Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Halal food I love to eat in Penang

Yummy and halal!

 The same with this plate of mee udang (prawn noodles)! :b

A few days before I went back to Penang for a visit, a Singaporean friend of mine who happens to be Muslim came over to Hong Kong.  Every time she and I plan to have a meal together, I get to realizing how few halal options there are here in the Big Lychee -- where pig is the favorite animal to devour for the vast majority of the inhabitants; especially relative to Muslim-majority Malaysia. 

On my recent trip back to Penang, I found myself reflecting some more on this state of affairs; this not least because I had so many delicious halal meals in my one week or so back home.  For starters, consider the durian feasts I had on this trip -- which all weren't only halal but also entirely vegetarian!  In addition, there was the Mamak mee rebus (boiled egg noodles) I love to eat at the stall in Gurney Drive whose offerings I regularly partook of decades ago when its Indian Muslim proprietor was operating in Edgecumbe Lane.

Then there was the nasi campur I went to eat not just once but twice at Malay stalls in Tanjung Tokong.  Sadly, on both those occasions, I didn't see my absolute favorite pineapple chunks in curry among the offerings.  Still, there were plenty of goodies that I could happily choose to ladle onto my plate of steamed white rice: including, on one wonderful occasion, some spicy wingbean salad, tangy green mango salad, curried fish roe, spicy cuttlefish, and beef lungs covered in an incredible sweet dark sauce.  In all honesty, my mouth is watering just at the memory of that meal which -- complete with a glass of rose syrup and lime -- cost around just RM12 (~US$2.94 or HK$22.80)!

For my final lunch on this recent Penang trip, my mother took me once again to Balik Pulau -- this time to a mee udang place she had heard good things about from friends.  RB Mama Mee Udang has a Facebook page and is housed in premises that are considerably newer and larger than other mee udang places I've been to.  But, as with the other warung mee udang I had previously been to, it's located by a river -- with the implicit suggestion being that there's where the udang (prawns) in the dish comes from! -- as well as in a rural section of the state, and offers up unpretentious, "down home" cooking that comes across as genuinely tasty as well as unarguably "authentic". 

Although I never made the connection until the "mama" I think the stall is named for stated it, mee udang is effectively the halal Malay version of the famous (non-halal) Penang Chinese noodle dish known as Hokkien mee in Penang -- and har mee (i.e., prawn egg noodles) in other parts of Malaysia -- whose main ingredients are indeed egg noodles and prawns along with a spicy soup.  Granted that there are some differences; including in the preferred size of the prawns in the dishes -- with the Malay version featuring noticeably larger prawns than the Hokkien version -- and the Hokkien version containing pork and therefore definitely being something that my Muslim friends cannot eat.

But even while the Malay mee udang is sweeter and more tomato-ey tasting (without the pork stock to "cut" up/add to the flavors), I have to say that I am partial to (Malay) mee udang as well as Hokkien (prawn) mee.  And it's culinary offerings like mee udang -- as well as nasi campur and Malay assam laksa -- that have me maintaining once more that the otherwise wonderful Anthony Bourdain looked to have missed a trick by not featuring Malay food as much as he did Malaysian ethnic Chinese and Indian foods on the Penang episode of No Reservations!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

High points of a hike on Lantau's Chi Ma Wan peninsula (Photo-essay)

Whenever I get to the top of a Hong Kong mountain and hill, I expect to find a trigonometrical station atop it.  Over the years, I've also come across signal stations, fire lookouts and even old military installations such as the ruined redoubt on Devil's Peak adorning a Hong Kong hill- or mountain-top.  But up until I hiked up to the highest points of Lantau's Chi Ma Wan peninsula, it had only been in Japan where I saw shrines adorning the top of a hill.

