Category Archives: Food

Our Munnar Tea Plantation Getaway

We spent the last few days of 2011 staying in an old British tea estate in Munnar. Some of our adventures were just published on Huffington Post. I’ve been fascinated with Munnar ever since I saw it captured in the movie Before The Rains. Given the expectations I had built, I was worried that the real thing would dissapoint.

The trip was a gift from Sandeep’s brother, who generously hosted us for his own 30th birthday. Munnar is far removed from everything, and staying on a private plantation meant away from any modern conveniences. With time on our side, the kids were able to enjoy animated stories from their uncle, who works at Cartoon Network and came with plenty of supplies. A focus group was held on the spot.

The bungalow we stayed in was fully staffed and houseman, Silverraj, doubled as cook, guide, waiter and horse. Ava perched comfortably on his shoulder during a 3 hour trek one afternoon. As we strolled rolling hills of tea, I heard Silverraj wincing ever so quietly. Silverraj always has a bright smile on his face, so I turned around to see what was going on and found Ava diligently plucking his hair. I suppose she doesn’t find herself on top of a full head of hair very often.

We ambled across the only village within several kilometers and into the only tea shop in town. The tea maker was a colorful man in looks but somber in action. Any animation on his part was focused on churning out meter tea. The traditional cool tea in India is to employ a physics defying process of rapidly pouring the tea from a great height (approximately one meter) in one hand into the waiting tea cup in the other. Surprisingly, tea drops don’t splash about during the process.

There have been a few times on this trip where I have found myself mesmerized. Sometimes it is an experience – like seeing 12,600 monks recieving alms. Other times it is a moment that catches me off guard, like when I found Ava and Kayan asleep holding hands across a bed in Penang. In Munnar it was nature – open, rolling hills of green, lots of fresh air and the perfect afternoons for freshly brewed tea.


Filed under Food, India

We Found Our Christmas Spirit

What is the Christmas spirit? When we were in Thailand we thought we missed it because there wasn’t snow, carols or Christmas trees. In Malaysia, the consumerism over Christmas was almost off-putting.

Landing in tropical Goa hardly screamed Christmas.

But we are in the heart of Catholic India. Goa was a Portuguese colony for about 450 years until 1961, and it has a very strong Catholic influence.

For those that observe, each of us honors Christmas in our own ways. For some it’s observing traditions, for others it’s decorations, food, families and gifts. Christmas includes all of this for our family, but this year provided us with a ways to observe the holiday.

Tropical Christmas decorations are everywhere in Goa, and make up for lack of snow and mittens. Most houses are decked in holiday attire, with traditional Goan paper lanterns and stars.

Every village in Goa has it’s own church, some of which are several hundred years old. We attended Christmas mass in Konkani, the local language, at my ancestral church, built in 1590. My grandfather had the Portuguese last name Menezes, but changed my father’s name to Malarkar, meaning from the village of Malar. Here you can see the original church plaque for our village, Malar.

My religious observance was particularly moving as I reflected on the fact that several generations of my family had been born, married and laid to rest at this church.

For some, Christmas is centered around gifts.  The greatest gift we got was seeing Ava and Kayan with their great-grandmothers for the first time.

Christmas usually isn’t complete without food. For us, nothing is complete without food.

And in homage to our Portuguese heritage, Christmas this year was also about port.

Most of all, Christmas was about family – the generations that have passed and the ones that will carry on their own Christmas spirit for generations to come.

From beachy Goa, we wish you a Merry Christmas and hope that you found your own special mix of Christmas spirit.


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Filed under Food, India, Religion

Taking Our Pause in Penang

Despite being a bustling place, Penang still retained the laid back island feel that caused us to slow down more than we did in Hong Kong and even Chiang Mai. We didn’t feel the need to see or do a lot. Fortunately, our apartment rental was gorgeous and self sufficient with a beach, pool, tennis courts and a large playground.  So, aside from a few excursions into George Town, we just hung out around the apartment and ate in the neighborhood.

Our very short to-do list in Penang gave us a lot of time to spend together as a family.

