food

Home away from home

We love Phnom Penh. There’s something about the energy of this city, its vibrant alive-ness that somehow walks both sides of the line between relaxed/carefree and anything goes/buzzing, that keeps us coming back. Even though our planned journey through Asia was severely interrupted, we still ensured we would have at least a couple of days in our home away from home to enjoy its charms before heading onwards to Europe.

Like everyone else, on our first trip to Phnom Penh we did the obligatory (and very moving) visits to S-21 and The Killing Fields, went to the Russian Market and walked along the waterfront. It was on the second visit that we delved a little deeper into the less-touristed (but still very western) parts of town and discovered the joys of 240 Street and 278 Street. This time around, with only two days and nights to fill, we knew exactly what we wanted to do.

First up: accommodation. A tuk-tuk driver had introduced us to the Phnom Penh City Hotel last time, and its convenient location on 278 Street coupled with decent rooms at a great price made it a winner. This time around it’s even better, offering the same low price ($15 a night) and now with added wifi.

Second up: Red Apron on 240 Street. What a purler of a wine bar/restaurant this is! Offering an excellent range of fine wines at very low prices by world standards, coupled with superb food and service in a flashy modern setting, dinner here was one of the main things we were looking forward to in Phnom Penh. Okay, who am I kidding… it was THE main thing we were looking forward here, and the mere idea of it kept us focussed during the long weeks before arrival! The wine list is strong on French wines, including a good number of top shelf choices at prices less than half what you’d pay at a comparable place in Australia or Europe. Last time we went a little nuts on some of the finer choices, this time we set a lower (but still generous) limit and our first night’s meal was a winner. A glass each of Planeta chardonnay followed by a bottle of Chateau d’Issan 2004 from Bordeaux went brilliantly with the succession of small plates of food chosen from the extensive menu. We even met a Frenchwoman who might let us rent her Paris apartment when we visit there in September. Un nuit par excellance!

Third up: Bliss Boutique. After extensive field trials, this massage and spa boutique on 240 Street comes up trumps as one of the best places to get a laying of the hands in Asia. Of course the massages are excellent – especially the extravagant four-hand number, where two masseuses work in unison – but the whole experience is enhanced by its location in a luxuriously restored and tranquil French villa. We had wanted to save this pleasure for the day we left, but as they are closed on Mondays we settled for a Sunday treat instead. Yep, sometimes you’ve just gotta take the knocks and keep smiling…

The rest of our two days was filled with smaller tasks that we knew could be completed here. Kristen has obtained her supply of sunglasses here annually for the past two years, so we knew exactly where to go to get some more. Getting our tuk-tuk driver – who was on retainer for several hours on our last day of rushing around – to stop near the FCC, we walked slowly to the corner knowing that within seconds a sunglasses seller would approach with a tray full of goodies to choose from. Sure enough, said seller did indeed approach and within minutes Kristen had two new pairs complete with extra carry case, all for $10. A year’s supply? Perhaps not, but it’s a start!

To round out our lightning visit we revisited Japanese-Cambodian restaurant Happa for lunch (on 278 Street, still good), tried to go to the Pool Bar on 278 Street only to find it closed for renovations, and made a late night journey to Equinox bar (again on 278 Street) for post-dinner drinks. No visit to Equinox is complete without a completely random meeting with a wacky stranger, and we hit the jackpot with a 52-year-old Korean man called Song. His greying hair, pulled back with a headband, and open face made him look very Japanese, and we made the early faux pas of asking him if he was indeed from Japan. He replied no but very good-naturedly, explained his origins and within seconds had somehow segued into how he is a drummer and that his Dad beat him so hard for being a drummer when he was a teenager that his arm was permanently damaged. Complete with a demonstration of how his arm doesn’t bend properly anymore. He was proud of his perseverance as a drummer in the face of such opposition (it was apparently an hour-long beating); clearly South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s was a very strict place to grow up!

Song then talked a lot about his favourite drummers in between asking us about our travels, and he was depressingly insightful about the conditions of the average working person in Cambodia today. He’s involved in the production and export of fashion garments and has lived in Phnom Penh for several years, so his comments had the weight of truth about them. Suddenly more than an hour had gone by, and Song was up and off with a smile.

We would have loved to have spent longer in Phnom Penh, but we left happy in the knowledge that we’d done everything we wanted to this time around. More than enough, actually: did I mention that we made a second dinner visit to Red Apron because it’s so bloody good?!?

