The little things…

Over the past year, we’ve lived in some of the most beautiful places in the world. We’ve visited dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites, climbed the world’s most iconic mountain range, lazed around on pristine beaches, witnessed unforgettable sunsets, and explored ancient temples. These experiences are easy to share with our family, friends and readers. These are things everyone can enjoy vicariously.

However, the beaches, mountains, and temples are not our most profound impressions from our past year. In fact, after a dozen or so temples, they all start to run together. The things that really stay with us are the little things that make each place unique; the little cultural quirks that really reflect the foundation of a place.

About three months into our travels, we started reflecting on and documenting those little things from each place that we found genuinely endearing. These are things that you’ve probably never heard of, and that most of the casual tourists might miss.

We hope that you appreciate these as much as we do:


Indonesia:

Super unique animals

These little guys were wandering all over the tiny, sparsely inhabited island of Gili Meno. Not sure if they’re cows or deer, but they’re adorable either way! Indonesia is truly a unique place when it comes to wildlife, and you don’t need to romp out into the jungle to find something unique.

The adorable cow-deer of Gili Meno.

Warungs, the Indonesian one-stop-shop

These little corner stands were everywhere and were outfitted with just about anything you could need. The Warung owners are notoriously helpful and can organize anything from a taxi to a hotel room for you. The freshly prepared food is delicious too, if you’ve got the guts to try it.

The Indonesian Warung.

Tempeh

A traditional Indonesian food type made of soy, and is way better than tofu. It’s a slightly fermented and hardened soybean paste, which might sound gross, but I assure you it’s DELISH!

Tempeh, a delicious soy-based dish!

Malaysia:

Drinks in a bag

If you’re in a hurry, but haven’t had your morning Teh Tarik (pulled chai tea), don’t fret! They’ll just pour it straight into a plastic bag and tie it off around a straw with a rubber band. To go cups are overrated anyways!

Drinks in a bag. Really handy for all the motorbike drivers!

Sama-Sama!

It actually means “same to you,” but this is the super adorable way of saying “you’re welcome” in Malay. It was fun to say and we loved hearing it from just about every service person we ever came across.


Philippines:

Jeepneys

These old U.S. military jeeps left over from WWII have been converted into something in between a shared taxi and a bus. The old trucks have all been personalized and pimped out to each driver’s liking and the locals pile into (and on top of) them and zip around the city.

The best seat is actually the one on top (but don’t forget to hold on!).

Basketball courts

Unlike everywhere else in Asia, the Philippines somehow adopted basketball as their national sport. Even out in the villages you would find makeshift courts slapped together with a plastic trash bin rim and a particle board backboard. Most people even play in flip flops.

Basketball courts like this were everywhere in the Philippines.

Vietnam:

A street for each type of product

The Vietnamese have a very different commercial strategy than we do in the west. In Hanoi, for example, if you need a particular item or service, there is a neighborhood where all merchants of that one item are located. If you need motorbike parts, go to this one street and there’s twenty vendors, just take your pick. Need a haircut? There’s another street for that. There’s no such thing as a one-stop-shop, at least in Hanoi, so you better know exactly what you’re looking for and exactly where to find it. Oh, and the price is the same at all of them.

Craig getting his hair cut on the hair cut street!

Bia hoi

Bia Hoi is a very light “lager” style beer (similar to Miller, Bud or Coors Lite) that is brewed and distributed daily to little corner stands around the country. Bia Hoi is almost exclusively drank outside on a street corner on tiny tables and chairs, and you will find Vietnamese men having a grand old time at these Bia Hoi shops at all hours of the day. Because the beer doesn’t have much time to ferment, it’s only mildly alcoholic (~3%), but you can easily get a nice buzz when you’re out drinking a lot of it on a steamy Saigon night. The best part…it’s only about $0.15 a pint! We love Vietnam!

Yum… Bia Hoi!

Tiny tables and chairs

Everything was noticeably smaller in Asia, but Vietnam definitely stood out with regard to the furniture. The chairs at a roadside food or coffee stand were never more than a foot tall. The tables weren’t much taller, and if you order a lot of food for a lot of people you really have to get creative with space. That said, there’s no better way to enjoy the Vietnam roadside action than from a tiny front row seat.

Chrissy enjoying some amazing Bun Cha as the locals would!

Motorbikes

Yes, there were motorbikes EVERYWHERE in Asia, but Vietnam was really on another level. Slowing down or being a defensive driver makes you unpredictable and a hazard on the road. Drivers expect to be cut off, and people crossing the street expect to make it across safely. AND THEY ALWAYS DO! You could seriously close your eyes and cross the street in Vietnam and be perfectly safe, as long as you maintain your stride. The motorbike traffic just flows around a pedestrian like water. Driving in Hanoi might seem terrifying at first, but after a while you just need to embrace the chaos. Motorbikes rule the road in Vietnam.

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Our commute every night on the way to teach our English class.

Thailand:

7-11 food

Ya it’s totally a weird thing to stand out about a country, but have you tried the 7-11 food though?! It’s seriously on another level. In an American 7-11, you’re forced to pick between a slimy hotdog or stale taquito from the grimy hamster-wheel heater near the cashier. In Thailand, you can get straight gourmet frozen Thai food that they will microwave up for you at the register. The 7-11 food is seriously better than most Thai food I’ve ever had in the U.S. . We have to get some of that stuff here pronto!

