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.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Penang

Penang and Singapore are quite similar in many ways. Both are islands off the coast of penninsular Malaysia. They were both, together with Melaka, part of the Straits Settlements, through which the British controlled regional 19th century trade. Both have majority Chinese populations surrounded by a sea of Malays. And both have been economically successful since independence. While not quite up to Singapore's miraculous economic level, Penang enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Malaysia, having achieved this wealth through a mix of manufacturing and tourism.

The obvious difference, of course, is that while Singapore broke off to become an independent country, the island state of Penang has remained within Malaysia. Nowhere has this had greater effect than in the demographics.

Where Singapore went to great lengths to blur racial lines in order to form a national identity, Penang's Chinese community continues to play an important role in the region's economy and politics. Far from merging into the national identity, this Chinese leadership helped deliver Penang to the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in the 2008 general elections, the first time the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) failed to carry the state since independence.

Physically Georgetown, with a population of just under half a million inhabitants, has the look of a booming tropical resort built around an old colonial core. Brand new condos line the azure coastline against a backdrop of jungled hills, while air-conditioned shopping malls offer respite from the tropical swelter. The town's center, with its architectural remnants of British colonial rule and old Chinese temples, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Historical and modern elements coexist in Penang, with the modern element slightly dominant.

But I need to be honest about my intentions: while there is much to see in Penang, I didn't go for the scenery, I went for the food. Penang's reputation for great food is spread far and wide, and I am here to say it is richly deserved.

Along with Melaka, Penang is a center of Peranakan/Baba/Nonya cuisine, and although it has many of the same dishes as its southern neighbor, the flavors in Penang are noticeably influenced by its proximity to Thailand, with a decidedly more sour and spicy edge.

But what's truly remarkable about Penang cuisine is the diversity. The hawker stalls on Penang's Gurney Drive feature a veritable banquet of affordable eats, and four days of laksa, pasembur, char goay teow, fried oysters, grilled fish, hokkien mee, and nasi lemak were not enough to work my way through all of them. If I did nothing but eat in Penang, the food alone would have been worth the trip.

In terms of sightseeing, highlights included Ft. Cornwallis, where the British established their first toe-hold on the Straits of Melaka in 1786, and the floating mosque (Masjid Terapung) of Tanjung Bungah.

Francis Light, who commanded the settlement at Fort Cornwallis, was unusually progressive for his time. He spoke Malay, and by all accounts truly sought to use British rule to improve the lives of the people he interacted with. This notion of the "white man's burden," of course, still represented an imperialist mindset, but it helped the British gain acceptance in the region. Light's ability to balance the political demands of local leaders, while keeping the shipping lanes free from piracy, taught the British valuable lessons they were later able to use when developing Singapore.

The floating mosque of Tanjung Bungah represents the continuity of a tradition that predates British rule. Built after the 2004 tsunami had wiped out an earlier mosque, the floating mosque is a modern lifeline to Malaysia's Islamic past. Surrounded by fishing boats, the mosque rests on pillars at the edge of the sea. It has a serene, otherworldly feel, like something from an Arabian Nights tale, and is a peaceful and quiet sanctuary in the midst of Penang's economic boom.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Singapore's Social Contract

With its famously litter-free streets and obedient, law-abiding citizenry, I was prepared to dislike Singapore. In this city where chewing gum was once illegal, I assumed it would be intolerable for a rebellious New York City bad boy like myself.

But after seeing the country first-hand, my opinions have changed. I'm not sure I could ever live there, but I've come to regard Singapore as a fascinating, complex, and multi-layered social experiment, a place where the sacrifice of individual rights for the greater good has actually produced a system with as much to commend it as to fear.

For the sheer fact of its existence, Singapore deserves respect. I can think of no other example in which a state has been expelled from a country, but this is what happened when Singapore was booted right out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

An island just over 700 km2 in size with no natural resources, Singapore should not have been able to make it. But from the start Singaporeans signed a social contract with their government in which they gave up multi-party democracy, labor rights, a free press, and other individual freedoms in exchange for prosperity.

And boy did the government deliver. Not yet 50 years old, tiny Singapore has not only the most successful economy in Southeast Asia, it has one of the highest standards of living in the world. One need only walk down Orchard Road, Singapore's famous shopping street where every name brand in the world from Subway to Armani is represented, to see the results of Singapore's roaring tiger economy.

