a few days, and bodily systems will usually harmonize once your energies sync with the routine and activities.

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I’d Like to Try an Ashram Vacation. Where Do I Start?

Most modern ashrams have an online presence these days. I suggest that you pick an ashram based on your needs. Are you interested in the teachings of a particular spiritual master? Do you want to visit a certain place and couple it with a short ashram stay? Do some searching online to see which one appeals to you the most. You’ll be spoilt for choice.

Remember that most ashrams are located in rural areas with limited internet access and phone facilities. Travel can be a challenge, and transportation is not as straightforward in lesser-developed areas such as the Himalayas. As such, plan ahead and give sufficient time (ideally between 4 to 8 weeks in advance) for ashram stay booking and confirmation.

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Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Sivananda Ashrams (Kerala, Madurai and Rishikesh)
Omkarananda Ganga Sadan (Rishikesh)
Parmarth Niketan Ashram (Rishikesh)
Yoga Niketan Trust Ashram (Rishikesh)
ISKCON Delhi Temple (East of Kailash, Delhi)

Related Posts:

10 Tips for Women Traveling Alone in India

Everything You Need to Know about Rudraksha

Five Main Benefits of Traditional Hatha Yoga

Bhakti Yoga Through the Art of Puja