Tag Archives: travel

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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Up In the Air

1 Feb

My recent trip to Hawaii had me spending a lot of time in airports and on airplanes, which meant a lot of airport and airline meals. Luckily, I was on a Japanese carrier (ANA), so my meals looked like this:

Teriyaki chicken on rice, potato salad, and chilled noodles

It’s not quite the same as lobster on the salad cart, but it beats the mystery-meat-and-boxed-mashed-potatoes that you’re liable to get on an American carrier. Interestingly, ANA prints menus that show the calories in each meal. They’re actually not bad, about the same as a Lean Cuisine; I’m pretty sure that doesn’t include the potato salad that seemed to be the side of choice.

Some of the menu choices were more … unusual.

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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.

Melbourne, Portland of the Southern Hemisphere

29 Sep

I tagged along with Tom on his trip to Melbourne last week. This being my first time in Australia, I wasn’t sure what to expect; food-wise, I was looking forward to indulging in red meat, cheese, and wine, things that Malaysia doesn’t do so well. Especially wine. Asia still doesn’t have much of a wine culture (and really, who wants to be drinking red wine in 90-degree heat?), and with the high taxes in Malaysia, it’s both difficult and expensive to find a decent bottle. (Case in point: Yellowtail costs nearly $20 here.) Melbourne, on the other hand, is in the heart of Australia’s lesser-known wine country, the Yarra Valley, which is sort of the Oregon to the McLaren Valley’s Napa.

 

The bucolic hills of wine country in the Yarra Valey

 

I was surprised to find out that Melbourne is something of a food destination. The focus on local eating would put Alice Hoffman to shame. I mean, even the olive oil and salt they put on the house-made pasta are likely to be local. Also, much like the Pacific Northwest, Melburnians are obsessed with coffee. (There’s even an app for it.) There are literally hundreds of European-style coffee bars (though they don’t charge you for sitting) tucked into laneways and dotting the streets. As far as I could make out on my brief visit, the reason for all the cafés has its roots in 1) the Italian immigrants who came during the 19th century and after World War II, bringing café culture with them, and 2) the practice of closing pubs at 6 pm, from which coffee bars were exempt, even if they might be serving something a little stronger than espresso. (N.B.: the early closing was abolished in the late ’60s, but the coffee bars remained.)

 

Caffe latte, served authentically

 

Perhaps because coffee is part of Melbourne’s heritage, coffee shops are mostly independent (I only saw one Starbucks the entire week), and the drinks are served as they would be in Italy — even the McCafe lattes come in a glass.

I was also surprised by how acclimated I had gotten to living in Malaysia, even after a month. Literally — I was so cold in Melbourne (it’s spring there now, so temps were between 50 and 60 degrees) that I had to buy a new jacket. And portion sizes! Somewhere in the back of my mind I expected Australia to be quasi-British, and was unprepared for the massive, American-sized plates of food.

The shift in portion size, along with the sizable Chinese population in Melbourne, has produced this specialty: the dim sim.

 

Behold, the dim sim

 

When I first saw an ad for “dim sim,” I thought it was a typo, but then I saw other places advertising their “delicious South Melbourne market dim sims” and came to the conclusion that it must be A Thing. The dim sim is like a potsticker on HGH: a ball of seasoned pork the size of a child’s fist in a very large wonton wrapper, which you can get fried or, as a concession to health, steamed. I guess “gut bomb” wasn’t as marketable. (By the way, if you’re wondering “why dim sim?”, have an Australian try to say “dim sum.”) I got mine fried, of course, because when you’re eating a quarter-pound of minced pork, you might as well go for the gusto. It tasted kind of like a Chinese food version of another Aussie staple, the sausage roll. I imagine these would be very popular in Wrigleyville after a Cubs game.

Another Melbourne specialty, allegedly: cakes. Acland Street in the St. Kilda’s district is particularly known for their pastries.

 

Cake display on Acland Street

 

There are three or four of these cake shops lined up along the street. Which brings me to another Melburnian (or maybe it’s Australian?) specialty: incomprehensible terms for common things. A cake isn’t a cake, it’s a “slice,” which is actually a square. A pot of beer is smaller than a pint of beer. I still don’t know what a “milk bar” is. And it took me a while to figure out that when people ask you “How’re you going?”, they’re not interested in your transit plan.

The vanilla slice I had was delicious, though it was neither a slice nor a cake. (Definitely vanilla.) It was more like a mille-feuille, but with about two inches of cream filling. This thing was huge. (See above regarding Aussie portions.)

