Penang

Sep 15, 2013

Penang: Cooking at the Tropical Spice Garden

Pearly Kee schools us in Baba-Nyonya cuisine

A cooking lesson with Pearly Kee
The pond in the Tropical Spice GardenTaking some tea in the gardenPearly supervises Dad frying some chickenThe kitchen where we've workedOur soupPeter is cooking
Pearly is flexible with her recipes, so Peter was able to join in the fun with vegetarian versions of our dishes.

The cooking class at Batu Ferringhi’s Tropical Spice Garden opens with a thorough tour of the titular garden. The green space, which abuts actual jungle, is home to a wide variety of plants, many of them edible. The coolest part was the spices; seeing them in the wild and then smelling and even tasting them. The tour ended with tea time in a little tea time grotto, with a brew made from plants from the garden.

Then we met Pearly, an effervescent Penangite of Chinese heritage and our teacher for the morning. The class was made up of Peter and I, my parents, and Italians Andrea and his daughter Diana. Pearly walked us through the recipes for Inche Kabin and a curry mee soup, telling stories while we worked. She kept an eagle eye on us, jumping in quickly if things were about to go wrong; and her team of helpers performed our grunt work: clearing away our scraps, changing our washing bowls when the water got murky, keeping us supplied with beverages. As my mom commented, it was like learning to cook as if you were a princess.

But our meals turned out great. We brought them outside and ate lunch on the large patio. Pearly and her helpers kept the nutmeg juice (fantastic, BTW!) flowing while we ate. It was a great reward for all of our hard work.

Sep 8, 2013

Penang: Relaxing by the beach

A return to Malaysia, Truly Asia

Our apartment in Batu Ferringhi overlooked the beach
Art in GeorgetownOn Penang HillThere were some wicked rain stormsEating at Gurney PlazaMore public art in GeorgetownDad at Penang Hill

This time around, we stayed in a rental apartment — with pool! — across the street from the beach in Batu Ferringhi, the northern cost of Penang island. The area was packed with tourists, and it was a completely different experience than our last trip — where we were nestled into a local residential community — but we had a good time nonetheless: swimming with families from all over the world, drinking with the foreign retirees at the dive bar near our apartment, enjoying beach-side dinners with the other tourists.

The weather, surprisingly, was cooler than when Peter and I had visited in January, so we got to do a lot more walking around. Touring Georgetown one afternoon, we got to stumble upon the city’s public art projects that we had missed this winter while we were whizzing around in air conditioned cabs. It was pretty cool.

Of course, there was the eating. In Penang we set the food-ordering precedent for the trip: too much is just enough. The most egregious incidence of this being at Sri Ananda Bahwan, an Indian joint recommended by Liza, the woman who owned our apartment. But between the deep-fried cauliflower, the billion kinds of naan, the lovely and smokey tandoori chicken, the smooth saag paneer, and the banana leaf sets, I regret none of it.

Penang was my parents’ first stop in Asia and over our week, among us all, we compared it to: Florida, San Francisco, an Indiana Jones movie, and the Dominican Republic. Aside from some of the food, however, it was nothing like China.

Drinks on the beachBig Bamboo

Sep 1, 2013

All across Asia: 26 days on the road

Chengdu • Penang • Kunming • Dali • Luzhou • Jiading • Shanghai

The breakneck itinerary

This August, my parents came to visit! They were our first visitors in two years, so we planned an epic trip across China (with a little Malaysia thrown in for comfort).

Peter and I started out in Chengdu, because that’s where the international airport is, and then we flew to meet my mom and dad in Penang, Malaysia. We figured a week on the beach in an English-speaking country would be a good introduction to a new continent for the folks.

From there, we eased into China in “the City of Eternal Spring,” Kunming, and backpacker haven Dali, both in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. We amped up the foreign in our hometown of Luzhou, and then continued further east to the municipality of Shanghai.

Jiading is a small city outside Shanghai proper, and we spent a few days bumming around the suburbs before ending our journey in what’s known as both the New York and Paris of China, Shanghai. It was a whirlwind trip, with a full spectrum of experience – balmy to sizzling, countryside to urban, pizza to dumplings, and past to future.

Feb 24, 2013

Winter break: Return to China

Leaving is also arriving

Peter on the river
Pete's Tex Mex
With the Lazy Pug on vacation, Peter’s Tex Mex took good care of us.
Jane and her dog
Jane’s dog, Mango. Or Bongo. Each of us heard something different.

