Wednesday, October 17, 2012

I made my debut in Asia last year and all you get is this lousy review!


I just came back from Hong Kong last month, and while it was one of the best trips I've taken yet, I decided that I wouldn't be writing a blog about it, simply because I've been putting off posting my Malaysia/Singapore one for over a year now and I don't need another bottleneck in the queue like with the Ireland column. So, without further ado, let's go ahead and (once again) tie up this loose end so I can be free to blog about the culinary awesomeness that is Puebla next spring.

On a side note, Hong Kong gets my seal of approval vacation destination. Along with gorgeous sights like Victoria Harbor, Victoria Peak, Chi Lin Nunnery, Nian Lan Garden and the numerous Taoist and Buddhist temples around the city, the food is some of the best in the world. I highly recommend the wonton noodles at Mak's Noodle (which receives a slight edge for the chili sauce available at the table) in Yau Ma Tei, the golden milk tea and french toast at Tai Fat in Yuen Long, the Swiss chicken wings at Tai Ping Koon, the chili fried prawns at American Restaurant in Wan Chai, prawn gorkhali at Nepal in Soho and many, many others.

Seasoned travelers will swear that some of the best food in the world is found in South Asia, and they aren't lying. Many meals were had, and as usual, I tried out a mix of fast-food and local specialties.

RAMLY "SPECIAL" BURGER

The Ramly Burger is a Malaysian institution, and ubiquitous stalls are found throughout Kuala Lumpur, most often outside of 7-Eleven or similar convenience stores in the evening hours. I purchased mine at a location along Jalan Sultan on the outskirts of Chinatown. Each stall is independently owned and operated, so some offer a wider variety of patties, such as beef, chicken, fish and shrimp. This particular stall had beef and chicken, so I went with the former, in the form of a Ramly Burger Special, which set me back RM3.50 (roughly $1.20). The "Special," which tends to be the most popular, is served with the burger wrapped in a fried egg and garnished with onion, lettuce, mayonnaise, worcestershire and Maggi sauce. The burger was cooked perfectly (despite the apparent health risks, I do like my burger a little pink on the inside) and was of quality-grade ground beef. The bun was fresh and very soft. After a few drinks, this was like a godsend.

Why are his hands green? Perhaps they are envious that his mouth gets to eat the chicken wings?

Located at one of the city's most famous food streets, Jalan Alor, near Jalan Bukit Bintang, I found Wong Ah Wah. I walked the entire length of the street (which offers an array of specialties, from porridges and soups to grilled seafood to claypot dishes to local favorites like char kuey toew, satay and rojak, and the infamous durian), and settled on the very last restaurant because those barbecue chicken wings looked and smelled amazing. Plus, the Mickey Mouse-type character with green gloves may or may not have swayed my decision ever so slightly.

Once I was seated and had gotten the menu, I knew I had come to the right place when I noticed that they had one of my favorite foods, razor clams (or, as they were called here, bamboo clams), on the menu. I ordered those, three giant chicken wings and a plate of Hong Kong-style chow mai fun noodles.

WONG AH WAH - CHICKEN WINGS

The chicken wings came out first, fresh out of the rotisserie, with small dish of hot peppers and a spicy red chili sauce. As a gluttonous American, it goes without saying that I have eaten my fair share of chicken wings in many different varieties, but THESE, ladies and gentlemen, were THE best chicken wings I have ever eaten in my life. The skin was perfectly crisp, the meat was well-seasoned and tender (succulent, even) and it came right off the bone.

WONG AH WAH - RAZOR CLAMS
 WONG AH WAH - CHOW MAI FUN

The bamboo clams came out next, and much like the chicken wings, these were perfectly cooked, grilled to perfection and served in a sweet, brown garlic-soy sauce. The only other way I have had these prepared was in Barcelona, cooked in olive oil, garlic, parsley and chilies. While these clams were outstanding, I think that the lighter, Spanish version works juuuust a little better with the meat of the clams, as opposed to this heavier, murkier sauce. As for the chow mai fun, it was nicely done, fried up with bean sprouts, onions and the usual meats. Since the chicken wings were so good that I didn't even use the aforementioned hot peppers and red sauce, I put both of those on the noodles and it rounded out the meal very well.

