Tuesday, December 7, 2010

In Excess, Part 2

A follow up to my last post … with even more reasons for packing a pair—or two—of eating pants …

Noodle soup is a pretty universal comfort food but, if I had to pick my all-time favorite kind, I think it might have to be laksa. I love how it combines all the characteristics of my most-loved noodle soups—warmth, plenty of noodles and an assortment of garnishes—with a kick of spice.

Curry laksa from StraitsKitchen

Of the three times I consumed laksa during my trip (I wish it could’ve been more), I was able to try two of the three main varieties: Nonya-style and Asam-style (I missed out on trying Sarawak-style laksa, unfortunately).

Which was my favorite? That’s just too close to tell. Nonya-style laksa is creamy, thanks to a base made with copious amounts of coconut milk and curry. Asam-style laksa, on the other hand, is hot and sour, made from a base of mackerel and lit from within with the addition of spices such as tamarind, lemongrass and chilli. My take on both varieties? If you want something that’s wholly comforting and a little more soothing (meaning not as spicy), go with the Nonya-style laksa. If you want something that’s a little sour and really spicy, go with Asam-style laksa.

I had Nonya-style laksa twice—once in Singapore and once in Melaka, Malaysia. In Singapore, I had it as part of a huge buffet dinner at StraitsKitchen at the Grand Hyatt Singapore, which is located just a block or two from Orchard Road, the main shopping thoroughfare. StraitsKitchen is ideal for diners who want to try a variety of local specialties from all different cuisine styles—Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Malaysian, to name a few—all in one convenient—and highly air-conditioned—place.

In Melaka, my cousin Chris and her boyfriend Coco took me to Donald & Lily’s, located in Chinatown. We had originally headed to Donald & Lily’s for the sole purpose of trying their often sold-out Friday special: chicken rendang nasi lemak.

Throughout our entire trip, Chris and Coco had implored me with tales of the deliciousness of this particular dish and how they could literally eat it every day, for every meal, for the rest of their lives. But, as my luck would have it, because of the Deepavali holiday, Donald & Lily’s didn’t make any chicken rendang nasi lemak that day. Oh well. The laksa was really good, which makes up for it (I hope).

Nonya-style laksa from Donald & Lily's in Melaka

Later, that same day, we went to the Chinatown Night Market where I got to try Asam-style laska which I also loved. It was so much spicier—and sour—than the Nonya-style laksa I had already eaten earlier that day, but totally satisfying. We each had it with a side of oyster omelet, otak-otak and, for dessert, cendol.

Asam-style laksa from the Chinatown Night Market in Melaka

Where to Get It
Chinatown Night Market in Melaka
Donald & Lily’s

If durian is the “King of Fruits,” mangosteen is his queen, and often eaten right after consuming the aforementioned durian. Unlike durian, mangosteen is sweet and a little tart, and not at all reminiscent of rotting garbage in its scent. I picked up some mangosteen during a long walk through Melaka and loved it.


Nasi Lemak
I love food that comes in packages and nasi lemak is no exception. While it isn’t always served in a neatly-wrapped package, this rice dish is often wrapped in banana leaves or paper and eaten as a quick bite—an ideal meal on the go, especially for breakfast. It’s a fairly simple—but rich—dish, made with rice cooked in coconut cream, dried anchovies and sambal (hot spices), in addition to other various garnishes.

Nasi lemak, wrapped in brown paper
And inside...coconut rice, a hard-boiled egg, sambal and dried anchovies

Growing up, I used to love it when my mom made fish cake/paste for dinner. If you’re not used to it, you might find the texture a little rubbery—or just plain strange—but if, like me, you’ve grown up with it, you’ll most likely love otak-otak, too. Otak-otak is made up of fish paste and various spices and, like nasi lemak, it’s almost always wrapped up in a banana or pandan leaf and then steamed or grilled.

Otak-otak from The Blue Ginger in Singapore

Where to Get It
The Blue Ginger

Oyster Omelet
In college, my go-to dinner usually consisted of an omelet, meaning eggs and basically whatever I could find in my fridge and pantry at the time. Now, having had oyster omelet, I regret not keeping some oysters in stock at the time. Oh well … it’s not like my rendition would ever be as good as the ones I had during my trip—first at the Maxwell Hawker Centre in Singapore and then at the Chinatown Night Market in Melaka.

Oyster Omelet from Maxwell Hawker Centre
The master oyster omelet chef from the Chinatown Night Market in Melaka
Just a hint of lime and chili sauce made it taste even better.

When we think of spring rolls in the U.S., we often think of those tiny, deep-fried egg rolls that come in a waxed paper package whenever we order Chinese takeout. That, or Vietnamese-style spring rolls that are translucent and filled to the brim with rice noodles, shrimp and basil and topped off with peanut sauce.

