Tuesday, 6 October 2015

a trip to myanmar: an exploration of burmese food

Dining out the Burmese way in Yangon, Myanmar.

To be honest, I didn't do a whole lot of research on Burmese cuisine before I went to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). While I'm a huge fan of eating, for some reason, when I travel, I don't feel the need to plan my food itinerary too meticulously. I'll have a few things that I absolutely want to try, but I'm happy to go with the flow the rest of the time.

As it happened, one of the first Burmese dishes I fell in love with was nan gyi thoke - thick round rice noodles tossed in a curry gravy, slightly tangy with lemon and slightly nutty with chickpea flour. Our cute and friendly guesthouse in Yangon served it for breakfast one morning, and that was it. Love at first bite. From that day onward, I was always on the lookout for nan gyi thoke. In places where there were no English menus, I would often shyly query "nan gyi thoke?" and if they had it, this endearing noodle salad would be my meal.

Nangyi thoke - curried noodle salad.

The Burmese tea leaf salad, lahpet thoke, was a dish that I had heard about before prior to my trip to Myanmar, so I made sure that I didn't miss out. Featuring pickled tea leaves, vegetables, sesame seeds, peanuts and deep-fried legumes, this salad is a delightful melange of soft and crunchy textures. If caffeine affects you easily, though, avoid this salad for dinner, lest you feel frustrated later at your inability to fall asleep. Ask me how I know.

Lahpet thoke - Burmese tea leaf salad.

During our trip, we enjoyed meals from both street stalls and upmarket restaurants. The food here tends to be very affordable, even more so if you eat where the locals eat. It seems that the less English is spoken, the cheaper the food gets. Not surprisingly, really - this is how it works in most countries!

At this particular spot, we basically pointed at what we wanted, then sat down and waited. Suddenly, an incredible amount of food came out, and what's more, they kept refilling the pickles and the vegetable sides. We later figured out this was customary. You get a limited amount of fried fish, meat curry or whatever, but everything else gets topped up, apparently at no additional charge. When we finished our meal, more gesturing occurred as we established how much we owed, and it turned out to be just under $1 per person. Awesome!

Incredibly cheap and filling meal if you eat where the locals eat!

And in case you were wondering what Burmese curry is like, it definitely varies depending on where you get it from, but when it's good, it's very, very good.

A delicious Burmese curry. I think this one was a lamb curry.

Surprisingly, though, one of our more expensive meals (only in relative terms, I use the word "expensive" loosely here) also came from a place popular with the locals. This was from an open-air restaurant that does grilled foods of all sorts. You pick what you want at a counter; they grill it and bring it to your table. Most people keep it affordable by having the grilled meats and vegetables with rice. We went without rice, so we ended up paying about $10 each - still very affordable!

Here I introduce you to basil fish balls, which tasted pretty great - the herbaceous touch definitely added something a little different. Other highlights include the enoki mushrooms and the broccoli. Oh my goodness, the broccoli! I have always enjoyed broccoli anyway, but this grilling business really takes it to another level - the smoky flavour is just incredible. Yes, I took a picture of that revelatory broccoli, but I won't bother posting it here because it just looks like broccoli. And we gobbled it up so fast that my picture was of literally just one piece of broccoli.

Basil fish balls. Plus other stuff.

Moving on. We have to talk about mohinga, because it's the national dish of Myanmar, and it is indeed special and scrumptious. Rice vermicelli noodles waft languidly in a warmly spiced fish broth thickened with chickpea flour, while interesting ingredients such as sliced banana tree stems (somewhat similar to celery) infuse it with delightful crunch. I like my mohinga with lots of lime or lemon, as that helps cut through the richness of the soup. We purchased this bowl of mohinga from a street stall, and it cost only about 30 cents.

Mohinga - Burmese fish noodle soup.

I must also tell you about the Shan tofu in Myanmar. Because it is absolutely fabulous. If you find regular Chinese tofu to be on the boring side (personally, I like it - I like almost everything!), give Burmese tofu a go. Instead of soy beans, this yellow tofu is made from yellow split peas and chickpeas - ingredients that impart a lovely flavour to the final product. When this yellow tofu is deep fried, the exterior crisps up, while the interior remains wonderfully creamy. This stuff can get addictive.

Shan-style yellow tofu. So good.

Speaking of which, Shan noodles are super popular in Myanmar. I think there are many varieties, but I don't really know the specifics. I just eat whatever gets placed in front of me. They typically come with pickles. The pickles provide a nice punch, so add them to your noodles to give it some sass.