Melbourne is also famous for its food markets. These are like permanent farmers’ markets that have been around since the 19th century, and like a supermarket, you can get anything: meat, seafood, vegetables, deli items, uggs (this being Australia, after all). I couldn’t resist a trip to the seafood section:

The finest from Australian shores

 

 

 

As I bemoaned my lack of a kitchen to prepare these delicacies, I noticed that a couple of gentlemen were enjoying cold beers and oysters on the half-shell. The stall had set up an impromptu oyster bar, and was running a $1 oyster special!

 

Oysters, straight from the market

 

I love oysters. When I heard Shaw’s Crab House had a 25-cent oyster special (they still have it: 3-6pm on the last Monday of the month), I had two dozen of them. By myself. However, I restrained myself this time (I’d just eaten that dim sim, after all) and only got three.

My only regrets leaving Melbourne were that 1) I didn’t get to eat more, and 2) I couldn’t smuggle in cheese to go with my wine. Next time, I’m bringing a cooler.

The Most Affordable Fine Dining In the World: Tim Ho Wan’s, Hong Kong

15 Sep

Tom had another long weekend last week (Hari Raya), so we decided to splurge on a weekend in Hong Kong. (One of the perks of crazy business travel is spending your points on vacation.) Most of our time was spent on those deeply cultural pursuits, eating and shopping. I think Hong Kong rivals KL for number of tasty edibles per square meter, although in fairness it’s more compact. (Not to mention easier to navigate on foot. Sidewalks, how I’ve missed you.)

Asia, in recent years, has been trouncing Europe and the US in the Michelin-star wars. Tokyo alone has 150 Michelin stars. Hong Kong is no slouch, with 42 to its name, one of which has become famous as the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the world; it’s a hole-in-the-wall dim sum place called Tim Ho Wan, where the most expensive menu item tops out at US $3. It’s probably also gotten the most press. Hong Kong is widely known to have the best dim sum in the world anyway, so this was going to be either the most transcendent yum cha or biggest letdown ever. I had to find out. (Oh yeah, and it’s the first Michelin restaurant I’ve seen that I can afford.)

I was a bit intimidated by the stories of four-hour waits and the cranky Chinese hostess (is there such a thing as a winsome Chinese hostess? Discuss), but sucked it up in the name of the blog.

Perusing the menu in the queue at Tim Ho Wan

I was even more nervous about missing our number. The hostess shouts out your number in Cantonese, which I am not even remotely familiar with. (Mandarin at least kind of sounds like Japanese.) When I wasn’t trying to figure out what the (Chinese) menu items were by comparing the characters with the magazine photos plastered on the windows, I was obsessively checking the list to see where we were. (By the way, much thanks to the nice lady behind me who told me how to say “83” in Chinese, all 20 times I asked. No, I still don’t remember.)

The wait turned out to be much shorter than feared, only about 40 minutes. We got crammed into a corner so tiny we had to ask our neighbors to move their table when we needed to get out. The official capacity of Tim Ho Wan is 20 Asian people, or about five Americans, not counting the servers darting around with steaming pots of tea and baskets of food. They don’t do the traditional pushcart thing here, for the main reason that there’s not enough square footage to fit a cart, let alone push one around.

But enough about ambiance; that’s not why we’re here. Does the food live up to the hype?

The famous char siu bao

Tim Ho Wan’s specialty is their char siu bao; they sell up to 750 of these in a day. Bao (which in Chinese refers to any sort of bun) are usually steamed, but Tim Ho Wan bakes theirs with a light sugar coating, resulting in an airy bun with a bit of crunch. Oh, and this in the middle.

Sweet, sweet char siu.

That’s the char siu, barbecued pork in a sweet-and-savory glaze. The char siu was a little sweeter than what I’m used to. The whole thing sort of tasted like a porky dessert, like the “pig newtons” (some sort of pork-filled cookie) that I accidentally bought at a Vietnamese bakery in Chicago. I see why they sell so many of these; it’s the perfect marriage of delicate pastry and savory filling.

Steamed dumpling in Chiu Chow style

Dim sum involves a lot of dumplings, particularly of the sort wrapped in glutinous rice pastry. I think the above are called glass dumplings. You see the shrimp-stuffed version (called har gow, and of course we ordered those too) more commonly in the US. These were filled with a mixture of pork, chives, dried shrimp, peanuts, Chinese radish, and cilantro. Rich and savory, yet fresh-tasting, with each dumpling encompassing a world of flavors in a mouthful. The pastry wrapping was perfectly tender but strong enough to encase the fillings, and a testament to the kitchen’s skill. (If you’d ever like to engage in an exercise in frustration, try wrapping dumplings with wet, sticky glutinous rice wrappers.) “Chiu Chow” is a subset of Cantonese cooking developed in Hong Kong. I have no idea why these dumplings are considered Chiu Chow style.

