Had I pulled all of the legs off the prawns? Did I rip the kaffir lime leaves correctly? Did I crush the chilies well enough with the pestle? These questions nagged at me as we prepped together in her kitchen.
We had met Karn just a few days prior, another member of the Volkswagen community in Asia. He was now the fourth degree of separation between TengTsen—also known as “Ten Cents “—our first VW contact in Asia. We had been instructed by Karn to wait alongside the moat that wrapped around the old city; from there we’d follow him back to his house and park Nacho for the next few days.
The moat, supported by a massive brick wall, was just a version of its prior self. Over the centuries the ground had let go underneath it and its once clean lines of stacked brick had morphed into a spine of drooping and wavelike rows. While it was no longer used as a defense line it still served a purpose, albeit less grandiose, adding a unique beauty to the city and providing meeting points for travelers and locals alike.
That evening we made our way to the neighborhood market to pick up items for an impromptu picnic. We followed Karn’s blue and white VW kombi as it bounced down a dirt road ahead of us, eventually pulling off and parking on the banks of a quaint pond within the University’s vast acreage. We lined up a bamboo mat and a faux grass mat between our two vans—the perfect spot for an evening of food discovery: homemade sausage and sticky rice, fish coconut soufflé in banana leaf bowls, roe filled crab heads, fried pork skin, eggplant curry, purple mangosteen and red rambutans.
“I’m always watching television,” Karn said between bites of curry. As it turns out, Karn is a television show translator, bringing American TV to the Thai audience. “Not too long ago I finished translating The Bachelor but now I’m doing the Martha Stewart Show.” Despite being the man behind the curtain of some of the top American TV shows in Thailand, he spoke with nonchalance. “I know everything about Martha. Did you know that every dish on her show is her favorite?” In a Martha voice he cried out “Oh my! This apple pie is just my faaavorite! This blueberry tart is just my faaavorite! This chocolate chip recipe is my all time faaavorite!”
One evening we found ourselves at a bar in Chiang Mai’s hip downtown district. Inside, the bartender concocted our drinks inside of a rusty blue and white Volkswagen bus that had been converted into a bar. Besides the bar’s special blue cocktail, we snacked on standard Thai bar food. You know, the usual sampling of raw peanuts, kebabs, fried crickets, and bamboo worms.
These bugs seemed tame compared to my last encounter. As we waited at a roadside restaurant for our lunch of lahp koo-a just a week prior, we were served a very special “appetizer ” by a very excited local. It was a bowl of hideously huge insects accompanied by a bowl of red dipping sauce. They reminded me of some mutated version of a roach and cicada, having eyes the size of beads, legs like strands of thick wire, and their lower bodies hollow and crisp. The locals encouraged us to try. We must try! Try! Try!
For some unknown reason, on this day I was feeling more adventurous than I had in months. And truth be told, I just didn’t know how to refuse this man’s kind offerings. He would be so disappointed, so sad, so confused. The locals popped them in their mouths like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders, asking us, why don’t you try? Try! Try! So I picked one up and held it at eye level. I examined its shiny back and glazed eyes, its tentacles, its mandible and I wondered where it was found. Was it scurrying about in the grass? Was it found under an upturned log? Was it local or was it in the midst of a seasonal migration to another land? It was all so bizarre. As I closed my eyes, I envisioned Kit Kat bars and peanut brittle and then I ate it. Brad told me he’d never kiss me again.
So back at the Volkswagen bar, locals chomped bugs like Skittles, shrugging their shoulders and asking us why don’t you try? Try! Try! And so it went, I held the bugs up at eye level and questioned how they came to be nestled atop this fine layer of faux grass on my foam tray. I thought of more candy and then ate them too. I did it this time, though, for the sheer comedy in knowing that Brad would be forced to do the deed as well. The crickets were palatable, like little citrus infused burnt bits left in the bottom of a pan. The worms however, they were gag inducing: like collapsing sponges that leaked their foul juices with each chew. Was it worth it just to watch Brad’s face? Yes, yes it was.
Besides the bugs, we also tried some other local dishes in Chiang Mai such as Kow Soy; a dish made of egg noodles in a spicy coconut broth, topped with crispy noodles, and served with a dish of lime, pickled cabbage, and red onion. I’m not like Martha Stewart and I don’t claim to love every dish, but this was simply out of this world amazing. In all of Asia so far, it was truly one of my favorites.
When I think back on Chiang Mai, my most memorable experience will be cooking with Karn’s Mom, Nid. I had mentioned to Karn that I had wanted to take a cooking class and he had responded in saying “It is no problem. My Mom will show you how to make Thai food .”
