No, just snowed under with work and preparations for an upcoming trip to the States. Apologies for the silence (and after a reader recently commended us for posting regularly too!). We will be back on track ASAP.
No, just snowed under with work and preparations for an upcoming trip to the States. Apologies for the silence (and after a reader recently commended us for posting regularly too!). We will be back on track ASAP.
CHICAGO FOODWAYS ROUNDTABLE
In Southeast Asia, Palm Sap is Transformed Into a Sugar That Hits Sweet, Smoky, and Bitter Notes
Present by: Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman
Sunday, April 15th, 2007 10AM Kendall College, 900 North Branch Street, Chicago
Cost: $3 per person, free to Kendall students and faculty with ID
Palm sugar, a key ingredient in most Southeast Asian cuisines, is little known outside the region. Few fans of the dishes that benefit from this sugar's low-key sweetness are aware of the laborious process that turns palm sap into gold. Fewer still know that this sweetener's flavor profile can vary widely as a result of sap origin, production process, and attention to detail on the part of the producer.
Join Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman as they take us from a town in southern Malaysia, where a retired imam cooks up golden gula Melaka (Malaysian coconut palm sugar) delicious enough to be eaten on its own, to a village in Northern Sumatra where a second-generation maker produces dark and smoky gula aren (sugar from the aren palm). Along the way we'll find out where this truly artisinal product comes from, how it's made, and how it's used in the region's cuisines. We'll also learn how economic realities in some parts of Southeast Asia may result in the eventual demise of asli ('pure' - that is, undiluted with cane sugar) palm sugar. We'll taste some sweet and savory dishes that highlight the sugar and - border control willing - indulge in a 'tasting' of palm sugars that David and Robyn have collected on their travels.
This program is hosted by the Chicago Foodways Roundtable. To reserve, please call (847) 432-8255, then leave your name, telephone number, and the number of people in your party, or email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's 12:50 on a Saturday afternoon. We're sitting in our idling car, checking our watches every other minute or so, just like the folks in the ten or so other cars squeezed into this parking lot in Tanjung Malim. At exactly 1pm rolling metal doors sound the alarm, and we join the surge towards Andri's entrance.
We're newbies, so we don't fully appreciate the urgency of the situation. Dave grabs a table by the door and leisurely pulls out his camera and lenses. I amble over to the queue forming behind the glass display case, noting my excellent position at number 5 in line. But it doesn't move. Those at the front of the queue point to dish after dish after dish, asking for three or four spoonfuls of each. Food is fast disappearing from serving platters. The folks in front of me begin to shuffle their feet. They cough nervously. Behind me there's more agitation, maybe even a bit of grumbling.
When I finally take my place at the front of the queue I understand what's got my fellows worked up. I've been advised to order the sambal petai ('stink' beans in chile sauce) - and, in fact, I've just overheard the men behind me agreeing that the dish is superb. But it's gone. We've driven an hour for this lunch. The place has only been open for fifteen minutes and the sambal petai is gone. How could this be?!
Then, the chef gamely scrapes the corners of the pan and comes up with one last little bit. For us. Sorry, guys.
OK. That was a close one. Deep breath. Settle down, I tell myself. We've got our petai. What now? It's a huge, baffling array of dishes laid out before me. What's this? What's that? I ask. I can feel the collective impatience building behind me like a thunderhead. All right, all right ... I've been told to go for the chicken as well. So, chicken rendang (which, 10 minutes later, will also be gone) and gulai ayam (chicken in mild coconut curry - sold out by 1:45) it is. The crispy fried fish, several varieties, seem popular. I go for a plate of bite-sized specimens.
And eggplant smothered in chilies, always a favorite.
A dish of salted sliced cucumber, a plate of ulam (blanched veggies - wing beans, cabbage, okra, long beans) and some fresh sambal round out our feast. I'm glad to retreat to the safety of the table, well away from the hungry eyes boring a hole in my back.
But wait. Other tables are positively groaning under the weight of the dishes atop them. Our selection looks Spartan in comparison, but I can't bear the thought of returning to the back of the queue, now some twelve people long long. Luckily Dave has struck up a conversation with a London-trained tailor with family connections (his mom was the original owner of Andri's). He heartily recommends the dendeng (sun-dried beef, deep-fried and served with red chilies and onions), strides over to the display, grabs the platter so Dave can take a photo, and then dishes up a couple of portions for us.
