Dim Sum Devotion – A HongKonese weekend

Steamed Pork Dumplings with Truffle and Soup inside

I have always loved the thought of Dim Sum but rarely been lucky enough to try steaming parcels that the Chinese would happily put their names to. Throughout this trip, forays into different ‘China Towns’ have been tantalising but not fulfilling, so an email from a foodie friend in Hong Kong to say that she had to take me to experience the best Dim Sum in the cheapest Michelin Starred restaurant in the world, was more than a little exciting. Until now, I had not realised that Hong Kong is traditionally considered one of, if not the, Dim Sum centres of worship.

The first lunch we had was in a well-known 1920’s teak tea house. Dim Sum were originally created to serve to workers as snacks while they were drinking tea, hence eating dim sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to “drink tea.” Tea is still always served with dim sum, but beer is definitely an accepted alternative..

It turns out that Dim Sum in Hong Kong demands dedication. These little steaming parcels were considered to be a morning treat and hence few tea houses served them after mid afternoon. Service starts early and tables cannot be booked –  this is where the loyal show their dim sum dedication: pre-warned, I turned up at 10 am to ask for a table for lunch. ‘No madam, we are full.’ Right. I turned on some serious charm and flattery and walked out with half a promise of a table at 12… I was there at 11.45 to secure it.

Tea was served and we started picking our dishes off the menu and the queue built up outside the door. The steamed prawn and pork dumplings were divine, as was the fried dumpling with pork and chives. I have to stay I am not so keen on the big, white, wudgy steamed bun option; they are slightly sweet with not enough interest in the middle…and are just too filling – one thing I like about dim sum is that they are light to eat and you enjoy every element of every mouthful. The other thing I love about them, is the dim sum ritual – picking, eating, laughing, judging, ogling. They turn up in a steady flow and each parcel is as exciting as the last. Even securing the table is fun.. if you have time on your hands. Embarrassingly, I clearly do.

The first dim sum experience was a traditional one and while we enjoyed the efficient, old-school, white-table clothed atmosphere, we needed a bit more buzz. So the next day, we headed to Kowloon for ‘the michelin starred’ wonderment. Dim Sum Dedication was back in play, as you have to turn up ahead of time, get a ticket and wait for your seat – sometimes up to 2 hours. This wouldn’t be so bad if you could go off shopping (or drinking) in that time. But no one dares, as if you miss your slot, you are out of the game and your precious table is handed over to the next hungry taker.

We were rewarded for our patience. As we were in a larger crowd, we went mad with our ordering, concentrating on their speciality of little steamed parcels with soup inside. The process of eating them was clearly laid out on cheat cards at the table – you had to take you parcel, put it on a spoon, spear it with your chopstick to release the clear soup and then gobble the whole lot together. Heaven. The truffle and pork version was up there with my best mouthful of food on record.

I learned that ‘won ton’ aren’t in fact greasy parcels in an M & S box, but are steamed parcels with a light sauce on them. They are much more like tortellini with similar filling to the steamed version and are totally impossible to pick up with chopsticks – back to the drawing board I go with my technique. More dedication required.

After the most delicious meal with ‘oohs and aaah’s’ which competed with a fire work display on bonfire night, we left this amazing hub of activity, 15 quid down. Another reason to love dim sum. As we passed the kitchen I took a glimpse in to see the army full of smiling chefs, juggling bamboo baskets over huge steam ovens. While one man rolled, the other stuffed and the next sealed the little parcels, so quickly and delicately that I couldn’t help just staring at the end result. Amazing skill.

That was it, I thought – the ultimate dim sum experience. Nothing could better it…. but I was wrong. At 9.30 am on Monday morning, Danielle, my foodie friend, sounded concerned when I said I would meet her at 12 for our final dim sum forray. We had to go now, she said – dedication, dedication. So off we trotted across town – I could not tell you where as there was no English sign anywhere. We identified the restaurant by the worryingly large queue outside and headed eagerly over. Unlike the UK, queues in HK involve elbows and energy, but we finally got our number and were told it would be at least 2 hours before we could eat.

