Monday, 15 April 2013

Blogging On The Road part 2: Malaysia

Malaysia: "Truly Asia" according to an old tourism campaign, and a fact corroborated by its geographical location according to The Times World Atlas. It had been nearly three and a half years since my last jaunt into South-East Asia and, I must confess, over the past 3 years I have had some serious street food withdrawal symptoms. A stopover in Malaysia - Pulau Penang in particular - seemed the perfect antidote to this affliction. Penang is described as the "Food Paradise of Asia" according to the region's self-published tourism material, and given the multicultural stew that is Malyasia - with more than 20% of the population of Indian heritage - surely there would be some strong vegetarian influences on the Malaysian dishes!

Well, the reality is that there both is, and there isn't. My first experience when I touched down in KL - aside from being rooked by a cabbie - was to insist upon my mate whom I was staying with that we go out and get some street food for breakfast. We settled on an Indian-Muslim street cafe, ordering a double-serve of roti canai with only a vegetarian dhal...what we received was the roti canai with dhal, anchovy sambal, and a chicken curry. This pretty well sets the tone for what to expect when ordering vegetarian in Malaysia. There is an incredibly high proliferation of western chains - KFC and McDonald's seem to appear on every other street corner - throughout Malaysia and, unfortunately, with a dearth in veg. options in most places I visited - particularly across Borneo - I was restricted to eating mainly vegetable side dishes and wedges at chain restaurants, interspersed with the odd serving of roti canai. The lowlight being an infamous Cream of Asparagus soup at the Afghan cafe in Kuching, which tasted like someone had topped off an almost full salt shaker with an arrowhead of asparagus, a dash of milk, and set to simmer.

However! Any such negative impressions are blown out of the water when you get to the UNESCO heritage listed city of Georgetown in Penang  - "Pearl of the Orient" to you. Famous for its hawker centres and food stands by the roadside, Penang is also the birthplace of many dishes you no doubt both know and love. It is not that most places here serve more vegetarian options than elsewhere, it is more that there is simply such a high concentration of hawker stands and restaurants in Georgetown that you cannot help but find places offering a vegetarian twist on local dishes, the majority of which I made sure I got around to sampling. One of the first dishes you should try is the aforementioned
This very simple delicious dish is a national favourite. The roti canai (pronounced "chen-eye") is a buttery, soft, fluffy flat bread that has undergone a hefty kneading process before being fried in a skillet with an impressive amount of oil and/or butter. The result? A crispy, golden flaky base, perfect for soaking up dhal and spicy curries, and great for breakfast, lunch or dinner. My tip: roti canai for breakfast is the way to go. A staple at many street cafes, you should not have to walk too much further than a block in Georgetown to find dough being tossed in the air as the hungry diners look on, salivating. And at generally RM1.00 ($0.30) per roti, it is insanely cheap! So, where is the best roti canai?
The truth is, it is far too subjective for me to say. Every person I met recommended a different place as being the best, and time was too much of a factor to try them all. So here is my advice: As it is an Indian-Muslim dish, the best bet is to stick to the Indian quarter in Lebuh Chulia - this applies to most vego dishes too. Kassim Mustafa restaurant came as one of the most highly recommended. Given that they were consistently out of dough whenever I ordered, it clearly is a popular destination. Another highly regarded source is Restoran Kapitan on the corner of Lebuh Chulia and Lebuh King - one block from Kassim Mustafa. Kapitan was one place where I did manage to try their roti canai. It most definitely deserves the big wrap the guys at Cocoa Mews guesthouse gave it. The soft, flaky pastry virtually melts in your mouth. However it loses points for serving me dhal which had a massive chunk of what looked like beef floating in it. When I asked for a vegetarian dhal, the guy simply emptied the dhal back into the cooker, and refilled the bowl from the same cooker. Dude! Really? Oddly enough, it was from the much more *ahem* rustic looking Indian place across the road - Ros Mutiara - that catered a little more carefully to vegetarians. A discovery I made on my final morning when I ordered their
Absolutely nothing like the rubbish sold for $0.60 per pack at Woolies, these yellow noodles are fried in a thick spicy tomato gravy along with fried tofu cubes, potato, crispy flour, and garnished with lettuce, fried shallots, and a lime wedge to add a bit of tang to the heat. Despite being across the road from my guesthouse, I had avoided eating here until the final morning due to its grimy look. However, given most of their dishes are prepared on the street in front of you, there is little chance of them pulling a "Kapitan" and lumping a chunk of meat in your meal. And if their mee goreng is anything to go by, it is definitely worth a stop-in for lunch. Another dish - or, more accurately, array of dishes - worth trying for lunch is the
Available at many Indian-Muslim restaurants, the Banana Leaf special is a collection of curries, sauces, coconut milk, rice and papadams laid out out on a large banana leaf, and Woodlands Vegetarian Restaurant on Lebuh Penang is known to make one of the best. This was my highly anticipated final lunch in Penang, having been recommended to me on the first day by an English lass I met called Charlotte. Of course, what Charlotte neglected to mention was that when she ate there previously with her two friends, one Banana Leaf special was enough for the three of them. Yep, I was that chump at the restaurant who couldn't finish his lunch. Heck, even getting through 50% of it was a struggle! However, in no way is that a comment on the food itself - honestly, 400g of rice??? - which was suitably delicious. Three curry sauces - one dhal, the other two of differing heat levels - and three curry bowls providing a mixture of spicy, creamy, and the downright unknown. This meal gives you a sense of adventure, and perhaps a sense of self-loathing for not conquering all that is before you.
These are the two local desserts, both offering a refreshing relief from the tropical heat. Cendol (pronounced "chen-daal") is the name given to the primary ingredient in the dessert, the Cendol noodle which is a chewy, green rice-flour noodle. It is served in a bowl which consists of a base of finely shaved ice, red beans, palm sugar syrup, and the noodles, before being drowned in fresh coconut milk. Very tasty and refreshing, although if, like me, you struggle with large doses of milk - dairy/non-dairy - then perhaps splitting a bowl is the best solution. Cendol is widely available, but the hot spot is at Joo Hooi Cafe on Jalan Panang. Teeming with locals and with a constant turnover of customers who spend all of 30 seconds in the cafe , make no mistake, these guys are doing something right!
From all reports, they also make a mean Ais Kacang. But loading their already over-flowing pockets wasn't what this trip was about, I wanted to hit one of the famous hawker centres! The hot tip from my man Arthur at Cocoa Mews was that Gurney Drive Hawker Centre is where it's at. I'd only just met Arthur, but so far he hadn't led me astray once, so Gurney Drive it was. The mild spanner in the works was that, being located in the tropics, the area is prone to tropical downpours. And boy was there a big one this day! The downside was that many of the stallholders chose not to open for the evening, but you can still tell this centre is the business. Being closer to the touristy locale of Batu Ferringhi, the food here is slightly pricier than you'd expect as it does cater more to visitors than locals, however proud banners proclaiming various national awards for various stall-holders suggest the requisite bonafides for consumption..."eat there" I guess is what I'm saying. I tried the Ais Kacang from a particularly chatty stall-holder. As with Cendol, it is served
in a bowl and has a base of shaved ice. Thrown into the mix are sweetened red beans, creamed sweet corn, palm fruit, and an array of jelly noodles and substances, all drenched in various syrups, condensed milk, and with a scoop of ice cream. Personally, not sure how I feel about this one. My main issue is that I feel conflicted about eating foods with a jelly-like texture. Also, there are a lot of contrasting tastes in the mix that I'm not sure are all in harmony. However, taste is subjective and it is a local favourite, so do give it a go if you visit!

