Roti Can’t-I

May 20, 2009
Flour + Water = Flop

Flour + Water = Flop

I wish I had paid more attention. Not that it would be helping me now. But I didn’t fully appreciate roti canai while I was in Malaysia, eating it every third day or so.

Roti canai (pronounced chahn-eye) is a flatbread with a crispy outside and flaky, soft layers inside. It is a Malaysian variation of Indian parathas, another flatbread. Most of the time there was one Indian man at the bread table, making these to order.

Sometimes we had it plain, for dipping in curries. Sometimes it had onions inside, cooked til crisp-tender and sweet. A dessert version contained bananas, palm sugar, and butter or margarine. I’m drooling just thinking about them.

Of course I want to be able to make some at home. Internet searching produced several different recipes and a number of videos showing the shaping of the bread.

The dough gets flung in circular motions, somewhat like the skirt of a flamenco dancer, until it is thin enough to see through, and large as a pizza. It is folded over onto itself like an envelope, which traps bubbles of air and fat, giving it flaky layers.

My first attempt wasn’t too bad, but the dough never got really thin, and there were no flaky layers. I decided to try a different dough recipe.

Last night the dough balls soaked in a bowl of oil. Today I attempted to shape them into thin rounds, and while the dough looked more like how it does in the videos, and I could get it much thinner, it was still not working.

I used whole wheat flour, which may have been part of the problem, since the bran and germ seemed to contribute to all the holes I was getting. I’ll have to try again using unbleached flour. My technique isn’t too bad, considering I’ve only done this twice. It almost looks like the people in the videos, except that my dough doesn’t land in a graceful circle on the counter. It sort of crashes, the way some ducks and other birds land on water, stopping forcefully and suddenly, jerking forward and smashing their faces.

Here is what roti canai is supposed to look like:

Roti Canai

Roti Canai

Here is what mine looked like:



I may have to go back to Malaysia to eat more!

And the Winners Are…The Best and Worst of Malaysian Food

May 18, 2009

Looking back on three weeks of exotic and interesting vegetarian and vegan Malaysian food and drink, it is difficult to choose the best and worst of what I sampled. Overall, everything was delicious and complex. The curries were rich, flavorful and varied. The drinks were refreshing after tromping through hot cities and humid jungles.

Here are my picks for the best and worst.

Strangest Drink I Liked:
Tie: Corn Juice and Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie

Corn Juice
Sold, as many drinks are, in large, clear aquarium-like boxes, scooped with a ladle, I thought this yellow liquid was lemonade, pineapple, or mango juice. When they told me it was corn, I had to try it. It tasted like sweet corn, ice cold, almost like the milk leftover at the bottom of the corn puffs cereal bowl when I was a kid. A nice surprise.

Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie
This was in a brand new macrobiotic, organic restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Apple-peach jam was blended with beet sugar and umeboshi vinegar to create a thick, sweet-sour smoothie that had me longing for more.

Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie

Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie

Strangest Food I Liked:

Vegetarian Mock Fish
Chinese have a long history of creating mock animal dishes using vegetable and grain products, especially soy and wheat. At several places, we ate mock fish, which used a piece of nori, laver seaweed, as a skin substitute. Just that small amount of seaweed was enough to impart a fishy-ness to the dish and a realistically stretchy texture of fish skin. One was served mounded into the shape of a whole fish, and inside we found a sugar cane stalk pretending to be the backbone.

Vegetarian Mock Fish

Vegetarian Mock Fish

Strangest Vegetable I Liked:

Petai, Stinky Beans

Stinky Bean Pods

Stinky Bean Pods

These looked like jumbo green edamame, with a similar taste and texture to match. We had them cooked in a spicy chile dish, which I dubbed “Malaysian Chili Non Carne.” Later we pulled over at a roadside stand during one of our long bus rides to purchase and eat some raw.

Stinky Bean

Stinky Bean

Some of the other people in our group found them disgusting and bitter. They were okay but had a green taste that I would never crave again. They get their name, “stinky beans,” from the tendency, like asparagus, to make your urine smell like them.