Time for a visit to the food market (water chesnuts and noodle stands being the definite highlight) and then off to buy handbags  – what more could a girl want? Heading back we waited nervously outside as numbers were called. The only westerners going into the packed 30 seater room were clearly food journos, enjoying this whole scene as much as us. To our amazement, it turned out we were sitting on the furthest table from the door pretty much in the kitchen – we instantly made friends with the chef who showed us how what he was up to. There was so much steam we felt like dim sum ourselves within minutes.

I had to confront my nemesis  – chickens feet. I had been studiously avoiding them for months and today was the day. We were in a place with a michelin star although – food aside – I am not quite sure how that was wrangled. The feet were served with pork knuckles and rice, in what looked like a tin dog bowl for poodles, bones extracted, covered in soy sauce. I went for it and was, of course, surprised; it just tasted of non-descript meat with good seasoning.

That out the way, we tucked into the most delicious baked bun (slightly sweet) with BBQ pork inside and delicious ‘vermicelli rolls with prawns’ which we watched the chef make from rice flour, steamed on a flat tray. The steamed dim sum were incredible despite the fillings all being the same as the previous days; pork and shrimp with the occasional addition of chinese chives. More and came to the table, washed down with delicious tea and good foodie banter. Waitresses were chattering loudly, bamboo baskets being precariously placed on overflowing tables, everyone smiling as they enjoyed their food, elbows squeezed in to tiny tables. It was brilliant.

Later that afternoon, I found out that dim sum literally means ‘point of the heart.’ As they were designed as a snack, they were designed to ‘touch the heart.’ They sure did.


Finally, some good wine… and it was Burmese

Unsuprisingly, wine on my travels has habitually been a disappointment. At best, it was over-priced, ozzie blockbusters, with a tendancy to have been badly stored and horribly old. At worst, it is home-made rice wine in plastic bottles with tarantualars floating in it. But I havent been here for the wine and have instead finally trained myself to drink the local brew of beer when alcohol is required (!) 

However, when we sat down to a delcious local meal in the hills in Kalaw, a drinks list was produced with ‘Local Myanmar Wine’ offered. Naughtily cynical, I bought a glass of ‘Red Mountain’ muscat and tried it – and was very surprised; it was good. 2 days later we made our way up to the winery to find out more.

The winery sits above Lake Inle, in a stunning location overlooking the generous valley and beautiful lake. The heavy clay soils with limestone underneath were found to be perfect to grow vines on, despite Burma never having had a history of wine production. The current winemaker, Francois Raynal, was originally trained in Bordeaux but had spent time in the New World and Hungary (making Tokaji) before hearding out to Myanmar and working on the neighbouring Aythaya vineyard.

The result is a winemaker with a classical training but an open mind. His Hungarian training has lead to him creating a few barrels of Tokaji for the first time in 2011, which were already tasting great. His Pinot Noir and Shiraz Tempranillo were excellent and his whites – especially a Chardonnay that was still in barrel, was a definite Chablis contender. The wines had clearly benefitted from the cool nights and warm sunny days afforded to them by their position, and were full of flavour and elegance.

Interestingly, the main problem that Francois faces is that the vines continue to grow all year around, as there is no cold season to ‘shut them down.’ He therefore does a harsh pruning in October to ‘reset the vine’ and uses chemicals to stimulate the beginning of the growing season. This is done in a very short space of time (usually a week for 50 odd hectares) as the vines mature very much at the same speed and Fancois is keen that all the grapes of a particular varietal should be harvested together – at the end of Feb / early March. 

Digging around in his underground cellar, you can see bottles of Malbec, Gewurz and other varietals being tested. He makes a point of experimenting: everything is new to Myanmar so it is worth testing more to see what happens.

The wines are popular, and demand is high. If the size of the wine library is anything to go by, very little wine is held back. In fact, Red Mountain are dramatically increasing production and hope to sell the wine beyond Burmese shores where it is currently being snapped up by hotels and any restaurants catering for thirsty tourists (the locals prefer beer and tea.)

It was great to meet Francois and while my enthusiasm for the wines may be a little indulged by the complete absence of drinkable wine over the last 4 months, I can honestly say I loved what he was doing and wish them the greatest of luck. I hope that Burmese wine takes South East Asia by storm.

