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Posts Tagged ‘Kuala Lumpur’

For the Love of Anchovies, and Other Tasty Morsels

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

For all the foodies out there, you may have heard that Malaysia is exalted for its food culture, and specifically on the island of Penang.  Malaysian cuisine is a clear representation of the myriad of cultures that have decided to call it home over the years.  Here you will find dishes from as far west as Lebanon and from every country of the east.  The greatest influence is from China, being the biggest immigrant group in Malaysia.  The island of Penang is over 60% One of my favorite thingsChinese, and this is apparent on every street you walk down in the food and the number of Chinese temples.  Other major influences include India and Indonesia, and the Malays have their own style of cooking, but who would have known that they have a love affair with anchovies, and yet it is so.  I tried a couple of their national dishes featuring these salty little fish, and don’t envision the soft ones that come in a can back at home.  These fish are pulled fresh out of the sea, salted and dried on the docks, and then served fried, crispy and crunchy.  If you like anchovies, you will love these.

Most often served for breakfast or lunch is Nasi Lemak, coconut rice with fried anchovies, fried peanuts with herbs, and sambal, a spicy red sauce.  Sometimes it comes with cucumber, one time I got it with green beans, and almost always it is topped with a fried egg, another thing the Malaysians love.  Nasi Lemak can be really delicious, or it can be quite average.  The first time I had it was the best, but I kept trying.   For a snack there is Ikan Bilis, a yummy dish of Ikan Bilisanchovies fried with peanuts, chili peppers and onions.  When this one is good, it is really good, and goes great with an ice cold Tiger beer.   And then there are the dishes without anchovy, like Loksa, a soup of rice noodles, boiled egg, red onion, cucumber, fresh herbs and chilies in a red mackerel broth.  This one is different, and not my favorite, but I’m glad I gave it a try.  Their version of the pancake is called Roti Canai, and they love the roti in all of Malaysia; a thin, doughy rice pancake that is folded together and then chopped so it is easy to pick up and dip in dhal, the saucy lentil side dish it is usually served with (unless you get a sweet roti, and then it just comes as is).  They will put anything in the roti, from egg and cheese, to banana, to sardines or other meat, to brown sugar.  I like the roti, almost as much as the dosa (the thin Indian crepe like pancake), which you can also find here, but is called tosai.  And to drink with your roti or tosai is teh tarik, “tossed tea,” which is tea and condensed milk mixed by tossing from one glass to another.  Very tasty.  Then there is Rojak, fresh fruit tossed with Yum!peanuts in a sweet and spicy sauce.  Yum.  For those who don’t like the spicy so much, Malaysian food is not spicy like Thai, there is just a hint, palatable by most.  It is deliciously wonderful to be back in a place with authentically good Indian food (which I ate a lot of), with really fresh made Chinese food (which I ate a lot of), and with other variety when desired (Japanese, Korean, Bangladeshi).

So, where does one find these tasty morsels?  Like so much of SE Asia, at the night market, which basically means “on the street.”  There are several streets in Penang which host countless food carts, some open by day and others by night.  All you need to do is find a local who is excited to share the fabulous food culture of their country with you, and you will try many things, as I was lucky to do one night.

You may be wondering what else I did in Malaysia besides eat, and yes, I actually did some other things.  I started in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city.  It was okay, but didn’t capture my attention like Bangkok did.  The highlight there for me was the Museum of Visual Arts, a free contemporary art museum Scary Highfeaturing Malaysian artists.  They have a great collection, and it was a very cool, air conditioned break from the oppressive midday heat.  I also went to the top of the KL Tower, which is currently the 7th tallest building in the world.  It offers an expansive view of this growing city which hosts lots of new buildings with modern glass architecture, and old historic buildings.  It also gives one an opportunity to see all the green space around KL, where the jungle abuts the city limits.

From KL, I headed to The Cameron Highlands, and the main town of Tanah Rata, set high in the hills in the middle of the jungle.  This is a beautiful place, and the center of the Malaysian tea industry.  While it was similar to Munnar in India, it didn’t have the same fairytale feel to it that Kerala’s tea plantations offered.  Regardless, there are so many shades of green it would be impossible to count.

I did two day hikes while I was in the area.  The first hike I did with two Brits I’d met at my guesthouse.  We were told that the trail we’d chosen was one of the easier hikes; I think it was just one of the shortest because it was quite steep Hike in Tanah Rataand challenging, with the reward of an amazing view of the surrounding jungle, mountains and tea plantations.  The second hike I had started on my own, but fell into line with a man from Hungary, with whom I ended up completing this incredibly beautiful, secluded trek.  It was really stunning as it followed a river with a waterfall, and several small streams running through the forest.  Both treks ended in vegetable farms, several miles from town, and the number of buses are limited, so what to do but hitch a ride back.  The first day we were picked up by a Hungarian tourist, and the second by a Malaysian couple.  It’s so different culturally from the US in that regard, hitching is safe and common since so many people don’t have cars and often have to travel long distances.

My next stop was the island of Langkawi, in the far northwest of the country.  I’d heard that this was a beautiful island, but mostly I went there because I’d read online that it was a rock climbing destination.  Well, I ended up disappointed on both parts.  First, it used to be possible to rock climb there, Tanjung Rhubut the one man who did it had passed away and nobody else offered it; and second, the island is beautiful, and I will say it has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, Tanjung Rhu, but the island is very touristy.  It became a duty-free island a few years ago, and since then the tourism industry has boomed.  I did meet some great people there though, so that did make it more tolerable, in addition to the fact that the beaches there are covered in shells, and shell collecting is one of my all favorite pastimes.

I ended my time in Malaysia on the island of Penang, staying in the capital city of Georgetown.  As I’ve already mentioned, the food is amazing there, and one of the main reasons people go there, but it is also known for its street art, and one artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic.  All around the city there are Kung Fu Girlapproximately 30 works of fun iron sculpture and big wall murals by him, as well as paintings by others.  Searching out street art is one of my favorite things to do in cities.  Also on Penang, in the northwest there is a wonderful national park called Taman Negara, where the jungle meets the ocean, and with a challenging hike to the lighthouse for an expansive view.  The island is also home to the largest active Buddhist temple in the world, Kek Lok Si, which is incredibly impressive and colorful.  It houses the largest statue I think I’ve seen in all my travels.  It is of Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and stands almost 100 ft. high.  For pictures of Malaysia, click here .

All in all, I really liked Malaysia.  The scenery is memorable, the people remarkable, and the food, I’ve already told you.  If I hadn’t made plans to go to Sumatra (i.e. plane tickets) I probably would have gone to Borneo and stayed in the country longer, but plans had been made, so off to Indonesia I went.  That story is to come.

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