In Shanghai I often didn't wear a watch. It wasn't necessary - in our neighborhood, the old French Concession area, I could tell the time of day by sight, sound, and smell.
Middle-aged and elderly people roaming the sidewalks, hitting their arms with clenched fists and occasionally stopping to rub their backs against tree trunks - 6:30 or 7am. On the street, a sea of bicycles accompanied by the tinkling of thousands of bells - 8am or 5pm (this was back when bikes still ruled Shanghai's roadways). Bicycles again, but this time, suspended from their handle bars, plastic bags sprouting bunches of greens and scallions, mounds of Mandarin oranges or apples, and a lump or two of pork - the 12 noon commute home for lunch. The hiss and spit of hot oil, quickly followed by an enveloping odor reminiscent of my gym clothes after a vigorous workout - 5:30 or 6pm, chou dofu for dinner.
Chou dofu - deep-fried fermented bean curd. When Shanghai was still made up mostly of old, thickly populated neighborhoods of low-rise apartment buildings instead of pockets of anonymous highrises, its repellent pungency permeated the streets before the evening meal. Put off by its odor - described once by Dave as something like a cross between a sweaty jock strap and well-worn tennis shoes - I never took to it. But that doesn't mean I eschew fermented soy bean products in their entirety.
I adore preserved tofu, sometimes called fermented tofu or 'Chinese cheese'. When aged in rice, with wine, in a salt brine, or with chilies, bean curd takes on an unmistakeably cheesy smell and dense, creamy texture. Tasting it side-by-side with a Danish blue cheese, one detects a few superficial similarities: saltiness, nose-pinching pungency, and smooth texture.
Unlike cheese, however, preserved tofu isn't meant to be enjoyed on its own (though I've no doubt there are preserved tofu fans out there who spoon it up plain). It's a flavoring agent, to be used and eaten in small doses with other ingredients. When dabbed onto the end of chopsticks and taken with a spoonful of bland rice porridge, tossed into a stir-fry of green vegetables, or added to a dipping sauce for soy-stewed meat and tofu, Chinese cheese's strong ammonia odor recedes, allowing its intriguing salty, zesty, and - yes - stinky qualities to shine through.
Stir-fried Spinach with Fermented Tofu
A little Chinese cheese adds savor and piquancy to stir-fried greens. Substitute choi sum or kangkung (water spinach; morning glory) for the spinach, and adjust amount of liquid and the final cooking time as needed to attain tenderness for the vegetable.
4 servings, with other dishes
2 lbs. (about 1 kilo) spinach, stems removed if you like, washed and mostly dried
peanut or other vegetable oil
2-3 Tbsp of fermented bean curd (plain or chile-preserved)
2-4 Tbsp Chinese rice wine, dry sherry, or water
ground black pepper and salt to taste
1. Heat a wok over a high flame and add the oil, swirling to coat the pan.
2. Add the bean curd, breaking it up into small pieces with the back of a spatula or spoon, and stir-fry a minute or two.
3. Add spinach and stir-fry a couple of minutes, then add liquid, lower the heat to medium, and braise till tender. Taste for salt, add ground black pepper if you wish, and serve hot.
Hot and Sour Fermented Bean Curd Dipping Sauce
Adapted from Ken Hom's Fragrant Harbor Taste. Nice eaten with with sweetish soy-braised tofu or pork, or other meat, or just mixed with plain steamed rice.
1-2 servings (it goes a long way)
3 cubes plain fermented bean curd
zest from half a lemon or 1 very finely shredded kaffir lime leaf, or a combination of the two
1 tsp lime or lemon juice
4 fresh red chile peppers - choose your chile according to your heat tolerance - seeded or not, finely chopped
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1/2 tsp toasted sesame oil
1. Mix all of the ingredients except the oils in a small dish.
2. Heat the oils together until smoking, then pour over the condiments. Serve immediately.
'Tis the holy month. In Malaysia as elsewhere, that means dawn to dusk fasting for Muslims. And for Malaysians of all religions, a frenzy of feasting when the sun sets, on treats picked up at one of many Ramadan bazaars that spring up, like mushrooms in the forest at the height of the rainy season, all over the country, or at special buka puasa (breaking the fast) meals organized by many a restaurant.
