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What to eat in Malaysia

12 Sep

Wan Tan Mee, eaten at a Chulia street hawker stall in Georgetown, Penang.

Why is it that countries closer to the equator have such bolder flavours in their food?

On a recent trip to Malaysia over summer vacation, I was keen to eat my way around the country. Malaysia has an interesting food culture, predominately made up of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian, but most asian food is enjoyed on its streets. This is a place where you can have dim sum for breakfast, spicy Indian curries off banana leaves for lunch, and then slurp up a pungent and fishy noodle soup in a back alley for dinner.

Enjoying a cold cendol, a drink with coconut milk, palm sugar and jelly noodles, before my spicy noodles come.

Enjoying a cold cendol, a drink with coconut milk, palm sugar and jelly noodles, before my spicy noodles come.

While my mother says I take too many photos of food, I thought I’d put them in one post as an overview of all the delicious things I ate in Malaysia (and she can skip it if she’d like!). Here are some of my favourites.

Asam Laksa

It’s the perfect balance of sour, salty and fishy, without being offensive. Laksa is a noodle soup, the asam variation is made with a fish and tamarind broth, with shredded fish, cucumber, onions, chilli, pineapple and mint.

Despite it being one of Malaysia’s most well-known dishes, it was difficult for me to find. I had this bowl on Jalan Alor, in KL. I spent the rest of my time in Malaysia and one frantic last day in Penang searching for another bowl to no avail. It’s that good.

Laksa -- one of Malaysia's most well known dishes.

Laksa — one of Malaysia’s most well known dishes.

Wan Tan Mee

A noodle dish of Cantonese descent, Wan Tan Mee has egg noodles with barbequed pork, wontons, greens and spicy pickled green chillies, swimming in a dark soy sauce.

Wan Tan Mee, eaten at a Chulia street hawker stall in Georgetown, Penang.

Wan Tan Mee, eaten at a Chulia street hawker stall in Georgetown, Penang.

Oyster noodles

If I closed my eyes and ate these noodles, and forgot the fact that I was in a cavernous Chinese restaurant in a converted mansion in Georgetown, Penang, I would’ve thought that this was a homemade Italian pasta. This dish was lightly creamy with fresh oyster chunks. I ate it with fried greens.

Chinese oyster noodles, eaten in Georgetown, Penang.

Chinese oyster noodles and fried greens with carrot juice, eaten in Georgetown, Penang.

Satay and spicy pepper sauce crab

This was an indulgent meal I had on Jalan Alor. With drink, it cost about 35 ringitt ($11). Satay is meat grilled on sticks and very cheap, sold at street stalls and in restaurants. This crab was probably meant for a family, but I tore it apart in all its spicy, messy glory by myself. Amazing!

Crab and chicken satay on Jalan Alor.

Crab and chicken satay with a litchee shake on Jalan Alor.

Chee Cheong Fun

These are like a very wide, thin rice noodle rolled up and cut into pieces. A Cantonese specialty, these are often found at dim sum restaurants around the world. In Malaysia, they’re served with a sweet sauce with chilli and shrimp paste.

Chee Cheong Fun on Georgetown's Chulia Street.

Chee Cheong Fun on Georgetown’s Chulia Street.

Street treats

Little markets seem to pop up just as the sun is about to set on side streets all across Malaysia. Many street stalls with have numerous trays with little fried foods and sweets that can be purchased for very cheap (like three for $1). A great way to try out interesting looking things.

Malay sweets -- the ones in front are like chewy jellys covered in coconut.

Malay sweets — the ones in front are chewy, gelatinous squares covered in coconut.

Indian thali

Thali are plates filled with many different tastes — curries, vegetables, meat, breads and rice. These are popular in Malaysia and allow you to choose different things and only need to eat a little bit (if you don’t like it!). Great with a lassi or glass of fresh soy milk.

Thali with tandoori chicken, naan and curries.

Thali with tandoori chicken, naan and curries.

More food porn:

A visit to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

24 May

Crab, fatty tuna and sea urchin sushi.