Shan noodle soup.

If you don't feel like a soup version, dry versions are also available.

Shan noodle salad.

A friend recommended that I try ohn no khao swe, which she describes as being similar to curry laksa. I eventually found a place that served this chicken and coconut curry noodle dish. I never saw this dish on any English menus, so I asked about it wherever I went, just like I did with the nan gyi thoke. Using this nifty method, I finally found a place that served it, and the manager-owner was very impressed that I knew about ohn no khao swe. In turn, I was very impressed with the deliciousness of ohn no khao swe. It does taste somewhat like curry laksa, but with a charm of its own. Again, this dish has a touch of chickpea flour, an ingredient that seems to be the magical foundation for many Burmese dishes.

Ohn no khao swe - noodles in a coconut chicken curry soup.

Last but not least, let's talk dessert. This is a Burmese semolina cake called sanwin makin. Made with semolina, coconut cream, eggs, sugar and butter, spiced with cardamom and sprinkled with poppy seeds (or in some cases, sesame seeds), this cake is sweet, tender, and inviting. It goes very nicely with a cup of tea.

Sanwin makin - Burmese semolina cake.

Another after-meal treat that you might encounter in Myanmar are these rustic candies. I believe that this is jaggery or toddy palm candy, made by boiling down toddy palm juice into a thick and sticky consistency, then letting it cool and cutting it into pieces. The texture is firm yet chewable, and it showcases the complexity and lovely caramel taste of unrefined sugar in all its glory. Some call it "Burmese chocolate".

Palm sugar or jaggery candy.

In my next post I will talk about the sights and experiences we enjoyed in Myanmar, so get ready for a mini virtual tour through Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake - it will mostly be scenic photos, though I might still sneak in a few random captures and food pictures!

By the way, I've recently started an Instagram account and a Facebook page to showcase more photos from our travels, as well as cats and other things in our life (most photos are from Simon, while all the commentary is from me) - it's called Purring Around the World, and the content is quite different to what you see here at The Indolent Cook (for which I have a Facebook page and Twitter account too) - do check them out, and if you like what you see, go on and follow us! :)

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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

penang eats: some of my favourites!

Chinese fried breads for breakfast! Yeah!

For me, a trip back to Malaysia would not feel complete without a visit to Penang. My parents are originally from mainland Penang, and most of our relatives still reside there. I used to spend many childhood holidays in Penang, playing with my cousins, and I have many happy memories associated with this part of Malaysia. And, let's face it. The food. You've got to go to Penang for the food, if nothing else.

So after driving up the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, it only makes sense that our road trip then takes a turn to the west coast. We spent about a week in Penang, and we pretty much just ate... and ate... and ate. I don't remember how many times I had asam laksa in Penang. I could eat that stuff everyday, and I think I did for that week. Good times. Amazing times.

Here's a sample of what we had the evening we arrived in Penang.

Char koay teow, smoky wok-fried flat rice noodles with bean sprouts, egg and shrimp.

Char koay teow - wok-fried flat rice noodles.

Wantan mee, thin egg noodles with petite dumplings and barbecued pork slices. You can get the "soup" version, which comes in a bowl with a generous amount of light broth. This is the "dry" version, which isn't really that dry, as you can see - you get a small amount of rich dark soy sauce broth, and it is excellent.

Wantan mee, the "dry" version.

Char hor fun, thick flat rice noodles in an egg gravy.

Char hor fun, also known as wat dan hor.

In the mornings, we like to have steamed Teochew-style vegetable dumplings for breakfast. These dumplings have a homely rotund appearance and thin, tender, translucent skins. Don't expect them to be vegetarian, though - while it is mostly vegetable, they typically also contain dried shrimp in the filling. The green ones, which we call "gu chai kueh", are the ones with chopped garlic chives...

Gu chai kueh - steamed garlic chive dumplings.

While the yellow ones, which we call "mangkuang kueh", are filled with the goodness of shredded jicama, a turnip-like root vegetable.

Mang kuang kueh - steamed jicama dumplings.

Other than fried koay teow, you can also get koay teow t'ng, in which the flat rice noodles are boiled and served in a light and savoury broth, with accompaniments such as fish balls and pork.

Koay teow t'ng - flat rice noodles in a clear broth.