Here in our neck of the woods Pinang Masak is putting on a buka puasa spread every evening until 9pm. We enjoyed this casual little eatery's scrumptious lontong and assam laksa back when it opened last January, and in the interim I've nipped down to the place more than a few times to pick up a little something for lunch. When we moved house a couple of months ago a solid week of lunches, and a couple of dinners, originated from their nasi spread. Highlights of those 6 days were a sweet and wickedly heaty sambal sotong (squid in chile paste), an admirable array of ulam (vegetables and herbs) to dip in fishy and fiery sambal belacan, and a smoky ikan bakar - a whole small mackerel rubbed with coconuty chile paste and stuffed with daun kesom (Vietnamese coriander), then wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled.
Lunch on a recent Saturday proved that Pinang Masak continues to turn out carefully crafted Malay food that tastes like it came from mom's kitchen, if your mom was Malay. Selection from the nasi table is limited on Saturdays (there's little in the way of ulam, and fewer dishes), but there's always something interesting, like this whole mackerel simmered with rebung (preserved bamboo shoots) in a turmeric and coconut milk-based gulai (thin curry), a beautiful balance of santan richness and rebung tartness. Notable also were the petai (stink beans) and ikan bilis (small dried anchovies) stir-fried in sambal and a not-too-sweet, lightly salty pineapple curry with fish (top photo, second and third from right, respectively).
A meal at Pinang Masak isn't complete without a heaping helping of the spicy-sweet and fishy sambal, served warm and best eaten, in my opinion, with nothing but a bit of rice.
It's a curious fact that here in Malaysia - a country with 60% Malay population - truly delicious Malay food can sometimes be difficult to find (it's said that the best is cooked in home kitchens). Visitors to KL take note - Pinang Masak may be a bit out of the way, but it's worth the effort and small expense of wrangling a taxi and getting yourself over to Bukit Tunku for a meal.
Pinang Masak, ground floor of the low-rise apartments on Jalan Langkak Tunku (off Jalan Duta). 7am-7pm, except during Ramadan, when it's open 12:30pm-9pm. Closed Sundays.
Restoran Ulu Yam is a named after a small town about 20 kilometers outside of Kuala Lumpur, said to be the origin of it's specialty, lam mee. We're here in Kepong, after more than an hour of highway gridlock and aimless cruising as I try to decipher a map (the trip home takes only twenty minutes), on the advice of a colleague of Dave's. Judging by the number of families packing out the tables (and packing it in) just before noon on a Sunday, said colleague knows her lam mee.
We've been down this road before - the lam mee (a.k.a. lum mee) road, that is - at the marvelous May King in the Pudu section of Kuala Lumpur. But we realize Ulu Yam's lam mee will be a different animal when the crusty gent taking our order asks if we'll have vinegar (vinegar? not detectable in May King's version) cooked with our noodles, or take it on the side. The vinegar in question is robust Chinese black vinegar (most often found in bottles labelled 'Chekiang Vinegar') and it just so happens that we are hardcore fans of the stuff from way, way back. In fact, we're of the opinion that a dish can never include too much Chinese black vinegar. We'll have it cooked with the noodles, please.
Our host suggests fish cake ('Very tasty, very nice.') to tide us over while our lam mee is prepared. It's admirable - pleasantly fishy and springy, without being rubber-ball bouncy - but doesn't inspire reveries. Dave, a bit of a fish cake connoisseur, observes that the deep-fried coating could be crispier.
But Ulu Yam's lam mee does not disappoint.
Served in a hulking bowl meant to be shared (potentially a problem, for two greedy eaters like us), it's a steaming hot concoction of thick yellow noodles and Chinese greens in a thickish (but not gloppy) fish-based gravy flecked with silky threads of egg. The substantial, chewy noodles and fleeting hint of black vinegar in the gravy make for a flavor profile reminiscent of the sort of stir-fried noodles served up in Shanghai. Our mainland taste memories are further stoked by Ulu Yam's oily, fiery, and slightly sour chile sauce.