We followed Yui, Karn’s wife as she scoured through the neighborhood market, grabbing bags of minced pork, basil, lemongrass, and chilies. She picked out the prettiest blue prawns in the seafood section while the rest of us stood around watching the dozens of homemade propeller devices swing in the air like fans; a fancy trick for keeping the bugs away from the food.
Back at the house we started to set up. Karn stood by as we began to cook. Being the translator for Martha Stewart had prepared him well for this occasion as translator for our very own cross-cultural cooking experience.
“Today we’re making three things: steamed eggs, tom yam soup, and a basil stir fry. These are all quick and easy dishes, but the first thing we do is make rice. It’s the base for every meal, every day. After that, we will make my Mom’s steamed eggs. This is a very popular recipe but every household has their own version.”
After we loaded the massive rice cooker and hit go, we began on the eggs. Nid walked me through the steps as we mixed egg and water, rehydrated dried shrimp and mushrooms, added pork, onions, shallots and seasonings, and then gave it all a good beating. We placed the mixture in a bowl on the steaming rack above a covered pot of boiling water.
It was quick and easy to move around the kitchen, reminding me of our dollhouse back in Flagstaff. One wall comprised a long countertop and the other was set up with a tabletop stove shielded on three sides by aluminum. Underneath the stove sat an exposed propane tank, and back on the other counter a bin of cooking ingredients, a sink, and the rice cooker sat in the corner.
As the eggs steamed, Nid wandered outside and came back with a dozen or so freshly picked kaffir lime leaves for the tom yam soup. We made a broth of lemongrass, kaffir leaves, chilies, galanga and lime juice and let it simmer as we prepared our prawns, pulling off their crustacean layers, snapping their heads, breaking their legs, and slicing their backs to devein. We added the prawns and a few handfuls of strangely shaped straw mushrooms for just a few minutes before turning off the heat.
Our last dish of the evening was a pork basil leaf stir fry. It was simple: a quick stir fry of onion, garlic, pork, and a heaping mound of basil. The flavor was delightful—the meat provided a rich depth of flavor while the holy basil added a sharp, mentholated aroma and taste.
So here we were, gathered around the round table covered by a vinyl cloth imprinted with cappuccino cups and fluffy croissants. Grandma was holding baby Phuphing while the family’s French bulldog spread its body against the cool tiled floor.
While scooping rice onto each of our plates, Karn said “In a Thai home, all dishes are communal. This is what we do.” Demonstrating the Thai way of eating, he held his fork with his left hand and his big spoon in his right. “You just push a little rice onto your spoon with your fork. The fork is only a tool for moving food. We don’t eat with it. Get some rice on your spoon, and then, from the dishes in the center, just scoop a little soup or curry onto your spoon. One scoop at a time.”
One scoop at a time?! One scoop at a time?! Now I understood how Thai people stay so thin!
With my fork, I nuzzled a little rice onto my spoon and then lowered it down into the communal bowl of tom yam soup. The food was just wonderful, and especially those eggs! Dare I say that recipe is one of my favorites?
2 TBSP of dried shrimp (soaked in hot water until rehydrated)
1 dried shitake mushroom (soaked in cold water for 3 hours, then cut in slices)
4 shallots (minced)
2 green onions (green part only, minced)
¼ cup of pork (minced)
2 cups of water
4 TBSP soybean sauce
½ TBSP soy sauce
Pinch of pepper
3-4 cloves (sliced)
In a serving bowl add egg, shrimp, shallots, mushroom, green onions, and pork. Whisk vigorously for 3 -5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk.
In a large pot with a steaming tray, add a few inches of water and bring to a boil. Place the bowl on the steaming tray, reduce the heat to medium and cover. Steam the mixture for 15 minutes or until the eggs are cooked through. Note that water will remain visible in the bowl even after the eggs have finished cooking.
In a sauce pan fry the cloves.
Garnish with cloves before serving.
Tom Yam Soup
6 kaffir lime leaves (ripped down the center)
2 stalks of lemongrass (chopped into 1 ” pieces)
2 1” slabs of galanga root (julienned)
Tom yam paste (optional)
2 limes (cut into ¼ pieces)
5 small green bird chilies (pounded in a bag)
1 cup of straw mushrooms (broken into pieces)
1 dozen large prawn (peeled and deveined)
½ tsp of fish sauce
Chili paste (optional)
1 TBSP of cilantro
10 strands of green onion (cut in 1” pieces)
Package of tom yam paste (optional)
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil and add lemongrass, galangal root, and kaffir leaves. Add tom yam paste and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add shrimp, mushrooms, and 3-5 chilies and cook until the shrimp is done (just a few minutes). Add the lime juice, fish sauce, and chili paste (to preference).Garnish with cilantro and green onion before serving.
