Culinary travel tale: exploring Malaysia’s complicated cultural feast

Two weeks after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, it was all over the news: an American fast-food chain had accidentally sold thousands of non-Halal beef burgers to nearly as many Muslim Malaysians. Panic streaked across radio airwaves and through the devout. Religious leaders issued decrees absolving the unsuspecting sinners. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, so my roommate, a beautiful local-born but Canadian-educated environmental researcher, tried to explain. “Food in Malaysia can be… complicated,” she smiled sheepishly.

* * *

My first morning, with the crunch of 12-hour jetlag in my bones, I walked to work alongside a 10-lane highway. Warned about purse-snatchers on motorcycles who had pulled a woman to her death a few days before, I clutched a cloth purse to my right hip. The sun was a low-hanging orb, fuzzy on the edges from smog and dust, and the humidity made moving feel like swimming. In a nondescript concrete office building beside the Eastin Hotel Petaling Jaya, I trudged into the cheap restaurant where I’d been told I could find breakfast.

On a flickering backlit plastic sign, an oversized piece of white bread floated in midair alongside two yellow-yolked eggs, over easy. Of all the pictures that ran along the back of this long, fluorescent-lit eatery, these Western symbols of breakfast were the most familiar. They were also the least appealing. My top lip was coated in a film of perspiration, my pink cotton v-neck already felt heavy in the oppressive early-morning heat. I stared searchingly at lines of text, rows of small black letters, unfamiliar and intimidating in Bahasa Melayu.

To my left, on a small green and white speckled arborite table, a tiny woman in a dark blue hijab and rounded Elton John glasses tore at something that looked like bread and dipped it in something else that looked like gravy. “That,” I pointed to her table. “Please.” The bushy-moustached man behind the counter raised his eyebrows incredulously, but put out a matching tray. “Roti tissu,” he pointed to the bread. “Curry. Fish,” he pointed to the sauce. With a hungry rumble in my stomach, I picked an inward-facing table against the wall, and watched my food as warily as the people behind the counter were watching me. Imitating the small woman’s right-handed scooping technique, I mopped some of the greasy bread, thinner than a crepe and crisp brown on one side, through the lumpy brown-red sauce.

It was sublime.

* * *

As I sat beside a chlorine-blue pool on an orange plastic beach chair, lychee juice dripped down my forearms and onto my thighs. I was completely alone on the large concrete patio beneath my all-Chinese and expat condo building, surrounded by palm trees and razor wire. I licked the fragrant, sticky liquid off my fingers. I wanted to call home, to hear a familiar voice, but it was the middle of the night where everyone I loved lived. The night before, my new roommate, Shaheera, had taken me to a pasar malam (night market) in downtown Kuala Lumpur. The smells and colourful chaos of the busy streets had been paralyzing. Overwhelmed and fearful of drawing attention to myself, I panicked and bought a giant woven basket of lychees at the first stand we passed. The hoary brown fruits had looked only slightly less alien than their similar-tasting Muppet-like rambutan neighbors.

“Are you sure?” shyly asked my wide-eyed companion. “We just got here.” Passing fresh fruit juice stands, rows of bootleg CDs and little old ladies preparing ketayap, a sweet crepe-like pastry filled with palm sugar and grated coconut, I couldn’t buy anything else; my arms were wrapped around a beach ball-sized fruit container. With forced bravado and a sinking heart, I carried the basket all the way home. The next day, surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of brown lychee skins and their oblong pits, covered in fragrant juice and driven by heat, hunger and loneliness, I had finished them all.

* * *

The smoky smell of pork ribs wafted inside from the patio, where platters of fresh exotic fruits (dragon, kiwi, longan and Chinese gooseberries) sat beside a heaping bowl of coleslaw. I had been invited to a barbecue hosted by a woman, trained as a journalist, who had cared for me as a child in Canada many years ago. Disappointed with her career prospects in the West, she had returned to Kuala Lumpur, where she was born. Her new boyfriend, Larry, was still someone else’s husband. His two children, at home with their mother in Louisiana, smiled brightly out of a photograph on a wooden table in their entryway. I was told this situation is common in Malaysia.

Bent over the barbecue, Larry was wearing a light blue apron with an alligator on it, his face shiny and red from the heat. He was making his favourite, long slabs of very non-Halal Cajun-style pork ribs. The crowd was made up entirely of Chinese people, plus me and Larry. The fact that Chinese and Muslim Malaysians rarely associate, something that was incredibly discomfiting when I arrived, didn’t feel quite as strange. It was on this well-appointed garden patio that I first heard a term used to refer to native Muslim Malays: bumiputras. Literally, it means “sons of the soil.” Behind me, someone scoffed. “Worms,” they said, in a low, nasty voice. After that, every time I saw my Malaysian friends and colleagues laughing and chatting, this voice rang in my ears.

* * *

On one of our weekends off, Shaheera took me to an open-air food market in Taman Tun, her hometown neighbourhood. She went to a Canadian university and studied environmental science before she moved back home to “KL,” as she called it. She was one of the few Muslim women I knew who didn’t wear hijab, and she was proud of the strength of her faith. Shoeless, welcomed into her family home for jasmine tea, I admired the pictures she showed me of her mother, raven-haired and stunning, wearing long see-through gauzy sleeves. This is what women used to wear, she said, before the extremists came to power.

