Street food of Penang

Penang unexpectedly became one of my favourite places in South East Asia. I marveled at the beautiful architecture of its atmospheric old town, the interesting street murals which turned every walk and every turn of corners into tiny bite-size adventures, and of course, at its legendary food. It pains me to say this as a Singaporean, but when it comes to our regional cuisine, Malaysia wins hands down. From street carts to restaurants, in Penang, there always seems to be something to eat. Hunting down the next best thing can become an obsession.

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My trip was met with a lot of rain, but it didn’t dampen the mood, nor stop any of these street food vendors out cooking a storm in the alleys of old town Penang.

1. Hokkien Mee

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Technically, I had this in Kuala Lumpur, but this can be found in Penang too. This can also be found easily in Singapore, but Malaysia’s version tends to use the thick udon-like noodles giving it an unfamiliar texture.  The generous fried pork lard adds much flavor to the char fried noodles, though it may be a nightmare to the health conscious.

2. Char Kway Teow

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The most ubiquitous fried noodle in Penang as every store and street seems to be selling a variation of this popular dish. This didn’t taste too different from the ones I am used to having in Singapore.

3. O jian

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Another street food staple in Penang, O jian, which means ‘Oyster Egg’ is one of my family’s favorite. This version used charcoal to fry the egg though I think it was just a gimmick. The oysters are plentiful and fresh.

4. Dim Sum

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The Chinese community in Penang seems to be predominantly Hokkien, so it was very surprising to find the street where I stayed to house a few restaurants serving Dim Sum, typically served as breakfast for the Cantonese. This restaurant was very popular and it was busy throughout the day, even at night. Eating here was quite an experience, with old ladies pushing down carts along the restaurant isles, recommending us what was good on that day.

5. Kway Tiao Thng

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This deceptively simple rice noodle soup (Kway Tiao stands for flat rice noodles) was a good break from all the other unhealthy fried food which I’ve had. This stall was a surprise find, and seems to be extremely popular with locals. The fish balls are made from eels which is rather unusual. This stall also served the best iced coffee I’ve had.

People of Singapore

I believe that the best portraits are taken with a short lens and at a distance as close as to the subject as possible.

It’s unfortunately a skill I have not master (not to mention the courage to approach a subject and ask for his or her permission to do so).

Until then, I prefer taking pictures of people at a non-infringing distance.

With enough background captured into the picture, it is perhaps able to better tell a story that close up portraits may not be able to.

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Nikon D610

After almost 3 years with my entry level DSLR (and getting increasingly frustrated with its limitations), I have finally found the heart (and pocket money!) to upgrade my camera to a full frame semi-professional Nikon D610. It’s also the first time I have shot with a prime lens, specifically, a 50mm f/1.8 and that takes some getting used to. Last weekend I took my new toy out for a test run shooting at various places in Singapore. It was fun exploring my own country and looking at it through a view finder. I felt like a tourist.

As the pictures on this site has been cropped to 623 x 415, the quality of these pictures do not appear too different from those in my previous posts. But at full scale, the difference is apparent. There are still plenty to learn, so I hope to do more of this in the next few weeks!

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Lake Inle, a tonic for the soul

With the local bus departing from Bagan eastward, scenes of the fiery red temples of the plains were no more. Like a new kid on the block eager to show off his toys, I was treated to a tasting platter of Myanmar’s geographical greatness- its friendly yet unfamiliar road side villages, its dusty terrains, its green rolling mountains, and eventually a scene of a vast carpet of grass soaking in the late afternoon sun, granting only the sneakiest peak of the pristine lakes hidden beyond. It was 10 hours later that I arrived at Nyaungshwe, gateway to the capital of Myanmar’s placid lake side living, Lake Inle. The contrast with Bagan was incredible.

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Lake Inle was not part of the original plan. As I would like to visit Luang Prabang in Laos, the easiest means of getting there is to catch a Monday flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand. With 3 days to spare after Bagan, my next destination was a tossup between Mandalay and Lake Inle. The latter just sounded so much more interesting, and I was not disappointed.

Arriving at Nyaungshwe, the largest town in the vicinity, it is hard to fathom the vastness of Lake Inle. Nyaungshwe itself has not much going for it, though it’s the most convenient base to explore the region, with good array of travellers’ amenities (by Myanmar’s standards). It was here which I witness one of Myanmar’s wonder- a ferris wheel ‘powered’ entirely by human strength. Sadly, it being off season during my travels, I didn’t actually get to see it work.

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The only way to explore Lake Inle is to hop on a hired motored boat, the choiced method of transportation for locals too- though the tourists’ version is probably less rickety, its boatman speaks a few word of English and the actual boat itself even comes with a wooden armchair and life jackets (which i wore during the entire trip with no shame, much to the amusement of the locals who zoomed me past).

