Monthly Archives: September 2012

I may have been in Singapore for the set up of Moon Festival but I find myself in a tiny village in southern Hungary instead for a harvest festival.  Perhaps more confusingly, it is a German minority festival with a gypsy theme.  What I was excited about though is that the community gets together to make puppets, parade down the streets eating and drinking, and make Hungarian desserts.

We arrived the day before the festival to help with the retes (strudel) making.  One of the grandmas told me villages used to get together and do this during weddings.  Then she told me I should marry a nice Hungarian lad so they could hold a retes making party for me.  Well, hot damn, that’s the first time all year anyone’s had a benefit for me with their proposed weddings.  It was even more endearing when she brought homemade langos for everyone as a snack.  I ran back and forward between the retes making and decking the culture hall dance room out with crepe paper streamers and grapevines.  And here I thought I’d never use my middle school dance decorating skills again.

All good festivals start with grandmas around a giant pot on the stove.

And what’s the only thing better than one grandma cooking? A whole village’s worth!

Kneading at the speed of light. I seriously don’t get how they pull knead like that.

The dough rests before being pulled to stretch over the entire table. They then pull off the extra bits off the edges and fold up the edges using the tablecloth.

The dough is brushed with butter (or margarine) and sour cream. See the tablecloth through the paper thin dough?

Next you fill the dough with tasty things like cheese, apples, or in this case cherries.

This one is being filled with marrow (squash) and poppy seeds. That grandma chuckled that you aren’t passing a drug test anytime soon.

Using the tablecloth to roll up the retes.

Then you cut and put the segments on a tray.

Last is the most important step, you pause, to sing dirty songs in Hungarian and have a few shots of palinka.  See the mischievous looks on their faces?

Then you repeat the process until you’ve filled an entire room full of trays of retes.

That you throw into the wood fired outdoor oven to bake.

Then when they come out burnt, all the grandmas fight a good bit about who did what wrong.

The next day we showed up early to help with the kurtoskalacs, a chimney shaped cake cooked over an open fire.  The bread is doused in sugar and caramelizes into a crispy exterior and soft interior.  I personally needed a little coffee to get going this early in the morning.

Kneading large amounts of dough by hand, the hard work intensive Hungarian way of doing things.

I had quite a bit of help to get from wet, shaggy dough to this lovely ball. My forearms hurt after a while. I’m not cut out to be a Hungarian grandmother. I can’t knead and I don’t smoke or drink nearly enough.

After letting the yeasty dough rise you roll it out.

Then you cut it into strips and wrap it around a bunch of buttered tubes.

If you can roll a bacon wrapped hot dog, you can roll a kurtoskalacs. I realize that may not be a common skill, but that’s how I roll.

Then in typical healthy Hungarian fashion, you brush yet more butter on it before rolling the whole thing in sweet powder.

Finished kurtoskalacs with poppy seed, chocolate, nut and vanilla sugar coatings ready for some wood fire.

Then we retired back to the farm to rest before the afternoon’s parade and activities.

The town and culture hall were decked out in grapes, grapevines, paper streamers, and slightly terrifying scarecrow-like puppets. This one in particular seems to have a soft spot for box wine and mini-Heineken kegs.

First order of business? Put on a traditional Hungarian skirt over my jeans. The two cups of wine help.

The townsfolk dressed in not particularly politically correct dark face to be gypsies. I’m not sure why cross dressing was necessary.

The other normally dressed townsfolk came on carts pulled by not always willing horses and donkeys.

The harvest festival is to celebrate the year’s goods. This is a wine press making must (grape juice).

Each house hands out things made from harvested goods. This is zsiroskenyer, fresh bread covered in goose or duck fat, paprika and some red onions. The Hungarian trinity is fat, paprika and meat. Other houses handed out various baked goods.

Some houses had wine or palinka, a strong fermented fruit liquor. This house had both maize palinka and red/white wines.

I took a more careful look at the decoration on the table. Well, these Hungarian grandmas are saucier than I thought!

Then everyone retired to the culture house to watch some music and dancing. I appreciate that dressing like a gypsy means putting on face paint and leather pants.

This time I passed on doing folk dancing in a circle and I unfortunately did partake in the local liquor again.  Perhaps the high amount of Hungarian techno both days and fanny packs just didn’t do it for me.  I didn’t plan for this festival but it has turned out pretty darned well.  Whenever I’ve had a little too much energy now I can try making traditional Hungarian pastries.  Until then, I’m going to eat my heart out here.


