So much food…

Malaysia lives its life around meal­times, serv­ing cheap and cheer­ful dishes

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - MARK C O’FLA­HERTY

SOME peo­ple travel to visit mu­se­ums, mon­u­ments and land­scapes. I travel largely to eat. While oth­ers plot to-the-minute itin­er­ar­ies around churches and ru­ins, I fo­cus on food blogs and restau­rant open­ing hours. Eat­ing is the best way to ex­plore a new place, and in most in­stances that ex­plo­ration starts at home.

In the case of my first visit to Malaysia, it started in a va­ri­ety of restau­rants in Soho and then get­ting to know restau­ra­teur Ed­die Lim, Malaysia’s most per­sua­sive un­of­fi­cial ambassador in Lon­don.

“You have to go,” he urged me. “Malaysia re­ally rep­re­sents the world’s first fu­sion cui­sine – Malay, Chi­nese and In­dian.”

A month later, I was sit­ting on the ter­race of Jumbo in Sin­ga­pore, face and hands smeared with the rem­nants of a pot of chilli crab, gear­ing up for a bus trip to Kuala Lumpur.

It speaks vol­umes that I’d made a pit stop in a neigh­bour­ing coun­try just for din­ner.

I’d prepped for my trip by speak­ing to sev­eral foodie friends, in­clud­ing the New York-based Malaysian fash­ion de­signer, Zang Toi. Zang has his own restau­rant in Kuala Lumpur, the Zang Toi Café.

When I told him I was head­ing to his home town, he ar­ranged for his brother, See Luon Toi, to host a din­ner for me at the café, with his fam­ily’s spe­cial­ity, Hainanese chicken.

More than any other coun­try I’ve ever vis­ited, Malaysia lives its life around meal times. Lo­cals don’t ask you how you are when they meet you, they ask “Have you eaten?”

The Toi fam­ily were full of rec­om­men­da­tions: “Go to Over­seas and have the duck stuffed with herbs. And the fresh­wa­ter prawns.” Mid­fork-full, See Luon handed his phone to me. It was Zang from New York: “You have to fly to Ke­lan­tan! For the curry!” I didn’t have time to visit Ke­lan­tan. As it was, my itin­er­ary in Kuala Lumpur was tight and I wanted to take in Malacca and Langkawi too. So much food, so lit­tle time.

KL is a steam­ing, mall-filled, traf- fic-con­gested Asian mega­lopo­lis. It’s also one of the few places in Asia where you can find a five-star palace for around £100 (R1 478) a night. I checked in to the Ritz-Carl­ton, home to the much-loved Chi­nese pow­er­lunch spot Li Yen. Next, I moved to the iconic Petronas Tow­ers, and into the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, a ho­tel that cov­ers with glam­our and aplomb ev­ery din­ing base, in­clud­ing ones you never thought of ( choco­late sushi any­one?).

By day, the neigh­bour­ing twin struc­tures look like a gleam­ing sil­ver set­piece from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Af­ter dark, viewed from the slick club floor of the Man­darin Ori­en­tal, they sparkle like di­a­monds and glow like Emer­ald City.

I spent a day tour­ing KL with Adly Rizal, co- founder of the Malaysian food web­site FriedChillies.com. Adly is a street-food ob­ses­sive. We drove out to the National Palace and parked be­hind scores of other cars, at Jalan Is­tana. “Ev­ery­one’s here for the same rea­son and ev­ery­one has their own favourite stall,” said Adly, as we walked through clouds of smoke to­wards a row of ram­shackle out­door cafés. We ate squid and mack­erel in a spicy mari­nade, wrapped in ba­nana leaf. Each dish cost around £1.50 (R22) and the scene was quite spec­tac­u­lar – 60 or 70 peo­ple, from fam­i­lies to fash­ion stu­dents and busi­ness­men, all de­vour­ing de­li­cious bar­be­cued and pan-fried seafood, while women in head­scarves counted out the tak­ings by the till. “Don’t be mis­led by the hum­ble sur­round­ings,” said Adly. “Th­ese peo­ple are mil­lion­aires.”

From here we went to Pe­tal­ing Jaya, KL’s satel­lite city, to eat rice and deep- fried pi­geon served on ba­nana leaves at Raju’s. Here, you

Lo­cals don’t ask how you are when they meet you, they ask, ‘Have you eaten?’

wash your hands at an out­door sink and your fin­gers serve as cut­lery. Get­ting rice to your mouth with­out a fork is, for the in­ex­pe­ri­enced, a messy busi­ness.

Raju’s buzzes all day, but is par­tic­u­larly busy for break­fast, when the lo­cals rock up for roti canai, a flat bread served with dhal. For pud­ding, we went to Ch­elo’s Ap­pam Stall in the small, fren­zied food mar­ket at Lorong Ara-Kiri 3. Ap­pam is made from flour, fer­mented overnight, served plain or with co­conut milk and brown sugar, which makes it taste like a pe­cu­liar crème Cata­lane.

