Malaysian cuisine will be the focus of an afternoon food hike Aug. 29 at Harrison Hills Park in Natrona Heights.
The scenic 5K hike will be followed by a bountiful meal prepared by Kuala Lumpur native Grace Tabitha Lim-Clark, owner of Grace's Wok in Natrona Heights. All food will be made from scratch with authentic natural ingredients, including curry mixes purchased in Malaysia.
“Cooking is one of the things I enjoy tremendously,” Lim-Clark says. “I believe food nourishes not just our bodies but also our soul. I put a lot of love into my cooking.”
Lim-Clark's husband, Spencer Clark, will lead the hike preceding the meal.
“Harrison Hills Park is one of the most scenic parks to hike in this area,” he says. “This is a unique opportunity for the community to experience authentic Malaysian food and learn a little bit about the culture.”
He describes the hike as “moderately strenuous” with a few hills. Along the way, he will share information about the park and its supporters, as well as facts about Malaysia.
The hike is optional; those who wish to skip it may arrive at the park's Environmental Learning Center at 2:30 p.m. for a brief tour before the meal. Lim-Clark will give a short talk about Malaysian culture before the meal begins.
The rich diversity of Malaysia is reflected in its food.
“Malaysian cooks use methods and ingredients normally associated with Chinese, Indian and Thai cooking, creating dishes that are familiar yet excitingly unique to Malaysia,” Lim-Clark says.
Spicy foods and condiments are common, as are flavorings such as cardamom, cinnamon and ginger as well as coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. There will be a mix of spicy and nonspicy foods at the hike.
Lim-Clark will offer Malay cuisine including the traditional Nasi Lemak, a fragrant coconut rice dish; Beef Rendang, a spicy curry served for special occasions; and Chicken Satay, a non spicy option served with peanut dipping sauce. Chinese food will include fried rice, pork wontons and vegetable spring rolls, none of which is spicy. Representing Indian cuisine will be garlic naan flatbreads with a selection of nonspicy and mildly spicy curries.
Drinks, desserts and tropical fruit will be served. Spencer Clark will demonstrate how to make pulled tea, or Teh Tarik, a frothy hot milk drink popular in Malaysia.
“There will be something for everyone — vegetarians and nonspicy palates included,” Lim-Clark says.
Space for the event is limited. Proceeds from the event will benefit Environmental Learning Center operations.
“I'd like to encourage all adventurous foodies to come out and support this worthwhile community cultural event,” Lim-Clark says. “Many of the participants are repeat attendees and have already booked half the available spots, so please register ASAP to avoid disappointment.”
Cynthia Bombach Helzel is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media
In anticipation of this year's Malaysian Food Hike, the Tribune interviewed Spencer and I and will be publishing a news article promoting the hike! Below are the interview questions and answers.
Questions for Grace:
Q: How many years have you done this event?
A: This is the third year we are holding the event.
Q: How many people usually attend?
A: First year twenty, second year thirty, this year we are expecting at least fifty - we have over twenty signed up via Facebook and word of mouth at the moment, and this should increase when your piece on the hike is published. :)
Q: What are some of the characteristics of Malaysian food? Is most of it spicy?
A: Malaysian cuisine is multi-ethnic, reflecting the Malay, Chinese and Indian ethnic groups that make up most of the population. Malaysian cuisine is also influenced by a history of 500 years of colonization by Portuguese, Dutch and the British successively. Malaysian cooks use methods and ingredients normally associated with Chinese, Indian and Thai cooking, creating dishes that are familiar yet excitingly unique to Malaysia. Readily accessible is a tremendous assortment of fresh and dried ingredients such as coconut milk, ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, curry leaves, chillies, coriander, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. Many dishes are spicy, and those that aren’t spicy often come with a side of fresh chillies in soy sauce, or 'sambal' - typically a spicy, sweet, salty and sour condiment made of dried chillies, belacan (a pungent fermented sundried shrimp paste), and vinegar, fresh calamansi lime juice or tamarind pulp.)
