Sugar and Spice in Malacca

Malacca. One of the few places that I will include in the chart capturing the hyperbolic growth of my interest in spices. 

The very first place was in a school bus. I ate up my social studies project as a snack on the boring trip home. 

Thirty years ago, my teacher had us do a presentation on the East India Company and the spice trade. I was in primary school – I didn’t understand the significance of the EIC, but I knew how to eat. So the focus then was more on the spices than the trade. My parents got me a bag of spices from the mamak store (local provision store run usually by a burly but friendly Indian man) which I happily poured out and carefully sorted, bagged, labelled and stuck on a piece of vanguard sheet,  rather wildly illustrated to help prove that I knew what I was talking about. I was already OCD then.

After the exhilaration of telling my friends about what a star anise was, I proceeded to lick one on the bus on the way home because it looked so pretty. Ick. Didn’t like it much. Which is probably why I don’t care for licorice. Then, I decided to try another and another and another till I had uncooked dried shrimp. Boredom sure made me do odd things. 

I am unsure why they were there since prawns are strictly not a spice but they were. I loved it and fished out all the orange bits I could find and gobbled them up before I arrived home. There, my love for Hae Bi (dried shrimp, cooked) began.

You make a lot of things with Hae Bi. Peranakan cuisine is one whose dishes are liberally doused with them. I discovered the true blue taste of the Nonya while in Malacca many years back. I learnt what a rempah (spice paste, like pesto but spicier) was and what ingredients went into making one. Of course, there isn’t just one way to make it. The composition, that affects taste and flavour, is totally dependent on where the cook is from, his preferences and what the paste is for. It seems the amount of time spent manually pounding, not machine-blending, spices together makes a great difference. Therein lies the space for creativity and innovation not for the weak of heart nor short of stamina! 

When I think Peranakan, I think of Malacca and all the wonderful bowls of Ayam Buah Keluak, Babi Pongteh, Ikan Assam, Jiu Hu Char, Kueh Pie Ti, Belacan and Chendol. 

In fact, I am on my way there now on yet another boring bus trip. My Hae Bi beckons and I must comply. In an hour or two, I will whisper I do to my beautiful goggly prawn eyes.


Sambal Petai

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Ipoh, Taiping, Penang Roadtrip

We were never hungry because we were busy stuffing our faces with the glorious food available at every perceptible street corner and nook. 

The favorable 3:1 currency exchange rate fueled the food gorging because cost played a modest role in our exploits. The only concern perhaps was health but caution was thrown to the winds by the allure of street-fried char kway teow and all of its cousins brimming with lard, caramel sauce, hae kor (prawn paste), sambal (shrimp paste), gula melaka (palm sugar) and general unhealthy goodness. 

You can hardly go wrong with recommendations of friends who are locals, along with a little research to complement the knowledge received.

No matter the number of times we appear in Penang, it never fails to surprise us with bigger and newer things. Revamping shophouses is the latest thing it seems to hit Penang. Apparently, a Singaporean bought 200 shophouses in a landmark transaction that caused a law once abolished to be revived to stop such real estate atrocities. 

We were brought to Chinahouse, one such development – unsure if it’s by a Singaporean – that combined two shophouses into one. They have an impressive range of delectable cakes and pastries that can put The Cheesecake Factory to shame. 



There is also Armenian Street, where shops are quaint and interesting. It has a flea market feel to it and is absolutely touristy. But it’s fun. 


Ipoh is also famous for food but one spot typically missed out by most visitors is the Gaharu (Agarwood) Tea Valley. It is tea from a tree not the shrub we know tea to come from. Inanycase, it is herbal wth many positive properties, including allaying the effects of over-eating aka indigestion. Most useful methinks. It gives off a pleasant scent just like sandalwood but is way dearer since it is an endangered (thus protected) species. You can be taken around their plantation for RM10 per person in an air conditioned van during which you will learn more about Agarwood. 


