Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kari Raisu in Penang

I've had several strange food experiences over the years. This one stands out, because it was the surrounding extraneous circumstances rather than the food itself that were so offbeat. How else can one describe sitting in a Chinese-owned shop in Malaysia, eating a preparation supposedly originated in India, and popularised in Japan by the British?

Like most all cuisines, Japanese food has also been susceptible to foreign influences. In the 16th century, the Portuguese introduced preparations like Tempura, which has since been absorbed completely into the Japanese culinary culture. Later imports, referred to collectively as 'yōshoku', have retained a trace of their alien identity even though their preparation has become heavily Japonicised.

Even their names are Western in origin, but with delightful Japanese twists. Examples include Furai ( i.e. 'fry' or deep-fried breaded seafood), Katsuretsu (breaded meat 'cutlet'), Omu Raisu (omelette and rice), Korokke (croquet), Hayashi Raisu (hashed-beef and rice) and, the choicest of the lot, Hamubagu or Hanbagu, which resembles a hamburger steak rather than that American patty-in-a-bun concoction.

Kari Raisu also belongs to this genre. The
Meiji era, which began in 1868, marked the end of the nation's self-isolation policy and led to a considerable increase in contact with foreigners. Curiously, it is the British rather than Indians who are credited with the introduction of Kari Raisu (around 1910 according to some). That is why Japanese regard it as an Occidental dish despite its manifest Oriental roots. Since it was both tasty and easy to prepare, Japan's armed forces quickly adopted it, and so contributed significantly to its acceptance. Today, it is widely popular as a convenient fast-food.

It is simple to prepare, involving sautéeing meat with vegetables like onion, carrot and potato, and then adding readymade curry roux or powder. The result is a meat stew of sorts, which tastes Indian only faintly. It is naturally less spicier than its Indian counterpart, and also somewhat sweetish.

I had never encountered this dish in Singapore. Not in any Japanese restaurant, not in any food court, not even at the Japanese stall at our canteen. It was only during my recent trip to Malaysia, specifically on a day-long visit to Penang, that I chanced upon it.

From Ipoh, where we were staying, Penang is a two-hour bus ride. I woke up at about 4 AM, reached the Ipoh bus terminus by 5, and discovered the earliest bus left at 8. I hadn't had breakfast, neither did the terminus offer anything interesting. I wasn't worried, though, and contented myself with a packet of chips.

The bus was excellent, haven't seen its like in India yet. It had one row of two seats, and another of just one seat. Huge, spacious they were, with loads of legroom. And for a mere 17 Ringgits. So was the journey enchanting. We crossed small, intensely green limestone hills, over which the mists hadn't yet risen. Mist-shrouded trees I have seen so many times before; mist-shrouded coconut trees were a new experience.

Presently the hills gave way to vast, flat plains, just as verdant. All in all a happy, contented land, I couldn't help thinking. True, it lacked Singapore's smug prosperity. But neither did it exhibit the soul-destroying deprivation one witnesses in every corner of India.

At Butterworth, I had to take the ferry across the Straits to Pulau Penang. A huge queue at the ferry terminus precluded eating anything there. By the time I reached the island, it was nearly 11 o'clock. I did see a few eating joints, but they were all closed.

But eating wasn't my priority just then, beaches were. I asked a taxi driver, and he offered to take me to Batu Ferringhi for 30 Ringgit. I said I'll walk. He was astounded, more or less screamed it was 45 minutes by car. I went back to the bus station near the ferry jetty, and caught this excellent air-conditioned RapidBus to the beach for only 2 Ringgit. I was still not terribly hungry.

The taxi driver wasn't joking, though. On and on, the bus went. It passed several exciting food joints on the way. I made a mental note to check them out on my return. We reached Batu Ferringhi at about a quarter to twelve. The beach was beautiful, if a bit crowded. Nothing much to do there - the water-sports and all were well beyond my pocket. At one o' clock I decided to head back.

I had three options food-wise: go back to town, head for the KFC and suchlike other joints in the vicinity, or try a local joint. I chose option 3. This shack just off the beach boasted an elaborate menu, but virtually everything was out of stock. I ordered a Mee Goreng and sat back. Fifteen minutes later, they had just taken the meat out of the freezer. I said I'll come back some other day, and sprinted to the bus stop. Had just about enough time to buy a packet of nuts when the 1.30 bus back to town arrived.

