Monthly Archives: December 2017

Ruminations On Food 3: An Ode to Petai…

I hope you’re all enjoying the festive season. To celebrate, I bought a copy of the National Geographic Food magazine and was browsing through it when the words ‘butterfly pea’ caught my eye. This distinctively blue flower is used in Southeast Asian cuisine, but it isn’t exactly a household staple. What was butterfly pea doing in the National Geographic?

Colouring tea, it seems. Butterfly pea tea? You bet, and in bags too!

Butterfly Pea Tea in National Geographic Food

#bluetea is apparently gaining in popularity. To date, the hashtag has garnered 9,211 posts on Instagram. National Geographic Food helpfully tells us that adding lemon to the blue-coloured tea turns it pink. If only they had shown a cup of pink tea!

The butterfly pea flower is mentioned in my novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, where the protagonist, who is a chef, uses it to colour one of her cakes. Here’s an interesting fact: the butterfly pea has a scientific name, which alas is clitoria ternatea. You can see why I don’t say this in my book! National Geographic doesn’t mention it, either. Instead, the magazine highlights the butterfly pea’s antioxidant properties.

Which begs an intriguing question: if a plant as innocuous as the butterfly (or blue) pea can have useful health properties, what future might there be in world cuisine for Malaysia’s more potent plants and vegetables?

And there is an incredible variety of these, starting with my favourite legume, called petai in Malay, stinking bean in Chinese. This vegetable looks harmless, though its effects are anything but. Here’s a link to an image of petai uncooked, but do not be deceived. This is not just another broad bean; it’s a natural chemical weapon, transforming those who consume it into human stink bombs.

Unlike strong-smelling cheeses (reblochon being an example), petai doesn’t smell in its raw state (when inside the pod). It’s only after it’s cooked that the bean starts to become interesting. And then, when petai has been eaten and properly digested, its full force is unleashed. What goes in must come out, and petai re-emerges as a unique aroma oozing out of your every pore and orifice. For the next few days, people around you will smell petai on your skin and on your breath and elsewhere too. I describe this in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds:

Normally stir-fried in a sambal paste, petai is best known for the pungent aroma it leaves in the room – and in latrines afterwards.”

Below is what a dish of petai in a sambal looks like. If you’re not familiar with sambal, this is a delicious spicy sauce, and it’s beloved in Southeast Asia (here’s the Wikipedia entry).

Petai in Sambal

A plant as powerful as petai must surely have significant nutritional value. Searching on Google led me to the plant’s scientific name – parkia speciosa – and a flood of speculation. Petai is apparently high in antioxidants, potassium, carbohydrates and fibre and is said to be helpful for depression, pre-menstrual syndrome, anaemia, blood pressure, brain power, hangovers and loads more besides. Really? Could any single food possibly cure so many ills? Universal panaceas make me nervous, even though my intuition tells me that petai probably does have much unharnessed nutritional value.

The actual smell of petai is difficult to describe. I don’t think of it as pleasant or unpleasant, but it is peculiar. If you come across a distinctive smell that you can’t place and it’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled before, it may be petai!

Last week someone at a book talk I gave asked whether I had any food cravings, and I’d forgotten about petai. This is truly the only Malaysian food I suffer cravings for. Every few weeks I need a fix. For obvious reasons I must time my intake carefully, and this has led me to make a few rules.

  1. Don’t eat petai unless you’re going home afterwards (or to a Malaysian house).
  2. Never eat petai before flying.
  3. Abstain fully during a PR campaign!

The one person who has to put up with my petai obsession is my long-suffering partner. Once, I stir-fried petai in a garlic and sambal sauce without warning her beforehand. I thought it would be enough if I took extra care by closing the kitchen doors while I cooked and giving the kitchen a good airing afterwards. Alas, where Malaysia’s most potent foods is concerned, such efforts are for nought. As soon as my partner stepped inside the house she gave me an odd look, muttered ‘Oh my God, it’s petai’ and flew around opening every window!

Despite such perils, I know of 3 Malaysian restaurants in London that serve petai. For hard core aficionados, the C&R Café in Soho would be the place. There, they serve the petai beans whole (instead of halving them) in a cuttlefish sambal. If you eat petai here, everyone will know what you’ve been up to – this is the Real McCoy. Don’t expect much service, though; you come here for food. I also like Satay House in Paddington – the oldest Malaysian restaurant in London and still going strong. However, the portions here are smaller: there’s a lot less petai for your pound, and the beans are smaller too. But it’s worth a visit just for the smiles. When I’m really desperate, I end up at Rasa Sayang in Soho. Here you don’t get much petai, and the beans are halved and as small as those in Satay House. If you want to try petai this may be a good choice: for some reason the petai here is less smelly. Perhaps they soak them in water beforehand.

If you asked why I like petai so much, I couldn’t really tell you. My craving has something to do with the bean’s texture, its pungency and its utterly inimitable taste. There must be an emotional aspect, too, in the way the taste reminds me of my Malaysian childhood.

