Hello Uncle Foreigner

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Feb 8, 2013

Winter break: Eat this veggie burger

Modern Malay fusion at Cafe Leaf

Vegetarian food at Cafe Leaf
Vegetarian food at Cafe LeafCould veggie burgers be this good?
The Leaf’s vegetarian fare was fresh and flavorful.

We spotted this small cafe just north of Little India on our first jaunt through the neighborhood. Attracted by the window boxes growing fresh basil, mint and betel leaf we knew that we had to eat there.

Upon return, we found inside a cute little eatery, with a college town atmosphere. There were quotes pained on the wall about peace and sharing, and the space was open and bright. The menu was all vegetarian fusion, with a definite Malaysian influence.

We split a few dishes, like we do, to try to maximize our flavor per meal. The veggie burger: In my notes, I described it as “curried wonderfulness on a whole grain bun,” which is not the most helpful concrete description, but is a good indicator about how eating it made me feel.

We also went for the pasembor, a local style of mixed salad. Cafe Leaf’s was made with potato, jicama, peanuts and cucumbers with a crispy flake topper and a velvety tomato sauce. It was super light, with really subtle and delicate flavoring.

The noodle salad was made with fresh, whole wheat noodles and garnished with chopped lettuce, carrots, sesame seeds and some sort of nutlet, perhaps a sunflower seed. The whole thing was bathed in an airy, fantastic pumpkin sauce. Really, really delicious.

The iced coffee deserves special mention as well, only because we never get good coffee in China.

We were kind of on the late side for lunch, so by the time we tucked in, we were the only customers in the joint. Our server was a hip, younger girl, but there was also an older Chinese man hanging out with a chill-owner vibe. He looked up from his newspaper to ask us if we were from Europe. Almost no one pegs us for American here, because it’s just so far from Asia that we’re a much rarer commodity. It’s kind of fun to be special!

Eaten at: Cafe Leaf, Georgetown

Feb 7, 2013

Winter break: Batu Ferringhi

Where the Rules of Acquisition are replaced by the Rules of Relaxation

The beautiful beach at Batu Ferringhi
I'm at the beach
Say hello to tropical Emily! She’s much more fun than indoors-coat-wearing Emily.

Batu Ferringhi is a rather touristy strip of beaches along Penang’s northern coast. It’s about a 40-minute ride outside of Georgetown. Our guidebook tried to sell us on some of the more out-of-the-way beach and fishing villages on the southwest of the island — Batu Ferringhi is all concrete and hotels, they said — but our normal daily life happens off the beaten path, so we felt pretty OK not being so hard core on our vacation. Taxi, take us to the Hard Rock Hotel!

Not to stay, sillies. After a brief perusal of the Hard Rock’s artifacts in the lobby — they had one of Ronnie Wood’s pre-fame basses, a jacket of Bon Jovi’s, and a guitar that was signed by all of the Red Hot Chili Peppers! — we cut through their passageway to the beach.

The water we were on is the Malacca Strait which, zoom out enough, is fed by the Indian Ocean. In fact, on the way out, Balan, our cab driver, pointed out some areas that were hit by 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — a little establishment called the Tsunami Cafe now stands on one of those sites; I’m not really sure what to think of that. But, when there’s not a natural disaster occurring, the water is calm and the waves are small.

Having been raised on different coasts of the U.S., Peter and I have different ideas of what a good beach should be. But Batu Ferringhi, with its flat, smooth white sand, surrounded by jungle beauty and gorgeous mountains, fit the bill for both of us. Yeah, there are restaurants and hotels and bars that encroach on the waterline, but that only means there’s something to do. What, are we just going to sit in the sun? We’ll burn!

As we walked west to east, things progressively got busier. We took lunch at a small beach-side cafe that served Malay and western food. It wasn’t terrible, and they served beer in frosty mugs. A little further down the beach, we spotted a grass-roofed hut massage parlor. We joked that we should get massages. And then we decided we weren’t joking.

It’s pretty glorious to listen to the rustle of the seaside while someone eases out your aches and pains with aromatic oils.

Dotting the coast line all the way from west to east are boat guys, who will rent you any type of boating experience you want, from a ride out to Monkey Beach to a drag along on a banana boat. One of the most fun things for us to do, however, was to watch the parasailors land. They come in all fast for a landing kicking their little legs. It’s hilarious.

