Sep 192012
 

In the DeHappy Seafood Penang post I talked about Singapore as a base for weekends away – and it is one of the things that makes working and living here very special. People love living here – but they love getting away for the weekend as well.

The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Sunset from The Rock Bar, Ayana Resort, Bali

Most of South East Asia really is only an hour or two away by jet – Melaka, Penang and Kuala Lumpur are only an hour away. Sabah/Sarawak/Brunei/Phuket/Bali/Jakarta/Ho Chi Minh City are two or less. Stretch that to a three hour flight and you can get to Cebu/Clark/Manila in the Philippines, and it is not much further to Hong Kong or Sri Lanka – all with regular direct flights. Some destinations require transfers and these can place an otherwise desirable area out of reach for a weekend trip (an example is Boracay in the Philippines – one of the nicest places I’ve been but a little far away for a weekend trip – to be the subject of another blog post).

Fort Santiago, Manila

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila

The pressure from many budget airlines operating in the region tends to keep flight prices low, especially if you keep an eye out for special offers and book well in advance. Competition for the cheaper fares is intense anywhere near a public holiday here, and getting the best deal requires some planning. Expedia has a weekend getaway finder that includes some popular regional destinations.

Tour Boats, Phi Phi Island near Phuket, Thailand

Phi Phi Island, near Phuket, Thailand

My strongest advice is to check independent reviews before booking any hotel – I got burnt on a Penang hotel once because I only looked at the hotel website (and the reality was very substandard). In this case, the Internet is definitely your friend – anywhere you might go has probably been reviewed or blogged about before. And please talk to people here – providing holiday and food advice (when sought) is a passion for many Singaporeans, and it is a good way to get to know your colleagues and neighbours.

Street Life, Penang, Malaysia

Street scene, Penang, Malaysia

In this blog I will share my experiences of the food in these regional getaway spots – hopefully you will see something you like. I promise to link those posts back to here so that it is more about food than my tourist happy-snaps :)

Sep 072012
 

Chasing food and cultural experiences has taken me to some interesting places. One of the joys of living in Singapore is that most of south east Asia is only an hour or two away by jet – and with several budget airlines operating in the region, a weekend away becomes a very real option. Tricks and traps for planning these outings is a good topic for a future blog post. One such trip took us to Penang – I’ve written about the great Assam Laksa at the Air Hitam market there.

The other culinary highlight of that trip was dinner at DeHappy Seafood on Macalister Road. They have an interesting crab menu:

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This is the Garlic and Black Bean Crab, Hong Kong style:

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It’s hard to describe how wonderful these two smaller (around 500gram) crabs were – cooked to perfection in a salty black bean and garlic sauce, shallots, and spring onions. We ate them with seafood fried rice, garlic kankong, and some salted egg prawns (the latter sadly overshadowed by the magnificence of the crab).

After the crab, there were some amazing oysters – that’s my hand, and trust me it is not a small hand :)

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The manager apologised in advance for having to charge us MYR8 (SGD3) each owing to supply problems – so we just ordered half a dozen. When they came out, I remember saying that I was glad we didn’t order a whole dozen :)

20120907-082844.jpg The oysters had an incredibly fresh clean taste.

I didn’t get a good pic of DeHappy at night as it was raining – if you go to look for it, this is what it looks like during the day:

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Please note that they are scheduled to move into larger premises next door (to the right) some time later this year.

All in, with a few bottles of Tiger beer to wash it down, the meal came to less than SGD70. This is one of the reasons Penang is so popular with Singaporean food lovers – great seafood at a good price.

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I look forward to returning to Penang to eat at DeHappy once again.

Do you have a favourite seafood place in Penang? If so, please leave a comment and let me know :)

Sep 062012
 

It’s fair to say that one of the reasons I came to Singapore was the laksa. Katong, not far from where I now live, is one of the stated birth places of this wonderfully rich spicy curry noodle soup.

For those of you that have never enjoyed laksa because by accident of birth and circumstance you find yourself in the wrong hemisphere, I truly apologise. For those that have been to a food court somewhere and had a tepid mess of overcooked underfresh noodles in a bleak dirty water tinned curry paste broth, I also apologise. You’ve missed out.

