Arriving in the vast yet somehow beautiful Kuala Lumpur was a shock to all the senses. Everything was shining a little too brightly in the soaring concrete jungle and the huge malls seemed grotesque as a drove past in my air conditioned taxi… a far cry from friendly Cambodian tuk tuks navigating houses no more than 3 stories high. A friend was meeting me there from London and carefully researched, shabby-chic boutique hotels were to be the theme of our two week Malaysian holiday. As a result, my culinary experiences are in danger of being a little out of touch with the true Malaysia.
However, our first night there proved how easy eating local grub in Malaysia can be. One expat said ‘you can eat the same food for £2 as you do for £200.’ I can believe it. Just minutes away from our oasis of a hotel, we discovered the famous hawker street where food flows from every nook and cranny. The smoke bubbled up from the hundreds of different woks down the bustling street, accompanying the babble of thousands of happy munchers. The smells were delicious if desperately over-powered by the stench ( there is no other word for it) of the make-shift stalls selling first ‘Durians’ of the season.
Durians are known in Asia as the Kings of fruits and they are pure nectar to those who have got passed their outrageous smell. Mel, just arrived in from London, and I both failed* and made some half-hearted promise to come back after we had sampled the delights of the many hawkers and their busy woks. Fresh tofu, baby bok choi, oyster omlette and chicken with noodles were all delicious local specialities but the friend squid was definitely the winner – it was the first time I really understood how good squid really can be. The total came to £5 a head. (* I was later to try Durians in Thailand – an extraordinary powerful sensory experience – the texture of custard and a taste like I never known; almost smokey but definitely not instantly likeable. Jury is out…
Langkawi was short on hawkers stalls and long on all things that make holidaying westerners smile. Delicious seafood and salads with dipping sauces; Satay is one of their specialties and it’s complex, balanced, slightly spicyness was a world away from the cloying M & S canapes we all know ( and occasionally love.) Alongside Satay is the famous ‘goreng’ – the malaysian culinary trade mark.Rice or noodles friend with a delicious combination of herbs and spices, prawns, potato, tofu… basically anything going. A bowl of noodles ‘goreng’ on New Year’s morning did wonders for my slightly sorry head.
The food on the amazing island of Penang was much truer to its origins and directly reflected the incredible mix in cultures there. 40% of Chinese origin, 40% Malay, 10% Indian and 10% european / eurasian. Dim sum for breakfast ( it is all finished in the stalls by noon, as we found to our disappointment) is therefore as common as delicious bread with ginger and apple jam. The hawkers stalls are bustling throughout the day with delicious goreng, nyonya laksa (noodles in soup – nyonya being the chinese / malay group of people) and curries. Like all over Asia, set meal times are not dictated.
Stopping at one large hall full of different stalls, we watched while endless beautiful little pyramid shaped parcels made from banana leaf and containing rice with anything from curried eggs to meat, where being handed out for hungry locals to take away. Far more beautiful, healthy and environmentally friendly than a pret sandwich. Sitting down, we pointed at one of the bad photographs, as menus so often are. Mel was lucky with her Malay version of Tom Yum soup. Mine was an MSG disaster and was quickly and swiftly dismissed (I didn’t feel too bad having paid just over 1 quid) in favour for a true noodle goreng from the friendly face I had been photographing earlier. I went over to order and, as I have done throughout my travels, expressed an interested in the language of smiles and passion for food. He took time out from his burning hot wok to take me through the ingredients (I was keen to avoid any canine knuckles or worse) and the final result, served up on plastic plates with chopsticks, was delicious. If I am honest though, the Malays seem to lack the refinement and attention to visual and sensory detail in food that I have found elsewhere.That may also be true of their culture in general – they are a very different breed..
Back at our hotel – having unashamedly to washed down our hawkers stall lunch with a divine coffee and a ball of salt caramel ice cream in a chic cafe – we were given delicious nutmeg tea and an afternoon high tea that went some way to showing why the Malays don’t necessarily enjoy the same svelte figures as their SE Asian neighbours. First, a bowl of delicious, local noodle soup – Laksa. Then a vast melange of different coloured treats turned up – a banana leaf parcel of blue (colored with Indigo) rice with palm sugar and coconut, a yellow tapioca and pineapple cake and some very green little rice starch puffs (coloured with pendang) which were slightly chewy and exploded in our mouths to release almost burnt caramel made from palm syrup. Added into the mix (along with a very misplaced curry and potato pastie) was a bright pink ‘diamond’ of jellied rice starch. Having discovered the amazing natural dyes in the other treats, I assumed that this pink colour was one more. “It is a chemical” said the waiter “but it is edible as we have a law now…” Right.
Leaving Penang behind and heading up into the Cameron Highlands was a slightly odd experience. I had been warned that it may not be quite as ‘amaaaaaaaaaaaazing’ as all the tales had lead me to believe, and I had sensed as much while searching for a hotel. “A lovely mock Tudor mansion…” “serves the best creams teas in Malaysia..”. Not my cup of tea – literally, for the Cameron Highlands is known as the ex Pats refuge – a haven of Britishness that centres itself around tea plantations and strawberrys. A large sign saying ‘Pluck Your Self’ hanging outside one of the many of strawberry farms has kept me chuckling ever since.
The hotel we chose wasn’t mock Tudor but reminded me of the hotel in Dirty Dancing so much that I couldn’t take it seriously. The view – a golf course – was scarily ‘Surrey’ and I found it hard to find the charm. Luckily the hugely overpriced wine and delicious Japanese food.. and strawberries.. came to the rescue.
A visit to the BOH tea plantations made the stay. Beautiful hills covered in long, intensely green, wonky lines of tea bushes, all maintained at a carefully picking height and harvested by hand or tractor every 3 weeks – no wonder it makes money. The tea making process, which uses similar machinery to wine, involved wilting and crushing the leaves followed by natural fermentation ( approx 3 days) which was stopped by heating. Once fermentation is stopped the leaves are sorted – the biggest leaves making up the premium teas and the ‘dust’ grade going straight into tea bags. We enjoyed a ‘cuppa’ of their best overlooking the beautiful hills with.. dare I mention it… a darn fine cream tea. We walked it off, meandering through the plantation – apologies for lack of photos, computer not quick enough!
Flying out of the modern KL airport, with a barrage of Godiva and Lindtt chocolates alongside western sandwiches, I realised that the Malays have a hugely diverse culture and heritage, and this is clearly demonstrated in their cuisine. A huge melting pot of western, eastern, modern and traditional; summed up nicely by my favourite little sign, spotted on a tiny ra shackled eatery in the Cameron Highlands. It just read ‘Goreng and Strawberry icecream.’