Archive | August, 2012

Fó Tiào Qiáng: “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall”

31 Aug

Last weekend, Tom and I drove to Nilai to attend a going-away luncheon for one of his coworkers, a town that’s about an hour’s drive from KL (or 45 minutes, if you disregard the speed limit). So what would motivate people to spend two hours in a car on a lovely Saturday afternoon? Since this is Malaysia, the answer is something delicious: in this case, a dish called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” so named because its aroma would tempt even the Buddha to break his vow of asceticism (and vegetarianism, as almost all of the ingredients come from animals).

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much; it’s basically a collection of braised things in soup, which never looks all that impressive. However, BJOtW is crammed with all the ingredients that the Chinese consider luxurious: mysterious medicinal plants, wine, sea cucumber, scallops, and (most distressing to me) shark’s fin. It’s the Chinese equivalent of a foie-gras-and-truffle-topped Wagyu steak. Because many of the ingredients are dried, it needs to simmer for several hours, possibly overnight; the result is basically an umami-bomb. This was also my first encounter with shark’s fin, an ingredient I’ve avoided due to ethical concerns (basically, it’s like hunting buffalo solely for their pelts), but is still the sine qua non of luxury foodstuffs for many Chinese. (Now that I’ve had it, I don’t feel the need to repeat the experience at the expense of my conscience; it’s naturally flavorless, and in the soup, tasted like a mass of jelly.) On the whole, though, BJOtW didn’t taste as decadent as the name suggests, possibly because it’s almost fat-free.

Top row, right to left: abalone; the clever little individual soup pot; braised sea creature bits. Bottom row: giant prawns; delicious pork fat; more porky goodness in buns

The rest of the meal — all eight courses — was an exercise in gluttony. Rounding out the sea creatures, we had an abalone in some sort of oyster sauce, two other braised “seafood delight” dishes, and the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen with some sort of spicy crispy topping. Plus we had the restaurant’s (silver) award-winning pao (pork-stuffed steamed buns), which I quite enjoyed but Tom felt were overshadowed by Tim Ho Wan‘s. The hit of the afternoon, though, was the pork belly cooked with red wine, which led to a lively discussion of “good” fat versus “bad” fat. This was definitely “good” fat in the sense of fat cooked to a deliciously melting texture, not to be confused in any way with “good” in the health aspect.

The biggest surprise, though, was dessert. The menu just listed it as “Hashma in Soy Bean”; I should have looked more closely at the Chinese characters, because what I thought were pieces of lychee, or maybe agar, turned out to be…frog fat. Apparently this is an ingredient that even most Chinese aren’t familiar with. When one of our dining companions told us what the secret ingredient actually was, another (Chinese) diner exclaimed, “I thought that was just the herbal name!” It’s just not a Chinese feast if you don’t have at least one animal part you’d never expected to consume.

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Ketupat (Steamed Rice Dumplings)

22 Aug

I still have to wrap up Taiwan, but I wanted to do a quick post in honor of Hari Raya, or Eid al-Fitr as it’s called in the rest of the world. This two-day (or longer) celebration marks the end of Ramadan, and in Malaysia — for those who celebrate — it’s kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. And, like those holidays, it’s celebrated with special foods, like ketupat.

Ketupat is rice that’s packed into cute little baskets woven from coconut fronds and then boiled. As the rice cooks, it expands to fill the packet, creating a compressed cake of rice. (Actually, “cake” or “dumpling” is a nice way to describe them; “brick” would be a less flattering but more accurate term.) Ketupat is traditionally served with rendang, a dry Malay curry thickened with toasted coconut. The texture of ketupat does work as an accompaniment to the curry — like a heavy matzo ball, it absorbs the flavors of the rendang — but all in all, I still prefer the other festive rice dish, lemang, which is glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk inside bamboo. (Unfortunately, lemang can be difficult and messy to serve without a machete, as we discovered.)

The question is, what do I do with my leftover ketupat packets? They would make great projectiles, but we don’t have monkeys at our condo (yet), and I don’t think management would be too happy about me hurling them over the balcony.

