Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Temples and Tuk-Tuks

Temples and Tuk-Tuks: ETA-ETA di Kemboja dan Negeri Thai
A Tuk-Tuk is a motorbike with a wagon-like rickshaw for passengers at the back. They are convenient and cheap, ubiquitous in both Cambodia and Thailand, and served as the main mode of transportation during our two week holiday.
One tuk-tuk ride took us through the temples of Angkor, breaking down and overheating about every five/ten minutes, at which point the driver would run into a nearby villager’s home, and throw buckets of water on the bike. We would wait for our sturdy tuk-tuk to cool down and would then go on our way. Though some drivers seemed like they had a death wish, I grew fond of the tuk-tuk’s open air, cramped cabin. I felt more at-one with the streets, and perhaps with the pollution.
Let me just say that I found Cambodia far more breathtaking than I thought I would and Thailand far more disillusioning than I thought I would.
Cambodge Aigre-Doux
We began our whirlwind Southeast Asian jaunt in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This capital city is no Kuala Lumpur, but it was a respite from cities littered with shopping malls and shiny things.

Cambodia is rife with poverty, child labor, prostitution, and HIV-AIDS. Shoeless children try to push their wares on you as you walk down the street or sit at a café. They follow you, repeating their pleas, both desperate and bored. One small girl, who couldn’t have been more than 4 years old, rang out the so often shouted: “lady, lady!” But what followed seemed to resound in my head again and again. For one dollar she was selling ten bracelets. With her eyes glazed over, she read off “one, two, three…” then “uno, dos, tres,” German, French, Japanese. This little girl was programed like a robot to sell things. She couldn’t carry on any sort of meaningful conversation in English but had been forced to learn how to sell her bracelets in a dozen languages. Cambodia is heartbreaking. Like the children on its streets, it is well-worn and tired, but beautiful and hopeful. While there, we were able link up with a couple NGOs- two amazing organizations in particular: Daughters of Cambodia, which helps victims of sex-trafficking, and MithSamlanh Friends, which works with street children.
When I returned to my classroom in Malaysia I taught my students about the Khmer Rouge- a terrible era in history that many Malaysians or Americans are not even aware of. The lesson began: “Cambodia has a very sad history…” In the years 1975-1979 more than 1.5 million Cambodians were brutally imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the insurgent ruling government of extremist Communists.  Cambodia’s bloody past can be revisited at the killing fields at Choeung Ek, just outside of Phnom Penh. Choeung Ek, once home to mass graves, now is a place for somber remembrance. A monument stands in the center of the surrounding trenches- a tower filled with the skulls of men, women, and children. A gloomy tour of the capital continues at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a school transformed into a giant prison under the rule of Pol Pot. Thousands of photos line the hallways, faces haunted by fear- ghosts of the so-called ‘revolution’. 100 victims were killed a day at this prison alone. Since my visit to the Holocaust museum in D.C. when I was 15, I have never felt this much nauseating sadness.

Despite all of this hardship, the people of Cambodia have a spirit to them. Once night we were at a café with a group of local men. They were giggling and drinking pitchers of Angkor beers, all saying “cheer up!” instead of “cheers!” I like that. Also, Cambodia has “happy pizza” restaurants, which serve special pizza- think green herb. “Happy Pizza” is right next door to “Ecstatic Pizza.”
Our visit to Cambodia began in Phnom Penh, a city nearly destroyed by its recent history. We continued on deep into Cambodia’s past to Siem Reap, the taking-off point for Angkor: an absolutely enormous and awe-inspiring place, worthy of its title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, unofficial eighth wonder of the world, and the national symbol of Cambodia. Angkor was the center of an ancient empire ruled by god-kings. Do I even need to describe the temples of Angkor? I just will say: they were stunning, mysterious, breathtaking, and all at once exhausting. The temple complex sprawled over miles and miles of this lost civilization. We rented bicycles and rode through tree-lined streets between 12th century ruins: temples with Hindu and Buddhist statues and wall carvings, palaces with grand gates, surrounded moats, tree roots gripping the walls.