Well, I’m not in Asia anymore.  It was immediately obvious as I stepped into the post-industrial land I was expecting Budapest to be.

Under a bridge on Margaret Island.

In Singapore I wondered where the hipsters would go in such a yuppie city.  It took me a matter of seconds to spot all sorts of hip looking people roaming the city in Budapest.  It was both shocking and comforting to be amongst graffiti and to have left the fake front facing grandeur of Asia.

This graffiti made me laugh. Why yes, I am in Budapest, thanks! Alas, most of the other graffiti wasn’t particularly inspired or inspiring.

I got asked “What are you going to do in Budapest?” in Singapore.  To be honest, I had no idea.  It turns out the first thing I did was the same thing I’ve been doing all year, going to the local market.

The central market here has huge sausage, cheese, bakery and pickle wings. Swoon!

Often I get asked what food I miss.  I really miss Mexican food, and not the crappy Americanized stuff I can get on the road.  However in Asia I also rather missed cheese and things like salami.  I fixed that with my first meal in the Central Market with a langos.

A langos is a deep fried disk of dough topped with cheese, sour cream and garlic paste. I added salami to mine and spotted caviar in the available options at this stall.

While eating my langos, I spotted this bacon wrapped, melty cheese wrapped sausage under some heat lamps. A burly Hungarian woman was brushing everything in the case with oil

Instead of jumping straight into hosteling, as I expected I would need to, I Couch Surfed in Budapest.  I managed to find a guy who liked to cook and eat, just the kind of person I like to meet.

My host made me a delicious wiener schnitzel. He adds sunflower seeds on the outside.  Those are sauerkraut stuffed spicy cherry peppers on the side.

He was also quite the classic car enthusiast and drove an awesome teal Fiat.  I forgot to take a picture but it was fun to drive for the few minutes he let me in the parking lot.  He told me all about the charity rally race Budapest to Bamako that lets anyone on anything race across two continents.  I’ll have to try it one day.  We also went to a drive in and he was mightily surprised that I had never been in America since everyone here thinks of it as an American thing.  It’s funny what our expectations lead us to believe about cultures.  He wanted to learn how to make Chinese food, which ironically is not the first thing I cook by choice.  However I can, so I turned out some kung pao chicken and Taiwanese style egg and tomato stir fry.  Still not things I normally cook, but the stuff I like to eat requires a different pantry and it was closer to his favorites.  I was also introduced to palinka, a strong liquor made by fermenting any sort of fruit.  My host’s friend had made young walnut palinka.

Alcoholic drinks appear to be important here. Basement stills are legal in Hungary.

Budapest is a city full of wonderful culture and lots of museums.  I am quite amused that I caught a Warhol exhibition in Singapore and a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit here.  I guess I travel really far to see American art.

Outside the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Palace of Arts.

After the quiet, silenced lack of protest about anything in Asia, Budapest is quite refreshing.  It seemed extreme the other way relative to where I had come from.  One of the most famous churches in town is named the Matthias Church.  Perhaps telling of the attitude here, my host explained that he was a great king because he ruled during a period of unrivaled wealth and peace in Hungary.  He was an unpopular king at the time though, because he raised taxes and they didn’t know that was considered peaceful and wealthy until more people attacked them.  I guess Hungarians may just like to protest.  I stumbled upon a cordoned off parking lot near the Heroes Square where there was a whole billboard art exhibit dedicated to protesting.

Minorities are still harassed but have more of a voice than I saw in Asia. This particular billboard shows a woman wearing some sort of nationalist style flag with the message that she is Hungarian, gypsy, Jewish, gay and proud of all of it.

Some trends are the same everywhere, but this is definitely different from how you saw Angry Birds in Asia.  No parliament building destruction there.

I think this exhibit proved to me that you really, truly understand a foreign language when you can understand their word jokes and puns.  Of course, my favorite type of culture is still the type I can ingest.  Europe will be a challenge as I would like to avoid only eating bread and cheese to keep within my budget.  At least the bread and cheese here are interesting.  Everything in Hungary is so filling I kept leaving every meal feeling overly stuffed and that I should go work in a field somewhere.  I guess the hearty peasant style fare depiction is accurate which may explain the abundance of healthy international restaurants in Budapest.  I also learned that goulash is not a stew like gravy to be thrown on noodles, that’s called porkolt here. Goulash soup is a spiced beef and vegetable broth that is still quite filling with a giant hunk of bread.