Our trip to Penang was our first time outside of China in more than a year. And it was great — everyone spoke English, things weren’t just broken everywhere and always, there was no hoop jumping to get stuff done. Everything was so comfortable and easy!

But, during our last days of warmth and Anglophonics, there was a conspicuous absence of end-of-vacation dread. We were actually missing our difficult Chinese life, and couldn’t wait to get back.

We bookended our travel to and from Malaysia with a stay in Chengdu, and holed up for a few days at our favorite hostel, the Loft. We weren’t yet home, but it was great to be someplace familiar to continue our relaxing.

Of course, when in Chengdu, we have to go for Mexican food. The Pug, alas, was also on a winter break, but we found joy and margaritas at Peter’s Tex Mex. That’s this quarter’s tacos achieved.

Back home in Luzhou, we are immediately greeted with big hellos from all our students on the new campus. (They were finishing up the fall term’s final exams.) We made plans to have dinner with Tina, Sky, et al., later in the week.

And with two apartments, we got to make two returns. On a walk by the old campus, we ran into Young Jane and KOKO!, who were out walking their dogs. We sat on a bench by the river and showed them some photos of our vacation, and then went for ice cream (late January was surprisingly and gloriously warm here this year).

We finally felt like we were truly home when we went for dinner that night at 串串. Peter wore his new Iron Maiden football jersey that had arrived while we were away (“Is that for exercise?” our boss Linda asked), and it just felt like a special occasion. A random passerby even wished us in English, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

We had a great time traveling, but it’s really nice to be home.

Peter in his new Maiden jerseyBread
Left: Peter in his new footie jersey at Man U. Right: Some delicious Chinese Muslim bread we found while out with Jane and KOKO!

Feb 21, 2013

Winter break: Eat this nasi kandar

The best meal ever at Line Clear

Hello 8-bit Eating
Choose your meats
Line up hereThe foodLine ClearIt's just deliciousPeter, in his new shirt
Right before dinner, Peter bought this shirt at Sam’s Collection!
Fish headA bubbling pot

Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Penang, and Anthony Bourdain told us to go to Line Clear. And now I’m telling you: Go to Penang, and GO TO LINE CLEAR! It was by far the best meal of our trip, and possibly one of the best meals of our lives. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Line Clear is a Georgetown restaurant that specializes in nasi kandar. Nasi kandar is a famous Malay dish that consists of gravyed stuff over rice. Not too complicated. But, oh, what Line Clear does with that simple formula.

The restaurant is near Soho Free Pub on Jalan Penang. It’s tucked back down a deceptively quiet corridor that opens into a large open space. Metal picnic tables are lined up under a tin roof, and the food is stacked in large steam trays along one wall.

We weren’t really sure how to get the process started, but as we stood and stared hungrily at the piles and piles of food, two servers kindly rushed to our aid. One of the guys scooped a plate of biryani rice for me and pointed out the options: “Chicken, mutton, chicken, fish …” I went for a chicken and another chicken. He delivered two healthy portions, flooded the plate with extra sauce from other trays, and pointed me toward the check-out.

While this was going on, Peter was trying to explain to another server that he just wanted some vegetables and sauce on his rice, leave out the meat. There was a bit of a language barrier, but when Peter dropped the word “vegetarian,” all was understood. Our man whisked Peter over to another station full of vegetables and vegetable-based curry. No need to compromise on chicken stock, they have vegetarianism here!

Both of our meals were absolutely out of this world. My chicken was melt-off-the-bone succulent, and the two curries — one sweet and one spicy — melded together beautifully with the rest of the melanged sauces. Peter’s plate was just as flavorful and hearty, with large helpings of okra, potatoes, cabbage and dark leafies, covered in tomato- and eggplant-based sauces.

Line Clear doesn’t serve beer — it’s a Muslim shop — but we were pretty giddy on food alone. We raved to each other between bites, and wished there was more when we were done. We vowed then and there that this would not be our last trip to Penang. It was that good.

Tony truly steered us right.

Feb 20, 2013

Winter Break: Georgetown bar crawl

Boozin’ along Jalan Penang

Visiting the Argylle
Margarita time
Peter magically doubled our margaritas at D’Joint.
Slippery Senioritas
Slippery Señoritas doesn’t actually have tapas, but they do serve the best mojitos.

Some nights, a refined round of cocktails at the Eastern & Oriental was an end unto itself, but other times it was the prelude to future parties down busy Jalan Penang, a bar-lined thoroughfare just south of the hotel. Whether you’re looking for shots on fire or a cold quiet beer, you can find it there.

