A fool proof way to experience authentic Southeast Asian cuisine is to spend time eating at hawker fares. Til these days, many of the dishes savored by our founding fathers and mothers are being served up in plain stalls at bargain prices. Prepared according to home styled recipes passed down through generations, these street foods are the labor of legions of entrepreneurial cooks. Old timers in Kuala Lumpur recall the days when hawkers commuted to work each day by negotiating the busy streets at the helm of their portable restaurants, wood and tin structures on bicycle wheels with small stools hanging from the sides and a faded canopy covering the “kitchen”. Some even wore their places of business across their shoulders, balancing bamboo poles with pots and woks, bowls and plates dangling from each end. Those itinerant hawkers are now gone, replaced by the more energy efficient, sanitary and highly convenient hawker centers, populated with large numbers of permanent stalls – literally hundreds along the Gurney Dr. at Penang Island, Malaysia.
Every time I went home, I would spent a good amount of time reminiscing the flavors I experienced when I was younger. After many years of doing so I have observed that despite the change of business locations and ownership at times, and as manageable prices increase with time due to inflation; the flavors and integrity of these dishes remain the same. I concluded that the three important aspects of preserving an authentic well-known recipe is by 1. sourcing of ingredients, 2. formulations, and 3. techniques. As many of these flavor profiles that are liked by so many through centuries remain handcrafted, only a limited amount are produced each time. The limits and tolerance between steps during production were narrowed in for some but widened in for others. These gaps are determined by the practicality of the dish and the available resources to make them at time of invention.
The highlights of my previous trip in September of 2011 took place at Northam Beach Cafe on Penang Island. Located at the tip of the Straits of Malacca west of Peninsula Malaysia, this historic world heritage offers early fusion dishes dated back to the 1500s A.D. Immigrants from neighboring nations brought tools and memories to a new found land. When settled down, they search for improvisation between local ingredients and rooted flavors. Here are the outcomes:
Penang Laksa, a ever popular snack that are eaten for breakfast or as a snack throughout the day. Laksa is a tribe-centric dish. The Penang version rely heavily on seafood as the shallow and fertile coastline allows fishery. Tamarind, lime or asam are often added to provide sharp edges through the rich broth made with spicy stock.
Hainan Chicken Rice with Watercress and Dates Consommé, often eaten during lunch. A chicken-centered entree served on a bed of chilled cucumber essenced with roasted sesame oil and fresh cilantro. Chicken was brined in solution flavored with garlic, ginger and shallot; later boiled to produced tastes to the stock that were finally used to boil the rice in. Layers of steps were intertwined to amplified three to four very basic ingredients. The watercress and dates help break down chicken fat.
Nasi Kandar, an Indian-Muslim landmark that operated 24/7. Various curries, rice and salads were prepared around the clock. For very little, one could enjoy a hot meal while enjoying the ever-evolving street scenes any time of the day.
Pig Chitterlings Congee, On first thought, one would think ….well. If you get through the first bite, you will experience pork stock at its finest. The deep flavors of pork bones and shoulders cooked for hours before adding rice, then simmered over a charcoal fire overnight. When served, vendors lace bite-sized chucks of crispy and tender chitterlings over hot porridge.
Popiah, thinly wrapped savory strudels eaten as snacks. These were made with shredded cooked jicama and baby shrimps. Skins made with a blend of rice and wheat flour were flavored with fermented tofu and palm sugar dressing and a hint of hot chili sauce before wrapping.
Iced Candies with Ice Cream, this is a smooth finish … anyone who likes toppings more than their cream cream would love this. Corns, red beans, mangoes, hearts of sea coconuts and yams were cooked with palm sugar, screw pine leaves and rose water until tender. This concoction is then served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and roasted peanuts over a dish of snow….really.
I am going home in a few weeks. Watch out for more….! Or come take my upcoming 3 Week Southeast Asian Cuisine series starting April 26, 2012 and learn how to craft some of these delicious dishes for yourself. For more info on the series, visit: https://kitchenonfire.com/classes/view/id/1928/