Monday, September 28, 2009

eating Melaka: boiling pots of lava

If you're thinking Melaka is all Assam curries and laksas you'd be wrong. Of course there's chicken rice balls and other meaty stuff but I was just a voyeur when it came to the meaty stuff.

One eatery a little different that stood out in the travel guide was a satay restaurant* in the back streets and a couple of days into our stay we figured it was time we ventured beyond the old quarter for sustenance. On our first trip I navigated us expertly to the slightly obscure location only to find it was shut. Warning, after the excitement of the weekend Melaka turns into a sleepy town. On Mondays and Tuesdays much of the town is shut and even most of the Tri-shaw drivers have a day off.

Mid-week we rocked up at Capitol Satay for an early dinner. The place has seen better days but it is well patronized, especially by those in their teens and early 20’s. On the wall a tired picture of a by gone Neighbours cast is scrawled with greetings. It’d be hard to imagine those stick figured females actually eating anything here. Much like fondue parties, the satay restaurants are all about novelty value. You are seated at a round metal table with a hole in the centre. There’s a burner in the middle and a big pot, much like a large camping billy is slotted into the centre and bought to the boil. A waitress throws in extra palm sugar and other brown stuff to add to the peanut-y brew and when it starts to bubble, lava-like, you grab a selection of skewered goodies from the chiller and start cooking.

The peanut sauce was sweet and chunky but it seemed to deliver an even larger MSG hit than normal (asthmatics beware, this is not a great country to eat in if that ubiquitous white powder triggers your allergies).

For a non-meat eater there was assorted fish cakes and tofu. Vegetables were rather thin on the ground. In fact throughout our stay in Melaka all I can say is thank the goddess I like kangkung as it was the staple green in the city. The next popular vegetable being okra (fortunately I don’t mind it), with eggplant coming in at third place.

I grazed enjoyably at Capitol Satay but had room left in my stomach for something a little more nutritious to finish off. Instead of cendol, we headed back to one of our regular haunts, the Geographer Café in the heart of Jonker’s. A cool little bar and eatery, who’s owner has a fetish for multiple flat screen televisions and loud music. However it’s a pleasant open-sided bar in which to sit and watch the passing parade of people. In a land of white rice, Geographer’s bucks the trend and serves a couple of vegetarian dishes with brown rice. After the satay I craved their vego nasi lamek, not a fatty dish at all. It comes with a great sambal, peanuts, cucumber, some crispy fried tempeh, egg and kangkung surrounding a nice mound of wholemeal rice. Just what I needed. There's a picture of it on their sight, sans the tempeh.

Geographer cafe

Speaking of bars, Melaka is not a wild town. There are a few haunts like this that stay open late but are not particularly raucous. Perhaps it’s because while not expensive by Australian standards, the Muslim influence means that alcohol is taxed heavily. Unlike other popular Asian tourist haunts a beer costs about AU$3-5 depending on the venue. Wine is notoriously expensive for 3rd rate Australian wines. But who goes to Asia to drink sauv blanc? With 80-90% humidity most days, it’s a cooling beer or a coconut juice.

Next – off to the Indian quarter to eat with the locals.

* later we discovered a much better looking satay joint way out of the tourist zone, though sadly we’d already eaten. Directions – head right up Heeren St away from the river. A couple of blocks out of the old quarter you hit a major intersection with traffic lights. Turn right and it is about two blocks down on your right.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

eating Melaka – night market

Our arrival in this Melaka was perfectly, though accidentally, timed to coincide with the old town’s night market. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night Jonkers (Jalan Hang Jebat) and many of the small streets are closed to traffic and the area becomes swamped with market stalls.

We literally walked around the corner from our hotel and plunged straight into the festivities. Luckily we had three nights of the market to get to know every inch of it. Predictably I skipped the tacky plastic trinkets and concentrated on the edible offerings.

Though it’s humid and crowded, in Melaka it’s as if everyone is on “nice” pills. There is a degree of courtesy and a lack of being hassled by the stall owners that you don’t usually get in Asia.

For a mere 0.30 RM (30 Australian cents) you can get a mouthful on a stick. From a bundle of vibrant green kangkung (water spinach) to a ball of pork or a wedge of tofu filled with mung bean sprout; this stall was our favourite smorgasbord Nyonya style. While some people had the restraint to fill a container, pay and take it away, most just hovered and ate as they went, presenting the empty skewers to be toted up when sated.

There is mee/noodles fresh from the wok, sweet treats a plenty, wantons and even sushi. The latter being the most expensive offering, freshly made while you wait. While I ate the street food without much concern, I must admit I was hesitant about eating raw fish in this setting, so stuck to a hand roll with fried soft shell crab and some eel – both of which were well executed.