Stir Fry Basil Leaf
3 garlic cloves (minced)
2 small white onions (sliced)
¾ cup of minced pork
3 cups of packed holy basil leaves (this is not the same as Thai basil)
3 TBSP oyster sauce
1 tsp of sweet soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
3 TBSP of water
In a large sauce pan add a dash of vegetable oil, onions, and garlic and cook for 3 – 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the pork and cook for another 3 – 4 minutes or until the meat is cooked through. While stirring constantly, add the basil leaves and chilies, cooking until the basil leaves have wilted. Add the oyster sauce, sweet soy sauce, sugar and water and cook for another minute.
When we pulled into Mae Hong Son and I saw that we had the opportunity to actually sleep in a coffee shop I was all over it. What made it even better was that this was one of those legit coffee shops with a shiny burr grinder, a wide espresso machine and classy white ceramic cups. The walls were decorated with Burmese puppet dolls, a library of books, comfy sofas and hand woven local garments for sale on a rack. At the back end of the building were four guest rooms, with our room situated literally ten feet from the barista. The indigenous Shan girls who worked the counter wore traditional embroidered tops, quite similar to a tighter and more fashionable version of a Mexican poncho. One of the girls held her baby at her waist and another’s child played games on the communal computer.
That night the monsoon season showed its crazy face, beginning with a cool breeze and then quickly transitioning into something more violent: blowing chairs and a seemingly endless flow of water from the sky. The sound of the rain was deafening under the café’s wide tin roof. The next morning I thanked the wonderful rain for dampening the day’s heat, making our little quest to the morning market quite a bit more enjoyable. We were about to embark on a rigorous search for something I had been desiring for quite some time. We passed the produce drivers who rested on their tailgates and followed the long line of wooden covered stalls down the road. We walked all the way through, eventually retracing our steps until we found a promising stand.
In order to avoid any confusion, I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and read from it. “Sawatdee ka! Do you sell thoo ah oon?” Sadly, this only prompted a blank stare, the universal sign of complete confusion. No matter how many ways I pronounced the word, nothing was getting through.
We had been warned by our friend Pat in Bangkok that the Thai language was very difficult for foreigners to learn. The funny thing is I wasn’t trying to learn anything, I just wanted to communicate one very important word.
Pat had told us, “Thai is a tonal language. While English has three tones, the Thai language has five. You must be very careful how you pronounce words. Many words, if you say them wrong will mean something entirely different.” He went through the five different tones, only three of which I could differentiate. I couldn’t believe we were of the same species.
So really, who knew what I was saying to this lady. My stomach began to grumble, but while I stood there observing the scene, I realized this just had to be the place. So we pointed to a customer’s breakfast and gave her the piece sign.
In front of the pots, plastic containers, and general mess ran a long counter and a wooden bench. Had we been Asian, we would have fit perfectly in this little nook, but for us it was hilariously small. After a great deal of maneuvering, Brad somehow shimmied his spider-like long legs in place. The petite locals giggled and then a few seats were cleared for us at the big boy’s table.
Once we were settled in, we watched the cook place a tangle of thick rice noodles into our bowls and then envelop them with a heaping scoop of a thick yellow sauce. It was a Burmese dish called “thua oon” or warm beans, and this mysterious yellow sauce was made from chickpea flour and water. Scissored atop the porridge were bite size pieces of fry bread and small spoonfuls of sugar, peanuts, chopped cilantro, hot pepper, and a dark syrupy sauce.
It looked crazy exotic. A young girl who sat nearby curiously watched us. I don’t know exactly what sparked this girl’s desire to help us (perhaps she wanted us to enjoy the meal properly) but she got up, went behind the counter and passed us plastic mugs with water, chili sauce for dipping and a bowl of fried chickpea flour cakes and tofu. I mimicked the girls every motion, twisting the noodles around my chopsticks like spaghetti on a fork. It was heaven.
The following afternoon we tried out another local joint. We had heard of Aunt Khai, a woman in her 80’s who was still making rice noodles by hand. She was the cutest little thing (camera shy, unfortunately) but quickly popped out of her house when we appeared. Under the overhang of her home were plastic tables and chairs, and in the center of each table was the ubiquitous caddy of standard Thai condiments: fish sauce, chili powder, chili slices in vinegar, and white sugar. A picture of the King hung from the bare wall and against it was a self service table for filling water cups. The King’s photo in Aunt Khai’s home was not unusual; his photo was literally present in almost every Thai person’s home and business. It seemed that nearly every person we asked loved the King.
