How does Malaysia taste?

Thinking back about Malaysia brings images of endless palm oil plantations and picturesque old Chinese store-fronts. Due to the monsoon, we only traveled along the west coast, not venturing into the east, The most popular cities in the west are Malaca (near KL) and Georgetown (on Penang island). Both are UNESCO sites and full of tourists and renovated version of real Chinese stores we saw earlier.

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Local cuisine though, was not as monotonous as the landscape. Each dish we tried was a mixture of many different ingredients, sauces and toppings, not a minimalist’s dream for sure. We found it odd that Malaysia, famous for the love of food and its great culinary variety, is not better represented in restaurants abroad, for example in Poland,

The popular eateries here are an assortment of hawker stalls, each specializing in one or two dishes, with a common dining area. In the biggest venues, there may be dozens of stalls and the tables are numbered. You should find a free table first, order drinks from the waiter and then choose your dishes directly from one of the stalls, giving them your table number. Each seller is paid separately when he delivers the food to your table.

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Below you can find a summary of what we ate in Ipoh and Georgetown, as the photos from Malaca have misteriously dissapeared from our hard-drive. This is just a fraction of Malysia has to offer but it is as much as we could stomach during two weeks.

IPOH – THE HOMELAND OF POMELO

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  • Ayam Taugeh – bean-sprout chicken

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This dish of cooked chicken  with sprouts is said to be the best in the state, if not in the whole country. It is served with rice or rice noodles in broth. The chicken itself did not taste heavenly, but after combining all the ingredeints and sauces, the dish becomes a whole. And a tasty one indeed.

  • Tau Fu Fa – bean curd pudding

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The lore has it that this pudding made from coagulated soy is prepared according to an ancient Chinese recipe. Soy, as usually, tastes rather bland, but its pleasant texture, combined with sweetness of the syrup, makes a very appetizing whole. Here it’s accompanied by the dark syrup made from gula melaka – the palm sugar made by boiling the sap from the palm tree.

  • Dim sum

My unstopable fondness for dim sum has led us to a wrong place this time, or maybe we just came too late. The best time to hunt for dim sum is at 7 am.

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dim sum steamed in huge bamboo baskets
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dim sum and sticky rice; upper left a century egg (an egg preserved for many weeks in a special solution)

GEORGETOWN – THE CULINARY CAPITAL OF MALAYSIA

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  • Char kway teow 

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Char kway teow is a concoction of flat rice noodles stir-fried with an egg (often from duck), shrimps, cockles, chives, bean sprouts and assortment of sauces, including soy sauce. Sometimes pieces of chicken or Chinese sausage can be encountered within. It was traditionally prepared with pork lard and cracklings but I am afraid this is no longer the case as I couldn’t taste them in any of the versions I tried. Nevertheless, the dish is delicious, with sprouts oh-so-crunchy and the shrimp amazingly succulent. Highly recommended, but only in Georgetown.

  • Asam Laksa

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Each region has its own signature laksa – a dense soup with an amazing variety of ingredients. In general, it comes in two types – curry laksa (thick coconut milk based curry soup) and asam laksa, a tangy fish soup, owing its sour taste to the tamarind fruit. The local version we tried, called the Penang asam laksa, is a mixture full of enigmatic ingredients. Apart from the thick, soggy soft rice noodles, the soup is absolutely delicious — spicy and sour, crunchy and dense, with a strong mint and pineapple aroma.

  • Cendol

queueing for the best cendol in town
queueing for the best cendol in town

OK, most of you will probably say this dessert looks inedible. I will try to convince you though, as I thought the same before I tasted it. Unfortunately I had the chance only one day before we left Malaysia, so I was left with a big cendol deficiency. I don’t think I will ever be able to recreate it at home. We were discouraged by this type of ice-shredded sweets after tasting some in Indonesia. A heap of crushed ice with fruit and syrup…  Do we really want to indulge ourselves in shaved ice? Well, the cendol also is full of the aforementioned, but in company of green pandan-flavoured jelly noodles, red beans, gula melaka syrup and coconut milk. OK, so maybe that’s still weird-sounding but believe me, it’s delicious, delicately sweet and very refreshing. I did have one more chance to try it, near the Thai border, but it was not the same. 

  • Satay

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Satay or sate – these small skewered pieces od meat, seafood or vegetables are grilled and served with spicy peanut sauce. Different colors of the skewers’ tip organise the snacks into different price groups. Originating from Indonesia, the dish is ubiqitous in Malaysia and makes a great starter snack.

  • Indian cuisine

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Murtabak, aka indian pizza, is a wheat flatbread folded with meat or vegetables (or both) served with a spicy curry sauce. As far as other indian dishes are concerned, we also enjoyed the chicken tandoori with naan. A very popular and cheap Malaysian breakfast item is roti canai — basically a murtabak without a filling, served with an assortment of curry sauces. As we avoid wheat most of the time, we are not experts on Indian flatbreads. I have once tried the roti canai version with butter but it was very greasy, mildly sweet and resembled a puff pastry, which I am not really fond of. We also tried the claypot briyani, which is made with a variety of spices in a broth and different kinds of meat and seafood. It is then baked in the claypot, and if made right and slightly wet, can be really delicious.

So what does Malaysia taste like? Very well indeed. A little less spicy than Indonesia but with much more variety. In the long run, we would probably miss the clean and simple flavors, not so popular here. If you want to eat well, it is worthwile to ask and search for information about the local specialities and the best stalls, as a signature dish in one town can taste really lousy in another. This was a very exotic experience for us and now we’re moving on to try the more tame Thai delicacies. But that will be a whole different story.

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