Monthly Archives: March 2018

Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.

Ahoy!

When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.

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Ruminations on Food 4: …And Now for Durians

I’d planned to write this blog-post in time for the first day of the Chinese New Year, which fell on February 16th this year. Alas, I succumbed to flu a few days before the Year of the Earth Dog commenced. This year’s viruses seem especially virulent. I was told that ‘Australian flu’ was doing the rounds in London. I love this. No doubt when my friends down under get really sick, they blame it on ‘Pommy flu’.

At last, the effects of the virus are receding and I can start thinking again about food! I ended 2017 on a petai note, so it seems only right to begin 2018 with that other potent Malaysian product: the durian. Without doubt, this is the king of Malaysia’s fruits.

Here’s a picture of durians below. Each fruit is covered by a hard, spiky, olive green husk that gives it an almost prehistoric appearance. Durians are not innocuous-looking. Even T Rex wouldn’t want to mess with them.

Unopened Durians

Each fruit contains six to twelve or more seeds, and each seed is covered by soft flesh. It’s this gooey flesh that is coveted by durian connoisseurs. The flesh is yellow to off-white in colour and turns to pulp in your fingers. ‘Durian’ could refer either to the whole fruit or to each of the individual flesh-covered seeds inside. If you know your durians, you can tell by looking at the colour and texture of the flesh whether it’s your favourite type or not. I like durians with dry, bright yellow flesh (see picture below) because they tend to be the sweetest. Others prefer the slightly wet, somewhat bitter variety of durians.

An Opened Durian

Once the green durian husk has been split open, there is no getting away from its pervasive aroma. In this respect, durians are a lot more potent than petai.

If you haven’t eaten durians, you’re probably wondering what they smell like. The thing to remember is that I’m Malaysian; I grew up with durians and I like their aroma. Many foreigners, on the other hand, describe durians as smelling of feet, gym socks or worse. The chef Anthony Bourdain has apparently said that after eating durians, your breath smells as if you’d indulged in ‘French-kissing your dead grandmother.’

Comparing durians to kissing a corpse? I think that’s rather unfair. It’s akin to saying that France’s famous Reblochon cheese has the stench of milk gone very bad – which it has – or to early Japanese perceptions that Westerners all smelt of cow. A few years ago I discovered that I was lactose-intolerant, since when I’ve avoided dairy products, and having stopped eating dairy, I can assure you that animal milk smells terrible, even when it’s supposedly fresh! In fact, there is an untranslatable Chinese word to describe the smell of milk. This Chinese word, which is cow-related, conjures up a food that is both bad-smelling and unsavoury.

In bygone days, you were forced to buy durians still in their husks from roadside vendors. These had to transported home in the boot of your car. Everyone would be salivating during the journey because there was no way of escaping their delicious aroma. And then, when you finally reached home, you still had the work of breaking the durians open. Now durians are sold peeled and ready-to-eat, in white plastic containers. See how easy life has become?

Ready-to-Eat Durians in Bowl

While I was on a visit to Malaysia last year, my uncle bought several containers of durians and we stashed them away in the boot, taking care to wrap the containers inside not one but two plastic bags. In spite of these precautions, we could still smell the durians from inside the car! This is why hotels across Southeast Asia have signs reminding people that durians are prohibited inside.

Despite this, there is more hope of durians finding their way into world cuisine than petai. Durians have long been used in cakes (a type of Malaysian delicacy aptly called durian cake), as well as in ice cream and ice lollies. Recently durians even made an appearance in coffee! Here they are, on packets advertising the white coffee for which my hometown, Ipoh, is famous. Just in case you doubted our language abilities, the coffee is marketed in French, okay? Durian café blanc.

Durian Cafe Blanc

I have to mention the type of durian used to flavour this coffee: it’s the famous Malaysian variety known as ‘Musang King’. (In Malay, musang is a civet cat.) In 2014, when the Loon Fung supermarket on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown started selling Musang King durians, this was such an event that even the Guardian newspaper reported it. And last year, the first Musang King Durian Festival was organised in Malaysia. The festival may yet become an annual event. So beware folks, the Musang King might soon be coming to a place near you!

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