So anyways, we got talking to Mark – remember I told you about him? From our foodie walking tour in Georgetown? He was telling us about the durian and how during the season people come from everywhere – and I mean everywhere ie Singapore, elsewhere in Malaysia, Indonesia, and further afield – to eat it.
As an aside, they say it’s the fruit that tastes like heaven and smells like hell, but I’m not a fan. The smell is foul and the texture is one that I don’t find pleasant. I have tried it a few times – both fresh and in ice cream, but I’m still not convinced. Apparently, you love it or you hate it – like coriander; although I don’t understand anyone who hates coriander. But I digress – Mark was telling us about the fruit and its value and how fruit from the older trees was worth more.
Then we got talking about nutmeg. We were drinking a nutmeg drink at the time and I mentioned that I wanted to go and have a look at the spice gardens. Mark told us that if we wanted to see the real spices, away from the touristy path we needed to go to the other side of the island.
‘Can you take us?’ I asked.
He told us that he runs (unadvertised) tours for visiting chefs and other foodies to the other side of the island to see how the durian and nutmeg on a family farm. ‘We’ll taste the best laksa you’ll ever have,’ he said, ‘and we can visit a fishing village for lunch and see how shrimp paste is made.’
‘When can we go?’ I asked.
‘How about tomorrow?’
Our first stop was in a village called Balik Pulau for the promised amazing laksa. Mark was not exaggerating. This truly was great laksa. They do just two kinds: assam laksa, which is the local Penang version made with tamarind; and Siam laksa which is the Thai style that we’re more familiar with here in Australia. Both were 5RM for a small and 6RM ($2) for a large. We tried each; with a fresh white nutmeg juice to go with it.
Speaking of which, nutmeg juice comes from the fruit around the nutmeg. Hold that thought – I have some more to say on that subject shortly.
When we left the restaurant we noticed trays of nutmeg and mace (the lacy red outer layer of the nutmeg) drying on top of a couple of cars. That’s it in the photos below.
There was also some fabulous street art in and around the town. These were all done by a Russian artist named Julia Kolchkova.
There was another hidden away that I caught a glimpse of…
and yet another that you need to look really carefully at the see the work. It’s a silversmith and the artist has blended the colours so that it’s barely there, but at the same time once you see it you can’t unsee it.
Lim Brothers Orchards
The farm produces both free-range and barn eggs.
Before walking up the hill to see the durian Mark warned us to watch out for the snakes in the trees. Apparently, they keep them there because of the bats…or something like that.
I nearly walked right into this one. After that Mark walked up the hill in front of us…just in case. We didn’t see any more snakes but we did see plenty of durian, papaya and nutmeg. In case you’re wondering, the nutmeg is in the bottom centre & right pics. It looks a little like an unripe apricot.
When we left the farm we went up a side road to another durian farm and spoke to an old man who was in charge of looking after the trees. He said that at nearly 70 he was too old now to be climbing the ladders, but still had to do it. They thin the fruit off the trees so that it won’t be too heavy and drop…the fruit, that is.
Have you ever cooked with belacan? If so you’d know how rank this stuff smells. I keep it double wrapped in my pantry, but seriously, there is no substitute for it when cooking Malaysian or Indonesian food. And this is how it’s made.
The whole process takes a few months of drying and grinding. It’s hard manual work. In the picture below right, the belacan is at its final stage. One last round of grinding before it is compressed into a block and packaged.
Yes, it was, shall we say “fragrant”, but it was totally fascinating to see how one of the ingredients we use so often was made.
From here it was a short drive to the fishing village.
This is a serious boat to barbie type of experience. As the boats come in the produce is sold. Then and there.
We bought 6 whiting and 6 large prawns for 23RM ($7) and took them next door to the restaurant to be cooked.
We also ordered some rice, some tofu and some green veg – sweet potato leaves. All up, lunch for 3 including beers (for Grant and I) and nutmeg juice (for Mark) cost 83RM – about $27.
As for the nutmeg juice, here’s how it’s made.
As simple as the meal was, it was so fresh and tasty – and a highlight of our time in Penang.
Mark’s off the grid tour isn’t for everyone – which is the exact reason he doesn’t advertise it. It’s raw and real and an incredible insight into Penang’s food, life and culture. It was also possibly THE best foodie tour we’ve ever done. Really.
Some will, however, worry about the cooking facilities and the food storage and the toilets (which are really primitive at the restaurant and enough for me to decide to hold on…too much information?) – all of the things that we tend to worry about. The thing is, the seafood is as fresh as it’s possible for seafood to be – and it tastes amazing.
If you’re a serious foodie and want to see where your spices and pastes come from, as well as sample the best laksa imaginable and enjoy a seafood dinner almost straight off the boat, and have a day you won’t forget, this tour could be for you. If so, contact Mark at Simply Enak.