Along with a Coke, everything was just RM27.50—just under $10. It almost seemed illegal how good of a deal it was. In Barcelona, I would have spent more than that for the navajas alone.

BURGER KING BLACK PEPPER SINGLE

After a breakfast of roti canai, followed by a two-hour hike through the Indian quarter after which I ended up at Masjid Jamek, I ducked into Burger King to see what kind of alternative items they had on the menu. In the mood for something small, I decided to go with the black pepper single (I could have also gone with the black pepper Whopper or black pepper chicken sandwich, but I was planning on having a large dinner, and this was really more of a sampling of the sauce than anything else), which was RM11.55 for the combo meal. The size of a standard hamburger it came with onions, lettuce, mayonnaise and a black pepper sauce. Of course, seeing as everything here was pretty predictable, the variable to make or break the sandwich was the black pepper sauce; it ended up being a rich, dark sauce similar in texture to teriyaki sauce, but instead of the tart sweetness was a smoother taste, perfectly highlighted by an abundance (but not overabundance) of black pepper flavor. I was worried that the sauce might be a bit on the salty side, but it was balanced very well. Again, the burger was otherwise an ordinary Burger King burger, but the sauce was a nice touch.

OLD CHINA CAFÉ - NONYA LAKSA

On one of the cool, humid nights, I went out looking for something to eat outside of the Chinatown hustle and bustle. Just south, across Jalan Sultan, down a dimly lit side street, I came across a storefront with a pair of swinging saloon doors, and there it was: the Old China Café. After subsequent reading, I would learn that this was previously the old guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. The owner is from Melaka, and the chef specializes in regional cuisine of Melaka and Penang. So, seeing as I wouldn't have time to visit either of those cities, I decided on the Nonya laksa, a spicy coconut curry soup. When asked how spicy I wanted it, I told him to go nuts. He didn't get this figure of speech (the response I got: "Peanuts?"), so I just said "very spicy." Served with a kaffir lime, to be juiced over the bowl just before eating, this was outstanding. I went directly for all three of the hot peppers, which didn't just pack a punch, but more was like a punch in the grapes. It was served garnished with shredded cucumber and a hard-boiled egg, and was chock-full of yellow vermicelli and chicken, shrimp, crab meat and fried tofu. I think I cried a little, but maybe that was the spiciness of the dish. Either way, it was a life-changing experience. And not only was the dish phenomenal, but it was a steal at (drink and service charge included) RM15.45. I can pretty safely say that this falls into the top three best things I have ever eaten IN MY LIFE.

SENG KEE RESTAURANT - CLAYPOT CRYSTAL NOODLE

After a night on the town (I do believe the Reggae Bar was involved), I rolled in to Seng Kee Restaurant down the street from my hotel, and went with the claypot crystal noodle. I have had crystal noodles before, and in my experience they are thin, clear "cellophane" rice noodles. Not the case here. Perhaps I was chagrined because it was nothing like what I expected it to be. The noodles were long and thick, similar to canned macaroni and cheese, and the sauce was a brown, murky mix of soy sauce and beef stock. The dish came garnished with spring onions and an egg yolk, and had a hearty portion of ground beef, and beneath were slices of beef liver. Not a huge fan of that, but I worked with it. Had I not been slightly intoxicated, I probably wouldn't have eaten the whole thing (medium-size portion was RM12), and afterwards, it sat in my stomach like a sack of nickels. I'm not sure which particular Chinese cuisine this is, though I'd imagine something like this would get you through those cold nights in Harbin. Still, with a pretty hefty umami quotient, which was nice, it was leaps and bounds above some of the MSG-laden, fluorescent-colored Chinese food that I've had in San Antonio.


