Sunday, February 28, 2010

Top 10 Eats of Malaysia and Singapore

One of the world's most travelled areas since ancient times, the cuisines of Malaysia and Singapore are a product of the area's multicultural fabric, an amalgam of Malay, Indian, and Chinese influences all blended together into a rich tropical stew. The sheer variety is staggering, and each day brings exotic and thrilling surprises to the traveler with an adventurous palette.

Food in this part of the world tends toward the spicy; if you can't handle a bit of chili, you'd best eat somewhere else. Beneath the fire, there's often an incredible blend of sweet and savory elements. Coconut milk with a scent of pandan (a local leaf with vanilla undertones), curry leaves, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, cardamom, and seafood flavors are found in abundance, in an array of rice and noodle dishes.

Now that my trip has reached its end, it's time to reflect on what have been for me my most memorable meals. Without further ado, here are the TEN BEST EATS I encountered in 18 days' travel through Malaysia and Singapore.

10.Cuttlefish with Convolvulus (Yau Yue Ong Choy)
Gurney Drive Hawker Stand, Penang, Malaysia
If you had asked me earlier, I'd have told you it's damn near impossible to find the convolvulus on a cuttlefish, much less get him to part with it.

As it turns out, convolvulus is a leafy green vegetable (ipomoea aquatica, AKA Water Morning Glory), and at this well-known hawker stand on Penang's Gurney Drive, it's just the co-star to the squid. Mixed with a sweet, spicy sauce, and garnished with peanuts and toasted sesame seeds, the dish is surprisingly light.

Personally, I just like putting something called convolvulus in my mouth.

9.Char Koay Teow
Gurney Drive Hawker Stand, Penang, Malaysia
While we're on the subject of Penang hawker food, let's not forget a dish Penang made famous: char koay teow. Wide rice noodles stir-fried in a searing hot wok with prawns, cockles, bean sprouts, onions, dark soy sauce and eggs, and served on a banana leaf to give it extra aroma, these noodles are chewy, oily, and packed with flavor in every bite. A must-have in Penang.

8.Masala Thosai with Teh Tarik
Mamak Stall, Johor Bahru, Malaysia
The influence of Indian (especially Tamil) culture on Malaysia is nowhere more visible than in the cuisine found at the ubiquitous Mamak stalls. Thosai is the local name for the southern Indian dosa: a crepe-like pocket filled with curried potatoes and vegetables, and served with dahl (lentils), and a couple of chutneys. The best I had was at a non-descript stall in Johor Bahru, across the causeway from Singapore; with a cup of teh tarik (spicy milk tea), it's a reliable meal anywhere in the region. For the authentic experience, eat it Indian style, using only the fingertips of your right hand.

7.Baba Laksa, Assam Laksa, and Cendol
Jonker Dessert 88, Melaka, Malaysia
There are two main types of laksa, a classic Peranakan noodle soup: curry laksa (called Baba laksa in Melaka) and assam laksa (or Penang laksa in...well, you can figure that out).

The Baba laksa is cooked in a thick coconut milk broth, and loaded with all sorts of goodies, like prawns, fish balls, dried tofu, Vietnamese coriander, and sambal (a thick, mashed chili paste used as a condiment all over Malaysia). The assam laksa is the same basic idea, but with a sour (assam), tamarind-infused base. It's a matter of taste, but I liked the sweeter Baba laksa more, making Melaka my town of choice for this dish.

Afterwards, a bowl of cendol. A mound of shaved ice served over red beans and various gelatin-based sweets, smothered in coconut milk with a generous helping of thick black syrup made from Melaka's famous palm sugar (gula Melaka), cendol comes as close as it gets to a perfect summertime dessert.

6.Satay Celup
Capitol Satay, Melaka
This Melaka institution, in business since the 1950s, usually has lines around the block. The reason is simple: the food is good, affordable...and fun! The specialty is satay celup, skewers of meat, seafood, and vegetables that you cook, fondue-style in a sweet and fiery satay sauce.

The restaurant features no frills metal tables with a bubbling cauldron of satay in the middle, and businesslike workers who hustle about continually mixing and topping off the sauce. After awhile, the table becomes a dribbly, sticky mess, and the meal is as much a theatrical event as a culinary one.

5.Nasi Lemak
everywhere in Malaysia
As close to a national dish as Malaysia will give you, nasi lemak is simply rice cooked in coconut milk. Sold at hawker stands, Mamak restaurants, and bus stations throughout the country, the rice is usually wrapped in banana leaves into a triangular bundle, along with hard-boiled egg, sambal, ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and peanuts. It may be also be served as part of a more substantial meal, alongside beef rendang, or a number of other dishes. This is Malaysian comfort food, and it never fails to hit the spot.

4.Swee Guan Hokkien Mee and Kwong Satay
Sing Lian Eating House, Singapore
Hokkien Mee, like Penang's char koay teow, is a greasy, stir-fried noodle dish. But do not make the mistake of thinking all greasy stir-fried noodle dishes are the same – oh no!

This dish, made from egg noodles mixed with prawns, squid, and chives, and served with a healthy dollop of sambal, is a fine example of Peranakan fusion: a Chinese-inspired dish with Malay ingredients. This hawker stall in Singapore's Geylang district is said to have the best in town, and an added benefit is the satay stall next door, which serves perfectly cooked skewers of chicken or pork with a lovely peanut-based dipping sauce.