Burmese Days

‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell is one of the most cliche’d reads for tourists – an amusing if slightly alarming story based in British Colonial Burma. Since I was slowly falling out of love with my Kindle, I picked up a photocopied version in the market for 2000 kyat (equivalent of 2 quid; we had to buy them with dollars in the local market in copious 1000 kyat notes as there are no ATMS in Burma) and tucked myself into the first blurry pages over an ice-cold avocado shake. I had been told to look out for these as the local avocados were in season. It wasnt hard to miss them in the markets – they were HUGE, black and very round. In fact, just like a cannon ball but much more tasty.

Avocado shakes were omnipresent – slightly sweetened and incredibly smooth, they are thick but not cloying and the perfect power boost mid afternoon – much better than the Durian shake I tried in the wierdly named ‘Nylon Bar’ Mandalay’s top ‘ice cream and shake’ hang out. Let’s just say that the Jury is still out on this stinky, spiky fruit.

The best avocado experience we had was on the top of a hill after a full mornings hiking around Kalaw. After walking along the terracotta mountain ridge, we arrived at the home/eatery owned by some Nepalese who had a garden full of tea, gerka fruit and orange trees. We sat down, downed endless cans of coke and waited for our much anticipated lunch to arrive. We were eventually treated to quarter of a melon-sized avocado each, some picked cabbage and steaming, home made chappatis. A do-it-yourself wrap, topped off with a squeeze of lime and a tiny scattering of sun-dried chilli, turned out to be the best walking lunch we could have wished for. This was washed down with copious amounts of local tea straight from the rugged plantations below and some home-grown oranges. Pretty good.

Other lunches varied between hand-made noodles with veg (always the safest option if – after a trip to a restaurant loo – we had caught sight of the wood-smoke filled kitchen and wished we hadn’t) and divine steamed fish parcels, rice with coconut or pounded fish and taro or pumpkin custard. Restaurants, per se, are very rare and aimed purely at tourists – since the number of non-Burmese who came into the country last year for business and pleasure, totalled 750,000 (Angkor Wat in Cambodia had 3 mill visitors last year alone, by point of reference) and the ex pat community totals 800, you can see why the restaurant trade is virtually non-existent. The alternative is the Tea Rooms for the mornings (these also serve noodles up to mid-afternoon) and then Beer stations in the evenings, which will serve the local brew with salads and, often, bbq’d meet or curry.

The first night in Rangoon, a lovely expat took us to her local beer station. We took up our plastic chairs on the notoriously dangerous pavement – they are invariably a foot up from the road and have craters in them that could swallow up a fully grown man into the sticky black water running beneath. As we perched, the first dish of pickeled tea leaf salad arrived. This is the national dish, offered as a welcoming gesture to guests and eaten instead of pudding by the Burmese. It varied a lot on our travels  – some was more spicy, some pickled and some rice-filled. The basic ingredients are the tea leaves which are preserved for a couple of months in oil, rice, roast fava beans, peanuts and sesame. The texture is taken very seriously – a mixture of crunch and smooth. Very good if slightly weird.

Avocado salad with tamarind and tomato salad staples. The tomatoes are coated in a peanut and lime dressing (great texture again) and are delicious. All the veg we ate was deliciously fresh and surprisingly familiar – cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, beans and aubergines. Strangely I have not tired of food markets on my travels and I willingly gave up my seat on the bus to one morning to get tucked into a local market in the hills. It was one of my favourite experiences of my trip: all women, chattering and smiling, laughing and joking as they handed over there carefully grown produce. Jew Root was a major player  – which look slightly like bean sprouts and are used in soup, as were shallots and dried beans  / chick peas.

The amazing thing about this particular market – between Kalaw and Nagashwe on Inle Lake – was that all the ladies were wearing their traditional costume – each village being slightly different. Some had black jackets with brightly coloured turbans, others had brightly coloured clothes and matching turbans. The ‘more modern’ used towels and turbans instead of hand-woven material. Being the only non local in the whole, sprawling market was therefore made even more obvious, and I found myself crouching down to their level, observing, trying to resist the urge to go crazy with my camera (I didnt succeed.) I was looked at with genuine wonderment – as if they had never seen a white person, let alone one wearing trousers and wielding a camera.