My Francophile eyes started to bulge: there were Baguettes everywhere! I was disappointed to find their texture much chewier and airier than their counterparts in the west. But after countless disappointments I have given up on baked goods in Asia entirely. These baguettes are vestiges from the French colonial past of Indochine. In Siem Reap I was able to fulfill my fantasy of riding a bike, with a basket, with a baguette!
The national dish of Cambodia: Amok- a coconut milk and fish curry dish- yummy but akin to most Malaysian food. What was more inspiring was the Loc Lac – A whole cow roasts over a spit- stuffed with aromatics (something you don’t see every day). Cubes of this scrumptious beef are served alongside lettuce, cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes with a dipping sauce made of lime juice and black pepper. Mmmm…beef.
Side note: One frustration of Southeast Asia: oppressive heat combined with conservative dress leads to a very sweaty existence. I still had to cover my legs and shoulders when entering temples. I hate to quote Lady Gaga, but come on- I was born this way- and I think that clothing should be for either a) cold weather or b) fashion. During my experience in Southeast Asia there has been a serious lack of both.
I left Cambodia for Thailand, yet another deeply spiritual and breathtakingly beautiful place, proud in its history and cultural heritage.
Bangkok: Sweltering and Hectic

Fasten your seatbelts. Oh- your tuk-tuk doesn’t have seatbelts? Well enjoy the wild ride that is Bangkok.
I met my sister, Leigh and her boyfriend, Glenn in Bangkok. It was so nice to see family, family who I haven’t seen since New Year’s. It was Leigh and Glenn’s first time to Asia. Thailand is the so-called land of smiles, but it is also the land of scams. I guess this is the white man’s burden. Thailand has been in this business so long; why not take advantage of those silly tourists? Perhaps Bangkok isn’t exactly the best place to ease one into travel in Asia, but they dealt with the cockroaches and sticky hotness quite well. One thing I have learned to say in Malay, panas babi gila (hot as a crazy pig), can easily be applied to Thailand. Yet, the Thai language is so incredibly foreign from anything I’ve ever experienced. The script’s loops and curves lend vocally to tonal sing-song sighs. Like the prego in Italy- which can mean anything as, the Thais seem to have a counterpart in the word kah. Women would point to their wares, to a chair, to the bathroom door with a whiney exhale of kah. As you walk down the street you can hear kahs here and there.
Tuk-tuk drivers hound passersbys and offer trips to see the infamous Patpong ‘ping pong’ show. Take one woman with unique skills in manipulating her body parts, one ping pong ball, and one epic red-light district and you get a room full of dirty men with their Thai Bhat ready and their chins dropped to the floor, indulging in what many people come to Thailand for- the booming sex tourism industry.
Thailand has been leader of Southeast Asia in the tourism business. But there are plenty of sights to see in Bangkok when the sun is out and the night crawlers of Patpong are asleep. Our trip to Bangkok, included these G-rated musts:
~Visiting the Royal Palace complex- gold, glittering, and grand
~Taking a boat ride through city canals on the River Taxi, which serves as an extension of Bangkok’s bustling public transportation system
~Getting a glorious Thai massage from the nation’s premier massage school at Wat Pho, which will leave you feeling rejuvenated, as all your aches have been rubbed or cracked out of your body
~Drinking super swanky cocktails above the Bangkok skyline, at the Banyon Tree Hotel’s 60th floor rooftop Vertigo Bar
~Shopping at the frenetic Chatuchak Weekend Market- the largest in Southeast Asia, with more than 8,000 open-air stalls- where you can find everything under the sun; my favorite being the boutique fashion steals and hipster deals
~Going on a food crawl through Bangkok’s sprawling and battered Chinatown- sitting on plastic chairs in narrow alleyways slurping up pork soup and Chinese-Thai curries
~Meandering through the Amulet Market- where street blocks are lined exclusively with small Buddhist charms, worn by Thai men and women alike
Bangkok lies at the intersection between Thailand’s past and future; between the venerable and the cutting-edge. Ancient temples and royal palaces stand beside upscale urban supermalls. You get the all the smells of New York on the hottest day of the year, but you also get the exotic cultural hub of Southeast Asia.
Lay Back in Chiang Mai
After a 14 hour overnight train ride through northern Thailand, a party in the dining cart, and multiple bottles of Singha and Chang beers, and “Red” wine, we arrived in Chiang Mai- a place to cool down, kick back, and soak in traditional Thai culture. The old quarter of Chiang Mai is walled within a square moat, inside narrow soi- alleys branch off the main roads, leading to tranquil guesthouses and secluded temples. The city has more than 300 temples! The mountain of Doi Suthep, home to northern Thailand’s holiest shrine rises over Chiang Mai.  Monks wander, cloaked in robes of saffron, turmeric, and curry.
The city- which gives off more of a quaint small town feel – has a lot of shopping opportunities. Bangkok’s shopping seems junky compared to the craft markets of Chiang Mai, like the famous Sunday Walking Street. The national anthem rang out at the night market, and everyone stopped what they were doing to stand quietly and respectfully. The Thais have fierce pride of their nationhood.
My new found love for Thai massage continued in Chiang Mai where we had the experience of receiving a massage from a former female inmate. The Chiang Mai Women’s Prison Massage Centre trains prisoners in traditional Thai massage, providing them with real job skills for when they reintegrate into society.
At night we opt for a show- a Muay Thai (kickboxing) fight. Muay Thai is the vicious and entertaining national sport of Thailand. Young teenage boys circle the ring performing pre-fight rituals to honor the ancestor Muay Thai masters. The fight begins with the cry of traditional musical instruments, throws of knees to the face and heels to the chest. The fighters are small and compact as sweat pours from off their hard bodies.
During the day we went for a cooking class at Thai Farm Cooking School. We started out with a trip to the wet market to learn about Thai ingredient staples. On a little farm, well outside city walls, we spent the entire day learning how to make Thai culinary classics: yellow, red, and green curry, tom yam, coconut soup, papaya salad, spring rolls, pad Thai, mango and sticky rice, and bananas in coconut milk. Lemongrass, ginger root, and galangal leaves wafted through the open-air kitchens and I salivate remembering our all-day feast.
Chiang Mai serves as a base for excursions into the hills of northern Thailand: trips to hill tribe villages, trekking, extreme sports, elephant rides, etc. await the active traveler. I didn’t feel quite right about parading around an indigenous tribe’s village, taking photos of their National Geographic-staged way of life. But what I did want to see in Thailand: Elephants! The Elephant Nature Park is one of the only sanctuaries of its kind- part elephant preserve, health clinic, and advocacy organization for the humane treatment of our pachyderm friends. One woman has spent her life devoted to saving and rehabilitating elephants, which have been injured or abused by human hands. Although her nickname, Lek, means ‘small’ in Thai, her love for elephants is immeasurable. Visitors come to the sanctuary for the day to feed, bathe, and just hang-out with elephants and their babies surrounded by the 150 acres of rainforested hills and wide open pastures.  We actually went into the river to wash the elephants. I even got an elephant kiss!

