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四神湯 – Si Shen Soup

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I remember enjoying my first bowl of 四神汤 Si Shen Soup about 10 years back during my initial trips to Taiwan. It was the period before Chinese New Year and my friends brought us to 寧夏夜市 before visiting 迪化街 for the Chinese New Year bazaar. Just gotten off the plane, we hadn’t eaten dinner so my Taiwanese friends suggested going to 阿桐阿寶四神湯 located near the night market first. Being largely a “herbal soup”, it tasted rather plain and smooth, with a lingering sweetness in the mouth. Void of pungent odours and bitter aftertaste, the flavours of Si Shen Soup defies what I had expected Chinese herbal soups are traditionally like. The soup was a relief, not only against the fattiness of the bak chang and large steamed pork buns we had, it also helped to warm our constitution amidst the cold and rainy weather.
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台南擔仔麵 – Tainan Dan Zai Noodles

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Taiwan is famous for many of their local snack-like delights called “小吃” which literally means “small eats“. As the name implies, many of these snacks come in small portions which aren’t enough to fill the stomach at one go. Nor is it meant to, as that is the exact intention, i.e. to allow one to sample as many of these different local “small eats” as possible. Tainan, as I’d written previously, is the origin of many local “small eats”, largely brought over by the migration wave from China during the mid Qing Dynasty. Many of these have very humble beginnings as street food stall vendors which we call “hawkers” in this part of the world. Some of these hawkers did not even have a permanent stall, but instead, carried their food, cooking ware, and everything else wherever they go , in two large bamboo baskets delicately balanced by a thick bamboo pole called 擔仔 Dan Zai or “tah-ah” over the shoulders. This was most characteristic to those who sold glutinous rice dumplings colloquially known as “bak chang” (肉粽), often heard before they are seen walking down the alleys of residential areas peddling their bak chang late in the evening.  Wafts of aroma from these freshly steamed glutinous rice dumplings wrapped into a pyramidal shape by bamboo leaves permeated the cool air of the night as one hears the familiar calls “烧肉粽!” or “shio bak chang!” in Taiwanese Hokkien. This often set one’s tummy a rumbling, dashing down to buy a bak chang or two from the hawker before his calls fade away as he vanishes around the corner.

Like bak chang, many other street food vendors too make use of these baskets with bamboo poles to peddle their ware. Another signature “small eat” from Tainan comes in the form of small bowls of fresh noodles in piping hot soup, embellished with an assortment of condiments. The noodles were also initially peddled around the streets of Tainan with makeshift stoves and baskets carrying crockery straddled across a 擔仔 bamboo pole, and that is how its name 擔仔麵 Dan Zai Noodles came about…
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蚵仔大腸麵線 – Oyster & Braised Intestines Mee Sua

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Talk about street food in Taiwan and one cannot dispense discussing “Oh-Ah Mee Sua” 蚵仔麵線 Taiwanese Oyster Mee Sua. With humble beginnings as a “poor man’s snack”, Oh Ah Mee Sua soon became an internationally renowned dish which one would flock to eat when they visit Taiwan. That is certainly the case for me. Over time, two versions evolved, one which uses fresh oysters 蚵仔, and another with braised large pig intestines 滷大腸, both equally popular with their own loyal followers. I love ‘em both as they offer very different experience in flavours and textures. So if you like Oyster and Large Intestines Mee Sua like me, do give the recipe a try!

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上海生煎包 – Shanghainese Pan Fried Steamed Buns

