Posts Tagged ‘seafood’
On my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I was searching for a night market snack which I hadn’t had since I left the country ten years ago – something we call otak-otak. When translated, the name of this exceptional delicacy literally reads, “brain-brain.” If you are taken aback somewhat by the name, don’t. Despite the name, there’s no brains in otak-otak. Instead, the kind that I grew up with – Muar style otak-otak – comprises a thin rectangular strip of fish paste, wrapped neatly with coconut leaves, and finally grilled to perfection. When unwrapped, the red hued-paste was unusually tender and nicely spiced, redolent of dried seafood flavours.
Reading the book, “Nonya Flavours” exposed me to a plethora of Peranakan dishes, which I was not as familiar with; one of the items that caught my attention was otak-otak. This version, was to my surprise, in a form of a banana leaf parcel and secured by a toothpick. More importantly, the fish used was sliced in small pieces and mixed with a spiced custard, before being steamed. The outcome was notably more delicate in texture but smelled pungently fragrant due to the inclusion of daun kaduk (Piper sarmentosum, also known as wild betel leaves or lá lốt in Vietnamese). It was not the easiest thing to make, especially the spice paste, as I own a mortar and pestle. I remembered spending all afternoon on that, as well as wrapping those little parcels while ensuring my leaves were not torn.
However, I could not imagine making this any way else. I find that mortar and pestle has a strange way of connecting us to the food we are prepping. I saw how my spice paste was slowly transformed in a matter of minutes. I also realised the amount of effort and patience that went into making this otak-otak. In Malaysia, a small piece of Muar style otak-otak would sell for a mere RM0.50 – RM0.80 (approximately $0.25) despite the amount of labour; Penang Nyonya-style would run much higher. What’s impressive is not only the price. It’s that people are still making it by hand and they make them well, something which probably many Malaysians take for granted sometimes. For an overseas Malaysian like me, we don’t have the privilege to buy these otak-otak from the markets and making them by hand is quite humbling in many ways. I am sure a proper nyonya would be proud to see this.
- 250 ml thick coconut milk
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tbsp (heaped) rice flour
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, fine julienne
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 1 tbsp sugar, or taste
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
Spice paste (grind with mortar & pestle)
- 100g shallots
- 20g garlic
- 40g fresh red chilli, seeds discarded
- 7g dried red chilli, soaked to soften
- 15g galangal
- 20g fresh turmeric
- 40g lemongrass
- 20g belacan
- banana leaves for wrapping (thawed, if previously frozen)
- 20-30 kaduk leaves
- 0.5kg – 1kg fish fillet, sliced
- Mix spice paste and custard together. Let it sit for about 30 minutes or so while you prepare the banana leaves as detailed below.
- Cut banana leaves into 18cm x 20cm. Wipe them with a clean tea towel to rid of any dirt.
- Take a piece of banana leaf and line with about three kaduk leaves in the centre.
- Place three (or more) slices of fish and about two tablespoons of custard mix in the centre.
- Fold two opposing sides of the banana leaf together. Then, fold the remaining sides to seal. Form into a little parcel and secure it with a toothpick.
- Ensure water is boiling rigorously and steam for ten minutes or until the custard sets and the fish is cooked.
- Enjoy as it is or serve with rice.
(recipe adapted from “Nonya Flavours – A complete guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine” by The Star Publications)
Posted August 20, 2012on:
The exotic Javanese and Manadonese lunch had left us so full, so much that I could skip dinner altogether. But the prospect of trying the famous oxtail soup or known locally as sop buntut from Hotel Borobudur was too tempting. I heard their soup was legendary. I couldn’t find any evidence that they invented sop buntut but apparently, it’s pretty darn tasty.
We got changed into something nicer and we headed north of Jakarta Pusat to the hotel. We were bombarded by a crowd of people in front of the hotel, all of whom were nicely dressed in traditional batik costumes. We walked past them and directly to Bogor Cafe at Hotel Borobudur. Lucky for us, there was no wait at all. We ordered some mocktails to sip on while waiting for our sop buntut. I don’t remember exactly what drinks those were but they were full of local tropical flavours!