One of the things that I was a bit on-the-fence about trying was durian. The polarizing fruit is ridiculously popular in this part of the world, and aside from having a healthy smattering of fiber, vitamins (B-complex and C), minerals and amino acids, it's well known for having an objectionable odor. I've read articles and seen television programs where the odor is described, from sweat socks to sewer gas to decaying onions, but it's really not the same is smelling it for yourself. I think the sweat socks and onions is probably not very far off, though I got more garlic than onions. I decided to man up and try it out.

The fruit itself looks like something that might be tied to the end of a chain and used as a medieval weapon. The vendor cut open the thick skin with what resembled a hacksaw, and I was presented with a few pieces of inner fruit that were the size, shape and color of a raw empanada. But I tell you, ladies and gentleman, this was no empanada. The texture is milky, sort of like avocado, while the taste is, surprisingly, much less objectionable than the odor. I guess the closest thing I could compare the taste to would be flan, but with an undertone of the aforementioned sewage and onions. Some people swear by this stuff, but I'll take the flan over this any day. I only ended up eating one of the four inner segments, but I've got to give myself credit that I made it that far, as Andrew Zimmern, the guy who eats eyeballs, brains, testicles and insects for a living, couldn't even keep a bite down.

AIS KACANG

On my last night in KL, I decided to try the shaved ice treat that seemed to be available everywhere. Ais kacang (or, as we call them in Mexicanspeak, raspas), as I had read, can contain some flavors and toppings (which vary by vendor) that may be a bit unusual to the Westernized palette as a dessert item. Seeing as I've had raspas with everything from pickle and lime juice to chili pepper, I figured they couldn't really do much to throw me off other than put fish on it or something. Luckily, the dish didn't have that, although it was topped with a large spoonful of creamed corn. The syrups used to flavor the ice weren't easiest to identify, although I'm pretty sure I got rosewater and anise in there. Underneath the ice were some red beans, as well as several cubes of rose jelly and grass jelly, with the former having a mild, flowery taste and the latter having a heavier, bitter, taste also reminiscent of flowers with some anise through in. And believe it or not, this was really very refreshing on a hot evening. The only real problem I ran into was that due to the heat, the thing melted a lot quicker than I could eat it, so I was left with a large puddle at the bottom of the plate before I could finish it. I wouldn't get it again, but it wasn't bad at all.


SINGAPORE

I must have caught some kind of cold or flu during my last night in KL, because I started feeling like ass on the train to the airport, and by the time I landed in Singapore, all I wanted to do was take some NyQuil and go to sleep. I did end up taking a nap once I got to my hotel, but I set the alarm so that I wouldn't end up wasting an entire day. After the nap, I felt even worse, but I still managed to pick myself up for some wandering around the neighborhood (Chinatown), in search of some orange juice and pseudoephedrine.

My first stop was a traditional Chinese drugstore, where I explained my plight to the proprietor and was presented with this. Yes, it was all herbal, but I was desperate, and for S$10, it had to work, right? I purchased the bottle and hit the neighboring 7-Eleven for some OJ. It was there (and in subsequent trips to convenience and grocery stores) that I discovered something odd about this city: you can't find orange juice for shit. Yes, the 7-Eleven had plenty of what appeared to be orange juice, but upon further examination, these were actually "orange juice drink," which only contained a percentage of real juice. While a bit disappointed, I still went with the "drink," and sat down to take my medicine. There were sixty capsules in the bottle, which were, as the bottle read, "For oral administration, 4 capsules each time, 3 times daily." Though a bit apprehensive, I swallowed the four horse pills and was off and on my way to get some food.

