Nausea-inducing winding roads up a mountain pass leads to vast fields of strawberries literally ripe for the picking. A tea plantation, tranquil fields of green & yellow as far as the eye can see. Steamboat, fueled by charcoal. An unexpected but otherwise awesome food find, perhaps one of the most memorable of the trip. A new found perspective on karaoke (image included).
All this and more on Day 4 & 5 of the heart of Malaysia & Thailand, when a group of Sydney food bloggers visits the Cameron Highlands.
The food tour hits the road once more, this time heading north to the mountainous region of the Cameron Highlands.
The drive up to the Cameron Highlands was fraught with nausea-inducing winding roads, lined with colonial style buildings. It’s no surprise that the area was discovered, and then colonised, by the British back in the 19th century.
After what seems like an age, we finally reach our hotel, Equatorial Cameron Highlands, situated 1628M above sea level, if the plaque about their entrance was anything to go by.
Upon exiting the vehicle, one thing that was distinctly noticeable was the difference in temperate. It was close to 10 degrees cooler than the low lands of Malaysia and far less humid.
As we quickly drop off our bags and hit the road once again, our stomachs settle and appetites build, enough to warrant an investigation into the local food culture of the region.
We find ourselves at Restoran Sri Brinchang located within Brinchang, one of the major townships on the Cameron Highlands. The selection of this restaurant had very much to do with its proximity to free wifi and little to do with experiencing food unique to the region.
There was plenty of time for that later at any rate. There were emails to be read, networks to be socialised and gossip to be caught up on.
Sri Brinchang is, for the most part, an Indian restaurant. So, Indian food, for the most part, was what we ordered.
There was the Ghee Dosai (1.80 RM), and its more structurally perky, ghee-less cousin, the Paper Dosai (2 RM). Both dishes were served with the same assortment of curries.
Both dosai were alright. Nothing out of the ordinary if you’ve had a decent dosai before.
I can’t speak for how the Roti Canai (1 RM) with its single curry, or the Chicken Tikka (7 RM) with its yogurt spice marinade, had tasted. However, at those prices (approx. $0.37 and $2.60 AUD respectively at time of post), who cares? :)
One dish I did care about, or rather didn’t care for, was the Mee Goreng (4 RM). It wasn’t bad but I wasn’t all that excited about it either.
The Garlic Naan (2.50 RM), like the dosai, isn’t a bad effort. It helps that it was baked fresh and arrives to the table steaming hot.
Chicken Thali (7 RM) is the most appealing meal in my eyes. Partly due to its visual impact. Partly due to my Korean heritage of almost every meal consisting of rice with a whole bunch of small side dishes; the more the better.
With our hunger for food and Internet connectivity sated for the moment, we adopt the role of a tourist and spend our time doing touristy things. Things that we would likely never do back in our home city.
Like visit a cactus nursery.
We forgo the paid admission of Cactus Valley (or are unaware of it) and instead find ourselves at Big Red Strawberry Farm. Both venues are not only popular tourist destinations for the region but also conveniently located on the same premises.
We’re actually not here to see the cacti which, surprising to me, I found to be appealing, visually speaking.
Nor were we here to view carnivorous pitcher plants, that lures insects into its cavity to trap them in order to digest them for their nutrients. Nor for any of the other vast array of flora on show for the viewing public.
We were here for the strawberries. Not just any old strawberries mind you but ones that we could hand pick straight off the plant.
There are rows and rows of strawberries that, at the right time of the year, you could hand pick to your heart’s content. For this place, this was, unfortunately for us, not the right time of the year.
However, for those that must have their fresh strawberries, or strawberry-based products, there is a store from which you can purchase fresh strawberries by the punnet, as well as strawberry beverages, jams and so forth.
A number of varieties of lettuce are also grown here in abundance, though I don’t believe that hand picking activities for tourists are available for these leafy greens. However, and rather oddly so, as with the strawberries, you can purchase freshly processed lettuce juice.
In the past, a friend of mine occasionally would talk about marketing lettuce juice. He would also talk about how all his ideas, once voiced, would inevitably be stolen. Coming to this place was a surreal moment in my life.
We move on from the disappointment of not being able to pick our own strawberries to head for one of the many tea plantations in the area.
The inevitable rains of the season are brought forth, a daily ritual that we learn to adapt to, or at least tolerate. We take refuge at the Cameron Valley Tea house at the Bharat Plantations (warning: annoying flash site), foregoing the tea shop retail store for the moment in favour for a warm cup of tea and some scones.
We order a pot of tea and four scones to be shared amongst the five of us. After a little mathematical problem-solving, we work out that we each get 3/4 of a scone each, with one to spare.
The tea is nice enough. I was expecting something spectacular considering we were overlooking its likely source. However, this could just be my trumped up, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations talking.
The scones on the other hand were terrible. Stale & doughy, warmed by microwave, and served with whipped cream straight out of a can. The image above was all I had of my 3/4 share.
This was a far cry from the freshly baked, wonderful scones that Billy had had in the past. I feel for him somewhat as he must have been really disappointed that these did not live up to the previous experience.
The rains cleared and we make our way out of the tea house, passing a giant novelty-sized cup and saucer, serving as a tip cup at the register. What served as a symbol of playful optimism and humour on the way in, in my eyes, ended up looking sad, if not slightly arrogant, on the way out.
We make our way down the stairs, to the tea garden with its diverse range of flora christened with the rains that had just past, giving the flowers a lush quality of fresh morning dew.
Further along the path beyond the garden lies an enthralling vista of green and yellow as far as the eye can see. Acres upon acres of tea bushes carpet the valley and mountain side. Seemingly ripe for the picking, despite visual reminders to discourage us from this very action.