Cambodia and Thailand are magical places and I hope someday you can experience it all for yourself!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

FOOD of Malaysia: Part I- Saya Makan Semua- “I eat everything”


Malaysians are very proud of their food. One of the first things they will ask a visitor is:" What do you think about Malaysian food?” Malaysian cuisine pulls in many flavors from China, India, and the Malaysian archipelago. Where I live, in Terengganu, much of the cuisine is straight-up Malay. 

Unlike neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Malaysian cuisine is very heavy. Most dishes are either fried, contain coconut, or both: certainly not heart-friendly. The good thing is- I'm building up a tolerance for very spicy foods.

A real Southeast Asian food experience does not involve western-style sit-down 'restaurants.’ The best food in Malaysia is street food. You usually have no idea what you are eating, but it is all delicious. One of the best places to sample Malaysian cuisine is at the outdoor market. Every town has its own Pasar Malam (or night market) where rows of hawker stalls line up selling their freshly-made wares. Sometimes towns also have a Pasar Pagi (or morning market) which specializes in produce, cakes, and breakfast treats. Food at the market is cheap (a good meal never costing much more than a dollar) making it an even better place to try new things that you might be wary of dropping money on. The custom of open-air night markets is one Malaysian practice that I wish would take hold back in America. Maybe it can replace cupcake cafes or bacon-flavored chocolate as the next new food trend.

The Main Ingredients

Rice (nasi) is the basis of any Malay meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), though the preparation can be as varied as the sauces that accompany them. Rice can be thickened or lemak, with coconut milk; or flavored with aromatics like star anise in nasi beriani; or fried in nasi goreng. Glutinous (sticky) rice- pulut- is also a common ingredient in desserts, and cakes (kuih) are made with rice flour- tepung beras

Noodles also play a large part on the Malaysian stage. Meehoon (or bee hoon) is like rice vermicelli. Round yellow egg noodles are simply referred to as mee. There is also white rice noodles commonly referred to as laksa (and often served in a spicy, coconut soup). Other dishes feature ramen-like instant noodles called maggi

Protein: Fish (ikan), chicken (ayam), prawns/shrimp (udang), and squid (sotong) are the primary elements of daily eating. (Any beef (daging) you will find is usually slow cooked in stews, though it is often too chewy to consume easily.) 

Chilies- in dried or fresh form are used in sauces and pastes such as sambal (chilies and shrimp paste)   

Coconut- Coconut milk (santan) is used in many sauces and in cakes. Its dried flesh is used in many sweets, donuts, etc. You can always find the fresh water of young coconut (kelapa muda) with bits of the mild, soft-textured flesh at roadside beverage stalls. Coconut is also the main ingredient for one of Malaysia’s most popular condiments- Kaya (literally translated as ‘rich’): a thick coconut and egg jam (did I mention my fear of acquiring heart disease here?).  