What with the afternoon's hike route also taking the friend I was with and I past a small reservoir and a couple of disused prisons as well as yielding up some cool critter spottings and scenic vistas, there really were plenty of interesting sights to be had.  So suffice to say that I was clicking away quite a bit with my camera while on Chi Ma Wan peninsula -- and, actually, was doing so on the 30 minute or so trek from the nearest bus station to the beginning of the trail that took us to this remote section of Hong Kong! ;b    

Atop the rocky hill pictured above is a shrine...
Many scenic vistas are to be had on the way up 
the Chi Ma Wan peninsula's second highest hill :)

There's a trigonometrical station along with a shrine
up on 301-meter-high Miu Tsai Tun

On an afternoon where the clouds were on the low-lying side, 
I was glad we weren't climbing to much higher ground that day
 I must admit to not being too happy to discover 
that we actually had go down many steps before 
we could begin our ascent up the neighboring hill! ;(

The fire lookout on 303-meter-high Lo Yan Shan
doesn't look like it's manned all year round...

...and it also is one of those parts of the Big Lychee
where skink spottings can be made! :)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Serious and light fare at this year's Hong Kong Book Fair

Both the political and kawaii are to be found at
this year's Hong Kong Book Fair
Tomes for sale at the Hong Kong Book Fair that
I'm sure would not be allowed in to Mainland China
Perhaps Mainland Chinese bibliophiles could content
themselves with these works instead? ;b
Chinese martial arts literature was the designated theme of this year's Hong Kong Book Fair, with a dedicated zone for wuxia novels by the likes of the great Louis Cha (aka Jin Yong), Gu Long and Ni Kung -- many of whose works have been adapted into films such as the Swordsman trilogy, Ashes of Time, and Butterfly and Sword -- and their fellow producers of tales of martial arts rivalry, chivalry, brotherhood and such.  But when I wandered about the vast halls of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre which hosts this mega book fair for a few days each year, I found a whole lot of tomes -- and ended up making a number of purchases -- about a range of other subjects. 
What with books being strongly associated with education, it's only to be expected that there are lots of educational books on offer at the book fair; among them learning books for children, college guides and exam guides, and academic tomes (including those published by various local university presses).  Also taking lots of floor and shelf space were business books, self-help books and biographies of famous and/or successful people like Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Sir Alex Ferguson, Hilary Clinton and, erm, Donald Trump.
Also to be expected for Hong Kong was that the vast majority of books on sale are written in Chinese.  However, the English language section of the fair actually was larger than I -- who was checking out this popular annual event for the first time ever -- expected; with quite a number of stalls that weren't set up along the designated "English Avenue" (including those of local publishers such as the Commercial Press, Joint Publishing and the University of Hong Kong Press) stocking some English as well as Chinese language tomes.
And while I wish more of them were available in English rather than "just" Chinese, I was seriously glad and heartened to see a number of books on sale at the Hong Kong book fair that couldn't be if "one country, two systems" were not (still) in place.  Among these are a collection of essays by the late Chinese premier turned reformist icon Zhao Ziyang along with various books about the Umbrella Movement, and at least one work which explicitly draws links between key events that occurred in this part of the world in 1967, 1989 and 2014.  
In view of colors taking on political significance during the Umbrella Movement, it was interesting to note that the predominant colors on the covers of many of the political tomes appeared to be yellow (the color most associated with the Umbrella Movement), black (a popular color among pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong) and red (which is traditionally associated among the Chinese with good luck and happiness but nowadays also tends to bring to mind Communist China, anger, blood(shed) and aggression).
On a lighter note: yellow also is the color of Gudetama, the lazy egg that's the kawaii character du jour here in Hong Kong.  And this being Hong Kong, Gudetama sightings also were made at the book fair along with fellow Sanrio character, Hello Kitty -- whose likeness appeared on items for sale at the stall located right next to that of an organization whose advertising references the Umbrella Movement and the "fishball revolution" along with regular Hong Konger/human activities like shopping, sleeping, travelling, "Facebooking", and reading! ;b

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Enjoying hiking in a well forested part of Hong Kong on a super hot day

