What I did on my long weekend, part 2

Welcome back to the continuing story of what I did on the Saturday long weekend! After my excursion to the City Market, I popped home briefly to drop off my farmers’s market goodies. Next up, the annual Edmonton Heritage Festival!

This is my favourite Edmonton festival. The food, the sights, the culture, Hawrelak Park, the weather – they all combine to make a perfect day. I admit I have a soft spot for this festival; I was a frequent volunteer back when I was a student. I spent many years handing out maps at the information booth, and even spent some time drawing awkward cartoons on kids’ faces (“But I don’t know how to draw,” I cried. “That’s okay,” they said as they handed me a box of face paints.). One year I had a really fun job where I got to wander around the whole park and ask people to fill out a short survey about the festival. It was the best volunteer job I’ve ever had so far, probably because I wasn’t stuck in a tiny booth or in one spot for my whole shift.

After lathering on DEET (to fend off the mosquitoes that have invaded the city) and sunscreen, and carrying a bag of canned food for the Edmonton’s Food Bank, I headed off to Hawrelak Park. I was happy to see quite a lot of people in attendance; from my past experience Saturdays generally aren’t as busy as Sundays and Mondays, and I wondered if there would be a lot of competition due to all the other events happening in the city at the same time. Finding the Food Bank donation box was easy enough because they were everywhere near the bus drop-off, but finding a map or information booth proved to be nearly impossible. Who’s bright idea was it to stick them in white tents with only one tiny sign on the front of the booth? And why were they all open to the middle of the park instead of facing the pavilions?

All the pavilions were using bamboo or recycled plastic cutlery, and what looked like to be recycled plates and bowls. There were a lot of recycling bins around too, but it looked like people were confused as to whether or not they could recycle their cutlery and plates once they were finished with them.

My first stop was at the Thailand pavilion for some pad thai and sweet sticky rice and mango goodness.

Half eaten pad thai and sweet sticky rice and mango

Half eaten pad thai and sweet sticky rice and mango

And then the Boreno tent tempted me by offering laksa on their menu. It was ok but ultimately disappointing to someone who has eaten really good laksa before – the soup wasn’t coconutty enough, the shrimp was deceptive because it was only half of a piece, and there was barely any hot spicing to the soup.

laksa

laksa

A stop at Portugal netted me BBQ sardines and a pastel de nata. The pastel de nata was creamy and a little less sweet than the Chinese version that I’m used to, which I liked. The sardines were big ones, unlike the dinky ones that I’m used to finding in cans, and were a great value for the ticket price. They were delicious and a maybe a tad too salty, but I was a little bit disappointed that they weren’t gutted at all. The bones of the smallest fish were easy to crunch into, but the larger ones had to have the flesh picked off of them. I admit I did eat the heads. And they were yummy. Don’t knock fish heads until you’ve tried them!

BBQ sardines and pastel de nata

BBQ sardines and pastel de nata

I actually had a passing stranger stare at me and emit nervous giggles as I ate Peru’s offering of anticuchos (beef heart marinated in vinegar, oil, cumin). Tender and flavourful, this dish was one of the highlights of the day.

anticuchos

anticuchos

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Pandan Agar Agar recipe

I am going to a potluck dinner today! (More on that another day.) I wanted to bring something a little different that some people may not have tried before. This is a South-East Asian vegetarian and dairy-free gelatin dessert that uses a couple of ingredients that may seem exotic to people unfamiliar with food from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia.

Pandan Agar Agar

Pandan Agar Agar

Pandan leaves (also known as pandanus or screw pine leaves) are a plant that is often used in South-East Asian cooking and appears in desserts, flavoured rice, curries, etc. The taste and smell of pandan is uniquely floral and slightly grassy. It is often paired with coconut; in fact, if you buy something that is coconut flavoured and it is green coloured, it probably has some pandan in it as well. People sometimes say that pandan leaves are as important to South-East Asian cooking as vanilla is to Western cooking. In Edmonton, you can purchase pandan leaves frozen from Asian grocery stores like T&T Supermarket and 99 Supermarket. I picked up pandan extract at 99 Supermarket.

pandan extract

pandan extract

Agar agar is a derived from an algae and is often used as a substitute for gelatin. It is most commonly used in South-East Asian and Japanese desserts, but sometimes gets used as a general thickener for food. You can sometimes find them in Asian grocery stores as long, dried strips, flakes or as a powder.