After about 15 minutes wait, our sop buntut had finally arrived. The huge bowl had a gorgeous caramel coloured broth with several pieces of oxtail, tomato wedges and chopped scallions. The taste was spectacular, to say the least. It was full bodied and in clear in taste and possessed similar qualities to a well made consomme or stock. When eaten with the super tender oxtail, it was possibly one of the best soups I’ve had so far. To make the meal more substantial, we also had some jasmine rice with Indonesian crisps called krupuk.
The soup was just our appetiser. Our main course was seafood and for this, we travelled to a seafood restaurant called Saung Grenvil. As we walked into the entrance, we past by a table of large live crabs and what got me interested was the female crabs because I love the roe from a crab. As a child, I was always fascinated with the possibility of finding the bright orange roe on the shell because I could not get enough of the rich and creamy surprise with my rice! The female crabs here were not cheap though – Rp. 236,000 (approximately USD 30) per kilogram but if there is anything, this is the delicacy that is worth paying for.
We ordered Kepiting Telur Saus Padang (Female Crabs with Spicy Padang Sauce), char grilled giant head prawns and mantau goreng (fried buns) to soak up all the delicious sauce. I immediately took a piece of the shell when the dish came to the table and I could not believe what I saw! It was filled with so much roe that I was no doubt in roe heaven. =) I dipped the crispy and pillowy mantau in the sauce-covered roe and I slathered the sauce all over my rice as well. We spent the next couple of hours cracking the crabs into smaller pieces and slowly digging for the meat. I was never a big fan of crabs when I was little because it can be awfully messy. In other words, too much work for too little meat. However, I started to enjoy whole crabs prepared this way again in the recent years. The giant prawns were equally delicious with a big squeeze of lime that went so well with the sticky caramelised sauce on the shells.
I wished we had a larger party so that we could try other seafood items at Saung Grenvil. But that only means that I would have to come back again for more next time. Jakarta has been quite a journey. While the city is polluted and heavily congested, there were certainly culinary gems to be found around this megacity. It would be helpful to have a local with you at times but not having one is not a deal breaker. Looking out for such gems on your own is part of the fun and adventure, isn’t it? My next stop is the exotic island of Bali. I will be writing about my experiences with three distinct areas of Bali and the amazing food that I’ve across. Bali was the part of the trip where we splurged; so expect nice hotels, cheap local warungs, traditional dances and everything mystical in between. =)
Having lived in the American midwest for several years, live prawns are very difficult to come by. We have frozen prawns that have been defrosted in the supermarkets but most of them have deteriorated in quality. The flesh was soft and at times, mushy. They’re just not pleasant to eat. In rare occasions, I would find tiny live shrimps from one of the larger markets in Chicago’s Chinatown but for over $20 a pound, there is really not much meat to savour in the end. Shall I say, a waste of money?
Now that I am in British Columbia, Canada, spot prawns are revered when they are in season. The spot prawn season was not very long in June this year, just a total of six weeks. However, I was very excited to get my hands on these spotted crustaceans because I know how tasty they can be. I missed the abundance of fresh prawns when I used to live in Malaysia and I couldn’t wait to relive those experiences. It’s going to be pig out session!
I was waiting till the prices drop to $13 a pound before buying them. This year the spot prawn supplies were low so I figured the prices would not go any lower. A couple of years ago, advertisements showed they were just $7.99 a pound!
There are plenty of ways to cook live prawns. They can be grilled, baked in the oven, baked in sea salt, stir fry and deep fried. But in my opinion, the best way to capture the sweet-tasting flavour of live spot prawns is none other than steaming. I lined my bamboo steamer with banana leaves and fill it up with the prawns. Be careful when handling the prawns because they have very sharp spikes on their shells and they may jump all over. So, safety gloves are highly recommended.
Steam for no more than three minutes over boiling water (or until it turns bright red) and serve immediately while they are hot with a few lemon wedges. They are also delicious when peeled and served cold with cocktail sauce.
- 1.5 lb live spot prawns
- lemon wedges
- banana leaves
- Wash prawns with cold water.
- Line a bamboo steamer with banana leaves and steam for no more than three minutes when the prawns turn bright red.
