Tag Archives: Anthony Bourdain

Ruminations on Food 6: The Food Hawker & Her Overseas Son

At the start of this series when I wrote about the Malaysian obsession with food, I mentioned that some street food vendors have been able to send their children overseas to study. This happens in my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. In reviews of the book, at least one American reader has expressed scepticism over such an outcome.

But in Malaysia it is perfectly possible for street vendors to become wealthy. To understand why, you have to appreciate the role of food for us. It serves as balm and salve, feeding not only our bodies but also our minds, and possibly even our souls.

The above is not an understatement. Food is everywhere in Malaysia, permeating culture and consciousness in ways I’ve not seen in any of the other 60 countries I’ve been to. Part of this probably has to do with Malaysia being tropical. Colours and tastes seem somehow more vivid in the open-air than in a cold climate and you end up smelling food pretty much all the time. Walk down any street, something is sure to be frying. Avoiding food is impossible, and we all know what heavenly aromas do to our stomachs.

Oyster Omelette – Can’t You Smell It?

Another part of the phenomenon has to do with the melting pot that is Malaysia. There are three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – each with its own distinctive cuisine. Food hawkers have therefore long had lots of competition; they’ve had to compete not just with each other but also with vendors of the other types of cuisine. Only the very best survive. The bar was raised from the outset; even foreign chains have to work harder. When I was a child, Kentucky Fried Chicken tasted very different in Malaysia than in the UK, for the simple reason that to entice customers, the Colonel’s chefs had to mix in local spices. The result was jazzed-up chicken that arrived crisp in baskets (instead of boxes).

This led to great food overall and to a plethora of choice. The sheer scale of choice can be mind-boggling, as I mentioned in Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court.

But Malaysia is also dotted with the other extreme: whole coffee shops dedicated to a single dish. Many of the most successful food hawkers specialise in this way.

There’s a good example opposite my old school in Ipoh. The coffee shop is called Yee Fatt, it’s been going since 1955 and it’s famous for curry noodles. Yes, you read right.  The place is known for curry noodles – not exactly a fancy dish. But the dish is so popular in Malaysia that it even has its own Wikipedia entry (as curry mee, which is what it’s also called).

All That They Sell – and Going Since 1955

The boss at Yee Fatt is the middle-aged Chinese man in the picture below. What he’s doing behind the counter is blanching noodles and bean sprouts in hot water, lifting them on to plates, sprinkling barbecued pork over the top and then dousing it all in a thick curry sauce. He does this hour after hour, day in and day out, which may not sound like much of a life to some.

The Big Boss

But here’s the thing: the guy is his own boss. He opens early for breakfast, serves lunch and then closes his shop around three in the afternoon. That’s him done for the day! Afterwards he goes on a strenuous walk up Kledang Hill, one of many beautiful hills around Ipoh. We know because by the time we arrive at five, he’s well into his descent.

Note Yee Fatt’s longevity. How many small eating places do you know that have been going since 1955? Non-Malaysians may also find it amazing that Yee Fatt sells only two dishes: curry noodles and glutinous rice with pork (the mound on the bottom-right in the second photograph above). The curry noodles come in two versions: either dry – with noodles on a plate and spoonfuls of curry sauce heaped over – or wet, where the noodles are dunked in a bowl with curry soup. If you like, you can order extra bean sprouts and pieces of deep-fried bean curd as accompaniments.

My Favourite Dry Curry Mee

I love Yee Fatt’s noodles – soft but not over-cooked – which I guess would be called al dente in the West. Also, their bean sprouts are perfectly crunchy. Of course, it helps that they use Ipoh’s bean sprouts, which I think are the best in the world. I’ve told this to the Guardian newspaper, National Geographic Traveller UK and anyone who cares to listen! I can just imagine a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain declaiming the contrasts in this dish: the crunchiness of Ipoh‘s bean sprouts against the softness of just-right noodles. Smeared on top of it all is Yee Fatt’s irresistible curry sauce. I’m salivating as I write this and groaning a little too, since I won’t be having a bite anytime soon.

I’m not alone in being a fan, as this feature article in the Malay Mail (a Malaysian English language daily) a few years ago shows. And while polishing up this blog-post I found 7 other blogs praising Yee Fatt! (Here’s one link and another: I told you we were food-obsessed!)

Where, you may ask, does wealth come into the picture? Let’s just say that the boss, who looks as unassuming as his coffee shop, is said to be doing very well. I know you wouldn’t think this by looking at the photos. From a Malaysian perspective, however, the shop’s modest décor is actually comforting. It tells us that the food must be good – you certainly aren’t going for anything else. By keeping overheads low, the boss is making sure that he’ll be serving the town lots more curry noodles.

Unassuming and Brilliant

The man at the Yee Fatt coffee shop is not the only food hawker who has done well; there are others like him. Their success, though, may be peculiar to Malaysia, where people care more about taste than décor and will drive miles through pouring rain for a hawker’s food.

Readers love asking me how much of my stories are fact and how much fiction. One answer is that the historical events are real, but the characters are made up. Chye Hoon in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds was inspired by my own great-grandmother, who I never met. I know, though, that she earned a successful living as a food hawker, enough to send one of her sons to Britain for further education. So I can assure doubting readers that it’s possible for a food vendor in Malaysia to do this: it happened in my own family.

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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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Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia