Priceless chance to bond with the lo­cals

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence - Amy Hing-Young

AT­TEND­ING a course in a for­eign coun­try can en­rich in more ways than one. My learn­ing and per­sonal de­vel­op­ment stint in Kuala Lumpur in­tro­duces me to new-found friends. Cour­ses in for­eign coun­tries al­ways seem much more ex­cit­ing than at home. You are in un­charted ter­ri­tory, ab­sorb­ing the cul­ture of a new en­vi­ron­ment, tast­ing and smelling unfamiliar foods.

There’s the rare op­por­tu­nity to bond with lo­cals in a deep and mean­ing­ful way. You may be taken to eat­ing places that only lo­cals know and have the rare op­por­tu­nity to be in­vited home to try a mother’s cook­ing.

Food is a se­ri­ous topic in Malaysia, pur­sued avidly by all. The mix of Malay, Chi­nese and In­dian cul­tures means an ex­otic culi­nary mix.

My course, which com­mences at noon and fin­ishes at 7pm, pro­vides three daily breaks as part of the pack­age.

At 1.30pm there is lunch, al­ways in­clud­ing a noo­dle dish (and each day a dif­fer­ent variety), a lo­cal spe­cial­ity of the day, del­i­cate sand­wiches and cakes or Malay desserts. At 3.15pm, which would equate to our af­ter­noon tea, we in­dulge in an­other three cour­ses: some­times spring rolls, curry puffs and cake or fruit with our tea and cof­fee.

Then, in case we are start­ing to feel peck­ish again, at 5.15pm an­other round of food ar­rives, such as a curry, sand­wiches and more cakes.

As this is to be the rou­tine for 10 days, I de­cide to be re­al­is­tic and im­me­di­ately throw my orig­i­nal plans to lose weight on this trip out the pantry door.

‘‘ You must ex­pe­ri­ence typ­i­cal Mus­lim food,’’ A. B. tells us, so we form a group and go to din­ner af­ter the day’s classes. ‘‘ You don’t mind spicy . . . do you?’’ he asks.

Ea­ger to ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­thing on of­fer, my in­evitable an­swer is: ‘‘ No, I don’t mind at all, as long as there is plenty of plain rice and wa­ter on hand.’’ Spicy chicken, oc­to­pus, veg­eta­bles and fish are soon served, all with de­li­ciously po­tent flavours.

‘‘ You have to try Malaysian break­fast,’’ is an­other sug­ges­tion. And so we feast on a huge break­fast be­fore our daily three meals be­tween classes, with lo­cal din­ner to fol­low.

I have al­ready tasted the tri­an­glewrapped nasi lemak (co­conut rice with condi­ments on ba­nana leaf) at a lo­cal take­away stall but this is a proper sit­down meal, so the nasi lemak is spread open on a plate, with four main dishes to com­ple­ment it.

My favourite, roti chanais, an In­dian pan­cake, is made by art­fully swing­ing the dough in in­creas­ingly wider cir­cles in the air. It looks and tastes ex­actly like the Chi­nese pan­cakes my mother used to make, al­though I don’t re­call swing­ing be­ing in­volved. I re­mem­ber my mother toss­ing the pan­cakes high into the air and back into the fry­pan, soft­en­ing the inside lay­ers.

Our quest to eat what we are told are the ‘‘ best cur­ried fish heads in town’’ takes us to the sub­urbs of Kuala Lumpur. This must be a spe­cial place, I de­cide, as we travel well be­yond the city bound­aries. Then A. B. an­nounces that the best cur­ried fish heads are ac­tu­ally at his mother’s place. She has won many awards for her cook­ing, he re­veals, and so he can think of nowhere bet­ter to take us than his home.

How priv­i­leged and hon­oured I feel as I in­dulge in those best cur­ried fish heads in town. And for the first time this trip, I give in and re­ally be­have like a lo­cal, eat­ing in the tra­di­tional way, with mess all over my fin­gers.

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