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上海生煎包 Shanghai Sheng Jian Bao Shanghainese Pan Fried Steamed Buns is a local snack that originated from Shanghai in the 1920s. The novel way of pan frying the mildly proofed buns before steaming them directly in the same flat pan over a stove became extremely popular as a street food and remains so in Shanghai today, alongside 小笼汤包 Xiao Long Steamed Dumplings and other delectables in Shanghainese cuisine also known as 沪菜 or 本帮菜. Cuisines from other places in China like the neighbouring Zhejiang (浙菜), stretching northwards to Shandong (鲁菜), or southwards to Guangdong and Hong Kong (粤菜) also have very similar versions, where these buns may also also known as 水煎包 Shui Jian Bao. The culture of eating these Pan Fried Steamed Buns spread to Taiwan during the mass exodus of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT army from China to the island state in the late 1940s. A large portion of Chiang’s troops are from the Yangtze region, especially those from his hometown, 奉化 Fenghua in the Zhejiang Province 浙江省. These soldiers, together with those from Shandong, Szechuan and even Yunnan, forms up a large part of Taiwan’s migration population in the last century to become what the locals grew to call 外省人 Wai Sheng Ren. The influx of these soldiers and their families from Mainland China greatly diversified the social habits and culinary cultures in Taiwan. Many of these dishes brought along and introduced by these migrants became so deeply rooted, that they are now enjoyed by the tourists, as well as the Taiwanese, be it the locals 本省人 Ben Sheng Ren, or the 外省人 alike. 上海生煎包/水煎包 is one of those popular snacks.
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府城棺材板 – Tainan Coffin Toast Bread

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Long before the designation of Taipei 台北 as the capital city of Taiwan 台湾 by the Qing court in early 18th century, the southern city of Tainan 台南 was long regarded as the centre of administration, politics, as well as financial and economic development in this island state. Tainan was established as the base of Dutch Formosa when the Dutch East Indies company came in the early 1600s and used it as a trading post, which they’d named Fort Zeelandia at Anping 安平. This earned Tainan the name “hoo siah” 府城 in the local Min dialectal tongue, a place where the local folks in southern Taiwan, especially those in the neighbouring counties like Chiayi 嘉義, Pingtung 屏東, Kaohsiung 高雄 and Nantou 南投 looked upon as a site of social and cultural flourish back in the old days.

As the city prospered and grew, more and more people from surrounding rural regions moved into Tainan in search for a better livelihood and opportunities. As such, many aspects of Tainan also became more varied and diversified demographically, socially and culturally. Through the innovation of the locals, many Taiwanese snacks 台式小吃 and signature dishes in Taiwanese cuisine 台菜 we know today have their roots in Tainan. These include 擔仔麵 Dah-a Mee Soup Noodles with Braised Meat Sauce, 台式滷 Lor Mee Noodles in Thick Braising Sauce, 鳝 Sen-Hee Yee Mee Braised Eel Noodles, 碗粿 Wah Kueh Tainan Steamed Rice Cake in a Bowl, 蚵仔麵線 Oh-aa Mee Sua Oyster Meesua, 蚵仔煎 Oh-aa Tsen Fried Oyster Omelette  and of course, 棺材板 Gwa Tsah Pang Coffin Toast Bread.
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简易牛奶白土司麵包 Simple White Milk Loaf Bread

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Bread is part and parcel of the our lives. It is a staple for many as its versatility allows one to have it for practically all meals of the day, be it breakfast or supper. Its portability allows one to have it as a meal-on-the-go, be it on the bus or while waiting for it. Here’s a no-frills bread recipe which I’d been using for sometime now. I seldom make bread because I simply don’t have the patience for it. The multitude of waiting times as the bread goes through repeated proofing as well as time for the dough to rest. But once a while when a recipe calls for bread or when I’m in the mood, I’ll just get my Pullman tin out to make a simple loaf. It is incredibly easy to make with very reproducible results!

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滷肉飯 Lor Bak Png – Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl

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Every country has a few signature dishes which can be deemed as their “national dish” . It is a natural correlation one would form between the culinary culture of a country and the dishes they are most closely associated with. It is like when one thinks of the UK, one immediately relates to Fish ‘n Chips but for tropical Singapore, one would salivate at the thought of Chili Crab or Hainanese Chicken Rice. When it comes to Malaysia, it has to be Nasi Lemak while Adobo Manok would represent the Philippines without doubt. Look to the east in Thailand and Som Tum, Tom Yum or Phad Thai comes instantly to mind while up in Japan, it has to be Ramen and Sushi as it is Samgyetang or Kimchi for Korea. The parallelism one draws is usually as apparent and agreeable as a variable y would map onto the function f(x).

