|Six amazing food islands|
What is it about islands? Perhaps it is the water that surrounds them, making them complete in themselves. Maybe they are less influenced by nearby places. Certainly they often have the best local food - and chefs. Here are a handful of the world's best.
About this island:
Bali, Indonesia's enigma, is its second most populated island (out of an amazing total 13,676) with over four million inhabitants. A tiny 5.5 thousand square kilometre island, it clings to Hinduism rather than Islam, favoured by the rest of Indonesia, but here it comes with a pantheistic slant. To keep the spirits out, they simply poke flowers into any orifice of their many carved images, until every crevice is in bloom.
The food in Bali is diverse. In the tourist areas and resorts, you will find almost any cuisine, ranging from simple burgers to the finest of fine dining. Beachside, especially places such as Jimbarn Bay, the best food to eat is freshly caught fish and seafood. Prawns, split open and barbecued whole to a soundtrack of ocean waves crashing, has to be one of Bali's best combinations.
Aaah! the fruit. Here it is as if God rained down a handful of his best seeds into one of the world's most fertile spots. Watch for mounds of prickly durian, that love-it hate-it fruit of south-east Asia. Those that hate it, avoid its smell, pulling faces and getting out of range. "How can you bear to put something that smells so bad, so near your face?" one wide-eyed tourist asked me once. Easy! Durian lovers don't see it that way at all. That 'unique fragrance' speaks of creamy delight within the horned exterior. But the fruit that won me and has me pestering greengrocers back home here, is the markisa, essentially a yellow skinned passionfruit. Its off-putting greyish flesh looks unappetising, but its perfume and sweetness made me an instant addict.
As you travel around, you may see signs for kopi luwak. It has grown famous as much for its weirdness as its flavour. Some time ago, it was discovered that the local civet cat (above) had a taste for raw coffee berries. Partially digested, they passed through the cat's intestines and of course ended up on the forest floor as droppings.
Now who would think to then gather those partially digested berries and dry and roast them and sell them as coffee at ten times the regular price?
This could be just a charming weird and wacky coffee story, except you may already know that it has become a big business and those cute little animals are now being bred to be kept in captivity which is much more cramped than this showpiece one, fed mostly coffee, and never setting their four feet in the forest where they belong.
Best local produce:
If you are thirsty in any tropical country and don't trust the water, this is what you should ask for. The cool water inside a green coconut is absolutely sterile - so much so that in emergencies it has been successfully used to replace plasma in transfusions. Just ask the vendor to chop off the top. With a straw inserted it is the most thirst-quenching drink you will ever have. Ask for a spoon to scoop out some of the tender inner pulp too.
Yellow passionfruit? Grey flesh? Yes, really.
These markisas are local passionfruit, rarely seen outside Indonesia. BUt they are the world's best. That flesh-colour may look unappetising, but please try it. It is fragrant, sweet and comes away in one scoop. Can you guess it is my favourite-ever fruit?
Where the locals go:
There are so many roadside stalls, markets, cafes and restaurants that many people don't worry about cooking at home. This restaurant sign is at a cafe in Ubud, inland from Denpasar and th airport. While tourists come here, it is selling all the local dishes.
Roadside stalls keep workers happy with rice dishes, noodles and satays, but enterprising vendors know that there is another market for their goods. People like this lady set themselves up on a beach in the shade of a leafy sea almond tree and wait for someone to call for some fruit.
Hong Kong, China
About this island:
Hong Kong has several main areas. To the north, there is, at the southern end of a peninsula on the Chinese mainland, Kowloon, Hong Kong Island, the Outlying Islands (of which Lantau is one, which most people know because the airport is there) and the New Territories, further north of Kowloon. Want even more? Macau, a separate territory, is close enough for a day trip and accessible by ferry or helicopter. Read more....
Hong Kong is dim sum central - and tender prawn dumplings like these (and a hundred other versions) are available throughout the city. If you have any extra time at all, do plan a lunch or breakfast and taste as many of these sorts of dishes as you can. Take a large group and you will be able to sample more.
In Hong Kong, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning. It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises. For the best place to watch them doing that go to Hong Kong Park.
