Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Culture Shock: Buying Eggs

A Variety of Unrefrigerated Eggs at the Wet Market

When you move halfway around the world, you expect things to be different. You probably even look forward to the differences because they add to the adventure of living in a new country. It would be boring if everything was exactly the same as home. So, I was surprised that one of my first big culture shock issues came from eggs — yes, eggs. The first week after we arrived, I was buying groceries at Tesco (similar to Wal-Mart) and had eggs on my list. I couldn't find them anywhere in the dairy cooler section where they'd be in an American grocery store. They weren't with the chilled meat. They were just sitting out on an unrefrigerated shelf. Surely this couldn't be right.

I'm the kind of gal who's hyper vigilant about food safety. At least, I used to be before I moved here. If I was serving a mayo-based dip at a party, I'd look at my clock when I set it out on the table and then replace it with a new serving two hours later. Because that's what all the American food safety rules told me to do.

Now, I know that European countries don't refrigerate eggs. They have no problem leaving them out on the countertop. But this is hot-as-an-oven Malaysia, not the cool environ of Europe Even the outdoor markets sell their eggs at room temperature (88° F). If the very long discussion thread on Chowhound.com is any indication, I'm not the only one who wonders about this. Would the eggs be okay here?

Baking is one of my favorite hobbies, so giving up eggs is out of the question. Plus, it'd be really hard to avoid when eating out. I guess I had to bite the bullet and start using unrefrigerated eggs. I did eventually find refrigerated, pasteurized eggs at Cold Storage, the fancy expat grocery store, and I make sure I use these for all my raw egg recipes like ice cream. But I'll go ahead and use the room temp ones if I'm planning on cooking them.

Unlike in America, I can also find everything from Grade A down to Grade F eggs here. I splurge and buy the Grade A ones.

With Easter rolling around, I was faced with a new challenge — finding white eggs for us to dye. Every single chicken egg I've seen here is brown. My friend says she searched all over last year and never found white ones. So, I headed to the local wet market to see what I could find. The variety is amazing. They are sold in bulk. Just grab a basket and start selecting how ever many eggs you want.

What type of bird did you want the egg to plop out of? Chicken, duck or quail?

Teeny Tiny Quail Eggs about as big as my thumb

Salted Eggs

I had to ask the vendor what the black eggs were. They're salted eggs. Ideally, they should be duck eggs, but chicken can be used, too. Raw eggs are cured in either a supersaturated salty liquid brine or packed in a salted charcoal clay. Ah, that's why they're black. After you buy them, you rinse it off and boil it. The salt permeates the entire egg and gives the yolk a deep, orange-red hue. It's a popular condiment cut into wedges in the local rice porridge.

Century Eggs

I didn't have to ask about Century Eggs because a) they were clearly labeled, and b) my parents ate them when I was growing up. Personally, they never appealed to me as a kid, and I haven't worked up the motivation to try them as an adult. These eggs are preserved by being covered in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime (as in calcium oxide, not the fruit) and rice hulls for several weeks. The ones in the picture are advertised as lead-free. The other ones (leaded, I guess) looked like they were covered in a fine, brown mulch. Something about the clay, ash, and lime has always turned me off. Plus, when you crack them open, the white has transformed into a jelly the brown color of strong tea, and the yolk is black. I am too cheap to buy one and open it up to take a picture for this blog.

Score! I found white eggs! At least, they were mostly white. I definitely had to scrub some of the soiled bits off when I got them home. Some eggs were a grayish, almost translucent color, and others were a lovely shade of pale blue. I put them in the basket and handed them to the Egg Lady. She wrapped them up in newspaper, plunked them in a plastic grocery bag and handed it back to me. Our egg dying project worked out beautifully.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games 2: Penang is Catching Fire

Dear Mr./Ms. Movie Location Scout,
I'm sure you were excited when the producers and director of Hunger Games approached you to scout out locations for the movie sequel.  (Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire spoiler alert) Why did you head to Hawaii? It's so "been there, done that... yawn." You should have come to Penang to film the Third Quarter Quell Arena scenes for Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire. Why? Let me tell you.

[Haven't read the book or seen the movies? Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where teens are drafted from each district to engage in a battle to the death.]

1. You need an island, open water, and jungle.

Ta-da! Penang has all three. Every day when I look outside my window, I see a vast expanse of water with the hilly mainland in the distance. The jungle is everywhere. The national park on the northern tip of the island is perfect for all your running through the jungle scenes. We even have a big hill you can use.