- Serve hot with lemon wedges.
Over the years, I’ve made plenty of friends from Indonesia and most of them are from Jakarta. But Jakarta was never a travel destination for most Malaysians unless you are on a business trip. When I tell people Jakarta is on my itinerary, many of them gave me that strange look with a big question mark on their face. They all asked me ,”Why?” But why not?
Jakarta is the capital and largest city in Indonesia. I convinced myself that there has to be something interesting there. So I booked my tickets and researched the place. It looked like I had plenty of things to do there; from visiting Sunda Kelapa, which is Jakarta’s old harbour, Glodok (Chinatown), Monas (the national monument), Kepulauan Seribu (Thousand Islands), and many other museums in the city. But I didn’t consider the fact that traffic in Jakarta is absolutely horrible, so getting around might be an issue.
After I landed at Soekarno-Hatta airport, I was surrounded by people trying to offer us taxi. Unlike Singapore, which is orderly, clean and efficient, Jakarta could possibly be on the other end of the spectrum. Take taxis as an example. Apparently not all of them are reliable because they might knowingly charge you more if you’re a foreigner. The best choice is Blue Bird group taxis. But before I could even look for Blue Bird, we were followed by these mob who claimed they are from the same group. It’ll be a cold day in hell I believe any of them.
My mission was simple. Find a reliable Blue Bird taxi and the cheapest fare to town. However, if you don’t know Indonesia, not everything is black and white. This man who claimed he is from Blue Bird offered me a fare of Rp. 170,000 to Jakarta Pusat. Still a bit more than what I read in my guide AND Blue Bird taxis charge by the meter. So I dismissed this guy as a fake. I walked straight to the Silver Bird counter asking if they know where Blue Bird is. The guy at the counter confirmed that they are “Blue Bird”, which was partly true because they are sister companies. But instead of assigning me a blue taxi which is cheaper, they gave a Silver Bird taxi which was way EXPENSIVE. If it’s any consolation, we rode on a plush Mercedez Benz SUV equipped with magazines and newspapers. That was possibly the closest I would feel like I was a CEO of some company sitting on the oh so fluffy seat on a Benz. But getting us to our hotel at Ibis Tamarin through the traffic jam during rush hour cost us Rp 230,000. Holy crap!
It was early evening when we got to our budget hotel. We took a moment to settle down before heading out again for dinner. Prior to flying to Jakarta, we took part in a contest by Alila Hotels and my partner and I both won a three course dinner for two people for just US$10. That means we were having a fancy dinner at Alila Jakarta for two nights in a row. Just awesome!
What seemed like a 15 minutes walk on Google Maps ended up to be 45 minutes walking through dark alleys around Monas and the presidential palace. And poof out came a fancy hotel out of no where. We walked into Alila and were seated immediately. We ordered mocktails to go with our dinner because yes, we got to indulge a little even though we’re on a budget. For those who are unaware, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. So alcohol is forbidden for most people, hence the mocktails. For those who can drink though, they have cocktails as well.
Christian’s mocktail is a mix of passion fruit and other tropical fruits while mine is made from lemon grass. With nice soothing jazz music playing in the background, we were really relaxed. We will be staying in one of Alila’s property in Ubud so we were looking forward to their hospitality there.
First course was the calamari fritti, taro chips, lemon relish, and Balinese pesto. The pesto was to die for!! This is when the bread and crisps on the table came in handy to soak it all up.
Second course is a Japanese inspired grilled Atlantic salmon, buckwheat noodles, enoki, pickled ginger and honey soy glaze. I think the fish was well prepared and it went well with the noodles. I am however not a fan of soy based glaze though. It’s was delicious overall.
And of course, the dessert; chocolate mocha tart with raspberry ice cream. Needless to say the flavours were together excellently. The tart was super chocolatey, just the way I like it. Great way to end the meal I must say. Even better because it’s just US$10 for two people. And yes, we have the exact same dinner the night after. Not that we were complaining. =)
Oh we wished we could stay at Alila Jakarta but we decided not to spend the extra money so that we could spend it in Bali. The things we do when we’re on a budget…. Sometimes we just can’t have it all.
