A Midday Snack

Wandering around the roads of Penang’s Chinatown, we found ourselves pooped out by mid-afternoon. Contemplating a message, or anything indoors, really, we encountered shop after shop advertising blind massages (yes, blind!), one shadier than the next. Nix that thought.

I secretly wanted to escape our exploring just to find a hot bowl of Laksa, despite the near 100-degree heat. Keeping my eyes and nose peeled for a hawker stand, I casually suggested finding a bite to eat, despite the odd 4:30pm hour. Luckily, the two boys agreed. Hooray! Foodie adventurer: 1. Tired boys: 0.

After ducking down some sidestreets, mostly empty (we found out the streets of Penang become raucous and lively just after dusk, after the sun goes down and the heat begins to evaporate from the black tar roads), we came across a couple of carts on the street selling thin lo mein noodles, pork jerky sandwiches, and thick rice noodles. Just down the street, I was happy to see a bustling garage of a food court.

Barrett and I became distracted by the carts that lined the street, with Barrett getting a Malaysian flat jerkey sandwich and me a paper-wrapped packet filled with thin fried spicy noodles. As we were bantering with the noodle man, whose mind was absolutely blown that the DiploMan could speak Chinese, our friend Gordon ran up to us like a little kid who just saw the tooth fairy. “They have a huge slab of fried bacon over there!” He pointed back behind us towards the food court.

I didn’t believe it. Bacon doesn’t really exist in Asia- at least, not in the capacity that it does in the states. Pork belly, certainly, is HUGE around these parts. But the curing/smoking/slicing of it doesn’t really happen.

My skepticism was partially defeated (I wish I could say it was fully defeated). Yes, there was a huge slab of bacon-looking meat that looked fried, hanging on a hook at a vendor cart. But it wasn’t quite the same as bacon- not cured or smoked or nearly as salty. But I was unable to resist the temptations of fatty port, so we ordered a couple orders over rice and an order of charsiu (traditional Chinese red-braised pork) over rice.

The orders took less than five minutes to come out. I watched as the “chef” behind the stand unhooked our slabs of meat and coarsely chopped them over a flimsy plastic plate prepped with a mound of rice. I realized this was less of a kitchen operation than it was a deli. Slicing meats and laying them over carbs- that’s a sandwich!


Our orders of meat and rice, along with our takeout packet of noodles purchased from down the street, were gobbled up in a snap. Seriously, probably eaten quicker than it’s taken you to read through this blog entry. Paired with a bottle of beer, it was the perfect 4:30pm snack on a hot Penang day.

I’ll take this over a blind massage, anyday.

Rice is king: a rice monologue

I’ve been thinking about rice for awhile- and perhaps because it is such a big part of Asian cookery, it’s been a bit daunting to sit down and actually write about. Rice is a pretty big deal around these parts of the world, and though I knew it, it was hard to be convinced. But going to Bali changed my mind for good.

For a long time, I thought rice was bad.  I mean, evil-bad. It was something unneccessary used to fill your stomach, especially when you could have much better selections like meat and vegetables. In Chinese cuisine, rice is often served at the end of the meal, to act as a filler and a last-resort, in case your guests were not completely satisfied. Asking for a bowl of rice at the end of a fancy banquet is as spiteful as spitting in the host’s face.

Particularly having lived in Los Angeles for five years, rice was Atkins’ and my worst enemy. Obviously I think about rice, noodles, and bread differently now- now that I know rices has better and more realistic things to do than to make me gain 20 pounds.  However though I more frequently devour baguettes and pizza without caution, I still have some beef with rice (is there a pun there?  I can’t quite tell)- after all, rice is not only uselessly filling, but in the Western world it’s just so boring.