Feb 6, 2013

Winter break: Eat this forkless

Banana leaf at Karai Kudi

The Banana Leaf setEat samosasEat with your hands

“Have you had banana leaf yet?” a cab driver asked us early on in our stay when we mentioned that we liked Indian food. We assured him that it was on our list, and on his word bumped it up several levels of importance. Always listen to the locals’ food suggestions.

According to our guidebook, Karaikudi in Little India had both banana leaf and air conditioning, so that was our destination. When we walked in, there was a group of tourists at a large table in the corner, but most of the clientele appeared to be Indian.

We puzzled over the extensive menu for a bit — “which one is banana leaf? None of them are called that!” — before a waiter came over to help. He directed us (without rolling his eyes) to what we were looking for, and explained that there were essentially two options: vegetarian or non-vegetarian. We ordered one and one. And some samosas for good measure.

Two large platters were brought to our table, each lined with — you got it! — a banana leaf and containing small tin cups of various sauces and curried things, with a heaping pile of rice in the center. You basically dump the cups on the rice, and scoop it up with your fingers. (There are forks, if you want to go that way.)

Guys, it was freaking amazing. Each sauce was delicious on its own, but they mingled in an alchemical way that took it to the moon! The chicken that came with the non-veger was juicy and tender and slathered in a fantastic brown curry. The non-veger also came with biryani rice as well as white — sorry Peter.

I don’t want to give short shrift to the samosas, either. Though they weren’t the main event, they were possibly the best samosas I’ve had in my life thus far. A thick and crispy fried outside surrounded beautifully soft potatoes inside, and they came with a squirty bottle of this tangy red sauce that was also quite lovely.

We came away from this meal pretty stuffed and happy. Later we learned that this style of food comes from South India, with Karaikudi specializing in Chettinadu cuisine. There, a free geography lesson for you, too.

Eaten at: Karaikudi restaurant, Little India, Georgetown

I'm eating with my handsOutside the restaurant

Feb 4, 2013

Winter break: Little India

Finally, some hustle and bustle

Georgetown's Little India
Georgetown's Little IndiaGeorgetown's Little IndiaNR Sweets' exteriorOur Thali from NR Sweets
The exterior made it look like the food might be made out of plastic, but our meal at NR Sweets was truly satisfying.

We had a hard time getting the rhythm of Georgetown’s protected World Heritage zone. Most of the cultural attractions were letdowns, and it seemed like most of the storefronts and restaurants were closed whenever we were there, which made for pretty boring ambling. In fact, a lot of the time it felt like the Georgetown colonial area was a bunch of empty old architecture and tourist-baiting cafes and hostels.

The exception to this was the few blocks in the center of the zone that made up Little India. Now this is a city!

There was an energy to this part of town that was largely missing from the surrounding area. The streets were crowded with pedestrians and automobiles, and commerce and music bubbled over from the tightly pack clusters of shops. You could buy anything from DVDs to cheap plastic trinkets to a complete, tailor-made sari. My favorite were the amusingly named Fancy Stores, which sold jewelery, barrettes, wigs and other lady-type fancification products. There were obvious tourists wandering these streets, but also locals just going about their daily business (some of which was selling stuff to tourists).

Of course there were restaurants, too. While planning this Penang trip, one of the things that we got most excited about was the availability of well-made Indian food, A) because we love it, and B) because the cuisine supports a tradition of vegetarianism. And, boy, oh, boy, were we not let down. We only had the stomach room for a few meals in Little India, but each one of them was a winner. Even the cheesy-looking NR Sweets delivered: We a split a thali — which consisted of a bowl fragrant seasoned rice and several spicy sauces — and a cheese masala naan with a paneer butter masala. The atmosphere wasn’t much to speak of, but the food was fantastic.

I did have a mini-cultural crisis while walking through the neighborhood one afternoon: The restauranteurs of Little India are pretty aggressive when it comes to landing your business — if you’ve even walked down that stretch of 6th Street in New York City, it’s a similar level of intensity. Now, in China, it’s been our policy to stop and talk with pretty much everyone who wants to; we want Americans in China to have a good rep and, more importantly, we want the curious to be satisfied. But, back in New York, if you talked to everyone who approached you, you’d end up being asked for money all day. So I felt a little bit conflicted about how to act.