“Why should we not? The King has done so much for the people” one Thai told me. While this may be true, it is interesting to mention that it is illegal for anyone to speak negatively of the King in Thailand. Yes. Illegal.
As for the meal: Aunt Khai made us a delicious bowl of clear broth noodle soup with pork. She worked behind three charcoal grills, each one big enough to hold a single pot. She took her basket sieve, filled it with her handmade rice noodles and then lowered it into a pot of water. Once they were done and in our bowls she added a broth and then garnished with thin slices of red dyed pork, bean sprouts, cabbage, green onions, cilantro and a spoonful of ground peanut. It was true grandmother style cooking.
This town was such a delight. It wasn’t just the unique food that made it this way, but the charming people and atmosphere. We let a few days slip away, watching the routine of the locals and observing the rhythms of the day. The main street was a strip of beautifully preserved wooden shop houses with the ground floors reserved for commercial purposes. The families who ran the stores lived on the first floor, and often times their personal possessions spilled out into the commercial space below.
In the early morning orange robed monks would walk in a line down the street, accepting food from the locals that was to be used to make their only meal of the day. I must admit I’ve been spoiled by the frequency of seeing monks on the streets. They’ve become a common site, yet nevertheless I’m always taken aback by their beauty. They glow in the distance. They walk with purpose and dignity, their shoulders back and head held high. They exude an inner peace that is viral, and strangely while I believe that everyone has bad days, I have yet to see a monk frown. By early morning in Mae Hong Son the monks have been out and so have the locals; off to the market to get the freshest produce and to stop for breakfast at one of the many stands. One such breakfast place was right next to our little coffee shop in an empty plaza. Every morning they would set out their rugs, tables and condiments for another proper Burmese breakfast of rice vermicelli noodles and kahn pomg, a Shan snack of battered and deep-fried vegetables.
By afternoon the local children dressed in their school uniforms would cruise down the main road on their 100cc motorcycles, stopping at the smoothie shop before continuing home. At the shop’s entrance they’d slip off their shoes and pile into a booth to laugh and sip on their fruit drinks spiked with chunks of Jell-O. As night approached the heat would let up and the families who had been hiding out inside all day would migrate to the front of their shops for dinner. Afterwards they would watch television or simply point their chairs out towards the street. We were their entertainment, and they were ours. Other people would set up impromptu parties; the men in front of the frame shop were the liveliest group. In the evenings they would pull out their tiny guitars and play beautiful melodies, always in unison while singing and smiling.
Bourdain said, “If we had come a year earlier, we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.”
I thought about this particular episode as Brad and I skirted alongside the Thai and Burmese border. Besides Anthony’s show on Burma, the only other footage I had ever seen of the country was from a documentary called Burma VJ. This followed the disturbing story of the 2007 protests against the Burmese military regime. The smuggled footage clearly displayed the people’s frustration with their government’s censorship and control over them.
Today however, Burma is in the midst of reinventing itself. In just a short period of time things have changed quickly; censorship has stopped and the borders have opened. Despite the country’s claim to open borders, it is still not so easy to travel within the country. Currently the government has designated specific zones as “tourist appropriate”, leaving the remainder of the country absolutely off limits to the wandering eye of the foreigner. For us, given the restrictions to certain provinces, driving from East to West through the country to reach India would clearly be impossible.
So we couldn’t exactly get into Burma, but we could get pretty dang close. We stopped in the town of Mae Sot; the main point of entry for more than 180,000 Burmese refugees who have fled into Thailand to live and work in the region. These circumstances, as unpleasant as they may be, have created a mix of faces and culture unlike anything we had seen to date in Thailand.
Our first Burmese experience began with Bobo and Ma Yae. Bobo was a handsome Burmese with deep brown eyes, a wide jawbone and black tattoos which ran up his forearms and crept under his sleeves. At his side was Ma Yae, another native Burmese. She had shiny black hair that rested at her shoulders and was as cute as a button in her red collared shirt sprinkled with Mickey Mouse faces. In just a week’s time she’d be returning to Burma to attend her sister’s wedding.