We tuck in, and immediately understand what all the fuss is about. This is easily the best nasi Padang we've ever eaten - outside of Padang, that is. Everything sparkles with freshness, with layers of flavor that can result only from the utmost attention to every detail. This is home cooking of the highest order.
Chicken rendang slides right off the bone, and is smothered in an almost chocolate-y sauce rich with tens of dried spices. It tastes like it's been cooking for a day, or longer. The dendeng is a spectacular feat - dried beef that is chewy but not at all dry, not a tooth-buster. Caramelized, half-crispy onion rings add sweet complexity to this meaty, spicy dish. Eggplant (is it roasted? boiled?) is so yielding and creamy it could be pureed; the vegetable's mildness is a fine foil to the heat of chopped chilies with a hint of lime juice. The fish are a surprise - not at all greasy, shatteringly crisp, fishy but not overly so (they'd make a perfect beer snack). Spooning up the last of the lusciously coconuty sauce from our ayam gulai, we're genuinely sad to see this meal come to a close.
Andri's is one of many establishments that sprung up years ago along the old Kuala Lumpur-Ipoh highway. The best ones, like this kedai makanan and Bidor's famous duck noodle shop, still pull in the crowds even though the newish North-South highway has lured most traffic from the trunk road. Malaysians will always detour for a good meal.
In spite of the fact that I stole the last bit of sambal petai from right under their noses, the diners at the table next to ours happily share reminiscences of long-ago pit stops. 'I never minded the drive to Penang,' one tells us, 'because it meant I could stop at Andri's for lunch.' Today marks his first visit in five years. 'But it's still the same, as good as ever,' he says, wiping his mouth with a grin.
Who's Andri, anyway? We thought it was this man, and so did the EatingAsia reader who steered us to this find.
But no, this is Anasrul, the owner of Andri's. His aunt opened the restaurant about twenty years ago. When she was ready to retire she sold the business to her nephew and schooled his wife in the art of preparing sublime Minang dishes. Anasrul's wife Wilastieli, working with three assistants, starts on the day's menu at 6:30am. Her chicken dishes rely on kampung ('village') chicken - scrawny, sinewy, free-range birds with a flavor far superior to that of fat, puffy farmed birds - special-ordered and delivered to the restaurant every night. And everything is cooked over an old-fashioned wood fire. Anasrul says it's the wood smoke that makes his wife's food extra tasty.
The masses appear to agree. A few years ago a restaurateur eager to reproduce Andri's dishes in KL offered Anasrul a blank check for his aunt's recipes. To the city's loss, he declined.
We probe a bit about the identity of the restaurant's namesake, but never do get to the bottom of it. But really, with food like this, who cares who the restaurant is named after? It's 2:30pm. And there's barely a morsel left on the display.
Heartfelt (and belly-felt) thanks to CS for directing us to this little gem.
Kedai Makan Andri Masakan Mindang, Highway 1 (the old KL-Ipoh trunk road), Tanjung Malim. Take the N-S highway to the Tanjung Malim exit and turn left to Tj. Malim after the toll. Andri's is on the right, soon after the fourth traffic light, across from a small used car dealership. 1p till the food's sold out (usually 3p or so). Be there at opening on weekends to avoid disappointment - you have been warned. Closed Monday. Tel. 05-459-7944.
KLue, Issue 101, March 2007
Text: Robyn Eckhardt Photos: David Hagerman
If the soul of Malaysia resides in the bellies of its citizens, then the heart of KL must be its wet markets. After all, it's these old-style places of culinary commerce that have, over the years, stocked the kitchens and pantries of the city's hawker's and restaurateurs, wives and mothers, grandmas and aunties, dads and grandfathers who've fed us.
Despite its willy-nilly redevelopment KL still boasts a few of these traditional alternatives to the grocery store, from Petaling Street's petite Chinese market to Pudu's open-air sprawl. But one pasar better than any other reflects the diversity, changing fortunes, and essence of the city: Chow Kit.
'Maaaaaaaaaaaaaari mari mari!' ('Come, come, come on!')
