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Photo Essay: Kuala Lumpur and Malacca

19 Jan

Last month, Farva and I spent a few days in Malaysia – specifically, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca. We decided to document our time there through snapshots of the food we had the pleasure of trying and the stories it unveiled.

Entrance to Jonker Walk in Malacca

The Portuguese Settlement in Malacca

We spent a day in Malacca, a nostalgic city with a protracted colonial history. Malacca was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, followed by the Dutch in the 1600s and finally the British arrived in the 1800s. The footprint of the trifecta of colonizers and waves of immigration from China over centuries are reflected in the cuisine most prominently. Peranakan and Portuguese-Eurasian food for instance, is the product of cross cultural marriages between local Malays and Chinese immigrants during 15th and 16th century, and between the Malays/Chinese/Indian and Portuguese during the 16th and 17th century. Malacca’s rich Peranakan culture (the name given to the descendants of early Chinese migrants to Malacca) has given birth to a type of cuisine commonly called ‘Nyonya’ cuisine. As a result of inter-marriages, the Nyonya style of cooking blends Chinese flavours with malay herbs and Indian spices and the recipes have been improved to perfection over time.

Beef Rendang at Restoran Peranakan

At the no-frills family-run Restoran Peranakan (see end of post for details) – we had delicious Beef Rendang, tender slices of beef blended with chilli, lemongrass, turmeric and coconut milk. Beef Rendang is also associated with Hari Raya, the yearly celebration by Muslims that marks the end of Ramadhan. According to tradition, due to the flavourful aroma of coconut milk and spices cooking in a wok for hours, those who were fasting during Ramadhan would crave for the fasting month to be over so that they could indulge in this delicacy on Hari Raya.

A notable culinary remnant from the Portuguese era are the famous Portuguese egg tarts or pastéis de nata (above). Flaky on the outside and creamy on the inside.

The Nyonya pineapple tarts (below) are mouth watering pastries wrapped in home-made pineapple jam with just the right amount of sweetness.


Laksa, which literally translates as ‘many’ from Sanskrit is a reference to the recipe traditionally having numerous ingredients. An aromatic dish of rice vermicelli and yellow noodles in a broth with coconut milk and curry paste (comprising chilli, garlic, Asian shallots and toasted belachan (shrimp paste)), laksa is a Malacca staple.  There are several varieties of laksa but the most popular (and photographed below) is curry laksa.

Curry Laksa

Fruit vendor selling durians, rambutans and dragonfruit outside a Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur

Dragonfruit

In KL we spent an afternoon in Little India where food hawker stalls line the tiny narrow lanes selling everything from shimmery chiffons to the Don 2 soundtrack.

Fried Indian snacks

Ever since I first visited a Malaysian restaurant (Penang in NYC), I’ve been in love with Roti canai. I used to think that the measure of how good a Malaysian restaurant is by how good their Roti canai is. However, I’ve now learnt that what is considered to be an integral part of the menus of Malaysian restaurants in New York or London does not feature on the menus of sit-down restaurants in KL. It’s the quintessential street food to be enjoyed while sipping a chilled soft drink from mamak stalls (food establishments run by Tamil Muslims). The cripsy roti is served with daal curry – a gravy made from lentils with carrots, and potatoes, chicken or fish curry with a dash of sambal for added spiciness.

Excellent Blogs on Food and Travel in Malaysia

Eating Asia

Rasa Malaysia

A Whiff of Lemongrass

Restaurants We Visited

Restoran Peranakan, Malacca
Restoran Peranakan on Heeren Street is the courtyard of a huge Peranakan house. The menu is limited but the food quality is very good. Prices range from RM 10 – 15 per person (US$ 3-5).

Estana Curry House, Jalan Nagasari, KL

You won’t find this place in the guidebooks but it was recommended to us by a taxi driver.  Roti canai is delicious and only RM 1.5 (50 cents). Need I say more?

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Post Card: Berlin

12 Feb

Last week I visited Berlin for the first time to see friends and explore the European capital I had heard so much about. The city is truly edgy & quirky and the dichotomy between the bifurcated city during the Cold War era and reunified Berlin is striking both architecturally and culturally. The city exudes much vigour and approachability and has become the hub of experimental art and film festivals and a thriving nightlife. What I found perhaps the most distinct as compared to many other European capitals is the affordability (a hearty meal will cost you as much as a starter would in London or Paris) and the general lack of pretension.