The boat journey from Nyaungshwe was a slow meandering past the town’s canals into the main lake, followed by an exhilarating full speed burst toward the southern end of the lake. Formed around the lake are interesting floating markets, villages on stilts, gardens, water-bound temples and ancient ruins. Amidst the sun set, stunning views of local fishermen peddling their boats with their bare legs were as unforgettable as they were timeless. It was a fascinating sight of how peoples’ lives revolve around the lake, and how the latter came to life at the presence of its inhabitants.

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Whether it is the image of the fishermen taking a bath at the muddy water at the end of a hard day’s of work; or of their wives using the same canal to wash up their dishes after a sumptuous meal; or of their kids cheerfully cooling themselves in the scorching sun, life at Lake Inle is a demonstration of contentment at its simplest.

Lake Inle is almost non-descript, yet strangely intoxicating. It’s a tonic for the soul.

Transit at Chiang Mai

It was the realisation that I was walking on paved pedestrian walkways (oh how I have missed those) or maybe the sight of “Beware of scammers” posters replacing those that vividly say “Myanmar warmly welcomes tourists” which reminded me that I had cross the border to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Coming from Myanmar, Thailand was almost too tamed and easy. My immediate impression of Chiang Mai was that it was packed full of western travellers there for the quintessential ‘South East Asia’ experience, much like Bangkok.

Scenes of the noisy and loud backpacker crowds detracted the experience a bit, but with just one day there I’ve never had a chance with the city. Chiang Mai was a necessary transit to my eventual destination in Laos and Vietnam, suitably more exotic or interesting. But even with one day; compared to the crazy and rowdy Bangkok, I decided that I liked the classier Chiang Mai a lot more. My timing was superb- the streets of old city on every Sunday turned into an open extravaganza with indelible street Thai food, excellent shopping, and opportunity to people watch. During the day I walked around the old city exploring temples and relics, and when the heat gets too much, quick stops at one of the many chic cafes to replenish. Rather typical tourist stuff.

It was good chilling out, and it felt a bit like ‘returning to civilisation’ after the immensely surreal Myanmar. Some pictures:

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Street food of Hanoi

Hot, noisy, and crowd full of people who just don’t seem to like foreigners, Hanoi is not going to feature highly on my list of favourite places any time soon. But my trip to the capital city of Vietnam was still an enjoyable one if only because of its amazing food. I wouldn’t call myself a foodie, though I love trying local cuisine during my travels as a way of experiencing a country’s culture. Besides the ubiquitous phở, here are some of the best street food I’ve had in Hanoi.

1. Bia hơi

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Freshly brewed draft beer which is sold to the drop and replenish the very next day. Cheaper than water and found everywhere in Hanoi, Bia Hoi was my choiced beverage anywhere I go. Each Bia Hoi joint seems to be getting their supplies from different places so the quality varies widely. A few I’ve had was highly suspicious of adding too much water to the mix, but after a few rounds you won’t be too bothered!

2. Bánh cuốn

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Steamed rice rolls with either chicken or shrimp fillings served with plenty of fried shallots and fresh herbs, dipped in a sweet and tangy sauce. A staple in many Vietnamese restaurants outside of the country, so chances are this is not going to be something completely foreign to visitors who know their pho ga from pho bo.

3. Bún chả

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My absolute favourite food in Hanoi (had to walk several streets to find this place). Bun cha is a rice noodle dish served with barbecued pork patties and again, plenty of fresh herbs and vegetables. A meal in itself, the way to eat this is to dip the rice noodles in the concoction of clear sauce of meaty goodness- a leap of faith given how oily it looks. Salivating just thinking of it, this is easily my number one thing to have if I am crazy enough to visit Hanoi again.

4. Sữa chua

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As it turned out, Sua chua is actually Vietnamese for ‘Yogurt’, and not technically the name of this dish which i had mistaken it for (the store I had this had the term plastered everywhere). As I mulled over the vast variety of ingredients on display when attempting to make my order, i was pointed unceremoniously to one these little stools to take a seat- the owner will include everything. Last I count, there were yogurt, shaved ice, almond jelly, green tea flavoured jelly, jackfruit, little tapioca drops of various colour and many more. Desserts from around the world has something to learn.

5. Bánh gối and Nem cua bể

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Some fried savoury pastry thing that is stuffed with minced mushroom, crab meat and vermicelli. Whoever first came up with the idea of including vermicelli in stuffed pastry is a genius and deserve an award. These were crowd pleasers among the office workers where I had them.

6. Bánh tráng trộn

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A very surprise find, as I had just finish dinner before spotting a very big crowd of people having these on tiny stools by the roadside, before deciding that I too need to savour them. Banh trang tron is a tropical salad with shredded cuttlefish, peanuts, and a whole lot of miscellaneous things. It is probably akin to what Papaya salad is to Thailand or what Rojak is to Singapore.

7. Xôi xéo

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Any food that has two ‘X’es in its name deserves a second look. It’s a sticky rice dish with yellow bean paste and chicken shreds, this one I had was at a stall which seems to be engaged with a fierce rivalry with a neighbouring store. Again, as with many things in Vietnamese cuisine, the ingredient seems awkward on paper together, but somehow it works really well in reality. One of the best thing I have eaten.