Thursday, July 30, 2015

Following in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain by having a meal at Muthu's in Penang!

Would you believe that Anthony Bourdain ate here?

 Sample some of the banana leaf rice at Muthu's
and then you'd believe!

A while back, Anthony Bourdain went to Penang and made a mouth-watering No Reservations episode chronicling his foodie experiences there.  Among his surprisingly Malay food bereft choices of places to eat were ones that were familiar to me, such as the Chinese assam laksa stall at Air Itam market and the hawker center over at New Lane.  But I have to admit that there were a few others that I hadn't previously heard of, including the banana leaf rice place that Penangite Leonard da Silva took him to and where they ate with obvious relish.

Fast forward to my most recent visit back to Penang and two family friends telling me that they had managed to track down Muthu's -- by recognizing the tiles they saw on the walls when watching (obviously very carefully!) the Penang episode of No Reservations!  And after giving due warning that the ethnic Indian eatery doesn't have air conditioning, they took me there for lunch one day.

Having become regulars at Muthu's (one of them told me that he makes sure to go eat there at least once a week!), they made a point to emphasize that we needed to go there before lunch hour for government and office workers, otherwise it'd be crazy busy there and we may not be able to get a seat at this obviously very popular eatery!  So, getting there as early to beat the lunch crowd, we managed to have a pleasantly leisurely as well as quiet lunch -- one that gave us the opportunity to chat as well as relish the taste of the food put before us!

Among the first things one notices about the place is how unassuming it is -- to the point where it's the kind of place which many people walking past it on Lebuh Acheh (or Acheen Street, as long-term Penangites are wont to call it) might not even notice is an eatery that's open to the public!  Another is that it's determinedly no frills -- what with the food being served on banana leaves rather than plates, no utensils being placed on the table (with the expectation that you'll eat with your hands), and there being very few drink choices on offer. (Forget alcohol, you can't even get regular soft drinks; so I settled for an Indian yoghurt drink to quench my thirst and bring down the "fire" of the food instead!).

But while there are people who have been unimpressed with the food -- complaining, among other things, that the rice was served cold (or, as least, luke warm rather than piping hot) and that the curry dishes weren't all that strong tasting -- I did enjoy my lunch, and thought that the crab gravy (with the other gravy available that day being made out of fish and prawn)  that I opted to have poured onto my white rice was actually quite divine!

I don't know how much the total bill amounted to, since my family friends treated me to lunch that day.  I'm pretty sure though that the meal at one of their favorite eateries was quite the bargain, even by Penang terms; and this even though they ordered a number of extra side dishes to go with the standard lunch offerings.  

In any event, the upshot is that if I lived in Penang, I could see myself returning there fairly regularly -- though once a week may be too much and I'm sure that there are proprietors and fans of more upscale banana leaf rice places, like Passions of Kerala, who may be scratching their heads and wondering why Anthony Bourdain didn't opt to eat at their place instead! ;b

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

I am, I yam or Ayam?!

Penang-based Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic
paints on canvas and doors as well as walls! ;b 

The works of Zacharevic and 17 other artists make up the

Earlier today, a tram passed by me over here in Hong Kong bearing advertising for this year's George Town Festival (taking place this August).  These days, however, one doesn't have to wait for this annual fest to come along to check out artistic happenings in Penang.  And we're no longer just talking about local or even regional art either!  

Also, while there remains plenty of street art on (very popular) display in George Town, there's also art to be found in physically cooler surroundings, such as the air-conditioned gallery space inside the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (or E&O in local parlance) --as I found when visiting the hotel on my most recent Penang trip.

The Ayam What Ayam exhibition does include a number of works featuring chicken imagery.  ("Ayam" is the word in Bahasa Malaysia for chicken.)  But, of course, I realize that it's also referencing the "I am what I am" quote which I had long attributed to Popeye the Sailorman (who I knew via comics and also a TV series when I was a kid growing up in Malaysia!) but I've since come to realize is how, according to the Hebrew bible, God responded to Moses' query as to what he was!

Of course, given Popeye's accent, it came out more like "I yam what I yam" when the cartoon character said it!  And continuing with the stroll down Memory Lane: one day while I was an undergraduate at Beloit College, I strolled into the lounge shared by students and faculty in the anthropology building (which was one of my regular campus haunts) to find that an anonymous wag had written out a punny poem on a blackboard that referenced a number of anthropologists who had studied the yam growers par excellence living on the Trobriand Islands, and whose works were required reading as part of the Theory and Technique in Cultural Anthropology course.