In a dim workroom off a narrow alley, a shirtless man lowers a wood-handled wire strainer as big as a motorcycle tire and lifts a batch of taufu pok from a wok of sputtering oil. On a wooden tray beside him battalions of snow-white tofu cubes await their turn in the boiling liquid. Just outside, a gent with a kerchief tied tight over his bald pate grunts with the effort of lifting twenty bags of the finished product into a milk crate fastened to the back of a delivery bike bound for kedai in KL and PJ.
'Ayam! Ayam! Ayaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!' ('Chicken! Chicken! Here's chicken!')
A stone's throw away peanuts roast in a metal drum out the back of a busy shop. Nearby, a stooped granny perched on a low stool peels onions as her daughter combines scoops of ground ginger, turmeric, garlic, and shallots for a bulk order of curry paste. The whir of metal grinders churning out cili mesin drowns out the click-clack of abacus beads drifting from a storeroom around the corner.
Chopped peanuts for legions of popiah, freshly made mee destined for thousands of bowls of curry, chickpea flour ground for an incalculable number of bhaji, coconut milk to enrich countless pots of masak lemak - all are prepared everyday in the bowels of Pasar Chow Kit. Here, a narrow aisle lined on both sides with Malay and Indonesian vendors displaying turmeric leaves, paku, budu, and jering on low wooden tables. There, from a row of shop houses in various states of disrepair, staples of the Indian kitchen are sold in bulk from burlap bags.
Beyond that, past the kambing stalls and behind the live poultry section, hide a row of modish, curve-roofed cement structures housing a Chinese herbal medicine purveyor, a kitchen supplies and ceramic pots dealer, and a few coffee shops. At tables out front customers and employees slurp noodles and rice porridge while chatting in a cacophony of Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, and Mandarin.
Older than Malaysia itself, Chow Kit has, like KL, seen good times and bad. When it was opened in 1955 by the seventh sultan of Selangor, the market anchored one of the city's prime shopping and entertainment districts. Forty years later the area was known more for its illicit activities than for its haberdashers and wet market. In 1997 City Hall announced its intention to raze the market and replace it with an eleven-story multi-purpose building, a plan put on hold indefinitely when the Asian financial crisis hit. Malaysia's economic misfortune saved Chow Kit, but business at the market has never returned to pre-crisis levels.
'Eight or so years ago, if you came to Chow Kit on a Sunday you couldn't even walk, it was so crowded,' recalls Asraf, an Indian shop owner whose family has been in business at the market for sixteen years. He attributes the market's decline to KL-ites' love affair with the hypermarket.
'How can a small shop owner like me compete?' Asraf laments.
While the market's wholesale stalls haven't suffered as much as its small retailers, sellers of super-sized bags of banana chips and Pokemon candies in bulk just don't draw the crowds of yesteryear.
Other sellers say changing lifestyles are the root of Chow Kit's malaise. 'Young people don't like wet, dirty markets,' observes Miss Lin, a Chow Kit resident from birth. Selling lucky bamboo and ceramic pots from a stall in the Chinese section for fifteen years now, she sees sales spike only around Chinese New Year and Hari Raya.
'Besides, who has time to drive to Chow Kit, park their car, and walk around buying vegetables here, meat there, eggs somewhere else?' she asks. Supermarkets offer what KL's wettest wet market cannot - cleanliness and convenience.
'Lima ringgit! Lima ringgit! Lima ringgit! Jambuuuuuuu!' ('Five ringgit, five ringgit! Rose apples!')
Yet, despite its unruliness Chow Kit has its hard-core fans, even among the not-so-old. Thirtyish KL native Angela hits the market's claustrophobic covered walkways first thing every Sunday morning. For her, face-to-face connections - the ability to buy from vendors she knows and trusts - trump hygiene and convenience any day. Ready access to nearly every Malaysian ingredient imaginable sweetens the pot. It's the old market's trump card.
'You can get everything at Chow Kit!'
Travel inspires us (and it's the muse for this blog). February was a good month because we spent a fair bit of time on the road.
The only problem with being away is, well, being away. Between the travel, the preparations that precede it, and the catching up that inevitably follows, it's been too long since we've had time to pursue a favorite weekend activity: road tripping. It's one of the joys of living in Kuala Lumpur, being able to jump in the car and find yourself somewhere interesting and entirely different to the city in the space of an hour or two.
