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.

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

roti chanai
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