Today, we followed the two of them down to the Y in the road and then right towards the Burmese market. We had signed up for a cooking class and step number one was hunting down the ingredients. Given that it was the morning time, the market was in full swing. As we moved from the outer streets inward, the paths transitioned into a high speed raceway. There were obstacles everywhere and I stumbled between them. The locals were smooth and fluid, weaving in and around each other. Bikes and motorcycles sputtered by, women carried platters of fruit on top of their heads and others crouched down next to their buckets of eels, fish and frogs, bins of steamed roaches next to mangoes, worms, and bags of rice. Under the overhangs of roofs packets of spices and prepackaged goods hung from strings and scattered about the tables were eggplants the size of peas, wing beans in bamboo baskets, bundles of holy basil, and everything else imaginable. Working the stands were men in coned hats, Indo-Burmese Muslim men in plaid sarongs, Karen tribal women, and Burmese natives with their faces brushed in circular swirls, stripes and speckles with the yellowish-white paste known as thanaka cream.
This Burmese tradition has existed for centuries and serves as a cosmetic and a protectant from the sun. At the market it could be bought in paste or powder form, or in its most natural state as a piece of wood. To apply it, the thanaka wood is rubbed against a circular stone called a kyauk pyin and then a few drops of water are added to form the paste. It is then added to the face in whatever manner the person wishes to wear it. I was completely captivated by the uniqueness of this idea and could have easily spent the day just staring at faces. I was surprised to find that what I thought looked bizarre at first looked quite normal and beautiful by the end of the morning.
Halfway through the morning we stopped for intermission at a traditional Burmese tea shop. It was an atmospheric place: loud, busy, and filled with tiny tables and chairs. Once we settled in we were served a complimentary pot of plain green tea, always free and always bottomless at a Burmese tea shop. Next we ordered vegetable samosas and phyllo dough pastries and a round of lapae yea. This is a black tea mixed with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk, so much I might add that it sunk to the bottom of my cup like a thick white custard. Sweet like candy and delicious.
As we made our way out of the market, we watched a woman prepare a dozen or so betel leaves in an assembly line fashion. Brad had read about this very thing in a Paul Theroux book. The author had admitted to his hatred of the habit, complaining that the users were constantly spitting red juice everywhere. The thing is this is really popular stuff and people have been spitting it for the last 4,000 years throughout much of Asia and Oceania. It is an addictive stimulant that causes a warming sensation in the body and increased alertness and it has also been declared by The International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic to humans.
So of course we were intrigued by this woman, who used her spatula to apply a paste of calcium to the leaves. After covering the leaves in a sticky goo, she opened a half dozen calcium-smeared containers, reached in and sprinkled their contents on top of the leaves: whole cardamom seeds, clove, catechu, slices of betel nut and so forth. She then folded them over into bundles and handed them to us.
“If you start to feel dizzy after a minute or two, please stop and spit it out. Do not swallow it.” Bobo was clearly wanting to avoid any potential international health incidents. “Place the whole thing in your mouth. Chew on it and spit it out once you’ve released all of the juices and flavors from the inside. And please, if you start to feel dizzy, spit it out!”
Brad and I each had one and so did Ma Yee. She also took one to go, tightly wrapped and secured with a rubber band. And the flavor? It mostly just tasted like a leaf filled with toothpaste and a hint Indian spices. One was enough for us.
For the remainder of the afternoon we made an exquisite meal of potato dumplings, Mandalay noodle salad, Karen pumpkin curry, and lime basil juice. We learned new preparation and cooking techniques and enjoyed the results. Surprisingly the lime basil juice was the winner for the afternoon. In addition to these dishes, I had also made a special request to Bobo earlier in the day.
I had read that Burma is one of the only countries in the world where people not only drink tea but also eat the leaves. They are eaten either as a pickled tea leaf salad or served in the center of a shallow dish (also pickled) along with fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. I was eager to make the former and Bobo was willing to show me how. We did a little bit of re-hydrating , crushing in the pestle and mortar, and then tossing the leaves with tomatoes, cabbage, fried nuts, and seeds. The resulting flavor was something entirely new. I loved it. The tea leaves were pungent and spicy, mixing perfectly with the crunchy nuts and mild vegetables.
We enjoyed our meal at a picnic table behind the café. It was peaceful and serene and everything just felt good. A perfect afternoon. I wondered what would come of Mae Sot in the future. I had asked Bobo what the community was like here and if most people knew each other and his response surprised me.
“No, I do not recognize most of the faces here. People are always coming and going. This isn’t really anyone’s home. Now that things are getting better in Burma, many of the NGOs in town are starting to disappear. People are even beginning to return home”.
It was a little sad to think Mae Sot was changing so quickly, but more than anything it made me happy. People deserve to live with their families, live in peace, know their neighbors, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset from within their own country.