From the ocean to the market to my plate — I witnessed part of that process during a recent visit to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Tsukiji (pronounced “ski-gee”) is the biggest fish market in the world and has, probably much to the surprise of the hard-working fish mongers, become quite the tourist destination. Anyone who has seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, “The Cove” or any other documentary about sushi or the fishing industry in Japan will have heard of Tsukiji market. During my first visit to Tokyo, over the New Year’s holiday, the market was closed, so I was pumped to visit during my Golden Week trip.

Tsukiji Market winding down for the day.

Tsukiji Market winding down for the day.

Because of the influx of tourists, there have been more and more restrictions on which areas of the market can be viewed and when. At times the market has been totally closed to tourists. This seemed a bit rude until we got there and realized how busy the place truly is. With people whizzing through the market on large motorized carts and storming through the narrow alleys ways with large bags of fish, I felt like I was often in the way in this big fishy operation.

Seafood blood bath.

Seafood blood bath.

Now only 120 tourists are allowed to view the tuna auction and registration begins at 5am. Since the subway starts running at around 5am and my friends were not interested in getting up that early, we arrived at around 7:30am, fueled by McDonald’s coffee and egg McMuffins. The seafood wholesale area opens to the public at 9am, after the bulk of the business has been conducted. So we did what most visitors must do during a visit to Tsukiji — eat sushi for breakfast!

The big kahuna of the fish market -- tuna.

The big kahuna of the fish market — tuna.

Since the restaurants are literally steps from the market, they are known to have some of the nicest sushi in the world. Unfortunately, they also have the lines to match. Some of the most well-known sushi bars have wait times that can easily exceed three hours. Since Japanese people will line up for anything that has been on television and we figured all the fish was coming from the same spot, we went to a restaurant with one of the shortest lines, but it still took about forty minutes.

The sushi at this restaurant, called Yamazaki, was really good but was not, cumulatively, the best I’ve ever had. The scallop was my favourite, the fatty tuna rich and buttery. The snow crab was quite tasteless, like all crab sushi I’ve had, but perhaps it’s a delicate flavour. The eel was incredible, but I can rarely go wrong with eel.

Crab, fatty tuna and sea urchin sushi.

Crab, fatty tuna and sea urchin sushi.

I also had sea urchin for the first time, which many Japanese proclaim as one of their favourites. I figured that this was the place to try it. Another foreigner sitting at the bar described it, quite accurately, as tasting like “a tide pool”. A mushy tide pool that took too many chews and swallows to get down.

After discovering that I really can eat sushi for any meal of the day, we took to exploring the market. In the hour that we spent wandering, the pace of the market slowed and the workers prepared to leave for the day. They went from frantically packing and selling seafood to happily saying hello to us young, female gaijin (foreigners).

Beautifully coloured octopus.

Beautifully coloured octopus.

It was great to get a behind-the-scenes look at one of Japan’s best exports and I would recommend visiting soon as there are rumours that the market may soon move or close entirely to tourists.

See the Tsukiji Market website for opening times and details on visiting.

Newest food obsession: nikuman with karashi

5 Mar

Nikuman - Japanese meat bun - with karashi.

Nikuman (肉まん) are steamed Japanese meat buns, similar to Chinese baozi buns, which you may have seen at dim sum. They have a very soft, doughy consistency with meat (usually pork), vegetables and sauce inside. The texture is a bit strange to Western palates — “tastes like human,” said one friend. And they can be a bit boring by themselves if the stuffing doesn’t have strong flavours. But after seeing a university student put mustard on hers, I did the same and it was a total game changer.

It’s quite difficult to get spicy food in Japan. I’ve ordered an Indian curry and asked for “hot” only to get almost no spice in the dish. Japanese hot mustard is called karashi and is the perfect topping for these meat buns. When buying nikuman, you will probably be offered karashi, please say hai!

Nikuman - Japanese meat bun - with karashi.

Nikuman – Japanese meat bun – with karashi.

Nikuman come in many forms. The classic nikuman or butaman will have ground pork inside. But there are also ones with pork belly or curry. I’ve tried a nikuman shaped and coloured like an orange cartoon cat and filled with sweet red bean paste.

These hot pockets of deliciousness are sold at most convenience stores, kept hot in a steamer next to the cash register. Though I am now reading on Wikipedia that they are, tragically, only sold in the winter months. Otherwise, the best nikuman are said to be at 551 Horai, which has many restaurants and bun stands across Osaka. The combini nikuman usually costs around 120 yen ($1.30), while 551 Horai sneakily forces you to buy multiples of two, but charges just 320 yen.