At the tail end of January, before the Philippines and Sumatra, we spent a Saturday morning with an ebulliant retired imam in a village about an hour from Melaka. We'd gone there to learn the secret to making superior gula Melaka (palm sugar), in preparation for a presentation we'll be giving on the topic in Chicago next month (details to follow, for Chicago readers who have nothing better to do on a Sunday than listen to us yammer. Pssst - samples from the region will be available for tasting). It was a wonderfully productive - but exhausting - six hours, and we had to hurry back to KL for a dinner engagement. We decided to stop and refresh (ie. eat) in Muar.
Muar is, like Kampar and Temerloh, one of those overlooked yet intriguing Malaysian towns that remind us why we love this country. True, there's not much going on here. There's no major tourist sights, no spa hotels, no gorgeous beach, no - as far as I know - legendary restaurants. But the place has got personality. It's got it's own small-town version of hustle and bustle. It's got lovely (and, unfortunately, crumbling) pre-war buildings and its share of resident characters.
Muar is the sort of town we'd like to explore inch-by-inch over a whole day, rather than hit at warp speed in search only of something to put in our mouths.
We arrive at 1:30 with bellies rumbling (having skipped breakfast, not by choice but by dint of getting lost on the way from Melaka to gula) without map or guidebook (the older section of Muar is fairly small, but the town itself sprawls). But our snack-sensoitive radar kicks in, and with not much effort we find ourselves parking the car just a block away from a whole street devoted - in the middle of the day mind you, this is no night market - to deliciousness.
Jalan Haji Abu is anchored by Kim San Market, which is really just a Malaysian-style coffeeshop set-up, with a clutch of hawkers and a beverage service. We spy duck, roasted pork, a couple types of noodles. But we never make it inside. There's just too much happening on Haji Abu - vendors line both sides of the street for 1 1/2 blocks.
We start with fried shrimp noodles ('chao xiang mian' is what the sign reads) prepared at a cart parked across the street from the shopping center facing Kim San. Yellow mee noodles are fried not-quite-dry with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, scallion, and fish cake. They're greasy enough to inspire a moment - just a moment - of guilt, before we give in to their so-bad-for-you tastiness. The not-too-fiery but very fishy sambal and a squeeze of kalamansi heighten our enjoyment.
And we're not alone. As we're scarfing we watch car after car pull up to the stall's 'drive-in-window' for takeout orders.
After lunch we stroll up the road and find stir-fried carrot cake, something not often seen on the street in KL. But we've just eaten, we're really not hungry, and we've got to hit the road. We keep on, but we're not buying, not tasting, just looking.
Muar is known for its otak-otak, pounded and seasoned shrimp (or fish) paste smeared on a leaf and grilled. OK, maybe just two. It's a local specialty, after all. Merely a light snack to hold us till we get back home.
We come to a wonton mee stall and keep moving - until we notice a man behind the counter making shuijiao ('water' dumplings) on the spot. Oh, alright. We love shuijiao. One bowl, please.
The pork filling is studded with garlic chives and pleasingly heavy on the black pepper, and the wrapper is perfect, neither thin and wimpy nor thick and flabby. We're very pleased with this find.
By now we really are behind schedule and our bellies are much fuller than they should be in light of the fact that we've got what promises to be an especially fine (and expensive) dinner ahead. But on the way into town we passed a busy fish ball noodle stall, parked all alone a couple of blocks away from the gluttonous frenzy of Muar's 'eat street'. Investigation is required.
Wide wheat noodles - chewy and obviously homemade - serve as the bed for these fish balls, a variation on the thinner fish ball-appropriate noodles we've come to expect in KL. They're tossed with soy and topped with greens, ground pork, and a few slices of indifferently roasted pork. Other than the pasta there's earth-shaking here, we think, until we taste the snow-white fish balls. Nubbly outside, they're Incredibly fresh and taste of nothing, we're sure, but fish flesh. There's hardly any bounce here, so little in fact that they could be described as delicate. The accompanying broth shows the same attention to piscene detail, with a whiff of the sea and copious bits of seaweed.
