Sunday, January 30, 2011

Boleh Makan!!!

Boleh Makan is a phrase I use very often here, since it translates to "can eat". Maybe everyone is tired of me rubbing in just how good I'm eating here. Too bad, because this is going to be another post about my foodie adventures here in Kuching. I can only offer to [try to] learn the culinary traditions of Sarawakians, and to bring them back to test out on whoever's epicurious back home. Deal? 

Friday the 28th turned out to be a big day for me in terms of food. I had stayed up late the night before, baking some amaretto coffee molasses cookies (in the end needed more amaretto because the taste was a bit lacking) as a Chinese New Year treat for everyone at SBC. I think I've mastered the art and science of making cookie dough (it's really really easy if you keep a few things in mind), but not the discipline needed to resist eating a substantial amount of it before baking. So cookies disappeared in no time; it seems word of free food gets around fast at SBC. That makes the baking all the more rewarding. 

Then I was called to the Extraction lab, where the research assistants there were stir frying some live Sago Worms. Why in the world do this in a chemical extraction laboratory? These worms, the grubs of larvae of Sago Palm Weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus), thrive in the trunks of Sago Palm, and are regarded as a fine delicacy among many people here. They are considered clean and safe enough to eat live (so long as you wash them, and make sure to put them in tail first, pulling/biting off the head before fully munching on the body). Some horror stories exist and describe children just dropping in the worms whole, being victim to the burrowing abilities of the worm. The worms are often stir-fried for a bit before consuming, and in some cases with additions of Sago Flour, lemongrass, garlic, or bbq/terriyaki sauce. Stir frying the worms also helps to release all of their oils, which are thought by many people here to possess important medicinal applications. One belief is that their oil can regrow hair. Well, our extraction lab wants to begin the investigation of these reported properties, and so hence the stir frying action. And, well, I was called in to sample these slithery little beasts, an did so with just a little reservation. They ended up being quite nice, easy to chew, with the innards somewhat avocado-like in texture and taste.  I would say fry those babies up in some garlic, oil, and salt, and you've won me over. I was told it was a mistake to not eat the head, as many say this adds some goodness to the taste and texture. I had a few ideas for dishes to incorporate these worms into:
Sago Worm Kebab
Sago Worm Potato Gnocci, with an alfredo sauce.  Actually pesto could be even better. It's just that the worms look a lot like gnocci without the heads (and, like the moving around business) and somehow I see those flavors gelling really well together. 
Sago Worm Fritters, with Chili-lime-honey dipping sauce.

Sago Worm Greek Salad. I think the mix of Feta, olives and worms could be a dynamite combo.

 I gave some half-promises that I might try these worms live, before going back home. I'll let that idea simmer in my mind for a while before going through with it. I'm always afraid that my clumsy fingers might get me  burrowed through, if you catch my drift. 
I am very curious to find out if there is any merit to the claims about Sago Worm oil. I've been monitoring my hairline around the clock since my experience. 

Next, Gilbert and I were on the way home, when he noticed some people selling durians out of the back of their car, parked on the side of the road (Very normal thing to see) around 10 mile. He immediately made a U-turn and rushed back to get one. You see, this is a moment I've longed for for months. Normally durian season begins around December, but it has been very wet for this time of the year, so all fruiting seasons have been put out of whack. This one was expensive for durian in Kuching, selling at about RM20 (~$6), whereas they normally can go for way less (as low as RM1 in high fruiting season). I did not care one bit, nothing would stop me from having my first one. The man selling them opened one up to show off it's good quality (since otherwise there is no way of knowing whether the inside is rotted/overfermented/infested with larvae that got into the fruit during pollination). Back home, we cracked it open, and boy, was I psyched for this moment. I grabbed some flesh, just a bit creamy on the outside, and first took in the aroma. To me, it gave off a distinctive aroma, with almond and terpentine characters to it. Haters of the durian claim it smells of rotting onions, terpentine, gym socks, stale vomit, and many other unflattering odors. I was unfazed and actually kind of drawn to it, so I gave it a nibble. I think the look on my face told it all. I was in heaven. Gilbert immediately photographed my reaction, in which I think I teared from just how good it was. Imagine a very creamy almond vanilla custard with some flowery notes to it as well. I immediately gobbled down the rest and pursued more. I could not have been in a happier, satisfied mood thereafter. But then the burps started. 

