Saturday, January 12, 2008

Gurney hai

Penang Post #2. We got a nice little room on Gurney Drive, the touristy seaside promenade that, to be fair, is still thronged by locals out for a jog, a stroll, or to get close to their loved ones on a bench under a faulty street lamp. As befitting our location and our mission to eat the best local street food on offer, the first food pit stop we made was…

Just kidding! This joint’s tagline really cracked us up: “If it swims, we have it.” Really? Some of my ex-bosses swim, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them skewered and roasted.

Okay, I should stop knocking these glitzy, touristy-trappy seafood joints. Oh wait… why should I? They are like sitting ducks (some of which swim, you know), what with their OTT signage, their picture menus and beer girls with short skirts.

Our first stop was actually not Gurney Drive but the Pulau Tikus market, where a small but impressive collection of some 15 stalls that operate only at night attract a steady and appreciative crowd of locals. We took advantage of a balmy evening to take a short, 10-minute stroll there, figuring that we were going to need all forms of physical activity, no matter how modest, to balance out our food-chase.

We headed for the stall selling duck meat koay teow thng, or flat rice noodles soup. Apart from the duck meat and fishballs, you can also add duck blood jelly, duck liver, duck giblets and pig’s small intestines – tasty stuff, all – according to Rasa Rasa Penang, for the business class version. I had decided earlier on Rule #1 for our trip: don’t complicate matters when approaching a stall; just order a dish without elaboration, mainly to see what constitutes a vendor’s standard fare.

In this instance, the tactic backfired as we got only the duck meat and fishball version, which were great in itself – the soup wonderfully flavoured without a hint of the usual shortcuts (MSG or too much salt); the koay teow silky and smooth (you’ll see this description applied again and again to the koay teow in Penang and Ipoh), and the fishballs tasty, without the artificial bounciness of additives. We just wished we had broken Rule #1 to get the complete version of the dish, but decided to adhere to Rule #2 – order only one bowl for the two of us, so we can taste more. Sigh, next time then.

While we were waiting for our noodles, I spied a young woman making apum, “a sweet pancake with an egg added, made mainly from slightly-fermented rice flour cooked over low heat in an earthern pot with a lid” (quoting Rasa again). A much older lady (her grandmother?) was sitting opposite her, keeping an eye on the till but also making sure her charge wasn’t slipping up.

I asked if I could take a picture, and the Woman in Blue ignored me. Said Grandma: “Sure, sure, can.”

Pause. Then, to the younger lady: “Taking picture, lah. Smile, smile.”

No smile. I take my picture, nonetheless.

Grandma cracks up, winking and laughing, then says conspiratorially to me: “Shy, lah.”

I smile back and walk away nonchalantly with my apum, not wanting to be mistaken for propositioning marriage over a pancake, which by the way was feather light – crispy on the edges, soft and medium rich in the centre without being cloyingly sweet.

Pulau Tikus market
On the corner of Jalan Pasar and Jalan Cantonment. Night food stalls open from 5 pm onwards.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Mainland appetizer

Penang Post #1. By the time we had arrived at Restoran Cheang Kee in Nibong Tebal, it was 3 pm and we already had lunch in Ipoh (more on that in a later post) on our drive up from Petaling Jaya. J was at first reluctant to stop in this old-style Teochew restaurant, eager to hit the island proper and its wonderful street food. But I had eaten here some years back on the recommendation of my food-obsessed family, and was sure it would not disappoint.

There was one problem, though. We were a little full and were in no shape to sample all of Cheang Kee’s specialities, including a mouth-watering crab and seafood soup; steamed pomfret with sour plum, fresh chillies and salted vegetables; as well as mussels, manila clams and other types of shellfish and snails cooked a variety of ways.

We settled instead for their boiled octopus and Teochew porridge with frogs’ legs.

The octopus is boiled just right – still tender and juicy. It is topped with a modest amount of lard that added a bit of richness to this simple dish. You could also take it up a notch by dunking those lovely tentacles into the peanut-topped chilli sauce, flavourful and restrained in its heat level.

I guess our stomachs were less stuffed than we thought, because when our porridge arrived, we attacked it with a vengeance and finished half of it before realising that bloggers interested in posting about food should whip out their camera before their chopsticks and spoons. So, in the absence of a picture, use your imagination, lah.

In Teochew porridge, rice is not boiled until it becomes mushy, soaking up most of the water. Instead, each grain of rice should ideally be fully formed, collectively resting at the bottom of the bowl, topped by the broth (plain or flavoured). Cheang Kee’s savoury porridge, available with any seafood (crabs and prawns are the most popular), was as ideal as it can get.

Having been sated with a, to quote J, “transcendent” seafood meal a few days previously, we opted for frogs’ legs instead of crabs in our porridge. The light broth had the depth and complexity of a stock that had been carefully made over many hours using bones and shells of various kinds. Lightly salted so as not to overwhelm the flavours, the broth, topped with scallions, was easy to drink. The rice grains were delicious, having absorbed some of the broth. The comment often heard about frogs’ legs is that it tastes like chicken (what doesn’t?), but ours had the texture of steamed fish.