We took time to lounge.

We took time to talk.

We took time to get in shape.

We took time to play.

And of course, we took time to eat.

We said our goodbyes to Penang this afternoon and are now in Kuala Lumpur. The energy of the city already feels overwhelming after our island escape. We don’t yet have an agenda here, but can already feel the pull to see and do more. Despite this, I hope that we still find time to lounge, talk, stay in shape and play. Oh, and eat!


Filed under Food, Health, Malaysia, Travel With Kids

Hawkers a la mode in Penang

Apart from a couple of trips to George Town, we’ve been spending most of our time eating at local food hawkers. Hawker centers are a culinary Disney Land offering Chinese, Malay, Indian, ‘Western’ dishes, desserts, fresh juices and coffees and teas. The closest we have in New York City are street fares and Smorgasburg. New York Department of Health regulations, however, limit the breadth, and possibly creativity, of the offerings. The hawker centers in Penang are overseen by local authorities, but standards are definitely more lax than in New York. That said, even as Kayan licks tables that dozens have eaten off that night alone, no one in the Luke family has gotten sick.

I must be an annoying customer for hawkers. They have an efficient process of churning out their signature dish within the confines of a tiny space, often amidst multiple fires and boiling pots. There I am with my clunky camera, peering over the steam and barraging them with non-stop questions. “What is that ingredient?” “Can I come closer?” “Huh? What does that mean?”

Yet what I’ve found is that hawkers are excited to share their skills. Many hawkers have had their establishments passed on from prior generations, but don’t expect their more educated children to assume the trade.  They seem honored that someone is interested in how they prepare their dishes.

Hawker proliferation is so high that in addition to the established hawker fare, some more intrepid hawkers make twists on traditional dishes to lure customers. We met one such hawker last night who makes a spin of roti canai (flaky wheat bread) by wrapping it around a masala omelet.

Another hawker is taking fries to new heights, unraveling a single potato into one long spiral, served fried and sprinkled with a sour salty chilli powder.

Traditional satays are served everywhere, but heat-your-own-skewer and choose-your-own-sauce are the draw for this friendly hawker in George Town.

The closest relationship we have formed is with Tony, the dessert hawker at our local Mutiera Selera hawker court in Tanjung Bungah. Tony specializes in two Penang desserts, Ais Kacang and Cendol. Every hawker has their own versions of these desserts, but a mound of shaved ice is always the base. Ais Kacang is served with a variety of fruits, flavored jellies and syrups. Ice cream is an optional topping, although Ava considers it a must and Kayan happily agrees.

Cendol has a base of sweet red beans, Tony tops it with a palm syrup and sweetened coconut milk with green bean glass jelly noodles. Ice cream is generally not added, but Ava insists and Tony obliges.

Tony sees us coming and gets things ready. He knows I’m about to start furiously snapping pictures and the kids will be jumping up and down waiting for the ice cream scoop.

We order cendol. First step is a layer of sweetened red beans.

Tony then expertly hand grinds the ice into the bowl.

He swirls the palm syrup on top.

And ladles a scoop of the coconut milk and green jelly noodles.

At this point Ava says “Where’s the ice cream?” and Tony beautifully finishes off the dish with a scoop of vanilla. With the sweet toothless of the red beans, cool ice, firm jelly and smooth coconut milk, the ice cream is definitely superfluous. But oh so good!

A complete Cendol recipe can be found here.

Although hawkers throughout Penang have been very obliging of my curiosity, I suggest visiting hawkers away from the tourist centers of George Town and Batu Ferrangi if you want to spend time with them. Things a quieter (relatively speaking) and just one repeat trip to our local hawker center was enough to make us feel like locals. This makes the food all the more enjoyable when we finally dig in.


Filed under Food, Malaysia

Singing For Our Supper at Chew Clan Jetty Penang

We spent serious money in New York sending Ava and Kayan to creative classes, such as music and art. Prior to the trip, Ava was in preschool at the oldest community music school in the U.S.  We thought all of this would give her some appreciation for the arts, but she often seemed bored or distracted. Perhaps this is usual toddler behavior, but nonetheless, we were pretty surprised when an evening outing in Penang had her singing for a group of strangers and earned us some beer and treats.

