Wify and I recently made a trip back to Malaysia, ostensibly as an occasion for family reunion since this was to be our first trans-continental trip in almost six years, and secondarily, to relish the diversified food delicacies that Malaysia as a food haven rightly offers. While there, our primary accommodation has been the homely abode of Wify's sis, Bee Yuan, who has a keen eye for exquisite and yet affordable décor, not to mention an equally demanding palate that searches out gastronomic delights in the vicinity of her environs. At the same time, her husband, Boon Hin, took time from his hectic work schedule to be both the gracious host and the ever-ready chauffeur ferrying us on numerous trips in our food quest, chaperoned by their three affable daughters who regaled us with local tales. And to top it all, these outings were graced by our siblings from near and afar who descended on the same spot on cue.
The result is an exciting trip down the memory lane, rekindling our suspended taste for great and yet economic food forays that has long been held in abeyance (just think currency exchange). And I can find no better way of illustrating our good fortune other than the pictorial account below, in no particular chronological order.
This restaurant (or in the Malaysian lingo, restoran), sits right across from a vegetarian restaurant that we have been frequenting for dinners, but remained closed during those occasions. Apparently, the restaurant that features one of my favorite meals, Lei Cha, a taste I developed while working at the Ampang Area in KL, does not operate during dinner time. One fine morning, we decided to give it a try.
What is Lei Cha, a delicacy popularized by the Hakka clan? Here's an account of its historical origin, and its varied medicinal benefits, courtesy of the San Pao restaurant (click on the image for a clearer read). I always empty the entire Lei Cha onto the rice served in a bowl to partake of the congee-like mix, the tea leaving a lasting flavor in my mouth. I enjoyed so much that I forgot to digitalize our patronage.
This is the vegetarian restaurant referenced above. A corner lot, its relatively open configuration permits free flow of the cool night (about the only time when the weather seems comfy to us, save for the air-conditioned indoor setting) air. The service was prompt, delivering just-cooked delicious dishes in quick succession, and the price tag, extremely reasonable. No wonder we made several repeat visits during our sojourn. The name, Guan Zi, literally means self introspection.
We went to KL only once, to visit a Chinese bookstore for arts supplies. En-route, we made a stop for tea tasting here, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life. Several foreign tourists came it to purchase tea. The white pot in the foreground contains a famous Chinese delicacy, tea leaf eggs brewed in herbal concoctions that are just what the Sinseh (traditional doctors in the Chinese lingo) orders. "Kedai Teh" is tea shop, while the Chinese character for tea appears next to it.
We were treated to a free demonstration of Chinese tea brewing and tasting by the young sifu (in red), flanked by Wei Joo, our eldest child. The tea shop is stack-ful of all kinds of tea paraphernalia.
And yes, Bak Kut Teh, the toast of the Klang Town in Selangor. "Kedai Makanan" is eatery, used interchangeably with "restoran", while Tatusia is the phonetic equivalent for the name in Chinese, which means "Under the Big Tree", presumably the best setting for savoring the offering. However, being served indoor under a concrete roof works equally for me.
"Bak Kut" means pork rib, and teh, is, no surprise, tea. The pork rib is cooked in clay pot, served with the usual condiment of flour sticks (deep fried in oil) on plates, and Chinese tea served in dainty little cups, complete with rice soaked in the Bak Kut soup (that's the way I like it). The combination works wonder on our palate, necessitating several subsequent trips to the treadmill or the exercise bike, for redemption.
The Legend of Congees and Noodles. They serve both vegetarian and meat congees, and each is delightful in its own right.
On this day, when we were not observing a vegetarian diet in accordance with the Buddhist calendar, we had fish porridge (a local term for congees) served in clay pots, with home-cooked flour sticks (in a basket). Each clay pot of content fills up four mid-sized bowls; so it is rare that a patron would order a pot all to him/herself, we were thus advised by the gracious hostess.
Having dispensed with Chinese food, we now come to the culinary delights of other Malaysian brethrens. First off, roti canai, an Indian food staple that has served me well when I first left the comfort of home and the always on-call Mom's cooking for Kluang located 24 miles away from my home town, for my junior high school. It was my primary breakfast item because of its fast delivery and consumption. Made with a lot of oil, some people may balk at it. No worry, there is an alternative that is served with the same gravy dishes of dhall and curry, which I gravitated to when working in the Ampang area as my appreciation of nutritional balance grew.
Thosai is the alternative for the nutrition-conscious. According to the December 2009 issue of the SIA in-flight magazine (pg. 022), Going Places, that I happened to skim through during our return flight, thosai "has half the amount of calories of roti canai but equally delicious with dhall and curry," to which I concur unreservedly. And those are the hands of my Mom-in-law, a very wise choice by her.
Nasi Lemak, a traditional Malay dish, has found itself ensconced now in the offerings of food vendors of all races, a testimony to its tremendous popularity. The same article referenced above entitled "Trim the fat" that invites readers to "enjoy your favorite Malaysian dishes with less guilt" has the following healthier options to offer: "This dish of coconut milk steamed rice is often served with condiments such as fried ikan bilis (whitebait) [or anchovies?], roasted peanuts and a fried egg. Leave out the first two and replace the latter with a hard-boiled egg." Sound advice, but be prepared to lower your expectations for the reduced package just doesn't taste the same. I believe in occasional indulgence.
Satay, another mainstay of the Malay cuisine, is another must-taste, which we did at the KLIA just prior to our departure for our return flight. For a leaner version, here's what the same issue of Going Places has to say: "The BBQ-skewered meat is a great source of protein and only contains around 140 calories per skewer but you can have a leaner version by skipping the accompanying peanut source - the meat is flavored enough to be eaten on its own." However, I hasten to add the same caveat as above.
And the pride of Malaysian Bakery, Secret Recipe, backed by its inroads into the Asian markets. Truly Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can do credo).
The toast of Secret Recipe, the cheese cake. And the contented smile on Wify's face says it all.
The extended family gathered at the Old Town White Coffee, having high tea the Malaysian way.
Another variation of the three-generational family complement taken at Bee Yuan and Boon Hin's home (the smiling couple on the left in the front row, with Bee Yuan holding Bibi, one of the two family doggies. Try to spot the other one, Bubu).