Having made the most of our time down at the plantation, we make the trek back up to our vehicle. There are only so many tea leaves one can look at before the mind starts to wander, even beyond that of the playful antics previously documented.
Having been dissatisfied with the inability to pick our own strawberries at Big Red Strawberry Farm, we make a stop of Kok Lim Strawberry Farm to try our luck there. As luck would have it, the strawberries here were ripe for the picking, so to speak.
Money exchanges hands as we’re offered admittance to the field of strawberries below with an empty plastic container in hand. The fee of 20 RM covers a minimum of 500g worth of strawberries. Anything beyond this is charged at a rate of 40 RM per kilo.
Rows and rows of strawberry plants run along either side of narrow walkways just wide enough for a single person to stroll through comfortably, in a vast undercover complex.
What initially starts off as a novel activity of hunting for the best, most ripe, specimens soon feels somewhat like a chore, in much the same way that picking fruit at a grocery store or supermarket is.
Once you’ve had your fill of filling a punnet full of strawberries, the strawberries are weighted with additional fees charged, if necessary. In the case of the punnet I was sharing with Helen, we fell short by a fair margin. Thankfully, there are plenty of surplus strawberries at the weighing station to make up the 500g minimum.
However, it almost begs the question, why bother picking them in the first place?
In the evening, we head once more to the township of Brinchang in search of some food. This time a specialty of the region – Charcoal Steamboat at Restoran Highlands. The cooler temperatures during the day invariably lead to chilly evenings. This was the perfect environment for such a meal.
The charcoal does two things for the steamboat. It firstly operates at only one temperature – boiling hot. This makes for some fast cooking. However, it also means that you have to be more mindful of food items that can overcook easily, such as leafy greens or noodles.
The second thing it does is impart a smokey character to the dish. Other than a smokey aroma, likely more from the source than what may have been infused into the cooking stock, there wasn’t much difference that I noticed from your regular steamboat meal.
The meal was quite satisfying, with variety of ingredients such as chicken, crab claws (the fake stuff), fish, fish balls, jellyfish, pork, prawns, squid, tofu, leafy vegetation, with a couple of types of noodles and eggs to finish off the meal.
A disagreement breaks out regarding whether the eggs should be left whole to boil or cracked open to be incorporated into the soup. We end up going the whole egg route, though if you were to ask me, my vote would have been for cracking them open.
We finish off the evening with some karaoke back at the hotel. Having never done karaoke before, I was somewhat skeptical of enjoying the experience of singing off-beat and off-key whilst listening to other people do the same. However, I kept an open mind about it and I’m glad that I did.
Karaoke can be a lot of fun, so long as you don’t take yourself too seriously and just enjoy the moment. My new found appreciation for 80’s love ballads, mentioned in the very first holiday post, as well as the impulse to sing to favourite tunes out loud was born this evening.
It can also be a learning experience. For instance, singing Madonna’s Material Girl as a heterosexual guy is exceedingly weird, to the point of being uncomfortable. More so when sung as a duet with another guy. I also learned to appreciate how Filipinos get so worked up over having Frank Sinatra’s My Way sung badly, to the point of deaths being involved. Having destroyed that song first hand (and not destroyed in the good kind of way), I think I’ll leave it up to Frank to sing it his way from now on.
The next morning, we pack our bags and head for a local market not far from the hotel.
The street market, which runs on either side of a small side street is, for the most part, a product market hawking the local agriculture. Corn, strawberries, various leafy greens, and other fruit and veg, as well as tea, naturally. There are other stall, such as the occasional one selling cooked food, or trinkets and souvenirs.
The strawberries here are half the price of the hand picked ones at Kok Lim i.e. 20 RM/Kg. If hand picking strawberries isn’t your thing, buy the strawberries here.
We hit the road once more, this time in search for some breakfast. Having done away with the buffet breakfast provided by the hotel (thankfully!), we eventually find ourselves at Uncle Chows (note: URL on their business card but it’s a parked domain. future site?).
Uncle Chows was something of an odd find. A sign on the road randomly caught our attention stating little more than the name of this kopitiam (cafe) and a direction to drive. After a few more signs and changes in direction, we arrive at a quiet establishment located right by a residential complex.
With the lack of clientele at the time that we arrived, I wasn’t all that hopeful that the food would be any good, as with the experience at Sri Brinchang, the day before.
Boy, was I ever wrong!
A couple of people order the Roti Bakar Set (Set A, 5 RM), which consisted of kaya toast with butter (the roti bakar), soft boiled eggs and a coffee (kopi o in the case above). Though I’d not tried this, I was told that the kaya/butter to toast ratio was lacking, not making for the best example of this staple breakfast combo.
The Curry Laksa (7.90 RM) was much like some of the best I’ve had in Sydney. I was quite pleased with the depth of flavour of the mild curry spices, as well as the fish balls, and large pieces of chicken, still on the bone. I would have a preferred it with a little more heat but it was good all the same.
Har Mee (7.90 RM), a prawn flavoured noodle soup isn’t as spicy as one would presume just by looking at it. Billy, who had ordered this dish, didn’t seem too fussed over it, either in a good or a bad way.
Asam Laksa (7.90 RM) is a sour, fish based soup built primarily on shredded mackerel and tamarind. Touted as the best version of this dish by both Minh and Helen, this happened to be the only one I missed out on sampling! Gotta find my way back here if I’m ever in the area to see how good it is for myself.
It may be a bloody long way from Australia, but we were also a bloody long way from heading back. There was still much of Malaysia & Thailand to discover, explore & taste.
Next stop – Ipoh. By far and away the best food experience on the whole trip. Coming soon. Don’t miss it!