By this time I was pretty hungry. We passed several eateries, but I couldn't check them out. I needed to go somewhere close to the jetty, otherwise transport back would have been a problem. Finally, I got off the bus at a street called Lebuh Chulia, which I knew was close to the jetty.

Penang is considered the culinary capital of Malaysia, and the sheer range of eateries along the Lebuh lends credence to this belief. Unfortunately, nobody had told me the entire god-forsaken city hibernates during the day. Some six of seven restaurants I went to, and every single one of them was closed. Not even a glass of water. I have no idea what other tourists do. Cook their own food likely as not, I shouldn't wonder.

One ramshackle Chinese place offered me some five-six varieties of beer, but nothing else. After much persuasion, the shopkeeper sold me a packet of peanuts for a Ringgit. These peanuts turned out to be unshelled, and so completely tasteless that I ended up chucking away half the packet even though I was starving by then. The beer was excellent, incidentally. Skol, it was called, originally brewed in Linz but now manufactured in Malaysia by Carlsberg. Light, not too strongly flavoured, and ice-cold, just the thing to have on a hot afternoon. It did nothing to assuage my hunger, though.

Finally I came across this small hotel. It had an elaborate glass front with a faux waterfall of sorts, which had me apprehensive about prices. I needn't have worried - it turned out to be just as reasonable as most everything else in Malaysia. It boasted three separate menus, featuring Japanese, Western, and local dishes. And they were all priced between five and twenty Ringgits. No, make that eight and eleven Ringgits; only the Japanese menu was being serviced at that time of the day, and that too just two items. I forget what the other one was, but Kari Raisu seemed the more filling.

I had a bad moment when the lady who took my order said it will take fifteen to twenty minutes to prepare. To while away the time I ordered an iced White Coffee that the northern part of Malaysia (specifically Ipoh) was famous for. The lady handed me a mug of whitish liquid, steaming hot. I was too tired to argue, so resigned myself to it. It was no great shakes, frankly. Tasted just like very milky coffee. Later on I found out that the name 'White Coffee' is a misnormer, and that Ipoh's famed product yields a brew just as brown as any other coffee. I still wonder what exactly that lady had served me that day!

The Kari Raisu arrived in little over ten minutes. And it was eminently edible. In the fragrant brown gravy I could detect apples in addition to the de rigueur potato, carrot and onion. The curry roux or powder did taste faintly of home, mainly due to the cumin and coriander in it. And the meat quality was excellent, not at all hard or chewy. Under normal circumstances, it would have been a fairly pleasant dining experience, nothing terribly memorable. To a starving man like self, it made all the difference between life and death.

The return journey was harrowing. I had to wait about half an hour at the ferry jetty, the bus I had bought tickets for didn't turn up for forty-five minutes, and the very dense traffic on the highways added at least an hour and a half to the journey time. Nevertheless, it was memorable in its own way, due mainly to the Ramly Burger I ate at a rest area.


ys said...

Hey, that's a very nice write! Specially with analysis of local impressions. Me too want to see misty coconut trees...

Prithviraj said...

I guess entry of curry into Chinese cuisine can also be attributed to the Brits. Here, in NY the American Chinese places serve curry - and they are similar to what you've described. But the curried chicken in the Fujianese places are closest to our conception of a Bengali curry - light, spicy (lot of turmeric, cumin and coriander) and potatoes!
I had this idea that the Japanese are fiercely protective of their culture and protective of their cuisine - your piece is quite an eye-opener for me. Got to now find out about the kati roll thing that I'd heard earlier.
The Brazilian beer adds another dimension to the story - you should try it sometime with tempura to further heighten the moment! :)

Ayan Roy said...

Pretty vivid description of your travel. The 'Kari Rasu' does not seem to be a very complex dish. I can try to cook up something like that in the near future..

Pooja Sharma said...

lovely... enjoy reading ur blog... how about trying something vegetarian sometime? :-)

Abhik Majumdar said...

I will, for sure. Am planning a post on the beers available in these parts :P

Prabal said...

This blog is clearly getting more matured in terms of content and style. Carry it on...

Freddy said...

Nice trip!
But did the ride from Ipoh to Penang really take 2 hours?
Because I've been there, and it was "supposed" to take 2 hours..... but it actually took more than 4 hours (with people giving bribes to the driver, to go where they wanted...)