One of our goals is to learn how to cook the cuisine of each country that we visit. So … when we see you next, we’ll be able to put together an authentic meal for you. Bonus, right?!
We headed over to the Tropical Spice Garden in Teluk Bahang, west of Georgetown, for a cooking class with Nazlina Hussin, a self-made chef and savvy internet marketer (we found her on TripAdvisor and she has made several websites around food in Penang).
First, we got a tour of the grounds where they grow their own spices and vegetables. So you get to see things like a ginger plant (below), whereas you usually only see the root part of it.
Or citronella (natural mosquito repellant), which is a grass similar to lemongrass, whereas you usually see it as a candle or oil. Don’t eat citronella though!
After our tour, we got to work cooking. The menu consisted of chicken rendang (essentially a chicken curry) and char kway teow, a typical stir-fried noodle dish in Penang. A lot time was spent prepping – mashing/rolling peppers, garlic, and other things with a giant stone roller to make a chili paste (see below where Lisa is smashing a combination of chilis, garlic and ginger – yummm).
For the chicken rendang, we started by scraping out coconut flesh. We did this by using a medieval looking device where Lisa sits on it, and then pushes the coconut shell against what looks like a spur.
The result is that the flesh falls onto the plate.
Then, you toast the coconut flesh until it’s brown. But make sure you don’t burn it like I did. They had to throw away my batch and start fresh. Hah. Here’s me before burning the coconut to a black crisp.
After about an hour of prepping our ingredients, we finally got to cook. Below is the rendang simmering.
Below we wok-fry the char kway teow which is served with chilis and lime.
View the slideshow below for the full set of photos, or click through to see it on Flickr.
Seriously our journey is not about food (no really it’s not!). It just happens that everywhere we go in Asia, there is amazing food to be eaten. We certainly don’t mind, as long as our waistlines don’t get any bigger!
Penang is known to most as an island (it’s also a state) in northwest Malaysia near the border with Thailand. The main – and most historical – city is Georgetown. Penang is also the high-tech capital of Malaysia with companies like Dell and Intel doing manufacturing there. It even boasts free public wifi in town, although we could never get it to work. Good attempt though, and a big plus for us lovers of free wifi. It’s also one of two states in Malaysia with a majority ethnic Chinese population, the other being Melaka.
Penang is probably better known for its delicious food; if you consider yourself a foodie, you must make a pilgrimage to Penang. Penangites are extremely passionate about their food – there are countless blogs and websites dedicated to trying, reviewing, and photographing every restaurant on Penang Island. You can search for the BEST of whatever it is you want to eat, be it curry mee (noodles), or nyonya food. And some people will swear that the ONLY place to get curry mee is at this food cart on that street at the corner of X and Y streets. Yes, that specific.
So Penang – in a nutshell – is on an ocean, has high tech, has great food, and is a city for foodies… hmmmmm, sounds a bit like San Francisco! Minus the wine.
After spending an afternoon walking around Georgetown (and enduring intense heat and humidity), we spent most of our time in Penang eating. Imagine that!
Here’s a guy outside of Hameediyah (on Campbell Street in Georgetown) making fresh murtabak.
This woman seems to be an icon on Chulia Street, serving up her wonton noodles. There was a long line for her noodles. Look at the heat pumping out of that stove!
For dessert, there was a guy making mini-pancakes with sweet corn or bananas. It’s basically a roti from Pakistan.
Of course, in between meals, we had to walk off all the calories, so we wandered in to neat art/antique stores – like this one where the guy handcarves his statues from wood. Here’s one of the famous Monkey Prince – starting price? $500 USD.
Here’s an Indian temple in Little India:
OK back to food. There are many food courts and food hawker areas in Penang. This one is called Red Garden Food Paradise – full of locals and tourists just about every night, with 20-30 booths of food.
Here’s Hokkien Mee, much like the curry mee we’ve had, and oh so good. Only $1.50 USD.
We were told to try the Assam Pedas, or fish head curry. Yes, with real fishhead in your curry. It was good, but probably hyped a bit much.
And as if your excellent meal wasn’t enough to entertain you, the Red Garden Food Paradise puts on a live show every night, with a guy on his keyboard belting out American oldies. Bizarre, but you can’t help but smile. Notice the sign, “no guest singer” and check out his HAT! YES! Awesome.
On another day, we decided to wander the backstreets on a whim, and we came upon what shall be dubbed the “pork district.” Several pork slaughterhouses on both sides of a quiet street – not what you would expect, and something you never see in the States.
