Before I start talking about Malaysia I need to back track to when we were still in Norway. We were chatting to Lillian, who we visited in Nannestad, about some of the people who had stayed with her before. She mentioned one particular chap who came from India, who has come back several times to visit her and who she referred to as her ‘son’. She remarked that the first time he came to stay he did not speak a scrap of Norwegian, but that he was super intelligent and within two weeks flat he could hold complete conversations with her. I was astounded by this story and Damien added his little take by telling us about a doco he had seen regarding an autistic British guy who went to Iceland. He underwent intensive language lessons for a week and by the next he was able to conduct an interview in Icelandic on TV. Icelandic is apparently one of the most complex languages to learn and thus his ability is one to be admired.
Some days later I was quietly musing about these brainiacs who walk in our midst when I pondered out loud to Damo, “I wonder what people as intelligent as Lillian’s Indian son think about? I mean what higher order thoughts go on in their heads?” Damien poker faced and I believe somewhat seriously replied, “What’s for dinner?” There was my answer. Well this brought me instantly unstuck. Of course! What’s for dinner indeed! These are the thoughts that must keep the intellectual elite busy!
And if this is truly what dominates the minds of the enlightened ones, well, let me count myself amongst the elite! Since Damien’s profound statement in Norway, “What’s for dinner?” has become a bit of a running joke on the trip and it ramped up quite considerably when we hit Malaysia. It’s entirely fair to say that thoughts of food dominated our pathway through this country and served as meaningful punctuation marks throughout each day. It reached its peak in Melaka where we soon were stretching out what was supposed to be a two night stop into a five nighter, not least because we swiftly came to the conclusion that three meals a day was utterly insufficient to accomodate our ever burgeoning list of must eat venues.
I should take a quick pause here to mention that Malaysia is such a great dining experience because of the mix of cultures that live here. The three cultures that dominate are the Malays, Indians and Chinese. It is not uncommon to enjoy a blend of these cuisines all in the one delectable meal. Malaysia is also the home of Nonya cooking. The origins of this cuisine are based in the heritage of the Chinese of the Melacca Straits who combined their cooking with Malay spices. Which in my humble opinion is a wonderful marriage.
Something tickled my fancy when I was later reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Penang (a renowned foodie destination) and the author stated quite matter of factly:
“People come to Penang to eat. Even if you thought you came here for another reason, your goals might change dramatically once you start digging into the Indian, Chinese, Malay, Thai and various hybrid treats available. Days revolve around where and what to eat, and three meals starts to soundly depressingly scant.”
Excuse me, but were you eavesdropping on our conversation and stealing the very words out of our mouths? It appears we are not the only slaves to this stomach driven dilemma! Same country, different town it seems.
So without further ado let me list off the foodie highlights of my journey through Malaysia.
We loved Tioman but sadly the food was not as beautiful as the view. Lucky for us Tioman was our first foray into Malaysian cuisine and fresh off the back of the heavy cold winter food of Northern Europe. By comparison it stacked up okay but I am pleased that it in no way set the standard for what we should expect in the rest of this country.
The mainland town of Mersing serves as the launching pad to Tioman and is not a particularly amazing town, but it is memorable to me as I view it as the start of my food odyssey proper. It was here that I had the best meal of my trip ’til that point, and it was only knocked off its perch three days ago in Penang.
It commenced with our breakfast in a dingy, stray cat ridden, roadside establishment where there were (initially) no other patrons. Generally I read this as a neon sign flashing ‘Do not eat here’. However, we were hungry and hell bent on tracking down some nasi lemak and took what we could get. Happily, we were not disappointed. Nasi Lemak is a simple dish of rice, a few peanuts, chilli paste, some little dried fish and then usually either egg, salted fish or fried chicken. I went the salted fish and Damo the fried chicken. Let’s just say for the record that ol’ Damo has had a bit of a love affair with the fried chicken of Malaysia.
It was lunch that stole the show for me. We walked all of about ten paces to the right of where we were staying to an open air restaurant which offered a range of different meal choices from which you could serve yourself. This is a very common way of dining in Malaysia and one I like because I don’t have to bother with trying to remember the Malay word, I can just look and pick. Excellent. Anyway, I was introduced to a few dishes here that I would revisit many times on my trip and some I didn’t have the pleasure of tasting again, but all in all it was so yummy and I was even more ecstatic because it set me back not much more than $1. Bloody brilliant! And might I add that I was eating seafood for that price – prawns and fish, amongst a fine selection of other meat and vege dishes. One that I tried first here (and was a regular feature of meals henceforth) was the simple but always tasty fried kailan. This is a basic dish of fried greens with chilli and often tiny salted fish and garlic. Yes, chilli. If you don’t enjoy chilli you are pretty well stuffed in this country as they seem to slip it into everything. However, it is possible to dodge it if you need to, which I did for a stint after some pretty hectic chilli eating sessions in a row!
I cannot emphasise enough how much sorting out what we were going to eat for the day (and the days after that day) consumed our thoughts and time whilst we were there.
In no particular order I am going to detail the best moments:
- Dim sum breakfast. This is yum cha for breakfast in essence, and a lot of meats in steamed stuff feature. Sorry I can’t be more informative than that but we literally just sat down and pointed to things and tried them out. All were delicious. We tried to go back there for another breakfast and were quite bummed it was shut on that day We did soon come to realise while we were there that Malaysians don’t always have set open hours or days, and you really just have to hope and pray that if you liked it once it will be open again. We were caught out this way more than once when trying to revisit good places.