We may now be too full for dinner, but these fish balls are definately worth busting a gut over.
That night we tell our friends about lunch in Muar. Our suggestion that the little town might be worth an overnight stay elicits guffaws. Well, we don't know, but we'll certainly head back. There's just something about Muar.....
Fried shrimp noodles, fried carrot cake, otak-otak, heavenly shuijiao and, judging from the crowds around the stall, wonton mee - and much, much more - on Jalan Haji Abu. Fish ball noodles stall in front of Kedai Minuman dan Makanan Kiang Nam on Jalan Abdullah, a less-than-five minute walk. Muar, Johor.
Well, this is pretty weird. We used to read the Shanghai Daily, when we lived in that city-under-construction back in the mid-90s.
I'm quoted in an article on fermented bean curd - but described as a 'freelance writer living in China'. It would have been nice if the reporter had referenced EatingAsia and given a link, rather than giving the impression she'd interviewed me when she hadn't, and then getting her facts wrong to boot. It also would have been nice if she'd placed the other tidbits she lifted from a certain EatingAsia post (one of my personal faves, by the way) inside quotation marks, rather than giving the impression they're her own words.
I mean, c'mon. You're a Chinese person living in China writing about a Chinese food ingredient. Do your own research! How lazy can you get??!!
Thank you, Shanghai Daily. NOT! I'm annoyed.
March 19: For an update, and the editor's response to my email, see comments below.
Continuing our great southeast Asian pork tour (previous stops have included Kuala Lumpur, northern Thailand, and northern Sumatra) here on EatingAsia, we touch down in Manila. As a reader commented on our last post, pork is king in the Philippines - perhaps even more so, I would add, than in northern Thailand. Not much strolling is done on the streets of the Philippine capital, but if one were to hoof it around Manila one could count on at least one whole roast pig sighting a day.
Lydia is legend in Baclaran, a Manila neighborhood fronting the Bay that's home to Seaside, a small but fantastic seafood market, and a Redemptorist church that sees heightened activity on Wednesdays, when devotees of Our Lady of Perpetual Help crowd into the church for mass and leave offerings at and worship at the saint's statue outside.
Lydia is Baclaran's lechon (roasted pork) queen. Born and raised in the neighborhood, she opened a lechon stand when she was fifteen years old (she's now 60). Word of her delicious lechon spread well beyond Baclaran, sales grew year-by-year, and about two decades ago she opened a lechon restaurant a stone's throw from seaside. She now owns a hog (and fighting cock) farm in Batangas and supplies lechon to most of Manila's five-star hotels.
We caught up with globetrotting Lydia at the restaurant. She'd just returned from a sojourn in LA. Business is good, very good. Lydia spoke with enthusiasm of the shopping on Rodeo Drive.
Lydia's is a simple, open-air affair with walls painted in sunshine yellow, colorful formica-top tables and, a bit bizarrely, many photos of cute little piggies.
It's a fine place for a brunch of juicy, tender, porcine-ful pork with a crispy, laquered skin and just the right amount of fat. Alongside, a plate of steamed rice and an intriguing pork broth soured up with tamarind - light and bright and a good complement to the pork.
Pig is, obviously, the focus here, but the display at the back groaning with other dishes deserves a once-over. On our way in we passed a couple splitting a bountiful golden-riced paella studded with shellfish and chicken. Not wanting to detract from the lechon we stuck with simpler dishes: a grilled squid stuffed with tomato, onion, and ginger (skillfully cooked, almost fork tender - excepting the crunchy, crackly tentacles - and very smoky), served with a soy and vinegar-based sawsawan (dipping sauce),
and laing, a Bicolano dish of taro leaves simmered in coconut milk. Lydia's version included pumpkin or winter squash. A bit rich, perhaps, to accompany a plate of pig and fat, but tasty nonetheless.
We know that Filipinos, a people as opinionated about food as Malaysians are, will chime right in and tell us if we did not dine on Manila's best lechon at Lydia's. But we walked out of the place pretty happy.
Lydia's Lechon, Roxas Boulevard (just a few minutes' walk from Baclaran Church), Baclaran, Manila. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. From 135 pesos for 1/4 kilo of lechon to 5,400 pesos for 10 kilos.
