Monday, September 27, 2010

Malaysia #1

When last we met with our intrepid traveller, she was awake at an ungodly hour of the morning, slaving over an homage to Asian cuisine. On the cusp of striding boldly over the Thai-Malaysia border, she knew little of what lay in front of her, but felt excited at the prospect of wringing out after the soggy town of Krabi, and in need of a fresh environment after too much lazing about and crappy Western-friendly Asian food in south Thailand. She had realised that while a portion of island living was fun, she was no Tom Hanks, and would need more stimulation than a soccer ball and white sand to keep her sane…

The Dutchman-with-the-Mexican-meal-name and I left Krabi, Kev and Yass (and her broken foot) on a drizzly morning, and took a minivan all the way to Trang (and sunshine!). The town was darling, with a large dollop of Chinese influence, and a 1970s industrial town sort of feel to it. The little men who ran stores were charming, their wives were no-nonsense (I felt obligated to buy a pair of shoes that didn’t even fit me properly- the small woman had so much anger in her eyes! She made me do it!). The girls wore cute school pinafores and had matching bob haircuts. There was no doubt we were the only tourists in town at the time. I loved the bean cakes, pork buns, wandering at the night markets, and our dim sum feast just before leaving town the next morning.

A bus to Satun, a taxi to the pier, a slight hitch involving the realisation that both Taco and I had overstayed our welcome in Thailand and some subsequent fee-paying (to very apologetic Thai border officials), and on to the ferry to Pulau Langkawi. A new stamp in the passport: triple-check allowed length-of-stay this time, and we were in Malaysia.

From the outset, Langkawi was a bit non-eventful. We were there for the last couple of days of Ramadan, so a lot of locals had left to return to their hometowns (or were just staying inside conserving their energy since they weren’t eating very much). The beaches were nice, but not that nice. The food was OK. A motorbike trip around the island revealed some interesting road kill (giant lizard, monkey…), a giant statue of an eagle, and lots of trees. Oh! And I did learn how to play backgammon.

It was not with heavy hearts that we boarded the ferry to Penang. Not heavy hearts, no, just a lot of children who I think consumed more than enough sugar at end-of-Ramadan celebrations. We arrived in Georgetown at night, but I felt as though the yellow lights of the port we pulled into were saying to me: “Claire. Welcome. Come on into Georgetown. I have pretty buildings and clean, wide streets and the sense of coolness that you have been searching for…” We hauled heavy bags to Love Lane, and were beckoned into The Secret Garden guesthouse by a bunch of people sitting out the front eating satay. And how can you say no to people with satay, really? The foyer was more like a really classy living room, with French-feeling d├ęcor, high ceilings and classy tunes on a sweet stereo system. We were taken out that night by one of the locals to Little India, which was well and truly alive and kicking. It was sensory overload squeezing through the streets: bright yellow trishaws with pinwheels and tinsel, loud Indian pop blaring out from shops, big strong wafts of curry and incense, and men slapping rounds of roti dough on sizzling slabs of cast iron. There was a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing on my part, I may have danced gleefully at some stage, I’m not going to lie. Masala dosei + Kingfisher beer= very happy tumtum and the best welcome to a town thus far.

Just next to Little India sits Chinatown. I really swooned over the grotty, whitewashed buildings with signs from the 70s painted on them, crammed with their chosen wares (stationary, random electrical goods, shrines and streamers…) Oh and the food!...
• Char kuay teow thrown together in a wok with perfect amounts of oil/garlic/chili/soy;
• Little satay skewers fanned lovingly by dudes with their caps on backwards;
• Wontons in soup made from rice papers so fresh they were almost dissolvable;
• Cendol: shaved ice in a little bowl with pandan-leaf glutinous little wormy things glowing bright green in coconut milk and palm sugar syrup;
• Freshly deep-fried banana balls…
A grazing approach was employed: eat consistently, try everything.

What else did Panang provide?
…A few glimpses of monkeys at the (world’s smallest) national park.
…Lots of cheap beer and Yahzee playing fields at a (?slightly not entirely legal) little booze shop around the corner
…A big, bright, beautiful Buddhist temple- Kek Lok Si
…Nice chats and dice-rolling with Teo the Scotsman
…A place I felt I could hang out in for a longer period of time
…One more day than intended due to missing a 5am bus: curse you Casio watch! You may look cool but where are your obtrusive and insistent alarm abilities when we need them?!

Stay tuned for installment 2: Escape from Penang.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Five am food musings

I am once again struck by the insomnia that has accompanied me throughout my travels so far. Friends from home will attest to my usual Sleep-Anywhere-and-Sleep-Deep mode- I can occasionally be the Death Of The Party, making myself comfortable on other peoples' couches when tiredness sets in- but it has been rare for me to sleep the whole night through since being away from home. Perhaps the Asian way of life is rubbing off on me (get up at 5am, cook 6987kg of rice for whole family, ready whole family for day, work for 12 hours- with lots of naps during the day of course, come home, cook another 6987kg of rice, eat, clean, sleep, repeat...)... perhaps not.

