Monday, May 12, 2014

The Foodie Nation

I've almost lived in Singapore for a year at this point, and I now understand how it is known as the foodie capital of the world. There are so many beloved, iconic dishes; diverse cuisines represented; and delicious foods available from the humblest hawker centre to fine dining establishments.

The most famous dish is chili crab - an enormous crab cooked in thick sweet and spicy gravy. It's such a good dish for sharing, but be prepared with lots of napkins! There are quite a number of popular chili crab restaurants in Singapore, especially along the East Coast.  

One of my personal favorite dishes can be found in many food courts and hawker centres. It is called Yong Tau Foo, and it's quite a healthy option to have for a meal. Yong Tau Foo is a bowl of vegetables, various proteins, and sometimes noodles, all boiled in a light and savoury broth. You have the option of picking out all the items you want in your soup, and will be charged per item. I usually like to include seaweed, greens, and eggs. Everything tastes wonderful when dipped into the special chili sauces you can get on the side.

The bakeries here sell pretty ingenious and creative items. My favorite bakery is called Breadtalk. The breads here are baked with lots of milk and butter, with interesting flavors and ingredients. Some of their selections are below: steamed pumpkin cake, tuna stuffed bun, and pork floss roll. 

Seafood food is quite abundant, as you can imagine it would be for an island nation, and can be seasoned with lots of strong and spicy ingredients, like this BBQ stingray covered with a thick chili sauce, cooked on a banana leaf, and eaten with lime juice.

A hearty bowl of porridge is a comfort food for many Singaporeans. It's a thick and creamy rice, mixed in with various toppings such as chopped century egg, slices of pork, green onion and chili. You can easily find porridge stalls at most hawker centers for around $3 a bowl. Portions tend to be generous, making for a filling breakfast or supper. There are some pretty good stalls at the Maxwell Hawker Centre.

As a country with a significant Indian population, you can expect to find pretty delicious Indian food here. Little India is an obvious place to find lots of good and cheap restaurants and coffee shops, but there usually will be an Indian stall at most large food courts and hawker centres, serving everything from naan bread to curries and biryani dishes. 

One tradition I really enjoy is the traditional breakfast at the local coffeeshop or kopitiam. These small neighborhood eateries serve an interesting mix of eastern and western breakfast foods, including soft boiled eggs with soy sauce, toast with kaya spread, and sometimes noodle or curry dishes. The concept of the coffeeshop has become commercialized, so now there are chains of these shops, removed from the neighborhood and put into modern spaces like shopping malls.

Being a very westernized Asian country, Singapore also offers many European and American-type restaurants and cafes. They tend to be a bit fancier and more expensive. For example, eggs benedict for brunch!

Lastly, there are also many American chains that can be found in Singapore, sometimes offering their own unique twist on the usual offerings! Starbucks sold moon cakes during the mid-Autumn festival. They weren't bad! There are also various green tea type drinks. 

As you can see, Singapore has a very unique and diverse food scene. I'll miss it a lot, and I hope you will have a chance to experience it someday!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Beautiful Colors of Penang

Georgetown is such a vibrant city, full of culture and beautiful architecture. I promise, I did more there than hunt for street art and eat food in cafes! For example...

I walked around the historic district for hours each day, taking in the sights and sounds of the streets. The old shophouses, mostly restored, retain their gorgeous and distinct colors. 

Trishaw drivers pedal tourists around town, though this has become more of a novelty than a practical way to get to destinations. They are almost as expensive as cabs, a far cry from the cheap fares in Cambodia. The drivers are mostly old uncles rather than the sprightly young men we encountered in Phnom Penh - it's impressive that they have so much energy!

Whenever I travel to a new place I always look for secondhand bookshops. Usually the shops have a unique and cheap collection of interesting books. Georgetown's Chowrasta Market has many of these shops located on the second floor. Look at these massive piles of books, all bound together with string to keep them from tumbling down in a cascade. It takes a lot of patience to go through all the outdated textbooks and mass-produced romance novels, but I managed to find some good reads!

One of the highlights of the trip was touring the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, a beautiful and historically significant restored house that now functions as a landmark and upscale hotel.

The house was built by Cheong Fatt Sze, a successful Chinese immigrant and businessman. It was used as the filming site for the award-winning film Indochine.

Tours are conducted three times a day in Mandarin and English, and the guides are quite knowledgeable about the history and the architecture of the house. I highly recommend it if you have the time, and it's a nice way to spend a hot afternoon indoors.

Fort Cornwallis was also on my list of things I wanted to do in Penang. It's a star-shaped fort located near the water, and makes for a nice walk when combined with the other old colonial buildings in the area. By itself though, it was a bit underwhelming. Not many of the original structures remain, so it's mostly a flat grassy area with some plaques describing the history of the place.

One thing I noticed on my walks throughout the town is that there are so many religious sites. One street is called the street of "religious harmony," because along that short way there is a mosque, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, and two Christian churches of different sects. It's so nice to see this diversity in such a dense and small place.

Lastly, Penang Hill makes for a nice half-day outing. It's a bit far from the Georgetown area, so you definitely want to catch a cab or a public bus if you are on a budget. One bus, which I took, drives from the jetty area all the way to the hill in about 40 minutes, and it takes a nice winding route around different neighborhoods of Penang.

The hill is a very tall hill indeed! There is a funicular train which goes up the hill; roundtrip is 30 MYR for visitors. The ride takes about 10 minutes, during which you are going up the side of the hill at about a 60 degrees angle to the ground. It's quite steep and your ears might pop like mine did!

The view at the top is gorgeous, about a kilometer above sea level. Another bonus is that the temperature is much cooler at the top of the hill.