Favorite Vegetarian Mock Meat:

Vegetarian Char Siu
As a child, my mother and grandmother put slices of Chinese sweet roast pork, or char siu, into bowls of saimin, Japanese noodle soup, along with fried egg, fish cake, and green onion. It is also part of the filling for a Hawaiian snack food from the Chinese culture, char siu bao, or manapua in Hawaiian.

Vegetarian Char Siu

Vegetarian Char Siu

I tried to ignore the fact that the red coloration was probably produced with some red food coloring with carcinogenic properties, and instead tried to appreciate the fact that because we ate it so often, odds were good that I could successfully figure out how to make it once I got home. Every version we tried at the many different restaurants had a chewy texture and sweet-salty taste with hints of Chinese five spices. I wish I had some now…

Favorite Malaysian Vegetarian Dish:

Rendang is the national dish of Malaysia. Meats include everything from beef to mutton to chicken. Vegetarian versions mimic the meats, or use firm vegetables like nangka, jackfruit. The curry is a dry one, meaning the sauce is cooked until there is almost no liquid left.

Vegetarian Beef Rendang

Vegetarian Beef Rendang

We sampled one particularly delectable version of beef rendang at a Nonya (Malaysian and Chinese fusion) restaurant in Padang, where the “meat” had a stringy texture. It was served with equally bizarre bread that was pillowy soft, sweet, and made up of column-like strands compacted together.

Note the column-like structure of this rendang-accompanying bread.

Note the column-like structure of this rendang-accompanying bread.

Worst Thing I Ate:

This notorious “King of Fruits,” named after the hard, sharp spines covering it, is so pungent that it is illegal in many places in Asia to take into elevators, buses, and other public places. The smell reminds me of rotten onions, and unfortunately, the taste was pretty much exactly like it smelled, only sweeter and creamy, with a lingering foul aftertaste. Ugh. But at least I got to try it!

Spiny durian cut into wedges, exposing edible chunks of creamy fruit.

Spiny durian cut into wedges, exposing edible chunks of creamy fruit.

Durian lovers can indulge in candy, filled chocolates, ice cream, and cake, if the fruit isn’t enough.

Strangest Ingredient I Liked:

Bunga Kantan, Torch Ginger Flowers
We have a climate similar enough to Malaysia that we are able to grow torch ginger here, but I had never eaten it until I went to Malaysia. It was used in herbal rice and other curries, where it imparted a peppery, pungent, succulent texture and taste just like the flower smells.

Torch Ginger,  mature flower

Torch Ginger, mature flower

Strangest Condiment I Hated:

South Indian Chiles
These chile peppers are soaked in yogurt, then dried in the sun, resulting in a burnt, bitter, spicy hot taste that I tried once and never again after that. Our tour leader, however, was crazy about them, so he collected the unwanted ones from the rest of us to devour happily with his Indian food.

Most Addictive Food:

Vegetarian Krupuk
We ate a shrimp-flavored snack like this as kids, called shrimp chips, in Hawaii. The chips on this trip were plain or onion versions, made from tapioca or rice flour, and deep fried. The result is Asian potato-chip-like junk food.

“Very more-ish,” as the Brits on our tour would say. (“More-ish” is their term for “addictive”…because you eat it and keep wanting more.)

Malaysian cuisine is clearly one of the least known and under-appreciated of all the cuisines in the world. Combining thousands of years of culture from its three main ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese, and Indians, the results of this culinary fusion are indescribably complex and delicious. I will be craving Malaysian food from now on.

Let the Testing Begin!

May 16, 2009


After three weeks of spicy Malaysian curries, chewy roti and refreshing drinks, I am back in the real world. Nobody is cooking for me. I cannot sit at a table and have more fake mutton rendang. My fridge is empty (although there is now a new stash of dark chocolate from Malaysia and Japan) and I have 55 pages of journal scribblings and recipe notes to wade through. I want to re-create many of the scrumptious dishes I had in Malaysia.

