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