In the night market in Taipei, capital of Taiwan, every shopper sauntered around with what looked like a red lollipop. Not to be outdone, I ordered one too. One bite of it, and I was assailed with a completely unfamiliar taste. It was chewy and slippery, and was anything but sweet. I asked my guide what it was. Apparently, pig’s blood was mixed with glutinous rice till both became solidified.
Soon enough, I learnt the rules of the game: thou shalt not enquire what the dish is until you have finished it. Seeking knowledge at the inopportune moment can be seriously injurious to your well-being.
Elsewhere in Taiwan, I had far better luck. In the small town of Hualien, to the north east of the island, the principal snack was a pounded rice sweet called mwachi. I’ve encountered it elsewhere in the region, but it’s never been as good, or as all-pervasive. Chewy and glutinous, it’s made of pounded boiled rice to which a modicum of sugar has been added. Like all sweets in the Chinese-speaking world, this one is not overly sugary. Mwachi in Hualien was flavoured variously with green tea, coffee or fruit flavours.
I’ve never yet bought an aerated drink in South East Asia: there are far more exciting cold beverages on offer. Usually it is bottled green tea with various levels of sweetening and flavours that vary from chrysanthemum to jasmine. In Taiwan, there was a highly refreshing, tangy drink called yuzu. Like a mosumbi in appearance, the flavour is unique, and mixed with crushed ice it made a fabulous thirst quencher. I’ve never seen yuzu juice in any other country I’ve visited, but am told that it is a common enough ingredient in Japanese cookery.
Bangkok, where street food is elevated to an art form, had yet another drink: cold coffee. My hosts called it socks coffee, because of the sock-shaped plastic strainer in which coffee grounds were steeped all day long by cold coffee vendors. No instant coffee and no buffalo milk. The result was a dark, strong coffee sweetened with a combination of condensed and evaporated milk. I’ve tried desperately to replicate it in my kitchen, even bringing back the coffee grounds and evaporated milk, but the exact result continues to elude me.
Street food plays a far larger part in South East Asia than it does here, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Bangkok. Whole streets turn into hawker centres come nightfall. Amity is the name of the game. There is usually only one purveyor of curries, one person selling Hainanese chicken rice, one noodle soup seller and so on. Plastic chairs and rickety chairs appear as if by magic, and a line of BMWs and Mercedes SLRs disgorge fashionably dressed youngsters till 3 am. You don’t, my hosts informed me, wait till you are hungry to eat. You just go on all day long. Phad thai, kai bai krapow, steamed chicken balls with a spicy sweet sauce – the list is endless.
Bangkok’s street food is so famous because of the sheer variety of it. You can spot a fried insect seller, his wares unselfconsciously displayed according to type of insect (no I didn’t try any: wasn’t even tempted to), chilled jelly in sugar syrup – white, black or red take your pick, and best of all, fruit sellers. Thailand has the best fruits of any country in the region, and given the high standards of hygiene, you can enjoy juicy pineapples, yellow watermelons, delicately flavoured mangosteen or sweet crisp green mangoes, all cut into bite-sized pieces, put into a plastic packet and drizzled with an addictive blend of salt, powdered palm sugar and chilli powder. At the other end of the scale, you can enjoy roast duck in Bangkok’s Chinatown, called Yawarat, under the stars, or premium ingredients like barbecued lobster sitting on uncomfortable chairs on the pavement.
Macau has little in the way of street food. You’ll find no street vendors rustling up hot meals by the side of the road. Instead, there are snacks sold in shops that line the road, particularly on the approach road to the steps of St Paul’s Church. The most popular one is large, shiny slices of what looks like aam papad, but which is actually processed pork and beef, cooked with sugar. Aficionados rate Macau’s national snack very highly, but I found the combination of sugar and meat strange to say the least. Much better were the peanut cookies that softly melted in the mouth, leaving the crunch of coarsely chopped peanuts. I wasn’t alone in my opinion: every visitor to the erstwhile Portuguese colony carried bags in the familiar cream and brown packaging of the island’s most famous peanut cookies.
I’d love to know why egg custard tarts are so popular all over the Chinese-speaking world: they seem more western than oriental to me, with their flaky pastry baked with delicately flavoured egg custard. A tiny shop on Coloane Island, off Macau has a huge crowd and a dozen or so gigantic tourist buses permanently attached to it, and though they do other western-style confectionery, there’s no doubt that their egg custard tarts outshine any other in the region. Our tour guide confessed sheepishly that his family would fling him out of the house if they knew that he’d been to Coloane Island and failed to buy them tarts. This from a man who visits the island three times a week!
