Malay street food: Nasi dagang (Kelantan fish curry & rice breakfast)

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Nasi dagang, like nasi kerabu is a speciality rice dish from the North Eastern Muslim states of Kelantan & Terengganu & the southern states of Thailand.

The main components are rice, curried fish and loads of optional sides. The word Dagang translates as trade, making this dish ‘traders rice’ in English. Nasi dagang is a north-eastern breakfast equivalent to nasi lemak, a popular breakfast on the west coast and southern states.

nasi dagang in Kota Bharu
The rice is thick and creamy, a mixture of jasmine and glutinous rice steamed with coconut and various spices including fungreek and black peppercorns.
The fish, a meaty fish like tuna is mixed with a conventional spice mix, a paste of the usual suspects – ginger, garlic, shallot, galangal, chillies, palm sugar,  coconut milk & fish stock.

The fish and rice is served with pickled vegetables, sambal, boiled egg and fried shaved coconut.

Overall, It’s a really delicious breakfast which we sought out every day in Kota Bharu, the mixture of flavours are typically South East Asian, sour pickle from the veggies, spicy from the sambal and a slight sweetness in the rice that is prevelant in Kelantan, Terrenganu & southern Thai states.

We (repeatedly) enjoyed eating nasi dagang in Restoran Capital, on Jalan Post Office. It’s a very low key muslim place (dress respectfully) wonderful eats with a little coffee shop, too. order directly with the lady at the front who puts it all together in brown paper (no plates!) for a very reasonable price, little english spoken.

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Malaysian Street Food : Bak kut teh (pork tea bone soup)

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Bak kut teh is a Malaysian soup, developed from the Hokkien and Teochew chinese communities.  It’s an intensely flavoured herbal soup, cooked down for hours with chunks of melt in your mouth pork rib and a mixture of Chinese herbs and spices, the soup is a dark colour from the use of soy in the broth. It generally includes some offal and a mixture of mushrooms, including those long thin enoki ones.
It’s served with white rice, a mixture of chopped chillis and garlic as a condiment and Youtiao (AKA chinese crullers/chinese donut)

bak kut teh in penang malaysia

As a westerner, this meal is so far out of comfort zones and frames of reference as the soup broth has such a herbaceous and almost medicinal taste to it, mixed with the deep, strong spices associated with Chinese cuisine. It’s both earthy and sweet, with a bit of saltiness from the soy sauce.

Bak kut teh is often eaten for breakfast, although my local friend enjoys eating this late at night after a few drinks or when he feels a bit ill with cold and flu. Penang has a great food culture and old Greenhouse food court sells bak kut the from 8PM all through the night. It’s a little more expensive than your average Penang hawker meal, at around 20RM, but the portion will easily serve two.

It’s well worth trying once, when visiting Penang.

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Malaysian Street Food : Lor Bak (Fried five spiced pork rolls)

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Lor bak is a typical dish of the Penang area, often found in kopitiams, (the Hokkien word for coffee shop) and hawker collectives.  Historically, It comes from the Chinese Teochew and Hokkien ancestry.

The dish itself is more of a snack or finger-food, pork is seasoned with a five spice mix and rolled in thin beancurd  sheets before being deep fried until all crispy and golden. Like loh mee, it is served with a thick, emulsified brown gravy thickened with cornflour.

Lor Bak

Photo supplied via Flickr with a creative commons license – Thanks, Chee Hong.

Lor bak is a festive food for the Chinese New Year, however hawkers prepare and cook lor bak all year round. Often they sell other fried finger foods, such as fried fish balls, beancurd and minced prawns. One local I spoke with recommended the hawker at Kheng Pin Café, a hawker collective who sell amongst other things Hokkien mee and char kway teow.
try not to t sit at the tables closest to the lor bak seller if you don’t want to smell like the frying oil.

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Malaysian street food : Nasi kerabu (ketalanese blue rice)

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In North Eastern Malaysia, the states of Kelantan and Terengganu are staunch Muslim areas, with far fewer Indian and Chinese citizens than other, more touristy areas, like Penang. It’s a fairly interesting area that few travellers take time to explore, often only overnighting on the way across the Thai border or on their way back from the Perehentian Islands.

Being a predominantly Muslim area the food culture is quite a lot different from  the typical Malaysian tourist destinations, obviously there’s no pork  (aside from the tiny Chinese enclave – which coincidently is the only place you’ll find a beer, too.) and plenty of locally treasures, one of which is Nasi Kerabu.

kelantan nasi kerabu kota bharu

Rice is such a staple of the region, and nasi kerabu is a great showcase of Kelantanese cuisine, visually it’s unusual as the rice is a bright blue colour, having been dyed using the leaves of a peaflower (although, I’m sure many shortcuts are taken and  food colouring is more than likely used in its place)  The rice is then a centrepiece of a sort of salad – including salted egg, coconut, beansprouts, ground fish, sambal, fresh herbs and Keropok (a type of prawn cracker).  Additionally,  a bit of grilled chicken, or another local specialty, Ayam Percik can be added with chillies stuffed with ground fish and coconut.

Kota Bharu's famous central market showcasing Kelantan produce.

Kota Bharu’s famous central market showcasing Kelantan produce.

The flavours balance between spicy, sour and sweet – the Ketalanese are known for having a sweet palate. It’s one of my absolute favourite rice dishes, and the area of Kelantan has some other dishes well worth seeking out – Ayam percik & nasi dagang.

