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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala


June 3

I first met Joan Collar in internet space, where she mentioned her Portuguese background in a discussion about Malaysia. Curious as ever about the unique foods born of migration, I had contacted her with promises of fame if not fortune on my website. She told that if I ever made it to Malaysia, she'd treat me to the best food around. So, there I was, rescued from the chaos at the Puduraya bus station by Joan and her friend, Siew Jin.

They whisked me away to Chinatown, where we strolled along Jalan Petaling in what must be the world's narrowest night market. Stall after stall sold knock-offs of Chanel bags and pirated Mariah Carey CD's, and shoppers squeezed by shoulder to shoulder. Just when I was beginning to wonder how many souvenirs tourists actually buy, Joan and Siew Jin pointed me past the pyramids of rambutans and lychees and longans to a single cart at the end of the market. A boisterous crowd gathered around confirmed that this would be worth the trial by trinkets of the night market.

"Air Mata Kuching," translated literally, means "water longan," and a simple description would refer to the sweet, dried longans that color the refreshing drink an amber brown. But a myriad of secret ingredients has made the version at this little stall famous. A circle of people four deep waited not-so-patiently for their orders. Some carried away their drinks in plump plastic bags with straws tied strategically between rubber bands. We joined those scattered nearby, spooning our tasty pick-me-up from chilled metal bowls.

Siew Jin then navigated us to her favorite seafood restaurant, the end stall in a hawker center tucked between residential buildings near Jalan Imbi. She asked me to keep its name and exact location a secret, because she knows when the crowds come, the quality will drop. I didn't really think that a flood of tourists from the US would be making their way to the hawker, but a promise is a promise.

The owner, Seong, cooked at a seafood restaurant for 25 years before opening his own stall 4 years ago. His ease and skill showed clearly, the way a natural cook can dance in the kitchen. If you've ever watched a short-order cook flow from dish to dish without missing a beat, you'll understand how hypnotized I was by him. Cleaning crabs, flaming clams, frying shrimp--he made each dish with efficient, graceful movements and virtually no prep. He washed and cut everything to order in nearby cement sinks.

At one wok, Seong's wife prepared all the noodle and rice dishes. He cooked all the whole seafood, two orders at a time in large woks placed side-by-side. They both wore green rain boots, and their arms were as muscled and toned as biker's legs. Siew Jin ordered sweet and sour crabs, clams steamed in rice wine with garlic, prawns with pepper salt, fresh rice noodles with cockles, and wilted cos lettuce. Their food had that elusive "wok flavor" that is the hallmark of excellent cooking, so good that we left only a few stray noodles for them to clean up.


June 4

The next day, Joan introduced me to her godmother, who she proudly proclaimed the best Portuguese cook in town. Judging by the dishes Mrs. Iowe prepared on short notice, she deserves the title.

Joan shows off her godmother and all the Portuguese dishes that we’ll enjoy for lunch.

To help Joan's brother celebrate his birthday, her godmother planned to cook a special dinner of his favorite dishes. Although it was more than a week away, she had already started prepping ingredients for the star dish, black nut chicken curry. The black nuts were soaking in water to soften their pulp enough to scrape out.

After soaking for a day these blacknuts will be ready for scraping. One old recipe calls for filling the emptied shells with chicken, but most people now merely use the dark, slightly bitter pulp to thicken and flavor “curry” dishes.

Back in Singapore, Mr. Wee had told me the tedious soaking and scraping of black nut, called bua kuluak, prevented younger people from cooking some of the classic Nyonya dishes. He opened his freezer to show me stacks and stacks of plastic containers with already prepared black nut pulp. If he could just figure out a way to produce and sell this, he had noted, then perhaps he could make ayam bua kuluak, or black nut chicken, a popular dish again.

While Mrs. Iowe talked about life in her quiet corner of Kuala Lumpur, she spread a single layer of brown mustard seeds on a paper napkin. Rubbing the seeds with the back of a soup spoon, she removed every trace of their thin brown skin. She worked in batches and told me it would take the rest of the day to finish skinning all the seeds. The black nuts and mustard seeds were only two ingredients on a long, long list.

Joan told me that one of her family's most important recipes is curry capitan. Before I could even ask, she also informed me that it's a closely guarded secret. If I want the recipe, she said, I'd need to marry her brother, although he's already engaged. Only foodies will understand the split second of imagining myself married to him just for that recipe. But the next time I visit, they'll make it for me. Give her godmother ten day's notice, Joan warned, so the curry will be ready in time for me to taste.

For dessert, Mrs. Iowe brought out a plate of “jelly.” These desserts are popular throughout Malaysia and Singapore, where they appear in a rainbow of colors, often striped with layers of contrasting hues. Mrs. Iowe made this relatively subtle version with palm sugar, finishing it with a creamy layer of evaporated milk.

Fortunately, not all of Mrs. Iowe dishes take this long to prepare. She treated us to an impromptu lunch, Portuguese-style. When her godmother laid out the dishes, we all grinned at their bright red color. The chile alert proved accurate. Both the beef curry with eggplant and the prawn sambal burned our tongues. My favorite of the day was her sebak, a "Portuguese salad" of roast pork, cucumber, and fried tofu coated with a lime-tart dressing. The secret ingredient (this they did share with me) were raisins ground in with the garlic and chiles. Mung bean noodles with cabbage and black mushrooms offered a foil to all the spice.

I don't know if any Portuguese person still living on the other side of the world would recognize these dishes, for the early traders obviously incorporated many local ingredients and techniques into their cooking. It's clear, though, that Joan identifies herself, generations later, and her family's cooking as Portuguese.

Next stop: Penang, Malaysia >

June 2001