Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Food Notes from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Greetings from Malaysia!

I am in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, delivering a corporate training. Doing so keeps me occupied from about 7:30am until 5:30pm. What's always on my mind is food! I've written a few posts on the glories of South East Asian cooking. It's quite a treat to actually be in the country that has developed one of my favorite cuisines! The best way to describe it, is China-meets-India. Typical ingredients include dried shrimp, cilantro, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, chilies of all kinds, and coconut milk. How can you go wrong with those ingredients? You can't! Malaysian food is also hearty. Breakfast consists of rice dishes, sambals, and noodles with fish, chicken and seafood.

This is not my first trip to Malaysia. I had the privilege of coming here two years ago, around the same time of year. As I walked the streets, I remembered my first experience with food here two years ago. I vividly remember asking the hotel concierge for a restaurant recommendation. My specific charge was, "I want to go to a local Malaysian restaurant. I don't want to eat where the Westerners do." I don't have anything against Westerners. I, myself, am from the West! But I am a bit of a food purist. When I go to a foreign country, I want to enjoy the full benefit and pleasure of immersing myself in the local culture. I don't want to eat McDonald's, Pizza Hut or a cheeseburger when I go abroad. I want to experience local cuisine!

The concierge gave me the name of a restaurant, which was walking distance from the hotel. He assured me with a smile that I would be delighted with the Malaysian food at this place. Needless to say, I was suspicious. Sadly, I was right to doubt my friend at the concierge desk. I set out midday (it took a full night's sleep plus the next morning to overcome jet lag from the 23-hour flight) in search of this authentic Malaysia restaurant. I knew I was in trouble when I entered an upscale high-rise building that was full of Westerners. Surely I was in the wrong place! Upon asking people emerging from the elevator whether the restaurant was in the building, I was told to go to the top floor. I became more suspicious.

I knew instinctively that I was in the wrong place. But i had to confirm my suspicions. I exited the elevator and entered the restaurant. A cursory look at the diners suggested that this was not a local restaurant at all, but one that catered to a Western palette. The host handed me a menu, which featured more continental dishes than Malaysian ones. To add insult to injury, the price for eating at this fine establishment was not cheap! Dinner for 1 would have cost about $40. There was no way that I was going to pay that for non-Malaysian food.
Disgusted, I handed the menu back to the host and took the elevator to the ground floor.

My mission remained unchanged: find a good-quality, local, Malaysian restaurant. How hard could that be? I asked the Westerners whom I found chatting on the ground floor. They looked at me oddly and told me that they couldn't help. Oh, well. I was not deterred. My experience with foreign travel kicked in and my strategy crystallized. I walked over to a section of the street where construction workers were repairing the road. I asked the guys (all local Malaysians) for a recommendation: "Where do you guys eat lunch?" They immediately responded with two suggestions, one of which was walking distance from where I was standing. I should have asked these folks and not bothered with the concierge. At least I got some exercise out of it.

Anyway, I made my way to Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, affectionately known as KLCC. I followed the guys' instructions and took the escalator to the 4th floor and walked to the far end to the food court. This is not a food court filled with chain restaurants. It has about 20 local small restaurants that sell Malaysian, Thai, Singaporean, Chinese and Vietnamese food. I looked at the diners and smiled as I noticed that I was the only foreigner. I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I was in the right place. I went to one of the stalls on the right and ordered from a menu that had not one English word on it! I pointed, nodded and smiled my way through my order and was thrilled with the experience.

First of all, a huge bowl of curry mee and several little appetizers cost about $3.00!!!! I sat down with my chopsticks and spoon and dug in. The curry mee was rich with coconut milk and a range of spices typical to Malaysian cuisine (cumin, coriander, cardamon, chili powder, etc.). In the soup were prawns, bean sprouts, tiny green beans, fish balls and noodles. It was perfectly seasoned and deeply satisfying.

On this trip, I was armed with this memory. So after I got over jet lag, I made my way to KLCC once again. The experience was the same -- fun, rewarding and very inexpensive. I'm a sucker for curry mee, so I ordered another bowl. I also ordered deep fried wontons filled with a chicken-shrimp mixture and served with a duck sauce. Delicious!!!!!

After I finish writing this post, I'm heading over to KLCC to eat. This time, I'll order something different. Then I'll go to the bookstore and pick out a Malaysian cookbook.

Keep your eyes peeled for posts of recipes from Malaysia.

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