Categories: Cambodia, food, travel | Leave a comment

Eating Laotian food

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Australia is fortunate that as a result of the large mix of cultures that call this land home, we have a wonderful diversity of food and ways of eating. As an avid lover of all things culinary I feel this is one of the great results of multiculturalism. I think that it is fair to say that what is often referred to “Modern Australian” food is in part a fusion of Asian style cooking. I definitely have an Asian persuasion when cooking myself at home. That is of course amongst a myriad of other styles of cooking I enjoy doing, but Asian flavours are certainly one of the more dominant in my personal approach.

I think it’s no wonder that we have such a strong Asian influence in our food in Australia considering our geographic location in the world, our climate and our population mix. Now, however, I do find it very disappointing that there is a distinct lack of Laotian influence present. At least, that is, a far as I have found.

I recall when Damien returned from his four month odyssey around Asia in 2009-2010 that he raved about all things Lao. Damien spent two months of his trip in this country because he was so enamoured of it. Damien was especially keen for me to try some Lao food. We spied a Lao restaurant on Oxford Street, Sydney and went there. Damien was disappointed in the meal and said that it was really Thai food pretending to be Lao. He said it could not be a real Lao restaurant because it didn’t have sticky rice. I, for one, couldn’t see how the lack of sticky rice was so important. I did however agree that the food tasted a lot like Thai, or any other type of Asian food I had eaten before. The food we ate here did not introduce me to a new Asian culinary personality, as I had hoped.

Thus, I went to Lao with no expectations about the food and I think my discovery of how wonderful and unique it is was all the more enjoyable as a result. I learnt very quickly that khao niaw (sticky rice) is indeed central to Lao food, and that any restaurant claiming to be Lao would intrinsically know this and it would not be absent from the menu! I am going to steal from a little souvenir booklet on sticky rice that Hien (our friend from Luang Prabang) gave us:

“The people of Lao generally proudly regard the consummation of glutinous or ‘sticky’ rice as part of their cultural identity. The Lao language expression ‘to eat’ not only means ‘to eat rice’ as in the language of their Thai neighbours, but ‘to eat glutinous rice’. The cultural and national association with glutinous rice has also sometimes reflected in the people of Lao saying ‘if they did not eat glutinous rice they would not be Laotian’.

It is worth mentioning that the use of the word glutinous is misleading. Sticky rice does not contain gluten, rather it sticks together like glue. I quickly learnt that sticky rice is central to how Lao people eat their food. The rice is served in small woven containers with a lid. The rice is then used to eat with the accompanying meals. It is normal for Lao people to share a range of dishes together and they are consumed by rolling up small balls of sticky rice in the hand before dipping it into the food to eat.

I was introduced to a number of new flavours during our time in this country and one that intrigued me was citronella. Prior to coming to Lao I was only aware of citronella being used to ward off mosquitoes! However, one of the very first dishes I tried in Lao involved eating mixture of fried rice balls which had been broken up and mixed with other delicious ingredients, and then wrapped in either lettuce or betel nut leaves with a number of other leaves such as citronella stuffed inside. Unfortunately, I did not learn what all the other leaves were that I ate but citronella and betel nut were two I learnt about and identified in a number of the meals I ate.

Laap is probably one of the more widely known Lao dishes. It is similar to the Thai larb dish. Lao laap is normally fish (often raw), chicken, pork or beef minced up and mixed with a number of herbs such a mint and citronella and with some lime juice and chilli. I did also sample a lovely tofu laap (which is amongst the pictures above).

Buffalo meat is also widely consumed in this country and it is common to find it dried (sometimes complete with the hair attached), like jerky. I sampled buffalo paste that was mixed into a powerful blend with chilli and eaten with steamed greens.

Perhaps one of my favourite discoveries was khai paen. This dish originates from Luang Prabang as it is made from the river weed that grows in this area. The river weed is bashed into a paste and dried with garlic and tomatoes into sheets and coated in sesame seeds. It looks very much like nori. The sheets are then fried and make excellent snacks to accompany a Beerlao! Although this dish comes from Luang Prabang we sampled it in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Pakse as well. We even spied rolls of the sheets being sold at road side stalls during our bus trip.