No pictures of the Thai 7-11 food… so here is one of Ronald McDonald giving you a nice greeting.

Krap and Kaa!

These are the words that Thai men and women end all their sentences with as a sign of hospitality. The men end a sentence with “Krap” and the women end a sentence with “Kaa” and it’s seriously adorable. They even say it at the end of English sentences: “Thank you Kaaa!”, “You want massage Kaaaa?”, “Where you from Kaa?” We seriously couldn’t get enough of it and we wish there were an English equivalent.

Matriarchal society

In Thailand, the women run the show. This was actually true in much of Southeast Asia, but in Thailand it was most prevalent. When you pay your male waiter for your meal, he immediately takes the money over to his wife (or grandma) who’s in charge of all the finances. We encountered no exceptions to that rule. The men did most of the work and the women called most of the shots. It was a very refreshing departure from the gender roles adopted by most of the world.


Nepal:

Tibetan prayer flags

While we were in Nepal, we spent most of our time in the Himalayas, so naturally we encountered thousands of prayer flags left by pilgrims and villagers. These strings of five sequential colored flags (blue, white, red, green, yellow, in that order) are inscribed with numerous mantras and were meant to bless the surroundings; particularly in treacherous areas. They really made a unique impression on an already beautiful landscape.

Prayer flags in Nepal.

Dai / Bai

The Nepalese call one another Dai or Bai (Sister or Brother), even to complete strangers, foreigners or guests. I believe it is this aspect of Nepalese culture that makes the Nepalese one of the most hospitable people on the planet. When we visited Nepal, it was less than a year after a huge earthquake demolished much of Kathmandu, and many people had lost everything: homes, businesses, family members, and more. Yet they embraced us as family, calling us Dai and Bai and inviting us into their homes. We only wish everyone in the world would view one another this way.

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Our trek buddies in Nepal!

Yaks

Yep, yaks are weird and funny-looking, but they are sacred in Nepal and vital to the villagers in the Himalayas. They burn yak dung to cook food and make cheese from yak milk. They’re so serious about it that a village woman once threw a rock at me because I was scaring one of her older yaks by standing too close to the road as she herded them through. Yaks are serious business up in the Himalayas.

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Another yak herd passing through a small village in the Himalayas.

Daal Bhat

Literally translating to “rice and beans,” Daal Bhat is the most ubiquitous food staple of Nepal. And it is just that: rice and beans (Lentil soup); as much of it as you can pile down your gullet in a sitting at the end of a long day hiking. One order of Daal Bhat (about $2) comes with unlimited refills, and while it might seem a little boring, each tea house cook has their own twist on this classic dish (sometimes including some curried vegetables or a spicy pickle, depending on what’s growing in the region). We ate it literally for two-weeks straight out on the trail, and it always filled us up and kept us warm.

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mmm… Daal Bhat, a Nepalese staple!

Morning juniper offerings

There’s nothing quite like the smell of smoldering juniper offerings on a crisp Himalayan morning. The Tibetans burn juniper branches as a form of mountain worship, and just about every Himalayan teahouse performs this morning ritual. Since Himalayan Juniper establishes one of the highest tree lines in the world, the offerings are even made well above 16,000 ft. The most peaceful wake-up call imaginable!

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Sunrise in the Himalayas.

India:

Head bobble

Oh the infamous head bobble! Does it mean yes? Does it mean no? Who knows! All that matters is it’s hilarious, contagious and unbelievably endearing (as long as you’re not asking for help). I still catch myself bobbling my head at strangers from time to time when I’m feeling extra friendly.

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Village kids taking the goats out for a walk.

Challo!

Challo! Challo! India is so chaotic there’s always somewhere you need to be, something you need to accomplish. You will hear this a hundred times a day in India. Someone will ask “Challeh?” (should we go?), and invariably the group will exclaim “CHALLO CHALLO!” (LET’S GO! LET’S GO!). Multiply that enthusiasm by 1.3 billion and you have a basic idea of how chaotic India is.

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Typical train ride in Mumbai.

Language

There’s no question that communication is one of the most difficult obstacles to traveling in India. Here’s a fun fact: Hindi, Bengali, and Telugu are the three most widely spoken native languages in India with a total of about 580 million native speakers (more than the population of the USA, Canada and Mexico combined). However, there are 1.3 billion people in India, which means that over 700 million people (roughly the entire population of Europe) do not speak one of the top three Indian languages natively. Staggering! It’s no wonder they invented the head bobble to demonstrate their confusion!

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Typical confusion on an Indian train.

Chaiwallahs

The Chaiwallahs (tea vendors) are the heart and soul of India. These guys work their butts off carrying around a heavy canister of hot tea to sell on every corner of the country; every train car, every bus stop, every marketplace. You’re never more than a hundred feet from a Chaiwallah, and when the chai is only 5 rupees (about $0.07) a cup, it’s hard not to guzzle your weight in chai on a daily basis. Now, back in U.S.A., I just spent $5.00 for a bougie chai latte that wasn’t half as good. How I miss the Chaiwallahs!

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I’ll take two, please! A chaiwallah in his boat along the Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Cows

We don’t actually miss the thousands of cows lumbering about the city streets causing traffic jams and pooping on your hostel doormat. In fact, it’s impossible to miss them. Literally. They’re everywhere. While we definitely don’t miss them, we will certainly never forget them!