Finally, Penang is known for its Baba Nyonya culture. If you’ll recall in an earlier post about Melaka, it’s a fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisine which makes for interesting dishes that you probably won’t have anywhere else.
Here’s fried basil leaves. Pretty neat in concept, but I think much of the basil flavor was lost.
Next up, “Ju Hu Cha” or stir-fried shredded senkuang (radish), carrots, dried cuttlefish and mushrooms, topped with fresh sambal belacan (smashed hot chiles with prawn paste) in a lettuce wrap. Not bad, not bad.
Another must-try apparently – Curry Kapitan – or curry chicken Nyonya style. Pretty heavy, but good…
So, overall, we love Penang and if we have the opportunity, we will return to sample more food and other restaurants. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. Before we leave Penang, we’ll do a cooking class to learn a few typical Penang dishes which we’ll write about shortly.
Tioman Island is a large picturesque, mountainous island off of the southeastern coast of peninsular Malaysia. It’s known for its diving and super laid back lifestyle. There’s only a 2 mile road, and most of the kampungs (villages) are only accessible via boat. To reach Tioman, we took a 5 hour bus from Melaka to the port village of Mersing and then took a 2 hour ferry to our “resort”.
Tioman Island is also where my cousin Javi owns a dive shop. Bali Hai divers is attached to a small “resort” called Panuba Inn. Panuba is for divers and is very – shall we say – basic. The chalets are ‘clean enough’ and different types of critters have made themselves at home in the chalets. That said, you cannot beat the view!
Also, since Panuba is a bay – the waves don’t crash like they do on the beaches – instead there is a contant whooshing of small waves that is really intoxicating. I haven’t sleep so well in a long, long time! Listen in the video below.
When I mentioned to my cousin that I wanted to get my advanced certification he said not to worry – he’d hook me up. And boy did he! I was able to complete my advanced certification and Tony and I got certified on enriched air (or Nitrox)!!
Here I am doing my course on navigation with a compass underwater:
Tony and I got to know the dive masters well in the short time that we were there. Maybe that’s because we made a beer run with them – AFTER our diving of course 😉 – and treated them to a case.
And sharing some beers with my instructor Barry.
We did 8 dives over the course of 4 days. Our favorite dive was a cavernous coral area that offered lots of pass throughs and small caves. Unfortunately visibility was low overall, but we saw some amazing coral and got to swim around 3 different wrecks.
Some of the coral at Tulai – the best coral garden we saw in Tioman:
Turtle (my favorite):
A Thai fishing boat wreck, 90 feet below the water’s surface:
There were tons of reef fish (sergeant majors) hanging out around the jetty, so we happened to find some bread and cause a feeding frenzy:
Unfortunately, Tioman and many other dive destinations are suffering from warm water (29C+ or ~85F+) which causes coral to bleach. Bleaching happens when coral expels the algae living inside of it and it becomes white. This is presumably due to global warming, but the jury is still out on whether it’s that, or simply cyclical temperature changes in the environment.
Check out more photos from our dives on the Flickr slideshow:
After a few days in Melaka we made the quick bus ride up to Kuala Lumpur to meet with my cousin Javi and his wife and their 5 year old daughter Julia. They own 2 dive shops – one on Tioman Island and one in KL (where they call home).
KL is like other big cities… lots of noise, traffic (arrgh the traffic is worse than L.A.!), big buildings and good food (but not nearly as good as in Melaka). To be honest, we didn’t really see much of the city. I was recovering from a throat infection that turned into a nasty head cold and it rained most of the 2 days we were there. So, not much to report, but we saw the Petronas Towers from a distance and spent some time in the Pavilion mall food court which had 30-something vendors and offered AWESOME food.
We were lucky, however, to meet up with Tony’s friends, Jennifer and Steve, from the days when he worked in Houston. We met up for dinner at a pretty cool spot in the KL suburbs called Tamarind Springs.
And that’s about all we did in KL. Very light on photos so we’ll end with this one – beware of the snatch thief:
Next, we head to Tioman Island on the east coast for diving and beach time.
Believe it or not, I have relatives in Malaysia, from the Cuban side of my family – go figure! My tio Felix and tia Eme (apparently, Tony’s long lost Cuban-Chinese aunt… not really, but more on this later) have lived in southeast Asia for over 20 years, and spent the last 10 years in Melaka, a city 2 hours northwest of Singapore. When Tony and I decided that we were going to travel to Malaysia, we immediately looked them up. It had been 10 years since I had last seen them! Here’s a picture of them below.