In just a week, we’ve seen so many faces of Penang. From vibrant hawker markets to quiet beaches, and a patchwork of preserved monuments echoing European, Chinese, Indian and Arabian histories. It is this patchwork that earns George Town, the island’s capital, UNESCO World Heritage Site status. One such slice of history is the Chew Clan Jetty. In the mid nineteenth century, several clans from Chinese provinces established stilted houses on jetties, each of which was named after its clan. The original immigrants of the Chew Clan were from the Fujian province of China. Today, the jetty’s 75 residences still have families that are related to each other. The jetty retains much of it’s original structure, even as modern George Town grows around. This is likely why we saw a few donation boxes to raise funds to improving the foundation.

Little boats anchored along the jetty serve to shuttle goods between larger boats in the harbor.

I am very conscious of voyeuristic tourism and as we entered the jetty I felt as if we were encroching on private property. The houses are built facing each other with a planked wooden walkway no more than a couple of meters wide between.

Despite my hesitancy, every resident had a jubilant ‘Hello!’ for us. Happiness here seems to be spread all around.

Like most Penang establishments, and despite the strong Chinese heritage of the jetty, the convenience store proudly caters to call ethnic backgrounds.

A group of three elderly men drinking Tiger beer outside a house erupted in cheers of “Merry Christmas!” when they saw us. Ava was most excited about this, as she sings jingle bells all year long and finally had an audience. Ava has shed any shyness she used to have before we started this trip. So she grabbed Kayan’s hand and belted out her full rendition of jingle bells, with a loud and proud “HEY!” at the end of the chorus.

This, of course, put the three men in an even merrier state. One invited us to join for beer, while another rushed into the store across the jetty to buy the kids some treats.

While I am sure the residents of the jetty are welcoming people, the kids were the catalyst for enabling us to have a conversation and be invited into their homes.

Stepping into the jetty off the streets of George Town is like stepping even further back in history. The pace of life is quieter and slower, and guests who offer entertainment are welcome for a drink. As we left the jetty, we realized we weren’t the only ones singing for our supper in George Town that night.


Filed under Food, Malaysia

Penang Hawker Food Night

I thought about taking a cooking class in Penang, but was told the better experience and value was to observe the food hawkers that canvas the city after dark. We had the char koay teow, a Penang fried flat noodle specialty, and fried rice at the stall outside the Chew Jetty entrance at Armenian Street.

Despite the commotion around the stall, the hawker was kind enough to walk me through the fried rice. She completes each order within a span of a minute.It’s a simple recipe once the ingredients are ready, and the shrimp and pork can be substituted with other ingredients (mushroom, tofu, veggies) to conform it to various restrictions.

In a hot work she added about 2 tablespoons oil and a handful of shrimp. After a few seconds she tossed in some diced garlic.

She then tossed in a bowl of white rice. She says the trick is to keep the rice chilled so that it doesn't get soggy.

She added in a small ladle of oyster sauce.

An another ladle of what she called chili. Looked and tasted like Sriracha, but not as spicy. She also tossed in a handful of tiny bits of chopped pork.

Last, she broke a fresh egg and folded in the rice mixture.

The presentation is simple and elegant on a banana leaf.

As usual, our night in Penang didn’t stop at just a few dishes. We went on to have a variety of satays from this select-your-own satay and sauce stand.

And then we walked to Little India for Indian mithai.

Finally we called it quits after a roti stall.

Stuffed in Penang as usual.


Filed under Food, Malaysia

Eating the Extra Mile in Penang

We’ve established that we are in Penang to eat as much as we can of as many different foods as possible. To convey what exactly that means, let’s walk through our dinner tonight at Fisherman Village Seafood Restaurant, located on the beach of the Teluk Bahang neighborhood. We went there to check out the Teluk Bahang Fisherman Village and see how fresh we could get our seafood.

