Monthly Archives: May 2013

Don’t be a wuss. Try Nyonya.

I’m not one of those people whose first meal in a foreign country is at McDonalds.  Some tourists’ first instinct is to check whether the fries are the same as the ones back home (one friend was even excited to taste if the French did it better!).  When I’m touring with a local, I beg him to take me to a place that serves the best local fare.  For me, trying out strange foods is more fun than a  day in a theme park.

In Penang, I loved Char kway teow (stir-fried ricecake strips; the secret ingredient seems to be the intense fire that gives the noodles a yummy smokey flavour) and Lor Bak (marinated minced pork, rolled in thin soybean sheets and then deep fried; more like our kikiam).  But my most unforgettable meal was at Ivy’s Nyonya Cuisine.

Nyonya is mestizo to us: hybrid, mixed.  Nyonya cuisine came about with Malay-Chinese inter-marriages.  The dishes may look somewhat Chinese but the taste is unique, in a realm all its own.   Unlike Pinoy food where one could easily identify what specific ingredients went into the preparation, Nyonya has a complex taste.   As you bite into the Kapitan Chicken Curry, everything’s happening all at once in your mouth.  There’s turmeric, shallots, belachan (shrimp paste), red chili, lemongrass, mint, coconut milk, lime, sugar and everything else imaginably zesty and aromatic.  It was so good that our group ordered a second round of Kapitan.

Kapitan Chicken Curry
Kapitan Chicken Curry

I’ve tried grilled stingray before in Singapore’s Chinatown but the Nyonya stewed version was heavenly.  It had the same explosion of spices, plus tamarind juice, I think, that also made the difference.

stingray
stingray
singkamas (Mexican turnip) that's wrapped in greens
singkamas (Mexican turnip) that you wrap in greens and flavor with shrimp paste
lor bak
lor bak

I’ve been told by my Malaysian friends that the key tools to Nyonya’s wonderful cookery are a granite mortar and pestle.  It’s couture.  Everything’s done by hand.  No shortcuts.  Curry in powder form is a no-no.  Then the stuff is marinated well and cooked very  slowly.

So when in George Town Penang, check out Ivy’s.  You’re in for an amazing treat, the thrill of the unknown.

A Lithuanian paints Armenian

We Filipinos are often told that we’re naturally creative.  In the visuals arts, it’s the Filipinos who are making a killing when Sotheby’s holds auctions in Singapore and Hong Kong.   Our modern art appears to be more prized now than Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese.   But when you walk the streets of Manila, there’s hardly anything that shows our artistic bent.  Our buildings are ugly.  Old buildings are torn down to give way to more ugly buildings.  Even the lowly but whimsical jeepney art is dying.

Malaysia you don’t associate much with art.  But George Town in Penang proves that Malaysians appreciate the good and the beautiful.  The entire town is a UNESCO site!  Its colonial past is treasured and preserved.  The people there do have a sense of art and history.  I’ve never seen a city in Asia besides Kyoto where hundreds of old structures remain, most of them spruced up and turned into homes, shops, offices, schools and hotels.

Lebuh Armenian was for me the most fascinating part about exploring George Town on foot.  Colourful without being garish.

And, there’s the street art done by a Lithuanian artist who lives in Penang.  Ok, he’s not Malaysian.  But you must credit the Malaysian authorities for commissioning him to paint on the town’s walls.  They knew that through art, the town’s heritage and culture would live on.

Here are some of the Lithuanian artist’s pieces, plus some installations done by other artists.

pic grabbed from onlypenang.com
pic grabbed from onlypenang.com

from streetartupia.com
from streetartutopia.com

In Penang, it’s not only the hawker stalls that can feed you.

Clove Hall: Where pictures don’t lie.

The bane of an Internet-dependent traveller’s existence is a deceitful hotel website.  For how many times have we checked into a hotel that didn’t match up to the online photo spread?

Here are examples from oyster.com:

In January, my Malaysian friends booked Clove Hall for our George Town Penang holiday.  I checked the hotel’s website which was quite impressive.  But I figured it was pure online make-believe, yet one more untruth in advertising.    Must manage expectations, I thought.

Of course, I was proven wrong.  It actually looked better in reality.

Everything I know about English architecture I learned from Merchant-Ivory films.  The house must have been built in the early 1900s since it looked Edwardian (Think Room With A View and Maurice).  It can’t be Victorian because the lines are cleaner, lighter and the details are less frilly.

The owners have done well by fusing Asian into the whole mix.  The artwork, furniture, cabinets and other pieces were just right to make the ambience even more elegant yet inviting.  I just love it.  I felt like a haciendiero even for just 3 days.  And I didn’t have to spend a lot to feel like one.  Everything in Penang is inexpensive.