Another dish which is also comes from Luang Prabang is or laam. This dish is like a stew and has an earthy flavour. I was not such a big fan of this dish but it is Damien’s favourite (other than sticky rice, that is). I asked him how he would describe the flavour and to him it has a medicinal quality. There is a particular fungus that is used in this dish that gives it its distinct flavour.

As for alcohol the national beer is Beerlao. I enjoy beer but I am definitely not a regular drinker of it, I prefer wine. That said, I really did like Beerlao a lot. It is a flavour that appeals to me. But not being a beer afficionado I can’t really describe it! I also sampled Lao-Lao a few times. Lao-Lao is a rice spirit that it is much more common for the locals to drink than the beer, as it is much more affordable. I had it with coke and it’s a potent drink to be sure (the way it was served to me, at least)! The taste is akin to drinking whisky and coke. Probably the most pleasant and drinkable mix I had of Lao-Lao was in Si Pan Don (4000 Islands) where it was served warm with lemon and honey. Tres bon!

We ate at a number of wonderful restaurants and cafes during our time in Lao, but I think the adventurous meal we ate at Tamarind in Luang Prabang was the standout. This restaurant is owned by a Lao and Australian couple. They offer patrons an opportunity to try dishes that are not readily available to tourists in restaurants and cafes. They want to offer food that is representative of the types of foods that locals would eat, as well as how they would eat them. This immediately appealed to Damien and I, so we booked ourselves in for this gustatory adventure. You must book at least a day in advance so that they have time to source the food from the local market to suit your taste buds. They specifically ask if there are any particular things you want to try, and of course those which you don’t.

The first course was served with sticky rice (of course!) and consisted of a plate of numerous delightful morsels to dip the rice into. They were:

  • Rice crackers and pork skin. The pork skin was rolled in the small rice cracker crumbs.
  • Morning glory, sauted. Morning glory is a green plant that is common throughout Asia and often cooked with garlic.
  • What we think was called “goat food” by our waiter! It was a zucchini/cucumber looking plant that was pickled.
  • Bon leep. A plant that grows on the river bank and we think we were told it was like a thistle. The plant is pounded into a paste and barbequed with garlic. It had a smoky flavour.
  • Chinese mustard powder. We were told this powder is particularly popular with old men who eat it with their sticky rice.
  • Chilli paste
  • A prawn dip
  • Khai paen (river weed) dried and pounded into a powder.
  • A dish of greens in padek (a Lao fermented fish sauce) and sesame seeds.
  • And the piece de resistance: Yellow mushrooms in a coconut cream. Simply divine! This was delectable and we both liked this offering on the plate most. However, it was this course in general that we enjoyed the most as all the dipping options were great or sensational. I would have been very happy if we could have eaten this kind of Lao food again on our travels.

The next course was a series of larger dishes and insects:

  • Fried baby frogs, holy basil, garlic and lemongrass. You are supposed to eat the whole frog which I did and I found them to be tasty, but fairly crunchy for the most part with only the legs being a bit more fleshy. Damien was not keen on eating the heads.
  • Som pa. A sour fish pickle.
  • Som mu. Sour pork pickle. Both of these dishes were okay but a little too sour for our palate.
  • Cam ba (I think, the notes from the night are slightly illegible at this point!). This was small fish and herbs cooked in a banana leaf. Neither of us liked this dish at all. I have found that in general food cooked in banana leaves have a wonderful flavour, rice for example is so much more tasty when eaten after being wrapped in a banana leaf. This dish however, was a notable exception to the rule!
  • Snake soup. This was a stew mixed with vegetables that had a strong and salty flavour. It was really tasty but there was heaps of bones which detracted from the experience a bit. After first trying snake last year in Cambodia, I think my preferred way to eat it is barbequed on a stick, a la ‘Boge because that way you can still enjoy the flavour and munch through the bones!
  • ‘Goat vegetable’ soup. We were informed that the soup was made from a different part of the plant to what we were served in the first course. We liked the other part of the plant way more. This got a massive cross next to it on our notes! It was bland.
  • Or laam. This was pork Or Laam which Damien thoroughly enjoyed and as I was feeling somewhat full at this point of the meal, I left this dish all to him to enjoy as I was not as keen on the flavours last time I tried the dish in Vang Vieng.
  • Deep fried cicadas (at least they looked like very large cicadas to me). The abdomen of these bugs were stuffed with herbs. I pulled off the wings and legs and just ate the rest. They had a nice flavour and I was surprised that I didn’t find them revolting! It is fair to say I had to psyche myself up to eating the insects!
  • The next thing I had to tackle was the beetle larvae, ever so artistically served in their cocoon. Personally, I don’t think I needed any further reminders of what I was about to put in my mouth and digest! Despite the fact that eating the larvae seemed totally wrong to me I was determined to try it. I was instructed that locals love to eat these as beer snacks and they are dipped in salt before eating. So I dipped the first fried larva in the salt and as recommended by the waiter, I ripped it in half to look inside. This was a good suggestion as it was not all gooey and pussy as I had dreaded, but firm with a light cream colour. Most surprising of all though was the flavour: it was actually really nice! I could probably even go so far as to say yummy. However, I had tackled the insect hurdle having already consumed two cicadas, so I stopped at the first larva satisfied with my hardcore cred intact and safe in the knowledge I did not have to worry about trying insects again for a very long time. I had been a tad concerned that I would gag (or worse vomit) if I ate the little critters, but I got through the meal and discovered that they genuinely aren’t disgusting as I had long suspected. It does not however erase my innate reluctance to eat things I have always seen as not food!

