Archive | October, 2010

Early St. Patrick’s Day: Spirulina Beer

27 Oct

Malaysia has its fair share of bars, but not much in the way of a drinking culture, as one might expect from an Asian Islamic country. (If 60% of your population is supposed to abstain from alcohol entirely, and another 25% have low tolerance, you’re probably not going to have drinking establishments as the socials hubs, as they are in Europe and North America.) Still, there’s a nascent beer culture, as people’s palates grow more sophisticated and they seek out craft brews. (Interestingly, the most popular non-lager beer is…Guinness. I guess it’s the lightest of the stouts, but it’s still awfully stout-y for a tropical climate.)

Craft Brews is one of the few places in Malaysia serving microbrews, including the only Malaysian/Singaporean microbrew, Red Dot. (They’re also the only vendor of Rogue.) Red Dot offers the usual craft beer suspects (a stout, an English ale), plus some with a more local bent, like the Lime Wheat, brewed with Thai limes.

Also, green beer:

All-natural coloring

The color is a natural result of being brewed with spirulina, a blue-green algae purported to have various health benefits. It’s very, very green. I don’t think it has much of a flavor on its own. In the US, it’s usually used in health-foodish drinks like Naked’s Green Machine and Odwalla’s SuperFood,where the predominant flavor is apple juice.

The Green Monster (as RedDot’s verdant beverage is named) was citrusy and light — a little light for me; I couldn’t taste much of the hops the menu promised — and a whole lot better than green beers I’ve had in the past (i.e. Miller or Bud Light with green food coloring). Plus, the inclusion of a “superfood” like spirulina means that I get to pretend it’s a health drink, just like the fruit and supplements in your Jamba Juice means you get to pretend it’s not just a milkshake. Maybe they could start handing these out as post-marathon/triathlon beers?

Whether or not you buy the health claims, one thing is for sure: this is going to be my green beer pick for St. Patrick’s Day this year. I don’t think it’s exported to the US, but it would be easy enough to DIY with some spirulina powder and a homebrew kit. Any takers?


Recipe: Tau Yew Bak (Hokkien soy-braised pork)

22 Oct

Lest you think that all I do is eat out (or eat tropical fruit), let me assure you that I’ve been doing a fair bit of cooking at home, too. I go to the market and find something I don’t recognize, and then try to figure out what I’m supposed to do with it, usually by consulting the excellent Rasa Malaysia food blog. (It’s a great resource for people who want to try to recreate some of the flavors of SE Asia; the writer is a Malaysian living in the US, so she includes information on how to find some of the more exotic ingredients.)

Continue reading


21 Oct

As durian season ended, I noticed a new stinky fruit appearing at the markets: jackfruit. Unlike durian, jackfruit is only smelly on the outside (my mom described it as “rotting gasoline,” which is pretty spot-on). The actual part that you eat is quite approachable, combining the flavor and aroma of a really ripe melon with the mouthfeel of a crunchy nectarine, but not nearly as juicy as either of those fruits. (I find that describing the texture of tropical fruits is harder than describing the flavor, because there’s no easy analogue with more familiar varieties.)

Peeled jackfruit


I had always purchased my jackfruit packaged, as above, and had never seen the whole fruit until a few weeks ago, when the durian guy at the supermarket switched to jackfruit.

Unpeeled jackfruit

No wonder — that’s a fruit that requires a professional. Bringing home a whole jackfruit would be the vegetable equivalent of filleting a salmon at home; doable, but unwieldy.

Disemboweling the jackfruit

Also, the whole fruit — as noted above — is quite smelly, though its aroma isn’t nearly as pervasive as durian (you have to hold your nose to the fruit to smell it, rather than just enter the same room). Still, probably not something you want taking up your fridge. If you can even get it in there.

UPDATED 10/23/2010: Correction! The stinky version is not jackfruit, but cempedak, a close relation. It’s described as tasting like jackfruit with a hint of durian. So if you’re not lucky enough to come to SE Asia during durian season, this can be your backup.

Blood Cockles

19 Oct

Cooked cockles

Since my parents live in Hawaii, they aren’t as impressed by Malaysia’s “exotic” tropical fruits and vegetables. (When I served four-angle bean, the freakiest vegetable I could think of, my mother’s response was, “Oh, I saw that at the farmer’s market the other weekend.”)

Luckily, I could still wow them with Malaysia’s bounty of fruit des mer (or at least my mom, the seafood lover). Not that Hawaii lacks for delicious marine creatures, of course, but the species are quite different. I picked up a bag of blood cockles, or kerang as they’re called here, at the market. They were so fresh that some of them were still alive.

