*WARNING – this blog posting contains images that may produce severe hunger on an empty stomach…
A bit over six years ago I moved to Malaysia for a three month internship. Lucky to have a boss who was an avid foodie, I got to experience the culinary delights of a country that often falls under the food radar. It’s a real wonder why Malaysian food doesn’t compete up there with Thai or Vietnamese in the Western world. Last week I went on a one week trip to Malaysia with a theme – food. Perhaps for me, Malaysia is my Italy of Eat, Pray, Love. I certainly could feel the trousers get tighter and see my face get fuller over such a short timespan. But every bite was full of pleasure and discovery as I ate my way through Malaysia once again.
Malaysia is a truly multi-ethnic and multicultural nation. I’d love to share my perspective on the complex socio-economic and political dynamic of Malaysia’s multicultural model that differs so greatly from my home country of Canada’s – but that would definitely destroy the light indulgent tone I’m going for in this food blog entry! For this purpose, imagine Chinese, Indian and Malay (local population stemming from Indonesia) all coming together and bringing the best of their cuisines. Remember the diversity of the Aboriginals in a tropical climate and long historical influences from Thai, Portuguese, British, and Dutch. The result is a fusion that becomes truly national and unique.
Arriving late Saturday night and heading straight out for some dancing and moonlighting in Kuala Lumpur, I was first greeted by my travelling partner’s sister with none other than Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak. Served in a banana leaf, this coconut cream rice is accompanied by anchovies, cucumber, peanuts, chicken, egg, and spicy sambal sauce. Having to devour this in literally 10 minutes to meet the schedule didn’t mean I couldn’t savour this dish. Strong spicy flavours mixed with the coconut cream rice is exactly the way to come to terms with the fact you’ve arrived in Malaysia.
The 4:30am post-party munchies called me with a craving for one of my favourite sweet and spicy dishes – roti susu. My former Malaysia internship breakfast of choice, roti susu is basically indian roti bread with a touch of condensed milk inside. Served with a light curry on the side, it might sound a bit bizarre to fans of Indian fare. But it works. The sweetness of the condensed milk mixed with the spiciness of the curry tantalises taste buds and gives french toast or pancakes a serious run for their money. Of course my roti susu needed to be paired off with a cup of teh tarik, or “pulled tea”, which is black tea with condensed and evaporated milk that is poured back and forth until it gets a frothy topping.
The real intense food affair began after travelling to northern Malaysia in the town of Sungai Petani. Staying with a Malaysian family means you will endure a period of time where you feel continuously full without any real chance to have a momentary spike of hunger. We started off with the Chinese treat of seafood. Accompanied by a wonderfully refreshing nutmeg juice, the feast consisted of steamed fish, ginger breaded prawns, shellfish of every imaginable shape and size – and my favourite dish, the butter pumpkin crayfish. I had experienced this sauce years before, a chilli infused rich butter and pumpkin creamy base that absorbs into the tempura breaded seafood. Having satisfied my six year craving, Sungai Petani certainly provided me with my best food memories of Malaysia.
Breakfasts included wonton mee, chicken rice, lor mee, and frequent dim sum. The dim sum in Sungai Petani was the best dim sum I’ve had. You know bad dim sum when everything begins tasting the same, either steamed or fried? Nothing could be further from the truth at the local joint that is simply known as Dim Sum. Each dish had an extraordinary flavour and arrived at the table steaming. Being outside surrounded by elderly Chinese locals added to the ambiance I was in search of. Even though being offered a fork, asked if I can drink tea, and whether I could eat chicken that included bone did certainly make the Vancouverite in me cringe, I took their stereotypes in stride and revelled at each dish that ended up on my table. Note that dim sum in Malaysia is an early morning event, though, and we were firmly collecting dishes by 8am.
A day trip with more travelling sisters to Butterworth was strictly focused on duck and laksa. The 30 minute drive was highly worth it. We had the most delicious pipa roasted duck that combined both crispy and tender in the same bite. We then went to the laksa stall that unfortunately ran out of the the thick infamous noodle. Mee hoon laksa was not a bad substitute and the seafood flavoured bowl of noodles was intense. In the town of Gurun, we sampled sotong kangkong – a spicy squid dish that practically melted in the mouth, char kuay teow noodles with sausage, shrimp, and sprouts, and cockle shells with a chilli sauce that packed a major punch. The village of Semelin provided me with the best chicken satay that has now spoilt me for all other satays available in Cambodia, and lobak, different types of rolled meat that goes way too well with beer and mysterious ghost operas in the street.
And then Penang happened. Known as Malaysia’s food paradise, it can be an overwhelming trip into the world of indulgence. Penang’s reputation lays in both haute cuisine and hawker fair. My first lunch took the dumpling to a new level. Presented to me was a dragon bun, or xiao long pao, full of savoury thick soup. The kicker was the fact it is served with a straw to drink. The peppery soup was to die for and eating the shell of the dumpling was really the best part. In the evening we decided to forgo the touristy Guerney Drive food fair and instead head out to a local “kopitiam”, a string of hawker stalls that can serve you dishes to your heart’s content. We ate laksa, spring rolls (popiah), noodles, and satay. It didn’t stop there. Two hours later we were in another kopitiam by the sea eating clams and pasembur – an amazingly complex dish of Indian origin that brings together cucumber, potatoes, tofu, turnip, bean sprouts, prawn fritters, and spicy fried seafood all covered in a sweet and spicy nut sauce. By the next morning we were sitting back in dim sum sampling some of Penang’s huge selection and spent the day snacking on more laksa, bread with kaya (sweet condiment), right until our last curry mee (noodle) run as we raced to the airport.
Malaysia is a fascinating place of culture and fusion. And its food seems to symbolise all of that in a truly national character that can make a foodie out of anyone!