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Came around the corner and this guy was waiting for me!

Ayurveda

No it’s not just for mother-nature worshipping hippies. Ayurvedic health practices are at least as common as western practices in India. In some ways it’s a good thing, promoting health treatment as primarily a lifestyle adjustment (diet, exercise, meditation, etc.). However, depending on your inherent energy type (your dosha), an Ayurvedic doctor might prescribe treatment of enema, induced vomiting, bleeding, or laxative treatment…YAY!

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Myanmar:

Counting money

Lick your thumb, and transfer that cash one green smacker at a time from one hand to the next! Think there’s only one way to count a fresh stack of bills? Think again! Somehow the Burmese have adopted an alternative way to count their cash, and it’s something we haven’t seen anywhere else (even their neighboring countries!). They hold the stack of dough upright on its side, bend the nearest corner of the stack with the thumb of one hand, and with the index finger of the same hand pull individual bills from the bent corner to the gap in between the index and middle fingers. IT’S NUTS! Check it out here!

Kissing noise

While it’s seen as extremely rude in most countries, making a kissing noise to get someone’s attention (e.g. a waiter) is encouraged in Myanmar. This took us a little while to get used to, but once we got it, it stuck. We even caught ourselves kissing at our waiter in Thailand a couple weeks later. He was not amused…

Longyis

In Myanmar, most of the men (and women) wear a stylish long skirt known as a longyi. This is not entirely unique to Myanmar; longyis are also very common in south India (for men). However, where the Indian version is essentially a towel that the men wrap around their waist (and occasionally fold the bottom up to their waist, making it look like an adult diaper), the Burmese longyi is more like a woman’s skirt that is folded over itself at the waist and securely tucked in. People wear these everywhere and for all occasions. It was definitely one of the most unique fashion statements we experienced in Asia.

Car steering wheel both sides

Myanmar is a former British colony, and up until the 1970’s, they drove on the left hand side of the road as per British custom. However, in the 1970’s the government decided to switch to right-hand driving. Obviously this caused some problems at first, but over time most things worked themselves out. MOST things. One thing that still remains of the old ways is that at least half of the vehicles still have the driver on the right side.

This means when your bus pulls up alongside the road, you have to jump out into traffic instead of stepping right on from the curb. When you drive up to a toll and have to pay the teller on the left side, you have to reach your cash all the way across the car. Other than a few minor inconveniences, everyone seems to get along just fine and there doesn’t seem to be much motivation to change.

Definitely one of the most unique driving experiences of our trip!

Face paste

One of the most well-known cultural icons of Myanmar, is the famous face paste, or Thanaka. Burmese women wear this paste primarily as makeup on their cheeks, nose and forehead, although it doubles as sun protection. The Thanaka is made from rubbing the wood of an endemic tree on a wet stone until the wood breaks down into a paste which is then applied to the face and left to dry. The most common application is two large circles on the cheeks, although many women get creative with unique patterns and colors.

Face paste in Myanmar.

Cambodia:

Tuk-Tuks

A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled motorized vehicle, also known as a motor rickshaw, that is commonly operated as a taxi. Tuk-tuks are not unique to Cambodia, but Cambodian tuk-tuks are certainly unique. Where tuk-tuks in India and Thailand are all one unit where the driver sits in the front seat and the passengers in the back, Tuk-tuks in Cambodia are more like a motorcycle towing a trailer. It felt a little like a horse-drawn carriage…sans horse. We hired a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap for multiple days and the driver took us through the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The temples were cool, but the highlight was definitely the tuk-tuk!

A Cambodian tuk-tuk!

Foodie Column: Tasty Tibetan Thenthuk

In the wake of Chinese incorporation of Tibet in 1950, and a subsequent rebellion in 1959, a large population of Tibetan refugees, The Dalai Lama included, fled from their homes and settled in the mountain regions of Nepal and India. Now, 60 years later, the culture of most of the high alpine regions of the Himalayas still has a significant cultural influence from Tibet. In fact, on our recent three week trek on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, most of the teahouses and restaurants in the region were owned by displaced Tibetans. It wasn’t uncommon to see large panoramic photos of the Tibetan holy city of Lhasa mounted in the restaurants next to a decorated portrait of the Dalai Lama.

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Little girl munching on a monster Tibetan bread and egg taco.

While the most ubiquitous form of mountain fuel found in the Nepalese Himalayas was the Indian inspired Daal Bhat (lentil soup, rice, and curried veggies, with an unlimited supply of refills), the dish that really kept our tummies warm and cozy was Tibetan Thenthuk. This tasty soup, made from a simple garlic and oil broth and freshly rolled noodles, was particularly quick to cook and serve; an added bonus when there’s only one cook to feed a whole Teahouse.

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The ubiquitous Daal Bhat: Unimaginative, but it does the trick.
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Tasty Tibetan Thenthuk!

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Foodie Column: North Thailand Nostalgia

It’s been a wild, action-packed month since we left Chiang Mai, but the spicy-sweet memory of North Thailand still lingers. After a month of tasty-but-somewhat-boring Nepalese Dal Bhat (rice, veggies and lentil soup), I would give just about anything for a freshly BBQ’ed sausage, a sweet Thai curry, or a spicy basil melody of pad kee mao.