In addition to greens and noodles our lam mee sports a token prawn or two and a generous number of rough-cut pieces of porcine goodness. Like much of the pork we've encountered in Malaysia (and very little of the pork you'll encounter in the US, these days), these chunks are intensely flavored, as if the pigs here had extra piggy-ness bred into them.
A ladleful of lam mee, a splash or two of that black vinegar, a big dollop of chile sauce, and a sprinkle of white pepper - heaven in a bowl.
As we pay for our meal I try to engage the crusty gent in conversation about the restaurant's wonderful chile sauce. He's not biting; he knows it's one of a kind, and there's no way he's divulging the details. He does allow that it's made from dried chilies, that the source of its sourness is tamarind, and that 'the secret is lots of garlic'.
Not much to go on, but I guess it's a start.
Restoran Ulu Yam, No. 57, Jalan 3/62A, Bandar Sri Menjalara, Kepong. (To avoid the mess on the highway, go via Jalan Segambut.) 10am-10pm. Closed Tuesdays.
'Turkey, again?' acquaintances asked several years ago, as we were planning our third trip in as many years.
'Don't you want to go other places, see other things, explore a bit?' The he half - who liked to flaunt his passport thick as a short paperback novel and boast of the number of countries he'd visited -could barely conceal his exasperation.
Of course we did. That's why we were returning. Our first and second trips to Turkey had taken us by car up and down the Aegean coast, halfway across Anatolia, and down to Antalya and Olympos. We'd covered a lot of ground, traveling in the depth of winter and the first blush of spring. But there was the still the Black Sea coast, the southeast near Syria, a good part of the Mediterranean coast, and eastern Anatolia. After our first trip, Turkey was an addiction. The more we saw of it, the more we wanted to see. The more we knew it, the more we were reminded of how little we knew. And the more time we spent there, the more we wanted to spend.
Some folks travel to collect visas. Not us.
When it comes to travel, we're serial addicts. If we fall for a place we go back - again and again and again. If we love a city, a town, a village, a market, a restaurant, a street stall, we want to feel at home there. We want to know the lay of the land and the minds of the locals.
Only by knowing what to anticipate can we distinguish the unexpected from the commonplace. On the first visit everything is new. We revel in that newness and then, on subsequent trips, in new newnesses. On return visits things we hadn't noticed or that barely registered the first time around, when everything was an intoxicating blur of unfamiliarity - buildings, plant life, customs, foods, forms of transport, traffic patterns, body language, speech patterns and colloquialisms, daily rituals - stand out in relief against a backdrop of what's familiar from the first (or second, or third) visit. Inconsequentialities that slipped our notice the last time find their way, this time, to Dave's viewfinder and the pages of my notebook.
And, sometimes something particularly wonderful: we recognize the faces of individuals, and they do ours.
So - Sumatra, again. And Padang, again. By the time we hit town at the end of this trip we had but half a day to work our way through a long To-Do list. New things and old things. Pasar Raya, the central market. Coffee to buy. Empek-empek to hunt down. Sate to sample. Hotted-up bemos to photograph. Sunset over the river to take in. And photos to deliver.
This lady recognized us as soon as we entered Warung Nanyo Baru, greeting us with a smile and a big wave. She strode across the old-style Chinese coffeeshop, hands outstretched as if we were long-lost friends instead of single-visit customers. We'd come to drop off the photos we promised to mail to her back when Dave snapped them in June. We didn't plan on staying for lunch, but there was no arguing when she insisted we stay for cups of strong coffee and a bowl of her specialty, bubur ayam.
It's a marvel, this bowl of rice porridge with chicken, probably the best of it's kind we've eaten anywhere in Asia. Thick and smooth, like Hong Kong-style congee, the porridge supports a ladle or two of brothy soy and spice-stewed chicken that tastes lovingly slow- and long-stewed. Half-boiled duck egg halves, their schoolbus-yellow yolks just slightly runny, compete for space in the bowl with absorbent, crispy-spongy you teow (fried Chinese crullers). A flurry of chopped Chinese celery leaves and a sprinkle of deep-fried shallots completes the tableau.
She's justifiably proud of her bubur - didn't bat an eye when Dave set to photographing a bowl of it in June. This time around, as we swoon once again over a bowlful, she nods quickly, once, as if to say, "I knew you'd come back to Padang. For this."
