A Spot of Teh?

Nasikandarpelita.jpgPreston says that I carry a teabag everywhere the way a teenage boy carries a condom. I disagree, as (I presume) teenage boys carry condoms with hope, and I don’t actually want to use the emergency teabag stowed in the change pocket of my wallet. Yes, there is such a thing as a tea emergency—the moment when only black Sri Lankan tea (with milk, one sugar) will make me happy. But I have had no such emergencies in Malaysia, as the tea here (teh tarik, as my preferred version of it is called) tastes like tea in a Sri Lankan home. (Teh tarik is “pulled tea,” according to one of our guidebooks. When I read what that meant, I realized that it’s what I know in Tamil as “athefining.” Pardon the poor transliteration.) Made with condensed milk and mixed by being poured from one vessel to another, it’s fantastically refreshing.

But before tea: food. And here Malaysia outdoes almost every other country I’ve visited. At the open-air food court nearest our hotel, Nasi Kandar Pelita, the cash registers feature a line-up of complimentary meal-enders: vitamin drops of various fruited flavors. The emptiest bin, however, is the one farthest to the left—antacids! The food is well worth the gastronomical price, and worth much more than its actual price. We visited Nasi Kandar Pelita three or four times. Most of the waiters there are Indian. One, upon spotting me, came over to offer a menu, and then promptly said, “You are from Ceylon?” Ismail, a Chennai native, went out of his way to find me every time I visited Nasi Kandar Pelita.

As Malaysia is an Islamic country, the food here is generally cooked without pork. Frying seems the strategy of choice, with boiling an occasional alternative. From talking to Ismail I discovered that it was possible to order with less ennai (oil). My favorite food is roti canai, a taste I acquired at Nyonya in New York, where it is regrettably only available as an appetizer. The roti dough is folded over and over before frying to make a bread with a flaky outside and stretchy inside. It’s generally served with chicken curry and dhal reminiscent of my mother’s. Malaysians eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can see why. With an egg added onto the bread, it’s even better.

In Singapore, open-air food courts are called hawker centres, but in Malaysia they don’t seem to share that name. In both places, they’re far more plentiful than restaurants; in Singapore, they have distinctly different restaurants under different managements. It’s like an American food court, but the food is consistently restaurant quality. At the Singaporean hawker centres—specifically, the one on Zion Road, across from the Citibank—we ate quay teow. Here it was made with slivers of fried pork. Dessert, selected by a Singaporean friend from my undergraduate days, were wonton-like spheres filled with sesame and crushed peanut. Served in bowls of soybean milk, with curds, they were surprising bursts of sweet flavor—good enough that on our return trip through Singapore, we will go out of our way to eat them again. (I think they were called eboling.) Singapore’s hawker centres are carefully regulated and inspected for hygienic practices. It’s probably safer to eat the food here than it is to eat in many regular restaurants around the world!

And certainly far more delicious. In Malaysia, the food offers even more surprising blends. You can get fresh fruit, fruit smoothies (durian/kiwi is a popular option, although one we didn’t try). At Nasi Kandar Pelita, I did have mango juice, which was pretty much a mango stuck in a blender, plus sugar. It was far and away the best I’ve ever had. At another place, Seetharam in Brickfields (Kuala Lumpur’s Little India), I saw puttu goreng on the menu. I know puttu as a Sri Lankan food. The steamed flour and coconut is sometimes eaten instead of rice. (It’s made from the same kinds of flour used to make idiappam.) In my mother’s house, puttu is generally made in a cylindrical steamer. Goreng refers to a Malaysian style; as far as I can discern, it means assorted foods and ingredients mixed together. Fried rice, therefore, is goreng. I ordered utthappam, and Preston had a dosa; our whole meal, which included several curries, came to $2USD.

Finally, in Kuala Lumpur we met a SepiaMutiny lurker and her husband at KLCC for coffee. We stopped into a Starbucks, where I got teh tarik again. Malaysian food is better, even when provided by The Man: when was the last time you saw a chicken onion roll at your local hangout?

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Starbucks.

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At Seetharam, where a two Americans ate for two dollars.

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At Nasi Kandar Pelita, eating roti canai and roti bom.

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Nasi Kandar Pelita.

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A Singapore Sling (you can get them in Malaysia too).

