Assam Laksa: The power of sour

A few years in Southeast Asia has me captivated by sour. I literally can’t get enough tamarind paste. In Cambodia, I’d buy it by the kilo block from the Russian Market and suck the piquant pulp straight from the seeds whenever I felt like an overwhelming sour kick. Lunch without a sour Khmer soup was not lunch.

Sour as a flavour profile on its own completes the full complement of a meal. It piques the tastebuds for food and always leaves you wanting more. It was also the prime attraction for me in Penang; the flavour around which I would centre eating the island. The one dish that I was after was assam laksa; Penang-style sour noodle soup. The broth is rich with mackerel, lemongrass, shallots and turmeric. Chilli, onion and chopped herbs (Vietnamese and common mint) are added to the bowl, raw; slippery white noodles and half a hard-boiled egg are mandatory. Thin slices of the bitter and peppery torchbud ginger flower top the dish along with an extra slug of hae ko, a local sweet shrimp paste. The souring comes courtesy of tamarind and semi-dried slices of the local fruit assam keping buah keping. Assam keping is dried slices of the fruit.

laksa air itam, Penang

Laksa Air Itam, a roadside stall that sits alongside the Air Itam market has the reputation as the best laksa in Penang, something which I’m in no real position to assess because it was the first assam laksa stall that I hit. The stall has been in place for almost 50 years, passed patrilineally from father to son. A constant stream of laksa lovers laid a tactical assault on the stall. It was 3:00PM and streaming torrential rain (not a prime noodle soup hour) but buses disgorged a constant stream of patrons. Locals double-parked their BMWs to duck under the awning and pick up a clear plastic bag of the soup to take-away or hurriedly scarf down a bowl, rigidly huddled over the chromed tables on a flimsy metal stool.

Assam Laksa from laksa air itam, Penang

The sour element is not as forward as I’d had before but the stock is complex and almost paste-like, thick with shreds of mackerel and the sticky hae ko paste. Despite the heartiness, a second bowl beckons: the true power of sour.

Location: Opposite the Air Itam market, near the junction of Jalan Air Itam and Jalan Pasar. Between Kek Lok Si temple and Bukit Bandara (Penang Hill) for anyone interested in tourism that doesn’t involve eating.

Price: RM2.50 (USD$0.75)

Also: I’m taking a break from writing for Christmas. See you in 2008 for more from .

Seasons Greetings from Cambodia

This morning, a group of approximately 40-50 Kampuchea Krom (KK) monks gathered peacefully in front of the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh to appeal for the release of Kampuchea Krom monks who are detained and convicted in Vietnam.

Intervention and local police immediately set up road blocks to prevent people from entering the area and shortly after talking to the group of KK monks, intervention police proceeded to disperse the group of KK monks by kicking some of the KK monks and using electrical and wooden batons on others. Police were heard shouting that these were “fake monks”. So far, we have treated 2 KK monks with serious injuries and 4 other KK monks with lesser injuries.

From Licadho. DAS and Erik from buddh•ism ad•junkt provide coverage. From a marginally food-related perspective (and possibly, as a way of gauging the explosiveness of even mentioning the words “Kampuchea Krom” on the web in any context), I’ve got a bit of coverage of Kampuchea Krom recipes back at Phnomenon.

Three feet high and rising

Cook me a roti three feet high then slather it in honey and condensed milk.

No, really.

roti tisu

The above roti tisu (occasionally, “roti tissue”) is both the silliest and tallest thing that I’ve ever attempted to eat and succeeded. It came from the roti grill of Kayu Nasi Kandar, my favorite roti chefs on the island of Penang. It is also a great example of the triumph of form over function.

roti tisu 2

My guess is that the “tissue” comes from either needing a tissue to hold the piping hot roti upright while it sets into a gigantic, freestanding cone of sweet, crispy bread or that it refers to the thinness of the bread itself.

Location: Kayu Nasi Kandar, 216 Penang Rd, Georgetown,

How to eat an island

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Roti chanai and kopi (coffee)

Sitting at a breakfast of roti canai and kopi, you start to wonder if the could be flakier, less oily. If a few more layers of the papery pastry was possible. If only you’d stopped at the neighbouring nasi kandar vendor who will give you a knowing look as you depart past him. There is a creeping feeling that you’ve missed eating something vital. In this way, slowly, the Malaysian island of Penang burrows deep within you and drives you insane. It is one of the few towns on earth where savouring food, above all else, is a total obsession pursued by an army of fanatic and devout locals. Everyone that you meet has a food story, a favourite haunt, a noodle joint that is in decline but they can’t stop eating there because the vendor will discover their infidelity. It is but a small island.

The curry breakfast – roti with a few spoonfuls of daal – is the perfect start to the day. The hit of chilli heightens the experience of that first bump of caffeine like cutting your heroin with methamphetamines. It is a primer for the task at hand: devouring an island like an insatiable food junkie.

Nasi kandar was introduced to Penang by Indian Muslim hawkers in the 1930s, who plied their rice (nasi), curries and sweets door to door from a pair of rattan baskets balanced on each end of a kandar stick. While the individuals hawkers moved into corner cafes and Chinese shop houses over time, there are still a minority of vendors who carry their food by kandar (and bicycle) into the Penang suburbs. There are hundreds of nasi kandar joints to try; almost every second stall in Penang’s compact Little India has the flat grill for roti; identical stainless steel Bain Maries of the day’s fried fish, chicken, or squid; and a cornucopia of curries in giant saucepans. Not to mention that streets throughout the island’s suburbs are rife with them.