Of all the amazing delicacies of North Thailand, one in particular totally stole my heart: Khao Soi! Unless you’re a super-foodie or have spent time around Laos, or North Thailand, you probably haven’t heard of it, so I’ll fill you in. Khao Soi, at least the Thai version of it, lies somewhere in between yellow curry and chicken noodle soup. The dish is made from a base similar to yellow or massaman curry, but is served with egg noodles instead of rice and is garnished with fried noodles, pickled mustard greens and red onion.

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Delicious Khao Soi at a cafe in the Khao Soi Ghetto in Chiang Mai!

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Foodie Column: Bún bò Nam Bộ; a taste of Vietnam you won’t get at home

Vietnam is a crazy place, especially when it comes to food. I wouldn’t recommend the standard “point-and-cross-your-fingers” method at your everyday Vietnamese restaurant or you run the risk of getting a bowl of organs, snails, duck fetus or even dog and cat parts. I’m not saying any of these things aren’t absolutely delicious (MMMMMeow), but being delicious doesn’t make them any less crazy!

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bowl of snails and duck fetus

Since the end of the Vietnam War, one Vietnamese dish in particular has taken the U.S. by storm: Pho! If you want proof of how crazy Vietnamese food can be, you need only walk down to your neighborhood whitewashed pho restaurant, where you will find the typical bowl full of intestines and cartilage (with a few pieces of actual meat mixed in). Pho is a prime example of the typical Vietnamese flavor profile, balancing the savory beef broth with spicy chilies, tart lime juice and aromatic fresh herbs. It’s sort of  like adding a salad to your soup.

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Foodie Column: Kaya toast; a taste of Malaysia

Malaysia is not exactly known for bread. You won’t find rolls, baguettes, or pastries like you might in Europe or America. But they do have white toast, and boy do they go absolutely nuts for it! I’d say it’s the most ubiquitous breakfast staple in the country, and I’ve spent my fair share of time waiting out on the street for a crappy plastic chair to free up at a toast stand just to get some.

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Classic roadside toast cafe in Penang, Malaysia.

I should clarify. It’s not exactly the toast that is so beloved in Malaysia, but what goes on the toast: Kaya!

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Foodie Column – Malaysia & Singapore; What you never knew you were missing!

The world is small nowadays. If you live in a mid-size to large city, odds are you share your city with people and cultures from all over the world. Particularly in regard to food, you will probably find restaurants ranging from Thai to Ethiopian right in your own neighborhood. However, unbeknownst to most Westerners, one of Asia’s most highly acclaimed cuisines has somehow slipped through the cracks in the West.

I’m speaking, of course, of Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. I did a search in the Los Angeles metropolitan area (population ~12 million) and found only 3 Malaysian restaurants, and after spending 5 weeks in Malaysia, I have to wonder why. I’m sure Malaysians and Singaporeans will grumble about being categorized with one another, but the truth is they have many more similarities than differences. Their culinary traditions include influences of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures.

If you’re into food, Malaysia and Singapore MUST be on your bucket list, and since odds are you know nothing about Malaysian food, here is a comprehensive guide of some of the must-tries during your visit. I have limited the list to dishes that can be found just about everywhere, and have separated the list by cultural influence (Malay, Chinese and Indian). Hope you enjoy!

Malay Influence:

Laksa

LaksaA staple of Malaysian cuisine, Laksa is to Malaysia what Barbecue is to Texas. It is a spicy noodle soup with chicken, prawn, or sometimes fried fish. The broth is usually either a coconut based curry broth or a sour tamarind based broth (Asam Laksa). As with much of Malaysian cuisine, both the broth and the noodles can vary regionally.

Where to Find It: EVERYWHERE. Curry Laksa particularly in Singapore and Asam Laksa particularly in Penang, Malaysia.

Price: 4-7 MYR ($1.00-$2.75).


Apam Balik

IMG_0647A light, crispy pancake topped with ground peanut. These are a beloved street “comfort” food in Malaysia & Singapore and you will often see long lines to get one at all times of day.

Where to Find It: Outdoor markets, night markets or hawker centers. You won’t see them in restaurants.

Price: 1 MYR ($0.25).


Rendang

RendangRendang (Indonesian) – Traditionally an Indonesian dish, in Malaysia it is one of the most variable dishes in the country. In essence, it is simply meat stewed in coconut milk and ground spices like ginger, galangal, garlic, shallot, lemongrass and turmeric. The consistency can be from dry to soupy and the meat is usually beef or chicken. Rendang takes the top spot on CNN’s worlds 50 best foods.

Where to Find It: For being so delicious, Rendang can actually be somewhat hard to find (probably because it takes a long time to make). You will have to ask a local or do some online research to find places that serve it. Food cities like Singapore and Penang are a good start.

Price: Can be “pricey”, especially for beef rendang. 12-16 MYR ($3.00 – $4.00).


Nasi Lemak

IMG_1304 Sometimes considered the national dish of Malaysia. In its most basic form, it is coconut rice topped with sambal (spicy sauce), dried anchovies and peanuts. It is typically served “to go” style wrapped in a little banana leaf pyramid and is most often eaten for breakfast.

Where to Find It: On the side of the street early in the morning.

Price: 2 MYR ($0.50).