Gotta Have ‘Em Juicy Petai!

What’s clear is that when I haven’t eaten petai for a while – as is the case at this very moment – I start to miss it. At the risk of sounding like a crazed addict, I will confess that I can already feel myself approaching a tipping point, after which I’m bound to go a little cranky. As I write this I’m in Florida, where there’s no petai to be found. So I know exactly what I’ll be eating when I land in London! With that delightful prospect in mind, here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year! And please do share your food cravings with me!


Filed under Cultural Identity, Malaysia

Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court

Below is a photo of a dedicated food court in Ipoh, my hometown. By ‘dedicated’ I mean that it’s not attached to a shopping mall – the GP Food Court is a destination in itself. The building sports ultra-high ceilings that permit an extra floor above. This space houses a gym, though I can’t imagine how anyone would exercise in the midst of such tempting smells. Which may explain why I’ve yet to see the machines upstairs being used.

The GP Food Court, Ipoh

You can smell the food court before you actually enter, thanks to massive doorways in every direction. As if the aroma of so much food cooking wasn’t bound to waft upwards and outwards anyway, at the GP Food Court there are giant fans to aid this drift. The fans here really are enormous. You can glimpse an example above, on the top edge of the photograph. They swing at speed, too, though you can’t see this: you’ll have to take my word for it!

Food courts everywhere excel in choice, but there’s choice and then there’s choice. Take a peek at the photograph below.

Enough to Give You a Headache

This is the selection at just one stall. Notwithstanding the neon sign advertising ‘Rice’, this stall also serves noodles, in case you don’t fancy rice. It’s a well-known fact that you can’t serve rice and noodles on their own – you need things to eat them with  – and this stallholder is thoughtfully offering a panoply of dishes: braised, fried, boiled, double-boiled (all right, I made that up, though I imagine that they would if they could). There are raw dishes too, in the form of salads.

The sheer amount of choice can induce a headache. This is what happens to my partner; on each and every trip to Malaysia there’s always a first time in a food court and it’s as if she has never seen anything like it before. She’s overwhelmed, her eyes don’t know where to focus and her brain stops making decisions. She opts instead for the one or two dishes she knows – and never tries anything else.

Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce, Anyone?

Malaysians, on the other hand, are so blasé about food choice that stallholders have to be inventive. Ever tried Chicken Chop Rice with Guinness Sauce? Me neither. There’s also Portuguese Style Chicken Chop Rice on the top left hand side – a nod to our colonial history.

Most people know Malaysia as a British colony, but the Portuguese were actually here before them, followed by the Dutch. The latter two powers only conquered Malacca, a beautiful and very historical port town south of Kuala Lumpur. Our colonial past would explain why Cheese Baked Chicken Chop Rice is on this menu – cheese is definitely not Malaysian.

You may also notice that the signboards have Chinese ideograms and English words. This is because the GP Food Court is not halal, you see, which means that its patrons are largely Chinese and Indian. The Malay populace – who by law have to be Muslim in Malaysia – would be frowned on if they entered a non-halal food court – not frowned on by us, but by Malaysia’s religious officials and the religious police among its citizenry. Who said food couldn’t be a political tool?

Nonetheless, there are (for the moment) still Malay vendors selling food inside Malaysia’s non-halal eating places, including at the GP Food Court. They usually specialise in satay – a traditional Malay dish of meat that’s diced and marinated, set on skewers and then grilled over a charcoal flame fanned by palm leaves. Satay is eaten with a rich and deliciously spicy peanut sauce. The woman satay seller in the GP Food Court owns satay stalls in two other food courts – and we eat at all three (I love her satay).

To cleanse the palate, there’s also fruit at the GP Food Court. Not just any fruit, but imported fruit. In England or France, a trader would proudly proclaim his fruit as being British or French, but we in Malaysia still have the whiff of a complex. The subtext from this stallholder’s sign is that the fruit must be good, since it’s imported.

There are thousands of food courts like this all over Malaysia. There are also halal food courts, of course. For instance, the food courts inside Malaysia’s shopping malls are all halal – because only hawkers offering halal food can gain operating licences there. Whether halal or non-halal, whether located in Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Penang or Malacca, on each of my visits in the previous ten years, every food court I went to was packed. But what people eat and how much they eat has changed – because times are now tough in Malaysia.

So tough, in fact, that even leading entertainers are speaking up. This is unprecedented. Only last week jazz singer, Sheila Majid, tweeted about Malaysia’s cost of living while a popular actress, Nur Fathia Latiff, criticised the government. Not surprisingly, both have been told to shut up.

None of this should affect visitors, however: the country remains stunning, the people welcoming, the food fabulous. Even on my most recent trip the meals I had ranged from good to superb: it’s hard to have a terrible meal in Malaysia. If you ever make it there, I would definitely recommend a visit to a dedicated food court. Be dazzled; be spoilt for choice. Do what Malaysians do: let your nose and eyes guide you. If the food smells good and there’s a queue, chances are, you won’t regret it.

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Filed under Identity, Malaysia