My picks for nasi kandar:

Kayu Nasi Kandar
This restaurant looks like the sort of place worth avoiding, with its flashy sign, clean interior and chrome chairs mocking the external patina of grime that other nasi kandar restaurants wear as a badge of honour for their decades of service. Their young roti chef is the master. He works split shifts from early in the morning until about 10:00am, has a long lunch until about 4:00pm, and then starts again for the dinner crowd. Eat their roti chanai in the mornings, curry kapitan later in the day.
Location:216 Penang Road, Georgetown

Kedai Kopi Yasmin
Almost directly opposite Kayu Nasi Kandar, and next to the shabby alleyway of Nasi Kandar Line Clear (so named because its owner would yell “Line clear” whenever the queue for curries ended.). They tend to close down their roti grill a little earlier than Kayu.

Restoran Hameediyah
According to the staff’s greasy t-shirts (in my books, as reputable a source as a peer-reviewed journal) this place has been serving the same dishes for 100 years. Think about that the next time that a waiter reads out the day’s specials to you.
Location: 164A Campbell St, Georgetown

See also: a Penang local’s tips to nasi kandar

Menu For Hope 2007

What is Menu for Hope?

It’s when food bloggers from all over the world join together, and take leave from our usual obsession with our own stomachs. Throughout the year, we tend to wank on about food, beer, wine and other such visceral pleasures, but for two weeks every December, we pull together a bunch of excellent prizes and ask you, our readers, to help us support those who are not so lucky, to whom food is not a mere indulgence but a matter of survival. This Menu for Hope is our small way to help. Proceeds go to the World Food Program

Group food blog Gut Feelings and all of our excellent and gracious friends have managed to add to the global prize pool. Prizes as follows:

BANGKOK PRIZES

Bed Supper Club

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Dinner for two at Bangkok’s premier destination restaurant Bed Supperclub Bangkok (value 3500 baht)
Code: AP28


18 year old Chivas Regal Scotch Whisky Gold Signature

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(valued at USD$95) also from the good folks at Bed Supperclub
Code: AP23

A dozen bottles of 42 Below vodka

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12 bottles of 42 Below Vodkas to see you through 2008 courtesy of the kind New Zealanders at 42 Below. I strongly recommend their feijoa flavor. (value 12,000 baht)
Code: AP24

Half a dozen bottles of 42 Below Seven Tiki Rum

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6 bottles of 42 Below Seven Tiki Rum. Also from the Kiwi crew. Makes the ideal New Zealander/Cuban mojito (value 6,000 baht)
Code: AP25

One night at Dream Hotel, Bangkok

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One night accommodation at luxury small hotel Dream Hotel, Bangkok (value $280++ USD). Donate and sleep in peace in their sumptuous DREAM beds.
Code: AP29

A day with LP writer and food photographer, Austin Bush + free Lonely Planet Bangkok

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Free copy of latest edition of the Lonely Planet’s Bangkok Guide + Eating Tour of Bangkok with LP writer and Thai food expert Austin Bush. He really knows Thai food (value $200 USD)
Code: AP30

SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA PRIZES

One night at Hotel De La Paix, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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One night’s accommodation at uber hip hotel Hotel De La Paix, Siem Reap (value $235 USD)
Code: AP31

One night at Be Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia

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One night’s accommodation at boutique hotel in the heart of Siem Reap’s charming laneways Be Hotel Angkor subject to availability (value $150 USD)
Code:AP32

Siem Reap Market Tour and Cooking Class with Joannes Riviere

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Market Tour and Cooking Class with Joannes Riviere, Khmer food expert and author of La Cuisine du Cambodge avec les apprentis de Sala Bai. He knows all the women at the market, speaks fluent Khmer and can teach you how to make a mean samlor machu
Code: AP33

Wild Jungle Honey Collecting Tour with Angkor Conservation Centre for Biodiversity Sustainable Bee Program, Siem Reap

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A once in a lifetime experience. Trek into the jungle with experienced guides, collect wild honey and taste the magic that is freshly harvested bee juice (value 200 USD)
Code: AP34

GLOBAL PRIZE

All the advertisements on Lastappetite.com for February 2008

One 336 x 280 pixel advertisement on the footer of my site for the entire month of February, displayed on every page of the site – image, flash or text link – the choice is yours. My site averages 1900 unique visitors per day, who visit 1.7 pages (98,000 monthly page views). The audience is overwhelmingly American (79% of readers), half of which reside in California. Valued at USD$350
Code: AP22

To Donate and Enter the Menu for Hope Raffle

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from our choices above or at the global prize list site

2. Go to the donation site at First Giving and make a donation.

3. Please specify which prize you’d like in the ‘Personal Message’ section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code.
Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02 – 2xEU01, 3xEU02.

4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.

5. Please check the box to allow us to see your email address so that we can contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

Regional Prizes

Check back here on Wednesday, January 9 for the results of the raffle.