47 thoughts on “A Spot of Teh?

  1. vat an awesome write-up weewee. great insights :-) the oothappam looks really well made as do the tamizh style barottas. for some reason nasi goreng is really popular here and my understanding was goreng stood for ‘stir-fried’ – but i could be totally wrong.

  2. oh.. i see you have them named. what’s the diff between roti canai and roti bom. i enjoi food hence he excitement. pliss share some recipes for anything you found really good if you can.

  3. Preston says that I carry a teabag everywhere the way a teenage boy carries a condom. I disagree, as (I presume) teenage boys carry condoms with hope, and I don’t actually want to use the emergency teabag stowed in the change pocket of my wallet.

    Awesome, a fellow freak! My priorities are similarly misplaced. I carry tea-bags with me on all business travel and will be carrying these on future leisure travel (which always involves climbing).

  4. ohh, the memories. living in singapore in my formative years and then being unceremoniously dumped in Canada (and then the US), with no access to any kind of halfway decent Singaporean food. if any mutineers decide to head to singapore in the near future, go have the chilli crabs near the parkway, nasi lemak, hor fun, haninanese chicken rice, indian rojak, and any type of fruit you can lay your hands on. i’ll go ahead and dream. oh, if anyone has the name of a good restaurant in NYC, Gawd, let me know, plllleeeeaaassee!!

  5. Preston says that I carry a teabag everywhere the way a teenage boy carries a condom. I disagree, as (I presume) teenage boys carry condoms with hope, and I don’t actually want to use the emergency teabag stowed in the change pocket of my wallet.

    me, too! except that i need more than a change pocket for my stash (never know what sort of tea mood i shall be in).

    what exactly is this athefining? being tamil and a tea junkie, i must know!

    desiaynrand – it’s not typical malay food, but the chili crab at fatty crab has gotten quite good reviews. also, the crab with special sauce (mostly the sauce, really) at jai-ya is worth at least one trip…

  6. what exactly is this athefining? being tamil and a tea junkie, i must know!

    I assume she meant aathufying (the repeated transfer back and forth between two containers to cool the liquid). At least, that’s how I’ve heard it referred to, don’t know if other dialects say something different.

    Aathufying is a special treat to watch in the roadside stalls that sell ‘masala paal’, they can maintain multi feet vertical separation between tumbler and dawara, and still manage to hit the dawara spot on. It’s almost like they are drawing a string of liquid. Good stuff.

    Preston says that I carry a teabag everywhere the way a teenage boy carries a condom. I disagree, as (I presume) teenage boys carry condoms with hope, and I don’t actually want to use the emergency teabag stowed in the change pocket of my wallet.

    Another little boy, Dennis Kucinich, also carries a tea bag, but given the nature-girl/hippie tendencies of his wife (photo included purely for academic purposes), I am assuming they work the rhythm method.

  7. Aathufying is a special treat to watch in the roadside stalls that sell ‘masala paal’, they can maintain multi feet vertical separation between tumbler and dawara, and still manage to hit the dawara spot on. It’s almost like they are drawing a string of liquid. Good stuff.

    thought of this, but since vv made it seem like it affected the taste, i wasn’t sure. luckily none of you caught me perform this exact act at a south indian restaurant on lexington last week….

  8. ahhhh..the tea stall days.

    Nair tea stall Tea, oothappam with Thakkaali (tomato) chutney + parotta with muttai (egg) kurma, a dhum in hand, with some machaans, singing your fav song, sighting the figures in dhaavanis…ahh…good times!!! If you didn’t understand few words in this paragraph, please refer to Madras Tamil

    I wasn’t as stylish as V.V back then. This machini (female version of Machaan) seems to be enjoying tea at Starbucks, parotta in an indoor restaurant drinking Singpore sling and what not..hehe….

    V.V great post..bringing food and related memories…thanks a lot…!!!

    Anna, I didn’t know you loved Cartman too….swwweeett!!!

  9. i carry a tea-bag around too!! there are more of us, and here is me thinking it was just british arrogance. ;)

  10. Awesome pictures and writeup! Goreng means “fried” — “nasi goreng” is fried rice, “pisang goreng” is fried bananas, “ayam goreng” is fried chicken, etc. etc. I’ve actually never had puttu goreng!