The only other place that egg custard tarts are elevated to an art form is Shanghai, otherwise bereft of a street food culture. Come 4 pm and it is impossible to walk down a road anywhere in the city where the aroma of the egg custard tarts doesn’t tantalize you. Shanghai’s somewhat self-conscious status as an international city means that street vendors have had to be ‘cleaned up’. No rampage, however well-meaning, can ever rid the city of its single-minded obsession with hua may. This is the collective name for dried plums and berries. Cured with a mixture of sugar and salt, there are several dozen varieties of fruits, each with its own texture and combination of sugar and salt. Absolutely nothing is written in English, so I resorted to the simple expedient of buying up one of every packet that was being sold in Carrefour’s and the other stores that carried the stuff. I spent many happy hours reading into the night with a packet or three of hua may beside me.
Beijing was the exact opposite of Shanghai: there’s a whole street where vendors set up their stalls every evening. I’ve had powerfully pungent black stinky tofu, beef intestines on skewers, mutton tikkas sprinkled with jira, salt and chilly powder that is a West China Muslim speciality. I did, however, draw the line at consuming roasted silkworms on skewers. Just walking around the unending line of vendors was a revelation. The administration sought to showcase street food from as many parts of China as possible and roast duck’s intestines and braised rabbit’s head was a feast for the eye and the palate. What I enjoyed the most was the striking difference between the strident yet sober Han Chinese vendors and the even more raucous and utterly flamboyant Huis from West China. To an outsider, anyone who lives in China is Chinese, but between the two groups, there’s hardly any similarity.
Raucous is the word that springs to mind in Hong Kong’s dai pai dong areas. As an international city, Hong Kong’s administration decided to shift street vendors to specified areas, a few of them air-conditioned malls. The vast majority of vendors appeared to sell seafood in some form or the other. Indeed, one important market sold nothing but dried seafood: shrimp roe, dried octopus, abalone and fish. This besides spiffy shops that sold nothing but shark’s fin, political correctness be damned. Hong Kongers all have their favourite wonton mee stalls, which they drive up to in silver Mercedes Benzes long past midnight.
Hong Kong has a chain of stores called Aji Ichiban that sells all manner of hua may. You’ll get dried jackfruit and mango, dried shrimp tossed with sugar and sesame as well as powdery beef floss. So integral are all these to the Hong Kong way of life that there’s a branch of Aji Ichiban at the departure lounge of the airport too.
Singaporeans are known not to cook at home. Not when the nearest hawker centre is just a step away from their homes or offices. You can dine like a king for Singapore $ 3. The variety of cuisines are fascinating too: there is the Indonesian Nasi Padang, with its plethora of simmered dishes to go with rice, there is Hainanese chicken rice, considered the national dish of Singapore, there are fish-head curries, Indian-inspired dishes like martabak – mince stuffed parathas, Malaysian specialities and Chinese hawker dishes that you’ll find in no restaurants.
Not only is choosing your hawker centre important, but it’s vital to pick out the individual hawker who can elevate a good meal into a great one. Hawker centres around major tourist areas tend to take too many short-cuts; the best ones look run-down, and are in areas that only locals frequent, but pack a mean punch. My advice is to go by the recommendation of locals: even the receptionist of your hotel or your cab-driver can be spot-on, because Singapore is a city of fanatic foodies who think nothing of driving miles to their favourite hawker stall.
However, it is Penang in the north of Malaysia that is my personal hawker-heaven. Don’t even bother with anything resembling a street-side stall outside Georgetown, the funky British rule-meets-Chinatown part of the island. Chinatown expectedly has only regional specialities from the southern provinces – Hainan, Teochow, Fukkien and Guangdong. I ate a delicious chang – a samosa-shaped mound of glutinous rice, salted egg yolk, Chinese sausage and black mushroom all wrapped in a bamboo leaf and steamed, in the shade of a century-old shop-house. In Gurney Drive, eating under the stars is the closest you’ll get to heaven: rojak – the mixed fruit salad mixed with a strong, black-as-coal tar mix of fermented shrimp, soy and sugar, chicken satays with peanut sauce and pressed rice squares, mee goreng and mee hoon – two types of noodles that are virtually the national dish here.
That street food in Penang is something of a cult can be gleaned from the number of guide books on the subject listing names of the stall-owners, their recipes and their addresses, they are as ubiquitous as the telephone directory!