How cool is it that one can see clear across to Shenzhen from 
Tai Lam Country Park on super high visibility days? :)
 On the hiking trail itself, one may spot cool critters
like this beautiful blue-tailed skink :b
 I also love that I was able to snap this photo of
this dragonfly resting on an unopened lily flower :)
Despite my best intentions, I haven't hiked as often as I would like -- and probably should -- this summer for one reason or other.  But I think I went some ways to rectifying the situation by spending a good part of this afternoon happily tramping about in Hong Kong's second largest country park with a friend this afternoon even though the mercury ended up rising to 36.5 degrees Celsius in some parts of Hong Kong. 
One reason why I was more willing to venture out into the countryside today than in previous weeks was that the air felt considerably less polluted than when Super Typhoon Nepartak was in the neighborhood.  And even though it was still super hot this afternoon, the air didn't feel as thick (as well as dirty) as a few weeks ago and the humidity levels didn't seem as terrible.  Consequently, it actually didn't feel at all unpleasant in the shady areas -- of which there is a lot of in this well forested part of Hong Kong (where afforestation measures have been put into practice as far back as 1952).
Although there was lots of tree coverage for much of the hike, there still were sections of the trail where wonderful vistas would open up and give us a good taste of how far we can see -- and how beautiful Hong Kong is -- on a super high visibility day.  Actually, at various points in the hike, one also could peek through branches and catch sight of Shenzhen to the north when walking along the ridge that cuts through the country park as well as various sections of the Big Lychee (including Tai Mo Shan, various Kowloon hills (including the very distinctive Lion Rock), a good part of Hong Kong Island, Castle Peak and even the peaks of Lantau). 
In addition, there were the cool critter spottings I've come to expect of a summer hike in Hong Kong.  Not only were many varieties of butterflies and dragonflies out in force today but I also caught sight of large and small spiders galore, reddish as well as green grasshoppers, a beautiful blue-tailed skink, and a stick insect whose attempts at camouflage wasn't as good as the numerous leaf insects that I'm sure reside in Hong Kong but which I don't have too much success spotting in the wild!  

And lovers of water lilies should make a beeline for Parents Farm over in the village enclave of Tsing Fai TongThe very first time I visited this picturesque spot around nine years ago now, I was floored by the lily-filled ponds I found there.  So imagine my disappointment when I passed through that same area a few years later and found the place seemingly abandoned and overgrown; and then imagine how happy I was to discover on more recent hikes to this part of Hong Kong that someone looked to have revived the place -- and made it a welcoming spot complete with a cafe offering drinks and snacks, some signs of agricultural work being undertaken and ponds full of lilies once more -- which, as a photographic bonus, seem to attract their fair share of dragonflies.
However bucolic Parents Farm looks, I must confess to not lingering that long there though -- because at that point in the hike, I tend to fixate on making it downhill to Sham Tseng, where delicious dinners are to be had.  Almost invariably, my party will head for Yue Kee for a meal that includes some goose.  And while mine may well have been the only table that didn't have goose meat on it this evening, we did have a plate of goose kidneys (yes, really) along with two other non-goose dishes -- all of which I reckon were pretty yummy and satisfying, actually! ;b

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A way of eating durian that many people seem unfamiliar with