At one end of the street the tri-shaw drivers huddled watching acrobats and fire dancers, while at the other the local Chinese community gathered for open air Karaoke. Small cafes blared Western hits from the 60’s and 70’s – oddly The Carpenters seemed to be on high rotation wherever we went in Malaysia.

Am told Rick Stein fell in love with the night market in Melaka almost as much as we did (episode 3 of “Rick Steins Far Eastern Odyssey”). An English traveller we met said she’d been inspired to visit the town from watching the show. Leave a comment if you can point me to a download of it.

On Monday night the old town is like another city. Many businesses are shut, leaving the more Western tourist oriented eateries open. In halls along Jonkers the open door show locals doing rhythmic tai chi movements or gathered to sing choral works instead of Karaoke.

But you can still find a half-decent cendol to eat, perched on a plastic stool on the footpath while soaking up yet another balmy evening.

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

the politics of fruit

Spotted during the weekly shopping trip at Vic Market today.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

muffin break

Time to interrupt this travel story with some good old-fashioned baking.

Last night, haunted by two black bananas sitting in the fruit bowl, I whipped up a batch of muffins. The banana muffin base recipe has never failed me yet, in fact each tray of muffins just keeps getting better.

I’m continuing to tweak the recipe and experiment with new flavours. The latest version was plump and moist and though I say it each time – the best ones I’ve made so far.

As they take only 5 minutes to put together and just 20 minutes to bake, it’s easy to throw together some muffins while cleaning up after dinner.

The hard part is trying to resist scoffing the whole lot of them and leaving no treats for lunch the next day!

Cherry, chocolate and nutmeg muffins

Preheat oven to 175C. Line or grease your muffin pans.

Wet Ingredients
30 gm butter, melted
2/3 cup golden syrup
Nutmeg, a few swipes with a fine grater
1/2 cup dried cherries

Melt the butter on low. Take off the heat and add golden syrup. Stir til dissolved. Add the nutmeg and cherries to macerate in the buttery-syrupy liquid while measuring the dry ingredients.

When cool add:
2 bananas, mashed
1 egg, beaten

Dry ingredients
3/4 cup walnuts
1.5 cups plain flour
1 level tsp baking powder
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch of salt

Bash the walnuts in a mortar and pestle or chop with a sharp knife, not too fine as you want them a bit chunky. Combine in a large bowl with the flour, baking powder, bicarb and salt.

Mix the wet ingredients into the dry ones. Stir til combined but don’t overwork the batter.

Now crumble a few big squares of your favourite dark chocolate into the mix with your final stir.

Spoon batter into the pans and bake for 20 minutes.

Check with a skewer to see that the muffins are cooked.

Remove from the pans and allow to cool (or at least try to resist scoffing the whole lot in one sitting).

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Monday, September 21, 2009

eating Melaka: in search of the perfect cendol

Sometimes it’s best to head off on holiday in a previously unexplored destination with few expectations. This is exactly what happened when we snapped up a couple of cheap flights to Kuala Lumpur with only the first stop, a couple of nights in Melaka (Malacca), planned and booked.

Landing at dawn in KL after one of those sleepless overnight flights in the cheap seats down the back of the plane with assorted toddlers screaming in concert, we navigated 4 different rail networks to get from the airport to the interstate bus terminal in the city. Despite the commuter rush, the locals were polite to two over-tired foreigners crashing around with their luggage. Only marginally hindered by the slightly confusing rail network with different lines owned by an assortment of operators, there was only time to down a quick coconut juice before we boarded the sleek, air-conditioned bus and journeyed two hours south to Melaka.

Hotel Putri is a little gem on a street behind Jonker's (aka Chinatown) in the old quarter, housed in a traditional Peranakan house. Pretty though it is, more importantly it’s clean, cool and comfortable, with the bonus of a sumptuous breakfast each morning. It was perfectly placed in the centre of the old town, just around the corner from the weekend night market and a short walk “home” for an afternoon nap from anywhere we wandered .

Other than exploring the old town, the couple of days we originally planned was extended to a week spent eating and having massages. No beach, pool or other things most normal people would head to a tropical climate for – given a choice of going to a resort with bad, expensive food or eating my way through Melaka, I made the obvious choice.

From the moment we stumbled, jetlagged out of our hotel we encountered delightful locals and friendly tourists (mainly from Singapore and surrounding states). It was one of those who saw us with our heads in the travel guide, trying to find a place for lunch that recommended what fast became our favourite local haunt – Jonker Dessert 88. For around AU$4 you can get the best laksa in the world and follow it with the addictive cendol, an icy dessert. This typical Nyonya eatery was packed full of locals and Asian travellers gobbling down delicious soups and assorted curries and queuing up for cendol.

