A Malaysian Blog about Food, Family and Friends – by Lyrical Lemongrass
“They drink this foul drink called mate in Argentina!” my friend cautioned me before I left for Buenos Aires.
I had read about mate in my travel guidebooks, and I was curious to try it. Mate (pronounced: maa-tay) is an infusion made by steeping mate leaves in hot water in a hollowed out gourd. The person then sips the drink through a metal straw called a bombilla (which has a sieve-like contraption at the bottom end to prevent bits of the leaves from getting sucked up).
It wasn’t the drink that fascinated me, but the communal ritual behind it. According to my guidebook, drinking mate in Argentina is a social activity with its own set of revered rules. The host prepares the infusion by pouring hot, but not boiling, water into the gourd which is already filled with mate leaves, and then proceeds to drink it up. Once finished, the host refills the gourd with hot water and passes it to the next person in the group. When that person drinks up all the liquid, the person hands the gourd back to the host, and the process continues with the third person. This stops only when a person says “gracias” signifying that he has had enough.
In Argentina, it is not uncommon to see people walking around with mate cups in their hands, and a flask hanging on their shoulder. Throughout our travel in the vast country, we saw families and groups of friends congregating in parks to drink mate. It was wholesome and heartwarming and reminded me of the old days when we’d have picnics at the beach in Penang, huddled over tiffin carriers filled with nasi lemak and sambal ikan bilis cooked by mum earlier in the day, as bits of fried peanuts spilled into the white sand.
“When a person offers you mate, you take it, because it signifies an offer of friendship.”
With only two weeks in the country, and because of our inability to communicate in Spanish, I knew that the chances of building lasting friendships in Argentina was slim, and with it, the opportunity to drink mate faded.
It was at a restaurant where I first tried mate. I was offered coffee, tea or mate. I grinned happily and chose mate. It came in a teabag in a cup of hot water. It didn’t look anything like the pictures. I drank it anyway, expecting a life altering experience, a moment that I would remember for eternity, if you will. I blinked. It tasted like green tea. Was that it? I felt cheated.
We were in a bus one day with a bunch of twenty-something Argentinians (and a Swedish) when one of them, a petite girl with long glossy brown hair, hopped over to where we were seated and introduced herself. ”I’m Giuliana,” she said. Little did she know that those two words would be my redemption.
“Would you like to drink mate?” she asked.
“Would I like to drink mate? Would I?? Would I?!?!” I screamed hysterically within. My long wait was over.
“Yes, please,” I said aloud, with typical gentle Asian politeness. She didn’t sense my desperation.
She brought over a cup brimming with a thick sludge of tea and water. As I sucked on the straw, the full flavour of the mate hit me. It was bitter, but there was also a strong grassy flavour. I loved it. I smiled and handed over the cup to Giuliana. We drank mate for the remaining part of our journey with our new friends and shared stories about our travels, Malaysia, our food, our people, our Twin Towers.
I brought home a couple of kilograms of mate leaves together with my very own mate gourd and bombilla with the intention of carrying on this ritual of social interaction. Nowadays, I drink it often with friends. There is no fixed time. After dinner. After a dip in the pool. Before lunch. While singing along to Spanish songs till the wee hours of the morning. And we share stories of our lives.
A friend once remarked that if you open yourself up to the possibility that even the vagrant on the street is able to surprise you with tales of his life’s journey, your own life will be richly enhanced. I believe it to be true. And these mate days, these mate nights, they’re fuel for the camaraderie we share as our lives subtly weave into each other’s to create new memories.
Voy a extrañar tomar mates con vos.
The mighty camelids of South America – llama, alpaca, vicugna and guanaco.
In the Jujuy province in the north-west part of Argentina, en route to the Salinas Grandes (the great Salt Plains), we spotted these agile, graceful beasts – the diminutive vicugna.
The camelids are herbivorous animals. They do not have hooves, but possess two-pronged toes, and have long slender necks.
