Goodbye, Malaysia. A Memoir in Food Photos

I’m leaving Malaysia for good after eleven wonderful years living in Penang. Though there are people and customs and culture and other things I’ll miss about Malaysia, I thought my Goodbye Post should highlight some of the food items I ate in my last week. I will miss all of this tremendously.

Imagine the fragrance and flavor as you look at these beauties:

Beef Rendang – Indonesian, coconuty, Amazing!
Nyonya – Roti Babi – fried pork sandwich. Yum. Oh, and some greens.
Nyonya Pork Rendang. So different from the beef, but equally delicious.
Sambal Goreng – so unique, prawn, coconut, eggplant, sambal
Thai Long Bean & Pork – tremendous curry sauce on it
Indian! The best butter chicken masala with garlic butter naan.
Dry Curry Mee Noodles. Oh. My. Goodness.
Manchurian Califlower – fried, spicy, crunchy

The terrible thing about these photos (besides I’m not going to be able to eat these foods daily) is that it truly only scratches the surface of Malaysian fare. It’s diverse, flavorful, and dare I some, some of the best food in the world.

Goodbye Penang. Goodbye Malaysia.


Another Penang Food Post

I can’t help myself. A couple weeks back, I posted about my favorite little Thai stall that I eat at most days, but I felt I should also give a little love to the spring roll man.

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He serves a variety of unhealthy, delectable fried foods including his wonderful spring rolls. They have substance – lots of filling and a wonderful tangy sauce for dipping. All for RM 2.50 – or about 60 cents. His are not like other vendors around who serve spring rolls with practically nothing inside them. We called them “fried wrappers.”

The spring rolls are great, but I must also mention a Penang specialty of his: Roti Babi. I direct translation might be “pork bread.” A better translation would be deep fried pork sandwich, or weak hearts don’t apply sandwich.

Here’s what he does. He takes two slices of ordinary white bread, slaps some pork filling in the middle and makes a sandwich. Then he dips the entire thing into his homemade batter and fries it golden brown. It is cut into bite size pieces for dipping in that wonderful sauce of his.

This stuff is lethal. And incredibly delicious. The filling is a wonderful mixture of pork with some vegetables and even raisins. It has a lightly sweet flavor which blends so well with the crispy fried goodness of the outside.

So there you have it. Another Penang specialty – the deep fried pork sandwich. Find it at your local stall. This excellent one is in Tanjung Bungah opposite Tenby School.

My Favorite Penang Eatery

Chuah’s Thai Food. Doesn’t this look absolutely amazing?  It is. I’m here most days for lunch, which typically costs 6rm (or about $1.50). Yeah, what’s not to love. I’ll outline my five favorite dishes just for the heck of it.

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5. Sweet Pork – When you aren’t feeling spicy, this sweet pork with a dark, flavorful sauce is terrific.

4. Green Curry – Soupy based green curry with chicken, beans, chilies, is SO flavorful that you will scoop up every last drop.

3. Long Bean & Pork – a terrific dish with perfectly stir-fried long beans, chilies, lime leaves, crispy pork, and a luscious yellow thick curry sauce

2 Minced Meat w/Egg –  we are turning up the heat on this one. The spiciest dish on the menu if you DARE eat all of the tiny chopped bird’s eye chilies which are added to this minced pork, oyster sauce, and incredible Thai basil. Add a fried egg, put over rice, and, oh my, let your taste buds explode. You will need a drink handy.

1 Padprik Chicken – The top of the heap in flavor and lusciousness! Chicken, red onion, chilies, and Thai basil are the four ingredients. Cooked with an amazing sauce which includes Tom Yum paste, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and chicken broth.

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Honorable Mention: Cashew Chicken – she cooks it with the same padprik chicken base without the basil or peppers – served with green onions and cashews – tasty!

Whenever I do leave Penang, I will miss this place incredibly. I’m afraid to tell you where it is, because it might get even more crowded than usual. And hey, I don’t like to wait for my food. But okay, it’s in Tanjung Bungah, Permai, opposite Tenby School.

4.18: Are you kidding me?

If you’ve ever been so inclined to visit Malaysia, now is the time. The Malaysian ringgit is currently trading at 4.18 per 1 USD. That’s extremely painful for me, but extremely attractive to those carrying dollars and Euros into the country. Over the years, I’ve provided a lot of reasons to visit Malaysia. Here’s some you can check out:

I get paid in ringgit, so I’m not going anywhere for a while. When I first arrived in Penang ten years ago, the ringgit was about 3.8 to 1 USD. But things changed quickly. As of less about two years ago it was trading as 3.0 or slightly less to 1 USD. I was definitely richer back in those days. But now it’s 4.18, and wow! It’s really 4.18.

The only way to make sense of it is to tell myself how much my lunches cost in USD. It always sounds so much better.

