Thursday, June 30, 2011

Asia tripping - part XI: Penang, Malaysia

This is the eleventh of several brief posts of my recent trip to Asia: photos, food and a few thoughts.

Teh ais (left) and milo ais (right) in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia
Flying in from the chilly Hong Kong weather to Penang was a sudden change, to say the least, in both wardrobe and eating habits. Rather than seeking out warming soups and congee, it was more a case of eating something light(-ish) so I wouldn't be impeded from diving into the hotel pool not too long after.

It was seriously warm in Georgetown, Penang with a hot humidity that hits the face as soon as one leaves their air-conditioned hotel lobby. But the rich history of the city meant whole days spent by the poolside were out of the question. Indeed, there were touristy sights to be seen.

Iced tea and Milo were cool relief after the effort of seeking out food; a mere hundred metres or so from the hotel lobby - but still a hot task.

Roti canai
Given our rather late breakfast-ing hour, it seemed the roti guy had left for the day, leaving pre-made roti canai in a warmer for anyone who may be carb-inclined outside normal meal times. Despite not being fresh off a grill, we happily tore into this with the accompanying curry dipping sauce.

Mee goreng
The mee goreng, however, came right out of the wok, steaming hot with quite a bit of sauciness in the noodles. Cooling time was even necessary for this quite large plate, with fried tofu cubes, bean sprouts and fried shallots amid the noodles.

Fresh fruit, sliced and packaged, by the street side
Right next door to breakfast was a stall of ready peeled, cut and packaged fruits of almost any tropical variety. I soon found these stalls scattered all throughout Penang - and what a fabulous way to get your five daily serves of the ripest fruits, all ready for consumption, at a staggeringly cheap price.

I had to get the lip-staining pink dragonfruit as well as some ripe, juicy sticks of pineapple. There were several bags of fruits I couldn't even identify, though the unusual rose apple popped up in many stalls.

Fort Cornwallis, Georgetown, Penang
Carb loaded, we were ready to take on Georgetown in the blaring sun, which in hindsight, explains why locals were oddly missing from the scenes.

Indeed, I don't think Fort Cornwallis - Malaysia's largest standing fort - was even open to the public (I think it was a weekend). We took a long walk around the area, in shade where we could, seeing the many sighsts and signs of Penang's colonial heritage.

City Hall, Penang

Town Hall, Penang
We also checked out a good deal of temples and the like in what the map called the 'Street of Harmony walk' - a one kilometre route where there were houses of worship from Islam, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist and Conficianism.

Goddess of Mercy Temple, Georgetown, Penang

Gigantic incense sticks outside the Goddess of Mercy Temple, Georgetown, Penang
It was definitely busy at the Chinese-oriented Goddess of Mercy Temple, with as many people entering the temple as exiting, while the same went for incense sticks in their respective receptacles (there were numerous altars within the temple itself).

An elderly lady sitting near the entrance smiled at us as we entered with cameras around our necks and incense sticks and joss paper in hand, purchased for a few ringgit from a guy at the front. I think she was saying something about young people, and being obedient and respectful - something that's a bit lost on me, and Generation Y generally, sometimes, I think.

Aside from the usual offerings of fruit and cakes, I noticed many bottles of oil - some emptied into larger vessels at the altars - which I've never seen before as an offering in a temple.

Heading into Little India, Georgetown, Penang

Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, Georgetown, Penang

Han Jiang Ancestral Temple, Georgetown, Penang

Yap Kongsi and Ciji Temple, Georgetown, Penang

Khoo Kongsi, Georgetown, Penang
The grand, elaborate and rather well-marketed Khoo Kongsi clanhouse was built for the Khoo family clan in 1851 and also served as a temple in its later life. Now, it's a major tourist attraction featuring a museum and restored opera theatre that's still used on occasion.

Khoo Kongsi opera theatre, Georgetown, Penang
Indeed, it was the restoration of the opera theatre that won the site a UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award. The rest of the clanhouse has obviously undergone significant restoration and conservation too, and despite its age, it stands gracefully and impressively with stunning, intricate details up close.