However, I never felt threatened. On the contrary, I was welcomed by the biggest smiles, and encouraged by most, to take photos. The almost naive, uninhibited smiles of the Burmese are their biggest gift as a nation and I just hope that does not change too fast. Their warm welcome allows visitors a real insight into them as a people and an understanding of how they live; my favourite dialogue in the market was with 2 grannies who were sitting next to each other, both selling strange sticky things. They were as intrigued by me as I was by them and their bounty, so I went over and tried to figure out, with my best acting, what they were selling. The most hilarious exchange ensued, filled with giggles and smiles. They were in fact selling Orchids (with just buds) and my delight in realising this was mistaken for a desire to buy. As I stupidly acted out a backpack to give them the reason I wasnt able to buy, I realised that they thought I was wanting one of their huge wicker baskets, carried with a strap across their forehead. A hopeless but happy exchange which left us all chuckling.

Aside from the endless supply of veg with noodles, tea, doughnuts and pickled tea leaves, we were treated to a tour of a little foodie village on the banks of Inle lake making all sorts of other local delicacies; tamarind flakes (a sweet treat of lots of paper-thin slices of dried tamarind eaten after a meal) gooey knotted sweets made from sugar cane and  jaggery fudge (from palm sugar.) Chickpeas were used in everything from a cold sauce served with doughnuts at breakfast (yuk) to pancake which are deep-fried into poppadum type things, and a type of tofu cube (again deep-fried.) The villagers worked away tirelessly, some smoking the omnipresent local Cerruts, to produce these treats.

I wondered if they were sold locally or further afield. my suspicion is locally, since the infrastructure around the country is still basic, dusty and uncomfortable, to say the least. This is local cuisine at its best…and worth so much more than Orwell’s comment that the ‘filthy monotonous food….(was) almost the worst thing in Burma.’

Breakfast in Burma (or, more officially, Myanmar)

Buddhism is more than a religion, it is a way of life, and it was, undoubtedly, this way of life that makes the Burmese culture such an amazing one. The very recent realities of Burmese culture may have severely threatened this but thankfully, it is was the presence of the thousands of monks in Myanmar – rather than any other force – and warm welcoming smiles that I will remember Myanmar by. 

Before sunrise, you can wander the empty, dusty streets of rural Burma heralded by cockerels. Delicious wood smoke fills the already misty air as each new day starts. Dedicated locals emerge from their homes and calmly set up ‘stations’ along the main thoroughfares, with large pots of steaming rice and other Burmese dishes. At the same time each day, long, straight lines of monks, dressed in dark red, silently emerge – barefoot – out of the darkness. Large lacquer bowls in hand, they calmly file past the rice stations and collect their ‘alms.’ Not a sound is uttered. This is their first meal since midday the day before, and the (quite substantial) contents of their bowls is taken back to the temple, blessed and devoured as a sacred but none-the-less ‘mess’ of foodie donations.

As happy travellers, 3 of us created a routine around this and – I am ashamed to say -were busted by fellow hotel guests as we chased the monks down the road, keen to get the best photo possible. What they didn’t realise was that our reward for our efforts was not just our 100 photos (well almost) but a true Burmese breakfast.

We had shunned the hotel breakfasts on day 2 – a vague attempt at Western delights, the processed white bread packed full of sugar and the orange juice made from tartrazine-tastic concentrate were not cutting the mustard. We decided to ‘go local’ and pottered down to the local tea room, sat on stools which were – no joke – 25cm of the ground and ordered ‘Burmese tea.’

Tea houses are the main morning eating option in Burma and run from morning until mid afternoon, when beer stations then take over. They offer tea, horrible powdered coffee, noodles and doughnuts.. freshly made in front of you, in a large wok. They are delivered, steaming, to your tiny kiddies table on (dirty) plastic plates by very young tea boys who were working in return for lodging. They are nectar. I can’t think how long it is since I have eaten a doughnut, but WOW these were good. Some were plain, some filled with coconut and some more like samosas (there us an unsurprisingly large Indian community here.) We washed the doughnuts down with an equally healthy, little grubby glass of strong tea with condensed milk. If only my detox yogis could have seen me..