So let the testing begin!

I was working on my first dish tonight, and it wasn’t as simple as you’d think. Salad from a few ingredients needs something extra to make it taste like more than just those few ingredients. And without the original dish in front of me, I have only my memory and palate to guide me. I think I came close, but I’m not sure.

Back to the cutting board…

How About a Tree-top Canopy Walk?

May 10, 2009

Okay, I’ve done it. I faced my fears. And they won. Today was the one activity I’ve been dreading this entire trip. Swim with sharks? No problem. Navigate a new city, avoiding drive-by purse snatchings? No problem. Eat fermented tofu sauce? No problem. Do a canopy walk? No way.

I’m afraid of heights. It took me years to go higher than the first step on a ladder. I do not climb.

The itinerary read: “Ascending heights of 25-40 meters (80-130 feet), we’ll walk one of the world’s longest canopy walkways (installed without any nails being driven into the trees.) Just one innocuous-sounding paragraph in 26 pages of itinerary. Yet it was the stuff that nightmares are made of. Mine, at least.

Fortunately, my roommate was also afraid of heights, so I wasn’t the only seemingly cowardly one. We climbed about 80 steps up the jungle hill to get to the beginning of the canopy. The first bridge wasn’t too high up, just a two-story climb inside a wooden tower.

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m a crybaby. I cry when I’m angry, tired, frustrated or scared. This was all of those. As I watched the others in my group start to cross, the tears began.

The bridge was solid planks of wood, so you couldn’t see through to below, but only about two feet wide, suspended by netting attached to cables between large trees. The guide kept asking if I wanted to go back, but I just stood there, unable to answer, rubbing my running nose on my already damp-with-sweat shirt. The walkway bounced and swung as the others walked.

“You don’t have to go,” he kept saying. “We recommend people who are afraid of heights not do this.”

My roommate set off, non-emotional as usual, calmly crossing.

I know my limits, but I also know I don’t give up without a fight. And that if I didn’t at least try it, I’d regret it forever.

I stopped crying just long enough to sputter, “I want to try.”

He and the local official forest naturalist told me I could go back and wait for the others if I couldn’t do it after the first bridge. The naturalist took my backpack, which had about fifteen pounds of water in it, and said he’d be right behind me.

I took my first step and kept moving, grabbing ahold of the rope sides. As I progressed, the crying went from weeping to all-out sobbing, and I had to keep blinking away the tears so I could see where I was grabbing. At one point, the bridge really shook and swayed, and I let out a yowl, sounding uncannily like the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz. But this was no act. I was obviously quite terrified. I realized the height wasn’t as big a factor as all the moving and shaking.

I reached the platform at the other end, stepped up onto solid ground (sort of–it was also swaying) and put my forehead against the tree and cried some more. I must have cried a pint of water in those 20 minutes. The crying stopped momentarily as I accepted the fact that I had made it so far, but the decision still needed to be made as to whether I’d continue or turn back.

“Are there four more bridges?” I asked.

“No, there are nine more.”

“Oh God, no, I’m not going.” Four more I thought I could handle. Nine more, definitely not.

The naturalist waited for me on the platform as I tried to calm down.

“Relax, tek a look at de nice scenery,” he suggested. After I had leaned against the tree for a long time, I did. There wasn’t much to see except the leaves and branches.

He told me some of the bridges were a lot longer and one was shaped like a “U”. You had to walk down, then up again. I was so happy I had given up when I did. But I still had to re-trace my steps to go back.

This time I was pretty dry-eyed until the very end, when it shook a fair amount, and I started crying again. But we got back to the wooden building and I was happy to be back on solid ground, so to speak.

Back on the main jungle trail, we climbed another 40 or so stairs to wait for the others, who emerged some 30-40 minutes later. Despite outward calm, my roommate said she was very scared and had been teary after the first bridge. She said she wouldn’t do it again.