My Thai padprik chicken (with the luscious Thai basil) is 6RM – so now it’s only $1.43. Wow! That’s cheap. It used to cost $2.00.

My Thai longbean and pork is 5.50RM, coming in at a paltry $1.31.

You can still get a big plate of chicken rice for only 4.00RM which is LESS than a $1.00.

My Coke Light with ice is 2.00RM, so it’s only $0.48!

A huge hot plate of sizzling chicken and beansprouts (which is to die for) feeds three people for only RM22 – $5.26!

My favorite Nasi Lemak with curry chicken is about RM7 – still less than $2.00.

I’m already making myself feel better. I may never be able to afford to leave this place, but with food like this at this price, who cares?

Accolades for Penang: My Home

I’m not one to share a lot of articles on this blog, but this one was too good to pass up because it speaks about where I have lived for the past nine years – the Pearl of the Orient – Penang!

2014 was certainly a banner year for Penang as the articles will highlight. It won 8 different prestigious awards or accolades that should make anyone sit up and take notice. I shall highlight two of them here. First, the food. Yes, it is that good. The variety, the flavors, the uniqueness. Wow! Nyonya – Chinese Malay fusion is stunningly delicious. The street food. Noodles. Curry. The Indian. The Thai. The Malay. I could eat a different food every night and be in flavor heaven. And the price is right! A plate of the famous char koay teoh noodles will cost you about 4 Malaysian Ringgit (approximately $1.20 US)

Secondly, I will mention #6 on the list – The Hard Rock Hotel. It’s kind of like my second home in Penang. I spend a lot of time there on the lounge chairs typing away on my laptop. Great place to write. And when I get hot, I jump in the awesome pool!

Penang is one awesome place. I hope you have a chance to visit some day.

Now on to the article:

On the Little Things: Like Immigration Raids & Lunch

I have a standard lunch place – an open air stalls with a variety of vendors – where I always order from the same lady. It’s called “The Original Thai Food.” She is the most amazing cook, serving up a variety of super flavorful dishes like chicken padprik, minced meat w/egg, cashew chicken, etc…  (all for under $2.00) About a month ago, she was shut down unexpectedly. The local police were making immigration raids, rounding up illegals who didn’t have papers and sending them out of the country. What I didn’t know is that many restaurants or local vendors hire these illegals. There’s even a Malaysian chain restaurant, Papa Rich, which has been shut down for a month because all their workers left, afraid of immigration reprisals.

I found out shortly after my favorite cook closed down that her workers had left and she had no one to help her. I immediately wanted to volunteer if she just paid me in food because my lunch hour was devastated, relegated to second-rate (but still really good) Malaysian fare that didn’t quite measure up to the Thai wok-wizard. (Unluckily, I couldn’t fit the work into my teaching schedule.)

About two weeks into lunch banishment, I remembered that my cook had a sister who also ran a little Thai stand. It was a little further away, but well worth checking out. She was there! Cooking for her sister. It was a luncheon miracle, kind of like spam on wonder bread – except nothing like spam on wonder bread. More like truffles on caviar.

She smiled at me when she saw me, and I ordered the usual. Heaven indeed. I frequented that shop many times and was encouraged to learn that she planned on reopening the other stand in October.

Yesterday, on September 30, I went over to her sister’s stand and she wasn’t there. I ordered anyways and the padprik chicken had too much sauce, not enough chicken, and hardly any basil – a little disappointing. But I hoped that she had moved back to the promised land.

So today, on October 1st, I went to the old shop and saw her there, busy as usual, putting smiles on faces and work of art on plates. The place was packed once again. As usual. I nodded at her and ordered my minced meat w/egg. The peppers and basil popped in my mouth like spunky little unicorns spreading happiness and joy.

I’m not going to get into the immigration debate. But when someone’s travel documents start getting in the way of my lunch, it’s real easy to get cranky.

But no more. She’s back. And so is my happiness.

(Pictured: Thai Minced Meet w/Egg. RM5.50)

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Crispy Vietnamese Noodles and a Memory

As you might know, I live in Penang, Malaysia. I used to live in Vietnam. Not much Vietnamese food in Penang, unfortunately, but plenty of other great cuisine.

I was at my favorite hawker stalls the other day (for you locals, we call it “Lucky 99”) and my wife ordered a dish from a Chinese vendor called crispy noodles. We used to eat crispy noodles in Vietnam and wondered if this dish was anything similar to what we used to eat.

One bite confirmed it. Identical. An unmistakable taste. I was immediately transported back in time 18 years to a small alley-way in central Haiphong City – right across from a Buddhist temple – to a small open air shop where my students used to take this formerly palate challenged American.

When I arrived in Vietnam, I thought the Big Mac was on the top of the food chain. I couldn’t understand why my students disparaged frozen food. I said to them, “you have to try American frozen food. It’s so good!” I shutter to think of the person I used to be, but I’m glad I learned to accept the idea that perhaps I wasn’t the most open-minded person in the world.