But Peter pointed out that ignoring a hard sell is a different thing entirely than snubbing a six-year-old Chinese girl who has never seen a foreigner before. Western-guilt assuaged, it was back to picking a place to eat, on my own terms!

Shopping in Little India

Feb 2, 2013

Winter break: Eat this dessert

Cendol and Ais Kacang at Gurney Drive

The famous Gurney Drive is empty if you get there too early
I think we just got to the party way too early.

Gurney Drive is one of Penang’s big deal hawker centers, as sold to us by our guidebook, and we were curious to see how an internationally renowned food market differed from our comfy cafe at Kuta Bali.

It’s set up right on the water, so there are some beautiful views and nice breezes. In the early evening when we went, however, it was rather, shall we say, relaxed. Few vendors were open and there were only a couple of other tourists out and about, browsing the wares.

But we were hungry and hot, and we found an open cendol cart. Cendol is an icey dessert covered in coconut milk, palm sugar syrup, red beans and wormy green rice noodles. It’s not much to look at, but it tastes fantastic. Cool and refreshing, with just the right amount of sweetness.

Ais Kacang is another dish along those lines. It’s a pile of shaved ice, drizzled with syrups — one of them tasted like root beer! — and topped with sweet corn and condensed milk. Underneath this chilly mountain, there were surprise cubes of gelatin, dried currants and red beans. The whole thing (well, minus the gelatin, which is not my favorite) was fantastic.

Sadly, this was the only time and opportunity we had for Malaysian dessert. There was just too much food to eat and not enough appetite to finish it all. But on that hot afternoon, our sweet iceys really hit the spot.

We’ll just have to go back for more.

Eaten at: Gurney Drive hawker center, Georgetown

Feb 1, 2013

Winter break: Teksi!

Riding around Pulau Penag in style

Our taxi driver

The public bus system in Penang is extensive — but kind of confusing, and the appearance of the buses themselves is rather infrequent. So, after a few instances of waiting for the wrong bus for upwards of 40 minutes, we decided that despite our love of mass transit, it was taxis for us.

Which added a whole new dimension to our trip: talkative taxi drivers! Occasionally we’d get a guy who didn’t speak English — or didn’t want to speak English with us — but for the most part, everyone who picked us up was delighted to have the chance to show us around their home.

At the very least, the driver would point out the different tourist sights as we passed them. Many had travel suggestions as well — it was on a taxi driver’s word that we visited the Chocolate Boutique, and he was not wrong. We’re still enjoying our chili-infused chocolate, one piece each, per night.

Beyond this, we got interesting insight into what Malaysians think of America. “Americans can shoot you if you invade their homes,” said the driver who picked us up from the Clan Jetties. “Romney should have been president because he’s a successful businessman who gives thanks to God for his success,” said Michael, who brought us out to the Queensbay Mall. “Americans don’t know where Malaysia is,” said Balan, our driver on the way to the beach at Batu Ferringhi. This last one kind of had the ring of truth about it.

We discussed real estate with a driver who was also dropping his son off at school. Balan had a lot to say about financial development in Penang; besides tourism, computer and pharmacological factories make up a lot of the industry in the area. Michael told us ribald jokes (that cab ride was pretty strange, actually). Our clan jetty man suggested, upon hearing that we were from China, that we visit Yunnan Province when we get back; he’d been to visit 8 times!

Pretty much everyone who picked us up or dropped us off in Desa Permata asked why we were staying out there, but our mistake ended up putting us into contact with a lot of interesting locals, via the long rides we needed to take. It was definitely more rewarding than visiting the Blue Mansion.

The Penang taxi

The cost for all this joy riding? Well, drivers are supposed to use their meter, but Balan was the only one during our entire time in Penang who did. Otherwise, we negotiated a flat rate which seemed to conform to 10RN [US$3] within Georgetown center to 35-40RN [about $12] to go out to Desa Permata. Totally worth it, every time.

Jan 31, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi lemak

Nyonya chicken and salads over rice at Kuta Bali cafe

Eat this Nasi Lemak
Our nasi lemak lady didn’t have banana leaves, but she did have a banana leaf plate!

