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A stockpot of asam laksa at Jo Hooi Cafe.

A stockpot of asam laksa at Jooi Hooi Cafe.

Soup connects the world. And here’s the recipe. Good anywhere on the planet.

Combine water with nature’s vegetables, or use a stock from chicken, pork, fish, seaweed, or beef, add the spices and herbs of a specific culture, stir, bubble and boil until you cannot stop tasting the broth. Add any number of garnishing ingredients, from croutons in France to bean sprouts in Asia or chicharrones in Mexico, grab a spoon and eat, then live your life, fortified for anything that comes your way.

If there is a Soup Paradise here on Planet Earth, Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia might just be the place. At least for me I found Soup Heaven here!

A multi-lingual street sign in Georgetown.

A multi-lingual street sign in Georgetown.

The above photo gives an easy introduction to the deep cultural waters that make up everyday life in Georgetown. Malay, English, I suspect Tamil, and then to the right side Chinese, are all needed to negotiate the languages of the populace. This being my first trip to Malaysia, literally salt and pepper will never be the same again. As will my notion of multiculturalism.

Like it or not, we remain in a world that was shaped by the British, Spanish and French Empires, (a story I know a lot about because of my long association with Vietnam), a world that the U.S. realigned after World War II. As a Planet, we can’t stop the ringing of this enormous bell stroke of history. So whether it be the partition of Pakistan and India, the complications of numerous Caribbean islands, the now growing but cautious stability of Latin America, the threatening realignments of the Middle East, the permanent strength of China, or the emergence of the behemoth landmass of Africa in the 21st century, we are dealing with new global realities and awareness.

Thank God (or Buddha or Allah or your brand of Agnostic Thought) that we have music and cuisine! Add love and, just perhaps, we have a chance to create common ground for a better Planet Earth.

With Malay friends at Spice Garden cooking school.

With Malay friends at the Spice Garden cooking school.

The old areas of Georgetown are designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, always a good bet for any traveler when planning a visit any where in the world. This designation by UNESCO is not arbitrary. There’s always a reason.

It was in the British nature to segregate the various components of their vast Empire. Sir Frances Light in Georgetown or Sir Stamford Raffles in Singapore had no problem creating zones for Little India here, the Straits Chinese (or Peranakans) there, the Malays to the right, the Arabs over to the left and, of course, themselves obviously in the best prime locations. Time has shifted these boundaries somewhat with the end of extractive colonialism, but they are still discernible.

My wife Jan at Joo Hooi Cafe.

My wife Jan at Jooi Hooi Cafe.

One Travel Tip. You are very close to the Equator in Malaysia. Which means the weather is a bit steamy, to put it mildly. My recommendation is to buy a few linen shirts, reconcile to frizzy hair and accept the pleasant steam bath ambiance, which is often relieved by cooling tropical ocean breezes, so don’t despair. But I wouldn’t trade the weather, either. In fact, the food wouldn’t taste the same on a cool day in a more moderate clime!

The packed Joo Hooi Cafe is a Soup Paradise.

The packed Jooi Hooi Cafe on Penang Road is a Soup Paradise.

Georgetown is not that big, at least the UNESCO sections are all doable on foot, and there are rickshaws if you get fatigued (we never needed one). Wandering is key. Coming from a restaurant family, I can only tell you that Jooi Hooi Cafe on Penang Road deserves 3,000 Michelin Stars!

Hungry? A great bowl of asam laksa at Jooi Hooi.

Hungry? A great bowl of asam laksa at Jooi Hooi.

Laksa is a Southeast Asian coconut milk soup cauldron of spices and noodles, unique herbs (if you can find Vietnamese rau rom outside of Malaysia you’re good to go) with submerged surprises in each bowl. It might be a good thing that you don’t know exactly what’s in it! Now, asam laksa is a little particular to Georgetown. And if you look at the blue spoon, it contains a tamarind syrup that transforms the sweetness of the coconut taste to a heavenly level of spicy goodness. It’s the tamarind that makes it asam.