Chinese Influence:

Congee

IMG_0665A savory rice porridge often mixed with diced pork, chicken or fish (or sometimes frog if you’re lucky!). It is embraced as a comfort food in many Asian countries, and is often considered as a food therapy meal for when you’re sick (similar to chicken noodle soup in the U.S.A.).

Where to find it: Everywhere. Any hawker center should have at least one stall.

Price: 3-4 MYR (~$1.00).


Bak Kut Teh

IMG_0741Literally “meat bone tea,” it is a pork medley slow boiled in a complex broth that includes dong quai, star anise, and cinnamon. It’s basically a bowl of pork parts: ribs, intestines, and mystery “balls,” all in a herbal soup usually served with a side of flash fried leafy greens and steamed rice. Depending on where you are in Malaysia, it might only be served for breakfast (as in Kuala Lumpur) or it might only be served for dinner (as in Sabah).

Where to Find It: Bak Kut Teh is usually served in restaurants that serve nothing else. Look for bustling open restaurants with tables spilling out into the street.

Price: 20-30 MYR ($5.00-$8.00). A little more expensive than average.


Claypot Chicken Rice

IMG_0755A steamy, crusty clay bowl of rice, meat (chicken or chicken sausage), soy sauce, and sometimes egg. The unique part of this dish is that the steamed rice is cooked at high heat on a charcoal stove causing the edges to “burn” onto the inside of the bowl, before the other ingredients are added. Everyone agrees that the little burned bits are the best part of the dish!

Where to find it: You might have to ask a local as this dish is a little less common.

Price: 6-8 MYR ($1.50-$2.00).


Hainanese Chicken Rice

Chicken RiceOften considered the national dish of Singapore. Bringing up the topic of where to find the best Chicken Rice could spark a violent debate as many Malaysians and Singaporeans are very serious about their chicken rice. In essence, it just a steeped chicken, chopped into strips and served over rice, but the subtleties of the dish make the difference. Some regions use coconut rice, some cook the rice in the chicken stock, some use roast chicken instead of boiled chicken, and so on. This one is not to be missed, especially in Singapore.

Where to Find It: Chinese coffee shops, hawker centers, and even some restaurants. Look for rows of cooked chickens hanging in the window.

Price: 5-8 MYR ($1.25-$2.00).


Hokkien Mee

IMG_1049One of my personal favorites. Hokkien mee is a noodle dish often consisting of both egg and rice noodles, mixed together with pork, prawns, squid and veggies. In Penang and much of Malaysia, the dish is served as a soup with a seafood based broth, while in Singapore the dish is stir fried. It is often garnished with sambal and sometimes lime.

Where to find it: Everywhere in Penang and Singapore hawker centers. Look for the signs and ask locals about the best spots.

Price: 4-7 MYR ($1.00-$1.75).


Char Kway Teow

IMG_1068Somewhat similar to the Thai dish Pad See Ew. Char Kway Teow is a stir fried flat noodle dish with prawns, cockles, soy sauce and chillies and is usually served on a banana leaf or butcher paper. This is an especially popular dish in the Penang region, which has a heavy Hokkien influence.

Where to find it: Everywhere, especially in Penang. Look for hawker stalls and night markets.

Price: 3-6 MYR ($0.75-$1.50).


Indian Influence:

(Dum) Biryani

BiryaniSpiced basmati rice typically cooked together with meat. This is exactly the same as traditional Indian biryani, but Singaporeans think they can differentiate it by calling it “dum biryani” signifying that it is cooked together with the meat. Traditionally, all biryani is cooked with the meat anyways so the Singaporean attempt to differentiate it is a lazy one.

Where to Find It: Little India hawker centers and restaurants.

Price: 8-12 MYR ($2.00 – $3.00).


Murtabak

IMG_3953Though murtabak originates in the Arabian peninsula, it has been adopted into the food culture of the Malaysian Mamak (Indian Muslims). It is a savory pan-fried pancake usually stuffed with minced meat (beef, chicken, or lamb), onion and a cracked egg. This dish is quite heavy and is usually served with an assortment of vegetable curries for dipping. One of these could easily feed 2 people.

Where to Find It: Mamak stalls in Indian neighborhoods or night markets. It is often eaten for either lunch or dinner.

Price: 4-5 MYR ($1.00-$1.25).


Roti Canai

IMG_1040A savory pan-fried flatbread dish that is typically eaten for breakfast and served alongside lentil or meat curry.

Where to find it: Early in the morning at Mamak Stalls (streetside indian food stalls). Get there early because most places are likely to run out before noon.

Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25 – $0.50).


Drinks:

Cendol

IMG_0653An extremely sweet dessert beverage made from rice milk, coconut milk and palm sugar (sort of a Malaysian version of Mexican horchata). Technically the term “Cendol” refers to the rice based green jelly “worms” that are added to the drink. The drink is served with a large diameter straw so you can slurp up all the worms from the bottom. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the worms part, but the drink base is delicious!

Where to Find It: Most restaurants don’t feature a “dessert menu”, so in order to find this, you will either have to find a dessert stall (usually next to the hawker centers) or find a stall out at the night markets.

Price: 2 MYR ($0.50).


Iced Coffee

IMG_1092Most westerners would agree that coffee in Malaysia is sort of a sore subject. The ubiquity of an instant coffee mixture (they call Nescafe) has led to many a disappointing experience. That said, Malaysians have built quite a culture around their traditional Iced Coffee, the typical variety of which being coined “White Coffee” meaning it contains coffee, condensed milk, and sugar. Since it’s usually hot in Southeast Asia, most people drink their coffee cold, and if you are okay with your coffee being more sugar than bean, this is sure to be quite a treat.