Taiwan, Part Two: Stinky Tofu (With Bonus Duck Blood)

8 Aug

If Taiwan is famous for one food (besides bubble tea), it’s stinky tofu. Stinky tofu is exactly what it sounds like: fermented tofu that smells to high heaven, or more accurately, to the next block. You don’t need to be able to read Chinese to know what a stinky tofu vendor is selling.

Like other fragrant foods, like durian, French cheese, or natto, stinky tofu is an acquired taste — but somewhat addictive once acquired. Take the example of our man in Taipei, a Midwestern boy gently reared on Lutheran cuisine (motto: “Just put it in Jell-o!”) who became a lifelong stinky tofu fan after an internship in Taiwan. He was the one who not only suggested we go for stinky tofu and duck’s blood, but dug up the Google directions for “Stinky Tofu Street” in the suburbs of Taipei. Shenkeng is a district renowned for its tofu, and its Old Street has restaurant after restaurant serving various tofu dishes, as well as street vendors who congregate along Zhongsheng Bridge. The area is literally known as “Under the Big Tree (大樹下).” (I would include the English pronunciation, but I can’t seem to call it up on Google. Maybe one of my Mandarin-speaking readers can help.)

Stinky tofu kebabs

As an appetizer, we started with grilled stinky tofu, which can be topped with a choice of pickles. This is probably the mildest way to eat stinky tofu; the aroma was subdued by the grilling process to a pleasant funkiness. This stall was insanely popular; even though it was nearly 9pm, customers were queued up, sometimes taking 5 or 10 orders home.

Mmm, stinky tofu and duck blood

Not as mild: the famous stinky tofu and duck blood hotpot. The two main ingredients are simmered in a rich, spicy broth. The broth was delicious; complex, satisfying, everything you would want from a hot pot. The stinky tofu was also enjoyable, having absorbed the flavor of the broth (the best thing about tofu as an ingredient is that it’s basically a sponge) while contributing its own slightly funky flavor. (Despite its name, stinky tofu isn’t all that stinky when you eat it.) The duck blood, on the other hand…let’s just say that while I am a fan of black pudding and the like, cubes of coagulated blood is not really my thing. I think it’s a matter of texture: it’s like Jell-o (sanguine flavor). Maybe that’s why our Lutheran friend is such a fan? I will say in its defense that it tasted much cleaner than pig’s blood, which I’ve had in noodle soups in Malaysia. But between this and the duck blood and pork intestine hotpot, I started craving a salad. Tom ended up abandoning the soups entirely and filling up on noodles.

Speaking of which, I’ll be feasting on dumplings and noodles galore in part 3!

Taiwan, Part One: Night Markets and Street Food

1 Aug

Taiwan has to be one of the most food-centric places I’ve visited…and that list includes Japan, Hong Kong, and of course Malaysia, so that’s saying something. I ate so many crazy things on this weekend trip that I have to split it into three posts!

The edible wonders of Taipei’s streets: fruit for juicing; squid on the grill; a Taiwanese pasty; various chicken bits; fresh waffles; sausages

You can’t talk about food in Taiwan without talking about street food. Taiwan’s night markets are famous around the world, and the most well-known, Shihlin Night Market, even has an eponymous chain in Malaysia.

The craziness of Shihlin Night Market on a Saturday

The atmosphere at SNM is part tourist trap, part glutton’s paradise. Like street food everywhere, there’s a lot of starch and meat (preferably pork), usually deep-fried, and there’s an emphasis on novelty foods: I saw one stall with an extra-long queue selling deep-fried musubi (Japanese rice balls) with cheese. Another popular item was a sort of filled waffle, which came in a mind-boggling array of shapes — everything from SpongeBob SquarePants to this very NSFW version (which I’m linking to rather than posting, because my mom reads this blog, too).  There’s also a basement food court if you prefer your claustrophobia served with a side of air-conditioning and seats. (It’s really hard to dine on an oyster omelet while walking.)

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