Meatballs, and more dumplings

On the left we have steamed meatballs with bean curd skin (why is it that Asian food sounds so unappetizing in English?), on the right, deep-fried mochi pastries with a pork filling. The meatballs were remarkably tender and light, with the bean curd adding some chewiness and sopping up the sauce. Some day I will make meatballs this delicious.

On the right are deep-fried mochi (that’s glutinous rice again, this time pounded into a cake) with a filling of pork, mushrooms, and water chestnut in a soy gravy. This is the kind of thing that can easily become cloying or greasy (and often is), so again, kudos to the kitchen for pulling it off.

Rice steamed in lotus leaf with beef and chicken

We were getting full at this point, but it’s not dim sum for me without this dish: sticky rice with soy-braised meats, steamed in a lotus leaf. The rice soaks up the savory juices from the meat, and the lotus leaf lends its…lotus-y flavor. (You know, like grape leaves.) Often it includes things like mushrooms and lotus root, but this one just had meat (beef and chicken…I think). The beef was especially delicious, in that way that makes you keep eating even though you’re stuffed.

The world's best mango pudding

I don’t normally order desserts at dim sum (why waste the stomach capacity?), but Tim Ho Wan’s had gotten glowing reviews. Tom was initially skeptical (“Mango pudding? Really?”) but ate his words (and the pudding too), calling it the “platonic ideal of mango puddings.” It was pretty delicious; just on that fragile, quivering side of the line between a solid and a liquid, creamy, but full of mango flavor, like a mango panna cotta.

Jasmine-infused jelly with jasmine flowers

Our second dessert was less enthusiastically received. (Tom: “Are those flowers or bugs in the jelly?”) It was refreshing, but there’s something about floral-flavored desserts that makes me feel like I’m eating a particularly delicious soap.

Keep in mind that I’ve only posted the mind-blowingly good stuff here in the interest of space; we ordered other stuff that was also just outstanding (the aforementioned har gow, awesome turnip cakes, those “rice crepes” we always get at dim sum). It turns out that Tim Ho Wan has a ringer of sorts: the owner/chef, Mak Pui Gor, was formerly the dim sum chef at the three-starred restaurant in the Four Seasons. My only regret (okay, besides not ordering the chicken feet for Tom) is that now I think I’m ruined for dim sum elsewhere, and it’s too expensive to fly back to Hong Kong every time I have a dim sum craving.

More Hong Kong delights await!

Penang, Day 3: Nyonya Baba Cuisine

8 Sep

Another thing that Penang is famous for is Nonya (Nyonya/Baba-Nonya) cooking. I had never heard of Nonya until I visited Singapore six years ago on my honeymoon, although it’s well-known in Southeast Asian circles. (There’s even a brand of cooking sauces called Mak Nyonya, in case you don’t have any Nyonyas nearby to cook for you.) Baba-Nyonya literally means something like “grandpa and grandma” and refers to people of the Peranakan culture, a fascinating blending of Straits Chinese and Malay that arose when Chinese (mostly Hokkien) started settling the areas along the Straits of Malacca — including Penang, Malacca/Melaka, Singapore, etc. — in the 15th and 16th centuries and began to trade and intermarry with the Malays. Peranankan culture is notable for its love of ornamentation, from richly carved furniture to porcelain to intricate beadwork (even their tupperware is fabulous), its elaborate rituals (weddings were supposed 30 days, with a different outfit mandated for each week — take that, Indians!), and of course, its food.

As impressive as the furniture is, it doesn’t really fit my decor (which could be charitably described as Ikea casual), and I don’t have many occasions to rock an elaborately embroidered kebaya. But I’m always up for a good meal. (And a lot of people agree with me. “Nyonya food” came up with about 240,000 results.) Oddly, for being such a bastion of Nyonya culture, Penang does not have very many restaurants that specialize in Nyonya cooking; only two were listed in the Lonely Planet.

The entrance to Nyonya Baba Cuisine. (No, that's not what the Chinese characters read.)

We went to Nyonya Baba Cuisine (without getting lost, a minor miracle in Malaysia), which we found out is kinda famous. Not only has it been featured in Lonely Planet for, like, seven years straight, it was also the official food consultant for a Singaporean drama called “The Little Nyonya.” And Anthony Bourdain went there! So that makes two things that we have in common. Nyonya food seems to have a lot of nostalgic connotations for Malaysians and Singaporeans, and fittingly, Nyonya Baba Cuisine is truly family-run; the current owner, Khoo Siew Eng, took over the restaurant from her aunt, and she and her husband were doing the bulk of the cooking (and table-waiting) the night we were there. Even the recipes are inherited from their grandmothers.