Decades on, I still remember the opening line of that amusing poem being "'I yam what I yam,' Malinowski cried". (Bronislaw Malinowski is one of modern anthropology's founding fathers and known, among other things, for his pioneering fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders.)  Whereupon he was told not to be such a "Weiner" (deliberately misspelled to reference another influential anthropologist, Annette Weiner), and that his excuse was just not "Goodenough" (a reference to -- yep -- another respected anthropologist, this time Ward Goodenough!)! ;D     

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Along Memory Lane back to Balik Pulau

five foot way along the main road of Balik Pulau
Strolling along this covered walkway can feel like
one's transported back to another, quieter as well as older age
Even the occasional item of strewn litter on the ground
cannot take away from these five foot ways' charms

One day when I was back in Penang last month, my mother, two old friends and I drove over to Balik Pulau, the town on the western, quieter side of Penang Island.  As one might expect of Penangites, our chief reason for going there was food-related: that is, we went there for a laksa lunch, and some food shopping at the town's municipal market!  
What with it being Ramadan, my favorite Malay assam laksa stall over at Shamrock Beach wasn't open on weekends like it's usually the case.  So, I welcomed my mother's suggestion of heading over to the "back of the island" (as its name translates from Bahasa Malaysia into English) to eat at a stall there that serves up both assam laksa and the creamier Siam laksa (AKA laksa lemak).  (On the other hand, I eschewed one of our family friend's recommendation that I opt for an assam laksa and Siam laksa mix, like it apparently is her wont to do!)
Some of my earliest memories of Balik Pulau involve eating assam laksa with my parents at a stall located just meters away from where we ended up eating this time around.  I also remember spending time as a child wandering around the smelly -- but atmospheric -- old municipal market which now has been torn down and replaced by a much larger complex whose architecture I reckon resembles -- at least from the outside -- an apartment block rather than something more befitting a marketplace!
Although both the old laksa stall and municipal market are no more, much of the old section of the town looks to have been spared the wrecking ball still.  And while not entirely frozen in time (among other things, I only saw one house and shop front in the town center that has retained its old carved wooden door and window frames), there is a sense that time goes by at a slower pace in this neck of the woods still than over on the busier sides of Penang Island over to the east and north.
Now more easily accessible to the other sections of Penang Island than in my childhood (with such as the construction of a road connecting this part of the island to Air Itam -- which, of course, also is home to another locally famous laksa stall), Balik Pulau still appears to lie off the beaten track for most visitors to Penang.  Those in search of culture heritage sights as well as foodie delights who venture out to there should feel amply rewarded for their troubles though.
Foodies should note that there are many lover of the spiky "king of fruits" who believe that the best durians are grown -- and to be found -- in the Balik Pulau area.  As for those primarily attracted to Penang because of UNESCO World Heritage-listed George Town: wouldn't you like to stroll along the five foot ways pictured at the top of this blog post?  Granted that they don't possess the tiled beauty of some of those found in the state capital but I found them to have their own pleasing aesthetic qualities, not least in their continuing -- but who knows how long more this will last? -- to feel "authentic" rather than have been altered to try to suit tourist tastes. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Cheung Chau's "floating" children

This is the kind of scene one is likely to come across
in the alleys of Cheung Chau at Bun Festival-time
A clearer look at some of the child participants 
 Where did the (bulk of the) floating child go?! ;O
Last Saturday morning, I went to Cheung Chau to take part in a beach clean-up (like that which I had spotted taking place at a Discovery Bay beach while hiking the area sometime back).  While on board the ferry taking me to the island that I'll forever associate with the movie Just One Look, I got to realizing that I had yet to blog about my previous visit to it; one made special by it having been the first time that I went there during the famous Cheung Chau Bun Festival (which featured in another beloved Hong Kong film, My Life as McDull).

Rather than go and watch the bun scrambling (which ended up not taking place this year because of bad weather), I focused on checking out the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) parade which I got an enticing taste of on a visit to Cheung Chau five days before the Bun Festival a few years ago.  Even after one finds out how the children are made to look like they're "floating" atop objects that shouldn't be able to support their weight, it still can make for a surreal as well as cool sight!

With the temperatures having risen to a pretty high level by the time the Piu Sik (Floating Colors) parade got going, some of the young participants looked like in danger of wilting in the heat.  And in at least one case, a participant decided that he (or she) had had enough midway through the parade.  The funny thing though was that the rest of his (or her) party continued on the parade route, causing great mirth since it looked like the chief participant in that party had partly vapourized (see the third picture from the top of this blog post)! 