I remember one time in particular when two young friends whisked me away to this delectable back-alley noodle shop. I, of course, offered to pay for my friends and asked what the brother-sister tandem wanted. The brother replied that he was starving and ordered a plate of noodles. The sister said she wasn’t hungry. I said ‘ok’ and we ordered two plates. I looked over at the sister and asked once more, “you sure you don’t want anything?” She humbly replied that she wasn’t hungry.

The two of us gobbled down the crispy noodles topped with sliced pork, a delicate gravy sauce and some chili peppers. It was delicious, but I was sure my Big Mac would be jealous.

We had a pleasant conversation and then went home, happy and satisfied. Or so I thought.

About a year later when I had gotten to know the pair much better, the sister looked at me one day and said, “Mark, do you remember the day when we were at the noodle shop with my brother.” I did. “Yes,” I replied. “I remember that you weren’t hungry.” “Actually, that’s not right,” she replied. “I was starving.” “Then why didn’t you order anything?” I asked in a perplexing manner. “Because,” she concluded. “You only asked me two times. I didn’t want to seem too eager, that wouldn’t be polite. If you had asked me a third time, I would have said ‘yes'” I was confused. “But your brother accepted immediately. Why is that?” I asked. “He had spent a lot of time around foreigners and knew that if you wanted something to eat, you had to say so immediately. I didn’t know that.”

Live and learn. We laughed about it. I felt bad, of course, but chalked it up to being inexperienced in an exotic land. From that point on, I was determined to learn all I could about Vietnamese culture and to do that I realized that I needed to learn the language – which I eventually did.

So …

Lesson One: when inviting your Vietnamese friends, ask at least three times.

Lesson Two: Always be a learner. Humble yourself and your own desires and wishes to learn about other people and cultures.

Lesson Three: Penang has a place that sells crispy Vietnamese noodles. (Even if they call them Chinese.)

Another Short Jaunt in Penang

If you know anything about Penang, you know that food is king. This is my favorite roti canai place on the island. A small shop in Telok Bahang called “Ibriham”. Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Just perfect. Here he is making them:

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The finished product with some fresh ice lemon tea and some spicy curry sauce for dipping.2013-06-20 15.22.02Then we found this cool Hokkien cemetary out in the middle of no where.

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Thoughts on Offering My Novel for Free

I live in Penang. If you have never visited Penang, it’s like food paradise. Delicious, cheap, “hawker” food stalls everywhere – Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai, etc… I already lament the day I have to leave, and I have no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

Penangites are rather stingy when it comes to paying for food. We want it cheap – and delicious – and the competition is STIFF. There are countless stalls and restaurants literally everywhere – it’s truly wonderful.  But it also means that MANY restaurants fail in such a dog-eat-dog environment. (No, Malaysians don’t eat dog, in case you thought that was a pun.)

I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant, and whenever one does open here, I love to analyze its marketing to see if I think it will last. To make a restaurant work, you need lots of patrons, but with such competition, you need to pull in the skeptical locals who don’t know for sure if your $7 meal is any better than the $1.50 you could pay at the road-side hawker. I always tell my wife, “If that was my new restaurant, I’d be running blow-out specials for the first month!  Tuesday’s buy-one, get-one! Friday’s 30% off! Cut/Slash! Get the people in the door, then overwhelm them with high-quality, massive portions, and great service. Have them walk away saying ‘Wow. I have got to tell my friends about this place.'”

But alas, that never happens. At least not around here. New restaurants typically underwhelm and die out when folks realize they can get better tasting food at a fraction of the cost on the street. The restaurants never get the traffic they need and the crucial word-of-mouth necessary to make a difference.

Oh, I am supposed to be writing about my novel.

Well, this is exactly how I feel about offering my novel for free. First of all, is it easy to offer my novel for free?  No. I put a lot of work into it. I reached deep inside myself and tried to offer something significant – worthy to be purchased, and I firmly believe that “Beauty Rising” is worth at least $2.99. 🙂  But that’s not the point.

The point is to get traffic. There are different ways to do this. Reviews is one way, and I’m continually looking for independent reviewers for my novel. A few have reviewed it already and many more will do so over the next few months. Reviews are a solid way to give an audience some piece of mind about purchasing a book from an unknown author.

But a review isn’t always a sure bet, and it is hard to predict how much traction will come out of one awesome review.

There is, however, no substitute for putting the book into a reader’s hand. This is in essence the purpose of offering my book for free. I believe in my work, and I believe in my future work enough to entice readers into my fictional world. If they like it, hopefully I will have them for life. They will tell their friends. They will leave reviews. They will check out my blog, looking for the next release. That’s my goal, and that’s why I’m happy to offer my novel for free.

I hope you enjoy it as much as a $1.00 plate of Malay chicken rice. For two days, it was actually cheaper than chicken rice.