Friday, 27 November 2009

Nasi Goreng: Breakfast of Champions

Years ago, whilst en route to Australia, I had one of the most memorable eating experiences of my life aboard the wonderful Malaysia Air. It was around midnight UK time, but the cabin crew had yanked open the window shutters to the rising sun and announced breakfast.

On the menu was Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian and Malay breakfast staple that generally involves fried rice, egg, chili sauce and occasionally seafood, meat or vegetables. This particular version came with a little portion of curried prawns on the side, and sent my dormant, 18 year old taste buds shooting across continents faster than any jumbo jet.

I've carried that experience with me, and was justifiably excited by the prospect of a re-run when we arrived in Malaysia. However, far from recreating that single experience, I've discovered that Nasi Goreng, a lot like multi-cultural Malaysia, exists in several different shades held together by a few common denominators.

One of those is sambal, a pungent chilli paste with variations that include prawn paste, lime juice and sugar. Sambal can be a bit much at first, but as with many acquired tastes, perseverance brings with it rich rewards.

Other common denominators include fried rice and eggs. The egg sometimes comes hard boiled, at other times it is fried whole mixed through until barely cooked. Further variations exist with fried anchovies, prawns, sliced cucumber or what ever comes to hand. This is because Nasi Goreng is essentially an economical meal, composed of leftover rice and other odds and ends.

Even presentation is up for grabs. Sometimes it comes in little pyramid shaped banana leaf packages that open to reveal a boiled egg balanced on top of a dollop of sambal and portion of rice. Other times it comes out with the different components separated on the plate, awaiting the judicious application of fork and spoon.

A true breakfast of champions.

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Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Chili Crab at Lau Pa Sat

In my last post but one, I described how a certain rancid sea freak had robbed me not only of the contents of my stomach, but also of my taste for Asian food. At the time I was understandably worried - there I was in one of the best food cities in the world and all I could think about was western stodge. After putting up some resistance at first, I followed some sound advice and gave in to my criminal urges. Within a few days, I wolfed down a couple of hamburgers, a hot dog, a KFC zinger burger and a few portions of chips. When I came out the other side, my western fixations were mostly satiated, and I fell straight into the claws of a chili crab.

Chili crab is probably the most famous Singaporean dish. For decades it has had both pincers firmly locked on the city, putting the squeeze on tourists and locals alike with its winning formula of chunky crab meat and rich chili sauce. To even contemplate not having one would have been sacrilege. As such, during my final hours in town I headed down to the wonderful Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the business district to get myself a great big slice of redemption pie.

My few days on the burger train had set me back a bit, so to make up for lost time I ordered a black pepper crab (another Singaporean institution) and made this a double date. The pair cost a very respectable 32 dollars (about 15 quid) and I even got to inspect the lovelies before they hit the pan. Although not the biggest, these guys were no shrinking violets. Each possessed a couple of mighty, meaty claws and when they finally arrived on my table, dismembered and burning hot on the plate, I knew this was not going to be an easy task.

Like a new jotter in school, it started off neatly enough. I poked and pinched and needled the meat out of the shell like it was precious gold bullion. After a while however, things started to deteriorate. My finger dips into the wash bowl became more infrequent, and (as Sarah had no trouble pointing out) the chili sauce had begun to migrate up my arms and across my face. I was cracking, slurping and biting like a man possessed.

Even making allowances for this notoriously messy dish, I was making an exhibition of myself - and didn't care. Sarah was wearing an expression of permanent disgust and even the guys that sold me the crab seemed a little horrified. But that didn't matter. The crab was as plump and full as a country maiden, yielding plenty of firm white flesh to go with the accompanying sauces. Of these the chili sauce really stood out - thick, gloopy and not so spicy as to overpower the crab's delicate sensibilities.

By the time I was finished all I had left was a pile of shells and a slap happy grin. Roll on final week!

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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Singapore Street Food Exhibition

Yesterday I attended a Singapore National Museum exhibition on street food. Housed in one of the museum's "Living" exhibition halls, Eating on the Streets documents the city's relationship with street food over the years. On display are several antique food stalls, as well as numerous artifacts from Singapore's colourful history of mobile catering.

Along with accompanying video and text, these artifacts tell the stories of a dozen or so of Singapore's most famous street dishes. One of these was Roti Prata, a type of flat bread predominantly made by Singapore's Indian community, which has its etymological roots in both the Malay and Hindi languages (Roti is Malay for bread, whilst prata is a corruption of the Hindi paratha.) The flatbread, as the exhibit explained, is a unique evolution of the paratha that is only found in Singapore, and a good example of how cultural exchange and innovation has fueled the City-State's culinary growth.

Another exhibit demonstrated the advertising methods of the Tok Tok Mee sellers. The vendor's young assistant would walk through the neighbourhood beating a bamboo stick against a wooden block. Different sizes of Bamboo would make different tones, which in turn would signify the type of noodle used in the dish.

It also featured an excellent display on the various ingredients used in Singaporean cooking, explaining how they are used, and in many cases, how they got to the island in the first place. Besides getting a little training in for the identification round of masterchef goes large, I learned that nutmeg is a hallucinogen, (though eating a whole one would most likely kill you.)