Much of the credit goes to the brilliant and charismatic Lee Kuan Yew. Ruling a single-party state since independence, Lee and his People's Action Party (PAP) have, with technocratic precision, built the modern Singaporean nation. In many ways, Singapore has been the model for what Confucius said was the best of all forms of government: a benevolent dictatorship.

Take some examples. One of the PAP's first acts was to curtail the power of labor unions, by limiting the issues labor could legally bring up with management. In exchange, the government defined fair working conditions, benefits, and salary structures for all workers on the island. The result was a stable labor climate that, alongside tax incentives and duty-free ports, lured foreign investors in droves.

Believing that conflicting political viewpoints would drain talent away from the task of building independent Singapore, Lee early on limited the political actions of parties, student unions and other associations. The belief that Singapore could only afford "one voice" was further reflected in the government's monopoly on the media. Some educated Singaporeans naturally feared the PAP's growing despotism, but as the country developed and prospered, it became more difficult to argue with success.

Singapore is one of the most socially engineered states on the planet, with such things as racial quotas for housing developments (to eliminate ethnic enclaves that would weaken a sense of national identity), and a history of radical family planning programs (at one point Lee even proposed sterilizing or incentivizing women to have babies, based on their levels of education).

But while government is the ultimate Big Daddy, Singapore is no welfare state. The country offers nothing by way of unemployment benefits, and few of the social safety nets found in other developed nations. Housing, education and health care, while subsidized, are not free. In Singapore if you don't work, you can just as easily leave.

Singapore is an odd mix of autocratic and free. These contradictions are what make it such an interesting social experiment. There's plenty to do in Singapore, and Singaporeans have enough disposable income to avail themselves of the island's amenities. So long as one accepts the social order, Singapore is attractive and emminently livable.

But there may be one consequence to the air-conditioned nation that Lee Kuan Yew did not foresee. Two generations into independence, Singaporean workers are generally regarded as intelligent and technically skilled. But what you get little of, according to my friend Sudesh who, like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has grown up along with his nation, is an entrepreneurial spirit.

Comfort may lead to efficiency, but innovation, it seems, is born of hunger.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Melaka

For centuries an important port and prized possession for control of Southeast Asian trade, Melaka (sometimes spelled Malacca) today seems to have settled into a comfortable role as a tourist magnet. Here one glimpses the perhaps unintended consequences of commercial success, as village traditions seem to have given way to souvenier shops, trinket stalls, and other trappings of the tourist trade.

This doesn't make the town entirely unpleasant. With its meandering river, well-maintained streets, and neat assortment of Dutch, Portugese, Islamic, Hindu, and Chinese architecture, Melaka is nothing if not picturesque. One just needs to get away from the tourist core, and have an appreciation for history, to get a sense of what the town is all about.

Come hither and I will tell you a tale of sultans and spies, of gods and emperors, of seafaring rogues and exotic spices so fragrant and rare they moved empires to battle.

It starts in the early 14th century, when a Hindu prince by the name of Parameswara tried to break his principality away from the Southeast Asian Mahajavit kingdom, and was forced to flee to Singapore. Turning to piracy on the Straits of Melaka, he soon incurred the wrath of the mighty Siamese army, and fled further northward to what was then the small fishing village of Melaka.

Needing protection from the Siamese, Parameswara sent envoys northward to the Chinese emperor. The emperor, never one to pass up an opportunity for political influence, sent back one Chinese Admiral by the name of Zheng He, "the three-jewelled eunuch prince" (how do you lose your jewels, and still end up with three?) to keep the Siamese at bay. A wave of Chinese immigrants soon followed, married local Malays, and laid the foundation for the Straits Chinese, or Peranakan culture, mentioned in an earlier post, whose influence is felt in the region's architecture and cuisine to this day.
Under this arrangement, Melaka, mid-way between India and China, soon became the most important trading post between those two great nations. Islam was brought to the region by Indian sailors; when the third ruler of Melaka converted to Islam, he took on the title of sultan. At their height, the sultans of Melaka had a power equal to the mighty Siamese and Burmese kingdoms to the north, and were a major reason for the spread of Islam throughout Southeast Asia. Hundreds of years later, these sultanates would eventually become the foundation for the modern Malaysian nation.