Grocery store bought nikuman and karashi.

Grocery store bought nikuman and karashi.

Or, if you have late night cravings for cheap nikuman, you can purchase them at the grocery store for 100 yen for a three pack with a 100 yen large bottle of karashi. These can be covered in paper towel, steamed in the microwave for twenty seconds and then immediately eaten. Oishi!

 

TRAVEL: Minoo park and brewery

25 Feb

Momiji tempura - looks like a maple leaf, doesn't taste like maple.

On a recent national holiday, I went with a group of English teachers and new Japanese friends to Minoo park, a nice forested area just north of Osaka. Minoo is well known for the beauty of its fall foliage, but it was still very nice to visit the park in late winter.

The park has a path that takes about 45 minutes to walk to the waterfall, a highlight for most visitors.

A beautiful February day in Japan.

A beautiful February day in Japan.

Save for the cute restaurants, temples and shops along some parts of the path, it’s nice to have such a dense forest so close to the city. And of course, little restaurants allow for many snacks along the way! Minoo is well known for momiji tempura, which is deep fried maple leaves. I have no idea why Canadians haven’t thought of this. Possibly because they’re just greasy dough balls and eating more than two is dangerous. And Japanese people will deep fry anything!

Momiji tempura - looks like a maple leaf, doesn't taste like maple.

Momiji tempura – looks like a maple leaf, doesn’t taste like maple.

I also tried another Japanese winter food favourite — oden. Previously known to me as that weird open pot of strange shapes in hot soup at convenience stores, oden is actually quite delicious. It’s a stew with vegetables, tofu, meat and egg in a kelp and dashi-based soup, dashi being the fish stock used in many Japanese dishes. The soup contents are in large pieces, which are bought by the piece at around 100 yen each ($1.20).

Oden - egg, tofu and daikon radish with mustard.

Oden – egg, tofu and daikon radish with mustard.

Like any good end to a day filled with outdoor exercise, we then went for beer. Minoh Beer has its brewery with a small tasting bar in what seemed like a Japanese suburb one train stop away from Minoo. While Japan produces very refreshing lagers, such as Asahi and Sapporo, it was great to try some other types of beer. The weizen, a wheat beer, was my favourite. I also tried the very hoppy IPA and the disappointingly flavourless pilsner.

Some of the types of beer at Minoh Brewery.

Some of the types of beer at Minoh Brewery.

Minoo Park can be reached by taking the Hankyu Takarazuka line from Umeda to Ishibashi, then transfer to the Minoo line to Minoo station. Minoh brewery was a bit difficult to get to. It’s near Makiochi station, which is one before Minoo, and about a 15 to 20 minute walk. Directions can be found on their website.

 

Takoyaki and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations Osaka

10 Dec

Takoyaki - balls of octopus fire. (From: yourjapanesemenu.blogspot.jp)

I stumbled upon this video on YouTube of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Osaka and the Kansai region as part of his travel food show No Reservations. Though this episode aired six years ago, it’s still a great look at the neon excitement that is downtown Osaka.

Bourdain visits a baseball fan club serving sushi to a restaurant where everything is deep fried on a stick, all the while showcasing the city’s love of food and how Osakans may differ from Tokyoites. He, of course, samples Osaka’s specialties — okonomiyaki, which I described recently, and takoyaki.

Takoyaki - balls of octopus fire. (From: yourjapanesemenu.blogspot.jp)

Takoyaki – balls of octopus fire. (From: yourjapanesemenu.blogspot.jp)

Takoyaki are fried balls of batter and octopus. I was interested in trying takoyaki when I arrived. Fried seafood — how could I go wrong? It was not what I imagined. Instead of a crispy, crunchy ball, the inside is all goopy and has a strong seafood taste. And as Bourdain mentioned, they are HOT. The vendor warned me so I let them cool for a good five minutes before trying. It tasted like a goopy ball of octopus fire. I’m willing to give them a second try though!

Part 1 of No Reservations in Osaka:

Part 2 – Bourdain eats his way across the city with some annoying sidekicks.