As a truly international city for decades, in Hong Kong it is possible to buy the best of everything, from every country. For a treat, wander around Harbour City in Kowloon, with its wealth of boutiques, including the Parisan icon, Laduree.
Plenty of pooches come with their owners to the Peak, a lookout that allows you to see the panorama of Hong Kong and its harbour, so it only stands to reason that any entrepreneurial ice cream seller would choose to provide something for them as well. That price is in HKD, and translates to about AUD3, but it's all in a good cause - as you can see.
Here, there is also possibly the world's smallest Michelin-starred restaurant, and almost certainly the cheapest. This one is a branch of the city's third-generation family wonton business which some say makes the best noodles anywhere, using a recipe which hasn't changed in 60 years.
There's Yung Kee roast goose restaurant, which has grown over the past sixty-plus years from a simple hawker stall to one of the city's largest and most respected restaurants. Yet it is still possible to see a cook at work from the street, and it is common for visitors from mainland China to take portions of perhaps the world's best roast goose back home with them. The ultimate Chinese takeaway!
Where the locals go:
Little more than a roadside stall, at Lan Fong Yuen you can squat on stools on a bench to drink your coffee at the kitchen window (or ask for 'milk tea' which comes mixed with coffee too!) or sit inside, share a table and eat simple snacks like French toast, while surrounded by the happy hubbub of locals enjoying a break.
How is this for a breakfast choice? Four types of eggs to decide between, even before you choose whether you want poached, scrambled or boiled! We found this at Kowloon's Marco Polo Hong Kong Hotel.
Maui, Hawaii, USA
About this island:
They call Maui, Hawaii's second-largest island, the Valley Isle, but it is so much more. At 1883 square kilometres, 17th-largest in the US, and about the size of Mauritius, it packs in jungle and arid volcanoes, the highest rainfall, the lowest rainfall, a coastline beloved by migrating whales, and a hamper full of wonderful foodstuffs.
Banana bread seems to be made everywhere. Well, there are bananas everywhere, so why not? It appears on roadside food signs, and is at the checkout, anticipating an impulse-buy, at many supermarkets. It's not unusal to seeing someone buying a whole loaf for lunch.
This beachside fish house near Paia, on the north coast, could have easily slid across from the deep south, but here it has been serving the freshest deep sea local fish, bought daily, since 1973.
By way of contrast you would possibly never expect a dairy producing fine chevre in such a tropical location, yet here it is, and what's more there is an 'only in America' twist to it. It seems the nimble-footed goats like a spot of surfing - well it's not quite like it sounds. See more....
There are tours of the farm and you can buy a bag of 'nibbles' to feed the goats .... or you can enjoy your own nibbles of a chevre flight, the ideal way to decide what cheeses you want to order in the shop.
Best local produce:
Ocean Vodka is also made here, in a family-owned business using deep ocean waters and sugar cane grown just metres from the distillery.
We enjoyed this Kalua pig burger from Aunty Sandy's roadside stall.
What the locals eat:
Shave ice is popular throughout Hawaii, and it is thought it came with Japanese immigrants a long time ago. More than just ice. Here monster cones come drizzled with a rainbow of neon-bright sugar syrups.
Just as popular is a staple that most older Hawaiians have been raised on.
There's not much to sytop for on the long and winding road to Hana on the north-eastern tip of Maui, and there is not much food available along the way, apart from this place.
In the shade of the huge banyan tree, planted in 1873 and now with 16 trunks - its endless web of boughs which cover almost half a kilometre – we browsed Lahaina's shady markets. It is not so much about food (there's plenty just across the road in the town centre) but rather than trashy trinkets found in many other markerts, here the level of fine art and artisan craft was exceptional.
More about the food of Hawaii.....
About this island:
One of Malaysia's loveliest islands, once known as 'the pearl of the Orient', Penang is located off the upper west coast of Malaysia, reached by crossing the 13.5 kilometre cable-stayed Penang Bridge. Its capital is George Town, named during British colonisation for King George III. Despite its half million population, it remains a clean city with clear air.
Everyone who knows and loves George Town, appreciates its heritage buildings. Fortunately in 2008 UNESCO inscribed the shophouses and older buildings in the city centre as a World Heritage Site. It is officially recognised as having a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.