We walked up a few steps to the raised market, near her family home, and she explained the system. The platform is lined with stands offering every kind of food you could possibly imagine, and you order from one stand at a time. The owners of the stand deliver the dish to your table. Each family has a specialty; her favorite was char kway teow so I tried it first. It was familiar, tasting like pad thai, but the thick rice noodles and small clams and shrimp were practically burnt in the searing pan in which it had been prepared. The edges of the noodles were caramelized and flecked with chilli sauce, the crisp bean sprouts were crunchy and sweet. And that was only the first course.

Despite the thick humidity of the summer evening, we shared a steaming bowl of asam laksa, a spicy fish gravy soup with chewy shrimp cake, round udon noodles and hunks of tart pineapple, with a dusting of cilantro, peanuts and dried anchovies. We were seated on a raised gray concrete platform at a folding plastic table, eating with flat metal cafeteria cutlery, but we might as well have been at the finest restaurant in the world. There were roast chicken, fresh fruit juices and sweetened pulled tea delivered to the table; and tom yum ayam, a blistering-hot lemongrass soup with chicken, subtly scented with fragrant galangal root and kaffir lime leaves. I ordered the latter in stammering, hesitant Bahasa Melayu. The men at the carts didn’t speak much English; I mustered what I could.

The meal was transcendent. I never wanted it to end. Half a world away from where I was born, in the company of people who had never eaten a single piece of bacon or a pork cutlet, I fell in love with food, and fell hard. As we ate, dish after dish, Shaheera told me long, winding tales of life as a modern Malaysian. She detailed the history and stories of each dish, tales of the coastal Nonya people who introduced flavors of the sea to local cuisine, of poor villagers who sustained themselves with engorged pineapples and stinky durian, pulled from wild jungle plants in times of hardship, and of Chinese spice traders who moored their boats in the southwestern port city of Melaka, fell in love, and decided to make a life for themselves in the hot, complicated country.

* * *

Half a world away from where I was born, in the company of people who had never eaten a single piece of bacon or a pork cutlet, I fell in love with food, and fell hard.

Weeks later, it was midnight and Shaheera and I were prying open dozens of clams and dipping them in dark-tasting bean sauce at a roadside stand. We took short breaks from cracking their tiny gray shells to devour yet another plate of sticky, charred sticks of chicken satay fired by a wizened old man and a small boy over a grill that was nearly in a lane of traffic.

Teenagers and young Muslims, noisy youths in jeans and their gorgeous female companions in rhinestone headscarves, gathered in clumps under strands of large multicolured Christmas lights and a giant gold and green-illuminated palm tree. Drinking sugary pop, they licked the rich, spicy peanut sauce from their fingers. Only 20 feet away, cars zoomed past along an eight-lane highway, separated from us by only a bent chain-link fence. Sitting in comfortable, satiated silence, I was no longer an intruder in their world of noisy color, scent and sound.

* * *

Near the end of my four-month stay, Shaheera, a Danish colleague and I were invited to an exclusive forest estate that belonged to a 60-or-so-year-old prestigious Muslim Malaysian who had worked for the United Nations for decades. Sitting in the front passenger seat, this refined, debonair man told us he had a soft spot for young Western women because we’re spunkier than our Islamic counterparts. We reminded him of New York City. Beside him, our driver eyed our uncovered heads with a mixture of suspicion and lechery. Driving past rice paddies, jungles and mountains, we eventually arrived at a boat launch, where we boarded a long wooden boat amidst a small herd of nearly naked boys, all leaping and diving and dunking each other in the murky water along the shore. Listening and watching for monkeys, we cruised towards the huge, secluded jungle property and its guest cottages. That night we slept in down-stuffed mattresses and fell asleep to the raucous calls of hornbills as fireflies hovered outside our windows. We spent the next morning catching fish with one of our host’s employees in a small metal boat, then watched in awe as his personal chef, under a long, thatched roof, spent an entire day preparing food for a princess.

“A real princess?” we asked with a mixture of adult sarcasm and childlike awe.

That afternoon, she arrived with three bodyguards and a small entourage for an early evening feast that was held on a large patio that hovered over the water. We ate stuffed, grilled fish, at least five of them, alongside metal plates filled with curries, vegetables, and a strangely scented green pod called petai (or, as we found out later, “stinky beans”) that was mixed with the chef’s own belachan. This latter concoction was a blend of chillies and dried shrimp paste that, even today, makes my heart beat faster. Two excellent bottles of red wine, 1994 vintages from Burgundy, sat on the table.

To the happy clattering of cutlery and glassware, we made polite small talk with the princess about her country and the hospitality of our host. “Malaysian food is amazing,” I said. “We eat food this good almost every single night.” Shaheera gasped. The entire table went silent, every head turned towards me and the princess’s eyes blazed with anger. “I mean… this is definitely the best so far… but the food really is… quite…,” I grasped for words as I felt my cozy integration slipping away. Our host smiled a tight smile, and with a gracious turn towards his prestigious guest, took the reins of the conversation and moved it away from what Shaheera later explained had been my almost unforgivable faux pas. While religious edicts banning alcohol didn’t apply that night, it appeared as if rules of wealth still did.

* * *

Gazing out the window as my plane lifted off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, I chided myself for thinking that I could gain a complete understanding of an entire culture in a single well-spent summer. But I suddenly realized that I had learned something else: I hadn’t been able to become part of this complicated country that I now loved, but I had tasted it. With my taste buds as translator, I had been given a chance to understand. And perhaps that was all I could have asked for.

Karen Pinchin has worked as a reporter, editor and freelancer at numerous news organizations, including the CBC, Maclean’s, Newsweek International, The Globe and Mail, The Georgia Straight and The Canadian Press. Her website is

[Photos: Flickr | mingthein; avlxyz; mingthein; avlxyz; Laurel Fan]