A sea of tea

Cameron Highlands - Tea

I know very little about tea, apart from what you learn by osmosis from your Anglo-Australian grandparents. I can make a decent cup of black tea but tend to regard it as a sort of beverage bycatch; something that fits well alongside pho or yum cha or fruitcake. I have no idea how it is grown, processed or traded in large quantities. I was in Tanah Rata in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands and this emboldened me to find out.

Cameron Highlands - Boh Tea Plantation

The general image of smiling, passive locals hand-picking tea that is planted by unscrupulous tea advertisers the world over is as wrong as it is Orientalist. Most of the tea in the Cameron Highlands is semi-mechanically harvested. Two people standing each side of the row of tea drag the above device across the new shoots, which slices and blows the fresh tea into a bag. Less accessible bushes on the mountain peaks and the depths of the ravines are still harvested by hand, but this represents an absolute minority of the total tea produced. In lowland plantations, a modified combine harvester drives over the top of the rows. The tea is allowed to resprout fresh tips that are then reharvested about every three weeks.

Once picked, the leaves are withered, crushed, torn and curled by machine then set aside to oxidise. The oxidation process is called “fermentation” for purely historical reasons as nothing ferments. The tea, now turned from green to black from oxidation, is dried, sorted, tasted and packed.

Cameron Highlands - Boh Tea Plantation

The found pepper of Cambodia

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What does the visit of Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan to Angkor Wat in 1297, Khmer Rouge kidnappings and the recent landgrabbing of Okhna Ly Yong Phat in rural Sre Ambel, Cambodia have in common?

Cambodian pepper: which is how I tenuously link them all together in this month’s Chile Pepper magazine (US). With photos from Austin Bush it promises the best collaboration since Snoop Dogg recorded “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” with Dr Dre.

The Wok Hei Economy

One of the great mysteries of eating in Penang is the economics of the hawker center. A group of vendors cluster around a kedai kopi, a cafe serving drinks and work almost independently of the cafe. Some pay rent, others are owned by the cafe, some seem to have agglomerated at a single point in an organic manner like a coral reef of wok burners accumulating on a restaurant atoll. The cafe often provides electricity and an awning to make monsoonal downpours tolerable for the vendors. Each cluster of vendors seems to be in competition, but there is value in assuring that the competing stalls all perform good business, thus attracting overflowing customers to your stall. The proper etiquette seems to be to order at the vendor at the front, then at least buy a single drink from the roaming waiter so that the kedai kopi owner gets their piece of the action.

Lorong Selamat Hawker Centre

Two hawker centres loom large. The Lorong Selamat center (above), with its reputation for serving the best char kway teow in Penang (and by inference, the world) and the ramshackle collection of hawkers on Swatow Lane (for ABC Special and Ice Kacang), just off Jalan Burma.

Char Kway Teow

I’m apprehensive about the approach to anything as hyped and as personal as this (above). I tend to place more value on the nubs of deep-fried pork fat, prawns and cockles that go into the dish (and the smoky wok hei flavour), than I value the core element: noodles. The noodles here are creamy and soak up charcoal smoke aplenty, a real lardy highlight. The only valid criticism is price. At RM7.50, the dish is roughly double the price of the average plate of char kway teow on Penang, a point that locals tend to debate and then eat on Lorong Selamat anyhow. It is too good not to eat there and the price serves as a talking point rather than deterrent.

Lor Bak

We finished with a plate of , marinated lean pork wrapped in bean curd skin then deep-fried, served with a starchy bowl of broth thickened with egg and another bowl of chilli sauce. In this case, it was plated on top of an array of other deep fried delights and a local sausage.

Location: 84 Lorong Selamat, ,

Triangulating Gurney Drive

Satay, Gurney Drive
Searing satay at Gurney Drive Hawker Center.