Behold these ingredients for a delicious meal!
Now this is what I consider to be a yummy combination :b
On my recent visit to my home state of Penang, I got to talking to a fellow durian lover who's a medical doctor.  In addition to completely understanding my need to fly back to feast on the "king of fruits", he got to extolling this delicious food item's high nutrition value.  
Although he didn't specifically say so, I got the feeling that he's one of those durian purists whose preferred way to eat durian is the plain way: i.e., fresh and on its own.  Alternatively, I've long enjoyed durian ice cream (for yes, durian is a fairly common ice cream flavor in Malaysia -- more easily found, actually, than, say, pistachio or even mango!).  Also, I've been pretty happy with the durian pancakes and durian mochi that I've come across in Hong Kong dessert shops .  
In addition, I've been known to make durian the centrepiece of an actual meal -- rather than just snack or dessert course -- by eating this meaty as well as creamy fruit with rice bathed with santan (coconut milk) and sprinkled with black sugar.  As you can imagine, it's actually a pretty rich tasting meal -- and one that's pretty much guaranteed to leave me feeling full as well as very satisfied!
Although I've long thought that this was a traditional Malaysian way of eating durian, I've since come across a number of fellow Malaysians who weren't familiar with it.  So maybe it's more a Nyonya Baba way of eating durian than anything.  Also, my mother -- whose mother, like my paternal grandmother, dressed in Nyonya kebaya rather than, say, cheongsam -- associates this dish with my father's side of the family; with her side of the family tending to prefer to eat their durian with salt -- rather than black sugar -- along with santan and rice!
Furthermore, while there are times when I want to just dig into this durian rice dish with my hand, I've also been known to opt to use a fork and spoon -- not because I want to be dainty but, actually, so as to not have the strong smell of the fruit linger on my hands the way it would if I were to handle the flesh of the durian!  And yes, I realize that this is a far from usual, never mind traditional, way of eating durian.  Still, I think my mother's way of eating durian will seem even more unlikely to most people since she actually uses chopsticks when eating this fruit whose aroma really can linger on anything its flesh comes into contact with much more than one would like! ;S

Friday, July 22, 2016

"No name" vs "name" durian, and durian sellers :)

During durian season in Malaysia, temporary stalls
set up to sell the fruit pop up on the side of many a street
A close up look at some of the varieties on durian
on offer at a stall in the Penang suburb of Fettes Park
A couple of days after I feasted on durian at a farm in Balik Pulau, I informed my mother that my appetite for the fruit had not yet been completely satisfied.  Rather than make another long -- by Penang standards -- journey to "the back of the island", my mother decided to try the offerings at a stall recommended by a friend that's situated closer to my family home.
After being told by her friend that the stall to go to was located in front of a particular bank in Fettes Park, my mother found a woman selling durian at that very location and promptly went about making some purchases, especially upon finding that the fruit were being offered for a bargain RM8 (~HK$15.28 or US$1.97) or so each.  But before the deal was finalized, we got a bit worried when the woman decided to announce, unprompted, that this was the first day that she was selling durian -- and thereby got my mother figuring that hers couldn't possibly be the durian stall that my mother's friend had recommended!
Upon asking around, my mother got to realizing that the more established stall in question was actually a few feet away -- and on the side of the road on which the bank was located rather than right in front of the bank like the stall we were patronizing was.  And as it so happened, my mother's friend was actually at that other stall buying some durian at the same time that we were over at the stall that we had mistaken for the recommended one!
Rather than settle for the seven durian we already bought from the neophyte durian seller (who volunteered the information that she normally sells baked goods!), my mother and I decided to scurry over to the other stall and have a look at what was on offer there.  After a quick look confirmed that it was a far more professional setup (despite being another temporary, seasonal affair), with this other durian seller being able to identify the varieties of durian he had on offer (among other things), we decided to get one more durian: an ang heh (red prawn) that was considerably bigger and more expensive (at around RM45 (~HK$85.86 or US$11.08) for just one fruit). 
Also, in contrast to the other durian seller, the guy at this more established stall happily opened up the ang heh we bought and proceeded to fill up one and a half plastic containers with the fruit's beautifully orange-colored flesh!  As I told a friend living in Hong Kong (where I've never seen such a thing being done at the time of purchase), this action essentially guarantees that the seller's not cheating you -- and that he or she is fully confident about the quality of his or her wares -- since you're being shown there and then what (and how much) you have bought.
As it turned out, the flesh of the seven other durian we bought that afternoon ended up filling two other plastic containers of around the same size as the ones into which the flesh of the ang heh had been loaded.  So, quantity wise, the purchases from the two stalls proved to be about the same value.  As for quality: I have to say that I did prefer the taste of the ang heh (which probably are my favorite variety of durian along with the D24 -- though I have to qualify this by pointing out that I've yet to have fresh versions of the super expensive Musang King or Black Thorn); but both my parents actually preferred the "no name" durian from the first time durian seller which they reckon were "kampung durian" from old trees.