CHEN FU JI - IMPERIAL GOLDEN FRIED RICE

Even though the biggest draw is (as well it should be) the street food and hawker centers, I had heard that a visit to Singapore isn't complete without a trip to Chen Fu Ji Fried Rice, for their WORLD FAMOUS Golden Imperial Fried Rice. Located on the second floor of the Riverside Point shopping center along the Boat Quay, I felt like a rat in a maze trying to find the place, but after a few wrong turns, I finally got there.

The healthy portion of golden fried rice that was delivered to my table was like nothing I had had before, as it had no trace of oiliness, egg dispersed throughout perfectly and a layer of shredded crab meat on top. (I imagine the decent portion of crab meat is what drives the price up.) It was also topped with ultra-fine, crispy egg floss, and had slices of pork, shrimp, spring onion and an errant spring of cilantro mixed in. The egg floss was more or less a textural additive, which was actually kind of a nice touch. I've eaten my fair share of fried rice in my time, and this is the best that I can recall ever eating. I probably could have eaten the larger plate, but I was planning on a Singapore Sling afterward, and I didn't want to break the bank on my first night in town.

A medium-sized plate of fried rice set me back S$18 (the large would have been S$25), plus an additional S$2 for the dish a peanuts that I did not request, though made the mistake of eating as I was waiting for my rice. (I don't much like having to pay for food that I didn't order, but I'll go ahead and digress here.) I'm not sure why a soaring piano rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (mind you, this was in the beginning of September) came on while I was eating, but at least it wasn't Nickelback.

And, as I mentioned above, what trip to Singapore would be complete without trying that sickly sweet mixed drink named for the place, at the bar where it was invented? While the original Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel has since been moved from the lobby to the upstairs of an adjoining shopping area, the place is done up to look like you've stepped back in time to the beginning of the 20th Century. All I needed was a pith helmet and a pipe to complete the experience.

LONG BAR @ RAFFLES HOTEL - SINGAPORE SLING

Much like what the folks do at the Beachcomber Bar at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan with the piña colada, the Long Bar dispenses a pre-mixed version of the Singapore Sling that is then blended, though I requested mine to be shaken. It came garnished with a wedge of pineapple and a maraschino cherry, and tasted like fruit punch. Part of me felt emasculated for drinking this, but I had to do it. I could have pounded at least a dozen of these, but with a price tag of S$28, I opted to move on after one. The next bar I went to, I ordered a glass of scotch (which was just half the price) to offset things.

The next morning I came to the realization that the Nasal Obstruction Capsules were not really cutting it, and I would need to find some pseudoephedrine if I didn't want to spend the rest of the trip feeling like shit on a shingle.

MAXWELL HAINANESE CHICKEN RICE
HAINANESE STYLE CHICKEN

 ROASTED CHICKEN

The closest hawker center to where I stayed, the Porcelain Hotel, was the Maxwell Road Food Centre. I took a stroll through the entire thing and then back again, and after much deliberation, I decided to try the famous Hainanese chicken rice. After all, I was feeling a bit under the weather, and this was pretty close to chicken soup. Maxwell Hainanese Chicken Rice had the longest line, and sold a portion for a cool S$3, so I went with that stall. They asked if I wanted it roasted or Hainanese style, and while the roasted looked much more appetizing than the poached version, I went with the more popular poached chicken. After a couple of minutes, I received a tray with a plate of rice covered in sliced chicken, and a small bowl of chicken broth. Of three available sauces, I took the one that looked spicy, and the one that looked even spicier (there was barely any of that one left, so it was an obvious favorite). Actually, it kind of looked like Taco Bell meat, but I digress. The broth was a very light chicken stock, while the meat had a nice sesame taste, and the rice was fragrant and moist. It didn't require any sauce of its own, but I combined the hot sauce and the broth in what was a solid meal. I went back a couple of days later for the roasted chicken, which was, as I was expecting, even better.