Q: Describe a couple of the dishes you'll be serving. What is in them, how spicy are they, what is their ethnic origin?
For Malay cuisine, I am serving ‘Nasi Lemak’ the national dish of Malaysia that is eaten at breakfast, lunch, dinner or whenever. ‘Nasi Lemak’ is a simple dish of rice steamed with coconut milk, a little ginger and fragrant screwpine leaves. It is served with sambal, crispy fried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg and sliced cucumber. For the Malaysian Food Hike, I am also serving Beef Rendang, one of the most popular beef dishes in Malaysia, is a rich, spicy and aromatic dry curry typically served during special occasions. This dish takes the better part of the day to prepare - shredded coconut is toasted golden brown, finely grind the myriad fresh ingredients (galangal, ginger, garlic, rehydrated chillies, lemongrass) that make up the spice paste, toast the spices (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom), and simmer it all in coconut cream for 3 hours, stirring continuously, till tender and fragrant. A non-spicy option will be Chicken Satay with peanut dipping sauce.
For Chinese cuisine, there’s fried rice, crispy juicy pork wontons and vegetable spring rolls, made following my grandmother’s recipes. Spring rolls are an ‘elegant’ version of the American Chinese egg roll - I’d never had an egg roll prior to coming here and I definitely prefer spring rolls! I serve these with my homemade sweet and sour dipping sauce. None of these are spicy.
For Indian cuisine, I am preparing hand-stretched garlic naan flatbreads served with several different curries: Dhal (Lentil) curry is non-spicy, hearty vegetarian curry; Vegetable coconut curry is a mildly spicy dish with eggplant, carrot, long beans, tomatoes in coconut cream; and Butter Chicken, a very mildly spicy chicken dish. Yoghurt and spice-marinated chicken is simmered with tomatoes, garlic, ginger, garam masala and finished with cream.
There will also be a a variety of drinks, desserts and fresh tropical fruits. Teh Tarik ‘Pulled Tea’ is a creamy frothy hot milk drink that is poured repeatedly between two cups to cool it down and blend it. It is the national drink of Malaysia and can be found everywhere - roadside stands to five star hotels. My husband Spencer Clark will be doing a demo of ‘pulling’ the tea for the hike participants, but it won’t be as entertaining as these professional teh tarik makers https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQYKF9x9ty4
I expect the Durian, the ‘King of Fruits’ to be the highlight of the dessert table. It is an exotic, pungent fruit with sweet creamy custard like flesh encased in a thorny shell. Jackfruit is likely to be the favorite of participants - it holds the record as the largest fruit in the world, weighing in at 80lbs. I will be serving peanut cookies made following my grandmother’s recipe - these are a special treat usually enjoyed during Chinese New Year celebrations. Freshly roasted peanuts are first ground then mixed with flour and sugar, individually hand-rolled, topped with peanuts and brushed with egg yolk then baked.
There will be something for everyone - vegetarians, non-spicy palettes included.
Q: Do you make all the food yourself? How long does it take you?
A: Yes, I make everything from scratch. I usually start food prep a few weeks before the event, shopping for the special ingredients at the Strip District, dipping into my stores of curry mixes that were carried from Malaysia, making cookies and baked goods that keep well, toasting and grinding the spices for the curries and so forth. I source meat and produce locally and/or from the farmers markets as far as possible, in addition to produce from my garden. I use free range eggs in my cooking. I avoid using MSG, preservatives or artificial additives.
Q: What foods do you generally serve at Grace's Wok, and where can people find it?
A: Grace's Wok is a seasonal food stand that I set up at several farmers markets around Pittsburgh, serving authentic, all-natural Chinese fried rice, wontons and spring rolls. This year I am taking a break from the farmers markets (my baby is now mobile and too heavy to wear on my back). However, my customers (now friends) from the farmers markets still order food from me for grad parties and other events. Spring rolls and wontons are good finger foods. I also keep busy making food for fundraisers - including the Dash for Cash South Buffalo VFD mountain bike race attended by over 200 people this year.
Q: Did you grow up in Kuala Lumpur?