For Taiwan, there are quite a few contenders for the title of a “national dish”. Some say it is 牛肉麵 beef noodles. It is so popular they even have a “festival” 臺北牛肉麵節 for it. Others would lobby for 珍珠奶茶 bubble tea, as it was the black tapioca pearls which brought Taiwan international fame, be it for the good or the bad. But to many, 滷肉飯 Lor Bak Png (Taiwanese Braised Pork Rice Bowl), otherwise known as Lu Rou Fan in Mandarin is a dish which resonates deep within their hearts. It is a dish which everyone would have eaten before, be it at the night markets, eateries or at home. For many, it is the easiest way one would settle a meal outside. For some, the appeal 滷肉飯 runs beyond the tastebuds,  tugging their heart-strings, awakening fond memories from their own grandmother’s or mother’s cooking, adding a tinge of nostalgia, on top of the wonderful flavours and aroma exuded by this simple but yummy dish.

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炒山蘇 – Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry

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Taiwan has more than 20 distinct tribal groups, more than half of which are still awaiting to be acknowledged. Many of them have uniquely spoken languages, cultural and religious practices and of course, cuisine. But one dish which seems to perpetuate quite a number of aboriginal groups is 炒山蘇 Bird’s Nest Fern Stir Fry. I vividly remember having it for the first time around 10 years back during our initial trips to Taiwan. It was a cold evening in February. The rain most certainly didn’t help. Not a good time to visit night markets, so our Taiwanese friend drove us up to Yang Ming Shan 阳明山 in the outskirts of Taipei. We stopped by at what seemed to be  just a small and shabby-looking eatery forged out of makeshift material and planks. I could still hear the pitter-patter in my head as the raindrops fell on the galvanised zinc rooftop. We had several interesting dishes for dinner that day, what the locals would call a 野菜宴. The highlight for the day was a chicken soup cooked with various Chinese herbs, wild vegetables and of course a free-range chicken. The soup which was served in a blackened terracotta pot was still in a rolling boil, perfect for the weather. Then there was a wild boar meat stir fry with very simple ingredients. It was immensely peppery and gingery at the same time, presumably to musk any gamey flavours from the animal, which the boss-cum-chef purportedly claimed to have just been caught by a trap the night before. But what interest me the most, was in fact a dish of curled up leaves, glistening in oil and sauce against the florescent lamps. That was the first time I had bird’s nest fern stir fry. A memorable experience, a dish I would definitely order whenever it is available on the menu, and one which I am very keen to replicate at home for myself. I’m glad I did.
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刈包 Gua Bao – Taiwanese Braised Pork Buns

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I love visiting night markets in Taiwan for a variety of reasons. There is always so much to see, smell,  eat and buy! A large part of Taiwan’s food culture is characterised by its night markets.They are so vibrant and constantly bustling with activity! For many, a visit to a night market in Taipei is often the last event on one’s tourist itinerary. And in the country’s capital city, there are indeed many to choose from. From the very popular ones which tourists flock to like Shi Lin Night Market 士林夜市 and Rao He Street Night Market 饶河街夜市, to the more 在地人 “known-only-by-locals” ones like Yan San Night Market 延三夜市 and Nan Ji Chang Night Market 南机场夜市, there are easily close to a dozen joints to choose from. Many of these night markets have their own “specialities” which draw crowds from near and far every night. Some go for deep fried chicken cutlets 炸鸡排, while others are there to feast on oyster mee sua 蚵仔麵線 or crispy steamed buns 生煎包. One of the foods I am always game to try whenever I see it at a night market is 刈包 Gua Bao. Also scripted as 割包, it is often called a “Taiwanese hamburger” 台式漢堡 by tourists. And there are many good versions around as well! There are those who maintained the tradition of making 刈包 by serving thick slabs of braised pork belly sandwiched by a piping hot and fluffy steamed bun, like 源芳刈包 at Hua Xi Street Night Market 华西街夜市 and 石家刈包 at Tonghua Street Night Market 通化街夜市, while others like 蓝家刈包 at Shida Night Market 师大夜市shred the meat into bitesize morsels for the convenience of diners. I prefer the former as it seems more hearty and visually appealing to have a whole piece of meat encased within. Whichever the case, the 刈包 offered at these joints promises a delightful palate experience. But the truth is, 刈包 is so easy to make at home and a sure favorite amongst many be it the young and old, especially during family gatherings and events.