As is so often the case eating out in Malaysia, I found myself wishing I was hungrier, or that we had more people eating with us, so we could order more of the intriguing items on the long menu. Alas, it was just Tom and myself, our vacation buddies having gone to eat at a restaurant shaped like a ship. (It’s called “The Ship.” They have kids, okay?) We were still able to get a decent sample.

Otak-otak is a famous Nyonya dish. It’s a fish mousse that’s either steamed (as above, a Penang thing, apparently) or grilled in banana leaves. The fish meat is blended with a top-secret mixture of herbs and spices; I noted the strong presence of kaffir lime and lemongrass, which left a fresh aftertaste. I think there was also chili. My favorite dish of the meal.

Shrimp with chili paste, or sambal undang. The menu called it “curried prawns,” but that’s not really accurate. Sambals, like moles and barbecue sauce, are best homemade, and usually tweaked to match the dish that’s being prepared, but most often have some combination of chili, garlic, and common SE Asian spices like ginger and lemongrass. I guess it’s a little bit like Thai curries, but not so soupy. This was Tom’s favorite.

Nyonyas did not assimilate the Muslim part of Malay culture, so pork is a major ingredient in Nyonya cooking. The above is a spring roll, stuffed with a tasty minced pork mixture, and a pork roll, which as far as I could tell was a different pork mince wrapped in a pork loin, and fried. No one ever said Nyonya was healthy.

For the sake of balance, we ordered some vegetables. We were going to order the salad, then found out that it was a salad of mostly shrimp and seafood. Instead we got Ju Hu Char (described as “Nyonya vegetables,”) a mixture of jicama, carrot, and green onion, cooked with dried cuttlefish. (The owner enthusiastically explained, “You taste that fishy taste? It’s dried squid!”) “Fishy” isn’t a pejorative here as it is in the west, at least when it comes to food. I would describe it more as a briny aroma. It was my first time having jicama cooked. I was surprised that it tasted a lot like a dish that my (Japanese) grandma makes with dried daikon. Tom agreed that it tasted very Japanese.

If you get a chance to taste Nyonya cooking — there are restaurants popping up in places with Malaysian communities, like New York, London, and Australia — I highly recommend it. Everything I tried was a completely new (and delicious) experience, yet there was a real homeyness to the meal. Like the world’s most exotic comfort food. Which I guess describes the best of Malaysian cooking.

Road Trip: Penang

6 Sep

Last weekend we drove to Penang, an island off the western coast of Malaysia about four hours from KL. Penang is famous for two things: George Town, a city whose colonial district is an official UNESCO World Heritage site, and its food, so much so that KL is lousy with restaurants touting their Penang-style whatever and has not one but two Penang restaurant chains.

This was my first road trip in a foreign country, so I was curious as to the rest stops. Malaysian rest stops (at least the big ones on the major highways) are, I’m pleased to report, big and clean, probably cleaner than a lot of US rest stops.

And they have fruit stalls:

Like the fruit vendors on the street, you pick out some fruits you like, then the vendor slices it up and tosses it with some assam powder (a mix of spices, salt, and sugar) for you on request. It’s a lot like the Mexican fruit stands you see all over Chicago. Since we were near Ipoh, which is famous for their pomelos (and Michelle Yeoh), we got pomelo in addition to the usual green guava. Pomelos are like grapefruits, except the size of your head.

The food court at sunset, just before the rain.

After we checked into our hotel (which was on yet another island), we took the “ferry” back to the main island for some sightseeing and dinner. We ended up at a food court, which is a little different in Malaysia than in the US. A food court in Malaysia is usually a bunch of independent hawkers who have gathered in a designated spot, and is usually a good place to sample a variety of foods as long as you don’t mind dining al fresco (and making a mad dash for the awnings when it starts raining).

Our selections included a delicious-but-not-very-photogenic char kway teoh (a Penang specialty, apparently) and a “Malaccan oyster omelet,” made with oysters plucked fresh from the shores, that was less like an omelet and more like a scrambled crepe. (I learned later that the secret ingredient is tapioca flour, which gives the eggs a slippery texture.) We also had “chicken satay,” which was more like “large chunks of chicken roasted with satay sauce” and which I unfortunately tore to pieces before taking pictures of.

And then there was this new thing:

It’s like satay, but instead of grilling, the sticks are plunged into boiling water. The name is a bit misleading, as not all of the sticks are seafood-based.

 

Lok-lok, after cooking.

We got bok choy (for a balanced meal), brown squid, baby octopus (which aren’t actually babies, they’re just small), and a mystery mollusk that ended up being our favorite. (I thought they were cockles, but now…I have no idea. I was going to ask the hawker, but he was too busy convincing a British couple that they would be able to eat something at his stall.)

Next up: SOK goes in search of the famous Penang laksa.