Well, if I’m going to eat cheese and bread all day it can be hot and melty. This is a megelszendvics, or a pizza like half sandwich covered in way too much ketchup, mayo and mustard.

Hungarian food appears to involve lots of meat, like this fried meatball, and peasanty soups. This was found at an etkezdek, a cafeteria like lunch set up for cheap filling eats.

A cabbage retes (strudel). What’s not to love about cooked cabbage stuffed inside a pastry crust that started greasing through the paper as soon as I bought it?

I did splurge for a fantastic fried half duck in an old wooden restaurant filled with crusty old Hungarians. It was still ridiculously cheap compared to America and squeezed in my backpacker budget for the day.

I had temple fatigue in Asia and suspect I will have church fatigue as well.  I just don’t find them memorable as they turn into a blur of pretty buildings for me.  Still, on first glance, Budapest is an amazingly atmospheric city and I have enjoyed being immersed in old world architecture.

The old part of town is quite touristy but beautiful to wander around in and gaze at the buildings.

I’m still trying to decide where next however the weather went from lovely and temperate my first day to near freezing the next.  I think a break for the hopefully warmer Croatian coast may be in order.  I’m heading south like a migratory bird.

Exactly eight months after I entered Asia, I am finally leaving and I’m going to celebrate with my 100th post!  I went to countries I did not expect to go to and I am used to different things now.  It is perhaps fitting then that my last stop is Singapore, a fairly westernized city with attitudes and prices halfway in-between what Asia and Europe.  Like when I visited Hawaii, I had a moment of “Wait, everyone here is… Asian but they all seem to speak English!”  The Chinatown was the cleanest I’d ever seen and the vendors all spoke the best English I’d heard from any Chinatown.  I knew Singapore would be clean and efficient but this was still unexpected.

I arrived just in time for my kind of holiday, the Hungry Ghost festival in which neglected spirits come back to collect on missed food in the form of feast like altars everywhere.  This meant I saw plates of food in front of incense in front of many homes and particularly large displays in front of restaurants and food centres.  One restaurant had a whole roasted suckling pig out as their offering.  I’m totally coming back as a hungry ghost.

Hungry ghosts like cloud riders and giant pineapples. On the next street was a giant two story light up bunch of grapes.

Speaking of holidays, I happened to be in Malaysia for their Independence Day. This involved Malaysian flags everywhere a week before the big day.  This only made me more surprised that at least once a day in Singapore I saw someone wearing an American flag shirt.  I do not mean there was a flag on the shirt as much as the entire front or back was an American flag.  That would seem slightly tacky even in America, I guess there’s some love of America or American culture out here.

After months in somewhat conservative Southeast Asia, everyone in Singapore looks rather relaxed and casual.  Gone are all the men, even in villages, always in button down shirts and the women all in painful looking high heels.  After seeing people swimming in their full clothes, Singapore seems so full of exposed skin.  My last stop before this was Malaysia, but all throughout Southeast Asia it is uncommon to see the locals displaying much public affection.  I’m sure I looked silly and I stood agape staring at all the people just making out or grabbing butts on the metro or on the street.  I guess it’s not just reserved for teenagers out here.  They even appear to congregate outside on weekends having picnics in what is otherwise the rather feared sun in Asia.

Notice the difference between the Western and the Asian model.

This is a well off and developed country.  It feels like what Asia could be if they wanted to be conscientious about their rushed development.  Singapore has made a point to have green spaces and to conserve what little resources they have.  There are the endless shiny and new malls popping up everywhere like anywhere else Asia.  This may be a more food loving country as I’ve never seen so many malls per capita, and never so many food selling areas per mall.  I often look at the pets to judge how developed a country is and the cats and dogs here are definitely first world pets.  Even the senior citizens are better taken care of then in America, with an extra button you can swipe your senior card at to get longer crosswalk times.  Whereas I only saw iPads and iPods in airports in many developing countries, where the rich people were, everyone here had them.  They were visible in the subway, on the street as people walked, even in the lower end hawker centers.

Apparently being advanced does not mean solving all your Engrish problems. Either that or that construction zone was a huge cable television set for hoarders.

