Saturday, December 13, 2008

Let's Eat!

All the guidebooks say the same thing: Malaysians love to eat. But it’s true… it really doesn’t matter what time it is, either. I’ll drive by the mamak stalls (small local food stands) in my neighborhood at midnight and there will invariably be a crowd of people, all sitting at little plastic tables in the street, enjoying the company and the cheap food. Shopping may be a close second, but eating is unquestionably the national pastime in Malaysia. The confluence of so many unique cultures ensures the availability of a panoply of strange and delicious dishes at all hours, any day of the week. One of the most ubiquitous dishes is nasi ayam, or chicken rice. This local staple is one of my favorites. Fresh roasted whole chickens are hung on hooks in the food stall and the proprietor has a large, thick wooden chopping block and a cleaver. When you place your order, he chops the roasted meat into bite-size pieces (usually boneless, but this seems to vary a bit from place to place, as does the amount of chicken meat – it’s quite generous where I go). It’s served on a plate with a thin brown soya sauce and thinly sliced cucumbers, and generously garnished with an Asian leafy herb called mitsuba that looks similar to cilantro, but tastes very different. Along with this, you get a plate of steamed rice, a bowl of clear soup (sort of a chicken broth, sometimes even complete with a soggy, rubbery chicken foot, which I flat-out REFUSE to ever eat), and two accompaniments: a finely minced ginger sambal, and a standard red chili sambal. This all costs RM3.80, barely more than a dollar. Other favorites at the same price include pork noodles and char kuey teow, pronounced /char kway taow/, a delicious wok-fried dish comprising wide, flat noodles, bean sprouts, shrimp, and little fish cakes.

I eat fresh fruit on a near-daily basis. Pineapple, jackfruit, mango, papaya, melon… these are all good choices. One of my favorite choices is fresh pineapple with asam powder on it, a blend of sugar, salt, and tamarind powder. It’s sweet and sour and balances perfectly with the pineapple. There’s a mobile stall that comes to my office park every day and serves up fruit and fresh fruit juices. It’s all quite cheap of course… a quarter of the whole pineapple, skinned and cubed right in front of you, then served in a baggie with a thin wooden skewer, is about 28 cents.

I haven’t stopped cooking, but the truth is, it’s easier to go out to eat here, and it’s cheaper, too. There’s no way I can make a dish of pork noodles for one or two people for less than I can go buy it at a Chinese food stall. Plus, as an added bonus, there are no dishes to wash when you eat out. (Automatic dishwashers are a profound rarity here. The tap water, however, is quite soft, so hand-washed dishes dry sparkling clean, free of water spots.) Mostly, I just make my homemade Javanese sambal (those are the ingredients and one of my knives in the picture above, a good one to enlarge) and keep it on hand to use for frying up rice and noodles. I bought a big aluminum wok at IKEA, one of the best stores ever for furnishing a place in an inexpensive and minimalist way (the wok was about $4.50) and I use it all the time. My kitchen here has a smooth-top radiant stove in the “main” kitchen, but there’s sort of an “auxiliary kitchen” off to the side, what locals call a “wet kitchen” due to its floor drain and direct exposure to the outside. (When I forgot to close the sliding window yesterday, a wild afternoon thunderstorm ensured the wet kitchen lived up to its name. Whoops.) In this secondary kitchen, I have a gas-fired cooktop and another sink. It’s also where my washer is, and I bought a small countertop oven and put it in there as well. Very little food is cooked in ovens in Malaysia, so the vast majority of homes don’t have them. The freestanding stovetop/oven ranges so common in the U.S. are virtually unheard of here.

Another favorite of mine is tom yam—pronounced /tome-YAHM/—arguably the most famous soup in Thailand. It’s a delicious, immensely satisfying soup, and, like nasi goreng in Indonesia, every cook’s version of tom yam is slightly different. Near my condo, there’s a restaurant staffed almost entirely by Malaysians from the northern states of Perak and Perlis, up on the border with Thailand. They serve a tom yam that opens your sinuses and brings tears to your eyes, but leaves you craving more and more. It’s an incredibly complex soup, and it’s amazing that a mere liquid can be bursting with so many dramatic and divergent flavors. Tom yam is made from a rich chicken stock to which coriander leaves, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, onions, garlic, lime juice, a bit of fish sauce, Thai chili paste, and sliced Thai chili peppers are added. Some cooks add tamarind paste, some add large wedges of tomato, others add a bit of curry paste and choppings of leafy green vegetables... every region has a unique version. In the end, however, the result will be a marvelous blend of hot, sour, and citrus flavors. The restaurant I frequent serves up several different varieties… shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetarian, a red version (merah), and a slightly milder white version (putih), each served with a side of steamed or fried rice. One of my friends here calls tom yam the perfect food.

Sushi is about as popular here as it is anywhere else, and one of my favorite places is a small restaurant called Ichiban Boshi in the KL Pavilion mall. An ostensibly refrigerated conveyor belt snakes through the entire restaurant, in reach of nearly every table, and an endless line of sushi dishes parades by, each covered by a clear plastic dome, and you simply pluck your choices from the belt and are charged according to the number of little plates left on your table at the end of the meal. You can also order from a menu, and the resulting meal is really enjoyable. Each of the sushi plates, usually with two pieces of sushi, or four pieces of a roll, costs RM4, about $1.10, so it’s not an especially expensive way to eat sushi. I even tried jellyfish. It wasn’t bad, but it was quite spicy, and I’m in no big rush to eat it again.

Dessert! I don’t eat much of it (never have), and it’s not offered in local restaurants in the manner to which Americans are accustomed (following a meal). Naturally, Western restaurants such as Chili's and TGI Friday's have full dessert menus, definitely best avoided! One of my friends here is from the Philippines and is doing basically what I’m doing here: experiencing life outside his home country. One day, he brought over this Filipino dessert called kutsinta. It’s similar in appearance to flan, but that’s where the similarity ends. Kutsinta is a moist brown rice cake, made very simply from rice flour, brown sugar, water, and a bit of lye water (potassium carbonate). It’s dense and not very sweet at all. It’s topped with freshly grated coconut. Here, I served it with a splash of Cointreau liqueur and some small yam cookies (they’re beyond fantastic… easily my favorite cookies here).

So all this writing of food has naturally made me hungry. It’s Sunday morning here, so I’m going to get showered and dressed and head over to the adjacent town called Taman Tun Dr. Ismail (simply called Taman Tun or TTDI here), and visit their wet market. Some of the wet markets here are, for lack of a better word, disgusting… one I read about in the local paper is terminally plagued by rats. Nothing like having to kick hordes of rats out of your way to buy your produce, eh? The one in TTDI is famous throughout the Klang Valley, so I’m hoping it’s a bit nicer. Anyway, it’s essentially a farmer’s market, and is supposedly the place to go for the freshest greens and fruits and such. I’ve never been, despite living right near it, so today is the day!


Barb said...

You and your food!! It all sounds and looks delicious...can't wait for you to get back and wow us all with new taste treats!

Good read!! Mom

Steven said...

The Universe has five fundamental interactions or forces: gravitation, electromagnetism, the weak interaction, the strong interaction and the interaction between Chad and food (which is the strongest of the five). Not complaining, though. I wish we had such a variety of food here in the desert. BUT -- if you go to Thailand and don't take at least ONE picture of a Thai woman -- the most beautiful women in the world -- I will never forgive you. Steve

JANE said...

Alex was a sweet old dog and he had a good life right up to the end. He even let me pet him when we took him to the vet week before last. I love your stories and photos, especially of FOOD. Hawaii was fun, and Colorado is warmish and very dry. Can't wait for spring!