Khoo Kongsi, Georgetown, Penang

Khoo Kongsi, Georgetown, Penang

Khoo Kongsi, Georgetown, Penang

A side street in Georgetown, Penang

Festive decorations for sale
A long day walking through the heat of Georgetown was going to be rightfully rewarded in the best way possible - hitting the hawker stalls in the evening after a relaxing pool session. And with the amount of food we attacked, I'm sure glad the activities weren't the other way around in order.

Hawker stalls at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
Labelled as an international hawker centre and one of the recommended eating places in Penang, Red Garden Food Paradise (and night market) was a brief taxi ride from the hotel.

We descended upon shiny, colourful sign-covered stalls in a large rectangle, enclosing hundreds of plastic tables and chairs, and diners for that matter. Each stall had its own outdoor kitchen behind the facade advertising a particular cuisine or food type.

Going about ordering at each stall is a little like supermarket shopping - one of these, two of those, one of those - which is subsequently delivered to your officially numbered table, which you have to snare before you go ahead ordering.

Green mango salad at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
From the Thai cuisine stall we had a green mango salad; a delightful alternative to more commonly seen green papaya salads and perhaps a little sweeter for its mango feature. Sour, sweet with just a touch of chilli heat, we scoffed this salad with ease given it was really the ideal kind of food for Penang's balmy temperatures.

Bak kut teh at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
Not quite so appropriate for the climate was something I'd been meaning to try for ages - Malaysia's famous bak kut teh; literally pork rib tea. Except this version had all sorts of piggy bits and not just pork ribs, served with cooled Chinese fried dough sticks, or yau tiao.

Floating about were leafy vegetables and mushrooms, but the headily strong herbal broth had to be the main feature. Subtle sweet undertones lifted the rather medicinal brew, but not quite enough for me to really enjoy it, especially in the sultry warmth of the night.

Grilled chicken at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
Every specimen of grilled chicken I'd spotted throughout the hawker stalls in Malaysia was ridiculously glossy and tempting every time.

Cooked over hot coals and usually with the option of the chicken maryland or wings, these mouthwatering pieces of chicken somehow, magically, remained moist and tender everytime, with a sweet and crispy armour of brown skin. Oh, to have chicken like that at home.

Ikan pari bakar (grilled stingray) at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
Only recently introduced to stingray, this was an exemplary rendition of the dish - this one a portion of a larger fish, grilled to perfection in banana leaf with spices and served with a tart chilli dipping sauce of sorts.

The stingray is an easy seafood to eat, with just a main central skeleton of bones and generally large bones to eat around.

Sate chicken and beef skewers at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
Satay sticks had become a standard order whenever we hit the hawker stalls; this time a combination of petite beef and chicken ones served with a huge dish of nutty satay sauce, and chunks of soothing cucumber and not-so-soothing raw onion.

I think I remember the beef being a little tough while the chicken was the stuff of daydreams.

Post meal carnage (and Carlsberg beer)
Post meal demolishing session, there was an extremely necessary lull as we slowly emptied the large bottles of Carlsberg beer.

The lull pretty much lasted as long as each pause between contestants of the singing competition, which was apparently the semi finals.

Singing competition at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
There were several singers ranging from pop to classic, in English, Malaysian and Mandarin, each singing two songs. We didn't stay for everyone's two cents though.

Takeaway ice cendol at Red Garden Food Paradise, Penang
We had also managed to order dessert to take away, knowing full well that we couldn't possibly have another mouthful there and then. But I certainly didn't expect the convenient packaging - actually my first food in a bag as such.

There were red beans swimming with the green pandan-flavoured cendol noodles at the bottom and presumably a good helping of gula melaka palm sugar syrup and an even more generous helping of shaved ice to top it all off.

The bag was a little messy back at the hotel, spooning it into the room provided mugs and tumblers, and the overall dessert not quite as good as I'd wanted, but much fun anyway.