The northernmost bit of the street, just a short stumble from the E&O, is a pedestrianized home to a bunch of cheesey tourist bars that WANT YOUR BUSINESS. Touts sit out in front of each bar, throwing enticing deals at anyone who walks by. The competition is fierce. We chose D’Joint, ‘cause they had 2-for-1 cocktails. They were as good as you’d expect 2-for-1 cocktails to be.

Across the street from that passel of pubs is “tapas bar” Slippery Señoritas. To be honest, it looks like the kind of place where people go to party ‘til they puke! There was a sign on the wall reading “Platform dancing: For ladies only,” and the lights and music were both flashy and loud.

But! They make a damn fine mojito; potent and with plenty of mint. Go on the early side, and you’ll have the whole place to yourself.

A ways down Jalan Penang sits the far calmer Soho Free House. They have “more draft beers than any bar in Malaysia.” Four draft beers, to be precise: Guinness, Kilkenny, Strongbow and Heineken.

I quickly got over my initial disappointment that they weren’t the 100-tap craft beer paradise I was unrealistically expecting. Draft Guinness is still delicious, and I was happy to have it. The atmosphere was chill, and the people were friendly. What more are you after?

We went back a few days after our initial visit and met Dan, a local of Chinese descent, who struck up a conversation with us about the beaded bracelet that Peter was wearing. Buddhists wear beads like that, he told us, because “they remind you not to get into mischief.” From there, our discussion meandered from reincarnation to local history to international travel. Typical pint talk, and bar buddies for an afternoon.

Still further south, there’s Cafe Argyll, another simple pub, but with a full menu of Indian food. The cocktails were much better than D’Joint’s, and the curries we sampled were amazing. After having only snacks our first time there, we made time to return for a full dinner later in our stay. Delicious.

Soho Free House
Why would you even want more than four kinds of beer?

Feb 19, 2013

Winter break: Eastern & Oriental Hotel

Cocktail hour(s) at Farquhar’s Bar

Peter, poolside
A martini at the barPeter, on the patio, looking like a boss
“Peter looks like a boss,” Young Jane said admiringly of this photo.

The E&O is touted as a fine example of colonial architecture in Georgetown, and, indeed, it’s a stunning white beauty. It was constructed in the 1880s, though the current incarnation of the business dates from 2001, when the hotel reopened after years of restoration work.

But we didn’t go there looking for history. We were looking for drinks.

Farquhar’s Bar, in the hotel lobby, is a dark wood paneled pub that looked almost too fancy for us the first time we walked in, but martinis must! We sat at the bar and watched the bartender go about his work meticulously. And the drinks he made us were amazing. By far the best martinis we’d have in Penang. Even better, one of the waitresses served us small bowls of cashews and delicious seasoned olives (also the best) while we waited.

Our tab came to about 100 ringgit, or US$30, which was a little pricey but still reasonable. Considering that our dinners were averaging less than 30 ringgit for the two of us, our budget could stand it. So, from that day on, Farquhar’s was our local. It became our regular evening ritual: Drinks on the bar’s poolside patio as we wound down from the day’s excitement. We eavesdropped on the other guests — all urbane sophisticates, many of them in their 70s and 80s — and made our plans for adventures to come. It was heaven

Looking at the blue horizon

Feb 18, 2013

Winter break: Eat this porkwich

Pork burger with cheese at the Desa Permata night market

Our talented food truck chef at work
Eat this pork burger because it is delicious

The street in front of our hostel hosts a street market every weekend, and it’s a bustler. When we went, one of the vendors was a food truck hawking pork burgers and it smelled so good, I just had to get a taste.

The young man operating the grill was a solid hipster type, wearing a knit hat in 80 degree weather and a plaid face mask, presumably for food safety. He could park anywhere in downtown Manhattan (wait, are food trucks still trendy?), charge $12 per, and the cool kids would line up for days.

The ground-pork patty was juicy and seasoned perfectly, with very peppery flavor. The cheese was nothing special, a pre-wrapped slice, but melted over the patty the two formed a happy marriage. Fresh lettuce, tomato and a simple bun completed the package.

It was simple as could be, but just delicious. Western food doesn’t need to be anything fancy, it just needs to be done right. And Pork Burger did it right.

Eaten at: Pork Burger food truck at the night market, Desa Permata.

Feb 17, 2013

Winter break: Let’s go to the mall!

And the boutiques, and the street markets, and the grocery store …

The Rainforest Cafe has great bagels
The Chocolate ShopThe night market

The triforce that creates the perfect Penang vacation, we read in our pre-trip research, is made up of eating, beaching and shopping. Check, check and … meh. Neither Peter nor I are big shoppers, but two out of three would be perfect enough for us. We’d leave the shopping to everyone else.