Let’s start with some definitions: Nyonya cuisine comes from the fusion of cultures between the 16th century male Chinese immigrants to Malaysia and the local women they married. Nasi is malay for rice. And nasi lemak is rice served with a bunch of tasty side dishes, sometimes wrapped in a banana leaf.

The woman serving nasi lemak at Kuta Bali was one of the few non-English speaking people that we had contact with on our trip, but her stall was set up buffet style, so with a smile and some pointing, there were no problems. (Except for the first night when we waved away her offer of rice — um, it’s in the name of the dish, dummies!)

The whole meal was homey and rich. The chicken was so tender that it practically melted off the drumstick; it was no problem to eat with the customary fork and spoon. It was slathered with a sweet and hearty curry. (Peter enjoyed the sauce on rice.)

Our various sides included green beans, cabbage slaw, pineapple and cucumber with chilis, some sort of greens slaw, spicy okra … All fantastic. Each came swimming in its own dressing that was perfect over the rice. Don’t say no to the rice.

Eaten at: Kuta Bali Cafe, Desa Permata.

Jan 29, 2013

Winter break: Eat this soup!

Spicy and sour Chinese soup at Kuta Bali Cafe

Spicy and Sour Soup

The first time we passed this stall, the man working it gave a soft pitch for his soups. “You can get it spicy or not spicy,” he told us. We were still in browse mode, so we kept going.

But, we came back after our initial sweep of all the food carts. And then again and again, after the first taste made this soup a Penang favorite.

The broth is sweet and tangy, and one of the spiciest things we had during our vacation (though not quite Sichuan spicy), and it’s filled with tender carrots and greens, as well as a protein of your choice: The beef was delicious, but the chicken was the winner, all melt-in-your-mouth moist. It also came with crab, which I’m sure was wonderful.

After picking it all out of the soup a couple of times, however, we eventually asked him to leave it out. Which he did, no problem, because the people we met were very accommodating even when our requests might have seemed wacko. (It’s an island! Eat the seafood, for goodness sake!)

The soup is served with a sweet garlicky vinaigrette that adds a nice chili pepper zing. Noodles are also an option, although we found that they took a little bit away from the soup’s already lovely simplicity.

Eaten at: Kuta Bali Cafe, Desa Permata.

Jan 28, 2013

Winter break: Hawker centers

Let the eating commence!

Hawkers by the Clan Jetties
Late lunch at a hawker center by the Clan Jetties
Kuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliKuta BaliNasi LemakBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliBamboo chicken at Kuta BaliPeter eating Nasi LemakFilled pancakeSome dumplings
Above: Just a small photographic taste of the delicious excitement of Kuta Bali Cafe.
Hong Kong Cafe was also nearby, but our heart belonged to Kuta Bali
Hong Kong Cafe was just a stone’s throw from Kuta Bali, but we pledged our allegiance early on.

In Penang, eating at its most basic and cheapest is done at hawker centers, collections of food carts assembled around a large dinning area where people gather late into the night. The mood is festive and lively — we’re eating, hooray! — and sometimes there’s karaoke or dancing. Despite it’s simplicity, It’s a place where a meal is an event.

In general, the food from these humble carts is cheap, but no less than absolutely delicious. It’s a point of pride for some of the hawkers that their cart and their dish has been in their family for generations. Every kind of cuisine is represented: Indian, Chinese, Malay … even western — though, to be honest, none of the western food looked all that enticing to us.

There are a few famous centers around Penang that are listed in all the guidebooks, but take a walk and you’ll find one. We had three good ones on our block alone. We came to be quite attached to the Kuta Bali Cafe, a large and lively dining hall just a short walk from our hostel. We ended up there pretty much every night, for a meal, a drink, a late-night snack, or just to get one more taste of that wonderful dish we tried the night before. Going from cart to cart every night, we soon had compiled a long list of favorites.

Emboldened by his discovery of the 牛肉面, Peter’s vegetarian strategy for this trip was to not worry about meatlessness, but instead look for dishes where the meat could be pushed to the side, or moved over to my plate. (I felt a little Jack Sprat and his wife on more than a couple occasions.) He found a couple of tasty treats this way, but even more amazingly, we found that we could actually ask the cooks to dish up their dish meat-free. Because they speak English in Penang! And understand vegetarianism! Peter even got a chicken pita sandwich, hold the chicken.

