Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Colors of Malaysia.

The remnants of a meal we enjoyed in Melaka may not be the most attractive subject for a photo, but when our dishes were piled up I was struck by one of the things I love most about Malaysia: the fantastic, over-the-top color sense that flows throughout the country. From the local architecture to the clashing shades on a kopi’s chopsticks and plates, this is a country that isn’t afraid to clash. And while some shades should seem not to work together, like lime green and electric tangerine, they somehow balance out and get along beautifully. Not a bad symbol for a country as diverse as Malaysia.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

eatingCULTURE/eaten: Cendol.

In moving traveling from Taipei to Borneo, we had to make a quick adjustment from the cold, wet winter weather of Taiwan to the sweltering tropical heat of Malaysia. Thankfully, we were able to find an aid to that transition. While walking through the market in Kota Kinabalu, we saw vendors with large plastic tubs filled with strange neon-green squiggles, explained only by signs advertising ‘cendol’. While we initially eyed this strange dessert with skepticism, it quickly became our daily treat, and our favorite way of cooling off.

A sweet dessert ‘soup’ made of bright green mung-bean-flour threads served with a mound of ice and coconut milk, cendol was served rather simply in Sabah. In Melaka, we sampled a much more mature version of cendol, in which red beans were mixed among the threads of cendol. While they might have made the dessert a little more savory, the effect was balanced out with a dark swirl of gula melaka, the rich local palm sugar. It added an additional complexity to the dessert.

But to be honest, while I can appreciate the Melaka version as a superior product, there’s something I rather liked about the simple cendol we got in Borneo. Without the red beans and the darkly-sweet palm sugar, it was uncomplicated and uncluttered, creamy without being too rich or too complex; satisfying in the same way that a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream might be more refreshing than a rich gelato on a hot summer day.

A Quick Jaunt to Melaka

We were having a good time in Sabah, but we had to admit—not a great time. When we were living in Cape Town, we’d really missed the great food, the dynamic cities, and the offbeat style of life in Asia—and we felt like we were still sort of missing that in Sabah. After leaving Sepilok we arrived in Sandakan, and in seeking lunch found a rather bleak market serving mediocre fare. This wasn’t why we were in Malaysia, we decided. So we bumped up our tickets, left Sandakan three days early, and made our way to Melaka.

I’d been curious to see Melaka, though having heard of what a tourist spectacle it’s become, I was a little nervous as well. Thankfully, our timing was good. We arrived on Sunday afternoon, just in time to see the dust settle from the crowds that had filled the town that weekend. In the place of the tourists, we found a fairly quiet town that seemed to be quietly going about its own business. And while we found some streets and neighborhoods that were terribly bland and characterless, we found much of the city to be inviting, engaging, and well supplied with places serving fantastic food.

Which is important for us. For while we spent time browsing among the shophouses, and visiting mosques, churches, and temples both Hindu and Buddhist, our main activity was eating. Before leaving Sandakan, I browsed through the archives of Eating Asia—easily the best way to make sure of having a good meal in Malaysia. Between following Eating Asia’s leads and a few lucky discoveries of our own, we ate spectacularly. Some of the highlights of our eating included:
1. Several bowls of laksa lemak, a creamy coconut-milk noodle soup with a slightly spicy curry bite.
2. Chee Cheong Fun, sheets of rice noodle folded over shrimp and pork, topped with crispy fried garlic.
3. We’d had some fantastic chicken rice in Malaysia, but the chicken rice balls at Hoe Kee were not only a novel take on the straits-favorite, but an incredibly delicious version as well.
4. Perhaps the strangest local specialty we tried with the pai tee, crunchy cups filled with braised yam bean, and topped with chili, shredded egg, and fried garlic.

Not pictured above, but just as delicious: oyster noodles and soft shelled crab at Teo Soon Long Chan, banana leaf curries and crispy roti tissue in Little India, and several bowls of cendol all over town. The town really exemplifies the diverse mix of cultures and cuisines that make eating in Malaysia so rewarding.

Before we changed our tickets in Sandakan, we briefly wavered, wondering if we should just stick it out in Sabah. I’m glad we didn’t. For though I’m sure you can have a great time in Borneo, we were really after a particular experience that we just weren’t getting. We’d been away from Asia for so long that it really felt great to reaffirm what we love about it: the culture, the style of it, and, most importantly, the great food. Because really, life is too short to put up with eating poorly. And in Asia, you’ve got no excuse.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Hanging out with the apes at Sepilok.