A: Yes, I was born and bred in Kuala Lumpur. I moved to the U.S. permanently at age 35 in 2010.
Q: Why did you decide on a career in cooking?
A: I am an entomologist by training (PhD Entomology, Virginia Tech) - and worked 13 years as a forest entomologist in the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. Cooking is one of the things I enjoy tremendously. I have always loved feeding people! I believe food nourishes not just our bodies but also our soul. I put a lot of love into my cooking. I decided to set up at the farmers markets to make some money to help with household expenses while doing what I am passionate about, but the farmers markets will be on hold for a while till baby is older.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about the Food Hike?
A: I’d like to encourage all adventurous foodies to come out and support this worthwhile community cultural event - this is a once a year event that offers an invigorating hike with gorgeous views, followed by a delicious home-cooked meal featuring three entrees (Malay, Chinese and Indian), fabulous desserts and a chance to experience a ‘Taste of Malaysia’ and her culture. Many of the participants are repeat attendees and have already booked half the available spots, so please register asap to avoid disappointment!
Questions for Spencer:
Q: Do you lead the hike?
A: Yes, I will be leading the full hike which is just over 5K and will follow the most scenic areas of the park.
Q: How easy or difficult is the walking?
A: The hike is moderately strenuous as there are a few hills to overcome on the trail.
Q: Do you make any commentary on the way regarding the plants, etc. along the trail?
A: I primarily discuss the park, the Friends of Harrison Hills Park Group, and some Malaysian facts.
Q: What is your favorite of the dishes that Grace will offer at the Food Hike? Why is it your favorite? A: Satay is my favorite - the savory grilled chicken is so flavorful and I love the peanut dipping sauce that goes with it
Q: Why should people attend the food hike?
A: Harrison Hills Park is one of the most scenic parks to hike in this area. This is a unique opportunity for the community to experience authentic Malaysian food and learn a little bit about the culture.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about it? A: For those who enjoyed the hike and food we would like to invite them back for our 5K/10K trail run in the park on October 31. Grace’s Wok will be providing the food and the race course will include some of the same trails.
The intrepid food hikers (Photo credit: Brant Dempster)
Country America, meet the durian
The concept for the Malaysian food hike was simple. Participants enjoy a scenic 5km hike, then indulge in a spread of Malaysian food. Proceeds go to a good cause, and everyone releases happy durian belches before waving jumpa lagi.
If only it was that straightforward.
Malaysians eat… what?
We’re out in Natrona Heights - a quintessential rural American town about half an hour from Pittsburgh. Inhabitants don’t generally venture beyond western staples like pizza, burgers and slabs of meat on a grill.
“They’re not exactly ‘adventurous’ when it comes to food,” admits Grace Lim-Clark, who cooked the feast single-handedly. “They see Meili gnawing on a chicken foot and go ‘oh my God!’”
Grace, who hails from Kuala Lumpur, moved to Natrona Heights after marrying Spencer Clark in 2008. Meili is their cherubic 16-month old.
The town boasts one Asian restaurant, intuitively named ‘China House’.
“It all tastes the same - very sweet, very Americanised. Dump the same sauce on everything and reheat,” joked Spencer, who’s been thoroughly exposed to all things Malaysian through his fiercely Malaysian wife, and loves it all.
For the hike, Grace boldly served up foods with somewhat more acquired tastes like achar, beef rendang, sambal belacan, lassi and - yup - durian.
The food hike attracted 32 intrepid Americans.
Grace was thrilled to find jackfruit in the Pittsburgh shopping district (Photo credit: Brant Dempster)
The power of one
Grace is the only Malaysian in these parts, so there was no helpful ‘aunty’ to call on for help, or nasi lemak makcik around the corner place an order with.
This is second year Grace organised the food hike. Last year, she was 8 months pregnant when it took place. Baby popped out shortly after, so this year, she had Meili to factor into the prep. Cute as a button, she is, but not the best accessory to have hanging off your leg when you’ve got rendang to stir and kuih kapit to toast.