It seems quite common in Malaysia and Singapore that young adults speak English as their primary language.  However, it may be telling that Malaysian television had a show called “Oh my English!” to correct common mistakes for their native tongue.  The Singaporeans seemed to be overall more educated as a country so this meant that they mostly just had a different accent.

It is interesting to compare this country, full of what I consider Western style developments with the rest of Asia.  They seem much more conscious of the long arm repercussions of their actions perhaps due to the low resources and tiny size of the country.  In China, there may be trash everywhere but they had fancy ads in the subway that you could see as the train sped by.  Here there were not these fancy ads but the subway system itself was more advanced and easier to use.  You can see the priority of focus and innovation here, it is not as focused on capitalism as many of the ironically communist countries are.  It is delightfully refreshing if still a bit oppressive and more controlling than America.  Along with the rules about no durians on public transit and no chewing gum, I found out about a few more odd rules.  Apparently prostitution is legal in this business man focused city but pimping is illegal.  One hopes this encourages prostitution entrepreneurship, however alas I hear otherwise that this is not Europe.  A more outdated rule is that Malaysian newspapers are not allowed in Singapore and vice versa.  In the age of the internet, this seems like a pointless rule that has not caused the ruin of either country.

I’m willing to guess the giant, gaudy Marina Bay Sands Casino and Resort is more likely to be damaging to Singapore in the long run. It does make for quite the night skyline though.

While I was in Cambodia I met some Italian expats working in Singapore.  He told me that while his job was going well he felt like he wasn’t really living in Asia.  It was too clean, too unlike the rest of Asia.  I felt it was a tad sterile too without the piss and fire of Western rebellion, only the shinier financial market bits.  However as far as places to live go, efficiency and getting things done should never be ruled out.  It was not a bad place to hang out for a week or two, to see old friends who could find professional jobs out here unlike most places I visit, and to eat my heart out.  It was a good halfway point for me to be in right before I leave Asia for the west.  As this quote in my passport says, Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”  Thanks, not very gender sensitive passport, I will go west, and I’ll grow up with all the countries I visit in some modern global manifest destiny.

Screw those shirts that say “[City name] is for lovers”.  Everyone in Singapore needs one that says its for eaters.  I have not seen a city so full of people willing to line up for up to an hour to get something just because they’ve heard about it since I was last in California.  So while the friend I was helping to move in was at her day job I went on eating adventures.  I saw some old friends from Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Hawaii from earlier in this trip, and made some new Couch Surfing friends to get the full gamut of eating buddies. I am told by most that Malaysian food is better than the otherwise similar Singaporean food, I assume due to the fact that fat and dirt aren’t bad words there like they are in Singapore.  However I didn’t let that stop me from getting what I felt was great eats in Singapore.

The place to go for cheap eats in Malaysia and Singapore is in food centre/hawker centres.  This is where former street vendors have been brought in an effort to clean up the places and improve sanitation and comfort.  Much improved from American food courts however I find it weird that the stalls all open different hours and close random days so I never saw a centre with every stall open at once.  The prices are still relative, it’s cheaper than America but more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia.  However for eats this good, I’m willing to keep going.

The most tourist known and easily accessible from nicer hotels food centre is Maxwell Food Centre in Singapore’s Chinatown.  Anthony Bourdain visited a chicken rice shop here that makes a decent plate.  I’m amused that all the Trip Advisor reviews raved about how there were locals here.  I meanwhile had never seen so many foreigners in my darned food centre or market.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice is tasty but has a bit of a constant line, is only open for lunch, and has a terrifying half sized cut out of Bourdain.  That’s how you spot a good place in Singapore, go during the rush and eye the longest line.

What’s better than oysters? Oysters fried in a cake that I could get quickly to eat while waiting for my chicken rice.

I was quite full after everything else but I couldn’t pass up trying this milky looking fish bee hoon for once without a queue! Not my favorite but still tasty. Also a line showed up right after I left a 2 pm. Crazy.

An interesting stall in this centre was the fry your own donut stand. I never quite figured out how it worked but people lined up in droves to fry their own cheap, cheap donuts.

I rather lucked out that my friend lives near the old school Tiong Bahru food centre and quite a few other food centres all in a one kilometer range.  My last meal in Singapore was a restaurant nearby that served a Teochew porridge, a sludge like congee that you can get with raw fish slices that you either eat as is or throw into the hot rice soup to cook a bit.