I’ve been reading more about rice lately, by way of books like these, and combined with my own rice-ventures, am starting to realize that it actually deserves more credit than I’ve given in the past.  Rice has sustained cultures and societies for ages, and it has provided for communities in the same way that coffee, tobacco, and corn crops have around the world. Passing through rice fields first in Yangshuo and finally in Bali, I was able to see the beauty of the plant like I had never before, and quite literally, a bigger picture. I was able to relate rice to a life form- to a cycle,to the earth, and just as realizing your meat comes from animals, this makes eating it a little bit different.

In Bali, many “traditional” Balinese foods involve rice.  Even those that don’t, come served with a side of rice.  It’s not only necessary, but a symbol of self-sustainability, of living off the land, and of a living food culture.  As I ate my tofu and tomatoes off a cheap plastic plate, with a side of “Balinese greens” and little mound of rice, I casually thought about these things and decided that rice wasn’t so bad after all.

We have an a-yi, or our “auntie” who cooks for us once a week.  A little while back, she came to me with a sac of rice tied in a plastic bag, boasting that she had purchased this special type of rice for us- the kind the she likes the best. It was more expensive at the market, but definitely worth it.  Living in a place where we select rice the same way I selected tomatoes on a warm summer day at the Union Square market, I am finally able to view rice at it’s rightful place in the food pyramid: at the top.

More street snacks in Yangshuo: The zongzi (粽子)

Not being from one region in particular, (a rarity in such a cuisine-specific country) the Zongzi is a tamale-like concoction that every Chinese person has eaten in his/her life.  As much as turkey is a part of Thanksgiving in the states, Zongzi are a huge part of the Chinese holiday Dragon Boat Festival, in early June.  Common lore tells varied stories, all involving a famous poet drowning himself (some stories are for love, some for political sacrifice), and the village people throwing packets of rice into the river to keep the fish from eating his body.  To celebrate the holiday, wrapping and eating these Zongzi’s are common tradition, and glutinous rice is stuffed into hearty bamboo leaves, and filled with either savory or sweet goods.  Nowadays Zongzi can be found at all times of year, everywhere from the streets, to supermarket freezers, to dim sum restaurants.

In Yangshuo we came across an elderly woman rolling a cart of Zongzi down the street.  I’ve had plenty of Zongzi of the homemade and supermarket and dimsum variety, but have yet to taste the smaller, always-steaming street variety. Mild in all senses- texture, flavor, temperature- it turned out to be a very satisfying midday snack.  I bet if I were hungry I’d surely wolf a few of these down.

Liu Gong- small town living

Where does an hour and a half down the Li River take us?  Nowhere, really.  But in the middle of nowhere is a small town called LiuGong (留公).

In our exploration of the small village, we came across as family restaurant on the top of a hill overlooking the river. Built on a cement slab with a stone roof that looked like a carpark, the aesthetic was pretty similar to the rest of the town.  A small group of Chinese tourists and a couple of Czech bikers were sitting around the fire pit in the middle of the concrete floor- so of course we were inclined to join.

As the river and cold had built up our appetites, we ordered a few plates of homestyle fried rice.  I’ve just finished reading Jen Lin-Liu’s Serve the People- a stir-fried journey through China, and there are a few passages that jumped out at me while reading.  One is a bit of advice which was passed down to the author: “there is a difference between best restaurants and favorite restaurants”.  In the states, I don’t think I had much of a distinction.  I though Franny’s, or Prime Meats, and ok Blue Hill too, were simultaneously my favorite and the best restaurants.  But things differ in China, where class distinctions are so apparent, and there is such a huge jump between new and old.  The best restaurant in town might not be my most favorite, and vice versa.

Something about this meal- eating on fold-out mini chairs on a concrete slab, among karsts rising out of the fog, with and international cast of characters snapping pictures left and right- I found to be so memorable and endearing.  One of my favorite meals in China so far- even if it wasn’t really a full “meal”.  I had ordered a tomato-beef fried rice, and each time my huge spoon hit the bottom of the shallow cheap plastic plates, I scooped another spoonful of beefy tomato-y rice into my mouth with glee.