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These are the moments that I love my job. I’ve spent the last few days in Urbana-Champaign, a college town (or two) near Chicago that I had never visited before and about which I had no particular expectations. As it turned out, the conference was excellent and the organisers turned out to be genuinely awesome people that I want to kidnap and bring home with me so that I can admire their fashion, drink their cocktails and dance until the small hours. Conferences don’t have enough dance parties in my view, and the ChamBana crowd know how to have a good time. But what about the food?, you ask. I ate in some pretty decent upscale restaurants but the real highlight was my day off, when I wandered out to Maize, a tiny Mexican gem in the midst of ugly student apartments and parking lots. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you let me loose in the United States, I will find good Mexican food. It’s what I do here.

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In my last post I mentioned Eating Asia's Robyn Eckhardt. We were lucky enough to take her walking and eating tour of Georgetown, and she passed on a slew of tips for places to eat on our own time. Our plan for the late afternoon was to potter around town and then try some Penang laksa. Robyn dismissed most of the supposedly “best” laksas in town and gave us directions to a far superior but unheralded hawker. This place doesn't open till the mid-afternoon, though, so we had time for some proper touristing first. And yes, we totally planned our day around the time the laksa stall opened.
As we wandered the historic centre, though, we began to notice something. Cats. Cats painted on walls. As a huge fan of the late Chris Marker, cats on walls are of particular interest to me. I knew that Georgetown had a bunch of street art but the cats were an extremely pleasing surprise. Suddenly, they were appearing everywhere, in small scale and writ large. Read the rest of this entry »
 
Georgetown is full of gorgeous old shophouse architecture – the kind of buildings that have been torn down in many other places and replaced with truly ugly modern high rises. Penang's shophouses aren't only valuable for their aesthetic merits, though, as they still support some of the cultures that are nourished by these types of space. A perfect example is Toon Leong coffee shop, which we discovered on the recommendation of Robyn from Eating Asia.* Here, the purpose of the deep interior space with pillars but no walls becomes perfectly clear: it is almost magically cool inside, despite a day in the high 90s and nothing but a couple of lazy ceiling fans. Humidity be damned, it is comfortable here. In the late morning, the cafe is dotted with old Chinese guys and a growing number of local workers coming in for lunch. You can take a lunch break here but it would also be so very easy to while away several hours. Kopi tiam, or coffee house culture here is alive and well, thanks to these kinds of spaces.
 
 
We've been in Malaysia for a few days now, but we're still reeling from the amazing food onslaught that was Penang. We arrived in the mid afternoon, when Georgetown is hot and sleepy. I was eager to get out and eat, but not unreasonably, a lot of the street food focuses on actual mealtimes, rather than being ready to feed foreigners at random moments of the day. So, we pootled around looking at the city's truly gorgeous shophouse architecture until Mr Lemur called time on our mad dogs and Englishmen perambulations and we went back to our hotel for a siesta. (Our hotel, by the way, was the fantastic Campbell House, about which more later. Seriously, if you go to Georgetown, you should really stay there.) Anyway, we didn't quite have our bearings yet in terms of navigating the city, so we didn't want to stray far for dinner. I had a long list of food ideas, but the only one very close to our hotel was the wonderfully named Sky Emperor Chicken Feet Kway Teow Soup on Lebuh Kimberley. Come on, how could you not want to eat at something called Sky Emperor Chicken Feet?
 