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Malaysian Street Food : Banana Leaf Curry (south Indian curry spread)

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India has a long history with Malaysia, mass migration occurred during the British occupation of Malaysia when Indians emigrated for labour purposes and long before then Indians and Arabs were travelling the trade routes and settling across the South East Asian region.
Indians are the third most represented ethnic group in Malaysia and have a good diplomatic relationship – India and Malaysia have a migrant working visa arrangement similar to the one that takes thousands of young Europeans to Australia and New Zealand every year.

As such Indian food is wonderfully represented in Malaysia and one that would be most familiar to western visitors is a banana leaf curry, a popular south Indian curry dish.

Banana leaf curry devi's corner bangsar KL kuala lumpur malaysia

Banana leaf curries are a sort of buffet meal in one, usually you’ll get to choose the main attraction, usually  a chicken, fried fish or other meat (sometimes mutton) curry.   And then a server will ladle spoons of vegetable sides, rice, pickles and a poppadum onto your  big green plate.
It seems fairly standard for everything to be drenched with gravy, but often as westerners we get asked if we like any and a little is poured to the side – it’s worth asking what the sauces are as there’s often a spicy chilli one and a rasam (spicy sour) available.

Banana leaf curry devi's corner bangsar KL kuala lumpur malaysia

Banana leaf meals are traditionally eaten with the hand (typically, your right hand only although, many places will have cutlery if you ask) and to show good etiquette you should wash your hands before and after eating.

 Often you can ask for more rice and pickles at little or no extra charge, and when you’ve finished eating etiquette dictates you fold your leaf in half, both as a thank you and a symbol to staff you’ve finished eating.

Banana leaf curries can be a great way to sample a lot of different flavours, as well as being disposable (they literally grow on trees, after all… ) I read banana leaves contain an antioxidant which food can take on, and also gives a nice fragrance. They’re also usually pretty good value for money and will really fill you up as well as giving you a big chunk of your 5-a-day.

KL and Penang have some good places to check out, click on the links to read more.

Malaysian Bahasa isn’t going to be very useful in your average banana leaf restaurant – most staff will speak Hindi/other Indian dialects and some degree of English.

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Malaysian Street Food: Roti babi (fried pork sandwich)

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The name roti babi literally means ‘pork bread’, a dish of peranakan straits heritage, often referred to as nonya cuisine due to the cultural identity of women, the cooks as ‘nonyas’.

Essentially, and very vaguely they are the descendents (the word Peranakan translates as ‘descendent’ in both Malay & Indonesian Bahasa, according to Wikipedia) of Chinese traders who settled into Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Indonesia and whilst retaining their home culture they took to their new environments, married locals and over time fused everything together to create their own, unique culture.

There’s a tonne of interesting foodie things that have come from nonya culture.

Roti babi cake at Yut Kee restaurant Kulala Lumpur`

Roti babi is a sort of fried pork sandwich. French toast with an Asian twist, if you will.  Slices of white bread are filled with a mixture of ground pork, crab meat onions, garlic and a spicemix. The whole mixture is egg coated and fried. It’s often best eaten with Worcestershire sauce and chillies.
It’s absolutely calorific, indulgently greasy Chinese Malaysian dish that is increasingly hard to find available from hawkers. Yut Kee in Kuala Lumpur is an old school Kopitiam well worth visiting, and a place to pick up a roti babi.

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Malaysian street food: Curry mee (curried noodle soup)

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After grazing our way through some other areas of Malaysia we made our way up to Georgetown, Penang (or Pinang), lauded as the food capital of Asia, street food mecca, whatever. We had high hopes. 

Penang is world famous for having a cultural melting pot of Indian, Chinese and Malay population who all contributed to the culinary landscape.
Penang did not disappoint, in fact it was probably better than expected – One thing; if you’re planning on eating like it’s your last week alive don’t visit during the lunar new year festivities.

Curry mee, a noodle soup, a sort of curry mixture. That sounds like a safe choice and a nice comforting dinner with a splash of local cuisine. Well, yes and no because curry mee is not entirely as the name suggests.

Curry mee is, essentially a Penang variation on the rich curry laksa, one of the most well known meals in all of Malaysia.
Curry mee varies in a few ways, for example the broth tends to be much thinner with a less creamy texture. One addition less commonplace in laksa is the addition of coagulated blood cubes, with the rich irony taste you should expect (much like a black pudding, for example) but with a jelly like texture. It’s a delicious addition to a rich soup and offsets the curry and (like laksa) cockles.
Penang Curry Mee noodle soup Georgetown

Like a Laksa other ingredients include prawns and light plump tofu pieces.

 It’s a really delicious, wholesome and not too spicy soup which should tick all of those adventurous boxes of experiences and tastes when travelling – The use of cockles and blood jelly are probably unconventional to your tastebuds but they are delicious in the context and shouldn’t put you off trying this. The fresh mint scattered on the top is another great addition and further adds to the layers of flavour.

If you’re heading to Penang, check out my food post about all the great things you should eat and try in this magnificent city.
Phrases worth knowing  

Penang’s a pretty mulitcultural place and English will generally be spoken by almost everyone. But often a few Malay words are useful, although sometimes a grasp of Hindi, Hokkien or Cantonese would be advantageous.

Satu – One
Dua – Two
Tiga – Three
Hello  – Hello
Apa kabar – are you well/ how are you?
salamat pagi – good morning
Salamt tingal – goodbye
sila (see luh) – please
Terima kasih –  Thank you
berapa harga – how much?
tidak pedas – no chilli
bungkus – Take away
Tidak – No
Ya – yes
Maaf – sorry

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