Fishy flavors: Malaysians love their seafood, as is evident by entire of sections of markets devoted to dried fish. If you detest fish you are mostly out of luck- as fish sauce, dried fish, fish paste, fish crackers, or whole fish make their way into almost every Malaysian dish.
belacan- dried shrimp paste (used in one of my favorite dishes, laksa Terengganu)
Ikan bilis- tiny, crispy anchovies dried whole. They are sprinkled atop noodle and rice dishes. 

Gula Melaka: a dark brown sugar made by boiling the sap collected from the cut flower stalks of the coconut palm. This delicious smoky syrup is used in many sweets and ice desserts. 

Sweetened Condensed Milk: we have bread and butter in the west. The Malays have their sweetened condensed milk. Used in practically every beverage, dessert, and baked item, SCM is as it sounds: sickeningly sweet; thick, goopy and condensed; one wonders if milk is actually an ingredient.  

Malay Dishes

 Nasi Lemak

Every morning (and usually evening too) most Malaysians eat Nasi Lemak, the unofficial ‘national dish’ of Malaysia. Rice is steamed with coconut water, and topped with ikan bilis, peanuts, sliced cucumber, sweet-hot sambal, and half of a hard-boiled egg.

(Another breakfast option, which I personally shy away from, is watery rice porridge (congee or bubur) served with various savory condiments.)

 Rojak Ayam

My favorite Malay dish so far has been Rojak Ayam: a noodle dish with a concoction of chicken, potatoes, cucumber, lettuce, chunks of delicious deep-fried batter, and smothered in a somewhat spicy, dark red peanut sauce (rojak sauce). It’s a little difficult to find, but usually is featured at a good Pasar Malam (night market). This stuff is soooo good. 
(Just FYI: You will more commonly find Rojak [without the 'ayam'] as a fruit salad topped with the peanut sauce and sometimes pickled.)

Kerepok Lekor
Kerepok is a popular fried snack in Terengganu. It is made of fish meat, ground to a paste, and mixed with sago. Kerepok is prepared using two different methods: 1) long chewy (sausage-looking) ones are called kerepok lekor 2) the thin, crispy (chip-like) ones are called kerepok keping. Kerepok lekor is best eaten hot with its special sweet chili dip. A trip to Malaysia’s east coast will inevitably involve many offerings of this local specialty. 

 Roti Canai

A popular snack is Roti Canai- an amazing Indian-derived buttery flat bread served with a curry dipping sauce. Wheat flour is kneaded into a dough, which is then twirled and flung in the air (á la pizza tossing) or simply stretched in order to thin it out. Ghee is constantly added to the process to prevent the dough from breaking as it gets thinner. The dough is then folded into a circular shape and is slightly charred on an iron pan. Roti Cani is served with dhall (lentil curry) or just a red curry sauce. Though its origins are obviously Indian, Malaysians have absorbed roti canai into their national cuisine. This treat can set you back a whopping RM 1.00. You may order your roti, with egg inside (roti telur) or with sardines (roti sardin). You might opt for the more filling and, what I find to be divine, murtabak- a slightly thicker version, stuffed with a mixture of egg, beef, and onions. Or you may have a sweet tooth and order up some a roti tissue- but this time your roti will come extra thin and crispy in a cone shape, smothered in either sweetened condensed milk, or butter and sugar, or honey.

 Satay at a night market 

You can find satay (Malaysian-style kebab) at any street market. The skewers of chicken (though you can also find fish) are grilled over a charcoal fire and are flavored simply and subtly with turmeric (which gives the dish its characteristic yellow color). The satay is served up with a delicious peanut sauce (which, despite my distaste for peanut butter, I absolutely adore). This is probably the most famous Malay dish outside of Malaysia.


Satar is a blend of boneless fish marinated in spices, with a little coconut, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over a charcoal fire. It is both sweet and savory and light tasting.


Otak-Otak- literally ‘brains’- is fish mashed with coconut and chilli and steamed in a banana leaf. It is more savory than sweet satar. 

My favorite Malay squid dish- very traditional and a little hard to come by

I live right by the sea and squid is big in Terengganu. It seems like a novelty in the U.S. to serve fresh squid (apart from the often poorly-done, yet ever-popular fried calamari.) Squid is in everything here- even making it into picnic baskets. My favorite squid dish is Sotong Pulut Santan: whole squid stuffed with sticky rice and topped with coconut-milk gravy.