Damien was firmly adamant and comfortable in his decision to give the bugs a wide berth.

Our last course was dessert:

  • Condom ke mieow. Translated means, cat poo cookie! Never fear, we did not eat cat poo. It just looks like a cat poo! I don’t know if that allays any fears but suffice to say, they were tasty little cat poos! They were crunchy and looked like possibly puffed rice coated in something sweet and brown. We also saw this being sold at many road ride stalls.
  • There were then four little steamed rice desserts cut into little cubes. The green one had a coconut flavour, the brown one had a palm sugar taste, the yellow was made with coconut milk and pumpkin and the last one was pink and white but we did not catch what the flavour was.
Categories: food, Laos, travel | 2 Comments

Back on track

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It may sound harsh to describe three weeks in Phuket as an ordeal, but that’s what it felt like to us at times recently. It’s not that it’s a bad place to visit – there are many things to see and do here to make for an exciting holiday – it’s the fact that we haven’t been able to leave when we wanted that has built the frustration.

We didn’t even intend to go to Phuket at all. Our original route saw us going from Koh Lanta to the mainland beach area of Ao Nang, visiting spectacular Railay and Ko Phi Phi while there. Then to Kantchanaburi for the wondrous Erewan Falls, then up north to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai before crossing the border into Laos at the end of April. But the tsunami evacuation and subsequent accident on April 11th derailed us completely, and the detour to Phuket was required for a precautionary CT scan at the world-class Bangkok Phuket Hospital.

Even though the scan showed no damage, it still took days for Kristen to feel well enough to leave the hotel room. Staying at the very comfortable and unbelievably friendly Villareal Heights in Kata, we managed to get through the entire eight seasons of Entourage during our first week on Phuket! But days of unending sloth can take its toll even on the most committed loungers, and as soon as Kristen was up to it we ventured out to see some of the island. During our three weeks on Phuket we visited or stayed at many different areas, including Kata and the delightful Kata Noi, Karon, the Big Buddha, Patong and its infamous Bangla Road, Kammala, Surin, Bang Tao, Rawai, Nai Harn, Promthaep Cape, Rang Hill and Phuket Town. We can’t decide whether we like Kata Noi beach or Surin beach more (but we both agree these are the pick of the eight beaches we visited).

However to our surprise, our favourite part of the island turned out to be Phuket Town with its well-preserved Sino-Portuguese shophouses, cool cafes and lively music scene. We ended up spending six nights there prior to flying out, and with the possible exception of Kata Noi and Surin it’s to Phuket Town that we would return if we ever came back to the island. Towards the end of our stay we also managed to do a day trip to Ko Phi Phi, visiting justifiably famous areas such as Maya Bay and The Lagoon. It’s somewhere that we would like to return to for a few days to see it properly, but definitely outside the high season when it must get maniacally busy.

I’ve got to say something about the food on Phuket, because that was our main pastime there! Kristen was clamouring to leave the room as much as she was able, but the slow pace of recovery meant that heading out to a restaurant was sometimes the only activity possible. I could write a whole post about the various restaurants and meals we enjoyed, but for now will limit it to a brief summary of the more memorable ones.