LIME AND BASIL JUICE
Squeeze the juice from two medium sized limes. Detach the leaves from 5 stalks of lime basil (this is important) and discard the stems and flowers. Put the lime juice, basil leaves, 3-4 tablespoons of liquid sugar, and 1 cup of water in a blender and mix well. With a strainer, run the juice through the filter and serve with ice!
BURMESE TEA LEAF SALAD
Preparing the tea leaves: Rehydrate 2 tablespoons of dried green tea leaf with warm water for a few minutes. With a pestle and mortar, pound together the tea leaves, 4 small green chiles, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime. Set aside. In a small pan, roast or fry a ¼ cup mixture of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, and broad nuts (if you can find them). Set aside. On a plate, add ¼ cup of finely shredded cabbage, ½ tomato thinly sliced, the tea leaf mixture, nut mixture, a pinch of salt and the juice from one lime.
This is a good quote to live by. I should have learned my lesson a few weeks ago. Brad and I had just awoken and were strolling down a sleepy street in Cherating when we saw kitten sized baby monkeys swinging in the trees and pulling each other’s tails. I wanted to squeeze their little cheeks and rock them in my arms, and so we began to cross the street. I had forgotten that most mammal species are very protective over their young. Needless to say, we didn’t make it very far. Like a bat out of hell a massive monkey came flying out of the canopy, charging at us and screaming hysterically. We attempted to sprint away with lightning speed, yet without our morning coffee, it was more like a slow motion nightmare. When we were no longer deemed a threat, we slowed down and enjoyed a good laugh, dumbstruck by our own naiveté.
Now we found ourselves on the island of Penang, also known as the “Pearl of the Orient”. It is a place with significant location, and in the 17th century it served as a key entry point to the Strait of Malacca for Chinese, Indian, Arabian and European ships. Only becoming independent in the 1950s, it was a British colony for hundreds of years, and today it is a place which exemplifies multi-ethnicity: colonial buildings from the English territorial days, Chinese neighborhoods, Indian migrant workers, traditional Malay culture; this island had it all. There are other things that make this destination fascinating but I’ll get to that later.
Our quick jaunt in Penang began after a crossing of the Strait of Malacca via a 13 kilometer bridge. Once on the island, we had access to a landscape of jungle, waterfalls, fruit and spice orchards, fishing villages and beaches. As soon as we crossed the bridge, we veered in the opposite direction of the island’s main city, Georgetown. The maddening traffic and chaos of the city dissipated with each curve of the road and soon we were rolling through dense jungle hills and small one street villages. We explored random dirt roads and searched for a camp-worthy beach. We followed the main road for over an hour and then finally it ended. We were left wondering what to do next. Miraculously, through the trees we noticed the most picture perfect quiet beach inlet. Colorful fishing boats were scattered about and one massive tree canopied the inlet. We squeezed under and had just enough room to pop the top. We slept the night away next to a happy pack of lounging street dogs.
The next day we continued our drive, sheltered by the jungle canopy, and stopping next to a heaping pile of drained coconut husks and a strip of roadside vendors. Snacks of banana chips and the like were for sale, in addition to coconut oil for cooking and deliciously fragrant packs of local spices; cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg seeds, pepper and clove.
On our way back to the car, Brad led me to a large cage where a family of four monkeys resided. The parents sat in the center, bored and uninterested in us. They faced each other and picked through the others fur, removing bugs and anything else that looked out of place. The babies catapulted off the cage walls, full of energy, rambunctious and completely out of control. I kneeled forward, touching one of the babies’ hands. It reached out and wrapped its little hand around my index finger. I stared at its sharp but delicate little finger nails and imagined it was a human baby.
Suddenly my thoughts of this monkey, which had morphed into thoughts of human babies, and then specifically my future babies, came to an end. I felt myself being yanked forward, like my hair was being sucked into the fan of ten hair dryers. My head faced the ground and I couldn’t see what was going on, yet I could hear the scream of an alarmingly angry monkey. The crazed mother tightened her grip on my hair. I tried to display submissiveness by allowing my body to go limp while leaning forward to reduce the tension. Brad, seeing that I was one swipe away from having monkey nails in my face pulled me away in one quick motion. The mother had won. In her hand she proudly displayed a fistful of my hair.
I was humiliated. As I peered back at the monkeys, head burning, I watched as my hair was distributed amongst the four. They twisted it between their fingers, studied it closely, wrapped their tongues around it, and then ate it.
By lunchtime we had looped around the island, ending in Georgetown, Penang’s main city. And here was the reason why we really came to Penang: Season 8 Episode 8 of No Reservations; my all time favorite travel documentary visited here just one year prior. It was a surefire guarantee that really good food waited nearby.
