Priceless chance to bond with the locals
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.