Noodles, Rice, Roti: A Malaysian Food Safari

Hello readers! I am currently flying back to Melbourne from a glorious 9-day holiday in Malaysia.

I departed on the final day of the Paleo Challenge (unintentionally well-timed!), so I dutifully packed a chicken salad for the plane along with some almonds and carrot sticks.

I felt very proud of my diligent self, but was looking so very forward to the culinary delights awaiting me in Kuala Lumpur. When my aunty picked me up, one of the first questions she asked me was “Have you eaten?” Cue overwhelming gush of happiness. And so began the Malaysian Food Safari…

To say Malaysians love their food is an understatement.

They’re obsessed. Everywhere you look there’s food, food, food. Fancy restaurants, local open-air eateries, expansive food courts, roadside stalls, it’s all good. And the variety of dishes is incredible: you have the cuisine of the indigenous Malay people, there are Indian curries, roti, dosas and so on, plus you have all the amazing Chinese dishes.

My favourites Malay dishes are nasi lemak (coconut rice with dried anchovies, hard-boiled egg, cucumber slices, sambal chilli, often wrapped in a banana leaf and eaten for breakfast, but I like it with beef rending curry), and curry laksa, a noodle soup dish with tofu, bean shoots, cockles and other delicious morsels cooked in a rich coconut milk-based curry.

However, a new discovery for me on this trip was the Malay buffet-style lunch. I experienced this style of dining at a few places: a Malay market in the town of Kota Baru, a food court at an enormous local shopping centre (aptly named “Megamall”), and a roadside restaurant on the way to the Genting Highlands.

You are presented with a spread of bain maries filled with various curries, salads, rice dishes, grilled fish, fried chicken and random toppings like shaved coconut, herb leaves, dried fish flakes and chilli sauces. You pile your plate high and they charge you something ridiculous like 4 or 5 Aussie dollars.

I’m sad to say I can’t get this type of food back home.

From left: the lunch spread, my plate piled high, post food demolition.
From left: the lunch spread, my plate piled high, post food demolition.


Know Your Local

The food is one of my favourite things about Malaysia. However, I am very lucky in that I have family who know all the best places to eat and exactly what to order. They don’t even need a menu!

And location is not an issue. The locals will drive across town just to eat at a particular restaurant that’s well known for a certain dish. It doesn’t matter if it’s dirty or hot or crowded, if the food is good, people will go. On my first day in KL, my cousin Basil drove us for 30 minutes to his favourite place for Hainanese chicken rice (it’s one of my favourites: juicy steamed chicken served with chicken flavoured rice and chopped ginger. This place also happened to serve it with beef intestine broth)

Basil said he and his boss would eat lunch there even though it was a 45 minute drive from work. Now that’s dedication to Friday lunch!

Knowing ‘How to Eat’

My Aunty Poh took me to a local eatery to have Bak kut teh, a dish I wouldn’t usually order at home. We sat by the side of the road on rickety plastic chairs, and were served up bowls of steaming herbal soup with incredibly tender pieces of pork ribs.

It was served with a plate of steamed lettuce (yes, sounds weird, but for some reason it works!), rice and chopped fresh chilli. It was SO good. Aunty Poh, however, wasn’t happy. “It needs fresh garlic and the sweet soy sauce. Otherwise it’s not right!” she grumbled.

When they brought the garlic over, she showed me how to eat the dish properly: “You put the sweet soy into the garlic, then dip the meat in it, and mix the sauce into the rice. It gives it a nice kick.” Oh man. Talk about a foodgasm.

Delicious bak kut teh
Delicious bak kut teh

This is what my mum would refer to as “knowing how to eat”.

If you know how to eat, you take the juicy chicken drumstick, not the dry breast. You dip meat into the right sauce or chilli to get the best flavour. You add some soup to the rice if it’s dry. You fight for the best part of the steamed fish: the cheek (yes, fish have cheeks). Closely followed by the head.

You get the idea? We’re talking serious food appreciation. And all the Malaysians have it.

My cousin’s kids are amazing – one night they happily tucked into a plate of frog (uh, yeah), and when I asked 11-year old Gerianne her favourite vegetable, she said ‘ladies fingers’, the slimy, slug-shaped bean also known as okra. Impressive.

14 year-old Ian tucking into some frog a boss
14 year-old Ian tucking into some frog legs…like a boss

However, their phenomenally discerning palates do make Malaysians seriously hard to please. There were more than a few occasions when dining out with Aunty Poh where I was in foodie heaven; she says: “Yes…but it’s a bit dry”. Really??

So just a tip if you have any Malaysians coming over for dinner: eat out. Unless you want to be told “Yes it was well-cooked, but it needed more sauce…”

But by all means, if you get invited to a Malaysian’s for dinner, I guarantee you will be treated to an insanely good feast. And if they offer you the head of the fish, make sure you accept with gusto. You will be sure to impress.

Not another food coma…

You may be wondering how I fared with all this rich, spicy, carbo-loaded food after eating like a lean, clean Paleo machine for 31 days prior. Firstly, I’m very proud to say I didn’t suffer any tummy troubles; probably due to the conditioning I’ve had from visiting Malaysia and eating the local food from a very young age (thanks Mum and Dad!).

I also suspect that my immune system was given a turbo boost from the copious amounts of garlic and ginger I consumed. I doubt I’ll get a single cold this winter.

But yes, I also felt the negative effects of my sudden plunge into the non-Paleo food pool. For starters, I got incredibly bloated after every meal. It didn’t help that I was practically force fed any leftover food (“Christina, you’re bigger than me, you finish it lah!”). Oh dear, I think I expanded the capacity of my stomach threefold. At least I brought plenty of loose clothing.

Secondly, I thought after a few days of indulgence I would be craving fresh, raw veggies and salads, but interestingly, the complete opposite happened: I wanted even richer food. I wanted dessert and sweet treats. I began thinking about my next meal while still in a food coma from the previous one (the sign of a true Malaysian, perhaps?!).

It finally all made sense when I was polishing off that addictive bowl of bak kut teh soup and my auntie sighed, “I don’t like to eat all the soup. It’s just very salty from all the MSG.” Ohhh…crap.

She laughed at the disbelief on my face. “Of course there’s MSG in it! Even the fancy restaurants use it. Why do you think Chinese food is so tasty?” Ok, I know I shouldn’t be so ignorant. But I was just hoping that, you know, the flavours came from hours of careful slow braising or simmering or…whatever it is they do!

Oh well. I knew it was too good to be true.

So after nine days of stimulating and saturating my system with sweet addictive sugar, salt, processed oil and, I hate to say it, Monosodium glutamate, I think I’m well and truly ready for a detox.

I had an incredible time on my trip and ate the most amazing food, but I am looking forward to some simple, plain food, at least for a little while! Then I may very well start hunting down the best Malaysian eateries in Melbourne…stay tuned.