Gurney Drive’s Hawker Center is a roughly triangular lot encircled (entriangled?) by the most diverse set of vendors that you’ll find anywhere in Malaysia, alongside the mudflat-facing promenade. The road was named after Sir Henry Gurney, Malaya’s High Commissioner whose brief reign ended in 1951 when he was entriangled by Communist guerillas during the Malayan Emergency, and shot, allegedly sacrificing himself to draw fire away from his wife and driver. Unlike the sludgy foreshore, the hawker center does him no disrespect.

It smells of fried goods, dried squid, hae ko paste, laksa leftovers, and tourists. Despite being at the more commercial end of hawker spectrum, it is worth a visit just for the sheer variety available in a single, crowded venue. It is a place to begin trying to define what constitutes Malaysian street food in its infinite forms or just to establish a baseline, the culinary denominator for future Penang hawker meals.

At first, I started with a plan of moving from savory dishes to sweet-savory to sweets, with a palate-cleansing dried squid somewhere in between.

Within minutes this plan had fallen apart.

Popiah

Popiah (above) has its origins in Fujian cuisine, with the Straits Chinese version made from a thin wheat flour pancake wrapping sliced jicama, bean curd, prawn and crab meat. This one was a little light on the crab…

Popiah Vendor

…but the vendor had a perfect economy of movement in making them. There is value in eating food that is as entertaining to watch being constructed as it is to consume.

Dried Squid

I passed on this dried squid, being too huge.

Muar Chee

By all rights, muar chee (above) should not be as delicious as it looks. The vendor pulls a gelatinous blob of glutinous rice flour dough from a warmer, a blob which reminded me a little of the game pods from David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ.

She then proceeded to toss them into a perspex case filled with sugar, crushed peanuts and sesame seeds; dicing the blob whilst mixing and coating with the sweet/savory powder. The topping of dry-fried onions adds a crispy counterpoint to the chewiness of the rice flour.

Seafod curry mee, Penang

This seafood curry mee has all the right elements: juicy prawns, a few blood cockles, opaque slices of pickled squid, congealed chunks of blood, and luscious chunks of fried tofu soaking up the curry broth. But it didn’t come together. The broth lacked the richness to carry the rest of the ingredients.

Penang Chee Cheong Fun: Division of Labour Penang Chee Cheong Fun: Division of Labour
Chee cheong fun division of labor

I had a friend email me every few weeks to receive status updates on the amount and quality of chee cheong fun that I was consuming. Hello, Vin. The version of the dish that I’m more familiar with comes via Hong Kong with translucent sheets of noodle covering minced pork and prawns, topped with a light soy sauce.

Penang Chee Cheong Fun

The Penang chee cheong fun is even simpler. Sheets of noodle are rolled and sliced, then topped with local prawn paste hae ko, sesame seeds, and depending on your preference for heat, chili sauce.

Penang Rojak

No amount of eating can prepare you for the surprise of Penang . What lies beneath the glossy, piquant and pungent shrimp sauce? Fruit? Seafood? In this case, both. The fruits of the sea came in the form of pickled squid; fruits from a tree in the form of green mango, papaya, starfruit and rose apple. The pineapple comes from a bromeliad which marks the outer edge of my botanical knowledge.

Rojak is a dish that shouldn’t fit together. There are too many elements, all of which vie for your attention: the diametrically opposed texture of squid and rose apple; sourness from green mango and lime juice (?); the trenchant odor of shrimp. But it works.

Location:Gurney Drive, Penang

Choul Chnam Thmei: Cambodian is the New Thai

Angkor Wat Cheesecake - high dynamic range

While I’ve been saying for what seems like years that Sihanoukville is the new Luanda, in one of its final posts of the year, Epicurious has announced that for 2008, Cambodian food will supplant Thai food.

A triangulation between Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai cooking, Cambodian’s emphasis on noodle dishes, curries, stir fries and prahok, the strong-flavored fish paste, will grow in popularity. Cambodian food has stronger flavors than Vietnamese, slightly more subtle that Thai and is not as heavy as Chinese.

Also, cheers to everyone who donated to Menu For Hope. Over US$90,000 was raised. Prize draw to come.