Whenever I watch Anthony Bourdain or Alton Brown go to a new and exciting place that they have never been to and eat the foods there, they are always quick with a pithy saying or have the perfect adjective for describing how something tastes. I realize that the reason for this is often editing; and in many cases, long nights with a writer. But I can not help but feel inferior when I go on a great culinary journey as I did this year and am stuck without the right words to say to express exactly how good the food really was. I am still going to give it a try here, so sit back and try to enjoy the trip. It should be somewhat shorter than my trip and hopefully you will hear a perfect adjective somewhere in here. Without further ado, here is my take on the foods of Malaysia.
A year in the planning and several thousands of dollars spent; on Monday, June 9th (around 11am) my wife and I found ourselves being picked up by an old friend of mine at the Kuala Lumpur Budget Airline Terminal in Malaysia. For me, it was a culmination in a five year wait to introduce the women I love to the food I grew to love while working overseas many years ago. Let me just add that if one is interested in going to Malaysia to experience all of these great flavors, one should be prepared to spend A LOT of time in an airplane (and in our case, an airport). The flight that took us from Minneapolis to Tokyo (2/3 of the way to Malaysia) was 12 hours in the air. (Not overall time with boarding and taxing and stuff… No sir. This was from wheels up to wheels down!) I should also add that my wife and I had to spend 5 hours sitting in the Bangkok International Airport with all of our luggage while we waited for the airline check-in to open (due to a bonehead move on my part). But forget all of that, forget the smell of my unwashed (for almost 2 days) feet. Forget that my wife and I barely had 4 hours of sleep between the two of us in the past 36. We were at our travel destination, at last!
A brief background interjection here: In 2001, I began a 3 year working relationship with a certain Mr. Eng Keong How starting in Singapore and then over the years, moving to Malaysia. I did Linux training for him and helped him arrange train the trainer courses in Singapore, and all over Malaysia. One of the first students of these classes was William (more about both of these guys later in the articles). After four visits to these guys in their home court, I knew what to expect food-wise, and though I tried to verbally prepare my wife for the onslaught, she was not ready for the mass of food that my old friends threw at her.
Day 1 in Kuala Lumpur
So Mr. How picked us up at the airport. I should mention that Mr. How used to be a tour guide and he is very passionately in love with his country. He is (and should be) very proud of almost everything Malaysians have done and knows where to go to show them off. We started with a short tour of the policital center (where they had just recently moved the Prime Minister’s palace) and Technology center (where the Dell/Microsoft/HP/etc buildings are all congragated). But enough up the touristy stuff.. Where’s the food? You may be asking yourself. Actually, I was surprised that we didn’t get food stuffed into our face from the moment we arrived, but we actually waited at least an hour after our plane touched down. Mr. How took us some place he hadn’t even taken his family to yet, so this was a new find for him. We had some nice dishes at a local hawker (think Mom and Pop food court as it is the closest thing we have here) place. Chicken Feet soup anyone? Actually.. It was pretty good, though the bones in the feet make it a little difficult as a first dish to really get into using chopsticks. The broth was perfect though. Very clear and quite tasty. The rest of that first meal was all things fish paste related. Far be it for me to complain, since I love fish paste, as does my wife. Fishballs, stuffed squash blossoms, and everything else was pretty good except this one plate which had something really, REALLY sour in it and it messed up any of the oral Feng Shui I had going on with all of the other good food. My wife and I were so out of it from dehydration, tiredness and jet lag that we didn’t remember to get a picture of this meal.
That night, after a much needed 4 hour rest and showers; we got to meet an old food favorite of mine, Bakut Teh (pronouced BAKUTAY). Roughly translated, it means “Meat and Bones with Tea” and it is a wonderful dish of long slow braised pork with Chinese herbal “Medicines” – the Chinese believe just about every herb and aromatic is a medicine, which works for me! It is a simple dish and it is simply served with rice and tea and these wonderful little soft croutons for sopping up the gravy. Unless you have A) smelled this dish, or B) tasted it; you simply have no idea how good pork can be, even in a ramshackle makeshift restaurant.
This particular batch was made with ribmeat, which was a different consistency than the shoulder meat that I am used to in this dish. There is a reason that after two solo visits and this joint visit with my wife that this is my second favorite dish in all of Malaysia. The pork is “falling off the bones” done and the braising liquid as you can see in the picture, is full of the oils and fats from the pork.