Just a little bit more Asia tripping to come in Penang.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Departure Lounge to Greece

I haven’t got any major holidays planned for the remainder of the year, which is a little sad; although the here and now is keeping me fairly occupied so that I don’t need a holiday goal to look forward to just yet.

Nonetheless, the prospect of sitting in a departure lounge is one that’s often received with mixed emotions. Excitement then boredom, frustration then elation – all in a couple of hours. At The Piano Room in Kings Cross, the emotions aren’t quite so volatile for the Greece edition of the weekly event, The Departure Lounge.

The Departure Lounge at Piano Room, Bayswater Road, Kings Cross
Presented by Fashion Palette and Eat Drink Play, The Departure Lounge is a 10-week event on Thursday nights that attempts to recreate the feel of flying out to some exotic international destination: Mexico, Japan and Greece in weeks gone by, with Zimbabwe, Morocco, France, Old England, Spain, Lebanon and Brazil yet to come.

Greek music for last week's Greece themed event
In the dark space of Piano Room looking out onto the dotted lights of traffic heading towards Kings Cross, I suppose a tight squint could turn these into departing jet planes, while the neatly-attired 'flight attendants' looked the part.

The reverberating music this evening was undeniably Greek (and not quite disco enough to encourage any dancing) as too the food, catered from nearby coffee house and pastry shop, Ithaka Kafeneion in Llankelly Place.

Every week for each country theme, the organisers try to source a local supplier; highlighting the very international flavour of the area – tomorrow night’s Zimbabwe theme will be one to check out.

Greek chef’s plate by Ithaka Kafeneion
Aside from vouchers for two cocktails each – this evening it was the Greek Bandy Red Apply Fizz (really, that's what it was called) – the boarding pass entry ticket entitles everyone to a ‘chef’s plate’ of food in line with the week’s theme.

In the darkness (the kitchen where my photos were taken was much brighter – thankfully), we can just make out four items each; two savoury and two sweet this evening, with an abundance of golden, flaky filo pastry.

I first take a stab at the tiropita; a lukewarm filo pastry pie with a cheesy egg filling that was seriously salty. The feta cheese in the filling could explain that but it was a tough slog to finish the entire slice despite the lovely flaky pastry.

I adore the combination of spinach and cheese; here more like silverbeet with feta cheese, onions and a good deal of spices for a genuinely healthy tasting slice of spanakopita – and a lot more palatable than the salty tiropita.

The two desserts were Mediterranean classics not exclusive to Greece. The roll of chopped nut-filled baklava was expectedly syrupy though the pastry wasn’t as crisp as hoped for.

Rose loukoumia
The rose-flavoured loukoumia, or Turkish delight by another name, was a pure hit of sugar; chewy and tooth-sticking from the very first bite. The half strawberry garnish was almost just as sweet.

With a taste of Greece – if only for a few hours – while wiling away time in The Departure Lounge, the cold temperatures of the Kings Cross outdoors made for a rude shock – but only until the next Thursday night.

Piano Room
 Food, booze and shoes attended The Departure Lounge with thanks to Alex from Eat Drink Play.

Piano Room on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 27, 2011

Get your bite on at Bitton Gourmet Café and Grocer

Breakfast out, or indeed brunch for the late arisers among us, is such a luxury. No mooching in slippers to the barren shelves of the fridge to see the empty bottles of milk. No unexpected lack of eggs or bread, or fighting over the last couple of wheat biscuits or tea bag.

Brasserie Bread for sale at Bitton Gourmet Café and Grocer, Copeland Street, Alexandria
Bitton is somewhat of an institution in Alexandria (or Erskineville as I’ve always called it); its red awnings standing out like a beacon to the area’s young, funky (and sometimes older and stylish) residents. Families with young kids take over the back courtyard while others fill the footpath seating, especially on weekend mornings.

We arrive at a more afternoon-like hour, but the all-day breakfast menu is there waiting to envelope me in the simple comfort that is bacon and eggs for breakfast on the weekend.

