Wednesday, 23 July 2014

The well-fed pescatarian in Malaysia


I generally describe myself as a vegetarian, as this is the easiest way to talk about people that don't eat meat, but then occasionally someone will call me on the fact that I eat fish. Being an avid traveller is made so much easier by consuming fish, although it didn't help me miles away from the sea in Russia, when pickled vegetables were my only sustenance. So in summation, I am a pescatarian and a pretty well-fed one most of the time.

On a recent trip to Malaysia I was able to eat very well with my combination of vegetables and seafood, as rice, noodles and myriad non-meaty flavours supplemented these key ingredients. Anyone who has travelled in the country will know that it is a foodie heaven and it is difficult to go hungry.

Penang

The island of Penang has become associated with wonderful street food of late and I was keen to sample the vendors' offerings. It would be remiss, however to neglect the great restaurants scattered around Georgetown too, as they serve up some delicious dishes that ticked all the boxes for this hungry pescatarian.

Among those to try are:
  • Sri Ananda
There are a few branches of this establishment serving up south Indian specialities on the island. The one in Little India in Georgetown is very conveniently located. I had prawn masala, aloo ghobi, pelak paneer, garlic naan and rice.
  • Woodlands
Just across the road from Sri Ananda is another delicious stop-off - Woodlands. My meal here consisted of chenna batura - a spicy chickpea stew with raw onions, sliced red chillis and half a teeny tiny lime on top. Accompanied by freshly squeezed orange juice.
  • Teksen
Not far from Armenian Street is this humble-looking establishment with beaten metal tables and stools. Do not be put off by its apparent simplicity, as the complex flavours of the dishes more than make up for the d├ęcor. I would recommend ordering the tamarind king prawns, which were among the stickiest and tastiest things I've ever eaten. Even those who eschew a Brussel sprout at Christmas could not fail to love the fried sprouts with shrimps - delicious. Nutmeg juice washed the whole lot down.
  • Tropical Spice Garden
On my last day in Penang I took a tour of the Tropical Spice Garden, which is in the Teluk Bahang suburb of Georgetown. The very informative guided tour from a lady called Bea was the perfect way to work up an appetite for lunch and the restaurant certainly didn't disappoint. Sat outside with beautiful views from under colourful umbrellas I tucked into a very flavoursome pad thai. The garden has its own cookery school, where visitors can learn to make such delights. Unfortunately my time was up by that point, but maybe next time...

Lunch at the Tropical Spice Garden

Street food

There are lots of areas in and around Georgetown that can boast a wide array of street food on offer. One of which is a huge hall at the bottom of Gat Lebuh Armenian, which is jam-packed with hawker stalls. Wandering around, looking at what is available it is clear that you can take your taste buds on a culinary journey around the world without ever having to leave this place.

Everything from Thai and Taiwanese food to Nyonya cuisine and brisket was being served. I settled on Thai seafood rice and watched as the lady carefully chopped and threw ingredients into the wok. She also reached up to a variety of boxes on the shelf above her and added in a wide selection of spices and additions to subtly flavour the delicious dish.

Kuala Lumpur

As you would expect from a capital city anywhere in the world, Kuala Lumpur has plenty of places to eat whether you describe yourself as a carnivore, vegetarian or pescatarian. But for me and many other hungry bellies, the ultimate destination is Jalan Alor. This incredible street is jam-packed with food stalls every evening and there was only one night in the whole of my stay in KL when I didn't eat here.

You can almost smell this evocative thoroughfare from a distance and once the sun goes down, the light from the yellow and red lanterns looped from each side highlights the rising steam from the grills. It is just about impossible to see where one stall ends and the next starts. I walked the length of the street until I reached the tea bus, checking out what was on offer before making my choice.

On the first night I made a schoolgirl error and ordered far too much food, but the butter prawns and assorted greens were amazing. The fried rice was probably delicious too, but there was little chance of me making in-roads into it. I learned my lesson for next time.

Jalan Alor

During the course of my stay, I enjoyed everything from delicious whole fish to durian ice cream. The chap selling this delicious concoction had a specially made container that looked like three barrels joined together complete with perfectly fitting lids. He reached in with his incredibly long spoon and dug out the ice cream.

Before his customers managed to get a taste, however, this deft showman would use the thick consistency of the ice cream to stay stuck to the spoon. This allowed him to spin the cone out of reach just as the customer was about to take it. Twirling the handle and having fun, visitors to this ice cream stand are guaranteed entertainment with their sweet treat.

Durian is well known for its foul smell, but this was hard to detect when in ice cream form and the flavour was gorgeous. So if you are going to eat the stinky fruit, I recommend having it served up in a cone instead.

The ice cream entertainer at work

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The pimped-out trishaws of Melaka


In many ways the city of Melaka is a traditional place, with stunning architecture and a sense of history, but in another element it is tacky in the extreme - its trishaws. The kitsch factor associated with these old forms of transport, which have been pimped-out to the nth degree has to be admired. If you are going to do it, then do it in superlative proportions.

Festooned with fake flowers, Hello Kitty dolls and sporting sound systems any super club would be proud of, you can see and hear these vehicles coming from a mile off. The trishaw is dying out in many parts of Malaysia, but business is booming in Melaka due to the colourful overhaul of these humble methods of transport.

I have to admit that taking a trishaw ride wasn't at the top of my list of things to do in Melaka, but having seen so many of them both carrying passengers and waiting for customers, it seemed I should have a go myself. Almost on a whim I decided to do it while snapping a few shots of the drivers lined up in their carriages near Stadthuys in Dutch Square.