Despite the trying conditions, some of the other "floating" children appeared to be enjoying being the center of attention, not only staying the course but also keeping on smiles and responding to waves from the crowd by happily waving back.  Clearly they were aware that, even with the "competition" including such as colorful "dragons", "lions" and "unicorns" (like those seen at the Tam Kung Birthday Parade in Shau Kei Wan which takes place on the same day as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival's main day), they were the undisputed stars of the endearingly quirky show! :)

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hong Kong sightseeing recommendations after a downpour

This is the kind of scene one can expect to encounter
when hiking in Hong Kong after a storm

At Aberdeen Upper Reservoir, there was much more
run-off pouring out then I had previously seen during a drier month 

And it was the same story at Aberdeen Lower Reservoir
(For comparison, here's a link to a blog post with photos from drier times!)

For the past few weeks, my most checked out blog post has been that suggesting "Things to do in Hong Kong when it rains".  Since I subsequently wrote about "Some more things to do in Hong Kong when it rains", I don't plan to add to that subject today.  Instead, here's letting interested readers know what I did this afternoon -- one which surprised some people in being rainless (at least over the part of The Big Lychee where I was), especially in view of a not insubstantial amount of precipitation having fallen over the territory in the morning.

Regular readers won't be too surprised to learn that I went hiking today -- this being Sunday, my regular hike day and all.  On occasions where it's recently rained, I tend to prefer to go for largely paved paths; since I'm generally not a fan of areas that get super muddy and where one is in danger of encountering a number of overflowing hill streams. For quite apart from not liking to get all that dirty and wet, I also think that it can make situations when one is more likely to slip, and slip up!

Also, when hiking after rain has poured down in Hong Kong, I tend to prefer going along trails that I know are most likely to be well maintained, such as those that make up Hong Kong hiking's big four (i.e., the Maclehose, Wilson, Hong Kong, and Lantau Trails).  Thus it was that I started off today at Wan Chai Gap and quickly got on a section of Stage 4 of the Hong Kong Trail.

But while my hike began innocously enough on a paved road, the trail quickly got more slippery than I expected: first, because so many fruits and trees had fallen from the trees and plants on either side of it, and had been squished by previous hikers; and subsequently because the unpaved bits of the trail which had been easy enough to go along during drier times now were on the muddy and slippery side!

About 10 minutes into the hike (which had began at Wan Chai Gap after I had got off the bus that had taken me up there from the concrete jungle on the southern banks of Victoria Harbour, I came across a sight that I actually hadn't expected to see along the trail: one which had water overflowing over a paved section of a trail, courtesy of two hill streams which were flowing much more strongly and with far greater volume than I had seen in all of the previous times I had been on this actually not unfamiliar route!

Telling myself to be brave, I decided to walk along and beyond the waterlogged path rather than turn back so early in my hike.  And I'm happy to report that while I encountered some muddy sections later on, I didn't have to deal with much overflowing water after that! 

Also, seeing -- and hearing -- so much rushing water early on in the hike did get me thinking that perhaps this afternoon would be a good time to go have a look at the nearby reservoirs.  And so it proved, with the voluminous run-off from both the Aberdeen Upper and Lower Reservoirs making for quite the impressive sight!

So, for those seeking Hong Kong sightseeing recommendations for the afternoons (or days) after a substantial amount of rain has fallen: why not go and visit those reservoirs where one can see the run-off, and/or those waterfalls which exist all year round but are particularly strong flowing during the wetter times of the year such as that at Mui Wo's Silvermine Bay along with the cascades over at Chiu Keng Tam (AKA Mirror Pool) and Bride's Pool?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Regular sights for Norwegians but not so much for the rest of us! (Photo-essay)

For the first seven years after returning to Asia, I didn't leave the continent even once (well, if one were to look upon Turkey as an Asian rather than/as well as European country, as during that time, I did vacation in Istanbul!).  One big reason was because after decades spent living outside of my home continent, I decided that I wanted to get to know it better -- and consequently have made my first visits to mainland China, Taiwan and Vietnam, along with revisiting the likes of Singapore, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, and Macau (and, of course, Hong Kong while I was living in Malaysia, and vice versa!).        