One dish I had multiple times in Hainenese curry rice. You can get just about anything covered in curry on rice. This plate has okra, a fried pork chop and a lion’s head meatball complete with gravy. The curry rice ladies were also the most friendly and talkative.

Lor mee is a dish of noodles in a cornstarch based thick goo of a gravy. This one is improved by fried shark nuggets. Hooray for Asia eating shark parts other than the fin!

I had to try this because it was old school. These guys still mill their own rice to make “carrot cake”, what the Chinese call daikon cake. They then fry it with eggs and put it on a banana leaf.

Some things I had to travel a little bit for and wait in queues with all the Singaporeans.  We went on quite a misadventure looking for chili crab with my Hawaiian couch surfing friend that I had met up with again.  Alas he had to hit the airport before we finally found some.

This was good, but I’m not sure this chili crab was $28 good. I feel like it needs to be nine times as good as a chicken rice to be worth that money! Fried mantou however are always worth it. My friend makes a meaner (less sweet more spicy) crab.

What’s better than Hainanese chicken rice and laksa? Combining the two into curry noodles with Hainanese chicken! This one had a ridiculous line where the lady in front of me tried to order chicken ass then drumstick for me as the prime bits. I ain’t in America anymore.

There’s a strong Indian presence here which means delicious food for me.

This is sup tulang, lamb bones in a terrifyingly red sauce where the real key is to suck out the marrow.  It was delicious but I regret coming so soon after lunch when it could be late night fare.

This is nasi padang, rice cooked in chicken broth and then topped with anything you want. Ayam penyet is fried chicken and I had some beef rendang, quail eggs and cuttlefish as well.

I wasn’t fond of the last cuttlefish so I tried this squid in black ink, still tough but much better. My friend took my love of sup tulang to mean I must love all offal so that’s a pile of mysterious bits in one corner. I would like to state for the record I just love all meats.

I am always willing to travel for buttery, flaky dough. Particularly for this prata that you dip in unctuous lamb curry and deal.

Onto the sweet, or should be sweet, things!  I was told Malaysian durians are superior to the gross ones I had in Thailand and Vietnam.  Nope, still disgusting.

My friend tells me they taste sweet. They only taste like rotten to me. They also look like golden wrinkley testicles in a box, not exactly the “golden pillows” the Thai call them.

While I find some of Singapore’s strict rules hilarious, I agree with the metro sign.

Once again my friend the chendol showed up, even more elaborately. Hello mangos, soursops, and all sorts of things I can’t identify on my shaved ice and coconut milk.

How do you one up a chendol? By combining it with a milo dinosaur, a giant drink of Milo with the powder sprinkled on top.

I am also here for the ramp up to the lunar festival.  This is when you eat mooncake and carry lanterns around.  I consider mooncakes to be the devil spawn fruitcake of Asia.  It’s a sickingly sweet cake usually involving red bean or lotus paste and is made fancy by shoving as many egg yolks whole into desserts as they can muster.

I heard about an ice cream mooncake years ago. It’s just an overpriced hardened chunk of ice cream with a thin mooncake crust on the outside. So not worth it, a mooncake wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I spent quite some time looking for good kaya toast.  I found the Ya Kun Kaya Toast franchises everywhere quite disappointing and drab.  The original location is an improvement with toast still grilled on charcoal but the service kept asking if we were from Korea which was a bit annoying.  I know they get a lot of tourists but can I not enjoy toast in peace?

The winner endedup being Tong Ah (or Tong Ya depending on translation) coffee house, which is open odd hours and is mostly a restaurant but serves a great homemade kaya jam on both thick and thin white toast. Dipping it in the soft boiled egg and then eating the eggs with white pepper and soy sauce adds to your toast and pulled tea experience.

I was once again looking for old fashioned coffee and pulled tea here and the sign of that was the sock filter.  I saw some shops where the filter was placed in a very tall metal container with a very long pour spout.

The great part of Singaporean food is the mix of Malay (muslim), Indian and Chinese cultures to make naturally fantastic fusion food. Their strengths and missing bits combine to make a whole new beast. I still like some of my old beasts though, like pigs.

Well I don’t agree with that sign but otherwise I found Singapore both enjoyable and absolutely delicious.  In this city, I recommend following this particular blog for a good breakdown of must eats and endless reviews.  There is also a great book call the Makansutran if you can find it in stores that looks like a Zagat guide but is for hawker centre level food.  I wish we had this in America, as books seem reserved for fancier fare.  For the cleanliness conscious, Singapore is a better stop than still Asia-like Malaysia, however the food is so good I would recommend Singapore for any eater!