The Portuguese, with the typical European diplomatic finesse of the era, sacked Melaka in 1511. But while they captured the city, they lost most of the trade, which followed the exiled sultan to his new home in Johor Bahru. Melaka thus fell into a period of decline, reviving slightly in the 1600s when the Dutch took the city from the Portuguese and used it as a port for their trade to the Spice Islands (modern Indonesia). Later, Melaka was ceded along with several other Dutch possessions to the British, but the British developed Singapore at the expense of Melaka, and the city never regained its former glory.

In light of this history, tourism may be no more nor less cataclysmic an event than any other to which Melaka has borne witness. What I will say about Melaka is that it's relatively easy to escape the tourist shuffle and find oneself on quiet streets. Away from Chinatown and Dutch Square – with its kitschy bicycle taxis bedecked in plastic flowers and blaring disco from tinny radios – Melaka seems a town where people go about their business at a languid pace. Strolling along the Melaka River one can even feel one has the town to oneself, and the sense of history reflected in the architecture provides ample opportunity for reflection.

I cannot say I found Melaka spectacular. It has its share of interesting museums and some excellent regional food (I intend to put together a fuller catalogue of Malaysian eats in a future post), but it's all served up just a little too neatly for my taste. Nonetheless, a trip to Malaysia would not be complete without a stop in this town. Melaka provides a glimpse into how Malaysia came into being, and further evidence of how the country's economic engine just keeps churning.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Batu Caves

Hinduism is psychadelic, man. Less a religion than an agglomeration of assorted beliefs and traditions, Hinduism defies logic. It is at once monotheistic and polytheistic. It embraces practices that are among the world's most ornate, and the most austere. Its iconography includes a bewildering array of gods and the wildest creatures ever to be created by the human mind, but in the same breath the Rig Veda states that all is one. And its sway over an entire people is such that, when you are surrounded by 700 million people who believe in Shiva, believe me: Shiva exists.
It's been 16 years since I last saw India, a country in which I spent roughly a year and a half over the course of several trips in the early 1990s. But the experience of that vast and ancient land came back to me in its full technicolor glory on a trip to Malaysia's Batu Caves. Located only 13 km. outside of Kuala Lumpur, in an 400 million year-old limestone hill by the side of a busy road, the Batu Caves are a center of Shaivite worship for Malaysian Hindus, and one of the world's most popular Hindu shrines outside of India, attracting 3,000-5,000 visitors every day. 
A flight of 272 steps leads up to the caves. At the base stands an enormous (42.7 meters) golden statue of Lord Muruga, also known as Lord Subramaniam, the son of Shiva. Lord Muruga is the patron deity of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu; the fact that the largest Hindu shrine in Malaysia is dedicated to a Tamil deity demonstrates the importance of Tamil culture to this country. The stairs to the temple are populated by wild monkeys, who take handouts from tourists and pilgrims, but remind you with menacing glares that they are neither friendly nor tame.
Like so many Hindu temples in India, the Batu Caves manage to simultaneously convey a sense of devotion along with a carnival atmosphere. At the top of the steps is a gift shop, and tourists can have their pictures taken with a bored albino python. Further in – the cave complex contains three large chambers – the mood gets more devotional. Statues displaying scenes from the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures are arranged in niches throughout the complex. Pilgrims, many of their heads shorn and caked with sandalwood paste, file into the two main temples in the second and third chambers of the cave. Dhoti-clad priests offer flowers and sweets to the temple gods while devotees light butter lamps. Between the mesmerizing chants of the priests and the thick clouds of incense, one is easily transported to another world.
Once a year, the Batu Caves become the focal point for the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, where devotees make offerings to Lord Muruga on his birthday. Associated with this festival is the bearing of kavadi, or burdens, through which the devotee implores Lord Muruga for help. Some devotees go to masochistic lengths by skewering their cheeks and tongues with lances, hanging or even pulling heavy objects with hooks attached to their bodies. It is said that the kavadi bearers enter a trance state and feel no pain, and the hooks and lances leave no scars when they are removed. We unfortunately missed this important festival, when the Batu Caves are said to attract one million visitors, by two weeks. In the catalogue of the world's religious practices, Thaipusam has to be one of the strangest.
We completed our trip to the Batu Caves by stopping into a sweets shop at the foot of the caves. There, we shared a couple of Indian sweets and a large helping of ais kacang, a popular dessert in Malaysia and Singapore. Made of shaved ice, red beans, sweet syrup and a variety of gelatinized fruits, this southeast Asian sweet reminded me that I was not actually in India, but that this taste of India was just another facet of the multicultural medley that is Malaysia.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Kuala Lumpur

