halal feature: Halal Food Express @ Orlando, USA

I found out about Halal Food Express while doing research for my Orlando trip. Told myself that I must give this place a try. How often could one find a halal American fast food joint anyway?

The place is located along International Drive, just across the road from Wet ‘n Wild theme park. Nearby you will find Orlando Continental Plaza Hotel, Walgreens supermarket and KFC. Look for a row of blue shophouses facing the main road. The restaurant occupies the end lot, next to a souvenir shop.

Turn into this junction. Halal Food Express is at the very end, near the huge billboard.

A little close-up...

...that’s the one!

I took the picture early in the morning while on my way to Universal Orlando Resort. They weren’t open yet.

Inside the restaurant. This one was taken at night when I went there to grab dinner.

Had chicken sandwich to eat-in.

Oooh yummy yummy!

Ordered a basket of chicken wings for take-out but I totally forgot to take a pic. Didn’t try their kebab because I already had enough kebabs during my travels ;-) Anyway, the chicken wings were marvelous! I totally recommend them. Must try.

The place is really clean and the owner is friendly. And I must mention that the location is perfect - along the main road, walking distance from two major theme parks and the I-Ride trolley bus stop is just nearby. Here it is on Google map.



Here’s their website: http://www.halalfoodexpress.com
Here’s their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HalalFoodExpress

cooking while travelling

As a Muslim traveler, food is always a concern of mine. At places where halal restaurants are difficult to find, I'm left with no choice but to cook my own meals. But how to cook when you stay in a hotel? Let me share with you some tips, based on my very own experience.

First, let's talk about the most important item - travel cooker. I bought my SONA travel cooker in Singapore for SGD 69 (about RM 190) early last year. Had to buy it there because I couldn't find any in KL. Surfed the internet and found out that Malaysian travel cooker owners bought theirs either in Singapore or Japan. So I contacted my Singaporean aunt and asked her to help me buy one. She could easily find it at various electrical shops in Singapore, including the famous Mustafa Centre.

My precious treasure. It stays in the box when I'm not using it. 

Mine is a newer version. Recently I heard there's a Malaysian company selling an older version (the pot is squarish and looks like an army mess tin). There's also mini rice cooker in the market but I don't recommend it. I had one before, it only survived a month or so. I dislike the fact that the pot is attached to the cooker, therefore you have to be extremely careful when washing it with all the wires inside. I suspect mine had some water dripping into electronics thus the entire thing went bust. Another thing I dislike about mini rice cooker is that it takes a long time to heat up and you can't control the temperature.

Back to travel cooker. If you are planning to buy one, please make sure it has dual voltage. It's very important because different parts of the world use different voltage i.e. European countries mostly use 220-240V, but USA and Latin America mostly use 110-120V. Therefore you need to adjust the voltage accordingly. Failure to do so may result in catastrophe. Ok I'm exaggerating, but you get what I mean.

The handle is foldable. The stove is inside the pot. That's how it goes into my luggage when traveling. 

Tadaaa! ON - standby mode, lights up when plugged in. HEAT - cooking mode, turn the switch here to heat up the stove and start cooking. If it gets too hot, flip the switch back to ON. That's how I control the temperature.

Bottom view. See how the cord is nicely tucked at the sides and the plug is slotted at the centre? Neat! But the more important thing I want to show here is the dual voltage switch. It's now pointed at 220-240V. Turn it clockwise to change to 110-120V.

Now let's talk about cooking utensils. These to me are musts:

(1) Fork and spoon, steel ones so you can use them for both cooking and eating. Need extra? Most airlines provide disposable fork and spoon during inflight meals. Keep them.

(2) Food container. Plays the role of plate, a bowl and of course your leftover storage.

(3) Swiss army knife. Pack the knife in your check-in luggage. Never ever put it in your hand-carry, you won't get pass security and they'll confiscate the knife.

(4) Small cutting board. Trust me it's very useful. Doubles up as a serving dish.

(5) Wet tissue. Excellent substitute to dishwashing sponge, no kidding. My favourite brand is Dettol. Smells nice and more importantly it's really good at cleaning oil stains.

Now let's talk about food. I always bring these from home:

(1) Rice. I normally cook for dinner and reheat the leftover for breakfast, so a small 1kg pack will last me a week. My favourite brand is Beras Moghul Faiza Basmathi (the packaging is red and blue). I call it no-fuss rice. Even if I put in a bit more or a bit less water, it still turns out well.

(2) Brahim's ready to eat dishes. They come in boxes and contain real meat. The easiest and most satisfying travel meals ever. Here's how they look like.