Melaka is a magical city. It’s downtown area is a world heritage site and, as such, it has retained it’s colonial charm. Melaka is one of three major cities of trade from back in the day – Penang and Singapore being the other two, -and therefore has an interesting and wonderful mix of cultures – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, and English. The cultures intermingle and one can walk down the street and see mosques, Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian temples and churches.
One of the most highly touted is the Baba-Nyonya (Peranakan) culture, which is a fusion of Chinese and Malay cultures created when Chinese men came down to work in Melaka and married Malay locals. These Chinese are also known as “Straits Chinese,” because they immigrated to the British Straits settlements in Malaysia in the 15th and 16th centuries. The ethnic Chinese in Melaka speak Mandarin and a variant of the Hokkien dialect very similar to Taiwanese, so Tony could understand a lot of what was said. It was a fun and nice surprise (and quite helpful!). As a result, my aunt Eme has become knowledgable about some aspects of Chinese culture and has even picked up a few words. One of her favorite phrases to Tony was “you never knew you had a Cuban-Chinese aunt did you?”
So what happens when you have so many cultures mixing in the same place? It is a perfect storm of culinary excellence. And we did not hesitate to revel in it. Here’s a look at some of the local food.
THE (repeat THE) best Tandoori chicken and garlic/garlic+cheese/garlic+onion naan we’ve both ever had. You know how Tandoori chicken often tastes dry? Well, this was cooked in a clay oven in front of you and so juicy when it comes out.
By the way, this restaurant, Pak Putra, is a Pakistani-run place in a little strip mall. The “dining room” is the parking lot. It was full of people around 8pm when we ate, and still full at 11pm when we came back to fetch our car… on a TUESDAY night!
Another very popular dish is Hainanese chicken rice. Yes, you guessed it, it’s from the island of Hainan off the south coast of China, west of Hong Kong. It’s basically steamed or roasted (better), chopped up, and served over coconut infused rice with hot sauce, soy sauce, and chicken broth on the side.
When we asked, do people cook in Melaka? Many locals said no (including my aunt and uncle). It’s because the food is so good and SOOOOO cheap in the restaurants and food courts like the one below. You’ll find 20-something different food stalls which each makes something different, all for the price of $1.50 or less per dish!
Char Kway Teow – stir-fried noodles with flat, broad noodles – a bit like ho fun. Very typical dish.
Chang fun (translated “long flour”) – very similar to the dim sum dish.
You’ve seen these before – chicken satay.
Another local specialty – fried oysters with eggs and sweet/hot sauce on the side.
Feeling full yet? Not Tony! On another night, we went with my aunt and uncle’s local friend Falynn (she’s pictured with Tony below and we called her the ‘social director’) and tried another local specialty – satay chelup. You basically load up on skewers of food you want to eat e.g. lots of fish/shrimp/meat balls, sausages, cockles, other meats, veggies, etc. and then you cook it all in boiling pot of peanut satay sauce. AWESOME.
Don’t forget to dip the sliced bread in the satay sauce and wash it down with some freshly made watermelon juice (You can see how happy I am to start eating!)
So how do you pay the bill? The waitress comes over and counts the number of sticks you ate – yellow ones are more expensive than orange ones). Brilliant.
On the weekends, the city puts on a night market. Super crowded, loaded with trinkets, and better yet, great food.
We stopped for some dessert called cendol (pronounced “chen-doll”) which is shaved ice, brown sugar syrup (called gula melaka), coconut milk, red bean, and some other good sweet stuff. Perfect for a hot, humid night.
Here’s another dish we stumbled upon. It was one of those things you walked by and couldn’t stop looking/smelling simultaneously and when you snapped out of your trance, you forked over 6 ringgit (US$2) for a big container of the kuih lobak. It doesn’t look very pretty so a pic doesn’t do it justice, but it will blow you away.
OK, now you must be full. So here are some images around the city. There are many buddhist temples around the city:
The historic district of Melaka sells lots of arts and antiques. More beautiful by night, but just as interesting during the day.
Tri-shaws or trickshaws (or tricked-out rickshaws) are waiting nearby to take you around town. You can’t see it here, but some of them have boomboxes that pump out club music as you ride around town. Classy.
Here’s some cool tile work in an old historic hotel called Hotel Puri on Heeren Street.
The entrance to another temple. A great addition to our collection of door pictures.
You’re looking across multiple storefronts along a street.
Finally, Melaka has done a great job of lighting up the town, literally. Each building is highlighted with lights so you can see them all at night. It’s quite a sight to see and a bit reminiscent of Disneyland. They even have a monorail!