I already wrote about the putu piring, but there was so much more going on at the Geylang Serai pasar malam. Blocks and blocks of tents were set up for a giant market that runs through Ramadan, adjacent to the hawker food centre where we ate. Outside, the streets are decorated with lights and in lots of places, decorative ketupat holders. Inside you can buy most anything, but if you are in the market for some spiffy new headscarves, then you have really come to the right place. We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the stalls.
Singapore is famous for its hawker food centres: since the government cleared hawkers from plying their trade on the street, they have been moved to what are essentially food courts. However, they're not food courts in the way you might imagine them if what you are used to is European or North American mall food courts. These hawker centres are mostly open air, with a covering roof but no walls, doors or, crucially, air conditioning. The stalls have access to plumbing and there are hygiene certificates prominently displayed (this is Singapore, after all), but they are still decently grimy, hot and chaotic. Kenny and Alan ramped things up by taking us to Chomp Chomp, a hawker centre that's a bit further out and less touristed than the Chinatown ones. The neighbourhood is tony, with gentrified wine bars and posh bakeries nearby, but Chomp Chomp remains unabashedly traditional, and packs in crowds of mostly (but by no means all) young people. Read the rest of this entry »
I have much food to blog about. So much food. But before I get into the vast meals, let's stop to consider just one dish. Not even a dish really, a simple sweet made of rice flour, coconut, pandan and palm sugar. But as simple as they are, putu piring are one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten. They come in packs of five and Kenny tells me he has been known to buy four packs all for himself. He's not an especially greedy person, but these things are like crack. We went to the pasar malam or night market at Geylang Serai that was packed with Ramadan crowds, and then headed to the Haig Road hawker centre. Among the savoury food Kenny picked us up some packs of putu piring from this bright little stall. Somehow we knew this was not something to hold out till dessert. No, in between mouthfuls of soup, we moved in on the fluffy little morsels. With a pandan scent from fresh leaves, and oozing with gula melaka, these steamed rice and coconut cakes are transcendentally good. Read the rest of this entry »
Yes, the Lemur trip to Singapore and Malaysia is underway! We arrived in Singapore yesterday morning after a sleepless thirteen-hour flight, but luckily the energy of being here carried us through, at least till a much-needed afternoon nap. More to the point, our desire to be out and eating won out over tiredness, and we met up with Lemur friend Kenny* for a late breakfast. Our first stop was the Chinatown Hawker centre, which is a sprawling, labyrinthine food hall on the second floor of a concrete mall. It's nominally indoors but open to the elements, not air conditioned, but with breezy balconies around the edges. We wandered a lot, weaving through colour-coded sections, sometimes ending up walking in circles past the same kway teow stall or the same family with a giant fish on their table. It was the perfect introduction to Singapore food and possibly an extension of our feverish jetlagged minds. Eventually, we settled on mixed meat noodles with fish balls and fried wonton. The broth was spicy and tasty, and the tangle of noodles included delicious secrets like little cubes of deep-fried lard. So. Very. Good.
 

Lima-octopus

Mr Lemur had a significant birthday this year, and we’ve been celebrating in our usual half-assed fashion. We’re neither of us very good with marking dates and occasions – for instance, half the time we both forget our wedding anniversary and when people ask us when it is, we literally have to work it out based on other, more important things in our lives. Birthdays are easier to remember but we still don’t do a lot of planning. So when the actual day came around, all we had actually set up was a dinner in London with Lemur pal K. Happily, the universe did a bit of birthday planning for us – a check in with the Crocodiles led us to meet them in a Soho bar and then they ran into another pair of glamorous London friends so the next thing we knew prosecco had been purchased and we had an impromptu birthday party. Hurrah! There was some value to thinking ahead, though, because we scored a table at Lima, Virgilio Martinez’s London outpost. Read the rest of this entry »

mackerel-2

I’ve been very remiss on the blogging front in the last few months, partly in response to a what has been a stressful time on the work front. When I’m too tired to cook interesting things, it doubles down on being too tired to blog: even if I had the energy to write, I couldn’t really make a blog post about my endless diet of rice and dal or beans and greens pasta. But I was given a bit of a nudge by hearing about readers out there who missed the blog. A couple of times people I know (or, indeed, am related to) mentioned that they hadn’t seen updates recently but on one occasion Lemur friend T told me her friends––whom I have never even met––said they’d missed the blog. It was kind of a boost to realise that I have an actual audience out there. I’m not kidding myself that anyone cares significantly about my updates, but still, even knowing that some complete strangers to me are enjoying the blog enough to miss it gave me the impetus to get back to cooking and writing about it. So thanks, readers, and welcome back!

Meanwhile, it is finally, finally summer here in the south of England. I honestly feel like we’ve waited three years for a solid week of warm weather and I am taking full advantage. (Example: I am writing now from a deckchair in my back garden.) So I was thinking about lighter summery fare when I saw a shiny pile of locally caught mackerel in the fishmonger’s display. I love mackerel – its stronger flavour and buttery texture can stand up to some punchy combinations and it’s also easy to cook. I’ve been thinking about Malaysian food a lot recently, and though this recipe isn’t at all Malaysian in overall conception, it uses some of the ingredients of the region to give a summery dish a tasty twist. Read the rest of this entry »

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