Cendol is deceptively simple. Take crushed ice (usually with the aid of a modified drill press) slathered in the local palm sugar syrup, drenched in coconut milk and add the essential ingredients of red beans and the green little jelly-like cendol itself (pandan flavoured, green wiggly stuff). Most places sell it straight; Jonker 88 being a cendol specialist serves it with sago or creamed corn or flavours like durian. Fortunately I like the latter, as the Significant Eater is a huge durian fan.

We ran into our saviour from the street the next morning at the hotel. It turns out he is from Singapore and was here on his 10th visit to Melaka. He certainly had a nose for cheap, authentic Nonya food and his next recommendation – Nancy’s Kitchen, was equally spectacular.

Unassuming from the outside, Nancy and her food have a strong following. The minute I tasted her assam fish I new why – an explosion of fresh, herby flavours and a decent spicy kick as well. When we arrived an elderly English couple with the kind of food high you get when you’ve lucked on an exceptional meal, pulled us aside to tell us they’d had the best chicken curry in their life.

On another visit to Nancy’s for lunch we had poh piah made out the front of the restaurant for all to see. The vegetarian version of this soft spring roll like wrap is a mixture of crumbled tofu, egg, salad and warm, cooked turnip, topped with a sweetish oyster/soy sauce – simple, cheap and healthy. The rolls cost about $1 and was followed by seafood mee (noodles) and cendol, of course.

We became cendol gurus; sniffing out the best version from restaurants and street stalls. It's hard to pick a winner but Nancy's and Jonker Dessert would likely claim joint title. Just as our new Singaporean friend had done, we shared the love and introduced cendol to at least 4 other travelers new to Melaka. Each one swooned with pleasure.

Coming soon: street food, where the locals eat, the Indian quarter and more.

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serving up a big spoonful of Melaka...

...very soon. I promise.

Melaka is up there as Malaysia's number one city to eat your way through. And we did. A whole week of amazing soups, laksa, poh piah, pau and taste bud exploding curries.

But first there is the washing to do, coffee to drink and brunch to eat. I guess that means I'm home!

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

quickie - old friends and new adventures

Not sure what happened while I was in Wellington recently. Due to family obligations it wasn’t exactly a holiday so sadly missed the final days of the very successful inaugural “Wellington of a plate”. I did however fall in love with a newish schoc flavour – bitter peppermint. The other (re)discovery was a love on cornflakes. Last night I had them as a post dinner snack with dried cherries, pistachios and soy milk.

Flan, frittata or bakes. I don’t care what you call it but I also got reacquainted recently with the joy of taking a bunch of vegetables (in this case Lucy’s lovely chard and kale straight from her garden), adding some flavours (onion, garlic and za’atar), something salty (olives and tuna) and binding it with a few beaten eggs. Twenty minutes in a moderate oven (as long as you’ve precooked your ingredients) there’s a lovely bake on the table for dinner.

Lisa Dempster has posted a great story on how Lord of the Flies dealt with her original musings on ”Lord of the Flies: still the best?". Is any publicity good publicity and did LOTF get social media right or wrong?

I’m popping out for a bit. Off to steamy Malaysia in one more sleep. Any tips on where to go, what to eat on the peninsula? Plans are rather open at the moment. Will acclimatise in Melaka for a few days then who know where we will go – food and rest are the only things on the agenda for a while.

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

How do I know it’s spring? Because the grapevine has sprung!

Each year I hold my breath to see if the wizened vine comes back to life. There used to be three. One died before I bought the house, the second didn’t survive the onset of the drought but the third is being valiant despite absolutely no watering through last summer’s horrendous heat. It’s over half a century old and I reckon if it could talk it’d tell some good stories – about the Greek family who planted it and the wine they made or the students and assorted others who lived here through the late 70’s to the 90’s and had many wild parties under the vines.

I rebuilt my entire backyard around this survivor so I’m rather glad it is with us for another year. There will be fresh dolmades on the plate before the heat of summer, I promise.

Finally we’ve planted some spring greens. The enemy of seedlings comes in the shape of two affronted felines who have no idea why we insist on interfering with their bathroom facilities. Half the new shoots have been unearthed or covered over with their frantic digging already.

Gardening is an act of optimism. Perhaps that is why I like it. I’d prefer to put my faith in a patch of earth than anything else these days.

With dirt under my fingernails I’m less inclined to cook. I’d prefer to be out in the feeble sun than in the kitchen. The change of season produce is slowly trickling in. I waited til spring before I bought asparagus and mangos. The former being delightful, the latter I can wait a little longer til they are truly ripe and lush when the sun fully returns.

Speaking of sun, we are off to Malaysia later in the week. Time to eat exotic, spicy food and submit to the lassitude of humidity. Down time is something I desperately need right now.

Enjoy the colours of spring or autumn/fall where ever in the world you may be. They are the golden seasons whose temperance deserves to be savoured.

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