On buying a guide book my first port of call is always the “F” section of the index. On a recent trip to Malaysia I followed this same rule. Whereas before I would then make a list of all the dishes I was to try, all the time salivating with anticipation, I became extremely confused and frustrated at the ambiguity and random nature of the food described. I needed more information, more research in order to fully understand and appreciate what was to become such a massive part of my trip.
So, the venue – the world famous hawker stalls of Malaysia are a perfect way to sample local culinary delights. Their friendly family atmosphere and freshly cooked snacks usually entertain both locals and tourists alike. Learning a few local customs beforehand however goes a long way.
I decided to start with the basics – eating etiquette. As a six foot, red haired trekker with a huge rucksack and zinc cream smothered over my face, being inconspicuous is never going to be an easy task, especially in Malaysian hawker stalls. However, in order to avoid offending the locals in the hawker stalls I sought to learn a few simple Malaysian rules of thumb.
As with many Asian countries, one of the most important rules is the use of the right hand to eat. It is a massive faux-pas to use the left as this is used for other, very different things. It’s quite simple to get the hang of really, even for a left-hander, especially when you consider how many forks are used to eat the wrong courses in England every day!
So, simple eating etiquette is sorted. We are almost ready to dig in, guns blazing, raring to consume something you just cannot find in Tescos. This brings me back to my original dilemma – what exactly is ‘Malaysian Cuisine’. Many dishes in Malaysia have been derived from multiple ethnic influences from Indian curries to Chinese noodles. The combination of these influences have created some bizarre yet delightful, weird yet wonderful dishes where the only restriction is the chefs imagination. The question is, what to try and arguably what not to.
I’ve decided to concentrate on ‘Nasi Lemak’. It has been dubbed, ‘The Unofficial National Dish Of Malaysia’, and the name is translated in English as – “rice in fat”. I don’t know about you, but that certainly does not scream “DEVOUR ME”! The basic dish consists of rice cooked in coconut milk served with cucumber slices, dried anchovies, roasted peanuts, hard boiled egg, pickled vegetables or ‘achar’, and a hot spicy sauce – arguably a pretty random mix. It makes our once long-standing national dish in the UK of fish and chips sound slightly bland I think you’ll agree. As bizarre a combination it sounds, I found it delicious. It demonstrates the essence of Malaysian cuisine and the unusual combinations involved.
Malaysian cuisine is proof for me that the food of a nation really can represent the diversity of its people. We hear so much in the media about ‘fusion cooking’ and the art of combining different elements to create a ‘crazy’ and ‘never-been-done’ dish, especially using Asian cuisine. My guess is that the dishes we see as “odd combinations” and “innovative styles” in the West have probably been sold as standard fare for decades in a Malaysian hawker stall somewhere!
Eating different foods and trying local specialties in different countries is an all-embracing experience. The interaction we encounter with the vendor and fellow customers whilst sampling one of the few things we can all relate to can be one of the most rewarding and daring episodes of travel! Food can be a means of bridging any perceived cultural divide. For me, food is exactly this and more – a perfect excuse to explore the culinary and social delights of a country. It’s an experience in itself. Perhaps that’s the real culture shock we could perhaps feel. Not that the food isn’t what we’re used to at home, but the fact that we’re not used to eating as a social event, too used to TV dinners inside our warm houses, insulated from our communities outside.
This for me is the epitome of the travel eating experience, and a testament to the discovery, intrigue and pure multi-sensory pleasure involved in trying new types of food whilst travelling. Sometimes, it just takes a far more gutsy approach!