You can't see the Cornucopia because it's behind me.
Finnick just rescued Peeta from the podium on the left.

Come on tributes. Let's form an alliance.

2. There's no need for the actors to pretend that they're hot and sweaty.

They'll already be that way. No makeup or method acting needed. Katniss's description of the heat and humidity in the Arena syncs perfectly with the constant stickiness I feel in Penang.

3. We already have evil monkeys.

At first, you think, "How cute! Those monkeys are just running around in the wild." Next thing you know, they are literally emptying out your friend's wallet and grabbing her car keys, threatening to run up into the trees with them. Penang also has a popular spot called Monkey Beach. Need I say more?

Thieving ruffians disguised as monkeys.

4. It storms like clockwork here.

I'm not talking about a gentle pitter-patter rain. I'm talking about a full-on, take cover now thunderstorm. You can see it sweep across the island, bracing yourself for when it hits. I've even heard someone say after school, "Here comes the 4 o'clock rain."

3:59 p.m. The sky is clear.

4:00 p.m. Watch the storm race towards you.

5. We have dangerous flying insects.

You think the mosquitos are just a minor nuisance, like the ones in Texas, until you hear all the ads on the radio warning about mosquito-borne Dengue Fever. After my debilitating bout with Chikugunya, I no longer open my windows for a breeze. Mosquitoes are why I was at my son's baseball game, contemplating the possibility that I'm contracting a disease while just cheering on the team.

6. Watch out for the fog.

Don't want to bother with special effects for the paralyzing fog spreading through the trees? Just wait for the haze that floats over whenever Indonesian or mainland Malaysian farmers decide to clear their land via fire. Visibility goes down while eye and lung irritation goes up.

Run away! Run away while you can! Here comes the deadly fog.

7. We have our share of scary monsters.

When I first visited Penang on my exploratory trip, I saw a very large — maybe 4-foot-long — reptile wandering on the beach. It was a monitor lizard. Then it sidled into the ocean, and I watched it undulate across the waves. I pray to God I never encounter it up close. I would send photos, but they have an unintentional Loch Ness monster feel to them.

And of course, there's the monstrously long reticulated python all the school kids petted until they realized it was still alive. It was just sleeping, not dead. The picture the teacher emailed parents shows about the 1st grade class lined up side-by-side along the length of the snake. My goodness, it was big! Plus, it had an interesting lump where it had swallowed a goose.

When my girl said, "Come and see the snake," I was expecting something much smaller.

It just looks dead but it's not
(until the next day when it ended up on the High School dissection table).

8. We've experienced tidal waves.

This one is actually rather sad. The same 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand and Southeast Asia claimed 52 lives in Penang. Had I lived here at the time, I could have watched it roll in from my home's windows. The kids have had tsunami drills at school, and I praise the teachers for their preparedness. This is basically one of those worries that I compartmentalize and shut away in my brain.

9. All that Arena Food grows here.

No need to import large nuts, rats or shellfish. Penang has them in abundance.

10. Planes sometimes appear out of nowhere.

Granted, they don't just materialize out of thin air. But one fighter jet has flown by so close to the ground that I could look in its windows for just a second before it zipped away.

11. You'll just have to fake the blood raining down from the sky.

I really can't think of a parallel for this torture. Good for Penangites but bad for you, Movie Location Scout. Let's give those CGI people something to do.

Perhaps you want to film other key scenes here. I'm sure that if you spruce up some of the old British colonial mansions, they could stand in for the Victor's Village. The newly built Gurney Paragon mall could stand in for the Capitol.

Are you worried that diva-esque actors(or their celebrity pop princess girlfriends) will rebel at shooting in such a rustic location? Never fear. Penang is peppered with luxury resorts and eclectic boutique hotels where they can stay. Plus, the spa treatments here are so cheap that even the guy who holds the cue cards can afford to pamper himself. Everyone will thank you.

You should have filmed Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire right here in Penang.

With warmest regards,

I have yet to watch the movie, but I enjoyed the book. I swear that the entire time I was reading the Arena scenes in Catching Fire, I felt like author Suzanne Collins was describing Penang. Except, you know, she added in all the angst over someone being out to kill you. So all you Hunger Games fans, come out and give us a visit. See what living in the Third Quarter Quell Arena is really like.

