Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Penang, Malaysia

Corner food center in Penang
Penang Island--a small (300 sq. km), highly urbanized island off the coast of northern Malaysia--was HOT in the food blogosphere world in the autumn, with visits by Real Thai, Rambling Spoon, Chubby Hubby, and Rasa Malaysia. I visited for a few days in October, and have finally gotten around to posting some remarks and photos.

Pedal-powered hawker's cartDining Timing
Recently the New York Times' Matt Gross reported on his trip to Penang in a feature travel article. He spent a few days in Penang and had an all too common tourist experience in Malaysia and Singapore: showing up to a renowned restaurant only to be disappointed. He wrote

But don’t wait to try it [assam laksa, a noodle soup of fish, tamarind, herbs, and various other elements] on a Wednesday, at least not in the nearby town of Balik Pulau, reputed to have some of the best laksas around. As I discovered the hard way, laksa vendors take Wednesdays off to clean their stalls. So I made do with Hokkien prawn mee (long egg noodles in a rust-colored shrimp broth) and rose apples and jasmine limes from a tropical fruit farm in the mountains.

It wasn’t until the next day at lunch, at Georgetown’s Joo Hooi Cafe, that I finally got to satiate my laksa urge. The bowl that arrived was a master class in contrasting textures and flavors, with each ingredient striking an almost perfect note: the rich and oily mackerel, the sharp mint and spicy sambal, the sour tamarind and sweet pineapples. And the thick, round white noodles were the chewy embodiment of “q,” the Chinese analog of al dente.

I would have eaten two more bowls, if I hadn’t also ordered char kway teow, a platter of rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese sausage and blood cockles, that was the very essence of wok hei.

Alas, that was to be my final assam laksa, either because I arrived too early, too late or on the wrong day everyplace else.

In my case, heavy rain was the enemy, and prevented me from visiting the culinary hot spots recommended by Rasa Malaysia and others. Nonetheless, I ate plenty of delicious casual food like roti canai, roti tissu, mee, and masala dosa, primarily at the two 24 hour Nasi Kandar restaurants on Penang Road near my hotel.

Peranakan doorwaySightseeing
The atmosphere in Penang is far more relaxed than Kuala Lumpur, and it is eminently more walkable, with most of the city center retaining a large fraction of colonial-era buildings, many with lovely details like the doors, windows and tiles pictured to the left.

On your first day on the island, be sure to stop by the Penang Heritage Trust for their brochures on "Traditional Trades" (e.g., signboard engraver, incense maker) and "Traditional Foods" (e.g., popiah skin maker, crepe maker).

Doorway at Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, PenangI recommend taking a tour of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (also known as the "Blue Mansion," a doorway is pictured above). Cheong Fatt Tze lived an incredible rags-to-riches life -- his commercial empire stretched across Southeast Asia and late in his life he was called "the Rockefeller of the East." His mansion is built using strict feng sui principles, which were explained in an engaging way by the mansion's tour guide.

While wandering around the island, I also bought a bottle of the soy sauce to which Chubby Hubby awarded an IFFA back in March, Kilang Kicap Kwong Heng Loong. I purchased a bottle of the company's top quality sauce, but alas, it has fallen into the category of "too good to use," and has been "resting" in my pantry since I returned.

Indexed under Travel, Malaysia and Singapore
Technorati tags: Malaysia : Food

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Unusual Greens, Part 7 - Lamb's Quarters

photo of lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album)[Updated below]

A few weeks ago at the Farmers' Market I spotted yet another unusual green: lamb's quarters (Chenopodium album, also known as goosefoot, pigweed, wild spinach, fat hen) at the Full Belly Farm table.

Chenopodium album grows all over the world, including in European trash heaps. The Oxford Companion to Food explains: "This plant thrives on muck heaps, and remains of it have been found in neolithic middens; many of the local common names used in England reflect this, e.g. dungweed, muckweed, and dirty dick." With the recent concern over E. coli 0157:H7, I hope that farmers aren't harvesting lamb's quarters that grow in or around the dung heaps of corn-fed cattle.

In Mexico, these greens are called quelites (as are many other edible greens). According to Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen, the word derives from the Aztec word quelitl, which was used for any culinary green or herb. Since my first introduction to the use of lamb's quarters was by Bayless in Mexican cuisine, I cooked my bunch of lamb's quarters in two Mexican dishes. The first was in soft tacos, with the greens lightly steamed and topped with hot sauce and cheese. The second was in a tortilla casserole, combined with cheese, corn, squash and crema (a relative of sour cream). The greens were excellent in both dishes, with a pleasing tenderness, a mild spinach-like flavor and none of the lingering astringency that I find in spinach.

Of the seven unusual greens profiled thus far, these are probably my favorite, and I'll be sure to buy them whenever they appear in the market.

