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Two of Our Favorite Things: Kaya and Soup Tulang

January 14, 2010

Despite the fact that it has been two and a half months since our travel around Southeast Asia I still have plenty left to tell you about that amazing trip. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’m constantly coming back to the question – What was my favorite thing?

I’m speaking specifically of food experiences here, and I’ve finally decided that if I had to answer that question there would be a tie. While everything was delicious and each food came with its own authentic experience, there were two very specific, very different things that stand out.

Kaya and Soup Tulang.

Let’s start with Kaya since it was what we began our day with every chance we were given. Kaya is a coconut jam made with egg and sugar or honey and often flavored with pandan leaf. I had read about it briefly before our trip not giving it a second thought or considering that it could end up being one of our favorite food finds of the trip.

I saw it on a menu at the first hawker we stumbled into while in Singapore, and recognizing the name, decided to try it. What we were trying here was actually kaya toast, or more specifically the best breakfast and snack ever!

We ordered kaya toast with butter and watched as the grill cook grabbed two slices of thick white bread, grilled them, slathered each piece with the kaya and placed a slab of pre-cut butter in the middle. It was assembled like a sandwich and sliced into fourths.

The kaya has a slightly gritty texture, is similar to custard in color and taste from the egg and has a strong coconut flavor. Combined with the butter on warm toast, it was delicious.

From that point on we had our eye out for it, stopping for a snack of kaya toast when we found it. And find it we did; in other spots in Singapore, in Kuala Lumpur and when we returned to Hong Kong on our way back to the US. We also picked up a few jars to bring back home and it is just as tasty on the hearty, whole grain toast I have for breakfast around here.

I was surprised how easy kaya was to miss when visiting these places. It seemed it was downplayed a bit in the resources I had read. The publications suggested trying it, but it wasn’t highlighted and I think it should be. Not only because of the flavor, but because it was so popular locally. The one spot we frequented while in KL had a line out the door every morning with locals eating kaya toast and soft boiled eggs for breakfast.

To find what ended up being our next favorite, I will admit we followed the Anthony Bourdain trail. Ever since seeing the episode of No Reservations in Singapore, my husband had wanted to try Soup Tulang, mutton bones simmered in a chili sauce, an Indian dish that has become a local favorite.

So one evening we made our way out to the Golden Mile Food Center which takes quite a bit of effort to get to, by the way. We took the metro for a bit of a ride and walked around a while before finally getting directions from a woman on the street. Then we walked for a couple blocks before finding the food center in the middle of a more residential area.

I’m pretty sure every stall owner in the place knew what we were there for. It seemed certain that people like us (as in Caucasian) most often go there for this specific dish. After circling the place a couple times we found the Haji Kadir stall which was featured on the show and my husband placed his order.

Going into this I didn’t really have an opinion about the dish. I wanted to try it, but I was a bit nervous about sucking marrow out of the bones. Oh, did I mention this is how you eat it? It’s the highlight of the dish. I wasn’t disgusted or anything. I was open to trying it, but expecting not to like it simply because I’m wasn’t sure I would be comfortable with the action of sucking on bones.

When we sat down with our plate, we realized that it was not at all a touristy place despite the fact that visiting foodies like us might make their way out there. We were surrounded by huge tables full of locals, sucking on bones, pounding them on the table to get the marrow out and leaving behind plates making the place look like a graveyard in a bad Halloween movie.

The plate itself is quite impressive to the eye. All that red chili sauce looked delicious and it was topped with just a little shredded cabbage. It was just barely spicy, but full of flavor. They also gave us a big plate of bread to dip in the sauce, a great combination.

I let my husband try the bones first and we decided to use the straw method to get the marrow out which, by the way, no one else in the place was using. I tried it next, not sure what to expect.

I picked up my bone, inserted the straw and sucked up some of the jelly-like substance that melted in my mouth like butter. I have to be honest with you, it was so good! The action of eating it felt odd and unfamiliar, but I definitely like bone marrow. The flavor of the chili sauce had cooked in, leaving a rich, slightly spicy flavor. We both walked away feeling that, if not our favorite food for the flavor, it certainly was for the experience.

So there you have it. I told you the two foods were very different! It was really hard to narrow it down to these two because I’m not sure we had anything that we truly disliked on this trip. We certainly confirmed what people are always telling us – Southeast Asia has some of the most amazing food in the world.

Travel Snacks

November 3, 2009

The trip seemed to pick up pace towards the end and left very little time for photo managing and post writing. Here I sit in San Francisco geared up for the Foodbuzz Fest and finding it hard to believe our Southeast Asia trip is behind us.

What an amazing trip it was. Honestly we could have not asked for anything better. We have no complaints and we had more good travel luck than I think any one person is entitled to. Flights were smooth, we have our luggage (hopefully I’m not speaking too soon as I do still have to get back to KY), and no missed reservations. Pretty incredible.