Where to Find It: EVERYWHERE! The way most hawker centers work is that the drink people are in charge of the tables and so after you order your drinks you are free to go to any of the food stalls you want. As soon as you sit down at a table, a drink vendor will come by asking for your drink order (if you don’t get a drink, you won’t be sitting there). Every drink vendor will have iced coffee.

Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25-$0.50).


Teh Tarik

IMG_1336OMG They need to have this everywhere! I would order this HOT even in the blistering desert. Teh Tarik literally translates to “pulled tea” and all it is is black tea with condensed milk and a bit of sugar. The magic comes in the “pulling” part where the tea is poured back and forth between containers (usually from above the barista’s head) to develop a wonderful foam on the top of the drink. You can also order this as an iced drink, but obviously that would destroy the foam immediately.

Where to Find It: You can “find” it literally everywhere (like iced coffee), but in my experience your best bet is in an Indian hawker center as many of the Chinese centers simply stir the tea instead of pulling it.

Price: 1-2 MYR ($0.25-$0.50).


Ais Kacang (ABC)

IMG_4567Literally meaning “ice beans”, this one is really more of a dessert than a drink and will certainly be one of the most unique things you try in Malaysia. The contents will vary from stall to stall, but at its core this is rose syrup shaved ice topped with an assortment of beans, sweet corn, cendol “worms”, fruit and vanilla ice cream and drizzled with condensed milk. Seriously. That’s what it is. This is one you might need to share.

Where to Find It: Like Cendol, this can usually only be found at dessert stalls.

Price: 3-4 MYR ($0.75-$1.00).


 

So if you’re planning a trip to Malaysia or Singapore, make sure you give yourself enough time to try each of these dishes at least once, and don’t forget to bring your stretchy pants!

Foodie Column – The Warung (Indonesia)

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Typical warung

One of the most important venues of Indonesian food culture is the warung. They are the one-stop shop Wal-Marts of Indonesia, only 100 times smaller, independently owned, and usually slapped together with mismatched pieces of wood. Need some lunch? The warung’s got your back. Just some everyday groceries? Ya, they do that. Want to book a snorkeling tour? Need a motorbike rental? Want a driver for the day? Someone to do your taxes? Look no further. All from a tiny booth often attached to the owner’s house. You may laugh, but I am not kidding about any of this (well except maybe the taxes thing). Though typically misconceived as a food stall of sorts, warungs are so much more. However, since this is the Foodie Column, I’m just going to focus on the “food stall” side of the everyday warung.

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Nasi Campur – the warung special (Rice with some type of veggies and meat. Every warung is different and the special changes every day).

Here is an excerpt from a Bali guidebook: “’Oh goody!’ It’s virtually impossible not to say this when you step into a classic warung for lunch to find dozens of freshly made dishes on the counter awaiting you.” The problem is that this guidebook got it all laughably wrong; and not just the failed attempt to use the phrase “oh goody” outside the context of sarcasm. The truth is “oh goody” would be low on the list of reactions of a typical Westerner when confronted with the everyday warung. They aren’t typically clean. The food has usually been sitting out all morning, often in mismatched plastic bowls, sometimes covered with a towel, sometimes covered with flies, usually a lukewarm 30 Celcius. And if you’re not familiar with the common dishes, you get to play the “what is that a bowl of” game.

The truth is, there is very little visually and olfactorily appetizing about the display window of your corner warung, and any sane, regular-bowel-movement-loving Westerner would walk right by without a second glance and possibly miss out on one of the most delicious, authentic, and inexpensive culinary experiences Indonesia has to offer.

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Pak-the-Man

Meet Pak-Man: a 61-year-old retired construction worker, originally from the Indonesian island of Java, who decided to spend his retirement opening up a small warung on the corner of a small dirt road and a smaller dirt road on the tiny island of Gili Meno (off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia). Chrissy and I heard of him by word-of-mouth from some expats living on the island (he will not be found on Yelp, TripAdvisor, or Lonely Planet). Once we found him though, we never missed a day of his delicious food. Besides his charm and his persistent smile, what truly endeared me to Pak-Man was the man’s sambal. Minds out of the gutter, people. Sambal is just “Indonesian salsa.” It goes on just about everything, but it comes in many varieties (Wikipedia hilariously lists 42, as if anyone continued reading after like number 3).

Pak Man invited me to come by his warung one morning to learn to make a few traditional Indonesian dishes; most notably, the sambal. As with most Indonesian chefs, Pak Man doesn’t ever measure any ingredients so I had to visually guess how much of each thing he was using. I wish I knew what category of sambal this recipe would fall into, but I think I’d be better off just adding a 43rd variety to the Wikipedia page titled “Sambal Pak-Man.” Give this simple recipe a shot and serve it up with anything that could use a nice authentic Indonesian kick. Enjoy!

Sambal Pak-Man

Makes about 3 cups

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Add the tomatoey stuff and blend it up!
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Throw all the spicy stuff in the blender.