The essence of the show is this: famous New York chef turned author turned television host travels to wild and foreign places, sampling local cuisine and seeing local culture. It is action packed with food erotica; unfamiliar faces, steam billowing from the hawker stands, alleyways with twisted jumbles of lights hanging from above, heaping piles of pork, and lots of bowls of chili and sauce. I freaking love it.
When we lived in Flagstaff, we often watched these shows at night. They were a source of entertainment, but also of inspiration, pushing us forward, keeping us focused on our goals. We wanted to go to these places too.
I was curious what Anthony Bourdain, host of the show thought of the place. Here’s a quote:
“I feel inexorably attached to Malaysia for many reasons, but one of them is that I got there early in my career as a traveler, wasn’t really ready for it, and was changed by the place. It seduced and overwhelmed me at the same time. The smells and colors and flavors—the look and sound of the place, the at times impenetrable mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures—it f***ed me all up”.
“Lots of people, lots of food, lots of cats. The cats are a good sign.”
I too have been left with an overwhelming excitement from Malaysia. The joy of first experiences – Malaysia being my first encounter with Asia – is that every sensation is intensified. Everything is more exciting and more intriguing. You feel like you are never going to get used to it and never shake the butterflies in your stomach. It is a wonderful feeling.
Georgetown didn’t disappoint. We spent most of the afternoon in the Chinese neighborhoods filled with antiques, electronics, keys repair shops, and quiet alleyways where the locals sat on their patios. We searched for interesting murals and were rewarded with a few glimpses of Ernest Zacharevic’s street artwork emblazoned on alley walls, which interestingly incorporated physical objects in his scenes as well.
Our highlight in Georgetown occurred on Chulai Steet at the Sky Hotel. On the street corner, a handsomely smiling Asian man worked behind his stand organizing and cutting strips of pork. After we chose between our two options of pork or duck we sat down in the open air dining area which consumed the ground floor of the building. An older man stood in the back washing dishes while his wife took drink orders. This place, like so many others, comprised a teamed up drink and a food vendor working the same clientele, yet requesting separate payments; seemingly unconventional yet incredibly efficient from a timeliness standpoint. All at once, our drinks came from the back of the building and our food came from the front: two plates of white rice, topped with sautéed greens, and barbecued honey-sweetened pork, or char siew. The combination of hearty greens, simple rice and sticky, gooey, crispy yet juicy pork was unbelievably good. I’m not kidding, it stayed in my thoughts for days.
Past the boulders, the tide was way out, exposing a wasteland of inaccessible coast; puddles of water and sticky ankle deep mud. Two Muslim tween-aged girls sat at the rocks edge, singing along to the streaming music on their phone. One girl casually passed a rock in her hands, finally tossing it in the mud. They exploded in a fit of giggles as mud speckled their faces and silky hijabs. We laughed along while our gazes shifted ahead.
“Look at the fish flopping in the mud!” Brad said.
It was truly horrible. This rather ugly fish, grey like the mud was so far from the water that there was no chance it would survive its own stupidity. Like staring into a Magic Eye painting, I was locked in a hypnotic spell, feeling saddened by this creature’s fate. When my focus finally broke, I noticed I was actually staring out in a landscape of literally hundreds of fish flopping in the mud. How could it be that they all seemingly failed their natural instinct to follow the shifting waters back out to the sea?
And then I noticed something even more surprising and unbelievable; using their pectoral fins, these fish were actually walking! I had never heard, let alone seen anything like it.
I learned later after an obsessive internet search that this fish, the mudskipper, actually resisted being pulled back out to sea; hiding in seaweed and tidal pools until the coast was clear. At this point, their double life began. They are active creatures on land; walking in a series of skips (hence the name), feeding in the mud, interacting with others, defending their territory, and catapulting their muscular bodies up in the air. Much like a reptile, this amphibious creature breathes outside of water by expanding and retaining an air bubble in their enlarged gill chambers. It was really a sight to see.
Eventually the sky darkened and we were forced to leave our rocky outpost. We wandered down the coast to the glowing canopy of a evening food market.
What did we expect to eat at this food market? This in itself is the most exciting part about Malaysia: you never really know. Depending on our location, options vary greatly based on the mix of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia. You may go to a market one day and find that it fully caters to the Chinese community, or head down another street and find it is halal food: acceptable for Muslim consumption, or perhaps entirely mamuk (also halal), a cuisine that has resulted from the intermarriage of migrating Indian Muslims and Malay women.