But it’s the side street down Jooi Hooi Cafe on Penang Road that continues a unique food adventure. We had a wonderful Auntie serve us, a Peranakan Chinese woman who made sure we would have the best in the house, which is how she served everybody. Which meant ordering from other places down the street. So she recommended a Penang Famous Curry Mee that they would deliver to Jooi Hooi if you walked down the street to order it, and the stall outside the restaurant makes a tremendous sweet coconut soup of Chendul, which really hits the spot and cuts the steamy tropical schwitz.

A full bowl of Famous Penang Curry Mee from down the street.

A full bowl of Famous Penang Curry Mee from down the street.

Chendul Soup stall just outside Jooi Hooi.

Chendul Soup stall just outside Jooi Hooi.

Progress on the curry mee with the addition of chendul for dessert.

Mid way through the curry mee bowl and the addition of chendul for dessert.

I’ve always found a great deal of irony in the celebrity status cooks and restaurants have achieved in the era of cable television. Food articles far out number stories on our cultural life (and by that I mean theater, dance, music, visual arts). The need to eat is not an accomplishment and most grandmothers didn’t plate your dishes with tweezers. I wasn’t surprised at a recent epic take down of Thomas Keller in the New York Times.

My restaurant parents got old at just the right time. It started with Julia Child, who I admire a great deal, but with a necessary family reservation. My Mom enjoyed laughing at her shows and her unprofessional ways in a kitchen and would jokingly admonish me never to act that way in our restaurant (Mom especially would howl at Julia just tossing pans and dishes under the sink). Mom use to say that Julia would never survive our lunch rush, and Mom was on to something with that perception back in the 1960s. Don’t get me started on what she had to do table-side for Lauren Bacall or Marlon Brando at Chasen’s or 20th Century Fox.

There is little to nothing glamorous about cooking in a hot busy kitchen. If you’ve ever wondered why restaurants come and go so quickly, it’s because a lot of people learn things the hard way about the various components needed to survive. My folks made it for 30 years and injected me with a Do It Right Or Go Home work ethic. It’s just hard hot work.

So, though my Mom detested heat waves of any kind, she would have loved the non-glamorous non-celebrity cast of cooks and servers at Jooi Hooi. Proud of what they do puts it mildly. Since English remains in place in what was once British Malaya, my requests for taking pictures were indulged with fanfare. I almost felt like putting on an apron and pitching in to help!

Food preparation in good hands.

Food preparation in good non glamorous hands.

A wok genius at Jooi Hooi.

A wok genius at Jooi Hooi.

Stockpot master at Jooi Hooi.

Stockpot master of a great asam laksa broth at Jooi Hooi.

Should you need to sit down and enjoy your soup, right next door to Jooi Hooi is a place in business since 1936, always a good sign. Maybe all the families here just work together, I can’t tell. The atmosphere inside is a ceiling fan dream, with atmosphere and shared tables to make your heart grow fonder of the humidity. You’ll reach a point where you won’t even notice the schwitz, trust me! A worthy goal for the traveler.

A neighbor to Jooi Hooi in business since 1936.

A neighbor to Jooi Hooi in business since 1936.

And about the Penang Famous Curry Mee that we ordered down the street. This curry mee soup had a walloping impact, so much so that I am counting the days until I return to Georgetown. I’ll be going first to Penang Famous Curry Mee for a portion or two of one of the Great Soups of the World.

Look for this sign down the street from Jooi Hooi.

Look for this sign down the street from Jooi Hooi.

Now is as good a time as any to introduce the Peranakans. A blended culture resulting from the intermarriage of Straits Chinese with ethnic Malays, Peranakans lead the way for humanity’s ability to reconcile differences. Their cuisine is off the charts delicious, and can be described as Chinese cooking techniques married to Southeast Asian spices. There is nothing like Peranakan cuisine anywhere else in the world, a staggering flavor experience that makes a complicated mole from Oaxaca seem prosaic. Look for a full blog post soon devoted to Peranakan cuisine in both Singapore and Malayasia.


My favorite cook in Georgetown, proud of her curry mee.

I’m stuffed! This is just one short street in Georgetown. I’m not kidding, we haven’t even started. This was just lunch. There is so much more to share!

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Join me for a Night Market feast in Georgetown for my next blog.

See you soon with more yummy reports from Georgetown, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hanoi. Salt and pepper will never be the same again!

Best, best, best,