When was the last time you were in Penang, the guide asked. I racked my brain and all I could come up with was "sometime in the 1990s".
Yes, it had been that long.
But I have rediscovered the island and its wonderful food and intend to return.
When I think of getting away, I grit my teeth and prepare for a long plane ride to be as far away as possible. Any place that takes less than a five-hour plane ride to get to seems too close to home.
MAKE IT YOURSELF: JIU HU CHAR
6 to 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
200g pork belly
3 dried squids or cuttlefish (above), about 120g
1kg bangkwang (yam bean, above)
4 to 5 cloves garlic, peeled
6 to 8 shallots, peeled
1Tbs cooking oil
1/8tsp dark soya sauce
Salt and white pepper to taste
1. The night before, rinse the dried mushrooms under
running water and let soak overnight in a large bowl of water. Place a plate over the mushrooms to keep them submerged.
2. On the day of cooking, rinse the pork belly under running water, place in a small pot and add enough water to cover it by 1cm. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to low and cook for 20 minutes. Turn the pork over halfway through. After 20 minutes, transfer it to a plate, let cool. Turn the heat up to high and reduce the boiling liquid to about half the original volume. What you want is a concentrated pork broth.
3. Snip the tentacles off the dried squid or cuttlefish with a pair of kitchen shears and and cut them into 4 to 5cm-long pieces. Discard the heads or reserve for boiling soup. Rinse the squid or cuttlefish under running water. Using the kitchen shears, snip into thin, matchstick-size strips. Soak in water for 20 minutes together with the tentacles, then drain and set aside.
4. Squeeze water from the soaked mushrooms, slice off and discard the stems and slice the mushroom caps thinly.
5. Peel the bangkwang with a vegetable peeler and cut into matchstick-size strips. Peel the carrots, slice on the diagonal and cut into matchstick-size strips. Finely chop the garlic and slice the shallots thinly.
6. Slice the skin off the cooled pork belly, then cut the pork into thin strips.
7. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large wok. Add the shallots and fry for about 30 seconds, or until wilted and fragrant. Do not brown the shallots. Add the garlic and stir-fry for 20 seconds until fragrant.
8. Add the sliced mushrooms and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the drained squid or cuttlefish and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes.
9. Add the carrots and stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes, then add the bangkwang. Keep it moving in the pan for 3 to 4 minutes, tossing it with the rest of the ingredients. Add the dark soya sauce and mix it well into the vegetables. If you prefer a darker colour, add more dark soya sauce. Add salt and white pepper to taste.
10. Pour in the pork broth, scrape down the sides of the pan and let the mixture cook, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft but still juicy. Turn off the heat.
11. Ladle into a large bowl. Spoon the mixture onto lettuce leaves and top with some sambal belacan. Fold the leaves over the mixture and eat.
Serves six to eight as an appetiser
However, my recent trip to Penang reminded me that a 65-minute plane ride can transport me to some place totally different and even magical. Despite being touristy, there is a charm to Penang that I am kicking myself for missing out on all these years.
The original plan had been to go to Bangkok. But the bomb that went off there at Erawan shrine in August gave me pause. So Penang was the second choice, a convenient place to spend a couple of days away from hazy Singapore.
It turned out to be much more than I had expected.
The stars aligned for the trip. Even though Penang was shrouded in haze before I got there, the skies were clear and blue during my stay and I fell in love with the island.
I stayed in a hotel facing the sea and the waves lapping on the shore, audible through air-conditioning, lulled me to sleep every night. When I stepped out onto the balcony in the morning, the blue skies reminded me of what I had missed for weeks back home.
And of course, there was the food.
I had gone with a long list of places to try out and managed to tick off many of them despite having a monster sore throat brought on, I am sure, by the haze here. Yes, I ate through the pain and coughing fits.
There was assam laksa at Air Itam market, fragrant with mint and ginger flower; there were many treats at Pulau Tikus market, including pandan-scented putu mayam and apam balik filled with crushed peanuts and juicy corn kernels; Famous Ah Leng Char Koay Teow; a tart, garlicky and supremely satisfying bowl of Hainan Lor Mee in Jalan Burmah; and duck kway chap in Lebuh Kimberley with blood jelly, pig and duck offal - beautiful soul food.
Everything was made with care and tasted old-school, which is something I really miss in Singapore hawker food.
I would have been happy eating just street food, but I tried a couple of restaurants too. At Tek Sen in Lebuh Carnarvon, I had roast pork fried with dark soya sauce and sugar. The sticky strips have been nicknamed bacon candy and that describes the dish perfectly.
At two other places, I had homespun food done with Penang flair.
Dinner at Ivy's Nyonya Cuisine in Jalan Chow Thye offered a beautiful, wobbly otah which looked very watery, but had such intense flavours of lemongrass and kaffir lime. The stingray assam pedas, topped with chopped up ginger flower, was bright and vibrant.
At super old school Shing Kheang Aun in Lebuh Chulia, there was fantastic assam prawns and pig liver.
Both restaurants also have a stir-fry of finely sliced bangkwang or yam bean, a Nonya dish.
Ivy's version, called jiu hu char, has strips of rehydrated dried cuttlefish in it. Shing Kheang Aun calls its dish bangkwang char because the sweetness comes from crabmeat rather than cuttlefish.
Pile the filling on frilly lettuce leaves and it is like eating a less elaborate - but no less satisfying - version of popiah.
When I came back, I decided to re-create the dish.
None of the ingredients is hard to find. I bought dried squid at dried-foods purveyor Teck Sang in Hongkong Street and everything else can be found at a wet market or supermarket.
The hard part of this dish is the prep work. The mushrooms need to be soaked overnight and the squid or cuttlefish needs to be cut into strips and soaked. After cooking the pork belly, I reduce the broth to add depth to the dish. Chucking out the boiling water seems a waste.
There is also all that slicing for the vegetables. Although tedious, I would not dream of shredding the vegetables by machine as the dish tends to get waterlogged. Handslicing is much better.
When everything comes together with simple seasonings, it is beautiful.
The mushrooms and dried squid give the dish lots of umami. White pepper makes all the difference here, giving an elegant kind of heat that is very different from the more punchy black pepper.
Better yet, the dish tastes better the next day, when the flavours have melded together.
I will make this often. It will have to do, until I can get myself to Penang again.