Tag Archives: Southeast Asian food

Revisiting That Dreaded Foodie Post

So let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Yes, I did actually order that monstrosity that’s quite possibly the biggest cardiac arrest food offering in all of Chiang Mai. No, I didn’t realize it would taste even worse than it looks so I only took a few bites and offered up my review on one of the dozens of Facebook food groups. Regular followers of this blog know I’ve sworn (even promised) not to make this another “foodie blog”. But arriving in Malaysia two years ago meant sampling a cornucopia of new tastes normally unfamiliar to most western pallets so I decided that writing about local food was an important part of our expat experience. With Malaysian favorites like Nasi Lemak, Hokkien Mee and Laksa part of daily life, I figured I’d post the original Dreaded Foodie Post once and never look back.

Fast forwarding two years to our present expat life in Chiang Mai, I found myself wondering how to continue a blog mostly written in storybook fashion in a place known as “The Digital Nomad Capital of Southeast Asia.” Competing with thousands of gen X bloggers trying to sell people e-books and information seemed pointless and as you may know, monetizing and commercialization are synonyms for work in my book. Keeping the overall theme of two North Americans experimenting with early retirement overseas meant asking my readers how to find a niche to avoid duplicating other blogs.

After reading your comments, the consensus was to write about life in Chiang Mai for married, childless middle age couples that voluntarily chose a place usually reserved for backpackers, drop out of lifers, and complaining retirees that live here because they’re “financially challenged”. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s very unique “season free” climate spoiled us and we didn’t expect four straight months of rain almost every day and night even in rainy season. Mostly describing the weather since July as worse than Seattle in winter but much hotter, our adventures haven’t really panned out yet . Since we’re not big fans of hiking in the rain and can’t afford the gas money associated with driving for the sake of creating stories, I’ve decided to devote a post to the default topic that’s universally appreciated by almost anyone. So today we present the Thai version of That Dreaded Foodie Post. Keeping with the blog’s theme, this post is a suburbanite expat’s guide to food in Chiang Mai with most places south of the old city and airport. Also including a few choices in the main drags, it’s certainly not all-inclusive and of course all food reviews are subjective so I’ll understand if you patronize one and think I’m way off base. (Disclaimer: a long wordy post with lots of pictures follows so don’t click if you have no patience)

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Sunsets be Damned

Naturally, while taking a break from the NHL Playoffs this week, I noticed a blog post from someone raving about the incredibly dry and beautiful weather they’re having in Bali this week. Only a few weeks removed from our short and partially rainy excursion to Southeast Asia’s most westernized beach destination, first this bothered me a bit. But unlike many visitors, one thing we’ve seen countless times are beautiful sunsets. With The Annual haze Event taking an 18 month break from Penang, skies are crystal clear and unlike last year’s El Nino event, the rain brings amazing arrays of cloud formations almost daily. One of the few things I’ll miss once we move to Thailand in July, sunsets aren’t high on our must do list and we mostly went to Bali to eat. And of course to sneak in some quality beach time despite living in a “beach community” that looks more like a stretch of dirty eroded sand with some shanty vendor stalls.

Sunsets in Penang have been quite beautiful lately

Possibly the most interesting fact about Bali from a culinary point of view is the amazingly large amount of pork dishes. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia should be the last place in the world you’d go for a bacon cheeseburger or a side of baby back ribs smothered in bar-b-q sauce. Bucking the trend, Bali’s population is about 80% Hindu which means Halal food is not the norm and hog heaven takes the place of chicken flavored everything. Oddly, I love pork more than Diane despite her Chinese heritage and choosing where to indulge in lip smacking fall off the bone deliciousness is one of the biggest challenges when you only have five nights. While you can find Indonesian variations of Malaysian style food like Nasi Campur, few western tourists flock to the island to sample local cuisine. And that’s a shame because unlike the very strange Indonesian version of Mee Goreng which is basically western style fried chow mein with some protein instead of Penang’s delicious mix of spicy tomato based sauce with delicious noodles, lime, and squid, Balinese is a unique and tasty style of Indonesian food and you shouldn’t miss it. With so many restaurants, finding what you want is daunting so we mostly searched “10 best xxxx style restaurants in Bali” and came up with some winners.

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Parental Guidance Suggested

There’s nothing better than a little historical religious debate between scholars to liven up a cultural day trip and Kbal Spean is an archaeological site not far from Siem Reap that fits the bill. Looking at the featured image above this paragraph, you might have noticed the little sculpture and thought it looks like a phallic symbol. And you’d be correct. Kind of. Known as a Lingam, the object is an aniconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva which means it’s symbolic or suggestive and not literally representative. In Sanskrit, lingam is loosely defined as phallus and more specifically, “the genital organ of Shiva worshipped in the form of a Phallus”. Often found at the center of Shaivite Hindu Temples (one of the major branches of Hinduism that reveres Shiva as the Supreme Being), it acts as a symbol of generative power.

At Kbal Spean

At Kbal Spean

So what’s up with Hindus revering male genitalia and why is it so misunderstood? Unlike “locker room talk”, there’s symbolism and not sexual innuendo involved and we learned that the lingams seen in temples are usually also associated with a Yoni, a Sanskrit word meaning the female counterpart of the phallic symbol that represents the creative power of nature. Collectively, the symbol represents the creation of life. There’s an interpretation associated with every story, character and symbol in Hinduism because it’s a religion that’s inherently non-literal. Immensely complicated, researching  who started the sexual part of the story is dicey but it seems that scholars began trying to debunk the British notion that the lingam represented a human organ that aroused erotic sensations in the early 1800’s.