Thai food: Kampung Hill restaurant in Kata serves Royal Thai cuisine in a gorgeously ornate setting. Suay in Phuket Town aims for top-end Thai and fusion food that mostly hits the mark. Gotum, a pleasant and unpretentious place also in Phuket Town served some of the best Thai food I’ve had in Thailand. As did the Pad Thai shop, conveniently located a short step from our Kata home and which serves the best Pad Thai on the planet (and a pretty decent noodle soup too).

European food: Acqua, a snazzy Italian place with water views was our choice for Kristen’s birthday blowout. With a superb range of cheeses and top quality food and wine, it was easy to see why this place has won so many awards (bloody expensive, though). The acclaimed Momtri’s Kitchen and The Boathouse, both in Kata, had spectacular settings but the food at both was somewhat disappointing (but both got points for kick-arse cocktails using local ingredients). Decent Italian at more modest prices can be had at Capannina, also in Kata.

All this eating was some compensation for being forced to stay on Phuket, but what we really wanted was to get away and resume our journey. The inability to move on was sapping our motivation in many ways, and by the last week we were feeling rather depressed about the situation. But finally the doctor gave the all-clear to travel, and to give a real sense of departure from that place – plus to make up some lost time – we decided to fly out as soon as possible. It took less than two hours to put 1400 kms between us and Phuket, and after a single night’s stopover in dreary Udon Thani we crossed into Laos to get the good times rollin’ again :-)

Categories: food, Thailand, travel | 4 Comments

Goodbye Penang and hello Trang

We eventually managed to drag ourselves away from the comfortable surrounds of the lovely Red Inn Court in Georgetown, Penang to continue on our travels north into Thailand.

We arranged a small mini van transfer via a counter at the Komtar bus terminal which conveniently picked us up from our accommodation. It was a bit of a hair raising ride across the border to Hat Yai, but our Thai driver did manage to get us there alive though. Or maybe it was Buddha looking after us as we also had a monk on board! Our driver was kind enough to help us at Hat Yai with working out which bus we took onward, as we were under the impression that we were on the one van all the way to Trang. Damien did ask the girl at the Komtar counter this question several times but I guess either there was a communication breakdown or we were just told what we wanted to hear!

Either way, it all worked out and we found ourselves seated in a larger sized and much older vehicle. This fact made us both happier as we knew older = slower! Upon landing in Trang we did a brief walk around the four or so guesthouses in the vicinity and ended up staying at the Sri Trang Hotel. It has a nice and relaxed chill out area with a large pond in the centre filled with fish. The pond, along with the bright green painted walls and large bamboo and green paper umbrella in the centre, combine to make it a great place to sit and eat and do some planning for our next part of the adventure.

Later that night we walked up the road to the local night market that had an abundance of tempting options. We walked the length of the market and then backtracked until we finally came to a decision, and we were not disappointed. I had a selection that consisted of a minced chicken dish which reminded me of chicken larb salads I have had before, a liver (I think!) and mushroom dish, pickled bamboo shoots and the best being an eggplant and minced chicken dish. Yum! I went back for seconds of the eggplant one. It was paltry in size and that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

After the night market we retired to the Wunderbar which was attached to out Guesthouse where Damien had a few beers, and later I joined him as they looked very refreshing indeed ;-) After that closed we made our way up the street to a karaoke bar but refrained from joining in this time. During our drunken revelry at the karaoke bar in Georgetown I actually got up and sang. This is a sure sign that I have had too many drinks, as usually I would avoid unleashing my singing voice on unsuspecting patrons in a sober state. But how could I refuse? I discovered I had a friend in Becs  (one of the English girls we met) as she was also a massive fan of Neil Diamond’s Forever In Blue Jeans. It had to be done and it was! Badly I’m sure but at the time it was legendary!

Once the karaoke bar shut in Trang we walked back to our digs and noted that this was not a party town as we were the only people left in the street. A good nights sleep was had and the next day we headed out for breakfast to the day market. We soon realised that we weren’t going to get any grub there as the few shops we could find selling food had nothing in English and we could not see anything we could point at. We did buy a bag of apples though and then headed back to where we came from, or so we thought. We got a little lost but once we did get close to Sri Trang Hotel we found a little shop selling noodle soup. It was very tasty and only a $1 each (30 Baht). The owner also sat and chatted to us and we used the opportunity to learn a few more Thai words.

