Monday, April 26, 2010

My Destiny Lies with Legendary Food

KUALA LUMPUR, Spring Break -

It took a while to find a taxi driver willing to take me to the bus station. "It's far from here," the owner of my guesthouse told me, "so you might have to ask quite a few drivers before someone takes you."

He was right. Just when I thought I might not make it to Melaka - a colonial/cultural food destination two hours south of Kuala Lumpur - without paying a very high price to merely get to the bus station, Mano stuck his friendly hand out after seven turn-downs and said, "I will take you there."

Friendly and chatty, Mano wanted to know my plans while in Malaysia. "Ah," he said in response to "Melaka," and then in a sing-songy, bored voice he said, "Ev-er-y bo-dy goes to Me-la-ka."

"I shoudn't go to Melaka?" I guessed.

"You will be bored after three hours. What will you do after that?"

I had no answer, so I asked where he would go, if he only had a week on peninsular Malaysia. Mano became quite animated with this question. "I would go to Penang. Many things to do on the island. The beach, the national park, the town" and then he added three magic words, "and the food."

"The food?" I was awake now. "What about the food?"

"Ah, best food in Malaysia," Mano sighed, and went on to describe the Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai and Nonya influences.

I quickly looked up "Penang" in my Lonely Planet and read the words, "...affectionately known as 'The Pearl of the Orient'...the only of the country's 13 states to have a Chinese majority, giving the island a distinct character all its own. The quality and variety of the food in Penang is legendary..."

Just as I read the word "legendary," we pulled up at the bus station and a man was yelling into my window, "Going to Penang? The bus is leaving NOW!"

I looked at Mano and shrugged. He said, "Go to Melaka next time." He nodded at the man and said "yes." The man opened the taxi door, pulled me out, grabbed my backpack and pushed me toward a window to buy a ticket. Within minutes, I was on a bus traveling north for five hours instead of south for two.

I am in Malaysia by myself. After two years of traveling with friends from school and home, spring break seemed to be announcing itself as a "Do it yourself" kind of vacation. Everyone had something else going, or was going somewhere I didn't really want to go. So - what destination did I choose? The one known for legendary food. And you know what? I had spent zero time planning for this trip. After reading up on Indonesia for hours, and after planning trips for eighteen castle guests, I decided to just allow this trip to happen, with my only real goal being to eat well. Extremely well. Legendarily well.

Already I had spent two days in Kuala Lumpur's "Golden Triangle" and had explored Chinatown and Little India. I had decided - after trying roti canai the first hour, that I would eat roti canai every day for the rest of the week. I had tasted it in Seattle before (at our one Malaysian restaurant), this unleavened bread that is fried and then served with a little bowl of curry/lentil/potato dipping sauce, but seeing it being flipped and grilled on every corner was just too much to resist. So difficult to resist, in fact, that in two days, six stalls of roti canai had drawn me in. And then I tried beef rendang at the Old China Cafe near Chinatown, and I decided that I would have to eat beef rendang (beef slow cooked to absorb lemon grass, chili, ginger, galangal, turmeric leaf and then topped with kaffir lime leaves) every day for the rest of the week.

But now I am in Penang, a very interesting place where you kind of see it all: covered women, uncovered women, fake flowers laced into the pedicabs, Indian gods, steamed buns, Chinese medicine, and signs that tell you to "Come in and have your bad luck changed." I just walked down to Little India (I love those two words placed side by side) and had the best tandoori chicken and mushroom and pea dosai (rice flour pancake) I have ever tasted at a simple little roadside stand. As I am eating, wondering what I can possibly find to do for the next three hours until I am hungry again, I am thinking that I will have to have tandoori chicken and dosai every day for the rest of the week...


Angie said...

Oh, wow, Marj. The food sounds like a bit of heaven on earth!
I can't think of a thing here in Maple Valley I would want to eat every day for the rest of the week. I'm just a little bit jealous...

Brian Bowker said...

You had me at "steamed buns"...

marjie said...

"Steamed Buns..." huh? What? You are obsessed, mention of buns of any kind here. But I am scouring the streets of Chinatown for what I have read are the best. I can't find THE guy though! Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

Brian Bowker said...

"But now I am in Penang, a very interesting place where you kind of see it all: covered women, uncovered women, fake flowers laced into the pedicabs, Indian gods, steamed buns, Chinese medicine, and signs that tell you to "Come in and have your bad luck changed."

You can't just sneak steamed buns in and hope I won't notice. [I am comfortable with my obsession.]

marjie said...

I had a three steamed buns today: one bbq pork, one yam, and one chicken and vegetable. They were legendary in that they were freshly steamed, soft and pillowy. The were Brian-worthy for sure~

Brian Bowker said...

One with yam you say?? I LOVE yams, but I'm having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of a double starch bao... Was it good?

marjie said...

Yes, the yam filling was especially tasty! But not as tasty as the BBQ pork!