Sumatran Batak love their grilled meats. Stalls and shops selling babi panggang (grilled pig - most Batak are Christian) are a common sight on the two-lane road from just outside Medan, west and south through Berestagi, to Lake Toba.
In Indonesia (and Malaysia) the word 'babi' isn't uttered in polite company. The abbreviations BPK (babi panggang Karo, for the Batak Karonese version) and BPT (babi panggang Toba, prepared by Batak Karonese) smooth the way for non-offensive conversation comparing the babi product of this stall or that shop.
A couple of other abbreviations of note: B2 is pig and B1 is that other, other white meat, dog. Batak are fairly large consumers of the latter, judging by the number of shops advertising B1. B1 is almost always served in places peddling tuak, palm liquor.
No, we didn't sample any B1. Without going into the whole dog meat debate, suffice it to say that the fact that three dogs share our home means that the stuff will never pass our lips (that said, it wouldn't have passed our lips before our house was invaded by hounds).
It also means that we'll never adopt a pig. We are certified pork lovers.
Ordering in a BPT/BPK joint is a simple matter of uttering 'B1' or 'B2' (some places serve only one or the other). The meal arrives as a set consisting of a plate of plain steamed rice and one of BBQ meat with, sometimes, sausage (above, find strips of pork at 6 o'clock, a firm pate-like pork liver sausage at 11-12, and another softer, more fatty, and, at this joint at least, relatively tasteless sausage at 3); a plate of well-blanched daun ubi (tapioca leaves), chopped and mixed with lots of ginger and perhaps some garlic;
a bowl of soup that can vary from sublimely porky to bland and dull as dishwater; and a saucer of dipping sauce made with pork's blood that tastes nothing at all like blood but is rich, complex, and slightly sweet (being dished up, below).
A must-try, and the perfect way to cut the richness of the (nicely) fatty pork, is a Batak sambal made with fresh prickly ash (it's never on the table, so one must ask for it), called andaliman in these parts. Andaliman grows wild all over north Sumatra and every market seems to include a handful of vendors selling the stuff by the bunch. Unlike prickly ash eaters in China, where the spice is called huajiao and provides the characteristic ma-la (numbing and hot) flavor in the Sichuanese classic mapo dofu, Batak prefer their andaliman fresh (northern Thais eat prickly ash both fresh and dried.) The berries have a wonderful citric scent and flavor and are lip-tingling and hot as hell. We love them.
BPK/BPT shops each seem to have their own way with andaliman; one of our favorites featured the herb pounded with small green chilies and kaffir lime leaf, with lime on the side for further tartening. That combo of fresh prickly ash and fresh chilies is perhaps the spiciest thing we've ever put in our mouths (and that includes everything we ate during our year in China's Sichuan province, home of some pretty hot stuff) but it was tasty enough to make me oblivious to the pain. My lips were dancing for about 45 minutes after the meal.
The quality of the food served at BPK/BPT shops varies widely. We don't recommend the place we took breakfast at in Berestagi (on the same block as the bus area in front of the main market, third photo from top), with its chilly service and even colder sausage. We do highly recommend a shop (first and second photos) in Sumbul, a speck on the road between Berestagi and Sidikalang that hosts a weekly market on Tuesday (reason enough in itself to hit this town). We were graciously treated to lunch here by locals and, though the place is, um, simple, the pork was fresh off the grill and yum incarnate (just meat, no sausage), moist and smoky, sliced and served on top of the greens so that its fragrant juices dribbled down over the leaves and mixed with the ginger.
We're flattered that Philippine internet news site The Pinoy has seen fit to add EatingAsia to its list of Pinoy links. We assume this has something to do with our recent foray into Philippine food. But now the pressure is on, to keep those Philippine posts coming. It's a hard job, but ....
Our first night in Medan we went wandering, looking for something to eat. We strolled the lanes around our hotel but came up empty. It was only 8:30 but everything was shut tight. Stomachs growling, we widened our search, dodging speeding SUVs and smoke-belching motorcycle tricycles as we sprinted across a major thoroughfare toward a promising sidestreet. There didn't appear to be any shops and all the street lights were dark (common, in Medan), but we could make out the figures of pedestrians and the lightbulbs and candles of hawker stalls in the distance.