Maybe the kampung durian represented a taste of nostalgia for my parents, who had many of those in their youth as well as over the years.  The point though is that these "no name" durian really ought not be sniffed at (no pun intended!) when they are the fruit of old trees -- since it's often believed that older is better when it comes to the fruit of durian trees.  And as a matter of fact, one of the tastier durian we had over at the farm in Balik Pulau was a kampung durian from an old tree which the farmer looked to have considered to be of equivalent quality to the "name" durian (including an ang heh) that he had put on our table! ;b

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Durian -- the seasonal fruit that got me flying thousands of miles to feast on!

Yes, there really is such a thing as durian tourism!

The very first durian I had on my recent trip back to Penang

In what can now seem like another lifetime, I lived for a time in Dar es Salaam with a Tanzanian family, the majority of whose members were born and raised on the Tanzanian mainland -- and consequently had little love for the fruit known in Kiswahili as duriani and Bahasa Malaysia as durian, unlike this Malaysian and the sole member of the family who hailed from Zanzibar (where durian grow wild).

Naturally, when durian season came along, the Zanzibari-born member of the family and I decided that we had to have ourselves some durian.  Equally expectedly, the durian-hating family patriarch ordained that no durian could be brought into the house, never mind be opened and eat there -- and there any one who wished to partake of the admittedly strong-smelling fruit would only be allowed to do so away from the house, at the far end of the garden!

Undeterred, the one lover of that fruit in that family and I went on to do precisely that.  And if truth be told, I actually do think that durian are best eaten out in the open air -- or, at the very least, some place where their unique aroma can waft freely and spread out rather than be trapped and thicken in air-conditioned surroundings!

Put another way: I love the taste of durian and am okay with its natural smell -- but feel that its aroma gets unnaturally as well as overly intense in such places as Hong Kong's air-conditioned supermarkets!  Indeed, I've been known to literally hold my nose when I smell durian in air-conditioned supermarkets, and even feel like gagging on some occasions.  Yet, against the odds, the very regular sight of the fruit that's the source of those intense odors in recent months caused me to yearn to feast on them so much that I ended up booking a trip to a part of the world where some of the best durian are to be found!

As it so happens, Penang also is where I was born and my parents still live.  And it was in the company of my mother and two friends that I drove all the way to Balik Pulau (whose name translates into English as "the back of the island") a couple of days after I arrived back to my home state for some durian in the front yard of a farm whose offerings include fresh eggs along with fruit such as -- when in season -- the much sought-after durian!

My mother had called ahead to reserve five durian -- and a good thing she did too, as it turned out that every durian at the farm that day had been spoken for!  So even though we actually would have liked to have eaten more durian, we had to content ourselves with the five that had been pre-ordered (and content ourselves with heading over to Kim Seng Kopi Tiam afterwards for some assam laksa for "afters")!

Still, although the quantity was less than we would have liked, we really couldn't complain about the quality of the durian we were allocated -- and also the diversity, since the farm owner made sure that we had five different varieties of the fruit: which ranged in flavor from sugary sweet to creamy rich (my favorite) to bitter sweet (the preference of one of our party); whose texture ran the gamut from soft and sticky to thick and firm; and whose pulp's color ranged from lightish yellow to bright yellow to reddish yellow (as can be seen by certain durian being known as ang heh (red prawn), ang sim (red heart) or ang jin (red egg yolk)).

And although Malaysian durian are known to be stronger smelling than, say, Thai durian, I wasn't bothered at all by the aroma of the durian I ate that day in Balik Pulau.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I could hardly smell the durian around me at all!  I think one reason for this was because our feasting took place in the open air but it's also highly probable that the durian didn't appear to smell all that much because I was so focused on devouring my share, and all of us ate ever so quickly -- because, well, the king of fruits lived up to its billing in terms of its tasting so very good! ;b