On average, our food costs would be between 10-20RM [or US$3-7] — the beers would add another 40RM [or about US$13] — which made eating this way very attractive. But it was also a super fun atmosphere. Sitting out in the clear tropical nights with a bucket of iced beers and plates piled high with our new favorite foods — you really can’t beat that. It’s like the best summer BBQ you’ve ever been to, catered by 50 chefs who are all experts in their cuisine. We were in heaven … and so were the locals, to whom this is an everyday experience.

We didn’t know exactly, when we set out, what we were looking for our of our Penang experience, but if all we did was eat a meal at Kuta Bali, that would have been enough.

Jan 27, 2013

Winter break: Georgetown

The city

The Georgetown Heritage Area
Looking down on Georgetown, from the top floor of Komtar
Penang Road
Action on Penang Road
Khoo Kongsi
The ornate exterior of Khoo Kongsi
A drawing at Khoo Kongsi
A close-up of “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons”
The Blue MansionOn the tour of the Blue Mansion
The tour of the Blue Mansion is very thorough.

Georgetown is where most Penang visitors stay if they’re not at the beach. It’s the state’s capital, and is situated on a little nose of land on the northeast corner of the island. The city was founded by Captain Francis Light in 1786 for the British East India Company, and is home to many fine examples of British colonial architecture.

Penang’s other cultures have left their architectural mark, as well, and there are beautiful Chinese temples and clan houses, Islamic mosques, etc. The city is just lousy with gorgeous buildings with a mix of styles and cultures not seen anywhere else in Southeast Asia. In honor of that fact it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

We felt we would be remiss if we didn’t at least check out some of the sights.

Khoo Kongsi and the Blue Mansion

Khoo Kongsi is a Chinese clanhouse that serves the family Khoo. It’s basically a big, ornately decorated temple with a small museum on the ground floor. There are some beautiful illustrations throughout the temple; my favorite is the one titled “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons,” that being the wish for all Chinese families.

The Blue Mansion is exactly what it says, a big blue mansion built by a Chinese immigrant to Georgetown, Cheong Fatt Tze, in the 1880s. You have to join one of the three daily tours to see it, and I have to warn you, the tour is BRUTAL. We spent about 45 minutes of our 1 hour tour in the front vestibule while our guide summarized Cheong Fatt Tze’s life in excruciating detail. Her focus was largely on his money-making and saving, with a few details thrown in about the man himself and the construction of the house. Oh, and I’m forgetting, she also gave a pretty hard sell on staying in the mansion in its capacity as a hotel.

The interesting take away from these two attractions: They’ve both been stand ins for other countries in Hollywood movies. Khoo Kongsi was a makeshift Thailand in “Anna and the King” and the Blue Mansion stood for Vietnam in “Indochine,” when each production was barred from filming in their respective countries.

Somewhere in GeorgetownKomtar
Can you spot the Komtar?
At the Clan JettiesAt the Clan JettiesCity Hall

Komtar

Komtar isn’t a Heritage building, it’s a big mall and the tallest building in Georgetown. We took an elevator up to the top for some great views of the island. We also bought some jewelry at the bead store that, for whatever reason, was up in the viewing area.

The Clan Jetties

The waterfront on the south side of the city was settled mostly by Chinese families, and is still a Chinese neighborhood today. It’s a little weird to walk through people’s homes as a tourist attraction, but it makes for some nice photographs.

There are also some seafood restaurants out at the end of the piers, which would be pretty wonderful if you liked seafood. We don’t like seafood, but that’s on us, no fault of the jetties.

City Hall

We enjoyed looking at this colonial building without trying to tour it, mercifully. It’s very good looking.

Pretty much all of our efforts at cultural tourism were failures. The architecture in Georgetown is gorgeous, but the ways in which we tried for deeper engagement with it were just not that fulfilling. It was also way too hot to go tromping around the city just to look at things.

It took us a couple days to realize that we were just doing it wrong. The culture in Penang is not in institutions and museums (most of which were founded or renovated within the last 30-40 years, anyway). It’s the people, the natural beauty, and, not least importantly, the food. Eventually we calmed down and started having a lot more fun.

Don’t get all New York about it. The way to do Penang is to sit back and enjoy a good meal in the marvelous scenery.

Georgetown city Georgetown city