    As to roti canai and all its variations: there are MANY. Roti canai, roti telur (with egg), roti bom (smaller and thicker — I think “bom” refers to the bursting technique used on the dough), roti bawang (with onion), roti tisu (super fine, crispy layers), roti Planta (with Planta-brand margarine and sugar), roti pisang (with banana), etc. etc. The varieties are endless; each time I go home I see more, and I have to ask friends who still live at home to update my list every so often, a request they don’t find odd, because Malaysians and Singaporeans are the most food-obsessed people I have ever come across.

    The most inventive variant I’ve come across is roti KLCC, a huge roti standing tall like the KL tower building, hence the name. But I’ve heard it takes 45 minutes to make.

    Anyhow, I’m so glad Malaysian food is getting so much international press these days. I’m biased, so I consider it the best in the world, but many non-Malaysians think so too.

  11. Lordy, You make me want to visit this place, V.V. I love nothing more than cheap tasty eats. Nasi Goreng from Trader Joe’s was a savior in my early grad years in California as it had some rice and some veggies – enough to keep the grad engine from shutting down. But I gradually started disliking the NG from TJ. Would like to eat the real thing. Is Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean food friendly to vegetarianism?

  12. Desiaynrand #7,

    Try Singapore cafe at 69 Mott street or Jaya (Malaysian food) at Baxter street just off Canal street, they are both extremely good and reasonably priced.

  13. Seetharam’s! I ate there once just before leaving a conference in KL…yum.

    One thing that struck me as I was going around town on my day off….there were no homeless people or beggars – at all – on the streets, and then I realized I wasn’t even seeing the ubiquitous Generic Asian Street Dog.

    I mentioned the absent homeless to Richard, the driver, a man of Tamil origin, several generations back, and he said “Oh, no, ma’am, they’re all in camps!”

    “Camps!?” I replied.

    “Oh yes, but they get several meals a day and have a roof over their heads.”

  14. As to roti canai and all its variations: there are MANY. Roti canai, roti telur (with egg), roti bom (smaller and thicker — I think “bom” refers to the bursting technique used on the dough), roti bawang (with onion), roti tisu (super fine, crispy layers), roti Planta (with Planta-brand margarine and sugar), roti pisang (with banana), etc. etc.

    The famous parotta/porotta/buratto/however-you-wanna-call-roti stalls in Tamilnadu and Kerala have similar flavors (List of all flavors)

    Roti canai – the simple plain parotta roti telur – muttai parotta roti tisu – paper parotta/veechu parotta (it has another intersting name I forgot..anyone?

    They also make with Chilli. The famous Kothu parotta is made by artistic chefs!! They play some varation of folk music, with their cooking utensils, as they chop and mix the parotta with egg and spices. The usually show this in kollywood movies when the hero is thrashing 10 guys. heh!

    CA folks, you can taste all those different flavors right here in Sunnyvale,CA: the famous Muniyaandi Vilas. Now, that’s authentic Indian food.

  15. Babu (#23): er, I don’t know what your taxi driver was smoking, but Malaysia doesn’t run luxury camps for its homeless people, no. %15 of Malaysia’s ethnic Indian population is effectively “homeless” — they live in squatter colonies, or in homes they don’t legally own (see Preston’s photo essay — he mentions two families whose homes were seized for development), or in makeshift hovels. On the outskirts of my hometown there was a whole mass of Indians living in limestone caves, and many of these people died one year when the caves collapsed.

    As for the dogs — in case your whacko cabbie told you they were in luxury resorts for canines — they get rounded up and shot regularly. Malaysia is a Muslim country and (unlike in some other Muslim countries) its Muslims consider dogs “haram” and are horrified by their public presence. So the rounding-up and destruction of stray dogs, or even of pet dogs who just happen to be outdoors without their owners, is done frequently and zealously. Recently the district of Selayang, just outside Kuala Lumpur, organised an anti-dog campaign involving the offering of cash rewards to private citizens who rounded up stray dogs and brought them in to be destroyed. I think public outrage nipped that campaign in the bud, but it should give you an idea of the official attitude towards dogs.

    Sorry if that’s a much longer answer than you wanted — I’m a Malaysian and an ardent dog-lover, so I feel very strongly about the issue!