Popiah from the Maxwell Hawker Centre

Popiah, on the other hand, isn’t usually deep-fried, and it’s not see-through in its appearance. The spring roll skin is more like a crepe or pancake and inside, there are tons of veggies, including jicama, turnip, bean sprouts, carrots and the like. Emphatic salad enthusiast that my cousin Chris is, she described it as one of the closest things she could find to a salad in Southeast Asia, since most places prefer to serve cooked vegetables as opposed to raw ones. Knowing that made me feel just a little bit better whenever I ate some—not by a lot, but just ever so slightly.

Pineapple Tarts
Melaka is famous for this sweet treat and I can definitely understand why—these Nonya pineapple tarts possess a near-perfect balance of rich, decadent butter and sweetness. While you can buy them as rolls or little tarts, I preferred the tarts simply because I thought they looked cuter. Either way, they’re delicious.

Nonya pineapple tarts, fresh out of the oven

Roast Duck
I never pass up an opportunity to have roast duck and when Chris and Coco told me they wanted me to have roast duck rice as my final dinner in Melaka, I did not raise any objections. What sold me even further on the idea was that the restaurant was literally next door to the Old Town Guesthouse where we were staying. Apparently, the exact recipe for the roast duck is so secret that not even the owner’s wife knows what it is. After trying it, I can see why.

Roast duck rice, with bean sprouts and hard-boiled eggs as accompaniments 

Where to Get It
The restaurant next to Old Town Guesthouse

Roti Canai/Roti Prata
Fat-infused (ghee-filled, to be exact) flatbread that’s grilled in oil and served with curry? Umm, yes, please. Needless to say, I really loved eating roti canai (as it’s known in Malaysia) and roti prata (as it’s known in Singapore), especially for breakfast. You can get roti canai/roti prata most anywhere, especially in hawker centers.

Roti canai from Madras Cafe in Melaka

Twice, my cousin and I had it at the Madras Cafe in Old Town Melaka and, each time, my eyes were transfixed on the chefs making it on the grill—I couldn’t believe how they could just pick up the roti canai with their bare hands, off a steaming-hot grill slathered in oil. Guess it’s true what they say about real cooks not having working nerve endings in their fingertips.

These dudes have no fear when it comes to their roti canai grilling.

Where to Get It
Madras Cafe in Old Town Melaka

Singapore Sling
Okay, I’ll be honest: I don’t really enjoy cocktails and I didn’t really love the Singapore Sling, either, mostly because it was a little too sweet for my taste. Nevertheless, it’s worth trying one, especially when you’re in Singapore and even more so when you’re sitting at the bar where it was invented, seated next to the Raffles Hotel Singapore’s resident historian who’s literally worked there for longer than you’ve been alive.

The Singapore Sling

At the Long Bar, we even saw a demonstration on how the Singapore Sling is made, which also gave me a greater appreciation for it. Why? Because it involved a lot of ingredients—gin, brandy, pineapple juice and tons of other liquors—too many for me to even recall.

Making a Singapore Sling involves a lot of ingredients--and arm strength.

What I enjoyed even more than the Singapore Sling, however, was the ability to snack on roasted peanuts and toss the shells on the floor while at the bar. At first, our group was a little hesitant to do so in such a venerable and historic setting, but as soon as we saw that Mr. Leslie Danker, the historian, discard his peanut shells on the floor without any qualms, our fears subsided and we followed suit.

Where to Get It
Long Bar, Raffles Hotel Singapore

Tiger Beer
One alcoholic beverage I did very much enjoy during my trip was beer, especially Tiger Beer since it was so ubiquitous wherever we went. It was especially nice to have when lounging by the infinity-edge rooftop pool at The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore.

At the rooftop pool at The Fullerton Bay Hotel Singapore

... Or with friends and family. 

Coco and our round of Tiger Beers

Xialongbao (soup dumplings) are one of my favorite kinds of dumplings (although I have yet to find a dumpling that I don’t like) and Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese proprietor of xialongbao, is probably one of the best places to try it. While there’s a Din Tai Fung in Los Angeles, the one that I went to in Singapore was better—not sure exactly why, but it just was. I shared some during a late-afternoon lunch with my fellow press trip writers, along with a side of deep-fried vegetable wontons.

Fried wontons (left) and xialongbao (right) from Din Tai Fung

Where to Get It
Din Tai Fung

Memorable Meals
While all of the many meals that I had during my trip could easily qualify as a favorite, one of the most memorable would have to be the special five-course banquet that my cousin, Coco and I enjoyed at the Pearl River Palace Restaurant in, of all places, the Suntec Singapore Convention Centre. Most convention centers serve some of the most awful—and sad—food I’ve ever had but that is definitely, definitely not the case here.

And for anyone who is likewise skeptical about the existence of “fancy” or elevated Chinese cuisine, I would also suggest they take a look at the following pics, even though they don’t really do justice to the amazing meal that we had.

To start: jellyfish, spring rolls, shumai and shrimp
Followed by soup
The best lamp chops. Ever.
A giant prawn with noodles and black truffles
And lastly, dessert

Here’s to many more such memorable meals—and trips—in the future … let me know what some of your favorites have been, too.

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