If Malaysia has a national dish, it’s almost certainly nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut cream and served with sides of tiny deep-fried fish, peanuts, slices of cucumber, a boiled egg and a dollop of sambal belacan, a type of chili paste.
It’s available everywhere, typically unceremoniously bundled in sheets of brown wax paper or banana leaves, and stacked on top of a table. It’s always inexpensive and always satisfying — spicy, savoury, crunchy and a bit salty. It’s the kind of dish you begin take for granted or even overlook if you spend enough time in Malaysia, until, that is, you encounter a version that reminds of you of exactly what it’s meant be.
The nasi lemak that did it for me was recommended by author and Penang native, Ong Jin Teong. Teong described this version (pictured above), sold from a shophouse cafe near Penang’s Pulau Tikus market, as Penang style, and explained that it differs in a few subtle ways. Firstly, the sambal belacan here is left raw (elsewhere it’s often fried in oil) and is served with a squeeze of calamansi (the result is a lot like the Thai nam phrik kapi). And instead of a hard-boiled boiled egg or tiny fried fish, the rice is accompanied by fish rubbed with salt and turmeric before being deep-fried, or prawns marinated in tamarind then fried. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this version of nasi lemak is, paradoxically, its most basic element. As Teong mentioned to me, “This is the only place where the nasi lemak is lemak.” “Lemak” literally means “oily” in Malay (“nasi” means “rice”), but it’s rare that the dish has much of this texture or flavour. Yet the rice here was overtly rich, featuring a lot of the decadent fattiness and a little of the slightly sour fragrance that comes from using coconut cream.
For me, eating this version was almost like tasting the dish for the first time, and I have to admit: it’s been hard going back to those paper packets.
Jin Hoe Cafe
Jalan Cantonment, Pulau Tikus, Penang, Malaysia
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My lunch was better than yours: bacalhau com grão de bico, salt cod with chick peas and vinaigrette.
Essentially my effort to reproduce this dish:
encountered last year at a restaurant in Porto, Portugal.
If you’re also inclined to make it at home, here’s how Portuguese chef and sexual icon, Sergio Coelho, makes a tomatoey version of the dish:
Forget street food; Bangkok is 7-Eleven country. Within a 200m radius of my apartment, there are six branches of the minimart:
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In my case, this could be because 7-Eleven’s HQ is nearby, or maybe it’s somehow rooted in the fact that Thailand’s very first 7-Eleven was installed on Thanon Patpong, also in the same ‘hood. But actually there are 7-Elevens all over this city — nearly 3,000 of them. Here’s something I wrote about this phenomenon for Lonely Planet Bangkok:
Be extremely wary of any appointment that involves the words ‘meet me at 7-Eleven’. In Bangkok alone, there are 2700 branches of 7-Eleven (there will inevitably be several more by the time this has gone to print) – nearly a third the number found in North America. In central Bangkok, 7-Elevens are so ubiquitous that it’s not uncommon to see two branches staring at each other from across the street.
The first sewen (as it’s known in Thai) in Thailand was installed at Patpong in Bangkok in 1991. The brand caught on almost immediately and today Thailand ranks behind only Japan and Taiwan in the total number of branches in Asia. The stores are either owned directly by the company or are franchises, owned and managed by private individuals.
Although the company claims its stores carry more than 2000 items, the fresh flavours of Thai cuisine are not reflected in the wares of a typical Bangkok 7-Eleven, whose food selections are even junkier than those of its counterpart in the West. Like all shops in Thailand, alcohol is only available from 11am to 2pm and 5pm to midnight, and branches of 7-Eleven located near hospitals, temples and schools do not sell alcohol or cigarettes at all (but do continue to sell unhealthy snack food).
7-Eleven stores carry a wide selection of drinks, a godsend in sweltering Bangkok. You can conveniently pay most of your bills at the Service Counter, and all manner of phonecards, prophylactics and ‘literature’ (although very few English-language newspapers) are also available. And sometimes the blast of air-conditioning alone is enough reason to stop by. But our single favourite item must be the dirt-cheap chilled scented towels for wiping away the accumulated grime and sweat before your next appointment.
If you spend enough time eating in Bangkok, particularly at old-school-type restaurants, you’ll undoubtedly begin to notice an abundance of faded and often framed restaurant reviews, written in English, by a certain Ung-Aang Thalay. The name — it translates as “Sea Toad” — may seem familiar even if you’ve never visited the city, as Ung-Aang Thalay has featured in Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must’ve Been Something I Ate, as well as in this now-classic 2005 New York Times article about eating in Bangkok by R.W. Apple Jr.
Ung-Aang Thalay — who has another name that his parents gave him — was born in the US, but has lived in Bangkok since 1968. He began writing restaurant reviews for the Bangkok Post in the days long, long before blogs, listings magazines and online restaurant guides, and is the guy responsible for having put now-institutions such as Soi Polo Fried Chicken, Chote Chitr and Jay Fai on the map. I’ve known Ung-Aang Thalay for a few years now, and his passion for Thai food is clear, if not by anything else, than via his rhetoric; who else uses phrases like “I was slobbering like a Mastiff” or “It was so good we were flopping on the floor like trout” when describing his reaction to a bowl of noodles?
Yet despite the love, Ung-Aang Thalay can also be disarmingly skeptical about the current state of Thai food. Like those of his friend, another Bangkok Post writer, Suthon Sukhphisit, Ung-Aang Thalay’s sensibilities for Thai food can often seem to be locked into the Bangkok of the past — a hopelessly conservative viewpoint for some, but a perspective that I sympathise with, and one that offers a window into a culinary world that is quickly disappearing.
That’s why I was surprised when, after a hiatus of several years, Ung-Aang Thalay recently revealed that he was reinstating his food column. So, if, like me, you’re partial to the flavours of Bangkok’s past, buy or log onto the Bangkok Post on Fridays; Ung-Aang Thalay’s recent columns have revealed a delicious-sounding Chinese-Thai eatery, a visit-worthy noodle restaurant and a central Thai restaurant in Bangkok’s suburbs. His upcoming review, a dish of which is illustrated above, was consumed with me at a central Thai-style restaurant in Bangkok’s northern suburbs. It was delicious, and frankly, I’d like to write about it, but I’ll leave that to the expert.
I recently passed through Phnom Penh — my first visit to the city in about three years — and have to admit that I hardly recognised the place. The town’s never-ending construction finally appears finished, and with a slick new waterfront promenade, a handful of glassy high-rise buildings and the new and the seemingly North Korean-influenced Council of Ministers building, the city is looking more modern than ever. Perhaps it’s inevitable then that I noticed a dearth of the type of old-school shop signs that used to be everywhere in the city. Computer technology and printing are ubiquitous and cheap now, and in the cities at least, signs and adverts are no longer painted by hand. Fortunately today, while organising my photos, I came across a folder of images such signs, taken on a previous trip in 2007. Another gallery of Cambodian signs can be seen at Phnomenon.