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.