The whole ritual was made even better by the people watching. Monks walking in one direction with their alms, people heading to work in the longhis (sarongs) with tiffin boxes in the other. We were part of the gentle bustle which was early morning Myanmar. We watched as betel leaf parcels were rolled (in betel leaves,) carefully placed into the sides of locals’ mouths, chewed until the red stain covered their already black teeth, and spat out, ceremoniously, onto the pavement, leaving a large, red ‘bird splat.’ Nice.

Having got quite used to our 300 chet (30p) routine, we were slightly bemused to be tapped on the shoulder by our female Burmese guide and invited to join her for breakfast at her noodle stall. What about our daily doughnuts? However, I was intrigued and sat down with the locals and let her order. It was only then that it occurred to me that this was what the Burmese women do for breakfast – only the men go for the heathy doughnut / sugar laced tea option. (How had we not noticed that before..?) So there I was, communicating in smiles and greed once again, while I observed this new culinary ritual. My bowl of ‘Shan’ (northern region) noodle soup was totally delicious  – a clear broth with chewy noodles in it (made from glutinous rice flour) sesame seeds, mustard leaves, a spicy peanut dressing and lots of herbs. I restrained from adding pork scratchings to the top although the locals do this to add flavour and texture. I needn’t have bothered with my attempt at health conciousness as I was seduced into a little cheeky doughnut by the others on the way back to the hotel…

Time for some serious hiking in the Burmese hills…

2 Extremes; Detox and Retox in Thailand

Getting back to Thailand after 2 weeks in Malaysia was a culinary excitement. While some say that you eat better in Malaysia than anywhere else in SE Asia, due to the incredible mix of cultures, I was relieved to get back to the deliciously fresh, unadulterated Thai food.

A weekend with a friend in Phuket started with a trip to the local market in search of breakfast; mangos, mangosteens, rambutans, banana, pineapples and a big, smelly durian (see last blog for tasting notes..!) The preparation of each fruit was dictated by the lovely Thai who I was shadowing like a hungry Labrador. The painstaking care with which she handled everything was awe-inspiring and clearly typical of a culture which puts the greatest care and attention into its food.

This was re-iterated at supper – a bbq of the most delicious seafood I have ever seen. Prawns the size and girth of an average banana, squid stuffed with pork mince and herbs, blue crabs and a huge red snapper. We had brought it all that afternoon off the wife of the fisherman at the beach  – a twice daily practice of the locals. It came straight out of a polystyrene box stuffed with ice. Who needs a fridge, plastic containers or best before dates when you have such a ready supply and demand of fresh food?

My culinary weekend ended with a pina colada on one of my top 5 beaches ever. I don’t quite know what possessed me to choose it off the menu (it certainly raised eyebrows around the table) but when it arrived, I was quietly smug and deliciously happy. Fresh coconut milk mixed with fresh pineapple juice, drunk with sand between my toes, was perhaps my favourite cocktail to date. It bore no relation to the cloying sweetness of pina coladas in London and was a perfect last drink before the onslaught of the next few weeks…

Detox and yoga boot camp on Koh Sumui was what I had signed up for… It had seemed a good idea at the time. To say I found it alarmingly disconcerting on arrival would be an understatement; it was an extraordinary beach side ‘retreat’ filled with slow-walking, slow-talking yogis emitting their own intriguingly powerful auras. Yoga timetables, meditation classes and an hourly administration of ayuvedic herbs and dubious ‘detox juice’ just about sums it up. The daily highlight was the juice from 1 fresh coconut, drunk straight out of the fridge at 2.30pm each day. Apparently coconuts naturally hold all the salts and minerals your body looses through sweat. I now understand Madonna’s addiction to the stuff.

The first days were tough, and the rain didn’t help. I realised that a mindless book and a kindred spirit were dire necessities and was relieved to find an old, 3 inch wide Penny Vincenzie winking at me on a shelf of tatty international books. That, coupled with some great girls surviving the same regime, (the men were VERY odd) made everything possible…even the bowl clear vegetable broth that turned up as my entire supper one night; it was no more than a bowl of hot water tasting slightly of boiled veg. I laughed at it, drunk it and tucked myself back into the slab of a book, feeling more than a little virtuous.