This was not my first visit to Germany since I had visited Cologne in Summer 2010 where I had the delicious döner below but in the midst of World Cup hysteria, food was, understandably, not so high on the agenda.

Döner in Cologne

As few weeks prior to this trip, a Facebook conversation between myself and several German friends regarding where to find “German food” in London led to an interesting observation. Most of them were actually amused by this question and stated their preference for eating at restaurants serving Indian, Italian, Ethiopian food more so than eating food from Germany. There was no consensus amongst them regarding what is “German cuisine” or food that is reminiscent of home. I found that hard to digest (no pun intended!) but while they only represent a certain point of view, their views are not entirely unrepresentative of how young Germans may think. I wondered if perhaps this is a generational viewpoint and if in reality it was infact largely undiscovered by young people.

I was, therefore, curious to see how exploring the culinary scene in Berlin would pan out since I sort of didn’t know what to expect. “German cuisine” typically conjures up images of varieties of wurst (sausages) and of course, beer (apparently, there is a bar in Berlin that serves 500 varieties of beer including a smoked variety!). There are regional variations in the cuisine based on agricultural produce in different regions and also influences from neighboring countries that different German states border with.

Like any major European capital, Berlin has a wide range of restaurants from other parts of the globe. Tapas bars, curry houses, family run Middle Eastern cafes, you name it, they have it. The post popular fast food in Germany in undoubtedly the Turkish döner kebab. While this merits an entire post in itself particularly exploring the idea of popularity of cuisine of ethnic minorities, I’ll delve into this only briefly. Turkish immigrants in Germany are the largest ethnic minority in the country and while the döner is now widely popular all over Germany, it was first introduced in West Berlin in the 1970s by Turkish immigrants. Berlin alone has over 1500 döner stands today. A döner is essentially Turkish bread split wide open and stuffed with grilled lamb or chicken (cooked on a vertical spit) with onions, lettuce, other vegetables and a variety of delicious yoghurt-based sauces.

So of course having a döner in Berlin was on the must-do list and the one I had in Berlin was truly splendid. My friend J, took me to Mustafa’s Gemüsekebap that he claimed was the best döner stand in Berlin. I was told beforehand that what distinguished this stand apart from multiple others were the deep fried vegetables that decorate the meat and sauces. Not being a fan of vegetables in general, I was skeptical about them standing in the way of enjoying the juicy meat flavours.

However, I was proved wrong since the potatoes, peppers and zucchini complement the meat and sauces beautifully. The fried veggies, feta cheese that envelope the tender slices of chicken kebab alongwith the the garlic sauce heaped on top make this an irresistable combination.

Next on the list, upon much insistence on my part, was to try German cuisine. J took me to a restaurant Schwarzwaldstuben that served food from the Southern part of Germany. A traditional specialty is Käsespätzle, i.e egg noodles, cheese and browned onions, served with salad. For me to enjoy a dish that does not contain meat or seafood is admittedly quite rare but I did really enjoy this and it was very filling. Highly recommended!

Schwarzwaldstuben

Käsespätzle

Lastly, J ordered Flammkuchen, the German version of a lightly crusted pizza. There are several toppings to choose from but we had one with crème fraîche, tomatoes, parsley and onions. It is similar to the French Tart Flambée, which is not surprising since the Southern region of Germany borders with France and Switzerland and has evidently drawn from culinary influences there.

Flammkuchen

On my second visit to Berlin in Feb 2012, on a Sunday afternoon I discovered the charming Mauerpark flea market that runs for about a km in a park in Prenzlauerberg. You can sip on peppermint tea and nibble on a pretzel and rummage through everything from spare telephone parts to old lamps and vintage sunglasses.

If you do plan on visiting Berlin in the future

More information:

Mustafas Gemüse Kebab

Mehringdamm 32, 10961 Berlin

http://www.mustafas.de (in German)

Schwarzwaldtuben

Tucholskystr. 48, 10117 Berlin

Can Good Food Lead to An Existential Crisis?

20 Jan

“I would like a large carafe of ennui with some angst on the side” – Bourdain

In the Rome episode of “No Reservations” (aired in Summer 2010), food and travel writer and critic, Anthony Bourdain ponders over the question “can good food lead to an existential crisis?” His beguiling culinary experience in Rome leads him to question why he hadn’t been born there, why he hadn’t visited it before and why he didn’t speak the language (Italian in this case). While many regard Bourdain’s opinions and critiques as self-indulgent there are some including myself who may not even buy into this existential crap. Let’s just eat our food and get on with it. Why intellectualize the experience of eating food?

