Chillies and cendol: a short gastronomic tour of Malaysia
Food, glorious food. The raison d’être of Malaysia. A national passion that unites three gastronomy-obsessed cultures - Malay, Chinese and Indian - in a locale abundant with fragrant spices and lush tropical produce; it’s no wonder an American expat I met on the bus from Penang to Kuala Lumpur exclaimed in bewilderment: “They talk about food like it’s a national sport here!”
And with fairly good reason. Taking advantage of the cultural melting pot available to them, Malaysian cuisine takes traditional dishes and techniques to a whole new level. Example: yum cha favorites of radish and yam cakes made from sticky rice flour are topped with crispy fried onion and served with chili and hoisin sauce in Melaka. Down the street, the dish cendol combines seemingly basic ingredients of shaved ice, thick coconut cream and gula melaka (coconut sugar) with slippery green noodles that might be made of rice flour or mung bean flour; a Melaka twist is to serve it with durian pieces and grass jelly: a match made in heaven for fans of the stinky fruit - or a match made in hell for those who would prefer not to go within ten feet of it.
To the north, Melaka’s fellow UNESCO World Heritage site Penang offers a truly gastronomically orgasmic experience: laksa served from a hole-in-the-wall canteen. The lines spill into the alleyway and round to the main street behind it, and as one waits, intoxicating fragrances fill the nostrils even before one sees the aged Chinese lady, hunched over and ignoring the noisy crowds behind her, carefully ladling a thick, rich belacan broth over rice noodles. The pungent soup, mixed with a spoonful of oyster sauce, awakens the senses in an onslaught of sweet-sour-spicy-salty on the first sip.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, the smoky charred flavors of a coal barbecue take both beef jerky and the hotpot tradition to the next level, the former basted with honey for a sticky-sweet-meaty experience, the latter transformed into produce-on-sticks (tofu, mushrooms, broccoli, meat and of course seafood) lightly seasoned with white pepper and served with satay and chili sauce. Street food is a way of life here, and with good reason - it’s so damn fun, with the glowing lights, lively atmosphere and randomly souped-up cars to dodge.
But for another twist on the Malaysian experience, Bijan is a fancy restaurant that pays homage to Malaysia in a classy, tasteful and even sexy way. Alongside the usual favourites, chefs reinvent traditional foods such as jackfruit, roasting it and combining it with coconut cream for a salad that, despite its vegetarian nature, is surprisingly (and pleasantly) rich and meaty. And sure, you could get a similar menu outside for literally an eighth of the price, but Bijan has on its side amazing service, an inventive bar list and, according to my husband, the best toilets in Malaysia.