The last ditch

Little India Market, Kuala Lumpur
Saturday night market in Little India, Kuala Lumpur

If you could choose your last meal in a country, what would it be?

It’s a much more concrete question than some imagined last supper: unless you’re on death row or about to commit suicide then chances are you’ll have no power over the menu for your last meal, making it a question barely worth mooting as often as it is mooted. Most people who are executed don’t get any choice (contrary to the American myth) and being on your death bed also tends not to elevate the appetite. What the “last supper” question is really asking is “what is the best that you’ve already eaten?” from which the questioner is meant to discern the palate of the questioned or at least receive an answer pre-fried in nostalgia.

As for a last meal in Malaysia, what I’d do is bury myself neck-deep in a crowd and eat whatever the locals are chowing down upon, preferably in an open air environment.

Which is what I did.

The Saturday night market in ’s Little India could not be more packed without the crowd trampling each other to death ensuring that some in their midst had died whilst consuming their last meal. The food draws ecumenically from ’s faiths making it a great destination to either bone up on your knowledge of regional specialties or revisit the greatest hits of your time in Malaysia. There is also a great deal of street food that seems to be of questionable provenance, by far the most dangerous of meals.

Roti tarbus

Witness roti tarbus, a spicy Sloppy Joe made from a sweet white bun stuffed with minced, chilli-infused meat and wrapped entirely in a thin layer of fried egg.

Roti Tarbus

Once again, Asia seems to be at the forefront of perfecting variations on American classics. The mix of chilli and fried egg is one of the world’s great flavour combinations in a one handed food.

roti kebab

Roti kebab is kebab meat fresh from the rotating pole, served up in a sweet bun topped with a squirt of commercial mayonnaise and a dose of barbecue sauce. Saccharine and squishy.

Kuala Lumpur Fried Chicken

Fried chicken gets the stringy-looking outer coating from shreds of galangal, that lesser, woodier cousin of ginger; and is served in Styrofoam clamshells to be eaten elsewhere.

laksa assam

On the more traditional front, this stall is among the handful of street vendors outside of Penang to be serving Penang-style assam laksa, doling out both bowls and thin plastic bags. This version was tartly sour and thin but judging from the crowd and the near impossibility of procuring a seat on the communal tables behind the stall, this is the way that Kuala Lumpurites like it.

With a full stomach, I left Malaysia on the bus to Singapore, then onto Tiger Airways redeye to Melbourne, Australia via Darwin.

After almost three years, I’m home and it’s weird.

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 .

The Other History of Khao Soi

Khao soi from lam duan
Khao soi from Khao Soi Lamduan, Chiang Mai

The best food on earth is the result of cultures butting heads with each other. Khao soi is one of them: a synthesis of Yunnanese-Muslim (Hui or in Thai, Cin Haw) and Shan cuisines that came together in Northern generally thought to be the result of Chiang Mai’s place on the trade route through the Golden Triangle. Hui caravans traded throughout Southeast Asia with the Yunnanese economy more dependent on the southern caravan trade than trade with the rest of China. The Hui population further expanded after the failed Panthay Rebellion caused refugees to flee Yunnan and into Chiang Mai.

Calling it curry noodles is oversimplification. The oily and slightly coconut-creamy curry is cut through with sides of tart pickled cabbage and lime juice, served over flat egg noodles. It is then finished with a hefty handful of deep-fried noodles topping the dish. The spice is dominant but not too much chili heat. While beef and chicken are the most common meats on offer, pork (both meat and ribs) can be found; all falling off the bone or in moist and stringy chunks. You’ll want to eat every bowl that you see, regardless of the animal on offer. There are small variations between vendors – tarter pickles, some finish the dish with a spoon of fresh coconut cream, subtle variations in the spice blend, less or more coconut milk – and there is a need to test the limits both of the dish and your ability to fit as much of it into you as you can while in Northern Thailand.

khao soi
Streetside khao soi

There is a slight similarity between khao soi and the Malaysian laksa – which begs question, is it possible that the dish is more recent and has different origins to the accepted history? The dish definitely has Muslim roots (and most likely, Burmese, given the physical and linguistic similarity to the Shan dish “hkauk hswe”) and the khao soi restaurants are predominantly Muslim-owned, but could they have come from elsewhere? CPA Media answers:

Towards the end of the 19th century, following the Pahang Rising of 1891-95, a group of Malay Muslims was deported to Chiang Mai by the Siamese government. These Malay Muslims eventually assimilated with the Bengali Muslims of the Chang Peuak area, but not before they had introduced peninsular cuisine in the form of satay and peanut sauce, salad khaek, murtabak, etc., to this far northern city

Following their various arrivals in Chiang Mai during the 19th century, the Bengali, Yunnanese and Malay Muslims intermarried to a certain degree. In addition, all groups took local Thai wives and raised their children as Muslims in a convenient and fair exchange – Muslim religion for Northern Thai cultural characteristics.

Maybe the khao soi story is even more labyrinthine (and possibly, shorter) than previously imagined. Does anyone have another reference for pre-1895 khao soi?

Location: In Chiang Mai, the best: Khao Soi Lamduan, Faham Rd, about 200 metres north of Rama IX Bridge opposite a resort named The Resort. Also worth a mention is Khao Soi Islam, soi 1 between Chang Klan and Charoenprathet Roads, near Ban Hor Mosque. In Maehongson, the no-name khao soi joint at the entrance to the market on Singhanatbamrung St.

See Also: In Thailand, Austin Bush has far too many pages of khao soi related material for someone who lives in Bangkok. In New York, Nat is undertaking the task of eating American khao soi. Good luck, Sisyphus. EatingAsia got me thinking about the laksa link.