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Over the Moon(cake)

1 Oct

September 19th was the Mid-Autumn Festival, celebrated by Chinese communities with lanterns and the giving and eating of mooncakes, round pastries traditionally filled with sweet bean or lotus pastes which could be considered the Chinese equivalent of fruitcake.

Durian Snowskin Mooncake

Behold, the most Asian thing I’ve eaten

The gift-giving aspect of mooncakes has led to something of an arms race in the packaging and novelty-flavor factor. Mooncakes come in resplendent boxes (we’re using one of them, actually a little chest of drawers, to store Mr. SOK’s cuff links) and are offered in ever more exotic flavors; non-Chinese franchises like StarbucksHäagen-Dazs, and Godiva have gotten in on the action with modern offerings like chocolate fillings and ice cream mooncakes.

The original “modern” mooncake is the snowskin mooncake, which is actually a cousin of mochi ice cream: an ice cream filling is surrounded by a soft, slightly sticky wrapper made with glutinous rice flour. Although buying your own mooncake is kind of like throwing yourself a shower, I had to get the Hello Kitty durian snowskin mooncake, which I think is the most Asian food item I’ve had.

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Dr. Frank-N-Furter

29 Jul

My trip to the US entailed spending a lot of time at the Frankfurt airport — 6 hours on the way there, 8 hours on the way back. With a baby. There are, certainly, worse airports to while away the day — LAX comes to mind — but Frankfurt is no Changi. Or even Schipol (which, I hear, has excellent facilities for keeping your kids entertained). The biggest problem is that you have to go through passport control when exiting the terminal, so unless you’re willing to go through all the security, you’re kind of stuck. (I was actually game, but the nice man at the Lufthansa counter strongly advised against it, and I figured he knew what he was talking about.) On top of this, the Lufthansa lounge had no day passes, so I couldn’t even pay to get in. At least there were showers (though only Euros or USD are accepted, which is problematic when flying in from Malaysia.) And the free airport wifi only lasts 30 minutes!

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Let’s blow this popsicle stand

20 May

OMG, the baby is asleep! Quick, write a blog post!

Potong popsicle stand

In Malaysia, the icy treat we know as a popsicle is called an ais krim potong (literally, chopped ice cream). For whatever reason, they’re usually round — maybe they’re made in the same molds as tube ice? — and come in classic flavors like red bean, yam, and black mochi rice. (What can I say, Asians do sweets a little bit differently.)

As in the West (plus Australia), someone has decided to do an artisan/hipster take on the lowly potong in KL, and they’re calling themselves — what else? — The Potong. (That’s their adorably twee popsicle cart above.) The coconut chocolate flavor appears to be the crowd favorite, as it’s always sold out, but I’m always drawn to their seasonal flavors like pineapple chili.

Potong popsicle

It’s all about the packaging.

Their most recent line, for spring, featured floral flavors; I tried the lychee with rose water. I was a little nervous because rose water confections often taste like soap, but the floral notes were pretty subdued; the orange zest tended to dominate the more subtle flavors of the lychee and the rose. Still, it’s hard to resist such a poetic combination. The Potong, I’m looking forward to your summer collection.

Seasonal McD’s: Matcha Shake and McNuggets with Plum Sauce

23 Apr

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Last month saw me back in Tokyo for my grandma’s 99th birthday. I hope that I’m as accomplished of a cook when I get to be her age; she still makes her own pickles, and has never used a microwave. (I’ve blogged about her cooking here and here.)

This post, however, is about cuisine that’s 180 degrees from my grandma’s from-scratch dinners. Since they don’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, the Japanese have no Shamrock Shake, but this spring McD’s offered a Japanese take on the green classic: matcha (green tea) flavor. At 120 yen it’s a fraction of the cost of a green tea Frappuccino; unfortunately, it’s a fraction of the flavor, as well. The shake tasted less like green tea and more like those soaps that are supposed to be green tea-scented, in some universe where green tea smells like cheap perfume. The greenness of the shake also left something to be desired. Things made with actual matcha are a vibrant green; this shake looked more like it had been flavored with green tea dregs.

The other seasonal offering was plum dipping sauce for McNuggets, which I haven’t had in ages. The plum in question is the Japanese plum, or ume, which is one of the first flowers of spring, though cherry blossoms get all the glory. The plums are quite tart and are usually pickled (umeboshi) or used for plum wine. So the dipping sauce wasn’t the sweet plum sauce that comes with Chinese duck, but rather a sour-salty version. It made for a refreshing (in a slightly artificial sort of way) contrast to the fried nuggets.

SOK: Back in Commission

1 Mar

This has been SOK’s longest hiatus yet: over three months since my last post. I have a good excuse, though: just about three months ago, I had a baby. Melissa Mayer notwithstanding, newborns are very time-consuming, and even with a lot of help (both sets of parents and a full-time housekeeper), I didn’t do much for the first month besides sit on the couch and nurse the baby. (And google. The internet is simultaneously the best and worst thing for a new mother.) The next two months were dedicated to catching up on all the things I neglected that first month.

I thought I would kick things off by writing the post I meant for the night my water broke, which was Deepavali (Diwali). Last year I took a class at Bayan Indah and decided to put my new knowledge into effect this year, including homemade murukku. I’ve posted about murukku before, but this was my first time making it.

The murukku press

The murukku press

The homemade stuff is way better than the commercial version, and not that difficult to make, especially if you get someone else to do the frying for you. The hardest part is pressing the murukku out evenly so the coils don’t break.

Murukku dough laid out for frying

Murukku dough laid out for frying

The finished product

The finished product

Even in motherhood, SOK’s food adventures continue! More coming soon, I promise!

Baby Turtles and Catfish

25 Oct

Last month, I tagged along with Tom on a trip to a BP-sponsored turtle sanctuary, Ma’Daerah, in Terengganu, on Malaysia’s east coast. The trip was part of a community service project by the interns at his office, who chaperoned kids from Nur Salam (a shelter for at-risk kids, many of them refugees); for a lot of the kids, it was their first trip outside of an urban environment. We got lucky and saw two hatchings, plus two nesting turtles, who were less than amused to have their egg-laying observed by a gaggle of humans. Baby turtles are probably one of the cutest marine creatures out there, which makes it all the more heart-breaking that the survival rate is a shockingly low 1 in 1,000. Having no natural defenses, they’re basically adorable snacks for marine predators. To make matters worse, turtle eggs are considered a delicacy in many countries, including Malaysia, where, shockingly, there is still no ban on the sale of eggs. (Not to worry: no turtles nor their eggs were harmed in the writing of this blog.)

Baby turtle!

Ma’Daerah is close enough to reach by car from KL, and along the way, we stopped for dinner in Temerloh, which is famous for its freshwater fish, especially patin, a kind of catfish. The rest stop we parked at — don’t laugh: some of the best food in Malaysia can be found at rest stops — had stall after stall offering ikan patin masak tempoyak, or patin cooked with tempoyak.

Ikan patin masak tempoyak. Tastes better than it looks.

What’s tempoyak, you might ask? It’s fermented durian. Seeing as durian is already quite pungent on its own, I couldn’t imagine what it would smell like after fermentation. Judging from this dish, though, tempoyak might be actually be less potent than durian in its fresh glory. The broth was rich, with a mellow funkiness, and I can say that the patin is justifiably famous: the meat is delicate but savory, without any of the muddiness one normally associates with catfish. 

The communal pot of patin soup

So if you’re ever in Malaysia during turtle-hatching season, go visit a turtle sanctuary, coo over some adorable (if doomed) baby turtles, and stop in Temerloh for some patin with tempoyak. You’ll be glad you did.

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.