As I've mentioned, I ate asam laksa as often as I could. I believe there were days when I had it for lunch AND dinner. This dish features lovely round rice noodles in a broth of tamarind and shredded Indian mackerel (we call this fish "kembung") with bits of onion, chilli, lettuce, cucumber and mint. The intriguing kick of pink torch ginger flower (bunga kantan) tops it all off with panache. According to my parents, the torch ginger flower is a bit scarce these days, and not all vendors include much of it, if any. Here, we received a very nice sprinkling. It probably helps that my parents are on friendly terms with the stall owner!

Penang assam laksa.

You can get sea coconut beverage most places in Malaysia if you know where to look (hint: night markets), and to be honest this particular one I had in Penang probably wasn't the best example of it, but it was still nice and thirst-quenching. And sea coconut is always awesome - it has a gentle flavour and a chewy, crunchy texture that I find very appealing.

Sea coconut drink.

Last but not least, dessert. Throw some green jelly noodles and red beans into a cold coconut soup sweetened with palm sugar, and you have this lovely concoction called "cendol".

Cendol dessert.

And... yeah, in case you were wondering, writing this post is making me miss Malaysian food in a big way. I might have to go back again next year!

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Tuesday, 8 September 2015

road trip lunch stop: sun kong restaurant, lenggong (homemade fish balls, fiddlehead ferns and more!)

Sun Kong Restaurant at Lenggong town in Malaysia.

Ummmmm, picking up where I left off last year in this long-overdue continuation of my Asia travel series. As some of you may know, I quit my job in Melbourne last year, moved all my belongings to Perth, travelled around Asia for several months, and eventually settled back in Perth.

There are so many things to share, and last year's travel posts were only the tip of the iceberg. We were in Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Taiwan, and I'm not even done posting about Malaysia yet! So here we continue on with our Malaysia road trip.

After leaving Kelantan, we drove to Penang, but on the way, we stopped at Sun Kong Restaurant (S-2, Kampung Baru Ayer Kala, 33420 Lenggong, Perak) for lunch.

Sun Kong is known for their homemade fish balls, so we had that as an appetizer. These handmade wolf-herring fish balls are distinctly different to the usual filler-added and MSG-laden stuff you get in sealed packets at the shops. Their gentle savoury flavour and rustic texture had me going back for seconds.

Homemade wolf-herring fishballs.

After devouring all the fish balls, we turned our attention to our rice and main dishes. First up, this vibrantly green fiddlehead fern stir-fry dish. These fiddlehead greens (also known as paku in Malaysia) are treated with a touch of garlic and other seasonings, and they straddled the perfect textural balance of firm and tender.

Stir-fried fiddlehead ferns.

Then we enjoyed slices of pig stomach and assorted vegetables in a tangy pineapple sauce. Definitely not the typical sweet-and-sour dish you see in Westernized restaurants!

Sweet and sour pig stomach with vegetables in pineapple sauce.

We have been eating a lot of fish during our time in Malaysia, and we weren't about to stop. Local wild river-caught fish is a favourite when we can get it, and when it's artfully steamed in the classic manner, the freshness really shines.

Steamed catfish (pak sou gong) with soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, coriander, spring onions.

With full bellies, we hopped back into the car and resumed driving. Later that evening, we arrive in Penang, which is basically a food haven in so many ways. But that's a subject for the next post. Stay tuned!

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Monday, 31 August 2015

chickpea salad with spiced yoghurt dressing

Chickpea salad with spiced yogurt dressing.

Another day, another simple salad. The spiced yoghurt dressing is the star of the show here, pulling the chickpeas and salad leaves together in a happy embrace of flavours. Add other vegetables if you wish, as well as nuts and herbs - but even without the embellishments, this salad stands on its own, thanks to the delightfully smoky, tangy dressing.

chickpea salad with spiced yoghurt dressing
(serves 1 as a light and healthy meal, 2 as a very light meal, 3-4 as a side dish)

1 can chickpeas (400g / 14oz)
2 handfuls baby spinach
2 handfuls mixed salad leaves
1/4 cup plain yoghurt
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon tahini
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt (more)
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika

Rinse and drain the chickpeas, and add them to a large salad bowl, along with the baby spinach and  mixed salad leaves.
Whisk together the remaining ingredients in a small bowl to make a salad dressing. Taste the dressing, and add more seasonings to suit your preferences, if necessary.
Pour the dressing into the salad bowl, and toss until well-combined.

Optional suggested additions: cauliflower, broccoli, almonds, walnuts, mint, oregano. Remember to either swap out some of the chickpeas and greens or make more dressing if you're adding extra ingredients.

