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Posts Tagged ‘food’

For the Love of Anchovies, and Other Tasty Morsels

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

For all the foodies out there, you may have heard that Malaysia is exalted for its food culture, and specifically on the island of Penang.  Malaysian cuisine is a clear representation of the myriad of cultures that have decided to call it home over the years.  Here you will find dishes from as far west as Lebanon and from every country of the east.  The greatest influence is from China, being the biggest immigrant group in Malaysia.  The island of Penang is over 60% One of my favorite thingsChinese, and this is apparent on every street you walk down in the food and the number of Chinese temples.  Other major influences include India and Indonesia, and the Malays have their own style of cooking, but who would have known that they have a love affair with anchovies, and yet it is so.  I tried a couple of their national dishes featuring these salty little fish, and don’t envision the soft ones that come in a can back at home.  These fish are pulled fresh out of the sea, salted and dried on the docks, and then served fried, crispy and crunchy.  If you like anchovies, you will love these.

Most often served for breakfast or lunch is Nasi Lemak, coconut rice with fried anchovies, fried peanuts with herbs, and sambal, a spicy red sauce.  Sometimes it comes with cucumber, one time I got it with green beans, and almost always it is topped with a fried egg, another thing the Malaysians love.  Nasi Lemak can be really delicious, or it can be quite average.  The first time I had it was the best, but I kept trying.   For a snack there is Ikan Bilis, a yummy dish of Ikan Bilisanchovies fried with peanuts, chili peppers and onions.  When this one is good, it is really good, and goes great with an ice cold Tiger beer.   And then there are the dishes without anchovy, like Loksa, a soup of rice noodles, boiled egg, red onion, cucumber, fresh herbs and chilies in a red mackerel broth.  This one is different, and not my favorite, but I’m glad I gave it a try.  Their version of the pancake is called Roti Canai, and they love the roti in all of Malaysia; a thin, doughy rice pancake that is folded together and then chopped so it is easy to pick up and dip in dhal, the saucy lentil side dish it is usually served with (unless you get a sweet roti, and then it just comes as is).  They will put anything in the roti, from egg and cheese, to banana, to sardines or other meat, to brown sugar.  I like the roti, almost as much as the dosa (the thin Indian crepe like pancake), which you can also find here, but is called tosai.  And to drink with your roti or tosai is teh tarik, “tossed tea,” which is tea and condensed milk mixed by tossing from one glass to another.  Very tasty.  Then there is Rojak, fresh fruit tossed with Yum!peanuts in a sweet and spicy sauce.  Yum.  For those who don’t like the spicy so much, Malaysian food is not spicy like Thai, there is just a hint, palatable by most.  It is deliciously wonderful to be back in a place with authentically good Indian food (which I ate a lot of), with really fresh made Chinese food (which I ate a lot of), and with other variety when desired (Japanese, Korean, Bangladeshi).

So, where does one find these tasty morsels?  Like so much of SE Asia, at the night market, which basically means “on the street.”  There are several streets in Penang which host countless food carts, some open by day and others by night.  All you need to do is find a local who is excited to share the fabulous food culture of their country with you, and you will try many things, as I was lucky to do one night.

You may be wondering what else I did in Malaysia besides eat, and yes, I actually did some other things.  I started in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city.  It was okay, but didn’t capture my attention like Bangkok did.  The highlight there for me was the Museum of Visual Arts, a free contemporary art museum Scary Highfeaturing Malaysian artists.  They have a great collection, and it was a very cool, air conditioned break from the oppressive midday heat.  I also went to the top of the KL Tower, which is currently the 7th tallest building in the world.  It offers an expansive view of this growing city which hosts lots of new buildings with modern glass architecture, and old historic buildings.  It also gives one an opportunity to see all the green space around KL, where the jungle abuts the city limits.

From KL, I headed to The Cameron Highlands, and the main town of Tanah Rata, set high in the hills in the middle of the jungle.  This is a beautiful place, and the center of the Malaysian tea industry.  While it was similar to Munnar in India, it didn’t have the same fairytale feel to it that Kerala’s tea plantations offered.  Regardless, there are so many shades of green it would be impossible to count.

I did two day hikes while I was in the area.  The first hike I did with two Brits I’d met at my guesthouse.  We were told that the trail we’d chosen was one of the easier hikes; I think it was just one of the shortest because it was quite steep Hike in Tanah Rataand challenging, with the reward of an amazing view of the surrounding jungle, mountains and tea plantations.  The second hike I had started on my own, but fell into line with a man from Hungary, with whom I ended up completing this incredibly beautiful, secluded trek.  It was really stunning as it followed a river with a waterfall, and several small streams running through the forest.  Both treks ended in vegetable farms, several miles from town, and the number of buses are limited, so what to do but hitch a ride back.  The first day we were picked up by a Hungarian tourist, and the second by a Malaysian couple.  It’s so different culturally from the US in that regard, hitching is safe and common since so many people don’t have cars and often have to travel long distances.