Llamas and alpacas are domesticated animals while the vicugnas and guanacos are wild. Llama meat is commonly eaten in Argentina.
So when in Rome…
…do as the Romans do.
Not quite chicken. Less gamy than beef, and tender in texture. It was our virginal experience at Jose Balcarce in Salta, a restaurant which serves exceptional Andean cuisine, concentrating on fresh and local produce.
And if llama meat doesn’t suit your fancy, there is always yacare meat. (Yacare is a species of caiman from the alligatoridae family.)
I get asked this question a lot, only because I blog about food and people assume that I am an authority in this area. Taste is subjective. There are so many external influences that differ from person to person that it is impossible to say that one restaurant deserves to be applauded as the best restaurant in the country. Ask me to name ten favourites, and I’d still struggle. It could be a hokkien mee stall today and a burger joint tomorrow; next week, it could be banana leaf rice, and next month, who knows what might tickle my fancy? I don’t apologize for this fickle-mindedness; in fact, it is a compliment to the fantastic array of choices that are laid before us. Having travelled quite extensively and tried some of the best foods in the world, I will unequivocally state that Malaysia ought to rank up there with the best because we have some of the tastiest offerings. My constant lament is that roti canai isn’t sufficiently marketed abroad (along with the roti canai man). Roti canai stalls should sprout in every country on as many road shoulders as possible because this delicious flatbread can be easily received and adapted by anyone. In our country, roti canai has evolved with an unbelievable number of fillings and sauces. ”You want it, we got it!” is probably their silent motto, and honestly, I see no issue in serving it with haggis or smoked salmon or blue cheese. Probably even hákarl, which Anthony Bourdain has described as “”the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. The world’s our oyster!
Time Out KL asked me to nominate my favourite restaurant for the Bloggers Choice category in the Time Out KL Food Awards 2011. I put on my thinking cap. Which restaurant had I visited more than 5 times where the food had been consistently prepared and executed? Would I stake my reputation on it? Has service been up to par? What about parking facilities? Cleanliness? Aesthetic appeal? Choices of wine/alcoholic beverages? Have my reservations been handled properly?
After much pondering and subsequent elimination of some of my most frequently visited restaurants based on the points above, I arrived at one. Prime.
I have blogged about Prime a couple of times before HERE and HERE, and I feel that these blog posts are comprehensive enough to support my choice for the Time Out KL Food Awards 2011. Some excerpts from my posts are as follows:-
“My favourite order of all time (when there is company and a hearty appetite) is the Wagyu Prime Rib, a robust 1 kilogram slab of meat with an unhealthy (but extremely satisfying) portion of intra-muscular fat cells that literally allow the meat to melt in the mouth with every bite. The meat is succulent and sweet, but I’m still fighting a losing battle when it comes to finishing a 500-gram portion.”
“The master kobe chuck flap tail tataki with cannellini beans stewed with smoked beef bacon, rocket leaves and a winter truffle sauce was lightly seared on the outside, thus retaining the juiciness inside. And the flesh? It was pink and tender and yielded easily as I sliced it with my knife.”
“If there is an equivalent of shouting on the internet, let me do it now by proclaiming that Prime is my favourite restaurant for good steak. I go there once in a couple of months when I’m feeling indulgent because I’ve come to realise that there is a linear relationship between good steak and its price, and the enhancement in value is more than just marginal.”
The prime rib still makes me go weak in the knees! If you agree with me, do vote for Prime on Blogger’s Choice on the Time Out KL website. You can also check out what other bloggers are recommending, and I must say, they are all mouthwatering choices. While you’re at it, do check out the other categories and vote for your favourite makan places!
Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur
2 Jalan Stesen Sentral, KL.
Tel: 03-2263 7434
Monday to Friday – 12.00 pm to 2.30 pm (lunch)
Monday to Sunday – 6.30 pm to 11.00 pm (dinner)
Click on the button below to vote for me!
Food, for me, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Food, for me, represents the love of family, the fellowship of friends, and the community and communality it brings.