Tuck in and enjoy the smoky flavours of this spiced yogurt chickpea salad.

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Tuesday, 18 August 2015

cinnamon apple steel-cut oatmeal with raisins

Cinnamon apple oatmeal with raisins.

I have only recently gotten into steel-cut oats. It takes longer to cook compared to rolled oats, quick oats and instant oats, but the substantial, al dente texture is really rather lovely. I'm not going to say that it rocks my world or anything extreme like that, but it's a quietly pleasurable experience that, for me, is worth the extra cooking time.

I'm not breaking any new ground here by combining oatmeal with apple, cinnamon and raisins. But hey, it's a classic combination for a good reason. Feel free to make a bigger batch of this cinnamon-apple-raisin oatmeal, and keep the leftovers covered in the fridge, where it should be good for at least 3 days. Warm individual portions up in the microwave for a quick breakfast on subsequent mornings. Too easy!

cinnamon apple oatmeal with raisins
(makes 2 - 3 servings)

1 tablespoon butter
1 apple, diced
3 tablespoons sultanas / golden raisins
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 cup oats
2 + 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup milk

Melt the butter in a saucepan, and add the apple, sultanas/raisins, dark brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Stir the mixture for about 2 minutes, then add the oats and water. Bring it to boil, and then reduce the heat.
Let the oats simmer, uncovered, for 15 - 20 minutes.
Pour in the milk, and cook the oats for another 10 minutes, stirring every now and then.
Add more dark brown sugar and spices, as well as a pinch of salt, if you wish. You can also use honey or maple syrup instead of sugar.

Alternatively, cook the apple-raisin mixture for a bit longer until the apples are perfectly tender. Retrieve the apple-raisin mixture from the saucepan, and set it aside in a bowl before proceeding with the other steps. Add the apple-raisin mixture to the oatmeal just before serving. This method works to retain more flavour and texture in the apple pieces.

Cinnamon apple and raisin oatmeal.

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Sunday, 9 August 2015

sweet red bean soup

Sweet red bean soup, a simple Asian dessert.

Just a short and sweet one today! This is an easy red bean soup dessert that I've enjoyed since I was a child. Keep it simple using just red beans, sugar and water, or add an extra dimension with a piece of citrus peel or a knotted pandan leaf. This is very much the kind of recipe that you adjust to suit your taste, so don't be afraid to go with the flow.

sweet red bean soup / adzuki bean dessert soup
(serves 4)

1 cup red beans / adzuki beans
1 piece of fresh mandarin peel or dried tangerine peel (optional)
1/4 cup Chinese yellow rock sugar / raw sugar / light brown sugar
1 pinch of salt (optional)

Soak the red beans overnight with just enough water to completely immerse them.
The next day, drain off the water, rinse the beans well, and place them in a saucepan with 5 cups of water.
Bring the water to boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Add the mandarin peel or tangerine peel, if using. Let the beans simmer, partially covered, for about 40 minutes or until the beans are tender.
Remove citrus peel, and add the sugar and salt. Continue to cook the beans for another 20 minutes or until the texture of the beans is to your liking, adding more water if necessary. If you like, you can also mash or blend a portion of the soup for a thicker, richer consistency.
Serve the red bean soup warm, or chill it in the fridge. I quite like storing it in the fridge - it thickens up a little bit more, and seems to taste better the day after.

Adzuki bean dessert soup.

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Thursday, 30 July 2015

early winter eats and explorations in Sydney, 2015

A yellow hut/shack at Watson's Bay.

We spent the entire month of June in Sydney, and it was glorious. While Simon went to work, I did my freelance work back at the apartment, reveling in the persona of a digital nomad. We were frugal on the weekdays, and I would happily collect groceries and cook dinner from Monday to Friday. On the weekends, we caught the bus and the ferry to various locations, and relished all that Sydney had to offer while still being mindful of our spending, being not-very-rich freelancers and all.

On our first weekend, we actually walked all the way from the eastern suburbs to the city. It took us about two hours, but we stopped by Mr. Crackles along the way and gleefully refueled ourselves with the crispy pork nacho fries. The sauce was perhaps just a touch saltier than I would like, but the warm, tender and crunchy pork was a revelatory match for the fries.

Crispy pork nacho fries at Mr. Crackles in Darlinghurst, Sydney ($12).