This roadside sign offers two of Penang's iconic dishes. Laksa is a Peranakan dish and can be found anywhere that ethnic group settled - especially Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. CNN Travel has ranked Penang Assam Laksa, seventh out of the 50 most delicious food in the world. Soup-like Assam laksa is made with mackerel and its distinctive flavour comes from tamarind which gives the dish a sourish taste.
But that is too simple a way to describe its composition. Like many other signature dishes from cuisines around the world, cooks who make laksa are fiercely protective of their own recipe - devised over the generations – and highly critical of the efforts of others who also make it!
We happened across these being made on the street near a temple. Similar to many crisp biscuits made in other countries, these are quickly cooked inside a hot iron press, then folded while still warm. If you are not lucky enough to find them being made, you can see large jars of them for sale in most food shops.
Do you recognise these? This strange fruit was once the cause of expeditions, deaths, battles and great fortunes. You would be familiar with the brown nut just visible under the red. This is nutmeg, and the lacy red covering is mace, also used as a spice in modern cookery. Hundreds of years ago, some thought that nutmeg could cure the plague, and had other miraculous uses. It became more valuable than gold and was the reason for much early exploration in south-east Asia. Today, the fruit can also be used in cookery and makes a delicious drink.
Where the locals go:
Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the rich Asian tradition of socialising over a meal - outdoor food stalls at night markets are popular throughout Malaysia. Here, Lorong Baru, is full of people finding their evening meal, and staying on to enjoy it. We asked some people waiting in the very long queue at this char kway teow stall, what was its particular attraction. We were told that the food is stirfried in a wok over charcoal which gives a particular heat and flavour to the food. Some people wait for 45 minutes and come from across town. Malaysians are uncompromising food connoisseurs!
George Town is keeping up with the cafe scene too. There are many trendy bars and cafes popping up in the old streets, especially towards the waterfront. This one, The Mugshot, in Chulia Street became a favourite of ours because of its excellent coffee and its limited, but just-right, menu. Juices, bagels, yoghurt in little pots - and (as its name suggests) there's even a spot if you want to have your picture taken.
These bagels come from the adjoining Rainforest Bakery and are toasted in the cafe's pizza oven. Malaysia is an Islamic country, so that's not real ham. It's turkey 'ham' with cranberry.
The city markets are busy, filled with local produce, and none better than sparkling fresh fish caught overnight in the waters surrounding the island.
More about the food of Malaysia....
Enjoy this short video of the Hawker Food of Penang
About this island:
Standing slightly apart from peninsular Italy, Sicily has always been something of an enigma. The island has been overrun by a succession of invaders (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, and Spaniards) each imparting some of their culture and influence and most importantly, the flavour and ingredients of each cuisine.
Regular car ferries link the mainland to the city of Messina on Sicily, a trip of around 25 minutes. The Straits of Messina were once defended, some say, by a many-headed watery she-monster. Sicily is more tourist-oriented than many other of the southern regions of mainland Italy, south of the Amalfi Coast. That doesn't mean that everything is easy to find. Streets are medieval-narrow and parking is ... well let's just say, you need to become inventive!
Worth a side-trip if you have the time. Erice is located 750 metres above sea level, perched on the tip of Monte San Giuliano, almost vertically above the surrounding land. The corkscrewing road to it measures around eight kilometres. The city of Trapani lies below, the salinas (salt beds) in the foreground and the sea beyond. It is here that a community of nuns create super-sweet ground almond-based cakes. The sign to an Aladdin's cave of goodies is homespun: Antica Pasticceria del Convento, indicating this is truly a culinary heritage.
Don't despair if you can't. Sicilian pasticcerie (pastry shops) are among the best in the world. Remember, when heading for Sicily, pack your 'sweet tooth'.
Watch out for signs like this, perhaps the most potent proof of how the food of Sicily has been influenced. Couscous, entered the menu via the Moorish (Saracen) invaders in the 13th Century. Oggi means 'today' in Italian so this sign lets diners know that they are serving it today. Much like 'frying tonight' in Britain! This seems like a permanent sign, but look closely.
If ever there was a signature plant of Sicily it would have to be the prickly pear. The fichi d'India grows wild on roadsides, the plump red egg-shaped fruit tacked around the abundant broad green pads.
