328 Katong Laksa, Asam Laksa, Asia, Batu Ferringhi, Buddhism, Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Georgetown, India, Jalan Penang Road, Jooi Hooi Cafe, Joseph Conrad, Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa Restaurant, Malaysia, Penang Island, Seven Terraces, Singapore, Somerset Maugham, True Blue Cuisine, Vasco da Gama
Perhaps all of our lives changed 518 long and almost forgotten years ago.
On May 20, 1498, in the waning months of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama became the first European to set foot in India. The world would never be the same again. Food would irrevocably never be the same again. And as if ordered by fate, da Gama would die in Portuguese India’s Cochin on Christmas Eve, 1524. His death, 26 years after his first landing in India, still resonates in the 21st century. The geography of the Portuguese explorer’s passing reminds us that, like us, he would not be able to physically extricate himself from having made contact with the East.
In a global world that’s here to stay, we are all still trying to understand each other.
Legend has it that the Cochin church bell that tolled for the death of Vasco da Gama in India is now in Sines, his birthplace city in the Alentejo region of Portugal. A fateful bell that cannot stop ringing between cultures. And now that the 21st century has entered its teenage years, acting out and testing its boundaries in sometimes alarmingly violent ways, it’s no surprise to me that airports remain full, everyday, of people heading both East and West, following in the footsteps launched over 500 years ago, but with better purpose and greater cultural curiosity than Vasco da Gama’s 15th century mindset.
I’ve been happily encouraged by the readers of my posts, because if stats don’t lie it seems that a lot of those airport travelers are intrigued about learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage City of Georgetown on Penang Island in Malaysia!
The steady tabla beat of visitors to my two earlier Malayasian posts about Georgetown has made it easy for me to oblige with a few more posts. So I thought I’d indulge in a search of mine for interesting spots for Asam laksa, the tamarind laced soup that differs from its sibling, the coconut based laksa so powerful in these Southeast Asian environs.
I hope you love tamarind!
This post will benefit from a double exposition, for now I should discuss laksa following my historical introduction about Vasco da Gama. To comprehend laksa, it is important to become curious about Peranakan cuisine. You’ll find this food in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. In simple terms, the complicated and intoxicating flavors come from Chinese cooking techniques married to Southeast Asian ingredients. Laksa is a cultural volcano in a bowl of soup.
And I have to admit that as much as I prepared to understand Singapore and Malaysia before I arrived, seeing is believing. Yes Malaysia is a majority Muslim country today, but that is only one part of the cultural fabric. India is a permanent presence, as our the Peranakan or Straits Chinese. Both terms relate to Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. And a long sounding echo is certainly still audible from colonial British Malaya, the world of W. Somerset Maugham and Hermann Hesse.
Eating is believing. If you want a full immersion dining experience of Peranakan cuisine, I’d recommend two places, True Blue Restaurant in Singapore and Seven Terraces in Georgetown. These two places will receive their own blog soon, so stay connected. Gaining weight can be worthwhile!
Like any great theme, there are many variations on laksa. This boiling and bubbling feast comes in coconut, curry, and tamarind, or Asam, versions. It’s Asam which is the subject of this post and which you might say is the spicy zenith of tamarind found on Penang Island. I am fortunate to come from Los Angeles, and am therefore no stranger to the Mexican use of tamarind, for juices and flavorings in many savory dishes, especially with seafood.
Since you’ve probably already searched my blog, let me bring back one of my all time favorite places on Planet Earth, Jooi Hooi Cafe in Georgetown. You’ll find it on one of the great eating streets of the world, Jalan Penang Road.
But you should also go a little further afield and take a cab or bus out to Batu Ferringhi (on the way to the extraordinary Spice Garden Botanical Garden and Cooking School, another post on the way). The road alone is worth the trip, a lush and inviting coastal drive with stunning views of the Andaman Sea. There is a large food court in Batu Ferringhi that has a couple of places worth searching out for the tamarind elixir of Asam laksa. You’ll find them easily, and looking at all the food stalls is part of the fun.
One wonderful tip about the Batu Ferringhi food stalls. If you like cats, be prepared that the best rodent control on earth remains a kitty cat. My parents were both farm kids in the American Midwest. No self respecting farmer has a barn without a cat. So as far as we’re concerned, seeing cats is a good sign about old school cleanliness and common sense!
And these kitties love spicy food, which is awesome!
Back in Georgetown, I’d recommend a trip to two Buddhist temples, one Burmese and the other Thai. They are across the street from each other. I learned that each Lunar month has a specific Buddha for protection, akin to a Guardian Angel in the Christianity. Being born in 1955 and the Year of the Sheep, I need to ask for assistance from Vairocana Buddha!
Visiting these two Buddhist Temples, one Thai and the other Burmese, gives you a sense of the ethnic density that makes Southeast Asia perhaps the leader in sharing the world with different faiths and peoples. And in the Burmese temple, there are Buddhas representing every Buddhist denomination throughout Asia.
I do have an ulterior motive in pointing out these two sacred Buddhist spots. And that motive is very much related to Asam laksa!
Because if we were pressed for “this is the only place for you go to” we might come down in favor of Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa, which is only about a block from these two Buddhist temples. I’d recommend a morning trip to these two temples and lunch at Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa. Just take a look at the texture of tamarind in my spoon!
As Jan and I sat down to order, a car pulled up, and a few people got out to reserve a large table while their friend went to park. The man eyed us both with surprise and some delight.
“How did you find out about this place?” asked our table friend.
“We looked up places of Asam laksa, were coming to visit the nearby Burmese and Thai temples, and this place got a lot of good reviews,” responded Jan.
“Well,” replied our new Peranakan friend, “I’ve never seen a foreigner here, that’s for sure! We always come from a long way on Penang Island about once a week to this place. The family cooking here has been here for generations. You really have found the local spot, and maybe the best. But there are a few others, too! But we come here first. Enjoy your lunch!”
You can’t beat a recommendation like that of a local and Jan and I felt our curiosity had paid a big dividend. Our Asam laksa then arrived, and even though the steamy weather was not going to relent, it was part of the charm. A sweat induced tamarind magic took over. We left in a food daze, and in my mind I still keep returning to Kedai Kopi Sin Hwa all the time.
“Jan, where are my sunglasses?” I asked a few hours later.
I searched my purse, she searched hers, and we had to just reconcile ourselves to a good pair of shades being left on the table as a memento to one of the great bowls of soup we’d ever had. It would have been a steamy trek back a few miles in the midday heat of Penang. Loosing something never tasted better!
In some ways, you are always visiting this part of the world. Every time you use pepper, you’re a global citizen honoring India and Malaysia.
France still has its vaunted cuisine treasured, renewed and in place, but for me the butters and creams and sauces and wines have the power of a vintage black and white photograph, which still commands considerable expressivity. Mexico has its own world of dried chiles and salsa, tequila and tacos, moles and mescal. The Viennese have no worries about setting the highest standards for patisserie desserts. The fruits of Colombia remain the best on Planet Earth.
But the food of Southeast Asia? These seductive tastes belong in the burning fiery furnace of tropical weather, cooled by soothing ocean breezes and strong monsoon winds that for centuries have brought together people from India, China, Arabia and colonial Europe. In the 21st century, these cuisines now belong to the world.
I’ll be returning soon to Georgetown on Penang Island with a tour of other food spots that I hope you to will enjoy!
Best, best, best,