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Malaysia

When I was in Ho Chi Minh City, some friends asked if I minded staying out of the touristy hubs and in far suburbs of the city.  I told them I usually stick to the fringes of the touristy areas so that I get a mix of local culture and food while still being walkable to attractions.  Granted I did spend one night out in the middle of not tourist central and it was a lovely area with a nice morning market.  This time I have arrived in Kuala Lumpur to visit a college friend and her family.  All of a sudden I find myself in suburbs and malls.  I haven’t spent much time in suburbs as they were a whole day venture in San Francisco.  What are you doing today?  Oh I’m suburbing, going to Target, Ikea and the like.  Well in a city where they’re cleaning up their tin shack shanty towns and wet markets, it’s a glance into what the future of Asia could be.

Malaysia is a modern, developed country crisscrossed in well made freeways and megamalls.  It is, after months of fly infested grungy wet markets that I have come to love, terrifyingly sterile.  However I came to see my friend and eat a lot, so this was as good a location as any.  Perhaps it was even better because I wasn’t distracted by much I wanted to see and I had my friend’s family whisking me away to places and stuffing me full.  The country’s mixed Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures made for some delicious eating and some hard to understand Malaysian English.  It may have been easier to communicate in pointing and smiles in various other countries.

We did one touristy day. Those tall things in the back are the famous Petronas towers. I’m not sure why fairly plain looking office buildings should be so special.

My friend’s family got me the things I knew about.  Nasi lemak with its fragrant coconut rice topped with anything from meat floss to fried chicken.  I got reunited with roti canai, a flaky and oily griddle bread I could eat forever.  High wok fired kuay teow (chow fun) with strong, noodle staining dark soy sauce.  There was Hainanese chicken rice everywhere. I got my hands on more than one good bowl of laksa and curries.

But it’s never what you expect right?  You don’t know what you’re getting into.  And that’s just how those laksas and curries went.  Turns out there are 13 types of laksa, little did I know or try them all.  Even otherwise simple chicken rice had been turned into rice balls for a new texture sensation.  The Malaysian, Indian and Chinese influence exponentially increased what curry meant in one country.

Endless curry and rice on a banana leaf? Yes, please!

I was introduced to  Nasi kandar, a huge plate of rice and a ladle of every possibly type of curry out of huge pots.

So the dark curry is overpowering everyone else in this picture of nasi kandar, but it is a seriously spicy and tasty dish that you can get late night.

Kuay teow gave way to Hokkien mee with the same dark soy sauce on wheat noodles and with the addition of crackling bits.  There were various rojaks, mixes of stuff.  I skipped on the fruit rojak as I don’t like scrimpiness in my fruit but I devoured an Indian rojak, full of gravy covered samosas.

Like a Malaysian version of poutine, Indian rojak consists of many fried things covered in a delicious gravy. Bonus points because this one came off a truck.

Some things I’d seen elsewhere and they had their own incarnations here.  I am not usually a fan of Asian desserts, as I prefer mine sweet, dense and chocolatey but I found some to enjoy.  Here we continued the trend of jellies and rice flour things in coconut milk but with the addition of flavorful palm sugar.  Fresh tropical fruits generally increase the flavor for me.

Alas, this sign was tellingly in the store of the only chendol I do not enjoy, the durian chendol.

At my friend’s behest I tried durian and moon cake again.  See the above sign.  I just can’t it still.  Durian, unlike delicious stinky tofu, just tastes rotten to me.  I did not try an ice cream mooncake but the standard variety did nothing to change my fruitcake like opinion of them.

Perhaps the biggest surprise group of foods in Nyonya cuisine.  It is a mix of Malaysian and Chinese cultures that my friend grew up eating so I got to have it quite a few times.

I loved everything in this going away spread.

The small triangles are pandan chicken, which take little persuasion as I love all pandan things.  The large leaf contains ota-ota, steamed fish curry that was reminiscent of all the fish amok I had in Cambodia.  Even a simple vegetable like vibrant green okra is slathered in a savory sambal.  The Nyonya also make assam laksa, a much sour and fisher soup that reminds me of Southern Vietnam tamarind and pineapple soups.

Ok, perhaps going to a country and increasing my eating intake while lowering the amount of walking I do isn’t the best idea.  I’m not going to turn down some friend catch up time and lounging by the pool in a country full of delicious eats though.  One day I’ll have to return to see the rest of Malaysia but until then i’ll dream of all the delectable and diverse eats.

