Thursday, January 10, 2008

It's always summer in Malaysia

by Lisa

Three and a half weeks and 16,000 miles later, I'm back. And way to go, Steph--posting twice in a month (and consecutively, at that!). Hmm, maybe we need to make it one of our resolutions to have a combined total of more than three posts per month...

With limited internet access overseas, I worked on this post offline. Jetlag is a good excuse to tidy up and upload this little guy.


Oh, Malaysia. You are full of tasty food. I have stuffed myself on your laksa, curry, roti, wonton noodles, cendol, pulut, and gwei. (And even as I write this I haven't yet had Hainanese Chicken Rice or Hokkein Mee. Poor me, I know.)

Our family goes back every few years; my parents were born and raised here and all their family is still here. And even though I'm somewhat familiar with this place and sometimes even call it home, I have certainly spent only a small percentage of my life here. Yet now I see how deeply ingrained in me is the culture. In fact, I imagine it's quite possible that my love for food comes from my Malaysian blood. When someone asks where the post office is, my aunt responds, "Oh, it's by that good wonton noodle place." I laugh, because this is the place where locations that are stationary (the post office, the market, the travel agency) are posited in relation to tiny little food stands.

It's unfortunate that most of the things I've eaten or helped to cook here can't be reproduced the same back in California. I could tell you to ask your uncle to cut down some sugarcane in his backyard for you to chew on--but I'm afraid that would be less fruitful(!) for you than it was for me.

After cutting down some sugarcane and its purple cousin bamboo cane (used in teas), my uncle also uprooted a few cassava plants so that we could boil the roots to eat. This is the plant from which we get tapioca; it's similar to sweet potato (but chewier), and can be eaten savory (with soy sauce) or sweet (steamed with sugar and served with coconut milk).

Talk about do-it-yourself. Growing up, my mom--an excellent cook, I might add--often made nasi lemak (coconut rice) for us, and I knew I enjoyed the stuff. But what I didn't know was that coconut milk she used from the can was a substitute for the real stuff we couldn't get at home--the stuff that came squeezed through a cheesecloth straight from--well, almost straight from--the coconut. So, here, with a pandan leaf picked from the garden, tied into a knot, and thrown into the rice pot with a pinch of salt to bring the flavors out we were set.

But really, despite all this good food people here make, no one can beat the nonmanmade stuff. (God, you rule.) It is so much easier to bear the heat and humidity when you realize that if it weren't for the tropical weather, you would be without such delicious fruits. Soursop, mangostein (my favorite), durian (not exactly my favorite), custard apples, jackfruit and chempedak, water apples (as I call them, but in Malay they are jambu air - which means, literally, "guava water"). Sweet, juicy, flavorful, crunchy, different. I love them all. One that I tried for the first time is pink dragonfruit. The plant's flower blooms for only one night, and it almost comes to the size of a small soccer ball; they say the fruit will follow in about 30 days. My aunt has a plant in her garden and we were lucky to catch a whole bunch of them in bloom, right around nine in the evening.

The fruit inside is ridiculously hot pink; the unnatural color would probably give rise to hesitance to try it--the plant's mode of protection, probably, but don't believe it, because it is so divine. Almost like a cross between kiwi and papaya (a funny description, I admit), its mild, sweet taste that's not too sugary makes it dangerous: don't leave me in front of a plateful if you want some, too. (Sorry for all the run-ons, but, really, there's no place for pausing when I'm writing about pink dragonfruit.)

Lastly, I had my fill of kaya, a most amazing, heavenly coconut jam. Made from eggs, coconut milk, and sugar, it is slowly stirred for hours over low heat. My mom makes the best, but she never would give me the recipe, claiming that I didn't have time to do so much stirring. (It makes me wonder if she just wants to keep the family secrets from me.) Years ago, I had resolved to learn how to make it when I had the time. And after a few weeks of unwinding in Malaysia, new graduate that I am, it donned on me that this is the time! Being school- and jobless can't be too bad if it means I have time to make kaya! I'm not yet back at my own kitchen, but please, please, please don't let me get through the spring without finishing at least one pot. I promise to share.


While on the trip, I thought long and hard about what recipes I could share. But it's difficult, really a challenge. You have to come here yourself. So here's my best: --But first, for the non-food related item of this post. My adorable little niece. (Well, cousin's daughter, but it's all the same.)

Finally, the recipe--it's cheesy, I know. (First the sonnet, now this, you'll be thinking.)

Authentic Malaysian Food
Time: 2-4 weeks, more if you have it.

wonderful friends and/or family
less than a thousand U.S. dollars (for airfare)

a few ringgit (for food)

Take a flight to Kuala Lumpur and make sure you have wonderful people on the other end to take care of you. Add a few ringgit for meals at the best hawker centers. Enjoy!

Okay, okay, I'll throw in a real, albeit imprecise, recipe.

Coconut Rice

a few cups long-grained white rice (make more than you would per person if you were making regular rice; it's just so good)
1 can coconut milk water needed to bring rice to the right level (after addition of milk)
1 teaspoon salt
pandan leaves, if you have them; pandan essence can do the trick, too (both are optional)

We use the rice cooker. You can soak the rice for 30 minutes prior to cooking but it's not absolutely necessary. Throw in the can of coconut milk. Add a teaspoon or so of salt. I usually don't add enough, so, I guess, don't be afraid to add too much. Basically, add more than your instincts tell you--err, if you have instincts are normally good. Add pandan if you have it. Push the start button. Fluff with serving spoon when finished. Serve traditionally as nasi lemak with sambal, hardboiled eggs, ikan bilis, roasted peanuts, fried chicken, beef rendang, cucumbers, etc. Or, of course, there's nothing wrong with just eating it on its own.


Stephanie said...

"durian (not exactly my favorite)"...hahaha. ummm is it even possible for durian to be ANYONE'S favorite?

that said...LOVE the post, and now i need to go to malaysia.

Molly said...

Sounds like you had lots of fun...or lots of food anyway. :) Miss ya! We should catch up soon!

jen said...

hi lisa. thanks for checking out my site, i really appreciate it. your site looks great. i plan to give it a good read tomorrow.