MALAYSIA REPORTBACK FOR FIRST TIMERS
I have decided to report back on my first trip to Malaysia in two parts – the first one here (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/624461), with specific restaurant recs, but also post advice which I found helpful (or would have found helpful!) before embarking on my first trip, because I am no means an expert on Malaysia or its food, and I found a lot of the recs on this board are understandably aimed at expats or Malaysians who are well versed in the cuisine and know exactly what they’re after. Not that it doesn’t make for interesting reading, but I found a lot of it too specific for someone looking for a broad experience in a short period of time. And before this trip I’d only eaten Malaysian food once in Philly in 2006, and a roti canai at a Malaysian Airlines stall at a tourism convention. Deeply experienced, indeed!
My advice for first timers:
- Read as much about the cuisine in general before you go. Very general chowhound posts explaining flavours or unusual ingredients or national dishes are really good at giving a feel. Good guidebooks should have a food glossary – I recommend Lonely Planet, which seemed the most enthusiastic (rather than objective) about the food.
- By all means, take restaurant recommendations from here and people you know. But don’t get overly attached to them. Factor in the monsoon rains, the 90% humidity, the temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius) – hunting for a specific hole-in-the-wall in a hard-to-get-to place is more likely to stress you out than fulfil you. Focus on advice we doesn’t rely on one specific noodle maker being there on Thursday evenings – general food locations like food markets, or dishes to look out for.
- Avoid any sort of recommendation that involves “Just tell the concierge/taxi driver the name and they’ll know where to take you” or scribbled directions in another language. The taxi driver will not have heard of it, won’t understand you, or will take you to his wife’s brother-in-law’s seafood shack/noodle stand instead. For scribbled directions, you will be pointed in the wrong direction, or be told that ‘whoever wrote this doesn’t speak Mandarin/Tamil/Malay properly”. Seriously. Not. Worth. The. Stress. Get a proper address, or don’t bother.
- Don’t stress too much about going to the ‘best’ place for nasi lemak/frog porridge/insert famed dish here. The food in general is of incredibly high standards pretty much everywhere, and you can get a damn good dish of whatever at most hawker stands and food markets. Good enough at least for someone who wants to try a dish for the first time. Because I felt like the subtlety people talk about for specific dishes here is beyond my inexperienced palate. I found the whole country a flavour explosion but I certainly didn’t have enough experience to know the difference between an amazing nasi goring and a superlative nasi goring. And the times I went hunting for the superlative version (as s rule, off the beaten track, far away, and only open at a specific time) as recommended here, I really couldn’t tell the difference between that and the version I’d eaten at a hawker stall across the road from my hotel.
- Similarly, I feel the chowhound focus is often on eating widely, at the cost of eating deeply. Some of my best food memories are of places we went back to, again and again. Because they were convenient, but also because they were delicious. We’d often eat the same dish repeatedly, but we always made room for nibbling our way through the menu, and got to know the waitstaff and the cooks (who got to know our tastes, recommend new dishes, etc), and feel a bit more like regulars than tourists usually do.
- I know your doctor/mother/best friend told you not to drink the water and eat the ice, but you need to get over that, pronto. In the incredible heat, the only way to stay human is to drink as much as possible, as cold as possible. I was impressed by the general hygiene of even the lowliest hawker shack, I ate and drank whatever I want, and did not get sick. I think the chance of getting food poisoning is higher at a restaurant in my hometown, where I can’t see someone sneezing into my dish behind the kitchen’s closed doors. But back to the drinks – no one on this board warned me about how amazing the drinks are. Every fruit known to man, stuck in a blender in front of you and then poured over ice. Frozen green coconuts. Sugar cane, freshly pulped. Tea, milo, coffee – all over ice. Add cendol and ABC to the mix, too. The drinks are AMAZING and everywhere and cheap. I almost enjoyed them almost more than the food.
- I know this isn’t very chowhoundish, but if you’re travelling with a difficult eater or child (we’ve all been there), wan tan mee, dry, (you have to ask for it to be served dry) is universally pleasurable and widely available. It’s basically egg noodles cooked al dente, glazed with a reduction of pork or chicken stock and soy sauce, with some chopped green veg to one side. It comes with the ‘wet’ part separately – juicy prawn wan tans wrapped in silky noodle wrappers, in a little cup of clear broth. I cannot imagine anyone who wouldn’t like this. I know I adored it, and enjoyed sampling it all over the place.