Others told me there was one bridge with ladder-like steps they needed to climb that I wouldn’t have liked. Besides, even after all of that, all they saw while up there was one small lizard in a hole in a tree. I was happy to have wimped out after all. And that was just the start of our day.

Malaysian Cooking Class

May 9, 2009

Finally, the thing I had been most looking forward to–our cooking class. We were staying at a sort of hotel in a village in the countryside, in small huts built on stilts, in the style typical to the state of Perak, where we were.

The largest hut in the center was just for meeting and eating. The owner and his wife, who also own a hotel on an island accessible by a 15-minute ride in their metal boat (watch your butt when you sit down in this blazing sun!), were our guides and hosts for our time there.

Ibu Asiah and her friends Ibu Anita and Ibu Zalehan had spent time preparing some of the ingredients we’d be using in the class. They had also spent hours earlier that day making us a delicious lunch of rice with herbs: Centella asiatica, gotu kola or brahmi, henna, and the leaves of a Garcinia species; fried tofu in a soy sauce, and a spicy vegetables with sambal (chili paste.)

Vegan herbal rice with torch ginger flowers (the pink bits)

Vegan herbal rice with torch ginger flowers (the pink bits)

They also spent several hours with me watching their every move, taking pictures, asking them what things were called, what they had just added to the wok, and what I could do to help, in my imperfect Malaysian, and them answering in Malaysian and me not understanding most of what they said. Fortunately, Ibu Asiah knows so much English, my Malaysian was not really necessary, but I always try.

Ibu Anita working hard

Ibu Anita working hard

(I think it’s very ethnocentric to visit a country and not use their language, or at least try to. Even if it’s just please, thank you, and hello, I think it makes a world of difference.)

At any rate, we were given recipe cards with specific amounts of ingredients and preparation directions, which is nice. All the “recipes” I have been collecting so far by trying to talk to the locals has been just a list of items and a general idea of how it’s done. I need to go home and figure out all the details that make a dish delicious.

We watched as Ibu Asiah and Ibu Zalehan chopped onions and garlic and pounded galangal and chiles in a stone mortar and pestle.

Ibu Zalehan pounds curry paste, while Ibu Asiah explains.

Ibu Zalehan pounds curry paste, while Ibu Asiah explains.

The first dish was a pineapple curry, which used a ridiculous amount of curry powder (about 1/2 cup for one pineapple) to create what became one of our favorite dishes we have eaten anywhere to date. The spices cooked down into a rich, complex broth which offset the sweet-sour pineapple perfectly.

Ibu Asiah stirs pineapple curry while her son, Azam, asks, "What step are you on, Mama?"

Ibu Asiah stirs pineapple curry while her son, Azam, asks, 'What step are you on, Mama?'

The second dish was curried nangka or jackfruit. Coconut milk and herbs created a spicy broth for the jackfruit, which has a texture unlike other vegetables. It’s not really fibrous, yet it maintains its firm texture even when cooked, yet it’s still soft…kind of hard to describe. If you have eaten banana flowers before, it is very similar.

The third was peanuts fried in shallots, garlic, onions, and chiles. This was almost like the sos kacang or peanut sauce we have had several times before already, except it is more like a snack or condiment. The peanut sauce is the same sort of thing, plus water and coconut milk, then blended.

She gave us a small sample of each dish as it was completed, and it was all I could do to lick the plate clean. Ibu Zalehan kept asking if I wanted more, but I told her in Malaysian that I’d wait to eat with the others, because if I ate it now, I’d eat it all. At least, that’s what I think I told her in Malaysian.

It had been 6 hours since lunch, and I was getting lightheaded with hunger by then, especially after having spent the last hour in the blazing sun, kayaking with another woman, who had never kayaked before. We were having problems just going in a straight line, and we were both hot and frustrated.

Her husband, who has a sarcastic, witty, British sense of humor, was making comments and giving directions from his solo kayak in the water nearby. Normally I enjoy his repartee, but I told him to shut up, or I was going to whack him upside the head with my paddle. His wife was a little more polite. “I’m very frustrated right now,” she said. “Please don’t joke about this.”