Try reading the food list aloud in one breath: garlic naan, dhal curry, vegetable curry, fried rice, wontons, spring rolls, nasi lemak (including very spicy sambal belacan), beef rendang, achar, kuih puteri ayu, peanut cookies, pineapple tarts, kuih kapit, honey dew sago, mango lassi, teh tarik, durian, jackfruit, lychees and rambutans.
In a truly impressive logistical feat, Grace prepared all of the above in the one week preceding the hike.
A few hours of labour over the gas stove produced 40 kuih kapit for the food hike (Photo credit: Grace Lim-Cla …
No shortcuts, no siree!
Grace stubbornly insists - as far as possible - on using only authentic, fresh stuff. The nearest Asian grocer is half an hour away, tucked away in Pittsburgh’s vibrant shopping district, The Strip. Shopping there is like going on a treasure hunt. You could find something truly spectacular (oh joy, jackfruit!) or be abjectly disappointed (what, no galangal!)
Adaptation was a must.
The teh tarik, for instance, was made with leaves from Thailand. A strainer was fashioned out of a regular sieve and a cheesecloth.
“It had a strange yellow tinge and tasted a bit different, but was quite passable with the condensed milk,” said Grace. The feast was preceded with a video demonstration of the drink’s distinctive ‘pulling’ action.
And then there’s the price factor. Participants paid USD15 to join the hike. That’s great value for participants, but necessitated extremely judicious spending for Grace.
She found durian for a USD3 a pound, which made the five-pound fruit cost 15 bucks (gasp, RM50). To add insult to the injury, they were frozen, not fresh. But one could not have a Malaysian feast without durian, so she forked over the cash.
[Well, she did come across a fresh durian in The Strip, but these were a ridiculous USD7 per pound. OUCH. Charging RM150 for a durian is practically a crime.]
She agonized about coconut milk. Ideally, you’d want freshly squeezed coconut milk rather than the tinned stuff. But brown coconuts were USD3 each - five times more expensive than in Malaysia.
“Very cekik-lah. So I settled on buying one coconut to grate for the kuih puteri ayu, and used tinned coconut milk for the rest,” she said.
Grace was determined to serve kuih kapit a.k.a love letters - delicate, delicious wafers that are notoriously tedious to make. She got her mum in Kuala Lumpur to buy the moulds, then pass it to her brother-in-law who was travelling to Singapore, to pass it to her flight stewardess sister who was flying to New York. Grace then took a 9 hour bus ride up to the Big Apple to retrieve them. Whew, talk about a labour of love.
The food fest was preceded by a scenic 5km hike in the Harrison Hills Park (Photo credit: Brant Dempster)
13 September dawned sunny and bright. The walk through Harrison Hills Park was invigorating, and the hikers were hungry as they filed into the park’s Environmental Learning Centre for the feast.
Spencer gave a short talk about Malaysia before the meal: geography (between Singapore and Thailand), climate (very hot), brief history and overview of the main ethnicities.
“I also warned them about the heat levels of the food - Americans aren’t generally used to spicy food. I advised them to go easy, and try a bit of everything to start,” he said.
The durian was a highlight, though perhaps not because it was greatly loved.
“I didn’t find the durian appealing to my taste,” admitted participant Brant Dempster, who only managed a spoonful of the pungent fruit. “It looked somewhat like a cooked sheep brain and had the texture of custard. I can’t say the flavour stuck in my mind as much as the texture.”
Second-time participant Benjamin Edwards attended the hike with his son Brock. The most ‘interesting’ dish for him was the beef rendang and sambal belacan, he typed over Facebook Messenger.
Hikers dig in (Photo credit: Susan Goughler)
Why was it interesting?
“It was quite unique. Just the right mix of heat and flavour,” came the politically correct reply.
So you really enjoyed it?
He replied with a large sticker of a shouting face with red hot burning cheeks. ‘Nuff said.
Grace runs a food stand, ‘Grace’s Wok’, which makes a regular appearance at farmers markets and events around Pittsburgh. She already has a loyal following, and her fanbase is growing.