When travelling in Malaysia, the best food is often found in the most obscure places. Sometimes they have no signs, no menu, and housed in a shack that is almost falling apart. But no one else but the locals know how to get there and they come from all over for great food at dirt cheap prices. We had our dim sum earlier in Kajang for breakfast and we finally arrived in Johor Bahru to visit our friend, Ling’s hometown. Johor Bahru is located at the southern most tip of the Malay peninsula and we were planning on heading to Singapore from there the next day, which is about 30 – 60 minutes drive away.
Her family was a gracious host and like any good host, they decided to bring us out for a wonderful dinner with a sunset view. But to get there, we had to drive through a small road right by a golf course and into the middle of a palm plantation. The roads were filled with big holes everywhere and needless to say, it was a very bumpy ride for at least 15 minutes. It was still bright when we went but if you are planning on going when it’s dark, make sure your headlights are working because it will be pitch black.
We knew we were at the right place at the sight of the waters by the plantation. Restoran SPOA has a weird name and it is pretty much like a wooden shack. But that doesn’t matter because in Malaysia, it’s the food that counts, not so much how it looks. It reminded me of the fishing village during my trip to Sekinchan a few weeks prior. Even though Singapore is less than 20 kilometres away, you can’t see such places in the republic any longer as Singapore’s urban planning projects moved Singaporeans from villages to well-built flats that have proper hygiene facilities many years ago.
You could see the kinds of fish and seafood that were available from the fish tank and you could also hand-pick your favourite seafood for your dinner. They have got clams, prawns, crabs, and fish supplied by fishermen, probably off the jetty by the dining deck. When we talked about eating seasonally in North America in the last 20 years, the people of Southeast Asia has been doing that for many years prior to the popularity of this trend. Despite having a consistently warm weather all year round, sometimes certain produce, seafood or meat might not be available or they could be too expensive. So instead, we eat what’s available that are equally fresh and delicious.
We entrusted Ling’s mum to order the best dishes that the chef can make while we went to check out the deck. The deck is off the Straits of Johor supported by wooden planks at the bottom. Although it creaked as we walked on it, it’s quite structurally sound. We then ventured out to the jetty and soaked in the view of Pulau Ubin in front of us and Singapore in the far distance. I suppose they get a lot of hungry Singaporean tourists who would come into Johor looking for cheap food? Mind you, at the time of writing, 1 Singapore dollar is equivalent to RM 2.50.
The first two dishes came out after a short wait. The fried rice with crispy baby anchovies is one of my favourite comfort food. It’s hard to make a good plate of fried rice though. This one has lots of wok hei (roasty flavour imparted by a wok at extremely high temperatures) and the rice was moist and fluffy. The fried bee hoon or rice vermicelli was quite basic but it was good.
The oatmeal prawns were extremely fresh and huge as shown in the beginning of the post. They were so crunchy that I would eat them with the shell on! The prawn heads were a bit too hard to eat them whole, so I just sucked the yummy stuff out of the head. Crabs were cooked with duck egg yolk sauce, which is one of my preferred way of cooking them. I’ve had better egg yolk crabs before but they were as amazing as the prawns. Kangkung or water convolvulus is best stir fried with dried fermented shrimp paste called belacan and SPOA did them very well. Last but not least, the clams that locals call la-la was made with a spicy sauce that was finger licking good.
And then, the best thing of the evening was off-menu; the gorgeous sunset in the midst of the tranquil waters. What a great way to end the day! Ling’s mum got the bill and we never knew the price of the meal. But the time we spent with them was priceless and we thank them for such a wonderful time in Johor. Next stop is Singapore!
We were on our way to begin our Southeast Asia trip from Malaysia and we were starting to head south on the peninsula to Johor, the southern most state of Malaysia. But before we started our journey, we needed a hearty breakfast. So we headed to Restoran Mexim Tim Sum in Kajang town to get some exceptional dim sum. I heard that when Mexim started their business many years ago, the chef hand-made the items from scratch. Nowadays, the business has expanded and I think the items are machine made but the food still remains humble and fresh.