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday on Budget Travelers Sandbox. Check it out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Close Encounters with Flesh-Eating Fish

I dangled my feet into the warm water and waited. At first, I felt nothing. Then, the fish came and started EATING ME ALIVE!!!

That's right. I paid money to stick my feet in a tank of flesh-eating fish. 

There are a number of Fish Spas all over Penang, and I've been meaning to try one ever since I arrived. When a Groupon showed up for a US$6 session, how could I resist? Garra Rufa (a.k.a. "Doctor Fish") were first discovered in a hot spring in Turkey. Some dude over a century ago went soaking in it and noticed that, after a few sessions, his skin was noticeably smoother. Flash forward to the 21st century. George Will is holding them up as a symbol of free enterprise while Nickelodeon's VicTORIous shows tweens the downsides of trying it out.

What you're probably wondering is "How does it feel to be attacked by flesh-eating fish?" Back in high school, my Biology II Lab teacher had a piranha. If we were good that day, he'd let us feed it a hot dog. Wowzy, it really had sharp teeth and could gobble huge chunks out of the sausage. Luckily, the fish spa was nothing like that.

I was a tad apprehensive at first. When I looked down into the tank, at least the fish were small, probably no more than an inch long. So, how big of a bite could they really take out of me? It felt like light, feather kisses, no more troublesome than a little fly crawling on my skin. The fish only eat dead skin cells, leaving the healthy skin alone. I giggled at the ticklish feeling of them nibbling at my feet. I even wiggled my toes a bit, trying to get more of them to come over.

How could I possibly be afraid of these small fry?
It brings new meaning to "The fish are biting today."

Then, my friends and I decided to move on to the medium fish. These were just a little bit larger, so I wasn't too worried about sticking my feet in the water this time. What was most interesting about this room is that it's also for the private VIP full-body fish spa treatment. Yup, some folks immerse themselves from tippy toe up to their shoulders. According to the brochure, the Doctor Fish "industriously yet gently exfoliate stubborn and unreachable dead skin layers from your body." Ack! My feet are one thing, but no way are they going near anything else.

I'll have an order of Medium Fish, please.

As I relaxed in the darkened room, so many deep, philosophical questions floated through my brain. Where does this put me on the Food Chain? Where on the karmic reincarnation scale do Doctor Fish fall? What movie should I see when I've finished up here?

We saved the big fish for last. These were about the size of a bratwurst, almost as long as my foot. Doubt set in again. How committed am I to my quest for baby-smooth feet?

Much, much larger fish
I can see it's eyes!

I waited until everyone else submerged their feet before gathering my courage. I gingerly lowered my feet, but squealed and pulled them out when one started in on my ankle. These weren't gentle, little nibbles. These fish felt like some person was scraping their nails on me. Eeek! I put my feet back in and was relieved when they started in on my heels which were much less sensitive.

After 30 minutes, the attendant told us our time was up. How effective was the treatment? Probably about the same results that I'd get from a session with a pumice stone or Ped Egg (As Seen on TV!). But then how would these little fishies get their food? They probably licked their tiny Trouty Mouth lips and thought all-you-can-eat buffet when they saw me coming.

Would I do it again? If my friends and family come and visit, I'd definitely take them there.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Slice of England in the middle of Malaysia

When I awoke, I could scarcely believe that I was still in Malaysia. Gone was the oppressive heat and smothering humidity. In its place was a cool breeze and a refreshing dew. The sounds of chirping birds replaced the constant hum of traffic that I've grown accustomed to hearing. I looked out the window and saw a view that could pass for England. Tudor cottages dotted the hillsides, and a quiet mist settled in the valleys. It was such an idyllic, serene scene, that all I wanted to do was sit on the balcony and read Wordsworth (on my iPhone since I don't usually carry around books of poetry). Of course, since I'm a mother to three kids, this little poetry fantasy never panned out.

Like many locals, we had escaped the tropical heat by spending the weekend in the Cameron Highlands, a Malaysian hill station with roughly the same elevation as Denver, Colorado.  The area is known for both its agriculture and tourism. I knew we were nearing our destination when I began to see valleys covered with rows and rows of greenhouses. The roads were lined with numerous fruit and vegetable stands, cactus nurseries, strawberry cafes, honeybee apiaries and butterfly gardens. We stopped at a few to get out and stretch our legs. 

Scar tissue graffiti on a Prickly Pear at the Butterfly Farm
I didn't have the heart to add to it.