Let me start by saying that I know that there are many varieties of laksa, and each of these has a number of names…these names, in turn, often prepended by “The Authentic…”, “The Original…”, or some other title. Given that there is so much controversy on what this laksa or that laksa is actually called, it is not possible to describe it without contradicting one expert or another – and in doing so, cause offense. That said, if I am going to talk about my own laksa journey, I need to define it in my own terms so you’ll know what I am talking about. I am a simple soul, and divide all laksa I’ve experienced to date into two main groups:

  • The curry soup with coconut milk in it (Laksa Lemak, Katong Laksa, call it what you will – I’ll stick to the generic Bahasa Melayu “Laksa Lemak” – lemak meaning “fat” or “rich”) – basically, take some hot stock, add curry/shrimp paste, add coconut milk/coconut cream, add noodles of some description, throw in some veggies and one or more of shrimp/pork/beef/chicken. Laksa leaf (Vietnamese Mint or Duan Laksa) is optional in some locations. Add spongy fried tofu, sprinkle with fried shallots/onions, and serve.
  • The curry soup without coconut milk in it, usually fish based (Assam Laksa, Laksa Penaeng) – basically, take a fish (usually a Mackarel), boil it until the bones are soft, smoosh fish (bones and all) up into a paste, add a souring agent (lime, calimansi, and/or tamarind pulp) and some curry paste (but no coconut milk). Add noodles, maybe some veggies, sometimes some tofu, and serve.

My first Laksa Lemak experience was at the Dickson Asian Noodle House, in the late 1990s. This family run restaurant is in a suburb in Canberra, Australia, not far from where I grew up. Spicy, rich, tasty, delicious, more-ish, pick an adjective, it was that and more. A hot flavoursome curry soup, rich coconut base, noodles, bits of chicken pork and duck, slightly crunchy choi sum, big triangles of fried tofu soaking up the curry sauce goodness. It changed me. I went back there many times, and still miss it.

To my shame, I only have one picture of a Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak available to me here in Singapore – the rest are on hard drives in storage back in Australia. This is a Duck Laksa at meal’s end:

 

The picture above does no justice to the spicy creaminess of the curry broth and the rich flavour of the slices of duck meat. I enjoyed many laksas at Dickson (mostly duck or vegetable with extra tofu) over the next ten plus years.

I’ve also had Laksa Lemak since in Singapore, Malaysia (West and East), Thailand, and the US. With apologies, I have to say that I am still looking for a better one than I had in Canberra – the richness of the coconut milk/cream and the intensity of flavour are not quite there. I’ll keep looking – but please, if you have a favourite, leave a comment and let me know.

As for Assam Laksa… I’ve enjoyed that in many places too – but the best I have had is the one in the Air Hitam Wet Market, Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the garlic and black bean crab (post to follow), it was the standout highlight of the weekend in Penang a month back. We asked our driver/guide Mr Choong to take us to the best Assam Laksa in Penang – he took us to Air Hitam, away from the tourist bustle of Georgetown and the coastal beach resort areas.  Note the price – MYR3.50 is about SGD1.30, and around AUD/USD1.

The laksa stand is on the edge of one of the busy vehicle traffic areas inside the wet market – and if you want to get a picture of the uncle spooning the rich fish curry into bowls of noodles, be careful (the drivers do not stop for tourists) :)

What is the taste? Sour, spicy, fishy, golden wonderful curry goodness. In it’s own distinct way, this is the Assam Laksa equivalent to the Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak.These two best in breed examples share an intensity of flavour, a kind of no holes barred intensity, a fantastic balance of flavour and chili heat – things that I really admire.

I’m not suggesting that you get on a plane to Penang tomorrow, but if you are in the region, it is absolutely worth a visit. I’ve got a post planned on my impressions of Penang as a food tourism destination, and will talk about it more then.

You can see the gleam of bright red chili oil in the shot above – also the chopped shallots and rich black mackerel curry. It may be a little salty for some, but this is the style of the thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I opted for larger noodles – they also sell it there with smaller noodles (I’m guessing rice vermacelli – hopefully I’ll get to find out next trip). This shot shows the noodles and some of the other ingredients that were hidden lower down in the bowl.

So… the quest for the perfect Laksa Lemak continues. And I will absolutely be going back to Penang for more of that Assam Laksa from Air Hitam. And I hope, in time, to find more regional variants to be cataloged and described (but above all, enjoyed).