WHAT YOU NEED

  • 2 cups chopped long red chillies
  • 4 heads of fresh garlic
  • 20 small spicy Thai chillies (can reduce to 10 for a mellower sambal)
  • 1 Tbsp shrimp paste (can substitute 1 Tbsp anchovy paste or 3 mashed anchovy fillets)
  • 6 roma tomatoes (cut into large chunks)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 cup palm oil (though palm oil is the choice for authenticity, the manufacturing of palm oil has created large problems with deforestation in much of the developing world. I’d advise substituting vegetable oil).

INSTRUCTIONS

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Fry that sambal!
  1. Toss long red chillies, garlic, Thai chillies, shrimp paste, and tomatoes into a blender or food processor and blend on high until it is well blended.
  2. Pre-heat oil in a wok (or large pan) over medium high heat.
  3. Add ingredients from the blender to the hot oil and mix well.
  4. Lower the heat to medium, mix in salt, pepper and sugar and let the sambal cook for about 20 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat and let cool.
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The result

Foodie Column – Good Ol’ Balinese Home Cookin

Bali has long been hailed as one of the most diverse places on the planet. The Balinese people are extremely open minded and welcoming to foreigners, and this open mindedness is reflected in their culture. Balinese music, religious practices, agriculture, and cuisine is a hodgepodge of external influences from all corners of the globe, and is distinctly different from the rest of Indonesia. Hinduism they inherited from India (while the rest of Indonesia is Muslim), but they have infused it with practices of local animism and Theravada Buddhism. The Chinese brought the cooking technique of stir frying and the use of soy, tofu and tempe. Arabs introduced the now omnipresent “Sate” (similar to kebab). The Dutch brought Balinese agricultural staples such as tomato, peanuts and an assortment of tropical fruits often mistaken for being endemic.

Balinese cuisine, like many Asian cuisines, is centered around rice. But where many Asian cuisines see rice as simply a cheap and available filler for complementing the main dish, the Balinese see it as much more. Rice is the centerpiece of the religious offerings the Balinese people prepare every morning and they even often use “rice” interchangeably with “food” and “eating.” Traditional Balinese food tends to be either sweet or spicy (to my dismay, they seemed to tone down the spice level for me, assuming I couldn’t handle their level of spice).

Bumbu Bali: smooshed together garlicy, gingery, chillie-y magic.

The Balinese tend to simplify their food preparation by making a common Balinese spice mixture, Bumbu Bali, which they use in varying quantities for every dish. This mixture is made in large quantities from fresh ingredients using a mortar and pestle, and usually consists of garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric, chilies, shrimp paste, greater and lesser galangal, salt and pepper. Other common ingredients are fresh coconut, fresh lime juice and coconut oil. In all Balinese dishes, the key is using fresh ingredients.

Delicious Babi Guling in the making!!

One of the most common everyday dishes is Nasi Campur (rice mix), which was an assortment of 3 to 4 different meat and vegetable entrees and sambal (Indonesian salsa) all orbiting a pile of steamed rice. Delicious and diverse! But my favorite Balinese delight was Babi Guling, which is spit roasted suckling pig, stuffed with onion, garlic, and chilies and served over rice with spicy blood sausage (cooked in the intestine) and topped with a slice of pork skin (more like chacharron with a nice layer of fat). I could eat the stuff all day and to my surprise and delight, Chrissy gobbled it up too (even the blood sausage and skin!).

Farm fresh ingredients straight from the source

While we were in the town of Ubud, Bali (made famous by “Eat, Pray, Love” and other hippy-yoga-find-yourself stuff), we decided to take a traditional Balinese cooking class that was offered by a small organic farm at a nearby village. We were picked up in Ubud and driven about 40 minutes into the country, stopping at a local outdoor food market on the way to see where most Balinese people shop for ingredients. When we got to the farm, the first step was to harvest the ingredients for the dishes we were going to make. We each got a basket and were escorted around the farm and introduced to all the ingredients. We filled the baskets with limes, carrots, spinach, beans, potatoes, chilies, bay leaves, ginger, and turmeric; all plucked straight from the ground. After washing and preparing all the ingredients, we proceeded to cook about 6 different traditional Balinese dishes: Sayur Urab (mixed veggies), sweet & sour tempe, Tuna Sambal Matah, Bali Sate Lilit (minced pork kebab), Opor Ayam (Balinese chicken curry) and Bubur injin (black rice pudding).

All these dishes were delicious, but I only have space and time to include the recipe for one, so I am choosing the one that I feel best represents the Balinese flavor profile and commitment to fresh ingredients. If you are interested in any of the other recipes, feel free to message me and I’d be happy to share (the Bali Sate Lilit and Opor Ayam are especially good!). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy some Sayur Urab, which is best served as a side dish to something light like white fish or chicken breast and some steamed rice. HOPE YOU LIKE IT!

SAYUR URAB (MIXED VEGETABLES):

Makes 2-3 servings

smoosh it all together!