A pile of fried bananas- pisang goreng

Fresh vegetables are lacking as part of a daily Malaysian diet. Okra is a popular vegetable. They call it lady fingers (must be a British thing). Eggplants are also commonly used in curry sauces. Sweet potato (ubi) is fried and topped with sweet crumbs of fried dough, and served with a sweet- spicy sauce. Bananas (pisang) are abundant. They are also often in fried form as the always popular snack pisang goreng. They also fry fermented tapioca root (which tastes similar to a cooked pear). These fried treats can be found at nearly any beach side food stall.    


Air Kelapa Muda

Unfortunately, there isn’t a big dessert culture in Malaysia. Bakeries usually have more savory options than sweet, such as shredded chicken rolls. More often than not, the only dessert offered will be a plate of fresh watermelon, honeydew, pineapple, and papaya. These fruits grow year round and are abundant. Mini bananas also grow year round and are packed with flavor. They have a ton of fresh fruit juice. Sugar cane juice, fresh soy milk, lychee drink, corn juice, rose syrup drink, and guava juice grace hawker stalls all over Malaysia. My personal favorite is air kelapa: fresh coconut water is mixed with shavings of soft, mild young coconut flesh, sweetened lightly with clear sugar syrup, and served on ice. Put me on a beach with one of these and I'm in heaven.

 This image is taken from one of the fruit's many fan sites

Durian...Durian is often referred to as the 'king of fruits', the most beloved of all among Malaysians and southeast Asians for that matter. Hotel signboards prohibit the fruit on the premises. Why? The smell is atrocious- something like bad body odor... and the taste isn't much better. There is an essence of rubbish and you might think the fruit has already gone rotten. But, alas, this is durian. You either hate it- which most westerners do- or love it. Durian is often described as a 'hot' food, meaning quite literally that it heats the body when eaten. Durian on its own is straight up offensive, but if it is used more subtly, as an actor in a dessert dish, such as pulut durian (a sweet glutinous and durian soup), it verges on enjoyable and I dare say, closely approaches appetizing. I will never have the extreme love that Malaysians have for this king of fruits, but I think the king and I are working on a better relationship.

 Traditional Malaysian Kuih- desserts

Lots of rice, pandan (a green leaf, sometimes referred to as ‘Southeast Asian vanilla’ for the light, slightly sweet essence it lends to sweets), coconut, and cane sugar are used in desserts. Corn and green bean (not our green beans, aka mung bean, which is more akin to Asian red bean) are used in a lot of sweet dishes as well.

Chinatown had a plethora of sweet treats for Chinese New Year- my favorite being a flaky, buttery pastry filled with cooked pineapple.

Ais kacang or cendol is probably my favorite Malaysian dish here- a dessert (of course) of shaved ice topped with all sorts of syrups, red bean, corn, fruit, jellies, sweetened condensed milk, etc. Yum! And with the combination of a spicy dinner and the hot weather- it is the perfect ending.

Bubur Cha Cha is a dessert soup: sweetened coconut milk with pieces of sweet potato, yam, and tapioca balls. This is a more baba-nyona or Chinese-Malay dish, so it’s rarer to find in my neck of the woods.

Etiquette Miscellany

Pig-eating is prohibited in the Islamic faith so all pork options are thrown out the window, and sometimes replaced with wannabe alternatives like beef ‘bacon’ and chicken sausage. Not to fear, you can get your pork fix in any good Chinatown, away from the Malay establishments. They have stores completely devoted to bacon- in flat squares, round tubes, or sliced chunks. Not to mention the delicious Chinese steamed buns filled with barbecued pork (which you can find all over KL).

Malaysians eat with their hands, except of course, when eating soup or sometimes when eating noodles. They only eat with their right hand (“because the left hand is used for the toilet”). It is difficult for me to sop up sauce and rice in one hand gracefully so I ask for a fork (garfu) whenever I can. This invites strange looks, as even when they use silverware, Malaysians would use a spoon (sudu), not a fork, for rice. Knives are non-existent at the dining table. It is proper to take a drinking glass with your left (clean) hand, while eating.

Mealtimes are the following: anytime in the am for breakfast; late afternoon (around 2) for lunch (there is no noon rush at restaurants); early evening for tea-time; 6 or 7 for dinner; and 9 -11 for super.

The classic way to sample multiple Malay curries is to eat nasi campur, a buffet of various meat, fish, and vegetable sauces to top your helping of white rice.

There is no tipping at restaurants. Any fine-dining establishment will include a service charge in the bill.

Let’s just say: ‘thank god I’m not a vegetarian.’ You will not only get many confused looks, but Malaysians tend to resent vegetarians.