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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at kind of a bad time: it was Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan and a major public holiday in Malaysia. Muslims from KL typically visit their families in the north at this time, and because the holiday fell on a Thursday-Friday, everyone basically had a four-day weekend. The city was eerily empty in some places, jam-packed and business-as-usual in others. This probably contributed to our slightly off-kilter experience, but I think regardless of holidays, KL is not a city you fall for at first sight. Much of the centre is clearly not designed for pedestrians, and we found ourselves walking awkwardly along the edge of highways and under bridges. The public transit system looks great on paper, but all of the lines are owned by different companies and they barely intersect. Making a journey that includes a change of line most often includes leaving the station, walking a few blocks up alleys and across construction sites, then entering a new station and paying for another ticket. Luxury hotels and malls are being thrown up everywhere you look, but nothing fits together logically. It’s the very model of unchecked development. What to do to get our bearings in a strange Asian city? Obviously – morning markets!

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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.

Bangkok is a pretty bustling city already so Bangkok Chinatown was always going to be a bit madcap. We took the regular bus-type boat down the river and emerged into a shopping street that ‘bustling’ doesn’t even begin to describe. Holy hell, I have never seen anything so crowded and claustrophobic in all my life! I don’t actually have any photos of the experience because there was no real way to take meaningful photographs. We were squashed up like the mosh pit of a Morrissey gig, but with only cheap consumer goods as our objects of lust. We just shuffled along with the rhythms of the heaving crowd for what felt like miles till we found a cross-street and then legged it out of there. This picture below is of a relatively quiet, relaxed and empty thoroughfare…

But for all its insanity, I really enjoyed Bangkok Chinatown. The Chinese lanterns were pretty and there was a different energy to the place than the rest of the city. Also fascinating were the proximities of other immigrant communities: walk west a couple of blocks and you’re among sari stores, pan sellers and samosa stalls. Walk north and you’re in an older Chinatown full of mildly decrepit shophouses selling all manner of knick-knacks.

Naturally, I was partly there for the food and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, my first sensation was being overwhelmed by choice: every corner had maybe five or six food stalls and I was anxious about how much I’d miss, no matter what I chose to eat. I started off with some green sugary coconut things that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I love pandan but whatever I bought tasted mostly of sugar. Mr Lemur enjoyed it more than me as he has a South American sweet tooth. Once in the real market area, I found more to my savoury tastes, but what really piqued my interest were these odd dumpling displays.

The dumplings themselves are not odd – they’re the kind of flat, rice flour dumplings that are often filled with slightly bitter Chinese greens and I love them. But these enormous displays of dumpling architecture built around the edges of vast drums reminded me of nothing more than something from the nest of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I think it’s the gelatinous, sticky consistency of the dough, which is so appealing in the mouth, but becomes a bit abject en masse like this. I expected something to emerge from the bottom of the pile and bite me. Plus, the perfect tiling of the wall doesn’t give me the impression that these dumplings are being cooked and served quickly…it was a hot day and the alien dumpling nest looked, well, dank. I ate one and lived to tell the tale, but I was slightly concerned about food safety here, I have to admit.

To recover from the freaky Alien dumplings we stopped off in Hong Kong Noodles cafe for some dim sum. This wasn’t the best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life but it was perfectly serviceable and one shrimp dumpling with chili sauce was amazing. Siu mai and har gow were fine with good fresh seafood and it was mostly good to find a place to sit down after all the crazy crowds.

The only thing I really couldn’t bring myself to try was these little Asian ‘tacos’ that they sell at lots of food stands. I know they’re not tacos and I am willing to bet that they’re delicious. But the filling just looks SO MUCH like nasty American orange cheese and sour cream that they put me right off.

I should offer a prize for guessing correctly what exactly is in this picture. When we first arrived in Chau Doc, in the northern Mekong, we were perplexed and utterly transfixed by these obscenely glistening mountains that were to be found in stalls all over the night market. Context and smell told us there was a fish component but what else was going on? We remained in the dark until the next morning, when all became clear at the morning market. Before I get there, though, a little about Chau Doc. It’s one of the bigger cities on the Mekong and the last major stopping point before the Cambodian border. As a result, it has the slightly rakish demeanour of the border town (although it’s a ways to the actual border) as well as a substantial Khmer influence in its food and culture. Although there is a tourist market on the waterfront, I didn’t see any actual tourists there, and most of the town had a real provincial feel – urban but not especially concerned to be cosmopolitan. We felt nicely far from home. Read the rest of this entry »

Well, after a fairly horrible two weeks of illness, I’m finally feeling well enough to resume blogging. I’m by no means better yet – after a proper flu with secondary bronchitis and laryngitis I’m still weak as a kitten and sleeping almost as much as my cat – but I’m itching to write more about Vietnam and Thailand. I’m hoping in the coming weeks to intersperse travel posts on Southeast Asia with what I’m cooking now. But since I’m still on a sick-girl diet of plain rice and chicken, cooked by the wonderful Mr Lemur, it might be a few days before I’m back at the stove. For now, I’m starting a short series of market posts. Like any foodie, one of my favourite things to do in any new destination is to check out the food market, and throughout our trip we spent mornings and often evenings wandering around stalls, tasting new foods and just looking longingly at produce. I’ve been saving these posts up to enliven a dull January with vibrant images. First up, the Mekong delta town of Vinh Long. Read the rest of this entry »