- Night market. Although as night markets go it wasn’t outstanding, it was interesting in that it really was (aside from the gaudy coloured kitsch items on sale) all about stuff on sticks. And let’s face it, in my experience stuff on sticks are always oh so good and oh so bad in equal parts. What’s not to like? I was having a ‘damn the diet’ night that night and gravitated towards the potato on a stick very hastily. I had seen a girl eating one in the street a few days before but was having a health kick day and staunchly refused to succumb. Not the same Kristen was found lurking in the night market. I was the stick monster! Potato on a stick is a simple pleasure of a whole potato magically twirled around a stick like a slinky…and tastes like a kettle chip. A series of other meats on sticks ensued. I must note for posterity here though, that none of this stick food reached the lofty heights of my ultimate food on a stick discovery in a Japanese department store: fatty chicken skin on a stick. Amen.
- Selvam. Indian restaurant extraordinaire. Damien had dined here when he was last in Melaka and was very keen to revisit. He mentioned to me on more than one occasion that he maintained it was the Indian food that got the gurnsey from him last time. Eating at Selvam makes it easy to understand why. We ate here twice in total. They serve your meal on a large slice of banana leaf and you can opt to eat like the locals, with your hands, or just do it the usual way, with cutlery. I attempted with hands the first time and soon realised that there was a knack to this style of eating and clearly, I didn’t have it so I just embraced my western-ness and ate with fork and spoon. Our first meal was a 12 dish-a-thon of vegetarian delights. Oh Mumma! It was goooood. I have often thought that it is the vegetarian dishes that are the standout for me when it comes to Indian food, and this culinary experience was an excellent example of that. I have to say that the Indian food in Malaysia is outstanding and different to a lot of what we get in Australia. I wish some of it would find it’s way across the sea quite frankly! Selvam was a standout, no doubt about it.
- Baboon House and Casa del Rio. Good coffee is a little hard to come by in Melaka and we came across the Baboon House one morning when strolling in the streets and decided to give it a shot. It was a great little find. It tasted like real coffee which was a bonus but it was made all the more enjoyable for the location. The Baboon House is a lovely little oasis with very interesting art works adorning the walls, and an abundance of plants in pots to make it feel more like I was in some funky little cafe in hippy land than in Melaka. We decided another day to take our books and go and relax there for a coffee and a bit of fiction, however, it was shut. We were somewhat directionless after that unlucky discovery and stood dejected outside on the street trying to think of what we should do next. Yes, yes, I know, the pressing decisions of the jobless! When suddenly I had a blinding flash of brilliance (insert tickets flapping in the wind here) that we should try our luck down the road at the five star Casa del Rio, well appointed darlink, on the Melaka River. I figured a five star resort should cater to our western tastes and we could enjoy some upmarket surrounds to boot. We arrived and soon found ourselves ensconsed, sipping coffee, in a cushioned cabana by the beautiful and extravagantly large water feature in in the centre of the resort. Noice. Very noice.
- Pineapple tart place (name of shop deleted from the memory files…but not the tarts!) We read that one must try the pineapple tarts when one is in Melaka. If one must, then, who am I to argue? So we tracked down an outlet that funnily enough had baked the worlds largest tart which was on display and was there for the viewing. As were a bunch a funky young, Malay twenty somethings doing a TV special on the tarts in that store. Thus, Damien and I found ourselves hiding behind display stands trying to avoid getting our dials on TV. Trapped for a rather long time (we had tarts to devour, damn it!) we were eventually able to escape, eat the said tarts and hopefully remained unfilmed. And yes, one must! For the sweet lovers out there (which I am not overly as a rule) they are soft, sweet pineapple fillings encased in a buttery, flaky pastry. A legacy of the Portuguese in this country.
As the Lonely Planet guru stated above, apparently Penang (which Georgetown is a part of) is a foodie heaven. However, despite the fact we stayed there six nights in total we nearly completely missed understanding how this could be so. I am not ashamed to say that a fair amount of the reason for us staying was, quite honestly, the people and the the pillows. Seriously. It is one of the shittier parts of the island but we happened upon a bunch of completely cool people who we had a mad day and night hanging out with, followed by an equally bad hangover. This was then followed by the allure of the lovely newness of our guesthouse, the Red Inn Court. It had amongst other attractions amazingly great beds and super soft pillows …. I miss those pillows already. I wonder how long it will take me to find some more like that? But it was over our free brekky at the Red Inn Court that we met some of those lovely peeps, so that meal in itself deserves a mention. For a free spread, it was top notch! No sooner had we sat down for breakfast when a still drunk Brit called Mike was chatting merrily to us and in not too many more words was insisting we come and stay with him in London. And Bec, this line is especially for you cause I know you will understand…it was exactly like when Freddy meets George in Room With A View and his first words are, “How do you do, come and have a bathe.” Anyway, a day of hangovers followed by a day of sloth meant that the Old Trafford Burger cart on Chulia Road was getting a work out and shaping up to be the food highlight of Penang. Dear oh dear, a tad pathetic really. But should you ever make your way to Georgetown, do track it down if you are hankering for a little somethin’ somethin’ that reminds you of home. But never fear, we foodies got our shit together and upped the ante and landed ourselves in Chinese food heaven for dinner on nights five and six…the Teksen Restaurant (ranked #1 of 183 restaurants in Georgetown by Tripadvisor). This is by far one of the most amazing Chinese dining experiences I’ve had. It is somewhat expensive in local terms, meals starting at an exorbitant $3 a plate but the food is to die for. The aubergine in red bean paste was amazing and reaffirmed my love affair with all things eggplant. Damien has his fried chicken, I have my eggplant. The hand-made tofu with scallop and egg white was also amazing and could sit proudly on any hatted restaurant menu in Australia, and we paid diddly squat for it. So there you have it, that was the highlight of my Malaysian food odyssey. Sorry Mersing, you lose.