The rest of the day, aside from going downstairs for food, was devoted purely to sorting out and booking what islands we would visit whilst in Thailand and also what towns we would visit outside of the Andaman Coast. This literally took us all day long as we work shopped what felt like a hundred different ideas. But in the end we came to a plan we were happy with, and it boiled down to us deciding that we wanted to maximise our beach time and downsize the other aspects of Thailand. All in all we were quite pleased with ourselves and felt quite excited about what was to come. This extended island time would not have been possible if we had not had our fortuitous meeting with CJ in Georgetown. CJ came to our aid again that day when Damien queried him about what our accommodation options should be during the Songkran Festival. To which CJ replied, “Dude, this is the biggest Thai holiday in the year, you will need to book something!” So we are now locked into a potential water fight in Ao Nang which is a beach town on the mainland.

I am sitting writing this post from a table by the beach on Koh Kradan and so far I have to say our choices have all come up trumps!

While I have been typing this Damien has been catching up on his news and read that there was a bombing in Hat Yai yesterday. We were both a little shocked by this escalation in the violence in the southern part of Thailand as from our knowledge it has not extended to Hat Yai before. We are glad we are out of there but sorry to hear the loss of life it caused.

Categories: food, friends, Georgetown, Malaysia, Penang, Thailand, Trang, travel | Leave a comment

My Malaysian food odyssey

Before I start  talking about Malaysia I need to back track to when we were still in Norway. We were chatting to Lillian, who we visited in Nannestad, about some of the people who had stayed with her before. She mentioned one particular chap who came from India, who has come back several times to visit her and who she referred to as her ‘son’. She remarked that the first time he came to stay he did not speak a scrap of Norwegian, but that he was super intelligent and within two weeks flat he could hold complete conversations with her. I was astounded by this story and Damien added his little take by telling us about a doco he had seen regarding an autistic British guy who went to Iceland. He underwent intensive language lessons for a week and by the next he was able to conduct an interview in Icelandic on TV. Icelandic is apparently one of the most complex languages to learn and thus his ability is one to be admired.

Some days later I was quietly musing about these brainiacs who walk in our midst when I pondered out loud to Damo, “I wonder what people as intelligent as Lillian’s Indian son think about? I mean what higher order thoughts go on in their heads?” Damien poker faced and I believe somewhat seriously replied, “What’s for dinner?” There was my answer. Well this brought me instantly unstuck. Of course! What’s for dinner indeed! These are the thoughts that must keep the intellectual elite busy!

And if this is truly what dominates the minds of the enlightened ones, well, let me count myself amongst the elite! Since Damien’s profound statement in Norway, “What’s for dinner?” has become a bit of a running joke on the trip and it ramped up quite considerably when we hit Malaysia. It’s entirely fair to say that thoughts of food dominated our pathway through this country and served as meaningful punctuation marks throughout each day. It reached its peak in Melaka where we soon were stretching out what was supposed to be a two night stop into a five nighter, not least because we swiftly came to the conclusion that three meals a day was utterly insufficient to accomodate our ever burgeoning list of must eat venues.

I should take a quick pause here to mention that Malaysia is such a great dining experience because of the mix of cultures that live here. The three cultures that dominate are the Malays, Indians and Chinese. It is not uncommon to enjoy a blend of these cuisines all in the one delectable meal. Malaysia is also the home of Nonya cooking. The origins of this cuisine are based in the heritage of the Chinese of the Melacca Straits who combined their cooking with Malay spices. Which in my humble opinion is a wonderful marriage.

Something tickled my fancy when I was later reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Penang (a renowned foodie destination) and the author stated quite matter of factly:

“People come to Penang to eat. Even if you thought you came here for another reason, your goals might change dramatically once you start digging into the Indian, Chinese, Malay, Thai and various hybrid treats available. Days revolve around where and what to eat, and three meals starts to soundly depressingly scant.”

Excuse me, but were you eavesdropping on our conversation and stealing the very words out of our mouths? It appears we are not the only slaves to this stomach driven dilemma! Same country, different town it seems.

So without further ado let me list off the foodie highlights of my journey through Malaysia.

Tioman

We loved Tioman but sadly the food was not as beautiful as the view. Lucky for us Tioman was our first foray into Malaysian cuisine and fresh off the back of the heavy cold winter food of Northern Europe. By comparison it stacked up okay but I am pleased that it in no way set the standard for what we should expect in the rest of this country.