Have a look at all the photos in the slideshow below:
C’mon, you have to chuckle when you see a Proboscis monkey (pictured above). The guy has a phallic nose, a pot belly, and seems to always be “ready for some action,” if you know what I mean. Proboscis monkeys are found only in Borneo and are an endangered species because the jungle is being chopped down to plant palm trees for palm oil. It’s quite a sad sight to see miles and miles of palm plantations, but the country is hungry for development and palm oil is lucrative.
When we saw photos of the Proboscis monkeys (above is a mama Proboscis with her child), we knew we had to go seem them – and boy were we glad we did. We visited the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary (in Sepilok, near Sandakan, $60RM per person or $20USD) which is private land bought up to preserve the rainforest and the native habitat for the monkeys. View Larger Map
While the monkeys are wild, the park rangers have scheduled feeding times where they bring out sugar-free pancakes (they don’t like sugar) and what looked liked watermelon rinds to feed the various families of monkeys.
When we first arrived, the park rangers started ‘calling’ the monkeys and it sounded like the “uh oh” sound from ICQ, the old school instant messaging software (listen to the video below).
Slowly, we started to hear rustling in the trees and eventually saw multiple families of monkeys swing from the tree limbs to gather for the family breakfast. But, only one monkey came forth – Jonathan, the head of family for one of the families was the only one that would come close to humans – within arm’s reach! But don’t let their size fool you – these are some powerful creatures.
Here’s a family of bachelors getting fed. Each “family” has one male and many females. So all of the males that don’t have a harem hang out together until they can get strong enough to beat an alpha male in a fight for control of his family.
Now check out this video Lisa took of the feeding… then watch out for the macaques that take over.
Macaques, while small and cuddly looking, can be aggressive and nasty. We’ve been advised to avoid getting too close or interactive.
After the feeding, we moved on to another platform to check out some wildlife – here’s a hawk that was being rehab’d at the reserve.
And there are hornbills in the reserve as well, but they are quite shy. This one was far far away.
Here’s Ki Ki, a baby hornbill that fell from the tree and is being rehabilitated.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center
In the afternoon, we went to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center to check out young orphaned/injured orangutans being rehab’d for life back in the wild. Orangutans are an endangered species and only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra (Indonesia).
As a note to future travelers, the morning feeding at this place is supposed to be super crowded with tourists, so the afternoon is the time to go. But unfortunately for us, only a young female showed up. It was still fun to see this one showboat for tourists taking photos. If you want to take it a step further, you can go stay in the jungle along the Kinabatangan river and see these guys in the wild, National Geographic-style.
Did you know? Orang means “man” in Malay, and (h)utan means “forest”, hence orangutan means “man of the forest”.
Got milk? Here she’s got a coconut milk mustache.
There are many more photos and videos to be seen – check it out in the slideshow below:
Sipadan Island is considered one of the top dive sites in the world, and so with much anticipation, we looked forward to our only day of diving in Sipadan (though we did 4 dives that day). The photo above is a school of jacks swimming in a tornado like formation and made for a great accidental but artsy photo.
Why come all this way and only dive one day? Because Sipadan is exclusive, but not like a hot-sh*t LA club where you get in if you know someone. As of 2005, the Malaysia government limits the number of divers to 120 per day through a black-box lottery system of sorts – you know it’s not completely random who gets in, but you’re not sure what the logic is and you can’t find out. And forget about paying someone off to guarantee a spot – it doesn’t work that way.
[Note to divers: If you want to dive Sipadan, your best bet is to stay longer at one of the nearby resorts – every day you stay means you get another chance at the diving permit lottery. The consensus seems to be at least 4 nights, giving you 3 days of diving. But again, there are no guarantees. Our hotel, Sipidan-Kapalai, sent 24 divers for 2 days in a row, and then sent only 12 another day. Also, if you have the budget, we also recommend staying closer to Sipadan, on Kapalai or Mabul Islands, which are only a 15 minute boat ride away.]
Here are some photos to start, then videos, and what we thought about the diving.
Tons of turtles at Sipadan:
A school of barcode barracuda at the famous Barracuda Point dive site, swimming against a ripping current:
A school of jacks for as far as the eye could see:
Lisa swims with the jacks:
A big school of barcode barracuda at Barracuda Point:
So, we asked ourselves, did Sipadan live up to its reputation as one of the top dives sites in the world?
Lisa: Unfortunately, with murky water the visibility was limited. I’ve seen clearer waters in the Caribbean. But the sea life was outstanding. I’ve never swam with bigger schools of fish. On several of our four dives, we saw several white and black tipped reef sharks. We’ll have to wait and see how Sipadan compares with our future dive journeys.