Or so we thought.

Our first trip to the mall was out of necessity: I needed a new bathing suit. But once that was out of the way … we kept on shopping.

The malls of Penang are big and modern. They’ve got all the familiar chains — The Gap, Crabtree & Evelyn, ESPRIT, Subway, Carrefour (and its not a vacation without a visit to Carrefour’s import section) — and, importantly, air conditioning. They’re also a good place to find massage chairs and junk food; We ended up using them as giant rest stops when Georgetown’s streets got a little too intense.

But these big boxes of international commerce are the least the island has to offer. We basically tripped over shopping experiences everywhere we went. Upscale boutiques to rink-a-dink flea markets. Our spoils from our spree included handmade jewelry, a Daredevil-shaped USB flash drive, T-shirts galore, bagels(!) and cheesy-cute sunglasses. And what fun we had acquiring them!

The coolest — and maybe most stereotypically touristy — transaction was at an Indian clothing store called Sam’s Collection. They offered beautiful men’s and women’s clothing in cotton, linen and silk. The lovely patterned fabrics, some with intricate embroidery, were the height of southeast Asian traveler chic.

Malaysia has a bargaining culture, just like China does, and at Sam’s I decided to try my skills — partially motivated by the fact that I didn’t want to go back to the ATM. Peter had some RMB in his wallet and they liked that, so we ended up making a deal in two currencies. How cool are we! As we paid up, an onlooking clerk threw a “Nice haggle!” our way. I felt pretty boss.

Sam's Collection

Feb 15, 2013

Winter break: Penang Hill

Our local attraction

The view from Penang Hill
Up the funicularOn the HillPeter enjoys the viewEmily enjoys a sandwichInside the Owl MuseumMore views of the city from Penang HillA snack at David Brown'sLet's toast to the city

The one thing tourism-wise our hostel had going for it was that it was super close to Penang Hill. Now, it’s called a hill, but the mini-mountain’s peak is more than 800 meters above sea level. It may not be Everest, but it’s not an insignificant height. At that elevation, the air is even a little cooler than it is on the ground.

On a sunny afternoon, we cabbed over to the base (just five minutes, take that Georgetown!) and ascended via funicular.

Just off the upper station, there’s an asphalt pathway that leads towards the small commercial area on the hill, as well as some dirt pathways that take you off into the greenery. We hiked our picnic lunch — cheese sandwiches with hot English mustard on German sourdough with mini gherkins, how international! — a short ways down the dirt and found a perfect little gazebo. The terrible pop cover tunes wafted down from the pub above, but the view and the relative privacy made for a nice atmosphere. There were signs warning not to feed the monkeys, but none approached, so confrontation was duly avoided.

After lunch, we returned to the pavement to see what was to see. There was stuff like: Get your picture taken with a snake; or Eat more at the small hawker center. We chose: See some owly stuff at the Owl Museum. Why not?

The man at the entry only addressed Peter throughout the whole transaction, which was especially irritating given that I was the one handling the money. That happens to us all the time — people assuming Peter’s the boss because he’s the man — but it was way more noticeable in Penang because it was happening in English. (Though, it’s even more absurd in China, because out of the two of us, I have way more Chinese.) My strategy in the face of this is to quietly but firmly continue to assert my presence. It may or may not blow any minds, but it does keep me from feeling completely erased.

Anyway, inside the Owl Museum was delightfully weird. It was basically was two large rooms displaying a collection of internationally made arts and crafts that all depicted owls in some way. Paintings and illustrations of owls, ceramic owl statues, owls carved out of wood. The gift shop featured even more owls, if you wanted to take some owlness home. And we did.

After the owls, we set to wandering down a path that promised monkey cups at the end. Golf carts ferried lazier guests this way and that, but we were having a nice time walking. As we got further away from the commercial area, we started to see some very nice bungalows and houses. Tucked into the hillside, surrounded by trees with a gorgeous view of the island below, they were too perfectly peaceful. Though in the end, we decided that it would be impractical to live there — where would you buy groceries? — so we made no offers.

Before our descent, we stopped at David Brown’s, the aforementioned music-playing pub. It was a small open-air terrace, that was positioned to look right out over the north shore of Penang. The drinks were pretty watery, but with a view like that, who cares? We watched the tourists wander by as we talked and solved all the world’s problems (from the music industry to sexism) over bloody Marys and margaritas. It was a perfect tropical afternoon.