August 22nd, 2012

What is Street Food?

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Latin America, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Robyn Eckhardt asks a deceptively simple question today on Eating Asia: what is street food? The answer seems obvious, because street food is food that is bought and consumed on the street. Pretzels? Okay. Noodle soups? Sure. Satay? Of course. But there’s more to it. Eckhart writes that, beyond location, the essence of street food comes from three crucial elements: “immediacy, proximity and specialization.”

It’s an interesting argument because it upends traditional notions of street food. Hong Kong’s dai pai dong are generally seen as street food, but when they serve two dozen tables with a menu of 50 dishes, they fail to meet any one of Eckhardt’s criteria. They’re outdoor restaurants more than anything else. By the same token, the hawker centres of Singapore and kopi tiam of Malaysia serve street food even if they are technically off-street food courts.

Last March, I found myself in Puerto Vallarta, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which is where tequila and mariachi music come from. Vallarta is a balneario — a seaside resort town — and it was little more than an obscure fishing village until tourists began arriving in the middle of the twentieth century. But it’s a surprisingly pleasant place, without too much of the spring break tackiness associated with resorts like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. It doesn’t take much effort to stray into neighbourhoods that feel pretty normal, and this being Mexico, normal means an abundance of street food. So much of what makes Mexican cuisine great — slow-cooked meats, hand-pressed tortillas, fresh herbs and condiments — lends itself to the immediacy, proximity and specialization of street food.

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August 31st, 2011

Somewhere to Sit

Posted in Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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As befits a city with a tropical climate, in Kuala Lumpur there is always somewhere to sit and, for a small price, slurp a well-spiced laksa or an earthy teh tarik. Indoors, outdoors, it doesn’t really matter — with restaurants spilling into the street and hawker stalls operating inside restaurants, there’s very little distinction between the two.

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February 6th, 2011

Arcaded Sidewalks

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

Arcaded sidewalks in Kuala Lumpur

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January 18th, 2011

Gunting Rambut

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Hair salon, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
October 24th, 2010

Obsolete Modernism

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

You can see the Pekeliling Flats from the platform of the Titiwangsa monorail station, just north of Kuala Lumpur’s city centre. The grounds between each apartment block are unkempt; the flats themselves look ransacked, with doors knocked out of their frames. Though the flats haven’t been abandoned for very long, they are already being reclaimed by tropical vegetation creeping out of cracks and up from the ground. They’ll be demolished next year, according to the Sun, one of KL’s daily English newspapers.

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October 19th, 2010

A Walk Through Chow Kit

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Chow Kit is one of the few remnants of the tin mining town that Kuala Lumpur used to be. It’s a scruffy collection of shophouses surrounding a big, sloppy street market, where the area’s diverse mix of residents — including a large community of Indonesian immigrants — come to shop.

Still, though the market is lively, you get the sense that Chow Kit is a suit that’s been worn too many times; its fabric is starting to wear thin. It might have been because I visited the day after a holiday, at the tail end of Hari Raya — the local celebration of Eid ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, when people traditionally return to their hometowns — but the whole neighbourhood felt a bit bedraggled, its best days gone by, vulnerable to the glossy malls and highrises marching in from every direction.

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October 12th, 2010

Morning Coffee: It’s the Rats

Posted in Asia Pacific, Food, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

The only way to properly explore a city is to walk, walk, walk — and take frequent breaks, especially in a place as hot and humid as Kuala Lumpur. By the time the sun was setting on our meander through Pudu, an old Chinese neighbourhood, we needed a sit down and a nice cup of tea. Emerging from the brilliantly unrenovated, 1970s-style Pudu Plaza shopping mall, we deposited ourselves on the plastic stools of a tea and coffee stall across the street.

Ordering coffee or tea in Malaysia involves venturing far away from the familiar Italian espresso territory of ristrettos and caffè lattes. Do you want kopi (with sugar and milk)? Or kopi o (with sugar only)? Kopi teh? We opted for teh tarik, a mix of black tea and condensed milk not dissimilar to Hong Kong’s milk tea. Instead of being thick and creamy, though, this teh tarik was light and frothy, with earthy undertones from the tea.

A number of other people were sitting around us, sipping a late afternoon tea or coffee: an old man reading a Chinese newspaper, two other older men eyeing passersby as they chatted in Cantonese, a young pair of Tamil guys immersed in conversation. As we sipped our delicious teh tarik, we noticed a commotion nearby as a group of young guys leapt up from their table at the sight of a rat that was scurrying underneath.

“So that’s why the tea here is so good,” said my girlfriend. “It’s the rats!”

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October 3rd, 2010

A Window into Kuala Lumpur

Posted in Asia Pacific, Demographics, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were celebrating Malaysia’s national holiday at a street party in Bangsar, an upscale neighbourhood of Kuala Lumpur. We had just walked there along broken sidewalks, the sun beating down on us — Kuala Lumpur is not the most pedestrian-friendly place — and we were in desperate need of a drink, so we popped into a bar and ordered a couple of beers. We found ourselves in the midst of a panel discussion about what it means to be Malaysian. “Are we a nation or a collection of peoples?” asked the moderator, an earnest young journalist of Indian descent.

One of the speakers, a young half-Chinese, half-Indian man dressed in a traditional Malay outfit (with the addition of red heart-shaped sunglasses) gave a witty and entertaining presentation about the ambiguities of national identity. His delivery was upbeat, but his message was serious and thoughtful: Malaysia could hardly be described as a true nation, he said — otherwise the government would not have to invest so much in convincing everyone that there is such a thing as “1Malaysia” — but it is also more than the sum of its Malay, Chinese and Indian parts. Like Canada, which is also prone to existential crises and frequent periods of self-doubt, Malaysia is a country that exists in a perpetual state of in-betweenness.

This lingered in my mind for the six days we spent wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a city that few travellers spend much time in and even many Malaysians seem to dislike. For all its importance as an economic and administrative hub, KL doesn’t present itself on a platter like Penang, the darling of Malaysia’s tourism industry. It’s a sprawling, disjointed place that makes casual exploration difficult, but I enjoyed its unpretentiousness and the way it opened a window into Malaysia’s cultural complexities.

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