It is also here that we turned into gluttons. Here lies the list of non-exhaustive food items you might…will postpone or give up your diet for:

1. Delicious Zi Char (wok fried dishes) 


2. Truely silky Soya Beancurd


3. Chai Dao Kway (fried carrot cake)


4. Tok Tok Mee (pork and dumpling noodles)


5. Assam Laksa/Prawn Mee/Char Kway Teow


6. Kopi (local coffee)


7. Yong Tau Foo (mixture of fried pieces of veg and meat with noodles)


8. Lor Bak (pork wrapped in fried beancurd skin)

So good it doesn’t need a pic!

9. Peanut Candy wrapped in Popiah skin


10. Tropical fruits

We ate and we bought and finally returned home with 21 kg worth of food in our luggage! 😁

KL over Easter

We were off over the Easter weekend trip to spa, devour and catch up with a dear Aunt in Kuala Lumpur. I was a bit hyped-up about this trip because it was my first time on a (overnight) train ride on the KTMB, and was looking forward to seeing the masseuse at Angsana.

So after frantically trying to clear out work in the office and saying our prayers that we don’t get hit with more over the weekend, we got into a cab to take us to Woodlands Train Station to take the 11.30pm sleeper train to KL. As usual, we got there with plenty of time to twiddle thumbs and wait for boarding.

11.30pm came and we hopped onto a feeder train to bring us into Kulai to board the actual sleeper train.  *Ding Ding* Warning sign number 1 that flew right past my head. I didn’t know better and thought this was the normal route, and was all excited and into my plans for checking out the cabin and looking forward to having a nice, long sleep till we arrive at KL the next morning.

45mins later, we stopped at a sleepy town in Kulai, and we boarded buses instead. *??!?!!*  The bells should go off in my head, but in my sleepy stupor,  I was more bewildered than aggravated. We humpty-dumpty-ed our way over approximately 1.5hrs to Kluang – it was only at 2.30am in the morning that we arrived at our beloved sleeper.

Then I couldn’t quite get to sleep because the old train rocked all over. I bounced over and over whilst laying prone on the top bunk and tried my darnest not to roll off. Quite a ride 🙂

That said, we were pleasantly surprised at how efficiently all the transfers were handled, and how the shepherding was amusing rather than annoying. In retrospect, I think I saw a notice at the Woodlands Train Station that alluded to this situation – something about maintenance or construction that needed these transfers. But I wasn’t really paying attention.

KL looks much different from the last time we visited a few years back – but we’d have to admit that the greatest and best change to the experience was the recently opened, air-conditioned, elevated, 1.2km linkway that connected areas around KLCC to Bukit Bintang to Pavilion that made it soooo easy to get around. The construction cost of RM100 million was paid by Malaysia’s Petronas as part of its social initiative. Nice.

The walk from Mutiara Crown Plaza (where we stayed, highly recommended) to KLCC was about 15-20mins and to Pavilion was about 10mins. Angsana Spa is located in Mutiara and has a kick-ass spa menu that it’s a crime to not try.

 

[First published: 17 Apr 2012]

Agrophobia Activated

Langkawi is the last place that I would expect my fear of heights to be triggered since it’s a travel destination that always boasts of nature, sun, sand and sea. But it did. At Gunung Machinchang 700m above sea level.

We took a 15-min ride on the Austrian- built Langkawi Cable Car up this mountain – the last minute or so could well be one of the longest of my life. The incline was extremely steep from the middle to the top station, it was almost as if we were riding a lift vertically up the mountain nearer the end.  Stepping off the cable car was easy enough. But I was totally horrified when I realized I had to walk up stairs with 360-degree panoramic exposure to reach the viewing platforms two levels up with my jellified legs. Also, I couldn’t stand near the edge of the platforms in plain view of the vertical drops, and so every picture of me at this platform has me comically positioned nearer the middle of the platform, obviously tense and uncomfortable.

Then there was the Langkawi Skybridge – one that is suspended in the air 700m above sea level with a skinny walkway, 125m long. No, I didn’t walk on that. No way! The sight of it is enough to give me agrophobia-induced nightmares. That said, the view from up there was truly beautiful.

Cost to get there from Kuah Town is RM40 one-way by taxi.

Entrance Fee is RM30 per adult.

Expect long queues if visiting over weekends.

 

[First published: 7 May 2011]