Sunday, June 17, 2007

Time for a Tiger

So, we began our whistle-stop tour of Southeast Asia in Bangkok with modest ambitions: to catch a few glimpses of the major highlights on the well-worn tourist trail, including the royal temple of Wat Phra Kaeo and the adjoining Grand Palace, the enormous reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, and most importantly, to dig into some serious, genuine Thai cuisine. In the end, none of this would prove too difficult; our hotel was on the main tourist strip, the Thanon Khao San, just steps away from our intended sightseeing destinations, and lined with food carts, restaurants and bars. Plus, Khao San boasts plenty of interesting sights of its own: mini-dress-clad bar touts, wandering souvenir saleswomen, aging hippies who moved there in the sixties and never left, and backpackers from around the world dressed to kill in the tropical heat.

It’s not difficult to get excited about food in Bangkok. Every few steps, we passed another hawker stall or pushcart vendor serving a new, enticing, and often (to us) completely unfamiliar snack. We quickly learned that street food is where it’s at in Thailand and we sampled every variety we passed, including meat-on-a-stick of every ilk (namely, chicken, pork, liver and oysters), served in little plastic bags full of chili sauce (Tam’s favorite); pancakes made from unorthodox ingredients, like a particularly delicious deep-fried pancake of little whole shrimps (complete with head, shell and whiskers) and kaffir lime leaves; tiny dumplings made of creamed shellfish and rice gluten; glistening unidentified fruits of dramatic appearance (later determined to be jackfruit, dragonfruit and margotene); and, of course, noodle dishes in all their infinite variety and complexity. Laura was an especial fan of the pickled peppers that come in miniscule plastic dishes to accompany any type of noodle soup, most often – in our experience – swimming with cinnamon-laced sliced pork, bitter boiled bok choy, and dumplings (oh, the dumplings!). The tremendous variety of intestines and animal extremities on sale raw, baked or deep-fried was astonishing; the buckets of chicken feet were the least of it. Our single regret was that the pushcart of fried insects passed us at too swift a pace. Really, next time…

On the third day, we rose again from our beds in time to catch a tuk-tuk (a sort of brightly colored rickshacum motorcycle) to Chinatown for a quick stroll through the markets, then on to the train station for a 24-hour journey south to Malaysia. We arrived on the island of Penang to find that our culinary choices had broadened to incorporate Chinese and Indian influences. In the former colonial capital, Georgetown, we spent our day hopping from temple to clan house to mosque and exchanging friendly greetings with the Tamils, Thais, Chinese, Indians and Malays that populate the diverse and highly integrated city. In between, we sampled more noodle soups (less spicy and meatier than the Bangkok variety) and more meat-on-a-stick (bought from a hawker who proudly boasted of being a third-generation satay “specialist,” and demonstrated his special fanning technique for Laura – quick wrist flicks seem to do it). Our new friend pointed us to Little India, where we sampled chappatis, samosas and chicken curry, then wandered back for the local specialty laksa (a strong fish stew with noodles, enlivened by huge quantities of chopped lotus flower, bok choy and shrimp paste), and had tiny banana- and coconut-stuffed pancakes served on a banana leaf for dessert.

The next morning, we made a breakfast of a brilliantly colored Chinese dessert called ice kacang, featuring sweetened red beans over crushed ice. It attracted us with its supernaturally bright colors and the large crowd of enthusiastic consumers who encouraged us to sample it and helped us to order, but we were quite unable to discern most of its ingredients and sadly cannot help to identify those clear, bean-shaped gelatinous balls. Its taste is likewise quite indescribable.

Yesterday, we took at bus to the Cameron Highlands, a hilltop station founded by the British in the 1920s as a retreat from the heat of the lowlands and now a popular vacation destination renowned for its jungle treks and tea plantations. As soon as we dumped our luggage, we set out to sample the local delicacy known as a “steamboat,” a kind of Asian fondue. Seated at an unusually large table for two, we were presented with platefuls of raw shark, jellyfish, cuttlefish, beef, squid and shrimp, along with noodles, whole eggs, tofu and vegetables, all of which we cooked ourselves in a huge, bubbling double-cauldron of spicy broths. Laura made a huge mess at her place setting and we had to slink out of the restaurant in disgrace. It was tasty, but Tam thinks that a dinner out shouldn't be quite so much work.

Of course, no honest culinary account of a trip to Bangkok or Georgetown would be complete without fessing up to a little bellying up to the bar. In Bangkok, we drank local Singha lager at a super-trendy bar called “The Station” located under the canopy of a disused gas station, with chic young tipplers sipping fruity drinks at candle-lit tables scattered among the pumps. In Penang, we spent our first night draining bottles of Tiger lager at the Hong Kong Bar, a one-room establishment with a linoleum floor and mismatched plastic furniture which – we were informed by an enthusiastic young cadet – has been the watering hole of the various Australian fleets stationed in Malaysia for more than fifty years. The crowd of Ozzies certainly looked right at home, and cheered and whistled when the owner, a tiny, middle-aged Chinese woman with heavily accented English, pumped her beer in the air while offering a loud and enthusiastic rendition of the Queen classic “We Are the Champions.” Around the corner, a transplanted English pub known as the Soho Free House was by far the most happening scene in Penang, jammed with swanky young businessmen ordering whole bottles of Johnny Walker Black and heaping plates of fish and chips while watching interviews with David Beckham on TV. Rule Britannia, we guess.

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