I asked the kids and Ya how many fish they wanted for dinner.

As usual, we ordered enough for two families.

First we started with fruit drinks, lemonade and plum juice. So Refreshing.

The meal started with black pepper fried squid. Yummy gooey tamarind and pepper coating a crisp batter.

Then came the starches, some Fisherman Village Fried Rice Special. I thought it was just ok, bland, but suitable for the kids.

And noodles in a soya gravy, which was too salty for my taste, but again good for the kids.

We needed veggies, so went with kailan, Penang's staple. This one was simply tossed with salted fish and retained its snap.

The star of the meal was 800 grams of garlicky fried red snapper. It was crunchy and fresh, and definitely worth the extra 40 Ringgit.

We completed the feast with fried ice cream. This was the first of two. Crisp salty crust covered sweet vanilla cold goodness.

The meal came to 91.80 Ringgit for three adults and two kids. The seafood was fresh, including the little bits mixed into the fried rice. If we go back, we’d stick to the seafood and veggie dishes so that the mediocre starches don’t take up uncessasary space in our bellies.

The fried ice cream may be shaped like a heart, but we know all this eating can’t be good for ours. The kids are getting plenty of excercise at the pool and playground, but Sandeep and I needed to take action. We started a daily ritual of running while the kids nap. Across our apartment in Tanjung Bungah is Pearl Hill, a neighborhood dotted with McMansions, forrest and monkeys in the forrest. A loop up and around the hill is three miles, but the climb itself is enough to get my heart leaping out of my chest. Sandeep hops up without any effort, which is why he can take a picture like this.

The views along the way are worth the gasps for air.

And we daydream about buying a place in the neighborhood.

I’m still trying to capture a picture of the monkeys we hear in the trees. They taunt us with their calls but no monkey sighting yet.

Penang has engulfed us in a virtuous cycle of eating too much, trying to run it off, getting lost in the scenary, feeling famished from the run, and eating too much again. We love getting caught.


Filed under Food, Health, Malaysia

Dare to Durian

The durian fruit – one either loves it or hates it. I didn’t know which camp we fell into so decided to find out.

Durians are a point of pride in Penang. There are more than 50 varieties of the fruit on the island. Connoisseurs liken durian to wine. The age of the tree, the source, the variety, how soon consumption follows falling – they all make a difference to the final product.

A durian stall annouces itself before it’s seen due to its sharp aroma. Sharp is putting it nicely, as I had a gag reflex the first time I got a whiff, thinking I was passing a compost pile. Many buildings in Thailand the Malaysia, where the fruit is revered, don’t even allow it.

Things did’t get too much more inviting when I finally saw the durian. The outside shell is a warning of spikes.

I decided to brave the smell and shell, and purchase a fruit. This gentlemen, like most durian sellers, commits himself only to this fruit. The fruit stall a few feet away offers a choice of tropical fruits but no durian. At this point I’m thinking the reason is that the smell alone is enough to contaminate the mangos, mangosteens, and rambutans.

I’m still trying not to be judgmental and admire the skill with which the seller plies open the spiky shell and pops orange segments of fruit out of their white protective coating.

Thank goodness I was spared doing that myself. A plate of durians looks almost as unappetizing as it smells.

Back at our place, we left the package on the terrace. If they’re not allowed in Malaysian restaurants and hotels, I didn’t see the need to invite them into our apartment. Apparently, the longer you wait after the fruit falls, the stinkier things get. Could things really get any stinkier?

We went it. The only plus side, to me, was that it tasted somewhat like mango, except a mango that is about a month overripe, and possibly mixed with some decaying matter. It is slimy in a way I would imagine moss to feel going down my throat. At first Ava flat out refused to try it. “NO! Yucky smell” But not wanting to miss out on the commotion, she went in for a bite. Here are some befores and afters. Despite Kayan’s trepidation over the smell, both he and Sandeep were in the love it camp.