Stumbling upon Tenkomori Ramen House one evening, we were quickly drawn in by the cheap prices. Ramen and rice dishes for under $10 per bowl? Yes please! I chose the black garlic ramen in a tonkotsu broth. Again, this was a tad salty for my taste, but I enjoyed the smoky flavour of the black garlic oil. In retrospect, I should also have added some toppings or side dishes to make the ramen more substantial and interesting.

Black garlic ramen in tonkotsu broth at Tenkomori Ramen House ($6.50 regular, $7.90 large, with no additions).

We went out late one morning to grab brunch, but when I saw that The Stomping Grounds had wagyu steak on the lunch menu for an extremely reasonable price, I decided to forgo eggs in favour of beef. I wasn't sorry. I have been disappointed so many times by cheap wagyu that turned out to be tough and chewy, but the wagyu I received here boasted a gentle, buttery texture, and it was so delightful that I was willing to forgive the slightly decrepit cauliflower amongst the vegetables on the side.

Wagyu steak at The Stomping Grounds cafe in Maroubra ($15 - or thereabouts).

On another evening, we were lured by the cheap noodle soups at Mrs. Chan's Kitchen. The tom yum noodle soup here isn't as complex as others I've had, but it served its purpose well on a cool winter night. And it was so incredibly affordable!

Tom yum noodle soup at Mrs. Chan's Kitchen in Sydney ($6 or thereabouts).

We also had Thai food at Dixon House Food Court. I was quite impressed with the fried fish meal that Simon ordered. It was quite the bargain, as it came with an apple salad and a side of rice for around $12. The fish could be fresher, but for the price, it was decent, and I was charmed by the splendidly spicy apple salad. We ordered sugar cane juice from another stall to go with it. Gotta love Asian food courts.

Fried fish with apple salad and rice at Dixon House Food Court in Sydney ($12 or thereabouts).

It wasn't just about the eating, of course. The weather was excellent for a great portion of our stay, and we strolled everywhere. We briefly considered watching Jurassic World at IMAX, but the ticket prices (I think it was $33.50 per adult) scared us away. The IMAX screen here is the largest in the world, so perhaps it would have been worth it, but still...

Anyway, we went on the ferry instead. The Sydney Opera House looked very pretty from this angle.

Cruising by the Sydney Opera House on a fine winter's day.

We walked around Watson's Bay...

A handsome ocean cliff at Watson's Bay.

And took too many pictures of this pelican.

A pelican grooming itself at Watson's Bay.

On the last weekend of June, Maroubra beach embraced us with its shimmering sapphire waters, friendly dogs and laid-back vibe.

I wanted to linger, but eventually, we had to leave. Bye bye, Sydney. I'm sure we'll meet again soon.

Maroubra Beach on a lovely sunny winter's day.

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Tuesday, 21 July 2015

coconut persimmon yoghurt bowl

Coconut persimmon yoghurt bowl (with a hint of mandarin).

I wasn't expecting to find persimmons in the thick of winter. But there they were, at the farmers' market, at $3 a kilogram. And these were seedless persimmons! I felt like I had hit the jackpot.

The persimmons were delicious on their own, and the more I allowed them to ripen on the counter, the sweeter they tasted. There is really no need to embellish the persimmons any further when they are gloriously, perfectly ripe, but one morning, I decided to make a full breakfast meal out of them by adding them to yoghurt and sprinkling them with toasted shredded coconut.

This simple persimmon yoghurt bowl looks pleasing to the eye, and it did a fine job of satiating my hunger, too - it fueled me for a few hours before I started to feel peckish again. I think I'm going to have to make yoghurt bowls for breakfast more often from now on!

Persimmon yoghurt bowl with toasted shredded coconut, a healthy breakfast dish.

coconut persimmon yoghurt bowl (serves 1) 

1 ripe persimmon
2/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon mandarin juice (or tangerine, tangelo or orange juice)
1 teaspoon honey
3 tablespoons shredded coconut
a pinch of chopped fresh rosemary, mint or thyme (optional)

Combine the yogurt with honey and mandarin juice in a bowl. Add more honey or mandarin juice if you like.
Gently toast shredded coconut in a pan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until most of the coconut is golden brown.
Peel the persimmon, and cut the flesh into small cubes.Top the yogurt with the diced persimmon and the toasted coconut.
Drizzle on a bit more honey and mandarin juice along with a tiny sprinkling of herbs, if you wish.

Enjoy this coconut persimmon yoghurt breakfast bowl...

A simple textural delight with creamy yoghurt, tender persimmons, and crunchy coconut.

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