Durians are well known for their easily fermentable nature, due to the microbes and high caloric content of the flesh (maybe the enclosed environment inside the fruit helps as well). They are known to cause some serious gas issues upon eating, can lead to some drunkenness if enough is eaten, and are often fermented into wines. They are called "King of Fruits" in Asia, because they are considered to be 'heaty' in how they affect the body. People report sweating quite a bit after eating them. But also people here know very well the potential dangers of mixing durian with other heaty foods, in particular alcohol. Other than the gassiness that can reach dangerous levels when the two are mixed, some studies have found that compounds in durian inhibit aldehyde dehydrogenase activity, which is needed to clear toxins of alcohol breakdown ( Some old wives' tales may not be so mythical after all, but may hold some real truth that could save your life. To counteract the 'heatiness' of durian, some follow it with water, mint tea, or mangosteen, which is known as "Queen of the Fruits, " for its potent cooling qualities.

We did not, and instead went to have some tasty curry pan mee (though I did drink the cooling cincau, pronounced 'chinchou', drink). Then it was off to McGregor's Old English Pub to meet up with some other colleagues. We did not have so much durian that we needed to worry so much about mixing it with beers, but did still feel my body overheating. Also this is going to sound a bit strange, though not unusual for me, but I actually was really happy to be burping my brains out. It let me enjoy the taste and smell of the durian over and over again for like an hour or two.
You know some food left an impression on you if you actually want to burp to have another taste of it.

In talking about Durian, I mentioned this idea of heaty vs. cooling foods. This Chinese concept permeates the culinary landscape (and conversations about ailments) here in Kuching and in many other Asian countries. Basically the idea is that certain foods/ingredients contribute a 'heatiness' quality to the final dish (or when eaten by themselves are heaty), others are 'cooling', and some others are neutral, with a good balance of heaty and cool. This translates into the Chinese term for heaty (yang) meaning the set of physical or emotional symptoms one gets if heaty food is not well balanced by cool food. Cool (Yin), likewise stands for the set of symptoms one acquires having an imbalance of cool energy (see  for more). In many ways the symptoms make some sense from the concepts underlying them, as one might expect heatiness to lead to overactive metabolic rates, hyper-activated adrenaline response, and cholinergic type response (activating the parasympathetic system through acetylcholine receptors) of increased salivations and excretions; and overly cooling effects to lead to low energy/metabolic/behaviorally depressed states. Also interesting is that sometimes this characteristic of food can change upon specific types of cooking method (beef is neutral normally, but becomes heaty when deep fried).

I've been thinking that so many of my posts are about food, perhaps my blog should be retitled, "Lucid Eating". Then again, that would require me to be more health conscious here- something that is not really possible due to the cooking styles employed here. My only criticism of food is that it is too good and just does not inspire one any health consciousness, and basically no one is health conscious in the Western sense, though they are quite conscious of the heaty/cooling balance. There are few, if any, real health-conscious and still delicious food options. This is why the rates of obesity (6th highest in Asia, WHO), diabetes (4th highest in Asia, 80% increase in 10 years:, hypertension/Cardiovascular disease are fast on the rise here. Another factor contributing to this is that city-dwelling people all have cars now and do not get much exercise. Bikers/runners are a rarity and are thought of as kind of quirky for wanting to get around this way, rather than by motor vehicle. I wonder if there could be better programs to inspire a love of exercise in more people. I still need to find out what type of health education and physical education schools provide kids at younger ages, because I'm unsure of what this aspect of education here looks like. 

1 comment:

  1. From Kuching with love. Are you still in Kuching? Is it possible we met somewhere! =P