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The Real “Whole Foods”

Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.

too "rough" for American consumers

too “rough” for American consumers

Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of real fresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.

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Transition Complete

Coming to a close, if someone asked me to summarize our first year as retired expats in Asia in one phrase I’d have to choose “always interesting”.

In retrospect, eighteen months of correspondence with our MM2H agent helped make our transition to expat life in another part of the world relatively simple and painless. Knowing we’ll probably wind up in Thailand after our lease expires in July, 2017, we’d still recommend Malaysia to anyone with ample financial means for its above average infrastructure (by Southeast Asian standards), lack of language barriers (everyone knows and speaks English) and relatively disaster proof geography (outside the earthquake and typhoon belts).

imageDespite the statistically strong economy, the Malaysian Ringgit remains at near record low levels versus the USD and British Pound but is unlikely to cause problems for expats (barring any more financial scandals or unexpected calamities to emerging markets). One of the only major disadvantages is a banking system that forces people to the money changer for foreign currency. Having exchanged way too many US Dollars for ringgit at a lowly rate of 3.7613, (it hovers at 4.25 to 4.35 for the last few months) we failed to realize the ramifications of a plummeting currency and kept less than $100 USD on hand which leaves us hosed when we need to buy foreign currency with the ringgit. But other than that, becoming an expat in Malaysia was easier than expected.

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Malaysian Math

Having figured out most of our Malaysian bill payment chores, last month we received our first electric bill. Unclear why they print certain utility bills only in Malay when almost everything related to business is in English, we figured it’s because the utilities are state-run and it wouldn’t look good printing bills in a language other than your own. Describing the process to us before we signed the lease, our property agent told us online bill pay was probably the best option so I used my little security token and logged on. Attempting to add a payee, I scrolled through the list of available options and happily, I found Tenanga Nasional on the list of thirty odd choices. Uncertain what the account number was, I Googled every line of the bill and typed “in Malay” after each one and surprisingly, I deciphered it thanks to the translation skills of the greatest American company ever. Breaking down each line and assuming the important lines were near the top, I determined the bill read as follows:

The Amount to be paid (straightforward enough)
Arrears ( I assumed this meant “previous balance”)
Current Charge (assumed that meant electricity used in the current bill period)
Rounding (no cents used for payment purposes: convenient enough)
The Total Bill (assumed it meant total of the above)

Right underneath the above lines, there was a darker shaded area with lines that translated into the following

Previous bills (this had a date of 14.07.2015 and a cash amount of RM 4.25)
Final Payment (same amount but dated 18.07.2015)

Uncertain what that part meant, I assumed it had to do with the previous tenant which in our case hadn’t lived there since the spring so perhaps the small balance due was the amount of electricity used during our showings in early July. Since our tenancy began on July 15th it seemed reasonable that the last payment would’ve been made by the landlord or property agent and covered a period ending around our occupancy date Calculating the bill, it came to about $80 USD which didn’t seem unreasonable since we sleep with air conditioning. Using the bill pay function, the bank debited the ringgit from our account and it all seemed fine.

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The other day the next bill arrived. Maybe we are missing something so help us out. Listing the previous month’s bill as a credit, they the somehow added the current month’s charge to the negative number that represented what we owed (and paid) last month and came out with a credit balance because the amount of energy we used in August was RM 76.66 less than in July (And this makes sense because we were in KL for a week in August finalizing the MM2H so that explains the lower energy consumption).

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Although I haven’t been to university in over 30 years and I’m no math scholar, it seems logical that you don’t calculate a current month’s charges by adding/subtracting the amount paid in the prior month to whatever the current charges are. According to this method, they gave us 30 days of free electricity because we happened to use less than we used in the prior month. Alternatively, had we used 10% more and the bill was RM 338.30, it appears we’d be paying only RM 30.75 since they seem to be giving a credit towards the current month based on what we paid the month before even though that was the amount payable. Wow. What a great system. Confident I would’ve flunked math in this country we showed the entire bill to our property agent who came back with something to the effect of “it must be a credit from the prior tenant” despite the obvious facts to the contrary. If you understand something we don’t, by all means please enlighten us.

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Immersion 101

Realizing the expat experience isn’t complete until you immerse yourself into the local shopping scene away from the tourists, Diane and I made our first trip to the night market in Tanjung Bungah. Already regularly frequenting the morning market weekly for eggs and fruit, someone told us they run a night market on Tuesdays so we checked it out. More extensive and crowded, the local wet market is one place where expats really learn to  immerse with the local community and our experience was no different. Lacking tourists due to its ideal location in between the island’s major attractions, we arrived early and found it was already crowded by 7 PM. Unlike the morning market, there’s lots of merchandise and an endless chain of food stands that stretched around two corners and featured food items we hadn’t yet seen and some we never heard of.

imageJumping right in, we immediately purchased a pork bun and rounded the corner where the food jumped out at us. Approaching a stand serving a beverage called Lo Han Kuo, I decided I had to try some just because it looked like iced tea and would seemingly be refreshing on a hot evening. Attempting to ask about it proved fruitless because as I’ve mentioned, Hokkien Chinese is completely foreign to Diane and although they often talk to her in Chinese, she can’t understand one word. Still friendly but not as patient as hawkers in touristy areas, the vendor mouthed something about cough and we determined it meant “an herbal remedy for sore throats”. Tasting slightly sweet, there was a fruit in the bottom that looked like a small plum but I couldn’t really name it. Satisfied, we moved on and didn’t realize how many food vendors were at night markets, including almost every type of Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese and even some strange-looking version of Western food. (I have yet to taste anything from the “western food” stands, figuring McDonalds, KFC and Dominos Pizza can fill my craving when that time arrives).

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