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Asian Food Fest #10 Aug 2014 : Taiwan

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Welcome to Taiwan! Our 10th instalment of Asian Food Fest brings us to this beautiful country which was once called “Formosa” by the Portuguese, the first “foreigners” to set their eyes on it about 500 years ago to mean “Beautiful Island”, and beautiful is truly an understatement. Rarely would one would be able to find another place on Earth where one could be enjoying the warm sea breeze by the coastal regions and within less than an hour, scale altitudes of more than 2500m above sea-level to confront the majestic mountain ranges. Having the Tropic of Cancer cutting right through the island nation, one can be chewing sugarcane in Tainan or Pingtung in the morning and in less than half a day’s drive, be admiring the majestic cypress and cherry blossoms on Alishan or even playing with snow on Yushan. It is through this complex and often strategic juxtaposition of geographical factors that brings about the rich natural and social history Taiwan has, as well as its anthropology and culture. So join us in this month-long adventure to discover the interesting aspects of her food culture, the nuances which make her distinctively different from her proximal neighbours, to become what we now know as being uniquely Taiwan!

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Adobo Manok – Filipino Chicken Adobo

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The blog’s moving really slowly these days. In fact, I’d not blogged about anything for almost 2 weeks. Been kinda busy lately with quite a couple of things. First is of course to help Vonne and her family with their major move from Singapore to UK. That spanned over quite a number of days and it has been massive on many accounts. First is the number of things we’d needed to pack, which took us quite a while. Wouldn’t have been possible without the help of her good friends Linda and Cecilia. It is really through times when we are in need, that we see true friends indeed. Couldn’t have said it better. Then there is of course the emotional dimension of it. The initial stages were overwhelming with stress and anxiety if we could finish packing in time before the movers came and if there was enough cargo space to fit everything. And when everything’s finally loaded up onto the trucks, the feeling of the inevitable parting begins to hit hard. As the day draws nearer to the eventual departure, the sense of loss sets in. In fact, she and her family are leaving for UK today. I won’t be sending them off, for the sadness would have been too overwhelming. I’m not good at holding back emotions, and emotions it would seem too painful to bear. Its better off that way. But I’m going to miss Vonne and her family so much. Her lovely children Emily, Jasmine, James, Anabel and of course cute and chubby little Daniel. I pray that she and DQ would be blessed with a fresh start in UK. It would indeed be challenging for both of them. But there is also a promise of new opportunities and possibly new adventures for both of them and their family. It is not goodbye forever of course as we would definitely still be in touch. We’ll see her when we see her.

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Kueh Bingka Buah Sukun – Baked Breadfruit Cake

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Breadfruit is one of those things which I have been curious about for the longest time. It grows in the tropics but yet remains highly elusive in Singapore. For one, no one sells it in the markets, so it really takes quite a bit of looking around to find a tree. Yes there are a few trees around on our island but they remain in the “rare” category. I have encountered two trees so far, one near my place and other near a friend’s place in the east. Despite its wide distribution range from the Polynesian and Oceania Islands all the way to Kerala on the southern end of continental India, breadfruit doesn’t seem to have been widely incorporated into local cuisines very much. It remains much in the “exotic” category, far from being a staple for most. So it got me very curious as to what it tastes like, how it should be prepared and what it could be used to cook.
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Con Nghêu Hấp – Vietnamese Clams in Lemongrass Broth

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Con Nghêu Hấp is another Vietnamese dish which I’d gotten to know from dining at Luong Phuong with Syebvonne and the rest. It is essentially clams which had been briefly cooked in a lemongrass broth. The Thais have a very similar version called Hoi Tom Takrai หอยต้มตะไคร้ but whichever versions you chose to cook, it is incredibly easy to prepare and yet so tasty at the same time!
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帝苑餅店 FINE FOODS @ The Royal Garden, Hong Kong