3.Ikan Bakar and Fried Oysters
Gurney Drive Hawker Stand, Penang
There's a reason Penang's Gurney Drive keeps appearing on this list: it's where the best eats, in Malaysia's best food city, can be found. On this particular evening, I ordered a grilled skate (ikan bakar simply means grilled fish; the choice of fish is up to you) from one stand, and a plate of oysters, stir-fried with a mix of vegetables and eggs, from another. Washed down with fresh coconut milk, this meal was emblemic of the joys to be had eating from the popular hawker stalls in Penang.

2.Assam Fish, Fried Kailang, and Roasted Duck
A Famosa Restaurant, Melaka, Malaysia
This will be an unpopular choice among Melaka insiders, who seem to feel that the best assam fish is to be found elsewhere. But I only have my own taste buds to guide me, and in side-by-side comparison with other local establishments, A Famosa Restaurant – despite its reputation as a tourist trap – won hands down. The fish was perfectly cooked, and the addition of tomatoes and okra added flavor and heft to the hot and sour tamarind-based sauce. With a side of fried kailang – a local leafy green vegetable – and Chinese roasted duck, this was one of the best fish meals I'd had in a very long time.

1.Black Pepper Crab, and Mee Goreng
Eng Seng Restaurant, Singapore
Visually, the crabs looked like they'd been dredged from the Hudson River, but the first bite was intoxicating. In addition to the spicy harshness we normally associate with pepper, the sauce had a thick, molasses-like sweetness, with onion and ginger notes. The crabs were meaty, and had been cracked during the cooking process to allow the sauce to permeate the meat. Hương and I ate the meal in reverential silence, casting occasional glances at each other to confirm our mutual state of bliss.

The mee goreng (fried noodles) served alongside was gooey and fragrant and cooked in a wok hot enough to slightly caramelize the sauce. It was the culinary highlight of three weeks' travel through the region, a meal to remember for a very long time.

So, what do YOU think? Did any of this whet your appetite? Which of these dishes would you most like to try? If you're a Malaysian and Singaporean food connoisseur, how did I do? Please add your comments below.

11 comments:

  1. Hal,
    Your enthusiasm comes through so strongly. These dispatches are always a pleasure to read.
    :-)
    Eric

    ReplyDelete
  2. I went through with you to all the foods in KL, Melaca, JB, Singapore,and I can tell you that I eat again those dishes here in your blog.But not Penang, and your writing about the dishes in Penang again make me so doi bung ;).

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dude... You've missed out on Chicken rice, Pork Rib Tea (Bak Kut Teh; both Hokkien & Teochew versions), Fish Head Curry, and Claypot Rice (http://wendright.blogspot.com/2010/01/claypot-rice.html).

    Something unique to Melaka and SG are Peranakan and Eurasian food. I'm not that big a fan of Peranakan stuff but Eurasian, now that's truly fusion (http://wendright.blogspot.com/2010/01/eurasian-food-at-quentins.html).

    ReplyDelete
  4. Edwin - Yeah, I knew about the Bak Kuh Teh and never ordered it. But the Claypot Rice - that's one I didn't know about! You're right, I missed out, man. But how in the world could a person hit it all in three weeks? Thanks for the tip; it's on my list for next time.

    ReplyDelete
  5. In Kampuchea, Morning Glory is called Dra-guen and is eaten almost daily as it grows wild everywhere near us. It's thick and hardy. Would be great in Green Smoothies.

    The #1 Black Pepper Crab looks comparable to Mama's Blue Crab. Do you think so?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Love it. Malaysia food is probably one of the most underrated cuisines there is. So tasty. How about Penang Assam Laksa?!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Holy Taste Buds Hal-Man

    - such good writing.....

    ...... hell, it's practically food porn !

    - Randy

    ReplyDelete
  8. That was a fabulous post.
    We actually walked past a good claypot rice place in Geylang ... you gotta come back :)

    Sudesh

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hi,i just want to share some thought with you guys...If you are a Laksa Lover then Probably you may have tried the Rest and now it's time for you to try The BEST Laksa at BESS Kopitiam while you are here in Melaka.

    BESS Kopitiam has been choosen as The BEST Laksa outlet in Malaysia year 2009-2010 by the General Public in the www.fabfood1malaysia.com

    " Reputedly The Best Laksa With Distinguished Taste That Leaves One Craving For More "

    Address : 378 - C ,Taman Sin Hoe , Bukit Baru ,75150, Melaka, Malaysia.
    H/P : ( 60 ) 017 618 8055
    Contact : Ms Tan Peng Boon
    Operation Hours : 7.30am - 2pm
    Every Thursday is our OFF day

    Nyonya Laksa : RM 3.30
    Mee Siam : RM 2.80
    Nasi Lemak : RM 2.80

    BESS Kopitiam Blog : http://besskopitiam888.blogspot.com/

    China Press News : http://www.chinapress.com.my/content_new.asp?dt=2010-12-19&sec=mas&art=1219mc35.txt

    GPS Coordinates : N 02°13.031' E102°15.979'

    Cheers...

    ReplyDelete