I originally was going to use a recipe that I found on the Internet or from a cookbook, but all of the ones I found weren’t quite what I was looking for. I ended up doing a test run and finally settled on these measurements as my preferred recipe.

Pandan Agar Agar

Ingredients
1 1/2 cup water
400 ml (approx 2 cups) thick coconut milk (use a higher fat milk – the one I used had 17 g of fat per 1/2 cup)
2/3 cup sugar
3 tsp powdered agar agar
approx 1/2 tsp pandan (also known as screw pine) extract (also sometimes called essence or paste)

Directions
Place the water, coconut milk and sugar into a pot and bring to a low boil.

Sprinkle the agar agar powder into the pot slowly while continuously stirring the mixture. Be careful because the powder can easily clump in the liquid if you add it too quickly. If it does clump, then break it up as much as you can and keep slowly stirring until the lumps dissolve in the liquid.

Slowly add the pandan extract until the desired green colour is achieved. I added 1/2 tsp, but really the amount added depends on your preference.

Place the mixture into molds or a casserole dish and let cool. Agar agar will become solid at room temperature, but it will solidify faster in cold temperatures. I generally let the agar agar cool down a little bit, and then pop them into the fridge. I recommend making your layer about 1/2 inch tall or less; once you get much bigger than that the mixture will settle toward the bottom and the top part of the agar agar will become translucent. The flavour will fall to the bottom as well.

Once cool, unmold or cut the agar agar into squares, rectangles, parallelograms. I used a small cookie cutter to create fun shapes.

N.B. Alternatively you can use pandan leaves and make a pandan juice instead of using the extract. To create the juice you take about 8 long leaves and rinse them. Chiffonade the leaves if you can, or at least try to slice them into as small pieces as possible. Place them into a blender with 2/3 a cup of water and puree. Strain the mixture with a cheesecloth. If you substitute the juice for the pandan extract, remember to reduce the amount of the water in the above recipe to 1 cup.

This dessert can be made vegan if vegan sugar is used. It is Celiac-friendly as well, but you probably need to use the juice instead as I am not 100% sure the extract is gluten-free.

Tropika, Edmonton

I recently stopped at Tropika for a meal, and picked a few things off their menu to share.

Unlike in Malaysia, these portions are quite large. An order of Singapore laksa (made with what looks like a red curry as opposed to a yellow curry) can feed 2-4 people. The flavour of it was good but it was disappointing to find that the majority of the bowl was made up of noodles. It would have been nice to have more sliced of fish cake, tofu puffs, shrimp and bean sprouts.

Singapore laksa

Singapore laksa

Their roti canai is light and fluffy; I would say lighter and fluffier than the ones I ate in Malaysia. The accompanying curry sauce is, like their laksa, more of a red curry than yellow. Their satays (chicken and lamb pictured here) are seasoned well and come with a dish of spicy peanut sauce, pineapple and cucumber. The peanut sauce is probably the best part of this dish.

roti canai and satay

roti canai and satay

Tropika is pretty much the only Malaysian restaurant in Edmonton. I wish there were more choices, but you make due with what you’ve got! I tend to stick to a few specific dishes such as the ones I ordered, or perhaps picking up some mee goreng instead of a laksa. Their pineapple fried rice, served in half of a pineapple, is a great dish for kids or for adults who are looking for something without heat. If you want to try Malaysian food, I would suggest going to Tropika (and staying away from the Thai dishes as there are better places to have Thai food in Edmonton), or try the handful of Malaysian dishes over at Matahari on 124 st.

Tropika
6004-104 Street
Edmonton, AB
or
14921 Stony Plain Road
Edmonton, AB
www.tropikagroup.com

Tropika (South) Malaysian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Cooking on the go in Malaysia

During our visit to Balik Pulau in search of durian, my father dragged me over to this cart and insisted I take some photos and record a video of the hawker at work. I’m not posting the video — mostly because the audio that comes with it consists of my father poking me and asking over and over if I’m doing it properly and me protesting back that yes I was taping it and if he’d stop poking me the camera wouldn’t shake. I am posting a photograph though, because the scene was actually quite interesting.

The hawker is frying noodles on the side of the road. I love the image of her cart because it’s on wheels and at the same time practically contains a whole kitchen, complete with a wok and fire. Yes, real fire. When she turned the crank (visible over by her apron), it manually spun a metal fan, which in turn fanned the flames and increased the heat.

