Category Archives: 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

Interview With a Penang Teksi Driver

We are big fans of the Penang Rapid Transit bus system. At 1.40 to 4.00 Ringgit per adult, depending on distance, it’s an economical alternative to taxis, known here as teksis. The main bus lines run in front of our apartment in Tanjung Bungah, taking us up to the northern villages and down to Georgetown, the island’s capital. The frequency is stated as every 5 minutes, but sometimes it takes longer. Today was one of those days. We were heading to the Chew Clan Jetty in Georgetown and the wait would put our arrival past sunset. So we hailed a teksi for the first time in Penang and negotiated a 30 Ringgit ($10) fare.

The driver, Mr. Rama, was very chatty. Like most cab drivers (at least the ones in New York City) he was also highly animated and opinionated.

Mr. Rama's Teksi. (I didn't want to include his picture to avoid creating issues for speaking his mind.)

Sandeep: So, is there any tension between the various racial groups in Penang?

Mr. Rama: No! Maybe before I born. But now there is big punishment for fighting between Indians and Chinese.

Sandeep: A different punishment than if two Chinese were fighting?

Mr. Rama: Yes. I don’t know what punishment, but different.

Sandeep: So what do the Indians do here?

Mr. Rama: You see, Malays are lazy. Indians were brought here to work in the plantations. But you see all these rich rich buildings? There all the Chinese live.

Sandeep: So the Chinese have all the money?

Mr. Rama: Yes. You see, the Chinese keep all their money. We Indians – one foot here one foot in India. Always sending money back. Chinese keep their money. Can’t send it back because communist. So they stay rich here. I am here three generations. My father tell me don’t connect with family in India. They take your money if you go there. If they come here they spend your money. So better have two feet here.

Sandeep: Does that mean your kids will stay here?

Mr. Rama: No. Kids go to Kuala Lumpur after college. Private jobs here all for Chinese and governement jobs all for Malays. Better for Indians to go to Kuala Lumpur.

Sandeep: Isn’t that racism?

Mr. Rama: No, no. Just connections.

Sandeep: Do you know why most Indians here are Tamilians?

Mr. Rama: Because in south India, people are poorer, so easier to bring them here. Also, closer to Penang. Where are you from?

Sandeep: Kerala.

Mr. Rama: Oh! Malayalee. You see, Malayalees are rich. They have different mentality. The believe in education and support each other. Most educated are Ceylonese Tamil. All doctor’s and lawyers. Then Malayalees. Then Chinese. Then Tamils. This is the high court. You carry drugs, they hang you.

Diya: How long have you driven the teksi?

Mr. Rama: Eight years.

Diya: What did you do before that?

Mr. Rama: Bartender.

Diya: Oh, wow. That must have been fun. What happened? Not enough money?

Mr. Rama: No. I drink too much. I can’t drink when I drive a teksi.

Mr. Rama was very kind letting us off. He got out of the teksi to snap this picture and then stopped the traffic on both sides of a busy street so that we could cross with the kids. I was initially annoyed at having to give up loyalty to Penang Rapit Transit, but Mr. Rama’s candidness and perspective of the various groups in Penang made the 30 Ringgit well worth it.


Filed under 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

Preschool Lessons Around the World

A neighbor from New York City asked us several questions in preparation for her family’s year off, one of which was what do to about pre-schooling her three year old twins. I think only New York parents would worry about this (we did) since our school system forces us to get competitive at birth.

We figured once we started the trip (and deferred the kids’ pre-school admissions for a year) that the family would get an educational experience far richer than anything learnt in a school. What has that meant so far?

The most obvious lessons have been with language, English and otherwise. We’ve already been through three countries and both kids have learnt basic greetings and words in each. Their favorite foreign word so far is ‘tuk tuk’. Learning foreign words means that we go through long explanations of why people speak differently around the world to say the same thing. Kayan knows words like ‘fireworks’ and ‘lantern’ because he saw them nearly every night in Chiang Mai. Ava knows ‘approximately’ because of all the currency conversions.

We’ve been exposed to a lot more nature than at home. Yesterday we got caught in a thunderstorm. In New York, we would have hailed cab and called it a day. In Penang we walked back home, which gave us plenty of time for a discussion of thunder and lightening. Ava still calls them “thunder stones” but there are some things I don’t have the heart to teach. Kayan now thinks thunder and lightening are Penang’s version of fireworks, and Ava thinks the covered paddle boats in the ocean here are tuk tuks, so all this education is not without some confusion, but we’re working on it. When we first got to Thailand, both kids thought a buffalo was a horse. Now Ava can name several flowers – her favorite is the frangipani. She also knows why it grows in Asia and not New York.