I've tasted them all except Sambal Ikan Bilis. They are so yummy I don't mind eating them everyday throughout my trip.  
Photo credit to http://www.brahimsfood.com 

(3) Brahim's cooking sauces. They are merely gravies, so you have to add meat and water. I only bring them of I travel longer than a week.

I like the Kuah Masak Lemak. Add in some crab meat, fabulous! 
Photo credit to http://www.brahimsfood.com

(4) Sambal ikan bilis. I love spicy food, so make it point to bring some when I travel. My favourite is Tean's Gourmet sambal rangup ikan bilis halus. It comes in an airtight container, perfect for travelling. You can find it at Jusco or Giant.

With items 1, 2 and 4 my daily meals are pretty much ready. At the destination I would just buy some eggs, salads and fruits to add variety. If I stay longer than a week, I would buy raw seafood to cook with item 3.

Cooker's ready. Utensil's ready. Food's ready. Time to get into action. Let's cook! Now some cooking tips:

(1) Cook in the bathroom. Why? So it's easy to clean up any spills. And also because bathrooms don't have smoke detectors therefore you won't trigger any alarm. I prefer to cook near the sink.

(2) If you really have to cook in the room (maybe because there's no plug point in the bathroom), put a layer of plastic bag under the stove before you start cooking, so if you spill anything it won't stain the furniture/carpet. And beware of smoke detectors! Stay as far away from it as you can. Fan away any smoke that comes out of your pot.

(3) Done cooking? Time to do the dishes. As I said earlier, use wet tissue as substitute for sponge. Solid waste must be thrown into the trash bin. As for liquid waste, do not pour it into the sink, especially if it's oily. You will clog the sink. Pour liquid waste into the toilet and flush immediately. Yes, immediately. If you wait any longer the toilet bowl will stain.

So there you go, that's how I cook while travelling. After doing it many times I've grown to enjoy it. I don't miss homecook meals anymore. I don't have worries of finding halal food. Saves me lots of money too, especially in places were eating out is expensive.

One last tip: Don't overdo it. The idea is for you to cook just enough to survive, not to prepare a 7-course culinary art. Make it simple, make it fast, so you have more time to enjoy your trip.

Happy cooking my fellow travelers!

usa - learning points

Lots of Malaysians go to USA, be it to study, to work or to tour. Therefore there are not many learning points that I have to share other than what most of you may already know. So I’ll just share some answers to common questions I get after returning from the trip, plus some useful tips.

1. Getting a US Visa for tourist purpose? Nah, it’s not that difficult actually. Inconvenient, maybe. Expensive, absolutely (application fee was MYR 512 back in 2012). Difficult, not really. The first step was to fill in the online form. Then to print the confirmation and bring it to Standard Chartered Bank to make payment. Then to go to US Embassy for an interview, which is what most people are worried about. Tips? Just be prepared and be yourself. Remember basic information about your trip (i.e. why you want to go there, where you plan to stay, what you want to see). Some people get so nervous they forget the answers to these simple questions. Being proficient in spoken English helps aplenty. Having a stable job with a reputable company is also a plus point. Married? Even better. I read somewhere on the Internet, the idea is that they don’t want people to come to their country, find an ad-hoc job and refuse to leave. So if you can prove some sort of commitment back home (i.e. job, spouse, family) for you to return to, it will be easier to get a visa. Some people joke that if you are married, working and already have many stamps on your passport (meaning you are used to travelling), you’ll easily get a visa. If you are single, unemployed and just got your passport issued yesterday, be prepared to donate that MYR 512 to Obamacare. Yup, it’s non-refundable.

2. Going to Universal Studios? There are two things you absolutely must bring: raincoat and rubber slippers. They are really useful when you are going for water rides. Those rides are fun and shouldn’t be missed. What’s not fun is walking around the park soaking wet head to toe afterwards. So pack a raincoat. I bought a cheap disposable one (poncho style) at Guardian pharmacy. And don’t forget your beach (read: toilet) slippers.

3. Staying around Universal Studios? There are plenty of affordable hotels nearby, as long as you are willing to walk for a bit. The area south of the theme park is a very safe and pedestrian-friendly. We stayed at a cheap motel along International Drive and walked to Universal Studios to and fro. Absolutely safe, even late at night.

4. Shopping in Orlando? Take the cute I-Ride trolley bus at USD 2 per ride. It will bring you to both outlet malls (one near to Disney, one near to Universal). It’s rather tiny with only one door at the front, so wait for people to disembark before you board.