I like jungles. A lot. Since I was young, I've had a thing for strange animals and dark and mysterious forests, and I used to dream of being able to travel among the forests of the equator. I've since learned a few things:
1) Animals are really pretty hard to see through all that greenery.
2) Most wild animals would really rather be left alone, not gawked at by tourists.
And, somewhat significantly-- 3) After a few trips to some of Asia's wild spaces, I've had to realize that I can really do without the usual trappings of a visit to the jungle-- getting heat stroke on long treks over leech infested trails, staying in run-down guesthouses with soggy mattresses, eating flavorless meals of instant noodles. Some people are into that stuff, which is cool, but it's really not for me. Which is why it's nice to find somewhere that offers a balance.

On our visit to Borneo, we were mainly looking to relax, but we couldn't go without a few days spent at the edge of the island's incredible rainforest. So we planned a stop in Sepilok, and a stay at Paganakan Dii. This small getaway is the work of a young local man from Sandakan, who recently returned from spending several years abroad. He's now brought a distinctly hip style to Sepilok with the opening of Paganakan Dii. We stayed in one of the bungalows, which are positioned at the edge of the hill, looking out over a lush forest. The cleverly designed bungalows have rolling doors for walls on two sides, so that the entire room can be opened up to the surrounding greenery.

It was an easy place to unwind, and we spent much of our time in Sepilok relaxing, though we did spend one key day out. The main draw for visitors to Sepilok is the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It's run in part by Orangutan Appeal UK, which is really doing good work. The forest in Borneo is being cleared at an alarming rate, in part so that more palm oil plantations can be built. Borneo's wild animals, which include incredibly rare species like the orangutan and the Sumatran Rhino, are forced into ever smaller spaces. At the Rehabilitation Centre. This in effect does a few good things: it helps maintain the population of orangutans, it increases awareness, and it lets tourists see orangutans, while letting the ones that are in the wild remain undisturbed.

A ticket to Sepilok allows for the visitor to see two feedings a day. As a tip, the feeding in the morning can get swarmed with tour groups-- in comparison, the afternoon feeding can be relatively quiet. Fruit is set out on platforms, and slowly the orangutans emerge for the forest, swinging in on ropes, to grab a meal. Many of them are young, so they're incredibly cute and playful-- sometimes too playful, as on our visit we were practically surrounded by a group of curious young apes.

Between feedings, we wandered over to the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which offers several trails into the Sepilok Reserve. We took a short one, and wandered among towering trees, . Lucky hikers can see orangutans or hornbills-- we saw neither. The closest we got to wildlife was seeing a giant black squirrel asleep in a tree. Like the rest of our time at Sepilok, it might have only been a small glimpse into one of the wildest places on earth, but it was enjoyable getting that glimpse at any rate.

Especially enjoyable, I'll admit, in the knowledge that we had crisp white sheets and a functioning shower waiting for us afterwards.

Monday, March 08, 2010

A market by the sea.

While much of KK can seem a little washed out, there is one spot to visit if you're seeking color. Right on Kota Kinabalu's waterfront sits the town market. Where in a few hours crowds of locals and tourists will be dining on fried noodles and grilled squid at Kota Kinabalu's night market, a gentle trade takes place as people wander among the stalls, picking up a few ingredients here and there.

While some vendors sell fresh fruit, and others trade in lemongrass and chili, the big draw here is incredibly fresh seafood, pulled right off of boats as they pull up to land. There are fish, in orange, silver, and turqouise blue; piles of fat prawns; and beautiful crabs and lobsters, their claws held firm in rubberbands.

And if any of it looks tempting, remember to return in the evening for a dinner at the Filipino barbecue. Those same prawns could show up on your plate.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A day on the plate in Kota Kinabalu.

Despite the mystery and allure evoked by its name, something about Kota Kinabalu keeps it from being a particularly engaging city. It's a city of placid avenues and grid-like concrete buildings, too modern to be characterful, but just a little too worn to be graceful. But if there is one moment when the city may be redeemed, it's when its residents sit down to eat.

Many people take their meals under the swirling ceiling fans of kopitiam, Chinese style coffee shops. For breakfast, this is where to go for a warm, sticky glass of coffee, sweetened with condensed milk. If you're lucky, you'll also be able to find a plate of bread with kaya, a rich coconut jam.

The kopitiam stay in business all day; you'll be able to swing by again for lunch. Items on the menu range from Chinese favorites, like char siew (barbecued pork), to Malay, like laksa (noodles in a coconut milk curry), to Straits specialities, like chicken-rice (poached chicken served with a delicate soup and a mildly garlicy bed of rice). Sometimes the most satisfying meal is the most straightforward, like the above mee ayam: a pile noodles (mee) that have been wok-fried in kejap manis (a dark, sweet soy sauce) are topped with cleaver-cut slabs of delicious crispy skinned chicken (ayam).