If there was any question in my mind whether Malaysia is a developed country, it was dispelled on the drive from the airport. Everywhere are signs of Malaysia's economic miracle. From the glistening, well-paved roads, to the smart commercial facilities of Cyberjaya, Malaysia's high-tech "planned city" outside KL, Malaysia quickly impresses upon the visitor that it is a modern nation.
Three days in city confirm these impressions. While architectural remnants of colonial Malaysia can be seen in KL's Chinatown and Little India, the central core of the city is as modern as any city can be. To be frank, after experiencing an initial thrill of recognition – look, there's a Starbuck's! – the joy of being surrounded by so much modernity wears off, and I begin to feel like I might as well be in any other city. Notwithstanding, two things distinguish KL in my mind.
The first is the Petronas Towers. Cesar Pelli's twin monuments are a fantastic blend of Western audacity and Islamic aesthetics. It starts with the geometry. The towers' floorplan is based on two eight-pointed stars, interlaced with rounded columns. Their 88 floors are separated into five levels, representing the five pillars of Islam, and topped by minaret-like spires. Lateral ribbons of steel reflect the sunlight, giving the towers a shimmering gemlike quality. At night, they are lit up like diadems that have been extended skyward. A trip to the Sky Bridge on the 41st floor confirms the exquisiteness of the structures; from a distance or up close, they are as magnificent an architectural creation as any I have seen.
The second aspect of KL that sets it apart from other cities is its fabled multiculturalism. Throughout the city, you see a fantastic mix of Malays, Tamils, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, and Africans, all pressed together, clad in keffiyeh and chadors, dhotis and saris, headscarves, songkoks, sarongs, dashikis, and of course, jeans, t-shirts, and Western business attire. Though political tensions have recently strained Malaysia's tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance, the country's multiculturalism is something of which Malaysians may justifiably be proud. It is reflected everywhere in the country's capital city.
Hương's first taste of a modern metropolis has, as anticipated, been an eye-opening experience. She's been impressed by the buildings, the roads, the ease with which anything can be purchased, and the politeness of the traffic culture. Hanoi has nothing like KL's ethnic enclaves, so she has enjoyed experiencing the contrasts between Chinatown's aggressive mercantilism, and Little India's languid pace, to take two examples.
Reflecting on what lessons Malaysia may hold for her country, she astutely notes that the difference in population densities make rapid development more of a challenge for Vietnam. While most people agree that Vietnam's modernization is just a matter of time, Hương would rather see Hanoi maintain its historic center unchanged, "because the high buildings would destroy Hanoi's culture." This is a lesson I too hope Vietnam learns from KL, Beijing, Seoul, and other recently developed Asian cities, (see my previous thoughts on the subject).
For both of us, the food has been a fun part of the journey. We are fortunate to be staying with our friend Miriam, a Kiwi woman we met some months ago in Hanoi. Aside from being a great conversationalist and offering us insights into Malaysian expat life, she has pointed us in the direction of some fine eats, in particular Namaste, a small Mamak restaurant near her house. Mamak restaurants are typically small cafes or roadside stalls operated by Tamil Muslims. They are a cultural institution in Malaysia, and the food, which has a distinctively Indian bite, can be quite good. A breakfast of nasi lemak sotong the other morning, washed down with teh tarik, has been one of the culinary highlights of the trip.
In all, multiculturalism and modernity are, for me, the hallmarks of modern Malaysia. KL rightfully stands as a symbol of what modern Asia can be, and may be considered Dr. Mahathir's finest achievement. I hope to see how Malaysian multiculturalism and modernity are expressed in the rest of the country.