Blood cockles get their macabre name from the orange-red color of their flesh, produced by high levels of hemoglobin. The color is more pronounced before cooking (I forgot to get a shot in the heat of the kitchen). I don’t know that I’d call it a blood color, though, more like rust, or maybe liver. But I guess “liver cockles” doesn’t have quite the same ring. They’re probably the most common mollusk in Malaysian cooking and very common across Southeast Asia, but not so much elsewhere. You’ll find them in noodle dishes like char kway teow and curry mee, and in the previously sampled “Malaccan oyster omelet” (which, oddly, I didn’t see for sale in Malacca).

You can also opt to eat them boiled and make your guests do the hard work of shucking them. (They’re tasty, but small, so the shucking time to eating time ratio is kind of large.) That’s the approach I took. As for flavor? A lot like an extremely tiny oyster, with a distinctly metallic — shall we say, even a little bloody? — tinge. Supposedly consumption has been linked to Hepatitis A, but you know what? So is eating any bivalve. (Raw.) And the last outbreak was like, in the ’80s. I think driving to buy the cockles poses greater health risks than eating them.

Banana Leaf

18 Oct

Banana leaf is another must-eat for visitors to KL, so of course that was on the agenda when my parents were here. “Banana leaf” refers to a kind of Indian restaurant in Malaysia where they serve you a thali on a freshly washed banana leaf.

With each banana leaf, you get a heap of rice, a choice of three curries (vegetarian or non-veg), some vegetable side dishes, pickle, and fried bitter melon. It’s southern Indian in style, so the curries tend to be spicier and thinner than the creamy curries of north India. The place in the photo above served crab curry, a first for me. The crab is simmered for such a long time that the shell becomes soft.


Eating banana leaf rice the traditional way


After you finish, you just roll the leaf up away from you. If you eat the traditional way, with your fingers, you don’t even dirty any utensils, and the leaf is biodegradable, so it’s pretty eco-friendly as disposable dishware goes.

The best part about banana leaf is the price. A meal with a drink will run you about 8 ringgitt (or slightly more than $2) — about the same as a fast-food value meal, but way tastier. And you can get free refills on the curries! (If you can get the curry guy’s attention…)

Road Trip: Malacca

16 Oct


The charming streets of Malacca


I just realized it’s been two weeks since my last post. My parents came to visit, so I’ve been busy playing tour guide. The good news is that I’ve now accrued a lot of material for the blog. (Although I didn’t get to feed them quite as much as I would have liked, as they could only manage three meals a day, rather than the four or five it would take to cover all the culinary hits.)

I wanted to show my parents that Malaysia isn’t all shiny high-rises and inane traffic engineering, so we took a road trip to Melaka/Malacca. Much like Penang, Malacca is an old trading city that has retained its colonial architecture and charm (and is a UNESCO World Heritage city). Also like Penang, Malacca is known for Nyonya cooking, as well as a distinctive Portuguese fusion cuisine. But we didn’t try any of those, because the restaurants were closed.

Instead, we opted for another Malaccan specialty: chicken rice balls. It’s just like regular chicken rice, except the rice part comes in little ping-pong-sized balls. Anyone who’s had musubi (a.k.a. onigiri) knows that when rice is compacted, it becomes a dense nugget of chewy goodness, and that’s exactly what these are.


Chicken rice balls


We went to Hoe Kee, a restaurant that has lines during peak hours. It must be because of the rice balls, because the chicken wasn’t anything to write home about (or blog about, for that matter). The balls are a brilliant idea, though. I don’t know why we don’t consume more of our starches in a spherical format. Chicken rice is especially suited to this, because the rice is cooked with chicken fat and broth, and the savoriness is concentrated by getting packed into ball form.

Malacca is also known for ais cendol, the Malaysian take on shave ice. (That’s not a typo. “Shaved ice” has got nothing on shave ice. And don’t get me started on Sno-Cones.) The Malaccan version is made with a particularly potent form of palm sugar syrup called gula melaka; it’s a bit like molasses, but with a deeper, caramel-like flavor.


Shave ice, Malacca style


There’s also the obligatory topping of green noodle-y things (cendol), sweetened kidney beans, and condensed milk. I’ve had it with corn, too. The gula melaka really set apart this ais cendol. Very refreshing on an incredibly hot day.

Next: introducing the parents to another Malaysian tradition, the banana leaf.