Hello Uncle Foreigner

food

Feb 18, 2013

Winter break: Eat this porkwich

Pork burger with cheese at the Desa Permata night market

Our talented food truck chef at work
Eat this pork burger because it is delicious

The street in front of our hostel hosts a street market every weekend, and it’s a bustler. When we went, one of the vendors was a food truck hawking pork burgers and it smelled so good, I just had to get a taste.

The young man operating the grill was a solid hipster type, wearing a knit hat in 80 degree weather and a plaid face mask, presumably for food safety. He could park anywhere in downtown Manhattan (wait, are food trucks still trendy?), charge $12 per, and the cool kids would line up for days.

The ground-pork patty was juicy and seasoned perfectly, with very peppery flavor. The cheese was nothing special, a pre-wrapped slice, but melted over the patty the two formed a happy marriage. Fresh lettuce, tomato and a simple bun completed the package.

It was simple as could be, but just delicious. Western food doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to be done right. And Pork Burger did it right.

Eaten at: Pork Burger food truck at the night market, Desa Permata.

Feb 8, 2013

Winter break: Eat this veggie burger

Modern Malay fusion at Cafe Leaf

Vegetarian food at Cafe Leaf
Vegetarian food at Cafe LeafCould veggie burgers be this good?
The Leaf’s vegetarian fare was fresh and flavorful.

We spotted this small cafe just north of Little India on our first jaunt through the neighborhood. Attracted by the window boxes growing fresh basil, mint and betel leaf we knew that we had to eat there.

Upon return, we found inside a cute little eatery, with a college town atmosphere. There were quotes pained on the wall about peace and sharing, and the space was open and bright. The menu was all vegetarian fusion, with a definite Malaysian influence.

We split a few dishes, like we do, to try to maximize our flavor per meal. The veggie burger: In my notes, I described it as “curried wonderfulness on a whole grain bun,” which is not the most helpful concrete description, but is a good indicator about how eating it made me feel.

We also went for the pasembor, a local style of mixed salad. Cafe Leaf’s was made with potato, jicama, peanuts and cucumbers with a crispy flake topper and a velvety tomato sauce. It was super light, with really subtle and delicate flavoring.

The noodle salad was made with fresh, whole wheat noodles and garnished with chopped lettuce, carrots, sesame seeds and some sort of nutlet, perhaps a sunflower seed. The whole thing was bathed in an airy, fantastic pumpkin sauce. Really, really delicious.

The iced coffee deserves special mention as well, only because we never get good coffee in China.

We were kind of on the late side for lunch, so by the time we tucked in, we were the only customers in the joint. Our server was a hip, younger girl, but there was also an older Chinese man hanging out with a chill-owner vibe. He looked up from his newspaper to ask us if we were from Europe. Almost no one pegs us for American here, because it’s just so far from Asia that we’re a much rarer commodity. It’s kind of fun to be special!

Eaten at: Cafe Leaf, Georgetown

Feb 6, 2013

Winter break: Eat this forkless

Banana leaf at Karai Kudi

The Banana Leaf setEat samosasEat with your hands

“Have you had banana leaf yet?” a cab driver asked us early on in our stay when we mentioned that we liked Indian food. We assured him that it was on our list, and on his word bumped it up several levels of importance. Always listen to the locals’ food suggestions.

According to our guidebook, Karaikudi in Little India had both banana leaf and air conditioning, so that was our destination. When we walked in, there was a group of tourists at a large table in the corner, but most of the clientele appeared to be Indian.

We puzzled over the extensive menu for a bit — “which one is banana leaf? None of them are called that!” — before a waiter came over to help. He directed us (without rolling his eyes) to what we were looking for, and explained that there were essentially two options: vegetarian or non-vegetarian. We ordered one and one. And some samosas for good measure.

Two large platters were brought to our table, each lined with — you got it! — a banana leaf and containing small tin cups of various sauces and curried things, with a heaping pile of rice in the center. You basically dump the cups on the rice, and scoop it up with your fingers. (There are forks, if you want to go that way.)

Guys, it was freaking amazing. Each sauce was delicious on its own, but they mingled in an alchemical way that took it to the moon! The chicken that came with the non-veger was juicy and tender and slathered in a fantastic brown curry. The non-veger also came with biryani rice as well as white — sorry Peter.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the samosas, either. Though they weren’t the main event, they were possibly the best samosas I’ve had in my life thus far. A thick and crispy fried outside surrounded beautifully soft potatoes inside, and they came with a squirty bottle of this tangy red sauce that was also quite lovely.

We came away from this meal pretty stuffed and happy. Later we learned that this style of food comes from South India, with Karaikudi specializing in Chettinadu cuisine. There, a free geography lesson for you, too.