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We‘’d tried quite a number of patisseries in Hong Kong over the last couple of years, from those who herald from France like La Maison du Chocolat, Pierre Herme and Jean Paul Hevin, to the local names like Petite Amanda. Some were reasonably good, like Passion by Dubois but some like Paul Lafayet seem to have fallen short of something. There is a lot of room for improvement and reflection, vis-a-vis the patisserie standards of its neighbours Taiwan and Japan. Yet we remain very hopeful as the pastry scene in Hong Kong is growing increasingly exciting yet at the same time. On our most recent trip, we made a point to visit a highly raved patisserie which we’d yet to try. They have been the Number 1 choice under the “desserts” category on a local Hong Kong food guide chart for quite sometime now. Is it as good as what’s been said?
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Đá Me Đậu Phộng – Vietnamese Iced Tamarind with Roasted Peanuts

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Unlike Thai cuisine, I got to know Vietnamese food fairly late. I didn’t have my first pho or bahn mi until only a couple of years back. It may seem strange but Vietnamese cuisine to me is strangely familiar and yet very alien at the same time. I love the liberal use of greens and herbs in their soups and dishes, as well as the subtle spiciness in their food. A good bowl of pho bo makes a really satisfying lunch and me a very happy man. But that is only because I always make sure there is a glass of da me dau phong on standby at the side, and sometimes two! Dau me dau phong is Vietnamese for “Iced Tamarind and Roasted Peanuts”. It is so addictive and an absolute must order for me in a Vietnamese food joint. And it is so incredibly easy to make at home!

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Laksa Lemak

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I practically grew up eating laksa lemak, amidst other local delights and I’m quite sure there are well many others like me. The laksa which I remembered first eating was not any of those “branded” names along Katong . In fact, I had my first “Katong laksa” when I was much older in my 20s, and it is not even at Katong but the now defunct Jackson Kopitiam in Macpherson area. The very first bowl of laksa I had when I was really young was from an unassuming looking neighbourhood stall near my old place. This was way before the times when people were aware of Hepatitis B and way before it became fashionable to buy coconut milk in terapaks off supermarket shelves. In other words, it was the time when cockles were really large, fresh and bloody, and one could almost be certain that fresh coconut milk was used to ensure all the “lemak” awesomeness! This is the type of laksa which I grew up eating. How about you?

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Mango and Passionfruit Yoghurt Pudding

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Summer is definitely in full swing now with the heat. Nothing better to beat the heat wave with a refreshing and cooling dessert. Couple of years back, I’d made renowned Japanese patissier Hidemi Sugino’s “Tartlette au Mangue at Fruit de la Passion” which he named “Tahiti タヒチ” and the flavours remain vivid in my mind. Mango and passionfruit are a match made in heaven afterall. It inspired me to create a chilled dessert which marries these two delicious tropical fruits, my Mango and Passionfruit Yoghurt Pudding.
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Rendang Ayam – Chicken Rendang

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I don’t know about you guys, but from where I live, no one could resist a good rendang. Thick slabs of meat which had been stewed in a rich and spicy coconut-based sauce over a prolonged period of time is simply to die for. Rendang is the pride and joy of Indonesian cuisine from the Minangkabau people in Sumatra but owing to trade routes and migration patterns, it spread to other parts of Asia, most notably Malaysia and Singapore where it is widely enjoyed and savoured. It has become much of a staple in Malay cuisine, served at festivity gatherings and wedding feasts. Just like many dishes from Malay cuisine, rendang has also found its way onto the dining tables of the Peranakan community. Ask any Baba if rendang is part of the standard laok embok embok, or what is commonly known as Peranakan cuisine, and one would immediately be met with a deep frown as if one has suggested the unthinkable. But ask further if he and his family enjoys rendang and cook it often, that stern look would quickly mellow and dissolve into a sheepish smile. The ingredient of choice for rendang is beef, which is stewed over hours at length until the meat becomes so tender that its fibres could easily be pulled apart with the slightly nudge with the fork. Otherwise, mutton is also good or in this case, chicken! And that is precisely what I cooked this time, Rendang Ayam!
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Patisserie Sadaharu AOKI paris @ Bellavita, Taipei 2014

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Whenever we are in Taipei, we’d always make it a point to drop by Sadaharu Aoki’s dessert salons in either Bellavita or Hotel Regent Taipei, and sometimes both! There are always something new or seasonal, like a surprise that awaits us to uncover! Last year, we had Sensuelle, a Hotel Regent Taipei exclusive and our visit to Patisserie Sadaharu AOKI paris earlier this year was no exception. There were two new creations that were just waiting for us to sample!
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苦瓜鱼骨汤 Bitter Gourd and Fish Bone Soup