Zam with his trishaw

My driver was a young Malaysian chap called Zam, who chatted away to me, answering all my questions as he peddled the trishaw around the most prominent sites. To my eternal gratitude he played Adele and Otis Redding on his sound system, as opposed to some of the more thumping beats of the other vehicles and turned it down a little so we could conduct our conversation. On the last stretch of the journey he did ramp it up again and blast his horn a few times - so I did get the proper Melaka trishaw experience!

Zam's trishaw could in no way be described as understated, with its fake pink and red roses arranged in the shape of hearts and what looked like a winged ladybird with Mickey Mouse's head acting as a canopy above. Its owner was also prepared for all eventualities and when it started to rain, he produced a huge umbrella in rainbow colours to keep me dry. At this point, he also hid his MP3 player and cigarettes in a waterproof pouch.

After the ride I stood and chatted to Zam and a few of his fellow drivers. He told me that he has been in the trishaw business for six years. He used to work in construction during quiet periods, but a shoulder injury means that he no longer has this option. Without the computer skills many of his peers already possess, Zam is limited in his options, but he said he would like to run his own business one day, perhaps decking out trishaws for those just getting started.

I tipped Zam an extra five ringgit, since he had been so helpful in giving me an extra insight into the world of a trishaw driver. After initially trying to turn it down, he accepted the additional note and asked if I was married? I explained my attached status and Zam invited me to find him later that evening to take more photos of his trishaw once it was dark, as it is customary for the owners to attach lights to help attract custom.

When I returned later that evening, Zam was in the same location I had found him earlier. I ignored the shouts of the other drivers as I walked over to my friend's trishaw. He greeted me warmly and I took my photos before saying goodbye and leaving with smiles.

Zam's trishaw, complete with its night-time lights 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The strangely emotional ordeal of renewing a passport


There are less than six months left on my passport, so I know I need to get it renewed. Not least because there are destinations in the world where you need to have this amount of time still on it in order to travel. I wouldn't want to have to turn down a spontaneous trip over such a trivial matter. But there is a part of me that is putting it off.

I wonder if there isn't one last adventure left in this battered travel document? After all, my passport and I have had some good times in the last decade and I have the stamps to prove it. Somehow setting out with a shiny new passport, which is completely empty seems like a betrayal. I could be anyone with this new item - a novice who has never left the country before or even a spy!

Then there is the ordeal of sending it off. What if they don't send it back? It doesn't matter they might say, we'll send you a new one, they'll console. But this is my trusty companion and I have protected it from being stolen or misplaced in countries all across the world. Can I really trust the postal system and the passport office to keep it safe while out of my sight?

I love how the front cover has worn so that you can barely see the coat of arms and golden writing any more. Not because it has been treated badly - in fact it is still in pretty good condition considering the travelling life it has had - but through hours of sitting in a money belt and hidden in luggage.

Inside there are numerous stamps from passing through Costa Rican immigration; a robust visa featuring Cyrillic script for visiting Russia; and the entry stamp for getting into Turkey, which has recently been abolished. Each and every one of these items inside tells a story and evokes memories of border crossings and the excitement of arriving in a new country.

The official that welcomed me into Chile used a two-tone ink pad; the green stamp of Ukraine features a little train to show how I travelled; and I don't think you even get stamps for Croatia now that it is part of the European Union, though I have a few with the word Hrvatska on them.

It may seem overly sentimental to be so attached to a passport, but it is probably my most prized possession. I always know where it is - at home or away - and love leafing through its pages. But I must send it off and receive a replacement, retiring this document to the shelf along with my first ever passport, the corner cut off to show it is no longer in service.

Over time the pristine replacement will also become full, a bit worn and an old friend that shows the scars of adventure and who knows where it shall take me?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

A little victory in the Stockbridge Duck Race

The ducks are released at the start of the race

Every year a couple of thousand rubber ducks are released into the Waters of Leith for the Stockbridge Duck Race. A group of willing volunteers help to steer the participants from the bridge down to the finishing point, getting pretty wet along the way.

Crowds throng the banks, eager to watch the spectacle, which has become a respected tradition in this part of Edinburgh. Despite being the 25th year that the race has been held, this is the first time I have attended and a great day out it certainly was.

We filled our stomachs pre-race with delicious curry and arepas (Venezualan corn patties stuffed full of black beans and cheese) at the Stockbridge Market. This foodie heaven is held every Sunday and is conveniently near the race's starting point.

Before long the ducks were released from large bins over the bridge and the race was on. A rather excited dog named Haggis helped the duck wardens in their job of herding the rubber toys downriver, chasing after the stragglers. He got particularly involved when one of the wardens threw a stray duck that had become stuck on a rock to help it catch up with its compatriots.

Haggis was off, thinking it was all a game, with another of the wardens shouting: "Can somebody give that dog a stick or something?"

Families lining the water's edge were eager to track the progress of the ducks and see the shenanigans that accompanies the event every year. As well as being a lot of fun, the race is held to raise money for local charities with people able to go into the shops and businesses around Stockbridge to purchase a duck prior to the event.

The prizes are also donated by these generous companies, with around 50 duck numbers being lined up with items to give away. Everything from hampers to a cut and blow dry are up for grabs.

So imagine my sister's amazement when a letter comes through the door three days after the race addressed to her ten-month-old daughter. That's right - my niece, not even one yet - is the proud owner of one of the winning ducks.

Number 1519 will have to be her lucky number for the rest of her life now. She has won a voucher for fish and chips and two beers at the Scran and Scallie pub. My sister tells me our little winner has decided to donate the prize to her parents!

The full list of 2014's winners can be found here.