Archive | August, 2011

Tastes Like Burning

25 Aug

Deadly weapons

Part of our vegetable haul from the Cameron Highlands was a bag of hot peppers. “These are really hot,” the auntie told us, and our reaction was, “Great!” because Tom, especially, is keen on spice and has a higher tolerance than anyone would expect from a Latvian-Scottish kid raised in rural Michigan. While making dinner, I decided to test exactly how hot these peppers were, so I cut off a wee slice from the very end (i.e. furthest from the seeds, which carries the actual capsaicin). And then ran around trying to find something to put out the burning in my mouth. (Which is also how I found out that our 2% milk is vanilla-flavored, but that’s another story.) One lesson I learned from this: if an old Malaysian lady tells you something is hot, you should believe her. After dousing the flames to a manageable smolder, I very carefully shaved off two or three very thin slices to include in the hot and sour soup I was making for dinner.

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Market Mondays, Cameron Highlands Edition: Corn, Flat Bean, and Shrimp Stew

22 Aug

Tom and I went for a short getaway this past weekend in the Cameron Highlands, a former hill station about 2 1/2 hours from KL. Back when Malaysia (then Malaya) was a colony, Cameron Highlands was one of those mountain retreats where the British would go to escape the tropical heat and pretend that they were still in cold, damp England. Today, it’s where tourists (both Malaysian and non) do the same thing. Almost all of the hotels are built in a faux-Tudor style, and there are umpteen places you can stop for tea and scones, operating side by side with Indian restaurants and Chinese hot pot outlets.

Because the climate is temperate, Cameron Highlands is also an agricultural hotspot. The mountains are covered with tea plantations, and the farms are famous for strawberries and other things you can’t grow elsewhere in Malaysia, because it’s too hot.

The panoramic tea plantations of Cameron Highlands

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18 Aug

Today’s post doesn’t fall under this month’s stated theme of plant-based foods, but I was recently treated to a Shanghainese dim sum lunch and it was too good not to share. (The venue: Shanghai, at the Marriott in Bukit Bintang in KL.) I don’t have a lot of experience with Shanghai cuisine, but according to our host it’s lighter than Cantonese, which is what most Westerners identify as “Chinese” cooking. Nor is it spicy like Szechuan. Another characteristic is the liberal use of black vinegar; a dish of what I though was soy sauce was actually a little dish of vinegar for dipping.

Dim sum, of course, means tea. (Not literally: the characters translate to something like “little heart.” Although the other name for dim sum, yum cha, does literally translate to “drink tea.”)

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Rojak: how Malaysians eat fruit

11 Aug

I know I’ve talked about rojak before, but I think this deserves a special mention. You see, the other day I happened on a rojak stall where the auntie makes the sauce à la minute, as they say in fancy restaurants, including grinding the chilis by hand in a mortar and pestle. On the sidewalk.

Zila, the rojak vendor, slicing a cucumber for the rojak

This stall is one of the many that line the road that goes through Desa Sri Hartamas, one of the neighborhoods near me. What’s ostensibly a two-lane road — and a busy one, since it connects to the expressway — is reduced to one meandering lane as drivers pull over without warning and double park to grab their nasi lemaks and pisang gorengs.

Grinding chilis

A short refresher on rojak: it’s a mix of fruits and vegetables, generally crunchy or acidic types like pineapple, cucumber, jicama, and guava, mixed with a salty-sweet-umami-y sauce that looks like tar, or molasses if you want to keep the analogies in the edible realm. Chili and peanuts are added on request. I have no idea what exactly goes in the sauce, although I do know that marine creatures are somehow involved.

Fruit for rojak

As it’s Ramadan now, Zila (the rojak vendor — proper rojak takes some time to make, so we chatted for a bit) isn’t running the stall. But if you should be passing through Desa Sri Hartamas on an afternoon, double-park with the rest of the locals and give her rojak a try.

Thai-style Pomelo Salad

4 Aug

Pomelo is an exotic fruit that you have a fighting chance of seeing in the Western hemisphere, particularly if you go to an Asian supermarket. It looks like a grapefruit on steroids: a good pomelo is about the size of a soccer ball.

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Ascetic August, or: SOK goes on a diet

1 Aug

It’s been a year of pretty indulgent eating for me, and I’m attending a wedding next month, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to kind of hit the reset button on my eating habits, so to speak. That’s why this month, I’ll be focusing on the exotic fruits and vegetables of Malaysia. It’s like a healthy version of my month of burgers from last summer.

Kicking things off is a fruit that will hardly seem exotic: the humble banana. The bananas we’re familiar with from the supermarket are only a small tip of the banana iceberg, and a not very tasty one at that. Estimates on the number of varieties vary, but there are around 500 varieties that are cultivated commercially. (Another bit of trivia: did you know that the banana “tree” is actually a grass?) The most widely marketed, at least in the US, Europe, and non-banana-growing parts of Asia, is Cavendish; it’s also one of the blandest varieties I can think of. I was lucky enough to grow up in Hawaii, where they also grow a variety they call apple bananas, which are sweeter, tangier, and creamier than the Cavendish. I haven’t been able to find quite the same thing in Malaysia, but no matter, because they’ve got something even better: pink bananas.

(They look more orange than pink in this photo, but you get the idea.) Alas, only the skin is pink; the flesh is your standard banana-cream-yellow. Flavor-wise, this is an ideal banana: not mushy or bland, but creamy and tangy.

Alternate banana varieties can be hard to find if you don’t live in the tropics, but sometimes they crop up (…so to speak) in the exotic fruit sections, or at your local Asian/Caribbean/Hispanic market. If you see pink bananas, give them a try, and let me know what you think!