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I’ve been in Malaysia for just about a week now, mostly lounging about.  Just before I head down to Singapore we decided to take a day trip to historical Malacca.  The historical colonial part of town has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and has accordingly become quite touristy as the past industry of the port disappears.

Our first stop was to get the Hainan chicken rice balls the city is famous for at Chung Wah.  I mistook being told this as chicken rice with the addition of meatballs.  No it entails chicken rice with the rice rolled into balls for convenience.  A namesake of the country, chicken rice entails boiling a chicken until perfectly tender, then taking the stock from the chicken to cook the rice in.  The result is a greasy, tender mess you eat with cucumbers and spicy dipping sauce.  While I could eat chicken rice all day, I found eating the rice in ball form more a novelty than a delicious evolution.  The rice itself was too dry for my tastes as I prefer it much moister in this preparation.

Lunch stop two was a hole in the wall known as Long Fatt, which is what I’d be if I lived near this place.  It was run by an adorable family who earnestly told me the few dishes they had left after the lunch rush were all individually delicious.  I barely recognized it as we wandered by in a blog post I had spotted earlier, but the old family puttering around behind the counter looked identical to the picture I saw.  The younger generation proprietress stopped to ask us where we were from, we were unlike her other customers, much younger and speaking English.  The food was not fancy, but it was home cooked style fare with salted fish curries and stewed vegetables to go along rustic chunky rice porridge.

After two lunches we did a bit of walking until sweaty, which is about five minutes in.  A quick jaunt in the air conditioned gallery and museum did no good so we stopped for some cendol.  This is a dessert of rice noodles, jellies, red beans and other goodies in coconut milk and palm sugar.  Here we got ours with durian, which I was told was better than the Thai durian I disliked.  Alas, I still do not like durian.  The strong Malacca style palm sugar is delightful though.  As with most businesses in town, you could see where the back of the store was set up for family use and stairs leading upstairs to where they lived.

This old bar is run by the barely toothed smiling old gentlemen beckoning to wary looking tourists wandering down this otherwise quiet street.

After two meals and dessert we could no longer eat, so we went for an early drink on 5 Java Lane (Javan Jawa in Malay).  We walked along the river to an old bar near where the port used to be, in an area where the ghosts of opium dens and brothels linger.  The streets are full of original colonial style Chinese housing with open drains and guard dogs afoot.  My Malaysian friend amusingly noted “This alley smells like my Grandma’s house”.  These days the neighborhood is full of a few storefronts and guesthouses on the edge of the tourist area.  The two fifth-generation owners of the bar don’t drink but they happily invited us in to rest on their ancient wooden bar and enjoy some rather strong mango and lychee flavored liquors.  I’m not really a whiskey or rice wine fan but I greatly enjoyed the old couple.  I almost kept drinking just because I want this bar to last forever.  The other foreigners who wandered in right after us cautiously sipped at some Chinese herbal liquors before quickly switching to beer.  They told us they didn’t go out the night before because the area is quite dark and overrun with rats.  I guess a few things from the more colorful port days remain.

The remains of a satay celup with peanut sauce, empty skewers, and beer everywhere.

We ended the day with satay celup.  It is a fondue like set up with a boiling, bubbling pot of peanut based satay sauce, chopped peanuts and spicy sambal.  In one corner of the store is an open refrigerated case full of things on sticks.  Meats, fish cakes, tofu, veggies, veggies and tofu things stuffed with fishcake, and you tiao line the large area.  The attentive staff come by every few minutes to mix up your separating sauce, add more if necessary, and check the temperature as you eat to your heart’s content.  At the end they count the number of sticks to get the bill.  It’s certainly the most interesting hot pot set up I’ve seen of the many I’ve been to while I’ve been in Asia.  This also goes very well with beer or as a late night snack.

Malaysia is a mix of cultures, and Malacca embodies that past in the form of buildings and a mixed people.  It uncharacteristically did not rain all week, leaving a permanent haze of the burning from neighboring Indonesia.  Just our luck, it poured on our way back making our time on the bus just as long as the time we had in town as we got stopped by a flooded freeway.  I wish that meant we had more time in Malacca, absorbing a fading former port town and the friendly families who still toil generation after generation at the same crafts.