Today I am excited to bring you World Flavor’s very first guest post. I am especially excited about this one because it is from the wonderful Jeff, aka my boyfriend. This is a post about Malaysian cuisine and it locates the cuisine in a historical context, which I love. For those of you who receive Jeff’s email updates, you’ll have read this already. The pictures are my own. Enjoy!
Rachel and I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on February 11th and spent a few days there before moving on to Melaka, Singapore, and Penang before returning to KL on the 24th to fly out the following day. It was amazing. It was a perfect culinary environment for me in a variety of ways. To understand why, we need a little Malaysian history.
Islam was introduced to Malaysia in the 1200s by Indian and Arab traders. While it started among the elite, it is the predominate religion in Malaysia today. This has influenced nationwide attitudes towards alcohol to be quite conservative and many people don’t drink. Those who do drink, must pay large sin taxes for their habit. To give you an idea, for the price of a beer, you could probably buy 3 entire meals. As a replacement, many places have a wide variety of cheap innovative virgin cocktails and everywhere has delicious fresh fruit juices and a wide variety of tea, coffee and other drinks. I’ve never been anywhere else that has tea and coffee drinks that I actually really like.
A few hundred years later, Europeans started sticking their sticky colonial paws everywhere. And over the next several hundred years, parts of Malaysia were controlled by, in order, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British. During this time, substantial populations from China and India were brought into the country. Also of note is Malaysia’s next-door proximity to Thailand. These are the major cultures that affect Malaysia’s modern food scene. Therefore, the most common types of cuisine are Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Baba Nyonya, and Thai. Baba Nyonya cuisine is the Chinese/Malaysian fusion cuisine of Chinese descendants. So, Malaysia’s special location and history have led it to have very good versions of a wide variety of my favorite cuisines readily available almost anywhere.
It’s exciting to eat food with more than 2 different flavors (thanks Korea). It’s more exciting when it’s really delicious. But it is even more exciting when it feels like you’re getting the food for a mere pittance. At a normal meal I would get a main dish for around $2 and some fresh incredible tropical fruit juice for around $1. That’s it.
I ate fruit and got fruit juice at every possible opportunity. I finally, after all these years, got to try fresh mangosteen which not only looks cool, but also tastes like pure sugar. I had some quality papaya and still don’t really like it. I found out once and for all which types of mango melt in your mouth and want to make you melt in return, and which types of mango are fit for little more than animal feed (hint: get the yellow ones that look like fat commas). I tried a refreshing and somewhat sharply flavored fruit called jambu and a delicious, overpowering fruit called ciku that tastes like brown sugar and rum. I found out the distinction between pink and white dragonfruit (pink is the delicious one). And all of this was before I toured a tropical fruit farm on Penang. Even washed up boring fruits were given a new lease on life in Malaysia. Early in our trip a backpacker suggested we try some apple juice at the place we were breakfasting. Boring, you might think, but it was like nothing I’ve tasted before! It was what apple juice always should have been. Refreshing, non-syrupy, sweet, but a little tart, wonderful. Despite that, the award for best juice of the trip goes to the dragonfruit/soursop combination juice that Rachel ordered in Singapore. Outstanding!
One ubiquitous Malaysian food that was one of my favorite things from the trip is roti canai. It is basically very thin sheets of dough cooked on a griddle full of ghee. You can watch the chefs constantly pulling and stretching the dough throughout the process and it comes out folded up, crispy, and delicious. It comes with one or more types of curry and you can expect to pay about 40 cents for the whole thing. But wait! There’s more! There are tons of roti varieties. You can fill your roti with eggs, onions, cheese, bananas, sugar and butter, sardines, chocolate, ice cream, and much more. Even the most expensive ones are only about a dollar and all the savory ones come with delicious, can’t-be-found-in-Korea curry. It’s like what you really want to eat when you buy a crêpe.
About the Author: Jeff is my boyfriend and an amazing human being. He is also an English teacher in Incheon. His interests include eating, trying new fruits, and dancing like no one’s watching. He writes great emails for his family and friends but does not have a blog.