Eaten at: Karaikudi restaurant, Little India, Georgetown

I'm eating with my handsOutside the restaurant

Feb 2, 2013

Winter break: Eat this dessert

Cendol and Ais Kacang at Gurney Drive

The famous Gurney Drive is empty if you get there too early
I think we just got to the party way too early.

Gurney Drive is one of Penang’s big deal hawker centers, as sold to us by our guidebook, and we were curious to see how an internationally renowned food market differed from our comfy cafe at Kuta Bali.

It’s set up right on the water, so there are some beautiful views and nice breezes. In the early evening when we went, however, it was rather, shall we say, relaxed. Few vendors were open and there were only a couple of other tourists out and about, browsing the wares.

But we were hungry and hot, and we found an open cendol cart. Cendol is an icey dessert covered in coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, red beans and wormy green rice noodles. It’s not much to look at, but it tastes fantastic. Cool and refreshing, with just the right amount of sweetness.

Ais Kacang is another dish along those lines. It’s a pile of shaved ice, drizzled with syrups — one of them tasted like root beer! — and topped with sweet corn and condensed milk. Underneath this chilly mountain, there were surprise cubes of gelatin, dried currants and red beans. The whole thing (well, minus the gelatin, which is not my favorite) was fantastic.

Sadly, this was the only time and opportunity we had for Malaysian dessert. There was just too much food to eat and not enough appetite to finish it all. But on that hot afternoon, our sweet iceys really hit the spot.

We’ll just have to go back for more.

Eaten at: Gurney Drive hawker center, Georgetown

Jan 31, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi lemak

Nyonya chicken and salads over rice at Kuta Bali cafe

Eat this Nasi Lemak
Our nasi lemak lady didn’t have banana leaves, but she did have a banana leaf plate!

Let’s start with some definitions: Nyonya cuisine comes from the fusion of cultures between the 16th century male Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and the local women they married. Nasi is malay for rice. And nasi lemak is rice served with a bunch of tasty side dishes, sometimes wrapped in a banana leaf.

The woman serving nasi lemak at Kuta Bali was one of the few non-English speaking people that we had contact with on our trip, but her stall was set up buffet style, so with a smile and some pointing, there were no problems. (Except for the first night when we waved away her offer of rice — um, it’s in the name of the dish, dummies!)

The whole meal was homey and rich. The chicken was so tender that it practically melted off the drumstick; it was no problem to eat with the customary fork and spoon. It was slathered with a sweet and hearty curry. (Peter enjoyed the sauce on rice.)

Our various sides included green beans, cabbage slaw, pineapple and cucumber with chilis, some sort of greens slaw, spicy okra … All fantastic. Each came swimming in its own dressing that was perfect over the rice. Don’t say no to the rice.

Eaten at: Kuta Bali Cafe, Desa Permata.

Jan 29, 2013

Winter break: Eat this soup!

Spicy and sour Chinese soup at Kuta Bali Cafe

Spicy and Sour Soup

The first time we passed this stall, the man working it gave a soft pitch for his soups. “You can get it spicy or not spicy,” he told us. We were still in browse mode, so we kept going.

But, we came back after our initial sweep of all the food carts. And then again and again, after the first taste made this soup a Penang favorite.

The broth is sweet and tangy, and one of the spiciest things we had during our vacation (though not quite Sichuan spicy), and it’s filled with tender carrots and greens, as well as a protein of your choice: The beef was delicious, but the chicken was the winner, all melt-in-your-mouth moist. It also came with crab, which I’m sure was wonderful.

After picking it all out of the soup a couple of times, however, we eventually asked him to leave it out. Which he did, no problem, because the people we met were very accommodating even when our requests might have seemed wacko. (It’s an island! Eat the seafood, for goodness sake!)

The soup is served with a sweet garlicky vinaigrette that adds a nice chili pepper zing. Noodles are also an option, although we found that they took a little bit away from the soup’s already lovely simplicity.

Eaten at: Kuta Bali Cafe, Desa Permata.

Jan 28, 2013

Winter break: Hawker centers

Let the eating commence!

Hawkers by the Clan Jetties
Late lunch at a hawker center by the Clan Jetties
Kuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliNasi LemakBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliPeter eating Nasi LemakFilled pancakeSome dumplings
Above: Just a small photographic taste of the delicious excitement of Kuta Bali Cafe.
Hong Kong Cafe was also nearby, but our heart belonged to Kuta Bali
Hong Kong Cafe was just a stone’s throw from Kuta Bali, but we pledged our allegiance early on.

In Penang, eating at its most basic and cheapest is done at hawker centers, collections of food carts assembled around a large dinning area where people gather late into the night. The mood is festive and lively — we’re eating, hooray! — and sometimes there’s karaoke or dancing. Despite it’s simplicity, It’s a place where a meal is an event.

