March 13, 2009
Dining in Malaysia
Many cultures bring a panorama of flavor to the table
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2009
I hadn’t given much thought to food before beginning my most recent trip to Malaysia. Yet as one great meal followed another, I found myself ever more reluctant to leave the table. Make no mistake: Malaysia is a nirvana for foodies, and vastly underrated as a culinary destination.
Whether on a budget or blowing one, visitors can revel in the variety and quality of taste sensations on offer. From impromptu roadside banquets at Kuala Lumpur’s raucous Petaling Street Market to fine dining amidst the lush foliage of a private estate floating above the city, the Malaysian capital is the country’s culinary center and can easily keep stomachs full for the duration of a visit—no matter how long that may be. Beyond KL, food takes on even more significance as a link to Malaysia’s uniquely multicultural history.
“Mom, can you pass the jungle ferns?” isn’t a phrase often heard around the dinner tables of Los Angeles, Lyon or Osaka, but in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, it’s all the rage. Those famously food-loving cities don’t know what they’re missing. Gently stir-fried with select herbs, these tender shoots almost melt in your mouth. They make a fine accompaniment for succulent chicken and coconut rice, which is cooked inside bamboo trunks on an open fire and then slid out in perfect cylinders.
Sarawak is also famous for the spices and condiments that grow in its rich soil and humid climate. Food isn’t an off-the-shelf experience here—more likely, it’s off the tree. Sweet, soft green peppercorns blacken as they dry in the sun, while cacao beans lounge one mat over, doing the same. Need some cinnamon? Go peel a bit of bark for your cappuccino.
Primitive and delicious is fine after a day out kayaking on one of Borneo’s beautiful rivers, but what about nourishment after a big day in KL’s shopping malls? It’s time for a meal at The Gulai House, a simple yet elegant restaurant that proves you don’t have to go native to enjoy the local flavors. From the light crispness of chickpea tempeyek crackers to the taste explosion of traditional otak-otak seasoned fish cakes, with a side trip to the world of perfect peanut satay, meals here are not quickly forgotten. The chikoo sorbet made me cry with delight after the first spoonful—and with despair after the last. I got a hold of myself and ordered another.
The Gulai House is found at Carcosa Seri Negara, a boutique hotel housed in the former mansion of the last British Governor of Malaya and the nearby mansion that served as his guesthouse. These beautiful historic buildings (above left), located in lush greenery above Lake Gardens, are now mostly used as venues for special events. With only 13 suites available for overnight guests, one or both mansions can be hired for the ultimate in privacy, making them popular spots for corporate parties and elegant weddings alike.
Between jungle and high society is the Peranakan cuisine of Melaka, a mélange of Malay, Chinese and Portuguese influences that reflects the cosmopolitan past of the country in general, and this city in particular. One flavor replaces another as if taking turns on your palate until, regretfully, the last morsel is swallowed. But never mind: in Malaysia, there’s always plenty more where that came from.
Malaysia Airlines flies nonstop to Kuala Lumpur International Airport from Tokyo and Osaka, with easy connections to Sarawak’s capital, Kuching (www.malaysiaairlines.com). For accommodation, it’s hard to beat Carcosa Seri Negara, an oasis of perfection and culinary hospitality (www.carcosa.com.my). It would be entirely possible to spend an entire holiday without ever leaving the premises. Damai Puri Resort, outside Kuching on Sarawak’s idyllic coast, is a perfect spot to rest before river kayaking and orangutan encounters (www.damaipuriresort.com). For more information, see Tourism Malaysia (www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my) and Sarawak Tourism (www.sarawaktourism.com).