The problem with only spending a few days in Penang is that, inevitably, there is much that will go untried. In particular, I am disappointed to say I did not get around to trying the region's signature dish: Nasi Kandar - basically a dish of rice with an array of local curries and side dishes accompanying it. However, there is another dish synonymous with Penang the is perhaps the most popular one in Australia. And for me, it was most definitely my Top Pick of all dishes I tried in Malaysia. This dish, of course, is the
When I asked my man Howie at Cocoa Mews for a recommendation for vegetarian laksa, he suggested I try a Chinese place called Ee Beng Restaurant. That's nearly my name! Good omen? I think so! Located in a mainly Chinese part of Georgetown on Lebuh Dickens, just off Jalan Penang, Ee Beng is an all vegetarian/all "green" restaurant with both a self-serve buffet and dishes made to order. Although not on the main drag of Jalan Penang, it appears to be a haven to many, with people in their dozens churning through and leaving with servings from the buffet in the short time I was there. As enticing as those dishes were though, I was here for one thing, and one thing alone! Taking up residence on a table next to two elderly Chinese women who were methodically
chopping some obscure greens, a bowl appeared in front of me quite promptly. My Budda, the fragrance! Thick rice noodles were to be found lurking amidst a dark brown spiced curry broth, topped with various greens - endive lettuce, a plethora of mint leaves, and those aforementioned obscure, spinachy greens - and
with a bed of pink, chopped ginger flower buds sitting atop the greens. The flavours complemented one
another like nobody's business! Given it is a dish typically made with a fish broth, finding a purely vegetarian version made me feel like I had finally had the "No Ebens" policy at the food party revoked...and boy did I take full advantage. Before the first bowl was done, a second one was on the way. And with my Kiwi friend
struggling with hers, half of a third bowl just seemed the gentlemanly thing to do. At only RM3.50 ($1.10) a bowl, there are no bones about it. Visiting this place is a MUST for anyone taking a trip to Penang and after a break from meat.

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