In general, the food from these humble carts is cheap, but no less than absolutely delicious. It’s a point of pride for some of the hawkers that their cart and their dish has been in their family for generations. Every kind of cuisine is represented: Indian, Chinese, Malay … even western — though, to be honest, none of the western food looked all that enticing to us.

There are a few famous centers around Penang that are listed in all the guidebooks, but take a walk and you’ll find one. We had three good ones on our block alone. We came to be quite attached to the Kuta Bali Cafe, a large and lively dining hall just a short walk from our hostel. We ended up there pretty much every night, for a meal, a drink, a late-night snack, or just to get one more taste of that wonderful dish we tried the night before. Going from cart to cart every night, we soon had compiled a long list of favorites.

Emboldened by his discovery of the 牛肉面, Peter’s vegetarian strategy for this trip was to not worry about meatlessness, but instead look for dishes where the meat could be pushed to the side, or moved over to my plate. (I felt a little Jack Sprat and his wife on more than a couple occasions.) He found a couple of tasty treats this way, but even more amazingly, we found that we could actually ask the cooks to dish up their dish meat-free. Because they speak English in Penang! And understand vegetarianism! Peter even got a chicken pita sandwich, hold the chicken.

On average, our food costs would be between 10-20RM [or US$3-7] — the beers would add another 40RM [or about US$13] — which made eating this way very attractive. But it was also a super fun atmosphere. Sitting out in the clear tropical nights with a bucket of iced beers and plates piled high with our new favorite foods — you really can’t beat that. It’s like the best summer BBQ you’ve ever been to, catered by 50 chefs who are all experts in their cuisine. We were in heaven … and so were the locals, to whom this is an everyday experience.

We didn’t know exactly, when we set out, what we were looking for our of our Penang experience, but if all we did was eat a meal at Kuta Bali, that would have been enough.

Jan 6, 2013

Dinner with Young Jane

Meet some of our junior friends

At chuan chuan with Alix, Young Jane and KOKO (not pictured)
We go shopping at the stationary store before dinner
Alix and Jane pose together outside of the stationary store. KOKO declined to be photographed.

I have another student named Jane, one of my juniors. And there is very little chance I’d confuse the two. Young Jane is incredibly loud and outgoing. On my first day in her class — when her classmates were shrieking in awe and running away — she strode right up and asked me, “You eat 串串, right? And drink 啤酒?” Apparently her home is near sticks, and she had seen Peter and me there eating dinner and drinking beer.

She can be a bit of a loudmouth sometimes, but in an incredibly endearing way. “Emily, that hat is not fashion,” she told me about my winter toque. “Well then, don’t wear it,” I replied.

A few weeks ago, she invited me to go shopping. And the rule is: Always say yes. So we made a date. The morning of our appointed day, she pointed out about seven students who were going to come with us. Although when it came time to go, we were joined by only Alix (a quiet and incredibly with-it kid; while her mouth is closed her eyes are open) and KOKO (I had to say KOKO’s name about 17 times before I got it right). They chattered away as we walked towards the center of the city. I can tell you that shopping with 12 year old girls in China is much the same as it is in the US. KOKO bought a pen, but it was mostly window shopping and then something to drink.

It was decided that after shopping we’d go to dinner, so I called Peter to meet us at 串串. On the way there, the girls taught me some words in Chinese and in the local dialect. In class, I don’t let the students know that I understand some Chinese, because it’s supposed to be a fully immersive English experience and some of the students are reluctant to participate as it is. But my guideline is that if you’re motivated to seek me out after class, you can probably handle the fact that I do know a tiny bit of the language. So I let the girls become my teachers for our walk. And let me tell you, they were as strict with my pronunciation as I am with theirs. It was really difficult!

Over dinner we chatted some more, and laughed and had general fun. They confirmed for us that the terrible erhu busker is playing bad on purpose so that you’ll pay him to go away. He’s been poking us for money — literally — since we’ve been going to sticks, and we had always suspected that he was just being obnoxious, so we hadn’t given him any money. “He’s so boring,” said Jane.

At the end of the meal, they managed to snake the bill from us. If you’re following along and getting the impression we get a lot of meals paid for by other people, you’re exactly right. It’s pretty remarkable. That’s why we try to do things like the pizza party to try to karmically balance it out.

Jan 6, 2013

Pizza party II

Our first gathering in the new apartment

Serving the pizza

Tina and the girls wanted to come see us in our apartment so we invited them over during their free time one Sunday evening. Unbeknownst to them, we started planning the pizza party. There was a double motive there in that we wanted to show them our favorite American food … and we also suspected that they might lose track of time and miss out on their dinner, and we didn’t want to let them go unfed.