What we liked about this small restaurant is that despite its relative fame, it has not become overrun with tourists or out-of-towners, but continues to faithfully serve this bustling, working class town. Locals having a simple bowl of noodles or porridge, or out with the family for a full meal crowd the joint. Sitting on the five-foot way, a provision shop and a taxi stand flanking us, we felt a little like anthropologists (but without the theory) on a field trip.

Restoran Cheang Kee
113 Jalan Atas, 14300 Nibong Tebal, Seberang Prai, Penang.
Tel: 604-593-4768. Noon – 10.30 pm, closed Mondays.

In Penang

J and I are here for a short getaway, and we plan to eat our way to nirvana (small ‘n’) with the help of these guides…

Rasa Rasa Penang (Briolinks: 2006). A fairly recent and fairly extensive guide to local street food and restaurants that the editors estimate would take a visitor five one-week trips of marathon eating to exhaust. It is divided by geographical location and has helpful maps as well as explanations of the types of food for the uninitiated.

The Star Guide to Malaysian Street Food (The Star: 2007). As the guide covers the whole country, the Penang section is much smaller than Rasa Rasa, but as an indication of the endless eating choices on the island, it has many recommendations the other book leaves out. This section is a scaled down version of the more detailed Flavours May-June 2006: Penang Street Food Guide (The Star: 2006).

Penang, Ipoh – The Popular Food Guide (Norvum Organum: 2007). This is an English and Chinese guide to these two popular food destinations.

Streets of George Town Penang (Janus: 2001), by Khoo Su Nin. This is a wonderfully informative guide to the many historic streets of Penang, with many historical anecdotes behind some of the well-known landmarks of the island.

Much of the nitty-gritty details of the places we eat – addresses, hours of operation and so on – are from these books. They’ve done the work, and they can take the blame if they are wrong ☺.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Boon time

J is in town, and she has a list of must-eats. It’s a long list, and we have too few days. As we go around checking off one spot after another, we hear the dreaded footsteps of Gluttony hounding us and the Ghost of Pants From An Earlier Smaller Waist Time whispering in our ears. To ward off the evil spirit Guilty Conscience, we make a pact with the Lord of Sweaty Joints, paying our daily dues huffing and puffing at his temple for an hour or two a day. Sometimes, we pay for parking too.

Was it worth it, all this cosmic bargaining so detrimental to one’s soul? Oh yes, it is. Yes, yes, yesss, YESSSSSSSS! All for this dish…

What, you say? For a mere pomfret in bee hoon (rice vermicelli) soup? Not for sharks’ fin, truffles, lobsters or creamy liver from a force-fed duck? No, no, not for us the merely sinful. This was, to quote J, “silky and pillowy.” The fish perfectly boiled just a little past cooked, its flesh melting and gliding into one’s mouth along with the broth perfectly balanced between tartness and spiciness. In between, one scoops up spoonfuls of bee hoon that has been happily swimming in and soaking up the delightful broth. Ah, perfection.

It was a cool, breezy Klang night, and we were the only ones seated al fresco at Boon Tat Seafood Restaurant. (Everyone else seemed to prefer the air-conditioned dining room.)

Klang is one of many culinary destinations in Malaysia, boasting enduring favourites like bak kut teh that tempts travellers of all ilk, even well-travelled "Sg girls." However, being a seaside town and home to the busiest port in Peninsula Malaysia, seafood restaurants are plentiful in this prosperous royal enclave, and everyone has their favourite.

Boon Tat is a destination of those of us who prefer small, family-run establishments to the garish mega seafood centres big on glitz but not much else. Boon Tat is known for its limited seafood menu – a few well-cooked standards that resist seasonal fetishes (like egg yolk crabs, the current rage in town). At one time, they didn’t even bother to serve white rice!

A popular starter is the deep-fried squid – juicy pieces not dunked in too much batter. However, we much preferred…

… the steamed clams in wine, garlic, green onions and chilli padi (fiery hot tiny Thai chillies) to wake up our tastebuds.

Prawns perfectly steamed – the meat firm and succulent – is another must-have, but one of Boon Tat's more distinctive dishes is the oh chien, or fried oyster omelette.

The photo above does not do justice to the generous servings of scallion-laced fresh oysters laid gently on a thin but very crispy and yummy bed of egg and flour (a “crepe-y edge, like Saturn’s rings” was how J described it).

Yes, they do vegetables too! But remember to save room for the zinger that is the chilli crab – call ahead, for they may run out…

Boon Tat Seafood Restaurant: No. 6, Jalan Soon Huat Jetty, Off Jalan Papan Pandamaran, 42000 Port Klang. Tel: 603 - 3168 7116

[This post scrutinized, copy-edited and improved-upon by J.]