My next stop was the island of Langkawi, in the far northwest of the country.  I’d heard that this was a beautiful island, but mostly I went there because I’d read online that it was a rock climbing destination.  Well, I ended up disappointed on both parts.  First, it used to be possible to rock climb there, Tanjung Rhubut the one man who did it had passed away and nobody else offered it; and second, the island is beautiful, and I will say it has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, Tanjung Rhu, but the island is very touristy.  It became a duty-free island a few years ago, and since then the tourism industry has boomed.  I did meet some great people there though, so that did make it more tolerable, in addition to the fact that the beaches there are covered in shells, and shell collecting is one of my all favorite pastimes.

I ended my time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, staying in the capital city of Georgetown.  As I’ve already mentioned, the food is amazing there, and one of the main reasons people go there, but it is also known for its street art, and one artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic.  All around the city there are Kung Fu Girlapproximately 30 works of fun iron sculpture and big wall murals by him, as well as paintings by others.  Searching out street art is one of my favorite things to do in cities.  Also on Penang, in the northwest there is a wonderful national park called Taman Negara, where the jungle meets the ocean, and with a challenging hike to the lighthouse for an expansive view.  The island is also home to the largest active Buddhist temple in the world, Kek Lok Si, which is incredibly impressive and colorful.  It houses the largest statue I think I’ve seen in all my travels.  It is of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and stands almost 100 ft. high.  For pictures of Malaysia, click here .

All in all, I really liked Malaysia.  The scenery is memorable, the people remarkable, and the food, I’ve already told you.  If I hadn’t made plans to go to Sumatra (i.e. plane tickets) I probably would have gone to Borneo and stayed in the country longer, but plans had been made, so off to Indonesia I went.  That story is to come.

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Food…Glorious Food

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

I had started this blog as a travel log, like most of my past blog entries, but then I was inspired by my cousin Adam to write a blog just about the amazing food I experienced in Bangkok and Cambodia.  Adam, this blog is dedicated to you and Hector, and to all the other foodies in my life.

If you live your life scared of street food, change your attitude before visiting Bangkok, known to have the best street food in the world.  If you think you will never eat an insect on purpose, wait until you’re walking Khao San Rd at midnight with a beer buzz.  If you don’t like spicy, never tell anyone in SE Asia, seems that that’s when they spice it up.  If you like curry, know that here red and green and tom yum are just the beginning.

The streets of Bangkok are lined with food vendors, selling everything from fried dumplings and spring rolls, to curries and noodle soup, to all sorts of barbequed meat and seafood on sticks.  You can find papaya or mango salad, any type of Asian fruit you may desire, and even ice cream served in a sweet bun, in addition to lots of other sweet pastries.  Then, hit Cambodia and add into the mix fresh spring rolls, sticky buns, and Banh Mi, the baguette sandwich inspired by the French.   You can sit and eat at the makeshift cafés, a table or two and some plastic chairs set up on the sidewalk, or take to go.  Depending on the dish it will come in a to go container as we know, or in a plastic bag, or in a banana leaf.

My first night in Bangkok I was to be meeting up with some fellow travelers for dinner.  I had an hour to spare, and my appetite grew as I walked past the several food stalls lining the streets.  I had to sample some of the food before I met up with them.  My first stop was for some vegetarian noodle soup, which I tell you, is hard for them to understand here.  There is meat in almost everything, but I was successful, and the veggies were fresh and delicious, bean sprouts and greens, spring onion and carrots.  Then, I met up with Nico and Lara and we found a restaurant on Rambutri Street where mostly Thai people were eating in this tourist part of town, so we settled in there for many Chang beers and some food.  My first course was Som Tum, Spicy Papaya Salad, and they were not kidding.  In Thailand, everything is made spicy.  Do not make the mistake of asking for “not” spicy, because according to my friends, the request does not translate and things are made spicier.  I had made no request, and it made my eyes water and nose run, but the small red chili peppers have such great flavor, it was spicy in a good way.  This is one of my favorite dishes at home and I’m happy to say that Thai Life in Key West does it justice.  Fresh green papaya, juicy tomatoes, green beans, carrot, bean sprouts, peanuts, and baby prawns in a flavorful fish sauce.  The next course was Tom Yum soup with Prawns.  So flavorful and delicious with thick slices of fresh ginger and pieces of lemongrass, roasted chilies, lots of coconut flavor, beautiful prawns, and fresh baby corn and Thai basil.  Doing it right.

Afterwards, we wandered from Rambutri Street to the well-known tourist street Khao San.  This is the Bourbon or Duval Street of Bangkok.  Lined with bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourists, Khao San is a site to be seen, yet not my cup of tea as a place to spend lots of time, still fun for the visit.  The most interesting thing to me was the cart selling all sorts of fried and sautéed insects…yes, like bugs.  I’m sure lots of you have seen footage of this sort of thing on the travel channel or the food network, but seeing it in real life, the variety is pretty impressive.   So, you’re in a foreign country, have had several beers, and the insect cart is rolling by…what do you do?  Well, sample some bugs, of course.  I did not go for the large and expensive grasshopper or scorpion (they were $3 each), but went for the more simple grub and some sort of smaller cricket.  The grub, not so good, but the cricket was actually tasty.  And these were about 30 cents each.  My friend Jenny had asked me if I was going to eat any weird foods, and I guess now I can say, “Yes, I am.”  It’s part of the adventure.

