Frequently, when one is comparing A to B, it’s always a case of either/or, or this versus that. It is never about both things being awesome. I think it is because we are bred to think of things in terms of conflict. But A can indeed be as good as B, if different, and it would be foolish to choose one over the other. I mean, who would choose between Loki and Thor if you can have both?
So I am here to say that — while I still love Thai cuisine — Malaysian food is absolutely, indisputably delicious. Not everything makes me want to rend my garments with how wonderful it is: for instance, Chinese-style laksa seems like an exercise in flavor layering that is unnervingly similar to how a 3-year-old puts together a sundae (let’s have that, and then this, and then a little more of the other thing, and while we’re at it, more of that again). At the same time, there are dishes that are tear-out-your-heart, stomp-on-the-ground yummy. Malaysian food is varied and many-dimensional and complicated, sure. And I’ve only just scratched the surface! The verdict, after one short trip to Kuala Lumpur, is the one that I ultimately feared: I cannot believe I waited so long to eat here.
I know our culinary “guide” May means business when she sends us a detailed food itinerary a couple of weeks in advance. She jokes about it being “gut busting”, but it really and truly is. There was once a time when I could eat like this, like when I was researching my first book only a few years ago — a handful of places, three times a day. The trick, you are supposed to tell yourself, is to remember to “graze” so that there is enough room for everything to fit.
This is truly easier said than done. Especially when you are presented with the delectable char siew (Chinese-style barbecued pork) at Restoran Meng Char Siew (13 Tengkat Tong Shin, 012-252-1943). Unlike the other versions I’ve tried, this pork is neither overly sugary nor brittle with glaze; it’s a soft, melting heft of meat lacquered with sweet and bitter from the makeshift drum-like “ovens” in the kitchen.
There is less worry about offsetting greasiness with something cleansing or tangy in Malaysia, so here you have your “oiled” rice (similar to the rice you get with chicken rice) or your rice vermicelli drenched in soy sauce and your freshly sliced cucumber and maybe a stir fry of lettuce or bean sprouts (ideally from Ipoh, because those are the best, says May from Ipoh). Then you call it a day. Or, in our case, we call it an hour, because it’s already time to head off to the next destination. But before we go, May stops to watch the pork meatball vendor at work next door. Unlike the Thai pork pellets that are skewered and then grilled over an open flame, these meatballs are golf ball-sized masses of pig, served with a burning hot pork broth and bits of green onion. They are small enough to trick you into thinking you can eat them in one bite, but big enough to turn that endeavor into a total disaster.
“You should try a couple,” May urges me, but it’s too much, and I am already thinking of the next restaurant.
“Oh no, I will die if we have any more food right now,” I say.
“Two meatballs!” May answers, before I am presented with a small plastic bag of balls that I am free to carry into the car to maybe nosh on later.
So no, I did not die, because I am sitting here writing this right now, duh. And my stomach did settle in time to sample the eye-opening bak kuh teh at Teluk Pulai (Claypot) Bak Kuh Teh (32 Jalan Batai Laut 5, 03-3344-5196). I am used to the Singporean and Thai-Chinese version of this dish, which is referred to as the “peppery” kind involving cooking greens and pork into a sort of vegetal sludge. I absolutely loathe this dish. It reminds me of Italian ribollita, which I also find revolting. Why ruin all the best parts of the vegetables? But here, they specialize in the “herbal” type of bak kuh teh, which means the greens are strewn over the top as the pot of pork is served at your table, alongside rice and cut-up deep-fried crullers (patongko) to soak up all the delicious pork broth.
There is also a “dry” kind of bak kuh teh, which was sort of a revelation for me: no broth, no greens, just a bunch of slowly braised pork bits, heavily coated with bah kuh teh spices, what appears to be the cooked-down broth, and dark soy sauce.
As full as I was from the barbecued pork, I could not pass up this dish — a dish I had previously dreaded seeing on the dinner table. Another thing I remember dreading: Chinese food, the kind that my parents would drive two hours to Cleveland for. There, at a restaurant called “Bo Loong”, my parents would get their Asian food fix while we kids moped around like mourners at a funeral, eating plain rice and wishing ourselves at McDonald’s.
But even my parents, longtime Bo Loong boosters, would say that Restaurant Oversea (84-88 Jalan Imbi, +603-2144-9911) is a far superior restaurant. In fact, it is now my favorite Chinese restaurant in the world. There are a bunch of excellent dishes: things that are slow-cooked in pots, or freshly plucked from the fish tanks downstairs, or (this being Malaysia) coated in that black sauce that seems capable of covering just about anything edible here. But there real reason I am hoping to go back is this (order 24 hours in advance):
Now, I look at this and feel a twinge. This was a baby pig. I do feel bad about that. But do I respond by crossing my arms and not partaking, basically rejecting the gift that this piglet has given us? Or do I dig in and honor this pig’s sacrifice to my stomach as heartily as possible? You can guess my reaction. It is: thank you, baby pig. Your tiny squares of skin, paired with the fluffy Chinese-style steamed bread (man tou), or chunks of fatty, tender flesh drenched in pork gravy. Your sweet little trotters. And then, yes, the head, cleaved in two and presented to my neighbor at the dinner table and me, in an unspoken foodie dare.
I nibbled at the ear as my neighbor exhorted me to dig in with my bare hands, tearing the head apart at the jaw to release more of the meat buried under the cheekbone. “Try the eye,” she said, poking it out from underneath the skull to pop into her mouth. And, well, if she went to St. Andrews with Prince William and could chow down on half a piglet head like it was NBD, then I could do it too. It tasted like nothing, like a crunchy piece of gelatin. I had passed.
This is nowhere near all the food that I had. There are other highlights: fish head curry, Assam laksa (like noodles in a gaeng som broth), various stir-fried noodle dishes, yam rice with a light, slightly sour broth peppered with pig innards. But it’s not even close to the end of the road for all the dishes I want to try. I’m no fortuneteller, but I see … another trip to KL looming in my future.