I still have so much to share with you so as I get back into a kitchen next week and return to recipes I will also be continuing recaps of our foodie adventures.

I’ve been struggling a bit with how to organize it all. I didn’t want to simply provide a number of breakdowns for each location so you’ll be finding some of our favorite meals from specific places as well as combinations of food favorites from our entire trip.

As you can imagine there was quite a bit of snacking going on. In fact, I’m so full I’m beginning to worry how much room I have for this upcoming fest. We find it very difficult not to pick up an item that looks intriguing while we are out and about. Good for interesting blog material and trying new flavors, but it felt like we didn’t stop eating the whole trip!

There were so many great snacks throughout the places we visited in Southeast Asia from breads, to desserts to drinks. Some flavors were familiar such coconut others were new to us such as red bean and black sesame.

Looking back there was only one flavor I didn’t like. Those of you that know that area of the world can probably guess what it was. Yep, Durian, but I’ll explain more about that in an upcoming post.

Here were a few of the snacks that got us through the day, as if our unbelievable meals wouldn’t have tide us over.

We loved the bread shops, especially in Hong Kong. You pick up your tray and tongs and choose until your hearts content. My favorite was the green tea bun with red bean paste, soft and sweet with only a mild beany texture. My husband’s was the peanut waffle. You just can’t go wrong with waffles regardless of what culture you are in.

I had my share of drinks that could be more accurately called meals. The ice fruit shakes in Thailand were so simple, yet so tasty. I absolutely loved the jackfruit shake – a cup full of jackfruit, ice and some sugar syrup.

A fresh mango juice with sagu, or tapioca pearls, in Hong Kong. Very similar to a bubble tea, but much thicker and more filling with chunks of mango.

A coffee drink with soy bean curds in the bottom from the weekend market/walking street in Krabi, Thailand. Again, like a bubble tea. I love those chewy bites.

Avocado Coffee at the Greenfield Bungalows in Ubud-Bail, Indonesia. Catch that? Avocado coffee. Yep, I was intrigued too. They told me it was a bit of avocado blended with coffee, slightly sweetened with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. It was served cool, not exactly cold. I could get hooked on them for sure.

An item that seemed very popular in the area was squid balls and we got these at the night market/walking street in Krabi, Thailand. Basically like a baked corn fritter with pieces of squid then garnished with some sweet soy sauce and another white sauce that was like mayonnaise. These were fun to try, but not something I’d go for often.

At that same market we also picked up some steamed buns filled with a savory mix of chicken.

A real highlight was the ice cream and I think we tried it all in Singapore. I find the way they serve them on the street to be pure genius. They use two wafer cookies and slice the ice cream off in a thick rectangle. So simple, but so much better than scooped in a cone.

The first is red bean and the second, yam. Both had a flavor that I would almost assimilate with the strawberry. Kind of odd, I know, but that is what it tasted like a first bite. As different as they are from our standard ice cream flavors in the US, I found them both to my liking. You just have to get over the pieces of bean in the red bean.

We found this Azabu Sabo Hokkaido ice cream several places around Singapore. It was smooth and creamy like gelato, but in lots of traditional Asian flavors. The first wasn’t so specific to Asia I guess, but had that wonderful balance of salty and sweet – sea salt and caramel. The next day we tried the black sesame. It was nutty and sweet with a slightly grainy texture. At first I didn’t think I liked it, but it is a flavor that grows on you.

Pad Thai from the street vendors in Thailand is a snack I could eat every day for a long time before tiring of it. The noodles, sprouts and egg, not to mention the peanuts and red chili are such a delicious combination. We got this one from a cart about half way down Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Not far from that, I spotted this Roti stand and watched as the hardworking lady behind the cart rolled it out then fried it up with a very generous amount of butter. We ordered the lemon sugar and it was fantastic. Sweet and tart, it wasn’t overpowering and allowed the flavor of the bread to come through.

Thailand might be one of the best places in the world for the after midnight snack. We had the awesome experience of being shown around by some friends – expats from Australia who live and work in Bangkok. After hanging out at a street bar on Halloween night and then making a stop at the Aussie expat hangout we took a short cab ride for food. Tucked in the corner of a side street was this little place, or cart rather.

He was incredibly busy and the area was packed with locals. We enjoyed fresh noodles with pork wontons floating in a savory broth and then topped with sliced pork and crab. It was delicious, the best pork of the trip in fact. Did I mention it was a whopping $2? The price of Thai food almost makes you feel guilty for enjoying such wonderful dishes at such a low cost.

See what I mean. I’m not sure we ever stopped eating. And you would think after all that I would no longer be hungry, but just looking at these photos makes we wish we were back there enjoying it all over again.