5. Catching domestic flights within USA? Be warned, the security checks are just as thorough as international flights. Make sure you start lining up to enter the departure hall at least 2 hours before your flight. The line can be very long and the officers tend to make you go through the screening again and again until they are satisfied that you are good to go. Taking off your footwear is a must, so I would advise wearing sandals instead of shoes. They are easier to remove and to put back on. If you wear boots with laces, I can assure you that you are going to have a long and uneasy time at the x-ray machine. And if you are a Muslim girl wearing headscarf like me, be prepared to get you head patted by the officers. Wondering if they ever find anything by doing so. Hmm…

Till next time, muah!

goodbye usa

Our two weeks party finally came to an end. It was a wonderful introduction to USA for me as a first time visitor. Before the trip many people warned me of discriminations I might face for being a Muslim girl wearing hijab. For me, all I had to do was being myself. I held my hijab-clad head high, put a huge smile and be friendly to everyone. People did ask questions about my religion (sometimes offensively), I answered them in good nature. They were just curious and it was my responsibility as a Muslim to provide clear explanation so they could understand better.

My lovely Latina looking travel buddy Fiza. She could pass as a local anytime.

Good bye USA. I had a really great time. From west coast to east coast and to the southernmost point, I truly achieved my American dream. Still, there are many more places to discover. Not to worry, my visa is valid for 10 years. Hope we meet again Uncle Sam!

warner bros studios tour & lakers game

Final full day of our long party in the USA and we intend to end it big! We started with a “movie star day” by going for Warner Bros Studios VIP Tour. Later we wrapped up with a “basketball star night” by watching LA Lakers vs Philadelphia 76ers. Now let the pics do the talking!

Welcome to Warner Bros Studios VIP Tour. There were several studio tours offered by different companies. After much research, we figured this one was the best.

Let the tour begin! Similar to yesterday’s tour at Universal Studios Hollywood, visitors were taken around by trams. But this time the trams had no poles, yeay! By the way if you watch Gilmore Girls, that’s Sookie’s house.

Oooh that’s scary. Notice it from anywhere?

Rosewood City Hall in the series Pretty Little Liars. Look on the right, do you see the bushes attached on green metal frame near the two lamp posts? Those are moveable bushes. They are used to block unwanted background. On camera they look like normal patch of greens. 

The gazebo is moveable too. Today it’s in front of the hall. Tomorrow it might be in someone’s backyard.

Workshop where they built the props.

1964 Ford Galaxie used by Agent K in Men in Black 3.

The banner says it all. I don’t think any channel on Astro shows this series.

Aaah.. my favourite movie!

We were showed how the green screen worked and got the chance to pose in it.

Any F.R.I.E.N.D.S. fan here? This one is for you.

I love watching Ellen. When the tour guide told us that each tram could choose two shows for our indoor tour, I quickly shouted “Ellen!” and got my pick! The other one was Big Bang Theory, chosen by a Chinese tourist. Too bad cameras weren’t allowed inside.

Then we went to Warner Bros Museum. The tour guide told us that Harry Potter exhibition was on the upper floor, so I immediately rushed upstairs.

Props for Professor Lupin’s class.

The hat said Gryffindor!

What happened to Hermione?

My cute little Dobby. I cried when you died.

Who could forget this scene!

Then I went down to the lower floor, which was for movie costumes.

Sandra Bullock’s spacesuit in Gravity.

Not sure which Batman movie this was for.

Done with the VIP tour. Thank you Daffy Duck!

There was no metro station near the studio, so we took a taxi and went straight to Walk of Fame. The nice taxi driver reminded us to be careful and watch our bags as there were lots of people there. Yes sir, will do. We spent the afternoon walking along the star-filled sidewalk. It was fun to check out famous spots that I often see on E! channel.

It’s no secret that I’m a proud CSI fan.

We had lunch at a halal fast food restaurant there (I’ll talk about it more in my halal features later), then return to the hotel early to pack our bags and rest, because we were going to spend the night watching Lakers game. When we planned for the trip, we had the choice to either watch Lakers or Josh Groban. Both of us agreed on Lakers so that we could experience something uniquely LA.

Staples Centre, home of LA Lakers.

The boys warming up. Kobe Bryant was out due to injury.

And the games began!

Laker girls strutting their stuff.

It was almost full house.

The boys in action.

Regrouping during the short break.

Final score. Lakers lost by merely 5 points. Ouch. But hey, look how happy the fans are anyway.

Another very happy fan.

It was the best ending we could ever hope for the trip. Never mind if we didn’t get to see Kobe Bryant. Never mind if Lakers lost. Watching the game live at Staples Centre was a dream come true. We returned to the hotel, did some last minute packing and had a good sleep. Flying home tomorrow!