When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, some friends asked if I minded staying out of the touristy hubs and in far suburbs of the city.  I told them I usually stick to the fringes of the touristy areas so that I get a mix of local culture and food while still being walkable to attractions.  Granted I did spend one night out in the middle of not tourist central and it was a lovely area with a nice morning market.  This time I have arrived in Kuala Lumpur to visit a college friend and her family.  All of a sudden I find myself in suburbs and malls.  I haven’t spent much time in suburbs as they were a whole day venture in San Francisco.  What are you doing today?  Oh I’m suburbing, going to Target, Ikea and the like.  Well in a city where they’re cleaning up their tin shack shanty towns and wet markets, it’s a glance into what the future of Asia could be.

Malaysia is a modern, developed country crisscrossed in well made freeways and megamalls.  It is, after months of fly infested grungy wet markets that I have come to love, terrifyingly sterile.  However I came to see my friend and eat a lot, so this was as good a location as any.  Perhaps it was even better because I wasn’t distracted by much I wanted to see and I had my friend’s family whisking me away to places and stuffing me full.  The country’s mixed Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures made for some delicious eating and some hard to understand Malaysian English.  It may have been easier to communicate in pointing and smiles in various other countries.

We did one touristy day. Those tall things in the back are the famous Petronas towers. I’m not sure why fairly plain looking office buildings should be so special.

My friend’s family got me the things I knew about.  Nasi lemak with its fragrant coconut rice topped with anything from meat floss to fried chicken.  I got reunited with roti canai, a flaky and oily griddle bread I could eat forever.  High wok fired kuay teow (chow fun) with strong, noodle staining dark soy sauce.  There was Hainanese chicken rice everywhere. I got my hands on more than one good bowl of laksa and curries.

But it’s never what you expect right?  You don’t know what you’re getting into.  And that’s just how those laksas and curries went.  Turns out there are 13 types of laksa, little did I know or try them all.  Even otherwise simple chicken rice had been turned into rice balls for a new texture sensation.  The Malaysian, Indian and Chinese influence exponentially increased what curry meant in one country.

Endless curry and rice on a banana leaf? Yes, please!

I was introduced to  Nasi kandar, a huge plate of rice and a ladle of every possibly type of curry out of huge pots.

So the dark curry is overpowering everyone else in this picture of nasi kandar, but it is a seriously spicy and tasty dish that you can get late night.

Kuay teow gave way to Hokkien mee with the same dark soy sauce on wheat noodles and with the addition of crackling bits.  There were various rojaks, mixes of stuff.  I skipped on the fruit rojak as I don’t like scrimpiness in my fruit but I devoured an Indian rojak, full of gravy covered samosas.

Like a Malaysian version of poutine, Indian rojak consists of many fried things covered in a delicious gravy. Bonus points because this one came off a truck.

Some things I’d seen elsewhere and they had their own incarnations here.  I am not usually a fan of Asian desserts, as I prefer mine sweet, dense and chocolatey but I found some to enjoy.  Here we continued the trend of jellies and rice flour things in coconut milk but with the addition of flavorful palm sugar.  Fresh tropical fruits generally increase the flavor for me.

Alas, this sign was tellingly in the store of the only chendol I do not enjoy, the durian chendol.

At my friend’s behest I tried durian and moon cake again.  See the above sign.  I just can’t it still.  Durian, unlike delicious stinky tofu, just tastes rotten to me.  I did not try an ice cream mooncake but the standard variety did nothing to change my fruitcake like opinion of them.

Perhaps the biggest surprise group of foods in Nyonya cuisine.  It is a mix of Malaysian and Chinese cultures that my friend grew up eating so I got to have it quite a few times.

I loved everything in this going away spread.

The small triangles are pandan chicken, which take little persuasion as I love all pandan things.  The large leaf contains ota-ota, steamed fish curry that was reminiscent of all the fish amok I had in Cambodia.  Even a simple vegetable like vibrant green okra is slathered in a savory sambal.  The Nyonya also make assam laksa, a much sour and fisher soup that reminds me of Southern Vietnam tamarind and pineapple soups.