De­spite be­ing full, we con­tin­ued on to a new shop­ping-mall café, Sim­ply Mel’s, run by a mother-and­daugh­ter team – Mel be­ing the mother and head chef. It was a per­fect ex­am­ple of the re­nais­sance Adly had spo­ken of: the menu is made up of Por­tuguese-in­flu­enced dishes, all Mel’s own recipes. We sam­pled Mel’s famed Devil’s Curry – a chicken dish with horns of chilli jut­ting from its sur­face – and had a glass of jelly rose se­lasih with basil seeds, which tasted like liq­ue­fied Turk­ish de­light.

Af­ter a whole day of eat­ing, I could only feast with my eyes on my tour of Jalan Alor, the evening food mar­ket in the cen­tre of town. But it was a feast as vis­ual and dra­matic as you could imag­ine: disco lights wrapped around trees and tubes of neon drip­ping from branches on to plas­tic ta­bles groan­ing with chicken wings and corn on the cob. The prenight­club sup­per crowd slowly gave way to the wrecked and rav­en­ous post-party bri­gade. I strug­gled with a durian cream puff – made with the no­to­ri­ously foul- smelling spiky fruit, so fra­grant that it’s fa­mously banned from pub­lic trans­port and cabs.

Af­ter a few days of shop­ping and graz­ing, I left KL’s gleam­ing sky­line for Malacca – the old­est city in Malaysia – and the most iconic ho­tel in town, the Ma­jes­tic. The main lobby and din­ing room, which serves re­fined Per­anakan dishes, are in a beau­ti­ful colo­nial-era build­ing. The tiling, ceil­ing fans and an­tique deco­rous fur­ni­ture strike all the most evoca­tive vin­tage notes, while the bed­rooms have dark-wood four-posters. Here I took one of the Ny­onya cook­ery classes, cre­at­ing chicken pongteh with cane sugar, can­dlenut, shal­lots and dark soy, then strolled by the canal, past the ever-cir­cling tourist boats, to­wards the his­toric heart of town.

Un­like so many hy­per- mod­ernised Asian cities, it’s easy to imag­ine that the old al­ley­ways around Malacca’s Jonker Street still con­sti­tute down­town, even if mega malls lurk, un­seen, a few streets away. It’s a glee­fully weird place, mix­ing Chi­nese and Por­tuguese vis­ual mo­tifs with some un­ex­pected Alpine qual­i­ties around the bridges. There are tem­ples and fu­neral homes and mar­kets and end­less street-food op­tions: at lunchtime, 100 or so peo­ple wait in line out­side the most pop­u­lar chicken rice ball ven­dors. In the evening, even more queue out­side Capi­tol Satay for de­li­ciously mar­i­nated, cubed chicken thigh, skew­ered on bam­boo sticks. Ev­ery tourist makes a point of vis­it­ing Nancy’s Kitchen, which serves a fan­tas­tic Ny­onya dish of chicken on the bone in fra­grant lemon­grass, even if the badly lit up­stairs room is unlovely com­pared to the vin­tage patina of the ground floor. If you can’t get a de­cent ta­ble, it’s still worth vis­it­ing to get a box of pineap­ple cakes to take away.

Later, I took a wrong turn and found my­self non­plussed in front of an over­sized two-storey toi­let bowl and cis­tern, the door­way to T-Bowl, the world’s first toi­let- themed restau­rant. My hunger for kitsch is as strong as it is for the finest din­ing, so I ven­tured in for a bowl of udon in black pep­per sauce with a glass of some­thing flu­o­res­cent. Ev­ery­thing was served on toi­let-shaped plates, on ta­bles that house rub­ber ducks and tooth­brushes be­neath their glass sur­face. The seats? Un­plumbed toi­lets. The food? Be­yond be­lief; as if the theme might have ex­tended to the kitchen.

Af­ter the mad­ness of Malacca I flew to Langkawi, one of Malaysia’s pret­ti­est hol­i­day is­lands.

● O’Fla­herty trav­elled as a guest of Sin­ga­pore Air­lines, which has con­nec­tions at Sin­ga­pore to Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi via its sub­sidiary Silk Air (silkair.com).

More in­for­ma­tion on Malaysia: see www.tourism.gov.my – The In­de­pen­dent

EAT­ING SO­CIALLY: The night mar­ket in Kuala Lumpur buzzes with ac­tiv­ity.

PIC­TURES: SHUTTERSTOCK

TUCKIN: Lo­cals eat at a pop­u­lar food hall in Chi­na­town, Sin­ga­pore. In­ex­pen­sive food stalls are nu­mer­ous in the city so most Sin­ga­pore­ans dine out at least once a day.

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