Beginning in 2010 though, I started venturing beyond Asia once more.  After my visits to Germany and Luxembourg, I've been inspired to write lists of things I learnt about the countries after holidaying in them.  Considering how much I've already written about Norway in recent weeks (e.g., here, here and here!), however, I don't think I need to do so for this incredibly scenic Nordic country.  Instead, here's offering up eight more photos of the kind of scenery and sights that that caught my eye during a vacation that both my mother and I thoroughly enjoyed... :)

This is what it looked like on the waterfront
after 10pm in Bergen one night in early June! 
What passes for regular scenery on the Norwegian coast ;b
prepared me for the sight of those I caught sight of in Norway!

 Now this really is off-piste skiing... :O
Sometimes humans and nature combine to produce 
picturesque sights
At other times, Mother Nature doesn't need any help
to create beautiful scenery
 The large amount of birds at Havøysund's port area
provide clues as to how rich with fish the nearby waters are!
 When the sun shines on the sea, land and snow in Norway,
it can produce truly awesome sights :)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Beer: expensive but good in Norway!

On the day I visited KODE, I lunched on this wonderful
soupy stew dish and Norwegian flatbread

Puppet Ponyo posing with the glass of beer I also had at lunch,
and the beer menu showing how expensive beer is in Norway!

Even mass produced beer in Norway is expensive
...and drinkable ;b

When I told her that I was going to Norway, my German friend -- who had kindly taken me to lots of biergarten and brauhaus when I visited Germany -- opined that I had picked the wrong European country to go to, as beer is super expensive in that Nordic country.  While there are many elements of my visit to Norway (including the country's amazing scenery and delicious food) that I did enjoy tremendously, it's also true enough that that I found the beer on sale there to be shockingly expensive, with the prices going as high as 70 kroner (~HK$67) for a small glass of admittedly very delicious (and alcoholic, at 10.4%) Konrads Stout and 210 kroner (around HK$199!) for something closer to a pint of the even more alcoholic (at 13%) Konrads cherry imperial stout at Tromso's Ølhallen bar!

In a recent international survey, Hong Kong was listed as being the second most expensive place to get beer in the world.  That finding is very hard to believe for me in light of what I discovered to be the case in Norway -- where beer is pricey, and also difficult to come across (not least because 7-Elevens don't sell alcoholic drinks and there are laws that make it so that you can't buy beer in supermarkets after 6pm on weekdays, 3pm on Saturday and at all on Sundays)!     

Because beer is not only high priced but also not that easily accessible, I only consumed it on a total of 8 times in the 15 days or so that I spent in Norway --  and on just one of those occasions did I actually drink more than one glass or bottle of the "liquid bread"! (Also, I only tasted some other type of alcohol on two other occasions: that is, the first time I crossed the Arctic Circle on the MS Richard With, and the first time I tried some Aquavit and -- sorry! -- thought it tasted medicinal!!)

For the most part, the beers I had in Norway were very good indeed.  In fact, I thought that some of them tasted downright excellent -- something that I had come to expect after having tasted the excellent Nøgne ø imperial stout over drafts over here in Hong Kong.   

Still, I hadn't expected good Norwegian microbrews to be so readily available in bars like the Ølhallen in Tromso with 56 beers on draft and bar-restaurants in Bergen such as the cosy Pingvinen with 18 different beers on tap.  And it was at Pingvinen, located just a few minutes' walk away from the main KODE museums and also the hotel I was staying in, that I went for lunch on my final full day in Norway, and so much did I like the place that I took my mother there for dinner later that day (Also, yes, I did have more beers that evening -- and ones different from what I had had at lunch!)  

Incidentally, at the bars I frequented in Norway, I didn't see anyone appear all that drunk.  In contrast, my mother and I watched -- with incredulity and some amusement -- two young women who had got on board the MS Richard With for a short period (as those locals who looked upon as a the Hurtigruten ships as ferries were wont to do) as they appeared pretty tipsy while drinking just one glass of beer, get into a giggly mood when they were drinking their second glasses of beer, act pretty loud when they were on their third beers and looked on the verge of throwing up when they had their fourth -- and, as it turned out, final -- beers!

The impression my mother and I got was that many Norwegians are dissuaded from drinking alcohol by the high prices and difficulty acquiring them.   At the same time, when they do get their hands on alcohol, they are quite likely to binge drink -- and, because they don't imbibe that often and much, have lower alcohol tolerance than most "white" people I know.  All of which can make for quite the... unusual and interesting situation -- one that I don't think one would find if alcohol weren't such a "taboo" item, and is imbibed over meals (as is the case in, say, Japan)!