10 days later, having lost no weight but feeling great, I left the zenned yogis and headed back to reality; Bangkok. My sole mission was to secure myself a Burmese visa for my trip which was due to start 48 hours later. All my precious yogi calma was in danger of being destroyed in seconds by useless taxi men getting lost on the way to the hilariously basic Myanmar Embassy. I finally made it, 3 cabs later, with 10 minutes to spare. Buddha clearly decided to repay me for my efforts with the yogis and my visa was granted.

That night was the start of Chinese New Year. With a hugely relieved smile on my face, I headed to China Town and gawped with amazement at the sheer volume of people and food being prepared, bought, cooked and enjoyed. It was unbelievable – a sensory overload, undoubtedly enhanced by my 2 weeks of foody abstinence and the Chinese love of all things red. Do they not tire of kitch?

Oranges were being bought by the carrier bag load, ducks being fought over, cookies being queued for. The resonant sound of ‘aaaannnngggg’ in their loud voices was washed down with the monotonously loud beat of traditional drums and the clatter of symbols. Huge dragons raised their heads amongst the solid traffic with tails held afloat by dozens of concentrating students. It was certainly a spectacle but I would label it spectacular; it was too much and I found my self seeking refuge in my hotel, once again enjoying a 9.30pm yogi bedtime. Rock and role.

I booked a reliably slow taxi for the airport at 5pm the next morning; destination Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) – a whole new chapter…

‘Goreng and Strawberry ice cream’ A boutique trip to Malaysia

Arriving in the vast yet somehow beautiful Kuala Lumpur was a shock to all the senses. Everything was shining a little too brightly in the soaring concrete jungle and the huge malls seemed grotesque as a drove past in my air conditioned taxi… a far cry from friendly Cambodian tuk tuks navigating houses no more than 3 stories high. A friend was meeting me there from London and carefully researched, shabby-chic boutique hotels were to be the theme of our two week Malaysian holiday. As a result, my culinary experiences are in danger of being a little out of touch with the true Malaysia.

However, our first night there proved how easy eating local grub in Malaysia can be. One expat said ‘you can eat the same food for £2 as you do for £200.’ I can believe it. Just minutes away from our oasis of a hotel, we discovered the famous hawker street where food flows from every nook and cranny. The smoke bubbled up from the hundreds of different woks down the bustling street, accompanying the babble of thousands of happy munchers. The smells were delicious if desperately over-powered by the stench ( there is no other word for it) of the make-shift stalls selling first ‘Durians’ of the season.

Durians are known in Asia as the Kings of fruits and they are pure nectar to those who have got passed their outrageous smell. Mel, just arrived in from London, and I both failed* and made some half-hearted promise to come back after we had sampled the delights of the many hawkers and their busy woks. Fresh tofu, baby bok choi, oyster omlette and chicken with noodles were all delicious local specialities but the friend squid was definitely the winner – it was the first time I really understood how good squid really can be. The total came to £5 a head.  (* I was later to try Durians in Thailand – an extraordinary powerful sensory experience – the texture of custard and a taste like I never known; almost smokey but definitely not instantly likeable. Jury is out…

Langkawi was short on hawkers stalls and long on all things that make holidaying westerners smile. Delicious seafood and salads with dipping sauces; Satay is one of their specialties and it’s complex, balanced, slightly spicyness was a world away from the cloying M & S canapes we all know ( and occasionally love.) Alongside Satay is the famous ‘goreng’ – the malaysian culinary trade mark.Rice or noodles friend with a delicious combination of herbs and spices, prawns, potato, tofu… basically anything going. A bowl of noodles ‘goreng’ on New Year’s morning did wonders for my slightly sorry head.

The food on the amazing island of Penang was much truer to its origins and directly reflected the incredible mix in cultures there. 40% of Chinese origin, 40% Malay, 10% Indian and 10% european / eurasian. Dim sum for breakfast ( it is all finished in the stalls by noon, as we found to our disappointment) is therefore as common as delicious bread with ginger and apple jam. The hawkers stalls are bustling throughout the day with delicious goreng, nyonya laksa (noodles in soup – nyonya being the chinese / malay group of people) and curries. Like all over Asia, set meal times are not dictated.