If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
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Well, my pretties, I’ve finally escaped from farang food! After I met Naomi Duguid in London, we kept in touch and arranged to meet up at the Haw morning vegetable market in Chiang Mai. We had had a lovely time in East London talking about everything from Naomi’s travels in Burma to film, philosophy and Iranian gender politics and so I was super pleased to have the chance to meet up again. This time, though, we’d have a proper food market to visit and we’d be on Naomi’s home turf, as it were. She didn’t have much time to spare as she was actually catching a plane later in the morning – I know, right, how generous to meet up and show us the market when she was on such a tight schedule – but she packed in an intensive education in a brief space of time. In between catching up with all of our lives this autumn, Naomi explained many of the market’s  treasures and introduced me to what may be my new favourite breakfast dish. Read the rest of this entry »

After a long train journey north, we spent last night in Sukhothai. Our first night out of Bangkok was a bit of a blur of brightly lit stores, birds congregating at Hitchcock levels on electrical wires, dilapidated buildings and busy night streets. We ate dinner at a sidewalk cafe, which sounds a lot more fancy than it was. Our table was on the street, sandwiched between teenagers on Vespas hanging out on one side and a Thai soap opera playing silently on the other. In other words, it was pretty much my ideal eatery. After missing out on pad krapow for breakfast, I had it for dinner, with our guide Aom ordering it properly pet, or spicy for me. Mr Lemur had wide noodles that were revelatory: their relationship to noodles at home being the difference between pasta by Buitoni and pasta fresh made by your Italian grandmother. But the highlight of the evening was watching the hawker cart ladies at work. We followed up our meal with Thai roti: puffed up roti dough filled with banana, crisply fried on a griddle and then – wait for it – doused in chocolate sauce and condensed milk. Yeah, you think Thai food is all light and healthy with the salads and all, but there are enough fried things to keep any sweet lover happy. 

 

Her speed throwing the roti out was astonishing. She flips the dough back and forth till it’s paper thin. It’s a joy to watch her work.

Next comes the magic of puffed bread, with a generous helping of banana in the centre.

Can you tell we were awaiting our roti with excitement?

Just look at the condensed milk! This is the part that had Mr Lemur drooling. 

The finished article. The chocolate sauce is homemade, and the whole thing was a decadent treat. It’s possible that I’ll come home from Asia a couple of sizes larger…but it will totally be worth it.

 

Santiago central market was, as they say in the UK, a game of two halves. We had planned to check out the market in the early afternoon so that we could wander the fresh fish and vegetable sections for a while and then eat lunch among the stalls. I had visions of little food vendors perched among the stalls, perhaps one specialising in empanadas, another in fish dishes, and so on. Anthony Bourdain had visited this market and he seemed to like it, so I was pretty optimistic about the kind of unpretentious food I’d find there. This fantasy was sadly not sustained by the reality.

The restaurant section of the market immediately felt like the worst kind of tourist trap, in which dozens of red-uniformed restaurant operatives descended on us and started in on a hard sell in both Spanish and English. We resisted for a while but eventually decided we may as well pick a place for lunch. As we foolishly hesitated among identical looking options, one operative told us we should come to his restaurant because Obama just ate there on his recent visit to Chile. Naked appeal to tourists he took to be North American? Definitely. True? Maybe, maybe not. But we laughed and figured it was as good a line as we were going to get at that point. The experience was what you might predict in these circumstances: decent, fresh seafood, hideously overpriced, with service so attentive as to feel unpleasantly like surveillance. I ordered large shrimp fried in garlic and got all of three shrimp for my £10. Three! Lucky I wasn’t too hungry. The waiter seemed annoyed that we didn’t order more but the whole thing was uncomfortable enough that we didn’t really care.

So, eating at the Santiago market is not recommended but the market itself was a whole other story. As the smiling woman in the picture above suggests, meandering among the fish stalls was a joy. Everything is laid out beautifully and you can get sucked into watching the workers expertly gut and fillet fish with amazing speed. Everyone who works in the market section is friendly; eager to sell you some fish, to be sure, but just as happy to chat about the produce or, like this guy, to pose for a few photos.

It’s also rather nice to see all the foods we’ve been eating for the last week or so in their raw form.

The stallholder in charge of these scallops tapped them repeatedly to show us they were alive and healthy. Not alive but still pretty fresh were the congrios of various colours along with lots of other fishes I didn’t recognise.

And finally comes the freakiest of seafoods: picorocos or giant edible barnacles. These creatures exert a queasy fascination, what with their giant claws (or are they – shudder – teeth?) peering out of their rocky shells and, worse, some kind of yellow tongue that emerges from between the pincers if they smell your proximity. They look a lot like the Alien, especially when the pincers open up and the tongue thing comes out. As you watch, they wave about, sniffing the air for prey.

They’re completely abject and I could have stared at them for hours. Apparently they are cooked in the shell/rock and you eat them by grabbing the claws/teeth and using them to pull the whole thing out. All I have to say is that I’m willing to bet you any money that Obama didn’t eat those when he was here.