We were quite early and we’re lucky to get a table right away. One thing I noticed is that Malaysians generally go for dim sum a lot earlier than the Chinese in North America. Many dim sum restaurants are opened at 7 AM or so and it is not uncommon for them to close before lunch time. Mexim’s interior is plain and simple. There’s also no fancy lighting or lavish table cloths. Once we ordered our tea, a server approached us with a tray of bamboo steamers with an array of freshly steamed items. There was no carts or menu form where you have to tick what you want.
The selections were fairly standard. We ordered a prawn dumpling called har gow and jee choy mai, a pork dumpling with seaweed. We also had siu mai, which was not pictured. I absolutely love all varieties of pork dumpling and I’ve never seen seaweed dumplings in North America.
Our chee cheong fun (Chinese rice rolls) had plump prawns and was served with a local sambal, possibly made with dried shrimps. The sambal is a must for a Malaysian kick to an otherwise boring Chinese dish. The steam pork ribs was light and has a touch of spiciness from the red chilli. Also noticed that the portions are more reasonable here than most Hong Kong style dim sum places in North America, which tend to be huge.
The fried pork roll was my favourite item at Mexim so far. It’s crunchy on the outside and it is stuffed with tender minced pork, duck egg yolks and dried oyster. This was literally bursting with umami flavours. The loh bak gou or radish cake was pan fried till crispy on the outside as well and it studded with Chinese sausage bits on the inside. Mmm…
The prawn stuffed tofu skin was divine but the fried glutinous rice with pork sausage and mushroom was some of the better ones I’ve had so far. Some things are just difficult to make at home and fried glutinous rice is one of them. Some find the smell of century eggs nasty but I love eating it as a palate cleanser at dim sum, especially with some pickled ginger and red chilli.
The total of our bill came to RM 52 for the three of us, which was not too bad of a damage. Mind you, we ordered more than enough for three people. But that kept energized for our “long haul” trip to Johor Bahru. Not to say that we didn’t stop along the way for more food though. =)
Hundreds of years ago, way before the New World was found, the Malay archipelago was made up of tiny kingdoms, which is the predecessor of many states in modern Malaysia. Melaka or Malacca, as it was called, was undoubtedly one of the most powerful Malay kingdoms of all. Traders from Sumatra, Arab states, China, India and more came to trade among other things, spices and needless to say, it was a prosperous kingdom. As spices were a valuable commodity, Western explorers, especially the Portuguese wanted to control Melaka, for those who controls Melaka, controls an important stretch of the spice route.
I don’t want to bore you with all the historical details but Melaka fell under the hands of the Portuguese led by Alfonso de Albuquerque. The Dutch soon took over, followed by the British and then the Japanese. Despite a turbulent history, Melaka’s position as a vibrant marketplace with multicultural communities and the conquest of the Portuguese had led to a melange of cultures, architectures, and of course, cuisine.
As far as culture is concerned, Melaka is one of the homes of the Peranakans. The Peranakan communities mixed native and local Malay cultures together, and it’s evident in the costumes, languages, and food. When the Chinese princess married to the Sultan of Melaka, the descendents formed the Chinese peranakan community. They are often called Baba and Nyonya, meant to describe the men and women respectively. Their culinary contribution to Malaysian cuisine is phenomenal and exquisite in many ways. The Indian peranakans are called Chitty and like the Chinese peranakans, they speak a Malay patois, but in their case, the patois has many loanwords from Tamil. Portuguese peranakans are called Kristang or Serani and they speak a Portuguese-Malay patois that was surprisingly similar to the Macanese patois in Macao, which was a Portuguese colony. Unfortunately, these patois, while unique, are slowly in decay.
The architecture of Melaka is no less impressive. When I was there for a visit last year, the city of Melaka still remained humble. The streets were quieter than I expected, probably a far cry from during the height of the Malaccan empire. We just got done with cendol at the Dutch city hall square and after a short walk, we ventured up to the site of the old Portuguese fort which we call Kota A’Famosa. The massive fort is now left with only one gate, the Porta de Santiago. Walking through this gate almost sent chills to my body because I wonder what is the story behind it and what and who had been here 500 hundred years ago? Was someone killed here or did the Dutch soldiers accidentally miss the bomb on this gate? So many unanswered questions!