What we perhaps don’t realize is that it’s not even really about intellectualizing – we are subconsciously asking ourselves or are at least faced with similar questions as the ones Bourdain poses when we travel to different cities.

Bourdain in Rome - Source: http://www.photographymojo.com

Existentialism per se not withstanding, after watching this episode, which by the way I did enjoy, I was motivated to think of experiences in my own life where I visited a place and asked myself the same questions. While I have certainly enjoyed foods in most places I have visited, I have, quite truthfully, not been overcome with a strong sense of why I had not been there before with food being the stimulus. Yet I can relate to the transformational quality of food not because food magically changes the way we perceive things but because it embodies traditions and relationships. Can I really claim to have enjoyed food in Italy in its essence without acknowledging the contributions of countless mothers and grandmothers who have perfected recipes over generations. Can we ever really appreciate and understand something including food without knowing the story it tells? Moreover, can we understand that story without being from that society?

For tourists it’s common not to have much knowledge of the local cuisine of flavours and feel a sense  of alienation with something as basic as food. The sense of isolation that food may create is not a product of taste or flavour being different to what we are used to but rather a result of food being a cultural symbol. Indeed, food can be equally isolating as a language you don’t comprehend, a religion whose beliefs and traditions you are unfamiliar with and a land whose geography and history you are unaware of. At the same time food can also serve as a wonderful cultural icon that you fall in love with, that you can be nostalgic about, whose aftertaste tingles your taste buds even months and weeks later. It depends entirely on the perspective.

Another aspect I have often wondered about is the medium of language and whether it can ease or exacerbate the sense of isolation that food itself can create. Language can be a huge barrier to understanding local menus as well as communicating what you would like to eat. I realized over multiple trips to Latin America where although Spanish is the language widely spoken, there are local variations that extend particularly to food and drink often making it difficult  even for those who do speak Spanish to decipher the ingredients and ultimately decide what to eat. I recall that during a trip to Istanbul the best meal we had was with my friend and her parents who ordered exactly what we would have wanted to eat without us even letting them know our choice. We had constantly tried to order similar dishes when we would go out ourselves but would either end up ordering what we were familiar with based on dishes from Turkish restaurants in New York or the ones in which the ingredients were seemingly familiar. The language barrier limited our ability to try the best that Turkish cuisine had to offer.

Has the food in a certain country inspired you to ask yourself similar questions or created a sense of “IwishIwasfromhere”? Please do share your experiences and thoughts!

A Gastronomical Journey Through Lisbon

14 Nov

Portugal is perhaps Europe’s best kept secret. Not as hyped up and touristy as neighbouring Spain, it has a vintage charm that is hard to resist. Last December, my friend and travel companion Jen (who is also a blogger and great photographer!) and I decided to go on a 4-day trip to Lisbon via Madrid. We also undertook a day trip to the ancient city of Sintra, that has been described by Byron as ‘Glorious Eden.’

Prior to this trip, my conception of Portuguese cuisine was limited to Nando’s flame-grilled peri peri chicken (shameful, I know), which I was fairly certain did not ‘really’ represent Portuguese food. I was, therefore, both curious and excited to explore more of what Portugal had to offer gastronomically.
The first meal we had in Lisbon was a delicious dinner near Rossio where I ordered a caril de camarao (prawn curry) with a hint of coconut, laced with cream. Jen ordered bacalhau (baked cod with potatoes) that both looked and tasted delicious. I was rather intrigued by the idea of having curry in Portugal and wondered if this was an influence from Goa, a former Portuguese colony in South India.  The influence of Portuguese flavours and ingredients on Goan cuisine is a known fact and reflective of the export of cultural practices across colonial empires. What did strike me as interesting, although perhaps not surprising is observing and experiencing the incorporation of Goan recipes into Portuguese cuisine. Although, it remains a question whether the Portuguese brought culinary influences back with them to the home country or whether Goan immigrants to Portugal inspired the use of such recipes in restaurants and homes. Perhaps it is a bit of both.

Prawn Curry - Photo Courtesy: Jen Huang

Bacalhau – Photo Courtesy: Jen Huang

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