Stopping at one large hall full of different stalls, we watched while endless beautiful little pyramid shaped parcels made from banana leaf and containing rice with anything from curried eggs to meat, where being handed out for hungry locals to take away. Far more beautiful, healthy and environmentally friendly than a pret sandwich. Sitting down, we pointed at one of the bad photographs, as menus so often are. Mel was lucky with her Malay version of Tom Yum soup. Mine was an MSG disaster and was quickly and swiftly dismissed (I didn’t feel too bad having paid just over 1 quid) in favour for a true noodle goreng from the friendly face I had been photographing earlier. I went over to order and, as I have done throughout my travels, expressed an interested in the language of smiles and passion for food. He took time out from his burning hot wok to take me through the ingredients (I was keen to avoid any canine knuckles or worse) and the final result, served up on plastic plates with chopsticks, was delicious. If I am honest though, the Malays seem to lack the refinement and attention to visual and sensory detail in food that I have found elsewhere.That may also be true of their culture in general – they are a very different breed..

Back at our hotel – having unashamedly to washed down our hawkers stall lunch with a divine coffee and a ball of salt caramel ice cream in a chic cafe – we were given delicious nutmeg tea and an afternoon high tea that went some way to showing why the Malays don’t necessarily enjoy the same svelte figures as their SE Asian neighbours. First, a bowl of delicious, local noodle soup – Laksa. Then a vast melange of different coloured treats turned up – a banana leaf parcel of blue (colored with Indigo) rice with palm sugar and coconut, a yellow tapioca and pineapple cake and some very green little rice starch puffs (coloured with pendang) which were slightly chewy and exploded in our mouths to release almost burnt caramel made from palm syrup. Added into the mix (along with a very misplaced curry and potato pastie) was a bright pink ‘diamond’ of jellied rice starch. Having discovered the amazing natural dyes in the other treats, I assumed that this pink colour was one more. “It is a chemical” said the waiter “but it is edible as we have a law now…” Right.

Leaving Penang behind and heading up into the Cameron Highlands was a slightly odd experience. I had been warned that it may not be quite as ‘amaaaaaaaaaaaazing’ as all the tales had lead me to believe, and I had sensed as much while searching for a hotel. “A lovely mock Tudor mansion…”  “serves the best creams teas in Malaysia..”. Not my cup of tea – literally, for the Cameron Highlands is known as the ex Pats refuge  – a haven of Britishness that centres itself around tea plantations and strawberrys. A large sign saying ‘Pluck Your Self’ hanging outside one of the many of strawberry farms has kept me chuckling ever since.

The hotel we chose wasn’t mock Tudor but reminded me of the hotel in Dirty Dancing so much that I couldn’t take it seriously. The view – a golf course – was scarily ‘Surrey’ and I found it hard to find the charm. Luckily the hugely overpriced wine and delicious Japanese food.. and strawberries.. came to the rescue.

A visit to the BOH tea plantations made the stay. Beautiful hills covered in long, intensely green, wonky lines of tea bushes, all maintained at a carefully picking height and harvested by hand or tractor every 3 weeks – no wonder it makes money. The tea making process, which uses similar machinery to wine,  involved wilting and crushing the leaves followed by natural fermentation ( approx 3 days) which was stopped by heating. Once fermentation is stopped the leaves are sorted – the biggest leaves making up the premium teas and the ‘dust’ grade going straight into tea bags. We enjoyed a ‘cuppa’ of their best overlooking the beautiful hills with.. dare I mention it… a darn fine cream tea. We walked it off, meandering through the plantation – apologies for lack of photos, computer not quick enough!

Flying out of the modern KL airport, with a barrage of Godiva and Lindtt chocolates  alongside western sandwiches,  I realised that the Malays have a hugely diverse culture and heritage, and this is clearly demonstrated in their cuisine. A huge melting pot of western, eastern, modern and traditional; summed up nicely by my favourite little sign, spotted on a tiny ra shackled eatery in the Cameron Highlands. It just read ‘Goreng and Strawberry icecream.’

Running ‘Amok’ in Phnom Penh

My last few weeks in Phnom Penh have been punctuated with amusing culinary episodes, which if not a reflection on the Cambodians, are a reflection of the ex-pats lives which I have enjoyed dipping into.