But instead of bemoaning the fact that I am awake to see the night turn to day (look at that! I glanced up at there was light outside the window!), I have decide to harness the power of the insomnia, and reflect on one of my favourite portions (no pun intended here) of my sojourning (and let's face it, life in general) thus far- The Eating. Whilst my memories of being away- the list of Impressive Things I Have Done In Other Countries, the intensity of the imagery in the myriad places visited- will no doubt fade, I am safe in the knowledge that the smells up my nostrils, the tastes in my mouth, and the emotional elements of some of the eating experiences I have had, will endure.

Home or away, I am generally quite excitable when it comes to mealtimes. I love a grumbly tummy satisfied by a tasty morsel, which serves not only to ensure survival (yay life), but also to make people close their eyes, lick their lips, hold their hand to their chest and go "oh my GOD that is good." Tim- cousin/housemate/friend/excellent cook- is one person capable of bringing about such responses. Some people are innately good at doing amazing things with food. The McEvoy Clan are one such group of people. And while my cooking abilities definitely do not rate nearly as highly, I am bloody good at enjoying food, and enjoying times with people who enjoy enjoying food. The stream of goodbye catch-ups prior to leaving Adelaide were essentially food-based, and friends- I don´t want you to feel like I was using you as an excuse to wrap my tastebuds around the best drinkies and eaties our fair city has to offer in my final days, but essentially... I was.

Asian cuisine has always been Numero Uno for me. I like the strong hit of quickly-frying garlic in a wok up my nose (... perhaps not the best layout of words there- I now have an image of me with a giant Asian metal cooking implement up my snoz), the sinus-clearing power of a baby chilli, the cleansing feel of eating giraffe-friendly portions of Asian greens. So I've been like a pig in poo being able to sample Asian delights every day! I have no qualms stating that I am quite happy to travel to a place simply to sample their food specialties: "Pfft! Mountains? Seas? Monkeys? Give me your curry and be gone, for I shall know all I need to know of this place!"

So, on the verge of leaving Thailand (but not before a stop-off in Trang to get on the Dim Sum and BBQ pork bandwagon of the little Chinese-infused town) what has this country given me (or more specifically, my tum-tum)...?
+ Curries. and excellent ones. Green, red, yellow, mussaman, panang. Cha-ching!
+ Noodles. I have had some excellent Pad Thais, but my best noodle dish so far was probably the kway-teow-like dish I got from a lovely lady who has a little street-vendor stall up the road here in Ao Nang: big, fat, fresh rice noodles, sizzled in a work with greens, cashews, lots of chilli and lime.
+ Fish. Last night we had a freshly-caught, whole red snapper grilled on the BBQ doused in a delicious Thai-sauce (perhaps tamarind-based?). I made the fish's mouth open and close to say "eat me." And then I did. (And joy-of-joys, we found sticky rice again to eat with it!)
+ Soups. Tom Yam, Tom Kai Gai: the many, delicious faces of Tom. Flavoured to the hilt with big slices of galangal, whole kaffir lime leaves, chopped chillies and chunks of lemongrass.

And, reflecting on the last few months, what are some of the other standout eating moments...?
+ Fresh French pastries in a classy paper bag at the Vientiane airport with Shak, just before saying goodbye.
+ The cooking class in Luang Prabang- probably the best meal I've had since being away, and I managed to have a hand (albeit it a small, and fairly directly-guided one) in making it! Fried rice salad, The Best Spring Rolls, Sticky Rice With Mango (another potential future life partner for me), sweet and sour fish, coconut chicken parcels steamed in banana leaves.
+ Delicious Italian feast before leaving Koh Tao the other night- I know I know, not particularly Asian, but I have no shame in eating the wrong type of cuisine if it's going to taste that good- I hadn't had pizza in a loooong time.
+ Fillet of fish on a stick from the Vientiane night markets.
+ The best fish amok in Mondulkiri, Cambodia.
+ Eating at Bananas! in Mondulkiri with Niamh- essentially just sitting at the dining table of a crazy Dutch lady eating Flemish stew, home-made pate, hand-cut chips and huge bowls of soup, while she told us stories generally involving her dislike for the French. We went back again.
+ Amazing club sandwich and fries at Riverside in Phnom Penh with Niamh on a night where some western fare was being craved heavily.
+ Mango with Sticky Rice, saved for me on a night when I wasn't home for dinner in Phnom Penh by the gorgeous cooks.
+ Huge pieces of barramundi and wine from big glasses out to dinner with Emily B, her Ma, and lots of the volunteer crew and the famed FCC in Phnom Penh.
+ Noodle soup throughout Laos. The best I think was in Vientiane, eaten by myself, with my novel and my diary, the steaming bowl accompanied by a plate of heaped greens, herbs, chillies, and a little pot of satay.
+ The Baked Goods with Lis and Jess on Don Det...

The list goes on, as do the lovely memories, and these will no doubt be added to as I jump into Malaysia in a couple of days time, supremely excited, especially about Penang and the delicacies it has to offer, and ESPECIALLY on the recommendation of one of the finest foodies I know, Michelle (http://michellesutopia.blogspot.com).

Happy eating!