After we settled into our family suite at the Strawberry Park Resort, it started to rain, so we decided to stay in for the night. One of the hotel restaurants was having a Barbeque Buffet. The hostess offered us the A la Carte option, but when I saw the dessert table behind her, there was no question that the buffet was the choice for me.

Mmmmm... just how much dessert can I eat?

The next morning, the family split up. Hubby and my oldest boy were supposed to take a guided jeep tour up to Mount Brinchang and then hike down with a guide through the mossy forest to the tea plantation. When they showed up, the guide really tried to dissuade them. "It's challenging! Steep climbs, slippery slopes, jumping over rocks and crawling under fallen trees..." When hubby reassured them that he and the boy could handle it, the guide finally admitted that they didn't have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle available that day to take them up there. So, they ended up taking a shorter, Hill Forest Walk instead. The guide turned out to be very knowledgable about the local plants. He pointed out a place that just seemed like solid ground but was instead a bouncy build-up of leaves and tree roots. He also showed them the Drunk Plant. If you eat or smoke it, you get drunk. Hmmmm.... No, they did not bring any home.

The younger two kids and I headed out on an easy hike along Jungle Trail #4 to Parit Falls and past it for a little ways. It was just my type of hike — clearly marked, not too long, and semi-paved.

Reminded me of the Chocolate River in Willy Wonka's Factory
but not as delicious smelling

After we emerged from the jungle, we spent some time at the popular playground along the main road.

And I thought things were big in Texas!

Then, it was off to the BOH Tea Plantation in Sungai Palas. If there was ever a time in my life when I needed a flying car, this would be it! I really did not enjoy driving along the narrow, curvy, one-lane road leading to the plantation. I swear that at one point, I actually questioned whether or not the pavement was wider than the wheel base of my van. At least the view was beautiful.

Tea bushes as far as the eyes could see

The tea plantation is the largest in SE Asia and is definitely one of the must-see places in the Cameron Highlands. As we walked among the bushes, I rubbed some leaves between my fingers to see what they smelled like. It didn't smell anything like tea! I guess that fragrance must develop during the drying process.

The Face of BOH

Like many of the hotels in town, the Tea-ateria offered tea and scones. After our snack, we did a short walk-through of the factory.

The rolling machine breaks leaves up into fragments.

Dinner that night was at The Smokehouse, a Tudor-style inn set amidst a proper English garden. We relaxed and played cards in the fireside lounge while our dinner was prepared. The cozy room seemed just like a place where English gentlemen of yesteryear might retire after dinner to drink port and talk about foxhunts. My boy was happy I let him order the roast duck (no kids menu here), and I was glad he nearly finished his plate. The chocolate crepe for dessert was scrum-dilly-umptious.

The Smokehouse has the garden of my dreams.

We drove back to the tropical island of Penang the next day, stopping to pick our own strawberries along the way, with William Wordsworth's poetry running through my mind.

While here I stand, not only with the sense
      Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
      That in this moment there is life and food
      For future years.

from "Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"

* Kudos to you if you picked up on the super geeky sci-fi reference in this post.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Picking Strawberries the Futuristic Way

Spring is strawberry picking time in Texas. When my oldest child, was around two- or three-years-old, I brought him to Boggy Creek Farm, less than 3 miles from downtown Austin, to pick our own strawberries. This was your typical old-fashion farm. The white clapboard house has a front porch with rockers, and chickens roam the property.  The plants are laid out in the small fields in tidy rows. Sam Houston attended a wedding here back in 1841. Nowadays, the farm stand supplies many Austin restaurants and locavores plus sells the most amazing Smoke-dried Tomatoes.

What I remember most about that visit over a decade ago is my son's Godzilla imitation. He gleefully stomped on any strawberry plant he could reach before I had a chance to pick him up and carry him away. I was mortified! I meekly approached the farm stand and confessed what he'd done. Luckily, it was the end of the harvest season, and they were planning on pulling up all the strawberry plants the next day. Phew!

Perhaps that's why I never made the long drive out to pick strawberries at Sweet Berry Farm in Marble Falls, even though almost everyone swears that it's a great excursion with the kids.

Ten years later and a move to a new country gave me the courage to try it again. This weekend, we drove up to the Cameron Highlands to escape the Malaysian tropical heat. One of the biggest area attractions is its strawberry farms and dessert cafes. Strawberry souvenirs abound everywhere. So, we made sure to stop at the Big Red Strawberry Farm.