The exhibition is free between 6pm - 8pm, but at all other times a 10 dollar ticket gets you into the museum's incredible history exhibit. I strongly urge anyone interested in the city's history and food to attend.

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Thursday, 19 November 2009

Fear and Chicken Rice in Singapore

We've just arrived in Singapore and I'm in the middle of some sort of Asian food crisis of faith. It started in Penang. Things were going well - six square meals a day - a cornucopia of new experiences, and a ruddy faith in the brilliance of Asia and the sanctity of street food. Then for some reason (perhaps gluttony?) it all went bad. I banged a bad oyster and that was it. I was out of action for 24 hours and puked until I hit bile

Now I seem to have developed an aversion to Asian food. For the first few days after I was ill I avoided it mainly on the basis of the chilli content. Now I'm starting to think it runs a bit deeper - like some weird associative thing that equates 24 hours aboard the chunder express with the beautiful and varied flavours of the continent I've called home for the last sixteen months.

With less than two weeks to go, I find myself craving Western more than ever - if I'm not careful I could blow this Singapore thing. I'm in trouble, and I need a saviour.

I thought this might have been it. Chicken Rice. The dish lionized by Anthony Bourdain in his Singapore No Reservations, and basically my whole reason for coming to the Lion City-State in the first place. I got this at the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre smack bang in the middle of the financial district - a beautiful, turn of the century arcade, cast in wrought iron imported from our own dear green Glasgow.

Much like the Vietnamese equivalent, Com Ga, Hainanese Chicken Rice is an easy dish to underestimate. While this unassuming plate of protein and carbohydrates may look run of the mill, the kicker (as Anthony explains) is in the rice. Simmered in a mixture of chicken stock and spices until just the right sort of fluffy and tender, this stuff should make risotto look clumsy. Add some meat and a wicked triumverate of sauces (chilli, soy, and garlic) and that's pretty much everything I hold dear on a plate.

For some reason, however, this one failed to bite. Perhaps it was my lack of appetite, but it was like something was jamming the signal. My mouth knew it was good, but that information wasn't getting through to my brain in the usual fashion.

The search for redemption continues.

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Saturday, 14 November 2009

Penang - The Big Three

On my third day in Penang, I decided to make an all out assault on the Big 3 - the three dishes identified by Penang expert Rasa Malaysia as the essential tastes of Penang. Along with Robyn Eckhardt at EatingAsia, her writing was one of the main reasons I came to Penang in the first place. So, rather than pitch up to any old stall and try my luck, I decided to follow Rasa's specific recommendations and get my map out for a bit of a treasure hunt.

My first stop was Kedai Kopi Classic at 126 Jalan Parak for a bowl of Hokkien Mee. This involved a combination of rice noodles and yellow noodles served in a a thick spicy broth along with sliced prawns, slivers of pork and beansprouts. The soup was devilshly spicy and caught in the back of my throat with my first few sips. Delicious.

Next on the list was a bowl of Penang's signature dish, Laksa Assam. I had already tried one of these at the LP recommended Hawker Centre on the esplanade and ended up dissapointed. This time I was taking no such risks. I instead made a beeline for the Kek Song Coffee Shop at 382 - 384 Jalan Penang.

Unlike other Laksas, Laksa Assam (also known as Laksa Penang) doesn't contain any coconut milk. Instead, it consists of a watery broth of flaked fish chili, tamarind and lemongrass. A number of extra ingredients are added, including sliced onion, pineapple and chopped ginger buds - and of course plenty of thick, round noodles. Last of all a dollop of pungent prawn paste is added to give it that extra kick. The result was a hot and sour soup of epic proportions.

My final stop of the day was the Loh Eng Hoo Coffee Shop on Jalan Salamat for some Char Koay Teow. For this dish, prawns are fried over a high heat with a little minced garlic, followed closely by flat noodles, soy sauce, eggs, chives, and finally cockles. Although I enjoyed the individual components of this dish (the prawns in particular were stunning) I felt that it didn't come together in the way I'd hoped.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed all three of these distinct Penang dishes and the places they were served. I particularly enjoy the no frills, back to basics approach of alot of Penang food (check out the heavy duty plastic bowls and spoons!) All three of these places had atmosphere in spades, and were cheap, local and unpretentious - everything I love about street food.

Cheers Rasa!

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Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Me Lost Mee Curry at the Disco.

In his classic song Me lost me cookie at the disco, the Cookie Monster sings not only about the physical loss of a cookie, but also about how his love of cookies actually drives him up the wall. He's bemoaning an obsession that has literally taken over his entire life, one he has to know is unhealthy, but is nevertheless powerless to stop. Although I can't claim to have the same level as expertise as the Cookie Monster, I think I understand him.

I've been feeling alot like the cookie monster ever since I arrived in Penang. This place is a food playground, and I've been averaging out at something like six meals a day. It can't go on, it's unsustainable, but I just can't help myself. I've lost my cookie big time.