Needless to say, we made it all right. Not sure I’d do it again, but it worked up an even bigger appetite, so I was more than ravenous by the time we had dinner that night.

Lovely Leeches

May 8, 2009
The anterior sucker of this leech has just found a snack.  Photo courtesy of Peter Woodard at

The anterior sucker of this leech has just found a snack. Photo courtesy of Peter Woodard at

Taman Negara, or National Park, in Malaysian, is one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Now a protected area, it is home to numerous species, including elephants, tigers, bats, monkeys, and the one animal that gets more mention than all the others put together…leeches.

We spent three humid days in the jungle, home to more insects, bugs, butterflies, creepies, and crawlies than you could ever dream of. But I’m here to tell you about the leeches. I think I’m the only one in our group that avoided them. The almost knee-high rubber boots, pants tucked in, long-sleeved shirt, and gloves probably helped. So I sweated my guts out and had to carry more than 15 pounds of water in my backpack for the one hike I bothered to go on. Hey, it worked for me!

One woman in our group was very paranoid about getting them. I understand she did quite interesting dance moves the few times she found them on her shoes, trying to get a bite (I was at home, relaxing in my air-conditioned hut, so I have to take their word for it.) After one hike, she got back to the hotel room and was absolutely horrified to find one on her chest, and another that had climbed up her legs and planted itself high on her inner thigh. Luckily, her husband was able to remove them for her.

Leeches suck blood. They have sensors on their body that detect light, temperature, and vibration. So when hikers cross their path, they jump up and start inching around, looking for breakfast. Or lunch, or dinner…or a juicy snack.

We spotted one on the first hike. It was inching across the forest floor, over leaves and past several different kinds of ants, looking like a skinny earthworm, reddish-brown in color, looping its body and stretching it. Later my roommate had two on her ankle. One fell off as she walked past my little hut (we had separate little huts there) onto the cement path, leaving a puddle of blood.

The leech on the left has just fallen off, leaving a trail of blood.  The leech on the right, just above her ankle, is still feeding.

The leech on the left has just fallen off, leaving a trail of blood. The leech on the right, just above her ankle, is still feeding.

Leeches can increase in size from 2-10 times when they are full of blood. The ones on her leg were swollen into an oblong teardrop shape, with the anterior sucker (they have two) end staying small and wormlike. The leech that had fallen off tried to inch its way back onto her leg, then apparently either was too full and fat to climb up again, or decided it was full and stopped.

On the right of this engorged leech is the anterior sucker, inching as it moves, leaving a puddle of blood behind.

On the right of this engorged leech is the anterior sucker, inching as it moves, leaving a puddle of blood behind.

When a leech bites, it injects a painkiller so you don’t feel it, then a mucus to help stick to you, as well as an anticoagulant called hirudin. This keeps your blood flowing freely until the leech is full and falls off, two to four hours later, and for a while afterwards. Many a hiker has been surprised by a bloody shoe or ankle, finding a leech they otherwise wouldn’t have known was there.

Those very same things that make the leech so disgusting, however, make it useful to medicine. They have been used by the Indians, Greeks, Egyptians, and medieval Europeans for centuries. Since the 1980’s they have been used in plastic and reconstructive surgery to help remove blood clots and to bring circulation to areas such as fingers that have been cut off and reattached, to get blood flowing again. They have also been used to treat black eyes, sucking the blood out that causes the black discoloration.

Here in Malaysia, leech farms have been broken into, because they are quite valuable in the medical world. Leeches can sell for up to 60 Malaysian ringgit per kilo (2.2 pounds.) That’s about $17 U.S., or enough to buy you about 12 lunches of curried rice and laksa, plus ais limau (like lemonade.)

Shall I bring some home as souvenirs? Just kidding! Nature is amazing.

Sharks were the least of my worries…

May 2, 2009

We spent three idyllic days on Tioman Island, 30 miles off the eastern coast of Malaysia, in the South China Sea. A speedy ferry whipped us over there, where we were deposited at the end of a long jetty (pier) and walked about 2 miles to the end of the beach in the town of Air Batang, to our chalet rooms.