By this time, we had gotten to know the girls a lot better. Tina is the boss, the ringleader of the pack. It is on her say so that other girls talk to us and sit with us. But she wields her power generously. I’d say, next in command is Jane. Bookish and reserved, Jane has the best English, so if anyone is unsure of what they want to say, they run it by her first.

Sky is quite bold and confident. She dreams of international travel, especially to Paris, and has lots of good questions. Elaine is quiet and kind. Her manner is friendly and open, and I’d guess her to be the conciliator of the group.

Poor Helen couldn’t make it. The girl who is NOT a turkey had to study during our little get together. In fact, she’s often studying. Though she’s the same age as the other girls, there’s something of a tag-along little sister to her. She’s adorable and they clearly love her, despite the hard times they give her.

Pizza cooking on the grill
We picked up black olives on our last trip to Chongqing, and their existence made up a lot for the crummy Laughing Cow-style cheese that we’re stuck with.
The pizza party in full swing
Sky: I don’t think I can finish my last piece.
Jane: I can help you with that.

The girls arrived as the grill was getting hot; we were using our good friend Martha’s grilled pizza recipe again. They oohed and aahed over our new grill — “You know how to cook with this!?” — and were generally very impressed before the food even came out. We discussed BBQ culture in America, which they appreciated, though they were confused as to why summer is BBQ season. “You’re already hot,” they pointed out.

I was a little nervous serving them food, as I am still perfecting my bread making, but they really seemed to like it. They had never had pizza before, they told us. We beamed with pride, and I exempted myself from the fight for the last slices — which was really, really hard for me, but I did it!

A funny thing happened with our American pizza feast in that it evolved gracefully into a Chinese dinner party. As we waited for each batch to grill, the girls started to entertain us, singing American pop songs, telling jokes, and then performing a little traditional Chinese opera. Jane, in particular, was a lovely singer, demonstrating the technique singers use to vocally switch genders. “Where did you learn these songs?” we asked. “From TV,” they told us.

Too soon, they had to go back to class — yes on a Sunday evening, there is still more class. But after getting so much from them — they periodically give us little gifts and notes and cards in addition to friendship — it was nice to be able to give something to them. We’re buds for life.

Jan 5, 2013

Firing up the BBQ

Camping out, on our own back porch

Our new grill set up on the porch

At the old campus, we live next door to a camping supply store where we’ve spent a surprisingly large amount of time given that we’re not outdoor people. But, they have good travel backpacks and it is one of the few places that we can find big enough pants for Peter. It also doesn’t hurt that the people who work there are super nice.

When we found out that our new apartment was going to have a small porch, the first thing we thought was: we need to get a grill. Never mind that most people just use that space for hanging clothes to dry and storing broken appliances — we’ll show them the real American use for a porch.

Peter and the grillBBQ breadTiger Striped Peppers

And the camping store had a perfect little hibachi, that wasn’t too expensive, either. This was in the midst of our mad bus trips back and forth between the old and new apartments, when we were functioning as our own moving van, so we didn’t actually get the grill over to its proper place for a few weeks. Once we did, the obvious problem of charcoal finally stared us in the face. I realized that I had been assuming that we could just pick up a bag of Kingsford at the True Value or the A&P. But, WE DON’T HAVE A TRUE VALUE OR AN A&P! AND NO KINGSFORD!

We did search our supermarket, to no avail. Then, Peter had the bright idea to ask the camping store people where to buy our charcoal! Of course, they would know.

And they did. The trouble was communicating it through our language barriers. I could ask the question: 在哪里买木炭 [At where do you buy charcoal]? But unless the answer was pointing out a location visible from where we were, there was no way I could understand the answer — I realized way too late.

Fortunately, the woman working that afternoon had a friend with some pretty good English. As she translated for us, a crowd of people gathered, excited to see one of their own talking in English with the foreigners. But though we were speaking the same language, it was still too confusing (“How long is your camping trip?” “We just want to cook dinner!” “Yes, but for how many nights?!”) The eventual solution: The camping store woman would go buy us some charcoal, and we would pick it up from her the following week. How incredibly generous!

And it worked out! We picked up the coal, hauled it out to the new campus and have been grilling away for months. We’ve done flat breads, curried veggie scrambles, dry-rub tofu and much more. Peter has even been perfecting the Tiger Striped Hot Peppers that we were introduced to at BBQ Sticks. (It’s thanks to our Fuchsia Dunlop Sichuan cookbook that we were able to identify the dish; thanks Lizzy and Jesse!)

Teachers are still startled to look out and see us relaxing out in our clothes drying area, but we’re having a lot of fun.

Our grilled sandwich meal