Mersing

The mainland town of  Mersing serves as the launching pad to Tioman and is not a particularly amazing town, but it is memorable to me as I view it as the start of my food odyssey proper. It was here that I had the best meal of my trip ’til that point, and it was only knocked off its perch three days ago in Penang.

It commenced with our breakfast in a dingy, stray cat ridden, roadside establishment where there were (initially) no other patrons. Generally I read this as a neon sign flashing ‘Do not eat here’. However, we were hungry and hell bent on tracking down some nasi lemak and took what we could get. Happily, we were not disappointed. Nasi Lemak is a simple dish of rice, a few peanuts, chilli paste, some little dried fish and then usually either egg, salted fish or fried chicken. I went the salted fish and Damo the fried chicken. Let’s just say for the record that ol’ Damo has had a bit of a love affair with the fried chicken of Malaysia.

It was lunch that stole the show for me. We walked all of about ten paces to the right of where we were staying to an open air restaurant which offered a range of different meal choices from which you could serve yourself. This is a very common way of dining in Malaysia and one I like because I don’t have to bother with trying to remember the Malay word, I can just look and pick. Excellent. Anyway, I was introduced to a few dishes here that I would revisit many times on my trip and some I didn’t have the pleasure of tasting again, but all in all it was so yummy and I was even more ecstatic because it set me back not much more than $1. Bloody brilliant! And might I add that I was eating seafood for that price – prawns and fish, amongst a fine selection of other meat and vege dishes. One that I tried first here (and was a regular feature of meals henceforth) was the simple but always tasty fried kailan. This is a basic dish of fried greens with chilli and often tiny salted fish and garlic. Yes, chilli. If you don’t enjoy chilli you are pretty well stuffed in this country as they seem to slip it into everything. However, it is possible to dodge it if you need to, which I did for a stint after some pretty hectic chilli eating sessions in a row!

Melaka

I cannot emphasise enough how much sorting out what we were going to eat for the day (and the days after that day) consumed our thoughts and time whilst we were there.

In no particular order I am going to detail the best moments:

  1. Dim sum breakfast. This is yum cha for breakfast in essence, and a lot of meats in steamed stuff feature. Sorry I can’t be more informative than that but we literally just sat down and pointed to things and tried them out. All were delicious. We tried to go back there for another breakfast and were quite bummed it was shut on that day :( We did soon come to realise while we were there that Malaysians don’t always have set open hours or days, and you really just have to hope and pray that if you liked it once it will be open again. We were caught out this way more than once when trying to revisit good places.
  2. Night market. Although as night markets go it wasn’t outstanding, it was interesting in that it really was (aside from the gaudy coloured kitsch items on sale) all about stuff on sticks. And let’s face it, in my experience stuff on sticks are always oh so good and oh so bad in equal parts. What’s not to like? I was having a ‘damn the diet’ night that night and gravitated towards the potato on a stick very hastily. I had seen a girl eating one in the street a few days before but was having a health kick day and staunchly refused to succumb. Not the same Kristen was found lurking in the night market. I was the stick monster! Potato on a stick is a simple pleasure of a whole potato magically twirled around a stick like a slinky…and tastes like a kettle chip. A series of other meats on sticks ensued. I must note for posterity here though, that none of this stick food reached the lofty heights of my ultimate food on a stick discovery in a Japanese department store: fatty chicken skin on a stick. Amen.
  3. Selvam. Indian restaurant extraordinaire. Damien had dined here when he was last in Melaka and was very keen to revisit. He mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he maintained it was the Indian food that got the gurnsey from him last time. Eating at Selvam makes it easy to understand why. We ate here twice in total. They serve your meal on a large slice of banana leaf and you can opt to eat like the locals, with your hands, or just do it the usual way, with cutlery. I attempted with hands the first time and soon realised that there was a knack to this style of eating and clearly, I didn’t have it so I just embraced my western-ness and ate with fork and spoon. Our first meal was a 12 dish-a-thon of vegetarian delights. Oh Mumma! It was goooood. I have often thought that it is the vegetarian dishes that are the standout for me when it comes to Indian food, and this culinary experience was an excellent example of that. I have to say that the Indian food in Malaysia is outstanding and different to a lot of what we get in Australia. I wish some of it would find it’s way across the sea quite frankly! Selvam was a standout, no doubt about it.
  4. Baboon House and Casa del Rio. Good coffee is a little hard to come by in Melaka and we came across the Baboon House one morning when strolling in the streets and decided to give it a shot. It was a great little find. It tasted like real coffee which was a bonus but it was made all the more enjoyable for the location. The Baboon House is a lovely little oasis with very interesting art works adorning the walls, and an abundance of plants in pots to make it feel more like I was in some funky little cafe in hippy land than in Melaka. We decided another day to take our books and go and relax there for a coffee and a bit of fiction, however, it was shut. We were somewhat directionless after that unlucky discovery and stood dejected outside on the street trying to think of what we should do next. Yes, yes, I know, the pressing decisions of the jobless! When suddenly I had a blinding flash of brilliance (insert tickets flapping in the wind here) that we should try our luck down the road at the five star Casa del Rio, well appointed darlink, on the Melaka River. I figured a five star resort should cater to our western tastes and we could enjoy some upmarket surrounds to boot. We arrived and soon found ourselves ensconsed, sipping coffee,  in a cushioned cabana by the beautiful and extravagantly large water feature in in the centre of the resort. Noice. Very noice.
  5. Pineapple tart place (name of shop deleted from the memory files…but not the tarts!) We read that one must try the pineapple tarts when one is in Melaka. If one must, then, who am I to argue? So we tracked down an outlet that funnily enough had baked the worlds largest tart which was on display and was there for the viewing. As were a bunch a funky young, Malay twenty somethings doing a TV special on the tarts in that store. Thus, Damien and I found ourselves hiding behind display stands trying to avoid getting our dials on TV. Trapped for a rather long time (we had tarts to devour, damn it!) we were eventually able to escape, eat the said tarts and hopefully remained unfilmed. And yes, one must! For the sweet lovers out there (which I am not overly as a rule) they are soft, sweet pineapple fillings encased  in a buttery, flaky pastry. A legacy of the Portuguese in this country.