Our tour guide insisted we were “roughing it,” but my sense of “roughing it” and his are a bit different. Each room had a bed with mosquito netting, a fan, electricity 24 hours, running water (although it wasn’t hot), a hot pot to boil water, clothesline, and patio overlooking the ocean crashing below. Where was the roughing part?

The view from my balcony

The view from my balcony

I suppose it could have been the fact that it was so hot, I dripped sweat constantly, or the lack of hot water. But really, the last thing I wanted was any more heat. Cold was fabulous. An extra bonus was that my roommate and I each got our own rooms, which was nice. We’re not sick of each other…yet. In fact, we get along just fine.

But back to the island…

We spent two full days on a small boat put-putting over the mostly calm ocean to islands offshore where we snorkeled in the ocean, which was welcome relief from the heat. The sun was so strong, however, that our guide from India had his first sunburn there (on an earlier trip.) My roommate, a Latina, also had her first burn. I have spent the past two days applying aloe vera lotion to her painful, red skin.

The blue diesel-belching boat

The blue diesel-belching boat

The second day was more of the same, with the diesel fumes from the motor enveloping us, so loud that we had to scream at each other unless our mouth was six inches away from the next person’s ear. This time we were looking for black-tipped reef sharks. A friend at home asked, “Is that safe?” when I told her where we were going.

The sharks were the least of my worries. I told her it’s like anything else in Nature…if it’s your time to die, it’s your time to die. I just hope it’s not too painful. Our tour guide assured us they were shy but curious and more likely to swim away.

We first spent some time snorkeling around the island, and to get around the point, the current was so strong, I nearly gave up, as some of the others did. I used a technique I’ll call “swim like hell and don’t stop, or you’ll be dragged out to sea” (although technically, we were already in it…)

I was able to rest a minute by bracing against a sharp, barnacle-covered rock. Just a few yards ahead, though, and the worst of the current was over. Then we hovered motionless at the surface and enjoyed the Disneyland-like ride, watching as saucer-shaped coral as large as pillows and clownfish like Nemo passed below. There were brightly colored wrass that swim by flapping only their pectoral fins, flashing fuscia surrounded by a stripe of electric blue on the sides of their green bodies.

Then it was time to look for the sharks. We continued drifting in the strong current, through murky water for a while. Nothing. When it was time to head back to the boat, it was “swim like hell” time again, and this time I nearly did give up.

I could hear my breathing heavy, rapid, and non-stop in my snorkel. Good thing I had brought my good one from home, which is virtually leak-proof. I’m sure if I had choked on any water, I would have been in serious trouble.

I was keeping my distance back from the others, since I had already been kicked in the head and nearly had the snorkel punched out of my mouth inadvertently by others. Next thing I knew, there was a curtain of bubbles, and they were gone. Nothing but me and the murky green below.

I alternated crawl and breast strokes with my arms, and pretended I was doing stair stepping machines with my legs. Visibility was good enough that I could see down and realize I was making nearly no progress for my all-out effort, but I kept thinking, nobody to save you but yourself. Keep swimming!

I suppose I should have asked the tour guide if he was trained in life saving beforewe headed out, but then again, if he had said no, I would have been freaking out even more. I popped my head up, and he was there, saying, “Just relax. Keep going,” and pointed toward the boat, which was waaaaaaay too far away.

I put my head back down and started a mantra, I have stamina, I can do this. Besides, what choice did I have?

I thought of that friend and how she was worried about the sharks. Sharks, my @##!

Eventually the current abated a bit, and I was finally close enough to the boat to ease up on my effort. I do not ever want to do anything like that ever again.

Drinking iced drinks as we watched the sun set and the hermit crabs come out that evening, I thanked our guide for his help. He said yes, he was certified in open-water rescue, and yes, he could have saved me, there’s a technique. Whatever.

The good thing is, at least I burned off a lot of the delicious food we’re eating!