Malaysia – Asia’s Unsung Mecca of Munch

I have come across two people in my time, some years apart, who made the astonishing declaration that they found eating a chore and a bore, and would far rather, were it possible, pop a super-nutrient pill and put the time saved to better use. If you relate to this, skip this blog. For me, the delights of food surpass all other corporeal pleasures. You’ve been warned.

From my observations, most Westerners fit somewhere between these two extremes of food frigid and food freak. Sure, food focus has become fashionable, celebrity chefs now vie for position on our tv screens, and every second bozo you meet claims to be a “foodie” (oh, and a wine connoisseur…and a cinema buff…and “passionate” about bloody everything – especially scourging the word “passionate”). Yes folks, my view – for multiple reasons I can’t be bothered going into – is that there are a lot of pretenders and fashionistas between genuine food freaks.

Not so in Asia, where food transcends the merely fashionable – it is central to Asian life and always has been. Asian life revolves around food! That’s something I love about Asian cultures, and identify with. And it’s a concept that is not shared by many Westerners – not really.

Among the wondrous cuisines of Asia, Thai food arguably has the highest profile in Australia. It has long been my favourite. But it’s a bit old hat these days. If you’re a “foodie” who’s been, like, keeping up, you’ll be spouting off over your soy latte about Japanese and its fusion varieties (careful, though – it’s been flavour of the month for years now). Along with Thai and Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian restaurants all do a roaring trade in Oz. And immediately north of our shores, Singapore is legendary for its food. But what of Malaysia, just a bridge away from Singapore? As a food destination, Malaysia hardly registers on the SE Asian salivation scale! And I’m tellin’ yas, THIS IS ONE HELL OF AN OVERSIGHT!

I hasten to add, I am only newly enlightened. Before our recent three week visit to Malaysia, my experience of Malaysian cuisine was confined to laksa, satay, some curries at Perth’s long-established Nonya restaurant, the Sri Melaka, and my own home-cooked version of Chicken Curry Kapitan.

Now bend down close while I shout in your ear: Malaysia is truly a spectacular food experience! And truly a culinary Mecca: cultural influences have converged on Malaysia from all over the world going back centuries, and the result today is a mature, dizzily diverse and delectable national spread. As well as the traditional Malay fare, many introduced dishes and ingredients have morphed into something uniquely Malaysian and very special, while retaining their original culinary character.

Of course, not every meal we had was a rapturous event. The Chinese hawker centres feature mostly wok-cooked fare, fresh, lip-smackin’ good and with variation aplenty, but you can tire a little of the constantly high oil content. While the cheap, locally popular Indian and Malay restaurants maintained a level of quality that would ensure a devoted following in Australia at 20 times the price, many featured multiple pre-prepared bain marie dishes that do not stay warm. Add whirling overhead fans and/or air conditioning, and you often end up with a plate of cold food.

That’s a pity, but some would be more concerned about the hygiene factor; hot food left standing until cold poses a salmonella risk, or so we’re told. Health authorities applying Australian standards would go through forests of summons forms and shut down whole streets of restaurants in Malaysia on this account. Further, the washing up procedures in some of the cheaper street food centres are…well, it’s best not to look. And whatever the style and quality of the food, dining al fresco at tables perched on the edge of open drains can be somewhat off-putting when you cop a whiff of whatever is flowing past below as you raise your laden fork to your puckering mouth.

However, we ate and drank anything and everything everywhere we went and had no gastric upsets at all. You can’t help but wonder whether we are a bit hysterical about food hygiene in the West. That said, I should emphasise that Malaysia is pretty clean overall; the tap water is potable and the restaurants and hawker centres are well run and kept spick and span in the main. Nevertheless, there are occasional moments that remind you that you are in SE Asia – such as the sight one night of a squatting cook marinating a rack of dripping chicken wings over a reeking open drain in an alley just off the popular tourist hawker centre at Jl Alors in KL’s Golden Triangle!

But back to the good stuff. While in three weeks we could only manage the most superficial tour of Malaysia’s vast gastronomic wonderland, taking in Melaka, KL, Penang, the Cameron Highlands and some small towns in transit, I sampled enough to reach some dramatic conclusions. Here they are…

• Malaysia has the best Indian food I have tasted anywhere in the world, including India (where I spent 3 months, albeit long ago now).

• From my admittedly limited experience of Singapore food, which I also love, I would rate Malaysia as superior, certainly for value – great eating in Malaysia can be ludicrously cheap.

• The hawker food in Malaysia is tremendous in quality and value, and at its best probably unbeatable in its class.

• No Asian food I have had at restaurants in Australia – and I have had a lot, though not at the extreme high end – comes close to the quality of the food at good Malaysian hawker centres and cheap popular restaurants patronised by the locals. And at prices that wouldn’t buy you a coffee in Oz.

• Penang is deserving of its reputation as the food capital of Malaysia. However, there is magnificent food to be had in all the regions we visited.

We applied a simple strategy in choosing where to eat: ask the locals. Forget Lonely Planet‘s eating recommendations – no one knows better about a region’s food offerings than the people who live there. Our strategy led us to the cheaper, most popular places that the locals could afford and knew well (and that tourists generally didn’t); we didn’t try any upmarket establishments, or even mid-priced ones. I deeply, dangerously envy those with inside knowledge of Malaysia’s top venues if they get much better – and they probably do – than the best of the places we tried.

OK, enough general hyperbole. Let’s zoom in on Menu Malaysia. Food writers are ultimately doomed to failure, since words can only convey particular taste experiences in the most abstract and impotent manner, so in presenting the pick of our culinary adventures I will spare you any serious attempt at poetic communication of the sensory. A simple regional summary of the best of our food experiences will have to suffice. In the possibly forlorn hope of keeping all this digestible for you, dear hapless reader, I will assign each region a separate blog. Stand by for the first, Melaka.

2 thoughts on “Malaysia – Asia’s Unsung Mecca of Munch”

  1. If you think Penang food is good – and I agree it is – you should try Kelantan!!! More traditional, less tourists, fabulous food!!! And cheap too! Well worth a trip – make sure you incorporate Pasar Besar – Siti Khadijah Central Market…

  2. Thanks for the tip, Lisa – Kelantan will be on my must-go list next visit, along with your specific market recommendation.

    But isn’t the food spectacular – and tremendous value – wherever you go in Malaysia? Hangin’ out…!

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