After the durian tasting, we bagged the leftovers (I’m suspicious about Kayan and Sandeep’s fondness given the amount of leftovers) in three plastic bags and tossed them in the garbage. Two hours later, things got stinkier. The smell wafted out of the bags, through the closed garbage can and out of the kitchen cabinet. Even Sandeep agreed it was time to take desperate measures. We tied the package in a fourth bag and wandered the streets of Penang at midnight until we found a garbage bin.

The durian is so esteemed in Penang that there are fares around the fruit, contests for best in class, and banquets featuring the fruit cooked in every imaginable form. Jimmy Choo, designer and Penangite, claims “Dangerously difficult to open, with its impossibly pungent taste, the durian is nature’s bizarre gift to our region and we love it.”

We’re all glad we gave the fruit a valiant effort. We want to get out of our comfort zones on our travels, and the durian certainly helped achieve that mission.


Filed under Food, Malaysia

Eating Our Way Through Penang

We came to Penang to eat. There is no more profound reason that we chose to spend 10 days here other than to eat as much as we can of as many dishes as possible.

Penang’s colonial history and geography have made it a fabric of cultures from all over Asia and Europe. In addition to the Malays, the Chinese and Indians make up the majority of the population. Each of those cultures have fabulous food in their own right, but the fusion of their co-existence for centuries in Penang makes for some very special meals.

We can see the floating mosque, Masjid Terapung, from our new home and decided to take a walk there and pick up dinner along the way. The floating mosque was built after the 2004 tsunami destroyed a nearby mosque and village, and the residents of our neighborhood, Tanjung Bungah are very proud of its existance.

We came across Kafe Tsunami Village. The restaurant was packed with people focused on picking through fish bones and dining family style. Right on the water, with a view of the lighted mosque, it seemed too good to pass up.

The kids immediately took to playing in the sand and making friends. Our only worry was whether any of the 20 or so cats lingering outside the kitchen were rabid. I was verbally wondering why there would be so many cats when Sandeep (not the animal lover) disgustingly replied “cat’s like fish bones.”

We thought the fruit drinks in Chiang Mai were fresh, but Penang takes liquid fruit to another level. The green apple juice is frothy perfection, watermelon juice tastes like a summer picnic and the lemon water strikes the perfect balance between sweet and tart. Ava decided she couldn’t choose.

We had no idea what the menu said, even though it was in English, so we took our server’s suggestions and the food was fabulous.

These little guys were fried to a crisp and we consumed them skeleton and all. I’m usually squeamish about whole fish, but these were just too good.

The fried shrimp came in a crispy batter, which was delicious topped over the crab fried rice.

Most of the prices on the menu simply said ‘market’ and we weren’t sure how much we’d have to cough up. The bill came to 69 Ringgit, or 23 US Dollars. It’s a shock compared to Chiang Mai, but oh so worth it.

The weather report for the our 10 days here says 60% chance of precipitation. We couldn’t figure out why since our first day had been perfectly sunny and dry. On our 20 minute walk back home we were introduced to the tropical night storm. Rain drops as fat as the lemons in my juice accompanied us all the way home. The bright side is that the kids needed a shower after their sand exploration, so we were able to multi-task on the way. Kayan even decided to hydrate himself. Here are the soaking kids in the elevator home.

Over the next several days, we’ll be sampling Penang’s hawkers, or street foods. I’ve been told that the best cooking classes in Penang are the ones observed over a Hawker stall. Stay tuned.


Filed under Animals, Food, Malaysia

Learning to Cook Thai Food

Our family has a symbiotic relationship when it comes to food. I love to cook everyone loves to eat. So when I asked Sandeep to take care of the kids for a day while I learnt to cook Thai food, he happily obliged.

Choosing a cooking school in Chiang Mai is an event in itself. It seems as though everyone knows someone who runs one. Even Google yields 1,040,000 results for “cooking school Chiang Mai”. The food everywhere has been great, so I figured quality would be a given at any school. The variables came down to menu, instructor and location.

