Having a reputation as a food paradise, be it haute cuisine, or cuisine bourgeoise (hawker fare), Penang offers a heady and exotic mix of delicious cuisine to choose from. In a word, Penang food is both famous and fabulous. When people mention Penang ...
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|Written by Administrator II|
|Wednesday, 07 March 2012 11:22|
By Helen Ong
IT was a bit like watching 3D TV. Anthony Bourdain, the world-famous travelling chef, was actually standing in front of me, shaking my hand. He had just arrived in Penang to film the eighth season of his popular Emmy Award-winning TV “culinary and cultural adventure programme”No Reservations.
In the flesh, the New Yorker looks and sounds exactly like in his programmes: he’s tall (193cm) and witty; pleasant and friendly, and – thus far, anyway – I hadn’t been treated to a dose of his (in)famous grumpiness yet.
Despite his hectic filming schedule, he’d kindly agreed to an exclusive interview with me. It’s easy working with him, although I suspect the casual demeanour hides what can be a demanding personality, and he was surprisingly relaxed about some procedures. “Is it ok if I record this interview?” I asked.
“Sure,” was his immediate reply, which was a refreshing change from some celebrity chefs I have met.
The author, TV personality and former chef who has never owned a restaurant (“Smartest thing I ever did. If I’ve learned anything in 28 years as a chef, it’s exactly that – stay out!) prefers to be known as a “storyteller”. He even writes all the scripts and voice-overs himself.
What made him change careers? “When I wrote a really obnoxious book that ended up being surprisingly successful,” was his candid response. That was, of course, the autobiographical Kitchen Confidential which became an overnight success.
“Within days, people were offering to give me a lot of money to do whatever I wanted. I went from being completely broke, no credit, no health insurance ... I was living like an unemployed college student at the age of 44, to going where I wanted to go, telling stories the way I wanted to tell them.” And that’s what he’s been doing the past 10 years.
Although this was his first time in Penang, he had been to Malaysia a couple of times before, and indeed featured KL and Kuching in a previous series. Why Penang now?
“Because each time I came to Malaysia, people asked me whether I had been here. It’s definitely a food paradise,” he explained.
“Visits like these are a journey of discovery always – a personal essay. I want to find typical meals that would make someone from Penang happy.”
His response to my statement that a lot of celebrity chefs travel to a country to show people back home how to cook a local dish was scathing. “I find it idiotic and offensive. I love to eat different foods but I am not so vain or egomaniacal that I would tell anyone how to cook it! I wouldn’t dare tell anyone how to cook chicken rice or sushi – I don’t care how good a cook you are!”
Bourdain credits his parents, especially his French father, for encouraging the family to explore different cuisines. “We were somewhat more adventurous for the time. My parents liked food and felt it important that my brother and I experience different types of cuisines.”
They travelled regularly to France from an early age, and French cooking, apart from being the main style of cooking that he learnt at the famous Culinary Institute of America in New York, remains “the first ‘serious’ food that I ate regularly”. However, it was actually during a previous visit to Malaysia that he began his life-changing love affair with spicy food.
“One of the things that hooked me early on about this country was the chillies! The heat component is really addictive. It just changed my palate and ruined me – I couldn’t go back to normal life!” he laughed. “Generally pain is a bad thing, but I really understand that endorphine rush – your brain is protecting you!
“I’ve eaten at many fine dining restaurants all over the world,” he said, in what must be the understatement of the year, “but I’m happiest eating spicy noodles. I love a bowl in the morning, especially if I’m hung over!”
He delights in the fact that we really like our food in this part of the world. “I love the mix of Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisines – no matter what background you are from, everyone is basically familiar with this vast array of dishes. You know what good roti is; what bad roti is!
“Another thing I love about Malaysia is it’s the only area where ‘fusion’ is not a bad word. (Food here) is a natural fusion.”
When pressed to name one local dish that he really liked, he said Kuching Laksa, but then, he’d just been there a couple of days. Another was Nasi Lemak – and not the fancy type either. “I’ve had a number of different versions but I guess my sentimental favourite is the little take-away packets wrapped in banana leaves and newspaper.”
When we met up again a few days later, he’d tasted quite a few more dishes: Balik Pulau seafood, banana leaf rice, balitong (snails), my mother’s nyonya food, Air Itam (Assam) Laksa, and our famous Char Koay Teow.
Had he changed his mind? “Ask me in six months!” he quipped. Before he replied though, he added a caveat. “We have to leave your mum’s cooking out of it – it’s not fair. Your mum is such a spectacular cook – it was clearly the best meal I’d ever had in Malaysia, and likely to be the best I will have!”
But apart from that? “It depends on the time of day,” was his diplomatic reply. “In the morning, either the Kuching or Penang Laksa will do. Right now, after a few beers, that,” he continued, indicating the New Lane Char Koay Teow we were talking over – which he described as “pretty damn good” – “is impossible to beat.”
Hopefully, Bourdain takes away some good memories from Penang – although it doesn’t count as the most memorable experience he’s had, a distinction reserved for Beirut, Lebanon, where he and his crew were caught in a war during filming.
“It’s everything I like about gastronomy in one place.”
No Reservations – Penang will be aired on The Travel Channel later in the year.