We had, in a way. For the bubur, and for her friendly smile. It won't be the last time.
Bubur ayam cart in front of Warung Kopi Nanyo Baru, Jalan Pondok (opposite 115J), Padang, Sumatra. (Look for the red Nanyo Baru sate cart parked in the same spot - also delicious.) Early morning to around 2pm, though supplies were running low by 11:30a on this recent visit. Closed Sunday.
Last Friday the 22nd, unfortunately, so you can't hear the interview.
But the transcript of bits and pieces of my brief conversation with Joel Chua (Dave declined to join in), producer and presenter of Radio Singapore International's program 'Blog Watch', can be found here. Some of it's a bit muddled (was I that flustered?), one part innacurate (we've been in KL just over a year, not four), but it was lots of fun.
We're flattered that Joel found the blogchild of two food-obsessed foreigners interesting enough to include on the program. And a big welcome to anyone who found their way to EatingAsia because of it!
We're stealing a few days to head back to Sumatra.
By the time you read this we'll be sitting on the terrace of our snug little guesthouse in Maninjau, a village on the shores of a vast crater lake a couple of hours north of Padang. This will be our view, the first thing we see when we wake up in the morning. Next door, a restaurant with a menu featuring Western food but an aunty in charge of the kitchen who'll gladly do the local thing for you. The chile paste-rubbed fish that finds its way from grill to our table will be pulled from the water to order. It doesn't get any fresher than that. We'll be rising early to explore markets, cycling around the lake, enjoying a bit of downtime (and perhaps a nap or two), and finishing the trip with a night (and lots of eating) in the latest addition to our list of favorite cities.
Indonesians and Malaysians love their sambal, a chile-based condiment that's served with nearly every meal. There are tens, perhaps a hundred, types of sambal - from sambal buah (fruit sambal) to that well-loved staple of the Malaysian table, sambal belacan (shrimp paste sambal). And for each type there are as many variations as there are sambal cooks.
Most of the sambals we run across in Malaysia are a shade of red, made with fresh or dried red chilies. On Sumatra, however, we consumed more than our fair share of sambal hijau (lit. 'green' sambal), made with the curled green chilies called lado hijau that are heaped high next to their red cousins in every market.
The sambal hijau served at a nasi Padang shop in Payakumboh, a pleasant little town with a darned good market about a 45-minute drive from Bukittingi, got our attention with its in-your-face spicy sourness. Made with heaps of cilantro, garlic, green chilies, and belimbing (a tiny, tart, and green relative of what we know in the States as sweet star fruit) ground to a chunky paste, it was the perfect foil to the rich chicken rendang, coconuty gulai (thin curries), and chile paste-rubbed grilled fish for which the eatery is famous.
The sambal hijau we supped the next day, at a nasi Kapau stall (the women of Kapau, a village outside of Bukittingi, are known for their way with chilies, turmeric, and coconut milk) on the middle level of Bukittingi's endless market, was a different animal altogether. Green chilies were prevalent, but in this version they were cooked, along with onion, to a sweet softness. Tartness was present, but it came from lime rather than belimbing.
A prevalent flavor in this version of sambal hijau was bitterness, from the addition of rimbang - a local variety of Thai pea eggplant said to be good for the eyes (but only if eaten in odd numbers). Cooked to barely tender, the rimbang gave a slight 'pop' under pressure from the teeth, and their bitter bite added interest to the silky chilies and onions. We ended up asking for seconds, and then thirds.
Find the bright green sambal at Rumah Makan Saraso, 130 Jalan Sokaerno Hatta, Payakumboh, Sumatra. The other can be found at Nasi Kapau Linda, middle level, Bukittingi Market, Sumatra.
(For more Indonesian - and some Burmese - recipes this week, see the Creative Cook).
Sambal Hijau with Rimbang
Sambal is wide open to interpretation. Use whatever kind of green chilies you can find (but not green bell peppers). This sambal should feature the flavor, not just the heat, of green chile, but it should also be zippy. That said, remove the chilies' seeds if fiery foods frighten (keep in mind that fire will fade if you store your sambal in the fridge for a couple of days). If your chilies are mild, perk the sambal up with the addition of an incendiary variety like Thai bird chilies. Taste as you go, and be sure not to cook the eggplants to a mush. This sambal would normally be eaten with rice, alongside a curry or grilled fish or rendang. It's also - very inauthentically - delicious stirred into scrambled eggs just as they finish cooking.
