do you do when you visit Malaysia? Sure, there are the usual things to see and
do – the Petronas Twin Towers beckon from the Kuala Lumpur skyline, Penang’s got
plenty of exotic looking temples to explore and Malacca is a haven for history
buffs. You can lounge at the beach, prowl in the nightclubs and shop until your
credit card melts. Talk to any local however and you’ll quickly come up against
one of the most unusual and quirkily charming facets of Malaysian culture: when
it comes to getting a visitor’s impressions of the country, no one really cares
where you went – they’re more interested in what you’re eating. The universal
question to the tourist in Malaysia is not, “What are you doing?” or “Where are
you going?” but “What have you eaten?”
A cultural obsession
The national fixation on filling the stomach also has a lot to do with culture.
Every culture in Malaysia – and there are a lot of cultures forming the complex
mosaic known as ‘Malaysian culture’ – puts a great emphasis on food. A meal in
Malaysia is not just a chance to fuel up the body: it is a social event, a show
of love and caring, a chance to bond with newcomers and old friends, a way of
showing comradeship between even the most disparate of persons. Any meal taken
alone is a tragedy. Every festival or special occasion calls for a feast, which
many families will willingly go into debt to finance.
Saying that the Malaysian lifestyle revolves around food is only a slight
exaggeration. The average day is marked by the progression of meals: breakfast
at home, a tea break at about 10 in the morning, lunch at about 12, a tea break
about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, home for dinner in the evening, a trip late at
night to the coffee shops to share a quick bite and a cup of tea with friends
and all the snacks in between. In every government office and even most private
companies, a ‘tea break’ is a perfectly acceptable reason for employees to
disappear to the nearest coffee shop. At any time of the day or night, in every
city or town, there will always, always, be someplace serving food. Drive around
any part of Kuala Lumpur at any hour and you’ll see crowds of Malaysian sitting
around the ubiquitous coffee shops and hawker stalls, chatting away.
Given the importance of food, it’s hardly surprising that Malaysia has a huge
variety of food available. Malaysian cuisine is as kaleidoscopic as the populace
itself, with the main cuisines being Malay, Chinese and Indian. There are,
however, countless dishes borrowed from other cuisines, as well as an exhaustive
selection of international cuisines.
Caution! Good food ahead
The Malaysian love of eating has a number of consequences on the foreign
visitor. For one thing, most visitors have a little trouble adjusting to Asian
concepts of dietary acceptability. In Malaysia, the food offerings range from
pig’s trotters to jungle herbs and raw shellfish; many of which turn a guest’s
stomach. For many visitors, a meal in Malaysia is an adventure all in itself. It
might be of some comfort to visitors to know that even Malaysians sometimes
refuse the more exotic dishes; but even such finicky eaters have a certain
disdain towards a foreigner’s queasiness over some of the bizarre dishes set
Also, most visitors who have Malaysian friends are easy prey. Most Malaysians
love to share their own favourite dishes with their guests. Unfortunately, for
those unused to the heavily spiced and well-oil foods, this can lead to a
prolonged acquaintance with the nearest bathroom. In fact, most young Malaysians
cheerfully admit to making a game out of testing their visitor’s tolerance.
Quite often though, their guests are willing participants. If the visitor
actually likes the dishes he eats, he may even be hailed as a Malaysian at heart
and adopted as a long-lost relative.
If you’re interested in sampling Malaysian cuisine but are worried about a
delicate stomach, you might try the numerous hotel restaurants. As expected,
many of the local dishes offered in these establishments have been adjusted to
accommodate the guest’s sensitivities.
Where to go for some good Malaysian food
you feel more adventurous, you might try exploring the food shops and hawker
stalls on your own. To get to the really good stuff however, the best bet is to
ask a local. If you haven’t got a local friend, then ask the staff of the hotel
you’re staying in. You can even ask a random passer-by, and if he’s a local,
he’ll probably set you on the way to something good.
Of course, if you want REALLY good, cheap food, your best bet is to get out of
Kuala Lumpur. In Malaysia, it is held to be self-evident that food outside the
capital city is fresher, cheaper and a hundred times better. Once outside
however, the destination depends on what you feel like eating. If it’s
chicken rice, then most people head for Ipoh, where the chicken rice
is said to be particularly good because of the calcium in the water from the
surrounding limestone hills. Though not scientifically proven, no one really
cares as long as they can eat. For a slightly different chicken rice style, you
can go to Malacca, which offers chicken rice balls, in which rice
is served in a sticky ball.
Then there’s Penang. This little island has a reputation among Malaysians
as being a food haven and it would be a tragedy for visitors to come without
trying to food. In Penang, the really good food is sold at the hawker stalls.
Here, it would be somewhat pointless to ask locals for their opinion on what the
best food is: almost everyone has their own favourites and you’d never be able
to try everything anyway. There are however a few ‘must-try’s. One of the most
quintessentially Penang dishes is nasi kandar, an Indian rice dish eaten
with a variety of meats and vegetables. Unfortunately, the description does
absolutely no justice to the dish. There are a handful of shops selling really
good nasi kandar, but one of the really popular places for it is in a little
alley lost in the warrens of Penang streets, commonly known as Line Clear.
Another really lovely dish is char kway teow or fried noodles. One of the
most popular stalls belongs to a grumpy old lady (ask a local, they'll all know
her). If you manage to make it off Penang, then try and stop off at Seberang
Prai, the shoreline just opposite the island. A little judicious poking around
should turn up some of the freshest, tastiest seafood in the entire country,
cooked in a wide variety of styles and cheap enough to justify a gluttonous
In the more rural areas of the country, the majority of the cuisine is Malay and
one of the most popular Malay dishes is laksa. This fish based soup dish
comes in a variety of styles depending on the state – up north in Kedah,
the soup is served with thick white noodles, in Penang it comes in a tangy,
slightly sweetish asam style with flat rice noodles and down south in Johor, the
soup much richer and is served with spaghetti noodles. In fact, many dishes are
prepared differently depending on which part of the country you're in, but that
just makes the eating out experience all the more interesting.
There’s almost no end to the dishes available, especially for particularly brave
souls. Newcomers to Malaysia may be bewildered at the huge variety available,
but really – the best way to see Malaysia is to ask a local where to eat. You’ll
get a good meal, experience some local colour and if you’re especially brave,
may even become an honorary Malaysian along the way.
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