Kuala Lumpur, An Exercise in Eating

I was sitting in my hotel room two weeks ago hovering the mouse arrow over the buy button at the bottom of AirAsia’s promotion flight to Kuala Lumpur. I needed to do a visa run, but the most important part of the crossing the border part was which country I would renew my papers in. I wanted to make sure that the few days I spent away from Thailand were exciting, stimulating and most importantly delicious.

I visited Malaysia back in 2004, mostly focusing on trekking through the 130 million years old rainforest, Taman Negara, and pedaling around Penang looking for slurpy bowls of noodles, roast pork and anything doused in chili sauce. I instead was doused in leeches and splattered with mud in the rainforest, slept in guano covered caves and feared being trampled by elephants, and somehow or another missed out on finding anything truly spectacular to eat in Penang. Malaysia kinda felt like a dirty wash.

I was feeling forgiving two weeks ago and thought I’d like to shake hands and let hard feelings go about Malaysia. Malaysia, after all, is kinda the cool kid on the block. Everyone seems to know that great food abounds here (whether it’s Indian, Chinese or Malay) and it’s not hard to come by. I clicked the “buy” button and immediately started to feel giddy about the prospect of new food ventures.

My friend Akira put me in touch with one of his Singaporean friend’s brother, Bernard. Bernard and I have been in touch via email and made plans for an eating day that would start at 9:30am and last the whole day. I felt athletically fit for the feast, as it seems all I do in Asia is eat all day anyway.

He picked me up just as I was rolling out of bed from the guest house. I somehow missed the fact that Malaysia is an hour ahead of Thailand, but thankfully I was just slipping on my shoes and rubbing the blear out of my eyes as he walked in to find me. We hopped in his car and drove over to the Thai embassy. We got stuck/lost in traffic, making circles around the city no thanks to his GPS, and finally made it to the embassy over an hour later. The lines were long, so I sent him on his way and said I’d meet up with him later. I was edgy, hungry and annoyed at the un-organized process for dropping off passports. Two hours later, completely ready to eat a small animal, I hopped in a taxi and made my way out to Bernard’s neighborhood.

He knew I was more than a little hungry, so he raced over to a local spot (literally raced, this man is an ex race car driver). We sat down and he pushed away menus, ordering his two favorite dishes that he normally stops in for: paper chicken and fried pork. The chicken dish arrived in parchment paper, a parcel full of warm aromas and tender meat. The sauce was a rich oyster sauce concoction, seasoned with sesame, ginger and orange. It came with fried bean curd crisps which were filled minimally with fish paste to dip in the sauce.

The second dish was two versions of fried pork. One was tossed in a sweet and only mildly spiced sticky sauce after being fried, so the crisps bits really absorbed the sauce yet stayed crunchy. The second version was tossed in a sweet mayonnaise sauce. I preferred the non-mayonnaise version, but still managed to eat both.

Pretty satisfied, I could have pushed away from the table and moved on to an activity. Instead Bernard asked if I felt better and was ready for more. I can never say no, so of course I said yes! He mentioned satay, and to be honest, my heart sunk just a bit. I’ve had satay in my life, from roadside stalls in Java to night markets in Vietnam to bad passed hors d’ouevres in New York. I’ve never had satay that makes me feel like I need to have another.

We pulled up to a shop with tiled green and white floors, yellow walls that could have used a scrubbing, plastic chairs and tables, and a sign that read “Once satay is ordered, it cannot be sent back.” I liked the ambience already. We ordered sugar cane juices and watched the men flip and rotate skewers over the open charcoal grills. Two plates came over, heaped with three types of skewers: beef, duck and fish. Beef I’ve had before, but duck and fish? These two really took me by surprise and ended up being stellar. Even Bernard remarked that the duck was unusually great. The fish came out of left field for me. I’ve never had fish satay, yet it was by far the best satay I’ve ever tasted. Delicate yet full of flavor, slightly charred and sweet, the fish was cooked to just done perfection. If I wasn’t so much of a lady, I would have hoarded the fish plate and eaten every skewer clean of fishy bits. But I’m half a lady, so I shared.

Full of peanut sauce, cucumbers, too many satay skewers, pork, chicken, tea and sugar cane juice, I was feeling like I made the right decision to come to Kuala Lumpur. Bernard was excellent at sharing his food favorites with a complete stranger. And he was about ready to show me some more!

We got back in his car and sped over to Lot 10, a shopping mall he claims is for the “1%” but the food court is what people really come for. Along the drive, Bernard peppered the kilometers with stories of his military time spent all over the world, the time his parachute didn’t open and he fell to safety, and then the time his parachute failed and he fell on a friend (his friend broke his fall) and the time he broke both legs and was relegated to cooking for his fellow combatters. He then jovially relayed his years as a clown, a balloon artist and an overall entertainer. I didn’t want the stories to stop! This man has led more interesting lives in one life than most (and he’s already undergone a heart attack and a triple bypass at the young age of 46).

We pulled up to the mall and Bernard got back to food and why we were visiting this particular spot. The owner of the mall supposedly went around to all his favorite hawker stalls in Asia before opening and offered them a spot in his food court. Many accepted the offer and the promise of more money, so Bernard feels it has some great Malaysian and Singaporean representation, and most dishes are great versions of themselves.

Sitting across from this truly incredible food procurer and lover of life, I had a hard time not wanting to pester for more stories. But I let him proceed with what he does so well, so we ordered two kinds of Hokkien noodles, one a Singaporean version that reminds him of home, and a Malaysian version. He wanted me to see how different a dish with the same name can be from two different countries. We also ordered an oyster omelette, something I like to indulge in every once in a while from Bangkok’s Chinatown. The two noodle dishes were night and day, the Malaysian dish literally inky black like the midnight sun and the Singaporean dish light, brothy and citrusy, perfect for a hot afternoon snack. The omelette was similar to a vendor off Yaowarat who cooks a crispy version over a charcoal fire. I’d probably choose Bangkok’s version first, but this omelette was still everything you’d want out of this dish: fluffy, chewy, topped with plump oysters and accompanied by a lime infused chili sauce.

Fully satiated and regretting my decision to wear a dress, I sat back in my chair and tried not to look like a beach ball. Earlier we had been talking about fruit and Bernard suddenly popped out of his chair and said he’d be right back with some “mango shavings!” I guess I could eat some mango shavings? That didn’t sound over the top or too heavy after our coursed out extended lunch. He came back with a bowl topped heavy with a mound of what looked like mango ice cream, mango jelly, chocolate sprinkles and basil seeds. A small plate of frozen mango it was not. I took a bite and then realized it truly was just frozen and shaved mango. What a dessert it was too, fresh, light (maybe I’m kidding myself) and sweet enough to make bees buzz with glee, as if they’d just found a secret orchard of newly blossomed orange flowers.

Before we even put our spoons down, Bernard began planning our eating trip for Wednesday: beef noodles, shrimp dumplings, fried pork, ice Kacang…and whatever else happened to come along with the day. I’m open to the food adventures from a man who boldly claims he can make “mean bbq pork ribs that even Muslims want to eat!” Bernard is not only a skilled cook, a race car driver or a great guide to friends of friends; he’s a man rich in life’s experiences, trying to grab every bull by the balls, fry them up in a fragrant sauce, and eagerly serving it up on a plate for those who are lucky enough to share a meal with him.

Sometimes these food experiences, especially ones shared over a meal that would put Sumo wrestlers to shame, are the most memorable ways to spend a day in a new country. The Batu caves can wait til next time; I have a lunch date and some mad stories in store that are bound to be more rich than the high-end shopping in the Petronas towers.

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