The following morning I was extremely pleased with the breakfast at my guest house.  They offered the traditional continental breakfast of Asian guesthouses for Westerners: eggs, toast and fruit, boring.  Much more exciting to me, they also offered Asian breakfast of rice, sautéed pork with ginger and veggies, and fresh salad, including the best lettuce since I left the states.   The following mornings featured something very similar.  A really great way to start the day, especially before heading out to walk, and walk, and walk around Bangkok.

So, the best food in Bangkok is on the street and in the markets, which makes it very easy to sample many things while wandering the city.  I sampled several dumplings while there, and my favorite came from a woman near the Amulet Market.  Most often there were three kinds of dumplings: bamboo, kale, and shrimp, very lightly fried.  Tradition here is to cut them up and put them in a plastic bag with a soy-chili-ginger sauce.   This is also tradition with fried spring rolls, which are served with lettuce and basil leaves, sweet & spicy sauce on the side.  I don’t know if it was tradition to wrap the roll in the lettuce with basil, but that’s what I did.  So good.   I also tried fish that was steamed with spices in a banana leaf.  The fish was so fresh and delicious, and just lightly cooked, so almost like sushi.   The spices gave it really nice flavor, and the texture reminded me of tartar.   For a meal, there is a woman who whips up Pad Thai, as well as other noodle dishes, on Rambutri Street, and it was the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had.  Another traditional dish that you will find anywhere is noodle soup.  There are lots of different versions made with a variety of noodles, as well as a variety of meat and fish.  I had one of these noodle soups my last night in Bangkok, at a stall down the street from my hotel.   Flavorful rice noodles (my favorite) loaded with fresh herbs, ginger and veggies.

On the sweeter side, there were grilled bananas served in a sweet coconut milk; ice cream in a sweet bun with or without fruit sauce; and then there are khanom bueang, thin mini crispy pancakes covered with a sweet cream and fresh spiced coconut.  These were a personal fav, especially at 10 bhat, about 30 cents each.

The one other meal I ate in a restaurant was on Nico and Lara’s last night.   We shared some prawn rolls to start, prawns in pastry and fried, served with a sweet and spicy chili sauce.  And then I had another of my favorites, Green Curry with veggies and tofu.  It was delectable.  They made it with a couple of types of eggplant, one of which was small, green, and round like a grape, but firm in texture.  Really flavorful and different than any eggplant I’d had before.

While there are some similarities, the food in Cambodia is very different.   For one, it is not spicy.  It can be, but on request.  Seafood is a staple here, as is the dish Amok, made with any type of meat or veggies, but fish amok is the very popular and traditional staple.   The fish is wrapped in a banana leaf with a coconut based curry paste, accented with fresh lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, and dried red chilies.  If you eat it at the right place, it is absolutely delicious.

The best and the cheapest foods are found on the street here, too, or in food stalls found in the markets.  Again, noodle soup is a traditional dish, made similarly to in Bangkok.  Aside from Amok, the dishes which set Cambodia apart are sticky buns, a doughy bun stuffed with a pork and fermented cabbage, and Banh Mi, the traditional baguette sandwich inspired by the French colonization of the region.  Made slightly different depending where you get it, these are stuffed with cucumber, pate, spring onion, cilantro, and a cucumber-carrot sort of slaw, add chile paste, pork, or cheese, if you like.  These sandwiches are awesome, and cost anywhere from $.75-$1.25.  A solid meal for little money.

The beach in Sihanoukville is a constant barrage of people selling things, including lots of food, seafood especially.  The sellers will cook you fresh squid or octopus right at your table, they carry trays of crawfish (which they call lobster) lightly spiced, and all the restaurants serve fresh fish and prawns.  You can also find all types of tropical fruit, including durian, which is infamous for its odor.  You can smell it from quite a way off, even if not opened.  It definitely has an acquired taste, but not as bad as I thought it was going to be, since the smell is so off-putting.

One more new dish for me, and absolutely delicious, was Som Lo Machuyun soup.  A Cambodian version of egg drop soup, and perfect for those who do not like spicy.  Just slightly on the sweet side, made with pineapple and tamarind, it also contains tomato, bitter melon, egg, fresh basil, and possibly a squeeze of kefir lime, too.  This is the dish to try.

What else to do in Bangkok and Cambodia, besides eat, and according to what I have seen so far: get massaged, it’s cheap and good; The Golden Palace in Bangkok, and of course, Angkor Wat, the awe inspiring temples of the Khmer people near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Link here for more pictures of food, including market photos.  The meat in the markets here can make even the biggest of meat eaters a little unsettled.

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Posted in Food, travel | 5 Comments »