5 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pound (about 500 grams) large green chilies, seeds removed if you wish, roughly chopped
5-10 small fiery green chilies, such as Thai bird chilies, finely chopped (optional)
salt to taste
a generous handful of pea eggplant, washed and left whole
lime juice to taste
1. Heat the oil in a skillet to medium-high and saute the onions and garlic just until they've begun to color. Add the chopped large chilies, stir-fry for a couple of minutes, and then lower the heat a notch or two. Continue to cook stirring often, until the chiles and onions are soft and sweet. Taste and add fiery small chilies if you like, then cook for a couple minutes more. Add salt to taste.
2. At medium-low heat, add the eggplants. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are just tender. Remove from heat and add lime juice to taste.
3. Allow to cool and serve at room temperature. Sambal will keep in the fridge for about five days, but heat and sourness will fade (add more lime juice before serving).
Sour, trailed closely by hot, is my favorite southeast Asian flavor. No surprise then that my favorite type of laksa is Penang-style assam (which means sour). No two laksa assam (a.k.a. laksa Penang) are alike, and Malaysians have tightly held convictions about what makes for a great one. Having lived in Kuala Lumpur for just a little more than a year, I don't feel qualified to designate this or that version of laksa assam 'the best'. So I'll just say that we recently stumbled across a very good one, at the Saturday night market on Lorong TAR.
Laksa assam includes, of course, laksa noodles - thick and round, chewier and more elastic than regular rice noodles.
Then there's the fish-based broth or gravy, which will likely include shallots, fresh turmeric, lemon grass, chilies, peppery and astringent daun kesom ('laksa leaf' or Vietnamese coriander) and plenty of belacan (shrimp paste), among other things. Sour comes from tamarind and/or assam keping, semi-dried slices of a sour fruit (pictured top photo at 6-7 o'clock). Strong-flavored, oily fish are the most appropriate for laksa broth. The owners of this stall start with 120 kilograms of ikan kembung - which could be either chub mackerel (Rastrelliger kanagurta) or short mackerel (Rastrelliger brachysoma) - purchased early in the morning at Pasar Selayang, KL's mammoth wholesale market.
The fish is boiled and the meat pulled off the bone - laksa gravy worthy of its name will be thick with shreds of fish meat - and the other ingredients (no laksa cook will reveal all of his or her secrets) added to the broth, which is then simmered for hours.
Before gravy is ladeled over noodles, other ingredients such as sliced pineapple, cucumber, and red onion, fresh chilies, mint leaves, more laksa leaves, and chopped coriander will be added to the bowl. Half a hard-boiled egg is a standard ingredient, and laksa assam is always served with half a kalamansi to squeeze over, in the event that additional sourness is desired.
The laksa here (look for the sign advertising 'Laksa Seribu Rasa' - laksa of a thousand flavors) is prepared by Malay Penang-ites (rather than Chinese Malaysians), and perhaps that's why the gravy is thinner and browner (less intensely chile red) than other versions I've sampled. It's less rich, too, but that's not a criticism, for it's plenty flavorful and wonderfully fishy (note the shreds of fish clinging to the egg white, above), and very very sour, in an almost mouth-puckeringly Thai way. It's also numbingly spicy, though the copious chopped fresh bird chilies I added at the table probably contributed to the burn.
Lorong TAR is the site of a number of stalls selling laksa assam - this one sits at the end of a row of them, next to a satay vendor. We can't claim to have done side-by-side comparisons, and we probably never will (the folks here recognize us by now and I'd feel a traitor supping at the table of one of their competitors).
Laksa assam stall, Saturday night market on Lorong TAR (Masjid Jamek monorail stop). Halal. Open from about 2pm until 10pm - but in reality business stops when the laksa's gone which, we're told, can be as early as 8 if there's no rain. Be sure to sit at the tables directly behind the stall.