WHAT YOU NEED

Hard vegetables:

  • 9 oz. string beans (chopped)
  • 9 oz. carrots (julianne cut)
  • 9 oz. green beans (chopped)

Soft vegetables:

  • 9 oz. spinach (chopped)
  • 9 oz. bean sprouts
  • 9 oz. cabbage (chopped)
  • 2 cups fresh grated coconut
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves (finely chopped)
  • 1/4 kaffir lime (juice)

Seasoning:

  • 7 shallots (thinly sliced)
  • 5 cloves of garlic (thinly sliced)
  • 3 long red chilis (or 1/2 bell pepper, thinly sliced)
  • 1/4 tsp. shrimp paste (or 1 Tbsp. fish sauce)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • 4 Tbsp. coconut oil

INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Bring a pot of water to a boil and throw in the hard vegetables. After two minutes, throw in the soft vegetables (same pot) and boil for another 3 minutes (5 minutes total). Then strain the vegetables and set aside.
    2. Head coconut oil in a frying pan on medium-high heat and fry the shallots for about 30 seconds, then add the garlic and fry for another 30 seconds.
    3. Add chilies and stir for another couple minutes until it gets crispy.
    4. Stir in shrimp paste, salt and pepper for another minute.
    5. Transfer the contents of the frying pan to a medium sized bowl, and mix in the grated coconut, kaffir lime leaves and kaffir lime juice.
    6. Add the boiled vegetables from the strainer and mix in with your hands, squeezing gently till the juice comes out.
    7. Serve it up fresh and DIG IN!

 

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Bon Appetit!

 

Cincinnati Chili (aka Pilot Foodie Column)

I know what you’re thinking: “Come on already! We can’t wait to hear about Asia!!” Patience, dear readers, a bone shall be thrown your way very soon. We are doing well here in Bali, Indonesia, but it all still seems so surreal. For Chrissy and I, this year is a chance for us to discover and engage in the diverse cultures of the world. And in the spirit of celebrating cultural diversity, I wish to make my first cultural foodie post an homage to the culinary diversity of the United States.

You read correctly, I wrote culinary diversity. Though you’re correct in thinking that cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza are the more common dietary staples spanning all corners of the United States, you might be surprised by some of the regional treats that have not yet reached nationwide ubiquity. Deep-dish pizza has long since made the migration from Chicago, but somehow Italian beef never quite left the windy city. Surly fishermen on the rocky coast of Maine might be able to end their day with a hearty bowl of Louisiana jambalaya, but odds are they have never heard of boudin (pronounced BOO-dan), an equally important yet lesser known fiber of Louisiana food culture. My first cultural foodie post will highlight one of these regional treasures of the good ol’ USA.

Let me take you on a journey to the great American midwest; to a magical little town known as Cincinnati, Ohio. If you can name something from Cincinnati that does not include the words “Reds” or “Bengals,” you’re weird. Nevertheless, Cincinnati is home to a very unique and delicious bastardization of a timeless American food staple, chili, that has deep roots in the hearts of every Cincinnatian (Cincinnatiite? Cincinnatino?). This spin on an American classic involves replacing beans and chilli peppers with cinnamon and chocolate, and replacing cornbread with spaghetti.

4-way Cinci chili in all its cheesy, oniony, crackery deliciousness!

Don’t run away screaming just yet! I had the pleasure of visiting the great city of Cincinnati recently with Chrissy and her mother Diane, who is herself a native Cincinnatino, and I assure you this Cincinnati Chili thing is no joke. In fact, Cincinnati Chili is pervasive enough that Cincinnati expats nationwide can order a pre-packaged spice blend to make it at home wherever they are (http://www.amazon.com/Pack-Cincinnati-Chili-Mix-Packets/dp/B000B6O4LO ; Just read the product description and you’ll understand). These mix packets actually do justice to the original thing, and might be good for the curious eater who wants to try Cincinnati Chili without investing the time to making it from scratch. But for those of you interested in getting a true taste of Cincinnati, either book yourself a plane ticket, or continue reading…

How you know it’s legit!

The recipe I used to make Cincinnati Chili from scratch was adapted from Papa Al’s (Chrissy’s late grandfather’s) recipe, which was carefully scribbled on a series of hand-written and chili-spotted sheets of notebook paper. Papa Al was trained as a chef and when he first tried the original Skyline Chili, he thought he would try to throw together his own recipe. Though I had to scale down the recipe from the 5-gallon party-pot Papa Al used to use, the result as attested by Chrissy’s family, was true to the original. Give this recipe a shot and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

WHAT YOU NEED (6-8 servings):

All this!

For the chili:

  • 4 lbs. lean ground beef
  • 8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 4 large onions finely chopped
  • 4 Tbsp. white vinegar
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 4 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2.5 tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbsp. cinnamon
  • 38 oz. tomato sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. cumin
  • 8 Tbsp. chili powder
  • 1 oz. bitter bakers chocolate
  • about 8 cups of room temperature water

For serving:

  • 2 packs of thin spaghetti
  • a healthy portion of sharp cheddar cheese, chopped onions and oyster crackers for topping (required!!)
Just dive right in!

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. In a pot and with no heat, slowly mix the ground beef into the water, breaking the meat up with your hands into a paste (sounds gross I know but this step is critical to the chili).
  2. Bring the meat water to a simmer and let simmer for 30 minutes while you skim the fat off the top.
  3. Then just throw the rest of the ingredients in the pot, mix it up, and let it simmer uncovered for 3-5 hours, stirring regularly to keep it from burning to the bottom. EASY! The chili should reduce in volume by about 1/3.
  4. (optional, but recommended) turn off the heat, let the chili cool down and then move to the fridge to sit overnight. Reheat it tomorrow and it will be twice as delicious!
  5. serve over spaghetti, topped with a mound of cheddar cheese, chopped onions and oyster crackers.
yummmmmmm!!