Ok, perhaps going to a country and increasing my eating intake while lowering the amount of walking I do isn’t the best idea.  I’m not going to turn down some friend catch up time and lounging by the pool in a country full of delicious eats though.  One day I’ll have to return to see the rest of Malaysia but until then i’ll dream of all the delectable and diverse eats.

I’ve been in Malaysia for just about a week now, mostly lounging about.  Just before I head down to Singapore we decided to take a day trip to historical Malacca.  The historical colonial part of town has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and has accordingly become quite touristy as the past industry of the port disappears.

Our first stop was to get the Hainan chicken rice balls the city is famous for at Chung Wah.  I mistook being told this as chicken rice with the addition of meatballs.  No it entails chicken rice with the rice rolled into balls for convenience.  A namesake of the country, chicken rice entails boiling a chicken until perfectly tender, then taking the stock from the chicken to cook the rice in.  The result is a greasy, tender mess you eat with cucumbers and spicy dipping sauce.  While I could eat chicken rice all day, I found eating the rice in ball form more a novelty than a delicious evolution.  The rice itself was too dry for my tastes as I prefer it much moister in this preparation.

Lunch stop two was a hole in the wall known as Long Fatt, which is what I’d be if I lived near this place.  It was run by an adorable family who earnestly told me the few dishes they had left after the lunch rush were all individually delicious.  I barely recognized it as we wandered by in a blog post I had spotted earlier, but the old family puttering around behind the counter looked identical to the picture I saw.  The younger generation proprietress stopped to ask us where we were from, we were unlike her other customers, much younger and speaking English.  The food was not fancy, but it was home cooked style fare with salted fish curries and stewed vegetables to go along rustic chunky rice porridge.

After two lunches we did a bit of walking until sweaty, which is about five minutes in.  A quick jaunt in the air conditioned gallery and museum did no good so we stopped for some cendol.  This is a dessert of rice noodles, jellies, red beans and other goodies in coconut milk and palm sugar.  Here we got ours with durian, which I was told was better than the Thai durian I disliked.  Alas, I still do not like durian.  The strong Malacca style palm sugar is delightful though.  As with most businesses in town, you could see where the back of the store was set up for family use and stairs leading upstairs to where they lived.

This old bar is run by the barely toothed smiling old gentlemen beckoning to wary looking tourists wandering down this otherwise quiet street.

After two meals and dessert we could no longer eat, so we went for an early drink on 5 Java Lane (Javan Jawa in Malay).  We walked along the river to an old bar near where the port used to be, in an area where the ghosts of opium dens and brothels linger.  The streets are full of original colonial style Chinese housing with open drains and guard dogs afoot.  My Malaysian friend amusingly noted “This alley smells like my Grandma’s house”.  These days the neighborhood is full of a few storefronts and guesthouses on the edge of the tourist area.  The two fifth-generation owners of the bar don’t drink but they happily invited us in to rest on their ancient wooden bar and enjoy some rather strong mango and lychee flavored liquors.  I’m not really a whiskey or rice wine fan but I greatly enjoyed the old couple.  I almost kept drinking just because I want this bar to last forever.  The other foreigners who wandered in right after us cautiously sipped at some Chinese herbal liquors before quickly switching to beer.  They told us they didn’t go out the night before because the area is quite dark and overrun with rats.  I guess a few things from the more colorful port days remain.

The remains of a satay celup with peanut sauce, empty skewers, and beer everywhere.

We ended the day with satay celup.  It is a fondue like set up with a boiling, bubbling pot of peanut based satay sauce, chopped peanuts and spicy sambal.  In one corner of the store is an open refrigerated case full of things on sticks.  Meats, fish cakes, tofu, veggies, veggies and tofu things stuffed with fishcake, and you tiao line the large area.  The attentive staff come by every few minutes to mix up your separating sauce, add more if necessary, and check the temperature as you eat to your heart’s content.  At the end they count the number of sticks to get the bill.  It’s certainly the most interesting hot pot set up I’ve seen of the many I’ve been to while I’ve been in Asia.  This also goes very well with beer or as a late night snack.

Malaysia is a mix of cultures, and Malacca embodies that past in the form of buildings and a mixed people.  It uncharacteristically did not rain all week, leaving a permanent haze of the burning from neighboring Indonesia.  Just our luck, it poured on our way back making our time on the bus just as long as the time we had in town as we got stopped by a flooded freeway.  I wish that meant we had more time in Malacca, absorbing a fading former port town and the friendly families who still toil generation after generation at the same crafts.