Later that day, I headed to the Little India neighborhood, and at the Farrer Park subway station, I came across a more Western-style drugstore. As I looked through the pain and cold remedies, I had an odd bit of nostalgia from the '80s, with discontinued brands such as Panadol and Actifed still apparently popular here. After asking a clerk where I could find some cold medication with pseudoephedrine, she directed me to the pharmacist's counter. The man asked me what my symptoms were, and shortly thereafter I was in possession of the strongest dose of pseudoephedrine available... a whopping 60 mg. I didn't ask, but I'm sure it has something to do with Singapore's strict drug laws, avoiding meth production, etc. After purchasing some more "orange juice drink," I was on my way to check out some Hindu temples.

ZHONG XING BAN MIAN - TOM YUM SOUP

Later on that day, a made a trip out to the Marina South Hawker Centre with the intent to try the chili crab. After making a trip around the entire thing, I decided that I couldn't pass up the tom yam soup at Zhong Xing Ban Mian, a large bowl of which set me back a paltry S$2. Chock-full of freshly made noodles, the soup also contained bok choy, spinach, mutton, some dried anchovies and an egg yolk, all of which were of very good quality. The real stars here, though, were the broth and the hot chili oil that came with it. The broth packed a helluva punch, but paled in comparison to the oil. It was relatively transparent, with some pepper flakes and a saltiness that (along with the anchovies) perfectly complemented the rest of the dish. I used all of the small dish that was given to me, though I don't know if I could have taken much more. As if it weren't already 100 degrees out, I was sweating like a pig from my soup as well. I may have actually burned more calories eating this than what it contained.

What appears to be an attempt at a dramatic Dutch angle is actually an attempt at a covert photo.

I happen to thoroughly enjoy crab, but have concluded that oftentimes the trouble one has to go through to get to the edible part of the thing can be a bit more work than it's worth in the end. Bit I digress, as this is one of the trademark dishes of Singapore, so I felt obligated to shell out pay the S$30 to try it out. Since my efforts were delayed by the tom yam soup at Marina South, I headed over to People's Park Centre near Chinatown to see what the chili crab situation was there. After making a round, I settled on AB, which was manned a team including the cook, an assistant/server, and a couple of eccentric gentlemen who were touting to potential customers as they walked by. 

AB RESTAURANT - CHILI CRAB

I picked out one of the poor bastards, which came with a plate of fried rice that was gone before the crab showed up at the table. The crab is cooked, then broken into segments and doused in a bright red sauce with smattering of egg throughout. It was good for what it was worth, but the sauce didn't quite pack the punch that I was expecting. I suppose I would liken the degree of spiciness to your run-of-the-mill hot-and-sour soup: a bit of bite, but definitely nothing to write home about. I dipped the pieces of meat in the sauce, which was a decent combination, though I couldn't help but long for a cup of melted garlic butter.


McDONALD'S GCB
 
On my last night in Singapore, I was hungry at 2am and at a loss for options, so I went with an old fail-safe in McDonald's, to try their GCB sandwich. Satnding for "grilled chicken burger," the GCB is, according to the package, a "whole chicken thigh delicately seasoned in teppanyaki marinade, cooked to tender perfection and served with tomato, gourmet lettuce and home-style chargrill sauce between a sourdough bun." On the sign, the sandwich looked about the size of Burger King's original chicken sandwich (a.k.a. Long Chicken), but considering the size of an average chicken thigh, it was no surprise that it was only slightly bigger than the KFC Snacker. Still, the sauce was like a peppery mayo and the chicken (coming as no surprise, the thigh is much more flavorful than the breast meat that is offered at all Western restaurants) had a nice bite to it.

All in all, my EXCLUSIVE DEBUT in Asia was a definite success, only mitigated by the fact that I picked up a stubborn cold halfway through. Had I been at 100 percent for the entirety of Singapore, I probably would have had the energy and appetite to discover even more wonderful food, but that just gives me a reason to go back.

2 comments:

  1. Can I just tell you that I'm glad you're still traveling the globe? One of the things I've always been most envious of you (aside from you way with words) is that you leave the country on adventures on a regular basis.

    Seriously awesome.

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