  16. Sorry, all my comments about the stoned cabbie were directed to Filmiholic (#22), not Babu. I must be cross-eyed :-) .

  17. brownelf @ 26

    hehe..If I found a fellow Tamilian taxi driver in KL and he was smoking, you bet I’ll be smocking with him (no matter what he was smoking). I won’t be asking smartass questions about homeless people :D

  18. On a kinna related note:

    Preston says that I carry a teabag everywhere the way a teenage boy carries a condom. I disagree, as (I presume) teenage boys carry condoms with hope, and I don’t actually want to use the emergency teabag stowed in the change pocket of my wallet.

    If there is teabag involved, what do you need a condom for :) )

  19. 23 · Babu

    Kothu parotta is called Kottu Roti in Sri Lanka. Its a standard dish in Sri lankan restaurant menus in the US/Canada. (e.g. http://www.sigirinyc.com/menu.htm ) Has in addition to eggs, meat (beef/goat/chicken) or fish curry. I imagine its spicier than the Tamil Nadu/Kerala dish.

  20. 10 · ak said

    thought of this, but since vv made it seem like it affected the taste, i wasn’t sure. luckily none of you caught me perform this exact act at a south indian restaurant on lexington last week….

    My understanding is that it aerates the liquid, making it frothier and lighter than it would otherwise be. Yum. (I got that from the ‘No Reservations’ Singapore episode!)

  21. Hey all,

    Thanks for reading, and sorry for the delay in responding; I was traveling today. Rahul’s right, I meant aathufying. I appreciate the correction and clarification. I’d contend that it does change the taste to aathufy, but perhaps that’s just my reverence for ritual, which I think flavors the leaves… Nice to know that I am not the only tea junkie.

    I did have Hainanese chicken rice, actually on the bus from Singapore to Beijing. Even on the bus, it was delicious. It comes with a couple of kinds of sauces that complement the rice and chicken perfectly. (I think it’s also known as hokkein mein?) We also had great rojak at a place near Arab Street. It was good enough that we went out of our way for a repeat visit on our way back through Beijing. The place was called something like Fish-Head Curry House. (Fish head curry is also popular in the region, but neither one of us tried it.)

    Other foodie miscellany: going to Mustafa’s to purchase murukku for a plane trip… realizing that Mustafa’s grocery level is right above some of its jewelry sections… the hawker centre at Zion Road closing before we got to have our aballing (spelling corrected). Does anyone know where to get this item in the U.S.?

    We also enjoyed chicken sausages for breakfast at our hotel (a favorite in Sri Lanka, and now a favorite here). They also had beef macon (didn’t try it). I have the recipe for the Singapore Sling somewhere in my luggage… when I get home and unpack, I’ll post it.

    As for halal food, in Malaysia, practically everything seems to be halal. In Singapore, you probably have to be a bit more careful, but as the food is made fresh, you can ask to make sure. The hawker centres are kept up to very high standards of hygiene, cleanliness, and clear, plain advertising. Vegetarianism might be a bit harder, but there are some South Indian vegetarian hawker centres around Little Indias in both Malaysia and Singapore (although I did not eat at any of them).

    Kotthu roti is one of my faves too. You can get packages of chopped roti in Toronto; bring it home and flavor it yourself, with mustard seed, cumin, fennel seed, veggies, meat, what have you. My mother sometimes does it with soy meat, which is healthier than the traditional mutton. And when you make it yourself, obviously, there’s less oil…and you can make it as hot as you want. It was originally street food. While it can be good in restaurants, including at Sigiri, it’s weird to me to see it served in restaurant, when by all rights in should be on a cheap styrofoam plate and eaten with a plastic spork.

    Malaysian food may just be tied with Sri Lankan food as my preferred cuisine… My mother has a recipe for the roti for roti canai. When I get that, I’ll post it too.

    I do think Nyonya is Manhattan is quite good, even if it’s no Nasi Kandar Pelita…

    All the best to you! ;) (And hello, Janki!) Please, more updates on everyone’s recommendations for good eats…

    -V.V.

  22. VV,

    Thank you for your lovely post, just wanted to mention that Sigiri in Manhattan is my most favorite places for Sri Lankan food.