Mango (left) and berry (right) smoothies
Eschewing coffee for hopefully more healthy fruit smoothies, the mango and the berry are our choices. The mango one is a bit bland with a not-so-ripe mango flavour while the berry smoothie is seed-y, tart and better.

Butter, spicy tomato sauce and salt flakes
The menu features a lot of chef and owner David Bitton’s own products, like jams and sauces, and offers a broad range of breakfast options, as well as lunch given our late start to the day.

The arrival whole small container of French Isigny butter at the table, along with a chunky tomato sauce and salt flakes, sets the scene for what is to come for my breakfast order.

One pan bacon and eggs with wood fired bread and spicy tomato sauce
The pan reminds me a little of a paella pan, and I can see that both the bacon and eggs are just cooked – no crispy bacon here but no complaints either. The bacon was seriously quality pork: smoky, firm and so full of flavour that I didn’t mind the fat all too much.

The baked eggs were similar to their poached cousins, with the gooey yolk going all over the pan and making very good use of the provided bread, and a few extra slices. Heavenly slices of toasted sourdough bread that required protection from thieving co-diners who appreciate good bread and butter just as much as me.

A side of creamy, ripe avocado upped my fruit/vegie intake alongside the (does it count?) spicy tomato sauce.

Chilli oil roasted chicken supreme on spiced pumpkin with baby herbs
Aforementioned thieving co-diner had been lured by the lunch menu and was looking down at a very tanned chicken breast, roasted in Bitton’s chilli oil and sitting atop a puddle of smooth pumpkin puree and a shallow pool of juices.

The pumpkin, as much as it resembled baby food, was surprisingly rich and creamy with a decent spice kick to prop up the tender, juicy chicken. Said stolen sourdough was used to mop up a lot of the tasty leftover juices.

Bitton products
Perusing a little as we left, there’s an impressive range of dry goods for purchase on the shelves (in addition to Bitton products) as well as a few choice items in the fridge. But going up to pay, we couldn’t resist a loaf of the Brasserie Bread sourdough that we’d just been eating.

We depart with the heavy batard loaf and equally full, heavy stomachs, heading back home for mooching about in slippers and perhaps some sourdough toast for afternoon tea.

Bitton Gourmet Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Casual Japanese at Goshu Ramen Tei

The amount of Japanese eateries in the Sydney CBD is actually quite surprising. Wherever you are there's likely to be a Japanese restaurant nearby: whether posh and expensive, funky and cutting-edge, or traditional and authentic.

The abundance of casual Japanese eateries is a godsend when one has no plans at peak dinner hour on a Friday night. And after a few beverages, a bento set sounds all the more enticing.

Salmon sashimi in bento set at Goshu Ramen Tei, York Street, Sydney
Goshu Ramen Tei is one of two casual Japanese restaurants at the northern end of York Street; the busier, more popular one on this particular Friday night. Cold bottles of Asahi beer add to the night's drinks toll, helped down with some perky, thick cut salmon sashimi as part of a bento set.

Agedashi tofu
Deep fried agedashi tofu is not always one of my favourites as I find that the oily flavour can be sometimes quite overpowering. It's fine here, sitting in a rather light pool of dipping sauce in its bento box segment.

Karaage chicken
More deep fry comes along with the karaage chicken, the batter of which looks a little overcooked in parts but given it's made of thigh fillet, it retains a delicious juiciness. What it lacks in crunch it makes up in greasiness.

Miso soup
I've recently discovered the soothing and restorative properties of miso soup. The warm savouriness is just perfectly satisfying for winter, and indeed, post drinking.

Chilli beef set
The set meals are not quite as big nor diverse as the bento boxes, but here, provide a salad, rice and orange wedge to finish. While both capsicums and chilli are quite visible in the dish, and are visually appealing, the chilli beef lacks any spice oomph and is more sweet and teriyaki-like than a fiery chilli eater would desire.

Nonetheless, it's quite a large dish along with the bowl of steamed rice, and fits the bill for a post drinks meal without any pretence, expense or difficulty. And that's exactly what you want on a Friday night.

Goshu Ramen Tei on Urbanspoon


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