MALAYSIA FOR FIRST TIMERS
- Gooseberry Jun 2, 2009 08:35 AM
MALAYSIA REPORTBACK FOR FIRST TIMERS
I have decided to report back on my first trip to Malaysia in two parts – the first one here (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/624461), with specific restaurant recs, but also post advice which I found helpful (or would have found helpful!) before embarking on my first trip, because I am no means an expert on Malaysia or its food, and I found a lot of the recs on this board are understandably aimed at expats or Malaysians who are well versed in the cuisine and know exactly what they’re after. Not that it doesn’t make for interesting reading, but I found a lot of it too specific for someone looking for a broad experience in a short period of time. And before this trip I’d only eaten Malaysian food once in Philly in 2006, and a roti canai at a Malaysian Airlines stall at a tourism convention. Deeply experienced, indeed!
My advice for first timers:
- Read as much about the cuisine in general before you go. Very general chowhound posts explaining flavours or unusual ingredients or national dishes are really good at giving a feel. Good guidebooks should have a food glossary – I recommend Lonely Planet, which seemed the most enthusiastic (rather than objective) about the food.
- By all means, take restaurant recommendations from here and people you know. But don’t get overly attached to them. Factor in the monsoon rains, the 90% humidity, the temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius) – hunting for a specific hole-in-the-wall in a hard-to-get-to place is more likely to stress you out than fulfil you. Focus on advice we doesn’t rely on one specific noodle maker being there on Thursday evenings – general food locations like food markets, or dishes to look out for.
- Avoid any sort of recommendation that involves “Just tell the concierge/taxi driver the name and they’ll know where to take you” or scribbled directions in another language. The taxi driver will not have heard of it, won’t understand you, or will take you to his wife’s brother-in-law’s seafood shack/noodle stand instead. For scribbled directions, you will be pointed in the wrong direction, or be told that ‘whoever wrote this doesn’t speak Mandarin/Tamil/Malay properly”. Seriously. Not. Worth. The. Stress. Get a proper address, or don’t bother.
- Don’t stress too much about going to the ‘best’ place for nasi lemak/frog porridge/insert famed dish here. The food in general is of incredibly high standards pretty much everywhere, and you can get a damn good dish of whatever at most hawker stands and food markets. Good enough at least for someone who wants to try a dish for the first time. Because I felt like the subtlety people talk about for specific dishes here is beyond my inexperienced palate. I found the whole country a flavour explosion but I certainly didn’t have enough experience to know the difference between an amazing nasi goring and a superlative nasi goring. And the times I went hunting for the superlative version (as s rule, off the beaten track, far away, and only open at a specific time) as recommended here, I really couldn’t tell the difference between that and the version I’d eaten at a hawker stall across the road from my hotel.
- Similarly, I feel the chowhound focus is often on eating widely, at the cost of eating deeply. Some of my best food memories are of places we went back to, again and again. Because they were convenient, but also because they were delicious. We’d often eat the same dish repeatedly, but we always made room for nibbling our way through the menu, and got to know the waitstaff and the cooks (who got to know our tastes, recommend new dishes, etc), and feel a bit more like regulars than tourists usually do.
- I know your doctor/mother/best friend told you not to drink the water and eat the ice, but you need to get over that, pronto. In the incredible heat, the only way to stay human is to drink as much as possible, as cold as possible. I was impressed by the general hygiene of even the lowliest hawker shack, I ate and drank whatever I want, and did not get sick. I think the chance of getting food poisoning is higher at a restaurant in my hometown, where I can’t see someone sneezing into my dish behind the kitchen’s closed doors. But back to the drinks – no one on this board warned me about how amazing the drinks are. Every fruit known to man, stuck in a blender in front of you and then poured over ice. Frozen green coconuts. Sugar cane, freshly pulped. Tea, milo, coffee – all over ice. Add cendol and ABC to the mix, too. The drinks are AMAZING and everywhere and cheap. I almost enjoyed them almost more than the food.
- I know this isn’t very chowhoundish, but if you’re travelling with a difficult eater or child (we’ve all been there), wan tan mee, dry, (you have to ask for it to be served dry) is universally pleasurable and widely available. It’s basically egg noodles cooked al dente, glazed with a reduction of pork or chicken stock and soy sauce, with some chopped green veg to one side. It comes with the ‘wet’ part separately – juicy prawn wan tans wrapped in silky noodle wrappers, in a little cup of clear broth. I cannot imagine anyone who wouldn’t like this. I know I adored it, and enjoyed sampling it all over the place.