Almost every school had a five course menu of salad, soup, stir fry, curry, and dessert. I ruled out any schools that required the class to agree on parts of the menu as I had predetermined exactly which Thai dishes I wanted to perfect. Tripadvisor came in handy for reviews on instructors. In the end, I chose Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School because it offered a full day course on a farm. I also liked that the owner, Gayray, has a mission that “We would like to show every one in the world that Thai woman can run the business without a rich boyfriend.”

She runs a great business.

Our instructor, Maam, took us to a local market to explain the ingredients of the day. This was the most helpful part of the course as I have always been intimidated by Thai herbs. Galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime, holy versus sweet versus hairy versus hot basil – all these were my barrier to cooking Thai food. We also learnt that rice prices in Thailand depend on species, origination and vintage. Sort of like wine. Some species, like jasmine, are preferred. Older rice commands a premium. Certain provinces are known for better crops in certain years.

Ingredients in hand, we drove to the farm in Mae Jo, about 20 minutes outside Chiang Mai. The farm would have been a great outing on its own, complete with hammocks, rocking chairs and an open view of the mountains.

Up close and personal, I sniffed and prodded each of the various roots and plants.

Maam is a drill sergeant who shouts her commands in an efficient manner. “NOW CHOP!” “STIR!” “FIRE OFF!” “KNIVES DOWN!” By the end of the class we were answering back with “Yes, Ma’am!” She blames her mannerism on being raised by an army father, but she has a great sense of humor and patience. This is her explaining the intricacies of a coconut.

Here are a few things I learnt from Maam.

Cooking Thai food, even the curries, is a quick matter. What takes time is the prep work, including all the chopping. Here are our mise en place for the curries and soups.

The reason prep work takes a while is that the ingredients are all fresh. Most Thai cooks make a daily visit to the market for produce and those that have a garden will use what’s grown at home. Even curry pastes are made fresh for the meal at hand rather than in bulk or bought. I learnt from our Tesco grocery run that processed products are much more expensive than fresh ones in Thailand, and are generally reserved for more Western foods such as cookies and drinks. While the West is obsessed with all things organic, Tesco is charging a premium for equivalent packaged goods. I’m assuming that the relative price of labor and farmland to industry must be low, thus making a fresh squeezed orange juice at the street corner a third of the price of a bottle from Tesco.

The school farm was so well stocked, it even had an oyster mushroom barn.

Most Thai dishes are a balance between sour, sweet, salty and spicy and the exact balance is up to the cook. That is why no two Pad Thais in Thailand taste the same. My most exciting revelation is that it is possible to make three distinct curries from red curry paste.

Below is today’s recipe for red curry paste. Just beware, as Maam says, that cooking is partly imagination, so this is somewhat approximate.


1 shallot quartered
4 pods garlic smashed
thin cross slice of galangal root
1/2 inch peel of kafir lime
3 inch chopped lemon grass
1 inch chopped ginseng
4 dried red chilies, soacked and chopped

Pound all the ingredients except the chilies with a mortar and pestal. When the mixture is pasty, add the chilis and continue pounding until incorporated.

To make red curry, add the paste to about 2 tablespoons of boiling coconut milk and cook for one minute. Add chicken (or tofu) cook until done, then add about a cup of coconut milk until it boils. Add 2 tsp fish sauce and 1 tsp palm sugar (or maple syrup). Add some holy basil leaves. Heat and done.

To make penang curry, do the exact same thing as for red curry, except add in 1tsp of ground peanuts (or peanut butter) to the paste before cooking.

To make khao soi, a traditional Chiang Mai noodle soup, do the exact samething as for red curry, except add 1tsp of curry powder to the paste before cooking.

In addition to chicken, both red curry and penang curry traditionally include eggplants, but you can can add whatever veggies are handy. Both those curries are served with rice. Khao soi is served on egg noodles and topped with fried noodles and chives.

Between Maam’s instruction and my ability to experience the ingredients from their origination to my belly, I’ve overcome any fear I had about running a Thai kitchen. Those at home, you can hold me to a Thai dinner when we get back.


Filed under Food, Thailand