Georgetown

As the Lonely Planet guru stated above, apparently Penang (which Georgetown is a part of) is a foodie heaven. However, despite the fact we stayed there six nights in total we nearly completely missed understanding how this could be so. I am not ashamed to say that a fair amount of the reason for us staying was, quite honestly, the people and the the pillows. Seriously. It is one of the shittier parts of the island but we happened upon a bunch of completely cool people who we had a mad day and night hanging out with, followed by an equally bad hangover. This was then followed by the allure of the lovely newness of our guesthouse, the Red Inn Court. It had amongst other attractions amazingly great beds and super soft pillows …. I miss those pillows already. I wonder how long it will take me to find some more like that? But it was over our free brekky at the Red Inn Court that we met some of those lovely peeps, so that meal in itself deserves a mention. For a free spread, it was top notch! No sooner had we sat down for breakfast when a still drunk Brit called Mike was chatting merrily to us and in not too many more words was insisting we come and stay with him in London. And Bec, this line is especially for you cause I know you will understand…it was exactly like when Freddy meets George in Room With A View and his first words are, “How do you do, come and have a bathe.” Anyway, a day of hangovers followed by a day of sloth meant that the Old Trafford Burger cart on Chulia Road was getting a work out and shaping up to be the food highlight of Penang. Dear oh dear, a tad pathetic really. But should you ever make your way to Georgetown, do track it down if you are hankering for a little somethin’ somethin’ that reminds you of home. But never fear, we foodies got our shit together and upped the ante and landed ourselves in Chinese food heaven for dinner on nights five and six…the Teksen Restaurant (ranked #1 of 183 restaurants in Georgetown by Tripadvisor). This is by far one of the most amazing Chinese dining experiences I’ve had. It is somewhat expensive in local terms, meals starting at an exorbitant $3 a plate but the food is to die for. The aubergine in red bean paste was amazing and reaffirmed my love affair with all things eggplant. Damien has his fried chicken, I have my eggplant. The hand-made tofu with scallop and egg white was also amazing and could sit proudly on any hatted restaurant menu in Australia, and we paid diddly squat for it. So there you have it, that was the highlight of my Malaysian food odyssey. Sorry Mersing, you lose.

Categories: Art, food, Malaysia, Melaka, travel | Leave a comment

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