Sure enough, ten minutes on the hoof found us with a wealth of dinner choices. We eyed simple storefronts and ambulant stalls offering mie fried and in soup, nasi Padang, stir-fried Chinese dishes, and burgers, of sorts (no thanks), finally settling on grilled chicken peddled by a friendly young Batak woman who, with her long straight hair, skinny jeans, black turtleneck, and hipster glasses, resembled a beatnik. While her helper got the coals going with an electric mini fan and brushed the chicken with glossy black kecap manis, we made the most of her broken English and my middling Malaysian (quite close to Indonesian). When she pulled out her mobile phone and asked us to pose for a photo we - mindful of the hundreds of Sumatrans subjected to Dave's lens on previous trips - agreed.
The chicken was delicious, right up there with Thailand's best - moist and tender, super smoky, sweet and salty from the kecap and soured with a slice of lime. Eaten with plain white rice, a few slices of cucumber, a scorching chile dip, and good company, it was just what we'd been looking for, even if we hadn't known it at the time.
We broke our walk back to the hotel with a bowl of sweet, bean-based bubur (porridge), served up from a corner stall. After the fiery bird its cooling coconutiness hit just the right note. Next to us, an elderly man sipped a hot milky beverage. Bandrek susu, the proprietor said. It's good for you, why not give it a try?
Bandrek (it's taken both with and without susu - milk) could only originate in a place that produces a wealth of dried spices. Every warm spice we'd seen in Sumatra's markets - especially cinammon, but also coriander, cardamom, cloves, anise - swam in that brew in extravagant abundance. Palm sugar lent smoky sweetness, and ginger a gentle heat that dueled with the stinging bite of fresh chile. Each sip forged a not unpleasant, flaming path down my gullet. I would have sworn I could feel the liquid as it hit the pit of my stomach.
My throat tingled (bandrek is prescribed for a sore throat ... as well as male 'issues'), my cheeks burned, and, after a few minutes, a cooling sweat broke out on my forehead. I can't testify to the precise medicinal properties of bandrek, but I know I'd want a glass if had a cold or were recovering from the flu.
Over the next week, as we explored a patch of north Sumatra, we saw the drink everywhere, sold from specialized carts and in the warung kopi (coffee shops) and pondok tuak (palm wine 'huts') that male Sumatrans gravitate to in the mornings and the evenings. We found it all over Medan, in smaller towns, in no-name villages, and at the top of a pass on the road from Berestagi to Sidikalang and Lake Toba. There, four shops obviously suffering for lack of customers (tourism numbers on Sumatra are dismally low) serve the drink with salted eggs and a stunning view of the lake.
I can't help but wonder if we would have noticed north Sumatra's bandrek obesssion at all if chance - and our stomachs - hadn't led us to it that first night in Medan.
Our guide Idris shared this recipe with me on the long drive back to Medan. Cinammon is a key ingredient, so look for good sticks and don't skimp on the quantity. Bandrek strikes me as a very personal thing, and I'd wager that every household has its own recipe, so feel free to fiddle with amounts according to your own taste. One thing bandrek should not be is timid - the spices should sing, and the liquid should be fiery enough to at least tickle the throat. If the use of chile is a turnoff, increase the amount of ginger.
I prefer my bandrek without milk. I could see the beverage iced - not authentic, but probably delicious. Were I a more ambitious cook I'd explore bandrek as an ice cream flavor.
Makes 2 six to seven-ounce servings.
1/2 liter (about 2 1/4 cups) water
3 six-inch cinammon sticks
5 star anise
10 whole cloves
10 coriander seeds
7 cardamom pods, broken open
1 stalk lemongrass, bottom 5 inches only, peeled and trimmed and pounded to release the frangrance
3 thick slices of ginger (old, not young), pounded a bit to release the juices
Optional: fresh chilies, 1 if very hot more if less so
about 2 tablespoons of Indonesian palm sugar (substitute 1/2 dark brown sugar and 1/2 maple sugar)
1) Place all ingredients except sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer, partly covered, about 10 minutes. Add the sugar and simmer a few more minutes. Taste for sweetness and add more sugar if necessary.
2) Strain through a fine mesh strainer or a piece of cheesecloth. Add milk to taste, if desired.