As we walked up the hill of Bukit St. Paul, we reached the ruin’s of the old St. Paul’s Church. This was probably the church for the community inside the fortress but it now looked abandoned. From what I read, it seems that it was consecrated for the Virgin Mary which was reconsecrated for the Dutch Reformed when the Dutch took over. As we were inside the former chapel, I could not help but to feel a sense of sombreness. It looked very empty with old Portuguese tombstones leaning on the walls. Then I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like if the chapel is restored to its former glory.
I walked on its cobbled steps which led me to the exterior compound of the church. At the top of the hill, we could see the houses and the Straits of Malacca at a distance. I guess this was the perfect spot to see if the enemies were coming from afar. Part of me felt it’s nice to walk into a historic site like this church anytime without having to pay an admission fee and still able to touch the structure itself. But at the same time, I wondered if enough efforts were put into preserving this old church and the remnants of the fortress. I mean, who’s to stop people from chipping the old bricks or stealing historic items if ever found in the compounds of the church? Honestly, Malaysia is lousy at preserving historic sites in many respects and even lousier at teaching younger Malaysians to appreciate and care for national treasures like this. I felt the government got caught in the idea of pembangunan materialistik. We make bigger and better buildings and infrastructures because we want to make the world envy us. But yet, have Malaysians forgotten our history, where we came from and how we can pass down our heritage to future generations? I don’t think we are educating our kids enough to have the right minda to keep up with the mass development.
We descended the hill and headed to Jonker Walk. During weekends, this is packed with locals and tourists. However, we went on a weekday, so it’s a bit quieter. I love admiring the details of well preserved pre-war shophouses and there’s plenty of them in Melaka. These handsome houses have wooden window panels, five foot walkway, English tiles with Malay/Nyonya patterns, and Italian columns. It’s just a beautiful piece of architecture. If I have a cafe, I would want mine to look just like these shophouses. =)
Nearby, I heard Muslim prayers from the loudspeaker. We went towards the prayers and we found none other than the famous Kampung Kling Mosque. Built by the Indian Muslim traders, this mosque is an architecture beauty in its own right. Like the shophouses, the mosque has Indian, Chinese, Victorian, and Sumatran influences, so it’s quite a departure from the regular mosques you see in Malaysia.
As the sky is getting darker, we were getting hungrier as well. While I wanted to try Melaka style Nyonya cuisine, we didn’t know the best restaurant to go to. We decided to check out the famous Restoran Capitol for their satay celup. Satay celup is probably a Malaysian Chinese invention. They took one of the best component of a Malay style satay, the kuah (peanut sauce), and transformed it into the centrepiece. Then, people dip skewers of meat, seafood, and vegetables into the hot peanut sauce. Essentially, this is steamboat with a Malay twist. Very often do you see vendors selling satay celup at night markets but Capitol managed to sustain it as a restaurant business.
After waiting outside the restaurant for 45 minutes during a torrential downpour, we were finally seated. In the middle of the table, the staff brought out a pot of thick, richly spiced peanut broth. They then proceeded to enhance it with a scoop of their mystery ingredient. I took a spoonful of the broth and it was divine; it was sweet, salty, and fragrant. But it is a big pot, and it made me wonder if they throw the peanut broth out at the end of the meal or would they recycle it for the next table? Eww I know but peanuts are not exactly super cheap and it just does not make mathematical sense to make a fresh 5 litre pot for every table for the amount of money they are charging. I guess I will never find out. If you’re a hygiene freak, you can definitely leave this off your to-eat list.
The way it works is, you go pick your choice of skewered food from the fridge and each skewer has a price. If it is not skewered, you pay according to the colour of the plate. There’s everything from tiger prawns, squid, tofu, pork, beef, chicken, century eggs etc. Once you have your pick, celup or dip it into the peanut sauce in the middle and wait till it’s cooked or warm. As you can see from the picture, it can get kind of messy. Plus, they lost electricity for 15 minutes because of the rain, so dipping in the dark didn’t help either. Service sucked big time but the food was quite good. I still prefer a Malay style satay though. =)