You can also see in the picture a plate of our usual veggie which was just lightly stir-fried with sesame oil and some soy and then sprinkled with some crunchy bits. Notice near the top of the picture, the big bowls of garlic and chilies? The smaller white dipping bowls with a combo of those chilies, that garlic, and some soy (and sometimes a vinegary sauce too!); that’s your basic Malaysian condiment selection. You dip everything into that custom-made mixture and enjoy! With a nod toward Rachel Ray, Yummo! (Sorry, it really describes that dipping sauce.) The green bowl contains soft croutons and the blue bowl has some of the “gravy” with some croutons soaking in it. My wife interrupted me mid-dunking. The two brown pots contain the actual dish and the smaller of the two actually has some organ meats in it, I think you can make out some stomach on top on the right hand side. Thanks to my seriously messed up cropping, you can only see part of the teapot (Tea is a very important part of this meal!) but you can see that we were drinking tea with this meal out of little glasses, though you can’t see the ice that we used to keep it cool. If you look to the very left of the picture, you will see something I thought was interesting. You can see the white spoon handle, and next to it on the table are the remnants of some of the ribs. It is common practice, if the restaurant doesn’t provide a bone bowl, to simply use the table to get rid of parts you can’t eat. It is really too bad that they haven’t developed a way for smell or taste to be captured into a picture, because this really is great food. Later in the trip, we were given the special Chinese herbal “sactchels” for making Bakut Teh at home. I will keep you posted on how it turns out.
After some more touristy stuff (like visiting the KL Tower – think Space Needle in the middle of a city in the middle of a jungle), we stopped off at a stall which served shaved ice with syrup called Aic Kachang and it was declared “a very cooling thing”. The Malaysians are very concerned about the body staying cool, which for someone of my size is virtually impossible if I venture outside at all. The tempurature when we touched down was about 90 with about 70% humidity, at about 9pm when we were eating this dish, it was about 85 and 80% humidity. Again, my wife and I were fading fast and we didn’t think to take any pictures. I have had numerous deserts like this all over the pacific, but this was the first one with a “surprise” in the bottom. Apparently, they put a hollowed out section of the ice first and then fill it with sweet beans, jellies (think thin strips of finger jello), and beyond all food common sense, kernels of corn. Then they pile the shaved ice on top and put two different kinds of syrup on it. One was a fruit syrup, my wife thought it was maybe lychee, and the other was a condensed milk (or perhaps coconut milk, there were “discussions” about this between me and my wife, but it was never discovered and every food vendor does it differently). It was almost a sweet and savory kind of ice cream dish. Especially when you bit into a red bean and jelly at the same time. This wasn’t our first exposure to corn overseas. In fact, earlier in the night, we saw a food cart with a blazingly sign selling cups of corn, with or without butter. Nothing else.. Just corn. I am from the midwest, and I didn’t have to travel over a day in the air to eat something I could have at home, so I avoided most of it. But the sweet corn kernels in the shaved ice, which quickly turns to a sweetly flavored soup in the Malaysian heat (even at night), was actually pretty good. I wouldn’t make it at home, except to freak out my friends, but it wasn’t bad. Of course, Mr How could never let us survive with just some shaved ice, so along with that, we had some satay…
I have a couple of comments about satay and I want to air them out right now. On a recent episode of Top Chef, they served something called satay and I didn’t understand it. It did have “satay-like” elements, but there are a couple of specifics to satay. 1) It has to be grilled, usually slow grilled and fanned so that the coals don’t burn the meat. And 2) It must have a peanut sauce! This is where Top Chef confused me, as almond butter doesn’t come close to a spicy peanut sauce except, of course that it is also a nut well sort of. We won’t even get into the whole “peanuts are not nuts” thing. Satay is usually the name of the sauce, often a closely guarded secret like rib rubs. And it is ALWAYS peanut-based. In fact, many Malaysians often refer to satay sauce as peanut gravy. Even vegetarians like satay, as they (as do I) consider the sauce the satay, not the meat or style of cooking, and they will dunk small bits of red onion and cucumber into the sauce and gnosh away happy as can be without a single grilled thing in their mouths. SO, grilled meat with some sort of ground nut mixture does NOT equal a satay. Ok?!? Rant over.
… All of that being said, the stall that was open at the time that we went, was middle of the road on their sauce. The two different grilled meats (chicken and port) were good. But it wasn’t great. The sauce was peanuty, but not very spicy. A quick dose of chilies brought the heat up for me a little. Keep in mind that the grilled meats of a satay don’t really have the smokiness of a normal US grilling as they don’t let the charcoal smoke much and the meat is more slow cooked over the fire than quick roasted.
One more side note, the BEST satay I have ever had was in Singapore. THEY know satay! I have had my fair share of satay in Malaysia and while it is usually good, it has never been as good as the stuff I had in Singapore. The funny thing is that in the states, the most common type of restaurant to serve Satay is a Thai restaurant. But we didn’t have any satay or see any satay hawkers in Thailand. (More about this later when we get to the Thailand part of the trip).
After our first day and some great foods, it was off to a very hard (the Malaysians believe in extra firm mattresses), but needed, bed for me and the Misses and a sense of wonder as to what the next day would bring.
Look for Part 2 soon(tm)