In my sweet flat just next to the stunning National Museum, I had 2 gas hobs but no cooking utensils so my first challenge was to go to the local market and source all manner of ingredients. While I had been to markets, camera in hand as a happy spectator, playing the role of a pseudo-local is an altogether different (and scary) process. More bustling and ‘urgent’ than other food markets I had been to, I got the feeling that patience was not flowing freely amongst either sellers or buyers.

Distracted and confused on entering the humdrum, I collided with a hardened local who was making her way in for her routine shop. She scowled at me and when I apologised and raised my hands in a prayer position (very common here to show gratitude and general respect) she gave me a huge smile and to my amazement said ‘sorry’ in her best English back. I love these people.

Encouraged, I went on to buy far too many exciting and extraordinary looking vegs (I was not strong enough to say no to HUGE quantities of fresh herbs and wild mushrooms) but did manage to refuse the ‘super-seasoning’ otherwise known as MSG. The stuff is liberally used everywhere – so sad when you think of the amazing natural flavours these guys are working with. Who needs it?

Special mention has to go to the egg stalls here. Fresh duck and chicken eggs are available in abundance but more interesting are the duck eggs that are left in salt solution for a few months until the white of the egg has dried up and the yolk resembles a big orange ‘marble’ which is pretty hard. The eggs are then left in ash to further the process and sold as a delicacy. Harder to appreciate were the seemingly innocuous chicken eggs on the market which house half-grown chicks. These are considered a real treat, especially the younger, as their bones are more brittle and give a better crunch. Hmm..

Despite (and along side) these weird and wonderful customs, Cambodians create the most delicious food for all to enjoy. “Fish Amok” is perhaps the king of Cambodian dishes and every Khmer restaurant you enter has a different version on their menu. The sadness is that the most refined elements of the culinary culture have been (at best) severely ‘diluted’ so that I suspect today’s Amoks aren’t a patch on the true Amok of yester-year. However,  I was lucky enough to have a day at a cooking school learning how to make it, properly.

‘Amok’ means ‘everything mixed together’ and as we wore our arms out crushing the delicious Amok paste ingredients in their version of a pestle and mortar – lemongrass, chili, lime leaves, turmeric, garlic – we learnt that everything in this delicious dish not only has a role in the taste of the dish, it also has a medicinal quality: salt – to counterbalance sweating and to encourage water drinking, and sugar to suppress appetite in the heat etc etc. Their shrimp paste ‘smells like dead rat, looks like chocolate mousse’ was added to the carefully prepared banana leaf ‘timbal mould’, along with coconut milk, amok leafs and the delicious local fish (any protein can be used.) This is then steamed and eaten with rice. The consistency was pretty solid (thanks to the egg binder) and I can honestly say it was one of the most deliciously fragrant combinations I have enjoyed in SE Asia.

Other Cambodian delicacies ranged from deep friend tatantualars to fragrant and delicious noodles, fresh crab with local green pepper corns (in a sea side shack in the lovely, Kep) and fresh guava salads. Sweet dougnut-type fried delights are everywhere to buy on the street and the faces of their tireless vendors are now as familiar as tuk tuk drivers.  But I have to admit, sharing a full and exceptionally delicious Christmas lunch on a huge terrace above 240 street (PP) with a great bunch of ex-pats was the best Christmas present I could have wished for. While tucking into roast turkey (from Australia) and pigs in blankets with bread sauce and a delicious glass of Italian Barbera, I could not help but notice that some ingredients had been easier to come by than at home in Scotland! ‘Lucky Supermaket’  – a huge and wonderful addition to expat lifestyle in Phnom Penh, had come up trumps. (So had the M & S in Kuala Lumpur, whose mince pies and brandy butter made a very welcome appearance.)

Leaving Phnom Penh has hit me much harder than I had expected. It is an extremely special place and deserves all the external help it is getting. My only hope is that NGOs continue to be well run and managed and are mindful of the long-term vision for Cambodia. I got a whiff of negativity while I was there, saying that the structure they provide (sometimes badly) is removing Cambodians of a sense of responsibility. This happens the world over but I have nothing but respect for the Westerners who are really making a difference (of which there are many) and for those Cambodians who are, in their many ways, pushing Cambodia forward.