Our options seemed to be endless. However most days we sought out the mamuk restaurants, and mostly consumed roti chanai and teh tarik; which are also two of the best known examples of mamuk cuisine. Clearly Indian in flavors and technique, yet only found in Malaysia, the roti chanai (meaning “knead” in malay) is a flaky flatbread made by continuously kneading, folding, oiling, tossing and finally cooking the dough on a griddle. Stretchy and flaky, it is served on a tholi, a circular metal tray, with a few sides of spicy chutney and perhaps lentils. Our favorite variation was roti pisang, made by folding bananas in the center of the dough and cooking; reminiscent of a banana pancake. While Brad loved the roti chanai, I opted for thosai, a bread made from a mixture of rice flour and black gram dhal, left to ferment overnight and then cooked on the griddle. As for teh tarek, (literally, pulled tea) it is made with condensed milk (here’s the Southeast Asia influence) and is poured back and forth between two containers; the higher the “pull”, the thicker the froth. It is an artist process, worth ordering the teh tarek if only to watch it being made.
Equally popular establishments are kopitiams, traditional Malaysian Chinese coffee shops serving a variety of local coffee brews and Chinese cuisine. They range from upscale cafes to a small stand within a market place popping out sweet coffee drinks and juices. We visited the most well-known chain, Hailam Kopitiam one morning, started by the Goh family and popular in colonial times by the British and Negri Sembilan royalty. We ordered an iced coffee made with espresso, sweetened condensed milk and a traditional breakfast of soft boiled eggs and charcoal grilled toast served with butter and green kaya (jam made from coconut milk and eggs). Hailam doesn’t just offer breakfast food, it is open all day and on another occasion I ordered tauhu goring, fried tofu served with a peanut sauce and bean sprouts.
As for our go-to Malay food, it was the nasi (rice) dishes. Malay food is not Malay food without a healthy portion of noodles or rice. Ordering food without them is like ordering a sandwich without the bread. Seemingly boring, yet the combination of ingredients, flavors, and techniques make these dishes worth ordering time and time again. One hot afternoon I stopped by a small cart and pointed to an egg. It was all I wanted, yet before I could blink an eye, the vendor had made nasi lemak, twirling a piece of parchment paper into a cone shape, filling it with rice, fried peanuts, dried anchovies, a cucumber slice, a dollop of sambal (spicy paste), and a hardboiled egg on top. Like a lid, he folded the parchment down over the top. It was genius. Other nasi varieties we discovered through random finger pointing was nasi paprik and nasi USA.
Some dishes we were only able to find once. These are the ones we savor over and over in our minds, appreciating their uniqueness and the luck in finding them. One particular experience was our encounter with lychee kang, ordered for us by no one other than the dreamer, Hairi. It was a drink meant to “cool the entire body”, and it was served in an oversized plastic cocktail glass; sugared water and crushed ice, which swam with fruit cocktail, lychee (a deliciously local translucent-white fleshy fruit) and peanuts. It was so strangely good; a perfect mix of soft and crunchy, sweet and salty.
Another such experience was in Melaka, a beautiful city with a mix of intertwining cultures, heavy in Chinese and Dutch history and a former British territory. In the evening we were befriended by a local who directed us to a row of Chinese vendor stalls alongside the river, in search of popiah. In a game of hot and cold, we bounced between the various stalls until we found the infamous popiah, a raw spring roll, wrapped in paper thin crepe and filled with a green mix of jicama, bean sprouts, French beans, carrots, prawns and chopped peanuts, lettuce, and egg.
To drive through Malaysia is to blaze a trail from one great market stall meal to another. After sitting and watching the Muslim girls splash themselves with mud, observing the cats as they searched for lizards among boulder piles, and watching nature’s anomalous walking fish chasing each other across mud flats, it was time to discover yet another night market in search of dinner. So, at this particular market, what did we enjoy? We relished in one of Malaysia’s most famous contributions to the culinary world: satay; pieces of meat skewered on wooden sticks and barbecued over a charcoal fire, then brushed with a mixture of oil, honey, and spices. It was served alongside a spicy peanut dip, cucumber slices, and tightly packed cubes of sticky rice. From the communal tea kettle, we washed our sticky fingers and continued on. We finished off the evening with more sampling: pink fluffy muffins and apam balik; a crispy omelet style pancake oozing with crushed peanuts and chocolate.
When our bellies were full, we strolled along the waterfront toward Nacho, said good night to the cats and to the walking fish. We would need our rest, because tomorrow there are more stops to be discovered on Malaysia’s food trail.