Socially, both kids have made huge developmental strides. Since they have to create friends everywhere we go, they’ve learnt to be more outgoing. They realize that they can have a lot of fun with kids who don’t speak the same language, such as making lanterns with Japanese and Thai kids. They’re also learning to be patient, since Sandeep and I spend quite a bit of time trying to figure things out.

The kids still have their sibling issues but, since we have limited toys, they are much better about playing together. More often than not they’re engaged in some sort of creative play, whether it’s making up songs, serving invisible pizza or creating sand houses.

Perhaps what we are most proud of is that they’re developing a more adventurous palate. Kayan will eat most anything, and Ava is finally moving beyond pizza and sushi. Since we are in Penang, we can’t end our post without some talk of food. We spent the evening at a Batu Ferrangi hawker market. This one is more touristy than our neighborhood Tanjung Jungah market, but still has that great Penang vibe. Every hawker market has a satay stand, serving by the stick or ‘set’, usually 10 or 12 sticks. They’re sweet on their own, but with some peanut sauce have the perfect balance between sweet, salty and spicy.


Filed under Malaysia, Travel With Kids

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

Thoughts on Flying with Toddlers

After having kids, I looked forward to business travel. I appreciate those trips all the more now after being on the road for five weeks with two toddlers. While working, I had the benefit of doing mostly day trips, so it wasn’t as if I was necessarily running away from the kids… However, just a few hours on a plane or train provided a much needed break from the insanity at home. I loved the anonymity of being a business traveler and it provided my only opportunity to have large blocks of time to myself.  I could relax with a book (more often People magazine) and sip coffee without worrying about it scalding a child.
While I find business travel relaxing, traveling with toddlers can be exhausting. Ava and Kayan have generally handled flights, from the 16 hour New York to Hong Kong travelathon to the one hour connecting flights from Chiang Mai to Penang, very well. There have been a few tantrums and lessons learnt, but I thought I would share some thoughts we have on making plane journeys more pleasurable for the entire family (and fellow passengers).
Board last. We confine the children to their seats for as short a time as possible. We decline the airline’s invitation for families with young children to board first. Instead, we watch everyone fight for the front of the line, which is entertaining in itself. Once final call is announced, we claim our seats, hopefully just in time for taxi. Ava’s legs are too short to reach the floor, so the carry-ons just go under the seat in front of her.
Fly while asleep. This is only practical sometimes, but we plan to be in the air an a couple of hours after the kids usually nap. This way, they are tired and pass out just as the flight is taking off. Red eyes for long hauls are great for little kids who have strong sleeping schedules. Ava and Kayan slept 13 of the 16 hour midnight flight from New York to Hong Kong.
Eat and fly. Our kids are cranky when they are tired or hungry. Well, sometimes they are cranky around the clock, but it’s worse when they are tired or hungry. We’ve found that having a meal or heavy snack at the airport provides something fun for them to do and fills their bellies for the flight. Eating on the flight is also great since the inflight meals have little dishes to sample. Sorry to my friends back home in the U.S., this doesn’t apply to you, but make the most of those peanut bags. The only time we give Ava and Kayan lolipops is on a plane during take off and landing. It helps avoid ear pressure and keeps them quiet for 15 minute blocks during take-off and landing.
Use the airport playground. We let the kids run around at the airport to burn off energy. Airports are an enormous playground of escalators, ramps, elevators, and observations towers. We make games around finding our gate number and racing down low traffic hallways.
Get excited.  Both kids help us pack when we move on to the next home. It gives them some closure but also gets them excited about reaching our destination and taking out their stuff. We tell them something about our new home that will make them happy. For Penang it was the fact that the pool in our apartment has a water slide. Ava couldn’t wait to arrive so she could see it.

Take little. We already have to lug our computers, camera, diapers, and my refrigerated medication, so we don’t have room for optional stuff. We carry one multi-colored pen and some paper to draw and do origami. Otherwise, we find entertainment in the inflight magazine, duty free catalog, windows and isles.
But don’t forget the stroller.  We debated this one, but in the end, the stroller comes in handy. If it is not carrying a kid, it holds our hand baggage. The stroller is great when we’re trying to balance waiting for last call and not missing our flight. The international departure terminal at Bangkok is huge and it would have taken us 1 hour at Kayan’s glacial pace to reach our Air Asia gate. We strapped him to the stroller and sped on our way. We have a low cost umbrella stroller, though. I think strollers go through some sort of pulverization mechanism in the cargo compartment, so it doesn’t seem prudent to carry around anything fancy.
It may not be as relaxing as a business trip, but traveling with kids has gotten easier as we’re figuring out a groove.


Filed under Malaysia, Thailand, Travel With Kids