Part 3 – Bourdain also travels to the Kiso Valley for the Obon festival, asks rural Japanese what their last meal would be. Most respond – soba.

Part 4 – Includes a great statistic about the crime rate in Osaka and a lively baseball game.

Part 5 – A visit to a quality sushi restaurant, the perfect end to a food tour of Osaka.

The best things I’ve eaten in Japan so far

3 Dec

This is cheap sushi. The better stuff went right into my mouth.

Japanese food has grown very popular over the past few decades in North America. And while all the usual suspects are prevalent here — sushi, tempura, miso soup and more — there is so much more to Japanese food. It’s varied, with many different influences; many dishes have been adopted and transformed into Japanese versions. Japanese food is also very regional. Regions, cities and even villages have their special dishes or variations on favourites.

Very good quality Japanese food is delicate, with no overpowering flavours, but rather an emphasis on subtle flavours, fresh ingredients and textures. Then there is all the incredible street foods, greasy pub dishes, and Western influenced desserts which have big flavours and cause strong reactions. Here are some of the best things to grace my stomach so far:

Ramen

Before I left for Toronto, ramen was becoming very popular with new restaurants popping up monthly with the classic Toronto two hour lines forming outside. Ramen, a noodle soup dish that originated from China, is an everyday meal here with restaurants all over Osaka. The first bowl of ramen I had was unlike anything I had in Canada. I used the vending machine outside to get my ticket, sat at the long bar inside the ramen shop and was given the big bowl of fresh noodles in a rich pork and chicken base with fatty pork on top and spicy kimchi and curly green onions to add. So good. I’ve already been back to that spot as well as tried numerous others across the city, all with their own variations.

Okonomiyaki

This has to be one of those “only in Japan” dishes. Okonomiyaki is one of Osaka’s specialties. It’s a bit like a pancake or an omelette with egg, batter, cabbage, meat, cheese, tempura bits and more fried together and drizzled with Japanese BBQ-like sauce, mayonnaise and other mysterious delicious sauces.

“Okonomi” means “what you like” and “yaki” is grilled. So it’s basically a bunch of things thrown in a batter and grilled together into a delicious mess. They can be had on the side of the road for 130 yen ($1.50) or in specialty okonomiyaki restaurants. Some cheaper restaurants apparently just hand you ingredients and you cook it yourself. It also varies across the country, with some places, like Hiroshima, adding noodles.

Small okonomiyakis at an izakaya - a Japanese pub.

Small okonomiyakis at an izakaya – a Japanese pub.

Japanese curry

This was a surprising one for me. I didn’t really think Japan had their own variation on curry, but they do, and it’s delicious. The plastic food displays outside curry restaurants never looked appealing, with the curry looking more like something that came out of someone’s mouth. But a friend at lunch raved about the curry she was eating so I was intrigued. I had curry beef over fried, breaded pork and udon noodles, a very heavy meal, and it was incredible. Like a stew, with spice, but not overpowering like an Indian or Thai curry. It’s difficult to describe but it’s delicious.

Mochi

Mochi is rice that has been pounded over and over until it’s just a paste. It is then shaped into balls and filled with sweet red bean filling or other things. I love the gummy texture of them. The more decadent ones are filled with something like cream cheese or chocolate. My new friend and I have begun to discuss our days in terms of whether or not we will be eating mochi. It’s addictive.

Cheesecake buns

I’m not sure what they’re called or what they are really. But a friend pointed them out and they’re amazing. Hot, fresh buns filled with this oozy filling that tastes just like cheesecake.

Sushi

And of course, Japan’s most famous dish — sushi! I haven’t had a lot of incredible sushi here as it’s one of those things where the sky’s the limit in terms of price. Sushi is available in all convenience and grocery stores and can be bought for 100 yen a plate off a conveyor belt. But high quality sushi is an entirely different thing. I went for some last weekend and it wasn’t even that expensive. About 1600 yen ($20) for a beer and some of the most incredible sushi of my life. The salmon sushi was like butter, it was so tender, without the slightest fishy taste. This is what Japanese dreams are made of.

 

This is cheap sushi. The better stuff went right into my mouth.

This is cheap sushi. The better stuff went right into my mouth.