Tony: It’s hard to judge after only 4 dives but I won’t say that Sipadan is the best diving I’ve ever done (Turks and Caicos, specifically, the uninhabited island of West Caicos, is still the best for me, although that was 10 years ago). I’d rank it like Cozumel’s wall/drift dives and diving in Belize, which are great dive spots, but probably below spots along the Great Barrier Reef and the manta rays in Kona, Hawaii. That said, Sipadan is still very much above the average. It’s great for viewing sealife. As Lisa said, there are huge schools of fish, so many sharks and turtles you lose count, healthy and abundant coral, and breathtaking wall dives.
Here are all the photos and videos – simply skip through the ones you’ve seen already:
The scuba diving/snorkeling off of Kapalai and Mabul islands is mostly “muck diving” – the visibility isn’t great, but there are lots of tiny little creatures hiding amongst the corals which makes it interesting but also very hard to photograph. That said, here are some photos that turned out and some fun videos. Let’s start off with the Mantis Prawn. If you’ll recall from Kota Kinabalu, we ate a Mantis Prawn, pictured below.
Here it is in the wild, where the divemaster is luring it out with a chicken sausage on a caribeener. Awesome.
Here’s a sea turtle – there were so many of these guys just hanging out or eating grass. I think they’re the cows of the sea.
Some more shots of turtles modeling (note the 2 fish eating the algae on the turtle’s shell — Lisa thought the turtle looked like it had on a jet pack):
Some of you may have seen the photo of the rockfish on our Facebook Group page. Here’s one below from the side. I almost overlooked it as I was floating over it.
Cuttlefish – every time I see one of these guys, I think of sushi. Mmmm… and the sweet dried cuttlefish sheets you can buy in the Chinese grocery stores.
A green moray eel. These are pretty common. Don’t point at it with your finger, OK folks?
Here’s a juvenile toadfish disguised as coral. He doesn’t even look like a fish save for his fins.
Finally here’s the slideshow of all the photos and videos. Enjoy!
I (Lisa) have been waiting for this experience for 20 years (since I found out that such places existed)… where your bungalow is built on the ocean – with clear blue water for as far as the eye can see and where the fish swim under and around you.
Kapalai Resort is built on a sandbar off of Malaysian Borneo’s east coast in the middle of the Sulawesi Sea. It is NOT easy to get here. From the US, you would need to take a 15 hour plane ride to Kuala Lumpur (in peninsular Malaysia), followed by another 2.5 hour flight to Tawau, Malaysia (on Borneo). Once in Tawau, you take a 90 minute bus ride, followed by a 45 minute boat ride to the resort.
Within in our first few minutes of arriving in our room and looking out on our private balcony (and from the bathtub), we saw barracuda, trumpet fish, sting rays and (my favorite) sea turtles. But don’t let the beautiful view fool you. This is no 5 star resort. With no aircon and a very porous structure that lets in noises from both sea and human creatures, we felt like we were ‘glamping’. But being woken up at 5am with the clanky clanks of the diving tanks didn’t bother us. We were here to dive. And dive we did… 4 times a day for 3 days!
Check out our slideshow from the resort (below). Coming up next – photos from our dives.
Yes, we’re in Asia, so we have to “FOB” out our photos. That means, doing the peace sign in all your photos.
Mari Mari Cultural Village is a recreation of tribal life in Borneo – similar to cultural/dancing shows you’d find in Hawaii or Disneyworld. Yeah, it’s a bit cheesy for sure, but still educational and fun. We (and by ‘we’ it’s really Tony) got to do things like:
Trampoline Jumping – two guys jump on the bamboo trampoline while the third times it so that the platform slings him up high enough so he can touch the ornament up at the top of the photo.
Here’s my attempt… not enough air… gotta lose a few lbs.
Blowguns – it actually works, scarily well. You don’t have to blow very hard at all for the bamboo dart to come out and hit the target.
Mud Tattoos – these are basically henna tattoos. I really liked Tony’s
Cooking in Bamboo – You basically choose your raw ingredients like chicken, ginger, chili, garlic, etc. and then put them in a palm leaf lined bamboo. The bamboo sticks are placed on a fire while they cook (think of it like steaming in aluminum foil).
Dancing between moving bamboo poles – The music starts slow but quickly builds up speed so you have to (literally) stay on your toes or else get whacked by the bamboo pole.
Touring Long Houses – multiple families lived in these longhouses
And we’ll end with a couple of more photos we liked:
And this last one is of our little friend we called “McNugget.” He was fattening himself up on fried rice flour noodles. That’s how chicken mcnuggets are made you know… j/k.