However, they should come with warnings. Note the filament-fine spines sprouting from each dot on the skin, and realise that this is truly 'cactus-fruit' and to be handled accordingly. Use gloves, or other protection when removing the spikes. For me, the flavour of the pinkish flesh does not seem to justify the work in getting to it. Some say it tastes of strawberries. Some say it is an aphrodisiac - that might make it worth it.
Best local produce:
Sicily's hot Mediterranean climate (just a hundred or so kilometres from the northernmost tip of Africa) makes for ideal growing conditions for many of the staples of Italian cuisine. These tomatoes are doubly interesting. The tag saying where they have been grown reveals they have come from the town which is widely believed to be the hub of the Mafiosi.
Stylish Taormina on the eastern tip is the place to find the best frutta martorana, tiny realistic marzipan fruit, for which Sicily is justly famous. Their kaleidoscopic beauty in some way are symbolic of the colour and vibrancy of this flamboyant island.
Where the locals go:
Chefs everywhere need time out after a busy lunch service. Ortigia is Siracusa's ancient island laden with baroque buildings and strapped to the town by three bridges. As a coastal city, this restaurant specialises in marinare and teaches how to use it. Seems they do takeaway too. And judging by the lack of English on the sign, it's a place the locals love to frequent.
Street food and Markets:
In Capo Mercato, a food market in Palermo, Sicily's capital, there it is, the ultimate comfort food on a cold day: a brazier of smoky roasted onions, in their skins, just begging to be peeled and savoured.
These markets are filled with the freshest seafood, naturally, but also every sort of fruit in season, bottles of antipasti ingredients, olives, lentils, cheeses, breads......aah, you really need to go and see for yourselves!
More about the food of Sicily....
About this island:
An island but also a country and a city, Singapore never fails to amaze. When you realise that in August 2015, this tiny country celebrated just fifty years of autonomy, its level of progress and success is even more staggering.
With a population of 5.5 million, 74 percent of whom claim Chinese heritage, around Chinese New Year is the ideal time to revisit Singapore.
The Republic of Singapore (its official title) is the world's third most densely populated country, and the 42nd smallest. Singapore (which includes the main island and 63 smaller islands) measures only 718.3 square kilometres. That's now. Once it was even smaller. Since the 1960s, Singapore has added 200 square kilometres by way of land reclamation.
From the causeway, which connects Singapore to Malaysia, the city centre is only 21 kilometres away. If the traffic is not heavy it's possible to drive across the island in around 20 minutes. If it is, the trip can take an hour or more.
Peranakan food is found throughout Malaysia and Singapore. It is a true fusion cuisine that seamlessly blends Chinese dishes with Malay flavours, creating a totally different effect: spicy, herbal and quite addictively delicious. One of the best places to find it is at True Blue next to the Peranakan Museum, also worth experiencing.
The breakfast of choice for many Singaporeans is thin slices of heavily buttered toast, spread with coconut jam and served with a soft-boiled egg and a cup of drip filter coffee. Worth experiencing.
The ideal place to see the eextent of Singapore and its fine buildings is from the Singapore Flyer, built at a cost of S$240 million, and opened in 2008. And of course, in Singapore food is never far away, so even at a height of 165 metres where you can enjoy a truly 'high' tea, complete with French champagne.
Singapore's Hotel Inter-Continental has style. Do make sure to take an afternoon to enjoy the two styles of High Tea - a traditional one and a modern upbeat version, while relaxing in the lofty, cool lounge area.
Singapore's dining scene is constantly evolving and has one of the world's most polished restaurant lists. This dish is from White Rabbit in the Dempsey Hill area, located in the former Ebenezer Chapel.
Where the locals go:
Singapore has many quarters. Little India offers a taste of the sub-continent - saris, bracelets, Hindu temples, and of course food. Here breads are rolled and slapped inside a tandoor to bake, while teh tarik or 'pulled teas' are being made behind the baker.
This is an ice cream cart and the proprietor is cutting thick pieces of durian ice cream and sandwiching it between wafer biscuits or slices of soft rainbow-coloured bread! Popular - and good. We tried it!
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