Update (01/09/07)
Gourmet's Diary of a Foodie television program on PBS this weekend was Episode 9, Living Off the Land. In the kitchen demonstration segment, the Gourmet staff member made what he called "Prospect Park Pesto," a pesto made from lamb's quarters and wild garlic foraged from Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The website doesn't list a recipe for the pesto; it appeared to be a standard food processor pesto (pulverize the garlic by hand; puree the greens in the processor; add cheese, pine nuts and the garlic; pulse a few times; add olive oil while the processor is running.)

I have seen only three episodes of "Diary" and am quite impressed. The show travels the world in search of interesting food stories, like the use of indigenous ingredients in Brazil, making knives the old way in Japan, or farming in Maine. The segment lead-ins with the narrator typing at the keyboard are a bit annoying, but that's a minor flaw.

Update (10/3/16)
Fixed broken links

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Finally heeding the call of Lahey's "no knead bread"

photo of no knead breadLike so many other food bloggers, I heeded the call of Jim Lahey's No Knead Bread that was written about by Mark Bittman in the New York Times. I enjoy making breads that require lots of kneading and post-knead folding (e.g., the ciabatta from Artisan Breads across America), but a bread that I could make without pulling out the KitchenAid mixer or planning my day around bread making had to be tried.

And so I did. Late on a Wednesday night I mixed the dough (using the weight proportions in Bittman's second article). It then sat on my counter at about 55 to 65 F for twenty hours until the next evening. After the initial shaping, I cut the dough in two for the final proof.

One reason that I delayed baking this bread for so many weeks was the lack of a four to six quart cast iron pot to hold the dough. After asking everyone I knew if they had such a pot and receiving "no" all around, I tried baking with what was in my cupboard: a 2 quart (1.8 L) Le Creuset saucepan with a matching lid (one of my great thrift shop finds: I paid only $2.50) and a 2 quart (1.8 L) ceramic casserole dish with an aluminum foil cover (thanks to Gerda of tschoerda for the idea to use the casserole and foil).photo of baking dishes

I have been using artisan bread baking techniques for almost a decade and the crust on the no knead bread is easily the best I have ever baked. My previous loaves might have nice color but a weak, thin crust; or they might have the perfect crunch but some major flaw. Or I might break an oven light or two as I sprayed water into the oven to make some steam. Or nearly burn myself pouring water into a pan on the oven floor. Now I know that the cover is the key.

As for the bread's taste and texture, it was good but not great, and so I need to do some experimenting. Perhaps a bit of rye flour, some wheat germ, or another flavoring.

Indexed under Baking
Technorati tags: Food : Bread : Baking

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Grapefruit vs. Gasoline -- Elasticity Illustrated

When I took an introductory economics class in college, one of the most important topics was elasticity, with much discussion of the elasticity of demand (how demand for an item changes as the price changes). Last week's news brought two examples worth sharing.


The New York Times reported on rising orange juice prices, and included these statistics about grapefruit:

"The orange industry’s problems follow those of the grapefruit industry. The grapefruit crop, which was down substantially last year because of hurricane damage, is recovering somewhat this year. Where last year’s crop was 19 million boxes, this year’s should be in the range of 26 million boxes, Mr. Meadows said.

"But last fall, with the grapefruit crop down substantially, consumer demand for grapefruit juice plummeted by as much as 30 percent after prices increased 20 percent and more."

In other words, a price increase of 1 percent resulted in a demand decrease of 1.5 percent.


The San Francisco Chronicle's David Baker reported on a survey of gasoline prices and purchases. As you would expect, consumers react quite differently to rising gasoline prices than to rising grapefruit juice prices.

"The Davis study examined two periods of rising prices: 1975 to 1980 and 2001 to 2006. In each, it examined the 'elasticity' of demand -- the amount that gasoline use changes as prices rise or fall.

"For every 10 percent increase in price during the late 1970s, demand fell 2.1 to 3.4 percent, researchers found. But in the past five years, every 10 percent price increase drove down gasoline purchases by a mere 0.34 to 0.77 percent."

A 1 percent price increase for gasoline resulted in a demand decrease of between 0.034 and 0.077 percent (30 times less than the change for grapefruit juice), a classic example of inelastic demand. In most parts of the U.S., there is no substitute for gasoline, so people just grumble a bit about high prices and keep driving. To be sure, paying more for one good will affect purchases of other goods, and so the extra money spent on gasoline will prevent expenditures on luxuries like grapefruit juice through substitution of a cheaper juice or abandonment of breakfast juice entirely.

That people responded differently to higher prices in the 1970s than they do today caught my eye. Christopher Knittel, a economist at University of California, Davis and one of the report's co-authors, had this to say about on the difference in demand changes for the two decades:
"We tend to live farther from our jobs now, so if the price of gas goes up, I'm still forced to drive to work," Knittel said. "There's not much discretion."

The difference also could be connected to the rising number of dual-income families. "Now it's two people who can't change their behavior," Knittel said.

Image credits
The grapefruit photo is from Ms. Tea's Flickr collection and the gas pump photo is from Racoles's Flickr collection. Both photos are subject to a Creative Commons License.

Indexed under Other
Technorati tags: Food