Clove Hall, which has only 6 suites in all, does not have a bar or restaurant.  Breakfast is served, however, and you can have any of their staff (the lovely and congenial Filipinos Erlyn and Juliet; and Raj, a Malaysian) get you any food bought outside Clove Hall.  They know where to find really good char koey teow, which must be the best noodle dish I’ve ever tried.   I had it for 3 days straight.

It also has a pool.  Perfect for Penang, where it never gets cold.

If you’re visiting Penang, skip the modern hotels.  You must only stay in a colonial house like Clove Hall.   It must only be Clove Hall.

Reservations are only done online.  Visit http://www.clovehall.com/

Preserving Sekeping

After that sumptuous bean sprout chicken meal, Morgan, our cheery Canadian friend of Argentine descent, took us to a historic place in Ipoh town that he read about in an inflight magazine.  This was Sekeping Kong Heng.

It’s tucked behind a restaurant that’s supposedly been serving generations of Ipohians the best popiah in town. Sekeping Kong Heng itself is very old.  Its oldness remains.  The proprietors who turned it into a high-end hostel, coffee shop and art gallery didn’t tear down any structure or chop off the trees that had been strangling the concrete for decades.  They added to what was there.  They valued the “values” that the building represents: the community’s sense of history, identity and aesthetics.

Manila and all Filipino real property developers must learn from Malaysia.

Ok, if it’s too much for them to appreciate the beauty of neo-classical architecture, they still ought to do historic preservation for practical reasons.  Historic buildings are eco-friendly.  New building require more carbon footprint.  Old buildings are more well-built and earthquake/typhoon-proof.   They’re cooler in the summer.

And they attract more tourists.  Them who could tell neo-classical from shoebox architecture.

art gallery across the hotel and coffee shop
art gallery across the hotel and coffee shop
art on art
art on art

a hotel above the ruins
a hotel above the ruins
books to borrow while sipping coffee
books to borrow while sipping coffee
Howards End meets Provence
Howards End meets Provence
retail behind Sekeping Kong Heng
retail behind Sekeping Kong Heng
Burps & Giggles Cafe next to Sekeping
Burps & Giggles Cafe next to Sekeping
trompe l'oleil in the courtyard
trompe l’oleil in the courtyard
from www.weheart.co.uk
from www.weheart.co.uk
www.weheart.co.uk
www.weheart.co.uk

Ipoh Stopover

So for the nth time I flew to Malaysia last week for a short 5-day break.  Before that, I got the familiar “Huh?” from friends who knew I’d be KL-bound.

Malaysia never gets some loving from Pinoy tourists; and to them KL is Malaysia.  They think KL is too huge to explore, the food sucks, the service sucks even more, and there’s nothing to do when Formula One isn’t happening, except to look up the Petronas Towers.    I’d always tell them, they’d have to have locals to show them around.   Or, give it a try.   Its charm isn’t immediately obvious.  Like a bowl of beef rendang, it can be rich and savoury.

But if for some reason, you still won’t like KL, head north to Penang.  KL isn’t Malaysia.  Just like the beauty of the Philippines lies outside the borders of Manila the messy.

My KL friends and I started planning this trip as early as January.  I just wanted to see them for it was my turn to visit their country.  They had made Manila their second home but I had been too lazy to return the favor.  They suggested Penang.  I said, “Why not?”  Up until the time I arrived there, I didn’t have a clue about Penang.

I just wanted to hang out with the Malaysians, and it didn’t matter where in Malaysia.   I had written about the joys of travelling alone, and the freedom or flexibility it brings.  But travelling as a unit is more satisfying.  Beyond the cost efficiencies and the ease in having your own pictures taken, the memories and experiences are shared.  The friendship deepens with every turn, mishaps included.  You learn to be patient.  You learn to compromise.  You learn from them who open your eyes to things you’d ordinarily miss.

On a very hot Tuesday morning, our group of 7 made our way from KL to Penang.  The car ride would usually take 4 hours or so on Malaysia’s excellently constructed and scenic highways.   Two in the group were born in Ipoh and they insisted that we take our lunch break in Ipoh which was two hours from Penang.  And in Ipoh, specifically Lou Wong‘s, I had the best chicken rice.  Nothing comes close.  Not even Singapore’s or Din Tai Fung’s or Wee Nam Kee’s. 

It came with bean sprouts for which Ipoh is also famous.  The sprouts are thicker and juicier than usual.  They say Ipoh’s clean mountain water makes all the difference.  The Ipoh people also pride themselves in having great skin because of their water.   Sure, Michelle Yeoh’s from there.  And no pimply Chinese was in sight.  Oh, I’m digressing.  Let’s go back to the chicken.  It’s really worth stopping over for on your way to Penang.

Lou Wong's fierce competitor
Lou Wong’s fierce competitor

Ipoh is also known for its biscuits and sweets.

more colorful colonial structures turned shops
more colorful colonial structures turned shops
a pink resto. it works!
a pink resto. it works!