I can’t comment on the food however, as we didn’t buy any of it. I did feel a bit guilty that I took photos and videos of her without purchasing something, but we had a van full of people wondering why on Earth the two of us were staring at some lady frying noodles when we were all supposed to be in the van and travelling back to Georgetown. Van full of angry people > my guilt.

Hawker frying noodles

Hawker frying noodles

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre night market, Malaysia

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre

At one end of Persiaran Gurney (Gurney Drive) in Georgetown, there is a very large hawker centre that only operates at night. One nice thing about it is the large amount of choice available there. One not as nice thing is that prices are generally higher than at other hawker stalls. Saying that, however, the food is still pretty cheap by North American standards.

Like other hawker places, when you sit down you must purchase a drink. In this case, with so many tables, each section of tables are claimed by certain drink vendors. So you could be sitting at one table and have to order soy milk, and if you’re sitting at the next table over, which happens to be owned by a juice vendor, then you order juice. In my case, I had a delicious fresh squeezed watermelon juice from the stall in the photo.

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre - juice stand

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre - juice stand

This next hawker stall sold seafood. The cockles (similar to clams) in the baskets along the bottom of the photo were lightly cooked and really delicious. A friend asked me if those cuttlefish were real; yes they totally were.

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre - seafood

Gurney Drive Hawker Centre - seafood

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The dreaded smelly fruit

You can’t go to Malaysia and not eat some durian. Unfortunately.

For this dreaded moment, we took a car trip to a small town called Balik Pulau, located in another part of Penang. The ride was actually quite interesting as we saw parts of the coast, as well as forests and plantations. Balik Pulau is famous for its access to durian and apparently for its Penang assam laksa.

Durian is an acquired taste that is not for everyone. The fruit with a sharp, spiky skin. Inside are soft globes of edible fruit, with a large seed inside each piece. Texturally, the fruit is creamy. Taste-wise and smell… well, try imagining something left in the gutter to rot for days. There’s a very good reason why this stuff is banned from hotel rooms. As you can tell, I am not a fan.

Durian is also one of those things that my father insists on getting me to try over and over again despite my protests.

“Oh it takes better than it smells,” he said the first time. (I was a naïve child.)

“Try it again – this one was more fresh before it was frozen.” (All durian found in Edmonton is frozen.)

“It tastes much better with salt.”

Lies, ALL LIES!

And the other lie is that when it’s fresh it’s milder and creamier. I can’t dispute the creaminess, but the taste was still nasty. I told him it was the absolute very last time I was ever eating it. Hopefully he actually believes me this time.

Durian from Balik Pulau

Durian from Balik Pulau

Penang assam laksa from Balik Pulau

Penang assam laksa from Balik Pulau

While in Balik Pulau I also tried some Penang assam laksa – you can see from the photo that this is one had a lot more fish in it than the other photo I posted earlier. The flavour was good too, but not as good as my favourite one back in Georgetown.

I also had a sip of some nutmeg juice, made from the fruit of the nutmeg (nutmeg spice is made from the seeds). It was slightly bitter but refreshing at the same time. Probably not something I’d want to drink again, but definitely interesting to try.

Kek Seng Kopitiam, Malaysia

Laksa, popiah and ais kacang with durian ice cream oh my! Just a warning, this is going to be a long post. Kek Seng Kopitiam (coffee shop) is an institution in Penang. It’s been around for years and years, and frankly the atmosphere is a little dingy (although all the tables, plates, bowls, etc. were clean). The food is a little more old fashioned too; unlike at someplace like New World, the food is pretty much how it was served 30+ years ago (found something online that says Kek Seng opened in 1906). When we were there it was quite busy but we managed to snag a table.

One thing I miss dearly about Malaysia was the easy access to laksa. And by laksa, I mean Penang assam laksa. I talked about curry mee (curry laksa) a little while ago. That one is a coconut-based curry broth. Penang-style assam laksa is a sour, mackerel-based soup that is flavoured with tamarind, lemongrass, galangal, chilli, ginger flower buds, mint, pineapple and onion. You also usually get a soup spoon filled with a thick, sweet prawn paste called Hae Ko, and the whole thing is served with rice noodles (either thick or vermicelli).

The assam laksa at Kek Seng was one of my favourites that I had throughout the trip. A strong fish broth with all those spices and a slight sourness; my mouth is watering as I type this. This first photo is of the hawker stall; those pink things are the ginger flowers. When I’ve shown that photo to other people, the reaction I’ve gotten has been “you mean they actually use flowers and not ginger root?!”

Penang assam laksa hawker stall

Penang assam laksa hawker stall

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