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Gosh its that time of the year again. Hot hot hot!!! The heat wave is beyond bearable and seriously no joke. I was just standing by the partially shaded window taking some photos with natural daylight and it already got me sweating like a pig! Multiple showers seem futile, only to be sweating within the next hour or two or so. Air-conditioning seems to be the only solace now, but even then my more-than-15-yo aircon unit is getting a bit cranky. Hope it lasts me through the season… *keeping fingers crossed*

With the heat, appetite seems to be “subdued” somewhat. Everything runs on a “tak kuasa” mode. Desperate times calls for desperate measures.  Time to whip up a few dishes which can spruce up things a bit. The first that comes to mind is a simple 苦瓜鱼骨汤 Bittergourd and Fish Bone Soup.  This is something which my family cooked from time to time, especially when my mum was still around. She made sure that we ate “in sync” with the weather. I don’t know about you guys but I love bittergourd!There is a an old Chinese, “吃得苦中苦,方为人上人”… or so they say! And I love the natural richness of the soup teased out from all the goodness from the fish bones. It looks opaque and milky but within any addition of evaporated milk unlike the cheat versions out there!

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Pâtisserie Sadaharu AOKI paris @ Midtown Tokyo 2014

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Strangely whenever we are in Tokyo, we never really thought much about visiting Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki Paris unlike the others be it local like Hidemi Sugino or Hideki Kawamura, or the “imports” like Pierre Herme and Jean Paul Hevin. I think it is because we were already sampled quite a few of his creations during our trips to Taipei where he has two dessert salons, in Bellavita and Regent Taipei.  However, perhaps due to the quality of the local ingredients used or the level of sophistication his local pastry team is imbued with, friends who tried his cakes from Paris, Taipei and Tokyo told me that one could quite literally make out a difference in the “quality” of the creations between these places. Unlike the macarons and other petit gateau pour sec which are all flown in from France, the entremets and petit gateaus we see in the local stores are made in situ. Tokyo turned out to be their favorite, whose standards of pastry surpasses even those from the 6th arrondissement flagship store in Paris supposedly. That got me very curious and we knew we had to try it to believe it!
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築地井上中華そば Tsukiji Inoue Chuka Ramen

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One of the places we always make it a point to visit  whenever we are in Tokyo is Tsukiji Market located at the south-eastern corner of the metropolis not too far away from Ginza. Unlike other tourist sites, Tsukiji is worth visiting over and over again from time to time. It boasts to have the freshest seafood one would be able to find anywhere and it garners the best produce from all over Japan which changes with the seasons. There is always so much to see, smell, taste and of course buy. Despite our numerous trips to Tsukiji, we’d never gotten to try much of the stuff from the cooked food stalls there. Yes we’d done the “touristic thing” and ate kaisendon at some of the small sushi delis which can be found all over the place, but we’d never gotten round to try much of the other stuff there. So for our most recent trip, we’d made it a point to have a bowl the local ramen, and have a taste of what the locals eat. One name that comes to mind would naturally be 井上中華そば Inoue Chukka Ramen.
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On the Trail of the Phoenix – Ikan Pari Kuah Lada

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Ikan Pari Kuah Lada is a typical dish for everyday meals in a Peranakan household in Melaka and Singapore. It is essentially stingray cooked in a peppery sauce. The piquant flavours carried through the liberal use of white peppercorns and tamarind (asam jawa) makes the sauce (kuah) an excellent drizzling onto some piping hot steamed rice. Being spicy and tart at the same time makes it really moreish for more helpings of rice!
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Roti Jala – Fishnet Crepe

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Roti Jala is much of an icon in Malay and Straits cuisine. Though it is said to have originated from Johor, its popularity stretches northwards to practically all states along the Peninsula. While they are largely found at Indian Muslim foodstalls in most place, there are extremely popular amongst the local Malay community in Penang. “Roti” means bread in Malay as well as the Indian languages, while “Jala” means “fishing net”, these fishnet crepes are otherwise also known as “Roti Renda” which some have translated to become “lacy pancakes”.
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