Thanks for a very invaluable insight on how foreign, non-Malay/Cantonese/Mandarin-speaking visitors perceive eating out in our culture, Gooseberry! Oftentimes, we local foodies don't encounter issues like ignorant taxi drivers (we drive around ourselves, or else get our friends/relatives to bring us around), using public transport or having to walk in hot, humid conditions, and worry about getting stomach ailments whilst in a strange city. Hence, your perspective is invaluable indeed when we give advice to visiting foreign Chowhounds in future.
Wan tan mee - the Malaysian version is absolutely delicious. But be forewarned, such similar-named dish will appear very different if you order it in Hong Kong or Singapore. In HK, wantan noodles are more often than not consumed in soup form. HongKongers tend to judge a good wantan noodle not solely on the texture/bite of the noodles, but also the depth & flavour of the soup in which the noodles are served in. Dry wantan noodles in HK tend to be flavoured with oyster sauce (unlike the dark soy sauce & sesame oil mixture so popular in Malaysia) & simply topped with chopped yellow chives (no green choy-sum vegetables). No char-siew barbecued pork, unless you are ordering char-siew mein.
In Singapore, our dry wantan mee come with either a spicy minced chilli dressing, or else a non-spicy tomato ketchup-based dressing. Some food stalls offer soya sauce dressing, but tastes very different from the Malaysian version - blander, less salty, less oily.
I'm very interested to read about your eating adventures in KL, KT & Penang. I'm so disappointed that you didn't include Malacca, or Melaka in Malay language, into your itinerary. The Peranakan and Malaccan-Portuguese cuisine there would have interested a foodie like yourself.
Although you have tried Penang style Peranakan food in Perut Rumah, it is different from Malacca style Peranakan food. The former betrays Thai influences: liberal use of fresh herbs, tamarind, galangal, citronella, whilst the latter is more influenced by Indonesian cuisine: buah keluak Indonesian nuts, brown coconut sugar or Gula Melaka, etc
Thanks for your feedback! I was sad not to get to Malacca - we just ran out of time.
I became totally addicted to Malay-style wantan mee, especially the stock-based sauce. I think it gives the whole thing a greater level of savoury complexity than, say, oyster sauce by itself would.
Can you tell me - is there an English name for kailan? I adored this vegetable, but whenever I asked for an English translation, I got a different answer! Perhaps there is no translation. So yummy....
If you are in the US, Chinese broccoli is much better known. Among Chinese, in fact, we call broccoli "western gailan". Also, if you are ordering from a Chinese restaurants or buying it at an Asian super market, just say "gailan", people would understand you.
I personally prefer the HK style wonton mee, dry or soup. I would confess my snobbish attitude towards all food (originally) Cantonese done in different styles. :-) However, I agree that bamee mudang still taste might good, mighty solid and Singapore style wonton mee still beats the heck out of American fast food.
I am not sure my perspective would be fitting, since I am Chinese, although living in the states, and speak multiple Chinese dialects. Singapore and Malaysia was very easy for me. Thailand, well, when closing to Yaowaratt road it was still easy. My biggest challenge had been the fourth point you mentioned. I stressed too much on finding the place mentioned on the board somewhere. Eventually I realized that was totally missing the point. Firstly, like you said, the food quality was generally good anyway. Secondly, options are so many that the "favorites" are changing daily. Third, personal taste still dictates. I'd add, don't even bother to stick to the food items mentioned on this board (or any others). I discovered Lor Mee in (guess where) Tiong Baru market myself. The funny thing is that I later read about the Lor mee stall at the Amoy street food center and made a resolution to try it. After 3 times (every time I was in Singapore something happened, ghost month, etc), finally I got it a month ago. It was no competition to the Tiong Baru version. Then, only after back in the states, I found that the Tiong Baru stall had always been very celebrated too.
Another personal favorite of mine, almost never mentioned on this board (until now!) is Bak Chor mee (now they put abalone on it) . Once you get there, you'll find hundreds of food exist and evolve, food blogs and discussion board have a hard time to keep up. So be prepared and be prepared to let go.
That is a helpful post. We have been getting to each place in the early afternoon and spend an hour or so online trying to figure out how to get to where we want to go. It has been lucky/helpful to pick hotels by location in relation to food. If I can't get online, I'm not sure how I would find the places. The hotels either can't understand us, or haven't heard of the food places we are asking about.
You'll be surprised how bad the concierge service in Malaysian hotels are. I depend on my local contacts/friends for local dining tips or specific places. Most hotel employees in Malaysia - especially those in KL - are not local KL-lites, but Malaysians from other states (or even other countries), and they don't have a clue of local eateries or places outside of their workplace.