This is NOT an old-timey farm. This is the farm of the future.

Instead of an open field, we were in a greenhouse. Considering how much it rains, especially during monsoon season, I understand why they'd put it under cover.

Godzilla-boy no more

Instead of putting plants directly in the ground, these were grown hydroponically on racks with strawberries about 3 feet off the ground and parsley planted below it. A drip watering system ran up and down the rows providing a carefully controlled amount of nutrient-rich water. They grew lettuce in the greenhouse, too.

Hydroponically grown Green Coral Lettuce

They handed us scissors and a plastic basket, and we headed out to harvest. I can tell you one thing. Picking berries grown on racks is much easier on the joints than having to bend down and pluck them from the ground! With three kids hard at work, it didn't take us long to gather enough berries for our family. And no plants were trampled on this outing. Yay!

Be sure to leave a little stem on the berry to extend its shelf life.

Afterwards, we swung through the gift shop where, as you can imagine, strawberry themed products ruled the shelves. Interestingly, the dried strawberries had a hint of licorice flavor, probably because anise is a popular ingredient in the local food. The cafe had a mouth-watering selection of strawberry items plus a salad bar of greens hydroponically grown on site. We ordered the strawberries with cream, and my girl's eyes lit up when she heard the whooshing noise of cream squirting out of the pressurized canister. The muffins were quite delicious, too. I wasn't expecting much since Asian baked goods are just barely sweetened, but this one satisfied my American palate just fine.

All in all, it was a great experience. I'd gladly go back any time.

Related post:
A Slice of England in the middle of Malaysia

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Clinic Cafe: The Hospital Themed Restaurant

Kidney shaped pans — not just for hospitals anymore
Deep fried prawns... yum! 

I've been to my share of themed restaurants. There's The Magic Time Machine in San Antonio, Aquarium on the Kemah boardwalk, the long-closed Medieval Inn in Austin, and at least four locations of Rainforest Cafe to name a few. So, the first time that I saw the Clinic Cafe at a mall in Penang, I was intrigued.

Clinic Cafe has a hospital theme.Perhaps hospital food has a different reputation in Malaysia. After all, one of the most popular bakeries in town is located in a hospital. Maybe people here don't think of hospital food as bland, mass-produced, and somewhat mushy like they do in America.

One Saturday, I was looking for something to amuse the kids for a few hours and decided that Clinic Cafe would be the perfect prescription. We called some friends to join us, and off we went.

The place looked like a huge red and white hospital ward, the kind that were more prevalent before people started demanding private rooms. The benches that lined each stainless steel table had metal headboards and red vinyl cushions. Operating room lights hung from the ceiling. The tables by the entrance had working wheelchairs for seating. You could even scrub up at the multi-sink handwash station. Having just studied The Parts of the Body at school, my girl was excited to see a poster of the respiratory system on the wall by our booth. A flat-screen TV showing Tom and Jerry cartoons fit right in considering how often those two injure each other.

We grabbed some menus and took a look at the food offerings. It had a mix of Western and Malaysian food, and I'm kind of glad that they didn't try to get clever with the names just to carry on the hospital theme. No blood sausage or head cheese, thank goodness. We filled out the order form and passed it to the waiter. Or was that a Resident? After entering it, he came back and put a printout on the patient chart clipboard hanging from the headboard.

Is that flask full of urine or is it lemonade?

The drinks came out first, and the kids got a pretty big kick out of drinking from Erlenmeyer flasks. The food came out v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y which has happened to me before at other restaurants. Unlike America where the food is delivered to the table all at once, the norm here is to bring out each dish as it's ready. I think there must have only been one surgeon back in the kitchen and no one assisting because there were loooooong gaps between each one. In fact, three kids were already done eating before the last kid's dish was brought out. But no matter, the kids were having fun.

Because how could you not have fun when your ketchup comes in a syringe? For some reason, my mommy powers were weak that day, and I didn't predict that she would completely miss the chicken and the plate but squirt ketchup across the table instead. She had a mighty big cutlet. Luckily, they gave us scalpels for all our slicing needs.

At the end of the meal, I let them take turns on the wheelchairs which the kids thought was a blast. They even made a little train with the one in front doing all the work.

So what do you think? Would this go over well in America?

UPDATE: This restaurant in Gurney Plaza is now permanently closed. Perhaps too many people were found the concept revolting?
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