Besides the nice views, there isn't too much to do on top of the hill. There is a nice food court, a quirky-looking Owl Museum, a playground for kids, and you can also take a buggy ride around some of the paths. Still, it's a nice way to spend a few hours in a semi-natural setting. 

I'm really glad I got to visit Penang - it was one of the last places I haven't visited that was on my list. It's not a major tourist destination in Southeast Asia (it has neither exciting nightlife nor beautiful beaches), but it has a lot of understated charm which I think would appeal to many types of visitors. It's not as big or chaotic as Kuala Lumpur; it's larger and has more diverse activities than Malacca. Additionally, Georgetown itself is only one part of the larger island of Penang, which does have beaches, water sports, and fishing villages.

 If you are ever in the region, you should go have a look for yourself! 

Delicious Finds

Penang is known for its amazing and affordable food. A taxi driver told me that there are Singaporean tourists who fly all the way here just to eat a few meals. Personally, I don't know if I would go to those lengths, but what I did try was really good! I had a few meals of traditional local foods, and others of different cuisines from unique local institutions and cafes. 

On the first night, I stumbled across a food stand on Chulia Street, the backpacker district. It's called lok lok - think of a roadside, communal eating experience of hot pot. There are various raw ingredients skewered on wooden sticks and arranged for self-service. The sticks are colored at the ends which let you know the price of that particular item. 

You just take whatever you feel like and stick it in one of two pots of boiling water. When it's cooked (up to your own discretion!), you can remove it from the water and dip it in various spicy sauces. It's a fun experience because all these different people are just standing around, cooking their food and eating on the street. There are different vegetables, meat balls, seafood, tofu and eggs. It's not the most sanitary experience, but I figured the boiling water would disinfect the food. I tried about 5 skewers of food for 4 Malaysian ringgit (MYR), or a little more than $1 USD. 

Georgetown is also known for having an abundance of quirky and hipster cafes located in renovated shophouses, serving both local and western foods. I found one on Lorong Chulia called Roti Bean Cafe for breakfast the second morning. They have a simple menu, and I ordered egg in toast, alternatively known as "egg in a basket" or "toad in a hole" for 5 MYR.  It was delicious - thick buttery toast and a nice soft-boiled egg plopped in the middle! Good fuel for the rest of the day.

Another nice cafe is located on Lorong Soo Hoon, and the name is a play of words on the street. It's called "Soo hongry!"A homey little place, the menu is limited to the few specials they serve each day. There wasn't a physical menu - the waitress described each dish in detail after I sat down.

I ordered the portuguese chicken, which was cooked really well. Cafes like these are a great way to get out of the heat during the midday, eat a meal or drink some coffee, and relax with a book or a journal. Some of the other cafes that I enjoyed are the Mugshot Cafe, Budan's Brew, and China House.

Another fantastic hidden find - a vegetarian Chinese restaurant also on Lorong Soo Hoon. It was quite empty but I went one day for dinner since it was pouring down rain and the location was right next to the guesthouse. They served a special vegetarian set with a soup, multigrain rice, various veggies and mock meat. The portions were just right and the food was cooked really well! I also ordered a cucumber juice on the side, to top off an extremely healthy and nutritious meal.

There are quite a number of vegetarian restaurants in Penang, and the food seems all done quite well. I wonder if this is due to a large population of Hindus and Buddhists.

One famous dish in Penang is the assam laksa - a spicy and sour noodle soup made with fish paste and various herbs such as lemongrass and basil. It's hard to eat in the summertime heat though! Various people swear by their favorite hawker stands, but I'm not the biggest fan of the dish so I just picked it one day at a food court.

Hawker centres and food courts are a big part of the social scene - it's where friends, families, young people all go hang out and eat a meal together. Many of them open in the late afternoon, and stay bustling until the early morning hours. Sometimes there are live performances in the larger food centres. There are always numerous stalls, from traditional noodle stalls to interesting takes on western and Taiwanese food.

There's usually a juice vendor to sell fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices!

The last night I tried popiah at a hawker centre called CF Food Court. Popiah is an interesting dish, sort of a take on a spring roll. Inside a thin flour wrap is fried shredded turnip, tofu, and a sweet and sour dark sauce. It's an interesting blend of textures, and relatively healthy for hawker fare!

I really enjoyed all the different meals I had in Penang. Some of the food is similar to what one might find in Singapore, but it's about 3 times cheaper! I don't think it's the only reason one should come travel to Penang, but it definitely is an integral part of the overall experience. 

Street Art in Georgetown

This past weekend I went to the the island of Penang, Malaysia, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. I stayed in the historic core of Georgetown. This quaint place, full of winding alleys of traditional shophouses, unique cafes, and various religious institutions, also has street art around every corner. For me, it became a game, trying to find all the fun and quirky designs hidden throughout the town center. Here are some of the things I found! 

Much of the art is somewhat interactive and takes into account physical elements that it is located next to. Some of the designs were a bit wacky and funny, others were quite realistic and hearken back to some nostalgic element of the older days. 

There are various free tourist maps that point to the locations of the artworks, but I preferred to just wander around down the streets and discover the works myself. Often they were located on very typical looking building faces. It took a lot of concentration and observation skills, and I now realize how much we miss out when we are walking around, even if we think we see everything!

There were times when I would walk past a place a second time and notice something I didn't see at all when I passed by initially.

Some of the artwork also has educational and historical value. Many of the streets and lanes in Penang have interesting associations or stories. There are wrought-iron sculptures, such as the one below, that describes what the street is known for. 

The street art was one of the highlights of the trip, and added another dimension to the fun of exploring a new city.