  23. 33 · V.V. Ganeshananthan said

    I’d contend that it does change the taste to aathufy

    Most definitely! It’s been scientifically proven by a joint task force comprised of physicists, chemists, and nuclear scientists from IIT Madras that the aathufying (lit. cooling) process infuses oxygen into the tea, coffee, or milk, thereby improving the taste.

    If you’re drinking coffee, however, please don’t attempt aathufying with anything except filter coffee – the results could be disastrous – in some cases causing permanent awful-coffee face.

  24. To clarify a couple of things:

    1) I think much of the Indian food in the region is halal, yes, and of course Malay food is always halal, but almost none of the Chinese food is. If you care about eating halal, I’d be very wary of eating anything that merely looks halal — almost all Chinese broths, for example, are made with pork bones, and even fried noodles are traditionally done with pork fat or bits of pork crackling. You can ask them to leave it out, but that doesn’t mean they will clean the pan and utensils for you, so if you’re strict about it, best to assume most Chinese dishes are not halal. But you can always ask and they’ll tell you — they’re used to answering that question.

    2) Sugi, so glad you tried the Hainanese Chicken Rice! The sauces are the best part, in my opinion, especially the chili-garlic sauce. It is an incredibly labour-intensive dish to make, though deceptively simple in appearance — it’s very hard to get the chicken just right. Also the rice, when it’s done properly, should basically be saturated with chicken fat, but perhaps I shouldn’t tell you that :-) . Many who have seen the recipe have chosen never to have it again, but I think it’s worth it once in a while.

    Oh, and Hokkien Mein/Mee, by the way, has nothing to do with chicken rice — it’s pan-fried thick yellow noodles, Hokkien style (with a thick black sauce).

  25. I’ve been to malaysia and sinapore.

    I’ve had fish head curry and chili crab there, and I agree malaysian it’s one of the best ethnic cuisine on the planet. Very underrated, as good as Thai

  26. Hey,

    Thanks for the clarification re: hokkein mee. Well, now I’ve just got to go back and eat more, don’t I?…

    Two places I didn’t try that I wish I had: Muthu’s, and the Banana Leaf Apollo.

    Regarding the Hainanese chicken rice…. I appreciate the explanation, but now I’m never going to think about what’s behind it ever again. Because… chicken fat. Ugh. :) With some exceptions, I generally don’t like food to look like the animal it once was.

    I agree that Sigiri is the best restaurant in Manhattan for Sri Lankan food. For more of my thoughts on food, check out:

    http://vasugi.com/blog/?cat=2

    Notes there on various places to get Sri Lankan food. PTR: Total agreement….

    As an aside, I am now in Beijing, and nearly had a tea emergency.

  27. VV, since you are in beijing, head to the Grand Hyatt’s restaurent (downstairs from the lobby – forget what the name is) and enjoy the peking duck. mouth-watering and done right! think you may have to order a few hours or a day in advance though….

  28. Back in the day (1995) before the govt housecleaned them away, there used to be an alley (well, rather broad road) where the Uigar community had their restaurants. Lagman, hand pulled wheat noodles, all sorts of kebabs that we each simply outstanding, none better tasting than the lamb of course.

    V.V. maybe ask around to see if one or two Uigar stalls are left anywhere. You won’t be sorry that you did.

  29. Dear V. V. Ganeshananthan: Were it not for your extremely convincing point at the career panel the other night, I would say that I want to be you. As I have been cured (by you!) of expressing that sentiment let me just say, instead, that I love your blog. I pay homage!

  30. This blog name sounded so familiar, I do not know why. Was it at any point of time a different blog on some platform like rediff.com?

    The destinations here are so familiar, because I have lived in both countries for extended periods of time, and am moving back t KL now.

    The only part of the post I don’t agree is about pork! Must say that pork is very much available in Malaysia, if you venture to the Chinese food places.

    The post mentions all sorts of Indian food, so I guess you are concentrating on only Indian and not Chinese food. Some of the Chinese food is awesome, and their “cha” has quite as much appeal as the “teh”:)

  31. Being from Singapore, I will always miss the food :) Thankfully, I live in the Bay Area, and they offer at least some decent S. E. Asian cuisine here. O those lovely food from our foodcourts around the city…ahhhh…