Yesterday was a good day for street food. The day started at an almost antique alleyway shack off Chulia St with some roti butter (doorstop slices of toast with butter) and a cup of the local Joe. The coffee beans are fried with butter and sugar prior to grinding, making for a lovely, silky smooth texture and a unique taste.

Later, at Penang Hill, we packed in a chickpea special (or that's what he called it) from a stall selling an assortment of nuts and other goodies. What was so special about these chickpeas was that they had been combined with masala powder, lime juice, sliced red onions and bombay mix. These little beauts certainly were special, and had Sarah tooting all the way down the other side of the hill.

Later still, we took respite from the rain at a hawker centre with some chicken, lamb and beef skewers, dipped in a chuncky, spicy satay sauce. The meat was exceptionally tender, and I had to stop myself from scooping out the leftover sauce with my fingers.

Me number one dish of the day however, was at me "second breakfast." - Mee Curry. This affair involved two types of noodles - vermicillii and a thicker, round noodle - in a spicy, coconut milk broth. Heaped on top were acres of beansprouts, slices of bean curd, cubes of pigs blood, some cockles, and a few other veg and sea things. The broth was incredible - flavoursome, silky smooth, and just the right amount of oily. I also thought I detected a peanut flavour in there but can't be sure. The remaining ingredients mainly added some bite and texture to the broth, with the exception of the cockles - each one was a localised explosion of sea that went above and beyond the other flavours, yet nevertheless managed to maintain parity.

Do you see what I mean?


Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Penang Indian

Penang, on Malaysia's west coast, is a place of diversity. The East India Company set up a trading post here in the late 1800s, and the capital Georgetown remains a relic of its colonial past. Streets with names like Campbell and Carnavarn, intersect with others such as Cintra and Chulia, mashing fading colonial splendour with functional Asian chaos. Little India, Chinatown and Malay areas further subdivide the city into swathes of varying colours, smells and sounds, making for a real assault on the senses and a unique locale.

Food here seems to be part of the fabric of the city; cultural threads that intertwine and overlap, weaving through the Chinese, Indian and Malay communities like a massive, edible rug. Even the restaurants with roofs and walls spill out onto the street, setting the pavements alight with the thrashing of woks and clanking of tandoors. Elsewhere, outdoor markets and hawker centres try to impose a little containment on the madness, and pavement vendors ply a vigourous trade on almost every corner. There's no doubt about it, Penang food is street food.

Sarah and I are curry fiends, so it's no surprise that on our first day we headed straight for Little India. Once there, we found this attractive stall packed with Indian savorys. We dug straight into some morning Samosas, still warm and bursting with a smoothly textured filling boasting plenty of potato, chickpeas, turmeric and mustard seeds.
Later, unpacified, we hit up our second Indian street vendor of the day at Sup Hameed on Penang Street. Sup Hameed is basically a line of Indian street food stalls stretched into a pavement restaurant. Between them, they put together an impressive menu that includes a wide range of conventional curries as well as delicacies such as cow's stomach soup. We opted for the Tandoori Chicken Naan and the Nasi Kandar.

We'd gobbled a Tandoori Naan the previous night at a late night curry house near our restaurant and had been gunning for a repeat performence ever since. The Tandoori chicken consisted of leg and thigh meat, marinated and then thrust into an outdoor tandoor. Into the same oven were slapped doughy disks that cooked and expanded, bubbled and cracked to just the right degree. The result was a joyful marriage of succulent flavoursome chicken with soft fresh naan. Some sliced onions and cucumber sealed the deal.

The Nasi Kandar was an Indian buffet of sorts, consisting of a plate of pilau rice onto which a selection of curries, sauces and condiments were added. The Chicken Tikka Masala I picked was a little bony for my liking, but the accompanying sauce was rich, salty and smacked of cinnamon. Some shredded cabbage with mustards seeds likewise stood out.

Fantastic, and just a fraction of what this city has to offer. Much more to come!


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Also Rans (a good name for a punk band?)

I'm currently going through a bit of a drought at the moment. We're on the island of Ko Chang off Thailand's south coast, and street food's been a little thin on the sand. Instead, I've decided to spotlight some of the street food I've had in the last month or so that for various reasons I've left unreported.

A banana fritter outside the entrance to a waterfall near Luang Prabang. These bananas are small and almost potato like in texture. They can well withstand the heat o'the fryer and come out tasting savory sweet 'n snacky.

This vendor had too choices: spicy or non-spicy. Not wanting to look like a lily tongued farang I opted for the spicy and ended up with something misleadingly familiar. The noodles were almost spaghetti like in texture, and the accompanying sauce looked like Bolognaise in cognito. The resemblance ended there - this thing was stone fire, and the rice cake on top did little to put out the flames.

I had some coconut ice cream in Vietnam and I'm really coming round to the idea of it. The coconut taste is subtle, and there seems to be something extra cooling about this ice cream. The half shell and flag were a nice touch, the accompanying glass of coconut water was undrinkable.

Mini-sausages wrapped in bacon. This one is an O'Sullivan Christmas staple, which is why I found this so exciting. Although the bacon was ok, the sausage screamed everything that is wrong about Asia. With the real thing less than two months away, I shouldn't have bothered.

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