Elsewhere, Indian style restaurants sell a diverse range of curries, made with chicken, lamb, and vegetables, or even squid and shrimp. A few select shops serve their curry on a banana leaf; more often, a more humble presentation involves a plastic plate and a mound of rice. Look for the large griddles to identify a shop specializing in roti canai, unleavened bread served with small dishes of curry, or murtabak, a folded roti canai filled with meat or vegetables.

You'll still find the city's restaurants and kopitiam awake at night, but for a more lively dinner, head toward the night market on the waterfront. The stalls at the centre of the market seem oddly lacking in variety-- most sell fried rice, fried noodles, or soto, a spicy soup-- but you'll likely find a cheap, tasty meal at least. Around the periphery are dessert shops-- perfect for the sultry Borneo evenings are shops selling cendol, a pandan flavoured dessert served over ice with a dash of coconut milk.

For a more unique dinner you'll need to penetrate the clouds of smoke toward the back of the market. There, you'll find yourself among the grills of the Filipino Barbecue, where vendors display dazzling piles of seafood-- massive prawns, formidible lobsters, and technicolor fish-- all available to be grilled and served with a dressing of chili. It's perhaps the cheapest spot to indulge in the incredible catch available off Borneo's coast.

To walk through the city at mealtime is to hear the sound of spoons scraping at woks and of roti being slapped onto the griddle, to see piles of gorgeous seafood, ducks hanging in shop windows, and trays of colorful curries. It's encountering the unique mix of cultures-- Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Malay-- and the contrasting geographies-- from the tropic seas to the fertile forests-- that make up KK. You might not always be able to see what's exciting about Kota Kinabalu, but at least you can taste it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

A late last night in Taipei.

Our departure: 9:30 AM from Taoyuan International Airport.
Our plan:
to spend our last night in Taipei, hanging out, eating, catching a few hours sleep in a
love hotel, then grabbing an early breakfast, and heading to the airport at 6AM.
Our results:
a few hurdles, but it all worked out in the end...

21:00-- Having caught the HSR in Hsinchu, we arrive in Taipei early enough to catch the city still awake. We stow our luggage in the train station lockers, and take the MRT into the Ximen. In this hip shopping neighbourhood, we browse for shoes and cardigans, and join the crowds at Ay Chung for a bowl of noodles.

23:00-- After meeting up with a friend, we duck into a small restaurant for a small dinner. I opt for the braised chicken on rice.

24:00-- We walk to the nearby Red Theatre Square and order some drinks. Located behind the historic Red Theatre, the square is a night-time neighbourhood of gay bars, shops, and restaurants where friends gather at tables under lantern light.

2:00-- Saying goodbye to our friend, we head back to the area around the train station to find a love hotel. Since we don't need a full night's accomodation, a love hotel is perfect-- they're willing to rent a room out for only two or three hours (the name making sense yet?). We ask around at a few spots we know, but everyone is booked up. After scouring the neighbourhood, we're realizing our luck might have run out. We start to wonder if there are any 24-hour Starbucks in the city.

2:30-- Luckily, we'd noticed a few love hotels while we were wandering around Ximen, so we grabbed a cab and headed back there. It felt bizarre to be on the streets of Ximen so late at night-- the small lanes that had earlier been packed with crowds were now totally deserted. We took the elevator up to one love hotel, and the doors opened to a darkened cavern strewn with rubble-- we quickly pressed the 'door close' button, and headed back downstairs. Luckily the hotel nextdoor was still open, and we got a suspiciously cheap room for two hours. The room is tiny-- it feels as if it were built around the bed-- and the walls are lined with mirrors. Eek. We're exhuasted, so who cares.

4:15-- The alarm goes off, and against our protests we get out of bed and take a quick shower. One thing helping us wake up-- we're heading for a really good breakfast. We hop in a cab with a friendly driver, and after a little confusion, manage to explain to him where we want to go.

4:45-- He drops us off at Yungho Soy Bean Milk and Porridge King, which, luckily, is in fact open 24 hours. Unlike in the morning, the place is quiet-- a fraction of the usual staff, and only a few tables of students eating. We order two bowls of warm soy milk, a steamer of shaolingbao, a donut for Bordeaux, and some dan bin for me. Not a bad final meal in Taiwan.

5:15-- Finished, we catch a taxi to the train station, track down our luggage, and then walk to catch an airport bus. As we drive down to Taoyuan in the breaking light, we both doze off a little...