She cleverly balanced out the hike’s more ‘exotic’ dishes with established crowd pleasers - her wontons, fried rice and spring rolls. That left everyone with full bellies, and pleased with their gastronomical daredevilry. They made a profit of USD100, which was donated to the Friends of Harrison Hills.
It’s not about the money, though, said Grace.
“It’s a lot of work and we didn’t charge enough. But I did it because I love Malaysian food and love feeding people, so all things considered, it was a great success.”
A participant posing with one of the event’s most eagerly anticipated highlights - the durian.
Put together a fresh fruit platter over ice today for a high tea for a very special Grandma. Served with organic greek yoghurt vanilla dip and organic cream cheese marshmallow dip. Cost of the fruit = $20. Would $40 be reasonable for a platter like this?
I'd been contemplating quitting the farmers markets because I hadn't been making enough to make it worthwhile going out. After crunching the numbers (food costs, fees, taxes, etc), I calculated that I was paying myself less than minimum wage, for the past couple of weeks. Every week I had come prepared to work, sell lots of food ... but always had so much left over.
This week was awesome. All of you came out and let me feed you. I felt so encouraged, counting the gross takings at the end of yesterday (Tarentum) and today (Pittsburgh Mills). I'm finally earning above minimum wage!
So Meili and I will continue to roll spring rolls, fold pork wontons, fry rice and bring our all-natural, locally sourced (as much as possible) food to the farmers markets.
I took a week off for hubby's birthday trip - a much needed break it was, but I already miss feeding all of you at the Farmers Markets.
I spent some time planning for a few bigger events that I hope to set up at: Bloomfield Little Italy Days being one of them. With the $750 vendor fee up front however, I'm really going to have to plan well. We'll see.
I used to doubt my food was good enough, but the past month has convinced me that Grace's Wok is on to a good thing with that Fried Rice. Nine out of ten people who can be persuaded to try my free sample of fried rice, end up buying some. You know who you are - thank you. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard 'Best Fried Rice I've Ever Had', but definitely remember the veteran who told me he'd had fried rice all over Asia and mine was the best he'd ever had.
So, I'm happy with my fried rice. Baby Meili loves my fried rice, and I'm happy to feed it to her because it's made fresh and all-natural, and has no junk in it. Ingredients include: fresh eggs, all natural chicken, pure peanut oil, Kikkoman all natural soy sauce, fragrant jasmine rice, peas and carrots. And garlic. Lots of it.
My pork wontons have also been going over well with all of you who've tried them. Most heartwarming compliment on my wontons so far, "I could eat a hundred of these". I think I will continue using the Grimm Farm pork in my wontons as much as possible. Not only are they local (down the road in Butler, PA), but their hogs are raised antibiotic- and hormone-free on their own crops. Some of the best pork I've tasted and definitely worth the $5/lb cost.
I got my permit from ACHD to feed everyone at Farmers Markets in Allegheny County a few weeks ago, so Grace's Wok is back after a long hiatus (and a baby)!
Very pleased about that.
It's been a mighty challenge figuring out how to make and sell my food, while keeping baby Meili with me, but I think it's been largely worked out, thanks to some awesome help from various friends this summer.
Here are the locations and times of the Farmers Markets I'll be at:
Tarentum Farmers Market, Wednesdays 9a-1p
Corner of Lock Street and 10th Avenue, opposite the Dunkin Donuts
Frazer Township Farmers Market, Thursdays 3-7p
(also known as Pittsburgh Mills Farmers Market)
Parking lot of JC Penney
Butler City Farmers Market, Saturdays 9a-1p
205 S Chestnut St, Butler.
I'm also thinking of testing the waters at Lower Burrell Farmers Market, which is also on Saturday mornings. Maybe I'll do Butler on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays and Lower Burrell on 2nd and 4th Saturdays.
I'll be taking some Saturdays off for family trips though, so will skip the Farmers Markets during those times. I'll make sure to update here, on Facebook and Twitter as to when I am not at the Farmers Markets, so stay tuned!