Food for thought part six – Thailand and Malaysia

Apologies for taking so long to get this post out, I didn’t quite finish it on our flight home and then my whistle stop tour of the UK got in the way!

Although we’ve raced through these two countries in little under three weeks we’ve still taken our time to sample their culinary delights, our last taste of South East Asia. Among the dishes that our tastebuds have been acquainted with in this part of the world are:


Thai curry
I think you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant in Thailand that doesn’t have Thai curry on the menu.
Whilst these curries share a common base of spicy curry paste (the main components of which are chillies, shrimp paste, shallots, galangal, lemon grass, coriander root, turmeric and kaffir lime peel lovingly pounded or blended together) and coconut milk, there are a delightful range to choose from. Red, yellow and green curries are probably the most ubiquitous and mainly differ in levels of increasing spiciness. If you fancy a blow-the-roof-off-your-mouth dish then try a jungle curry which has a serious kick. Other variants include the mild massaman and the peanutty phanang curries. With such an array of curries to try it’s surprising that we managed to eat anything else!

Pad Thai
This probably jostles with curry for the most popular Thai dish. Pad Thai is an incredibly quick and easy dish to cook: flat noodles fried with egg and vegetables in an oyster- fish-soy sauce. Definitely a good meal to grab on the run.

Drunken noodles
Drunken noodles are disappointingly alcohol free (yet still tasty). This is another noodle stir-fry that varies from Pad Thai mainly in the thickness of the noodles, with wider noodles and spicier sauce characterising this dish.

Tom yum
Tom yum is a delicious and surprisingly filling hot and sour soup. The fresh fragrance of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves makes your mouth water as you bring the spoon to your lips, taking your first slurp you are immediately hit by the sourness of the lime juice, saltiness of the fish sauce and spiciness of fresh chillis and a delightful warm feeling as it slides down.

Noodle soup
This dish is fairly ubiquitous throughout Eastern Asia but has only featured now as we found a fantastic (and incredibly cheap at 35 Baht – 70p) noodle soup stall. So impressed were we by the fare served up by the lovely Thai lady at the place that we ate here three out of the four days we spent in Bangkok! This dish is pretty self explanatory, a chicken broth with noodles, vegetables, and in the case of our favourite stall pork balls (made to a forty year old recipe) and wontons. It’s even better when seasoned with fish sauce and chilli flakes.


Making the pork balls for noodle soup. They taste better than they look!


Many thanks go to Pey Shan’s mum who cooked most of the food we ate whilst in Malaysia and who welcomed us into the family’s Chinese new year feasts. Everything she cooked was delicious and we certainly didn’t go hungry!

A steamboat is essentially the same as the hotpot described in my earlier post on Vietnamese food, a constantly heated broth to which all manner of meat, fish balls and vegetables are added and which you help yourself to until you’ve had your fill. We enjoyed the true family steamboat experience on Chinese New Year’s Eve with the family gathered around the table, dipping into the steamboat at will and with several sittings to accomodate all the visiting family members, guests and their appetites!

Smoked duck
Our New Year’s Eve steamboat was accompanied by strips of smoked duck. These tasty morsels of meat can be wrapped in a lettuce leaf, tempering the strong smoky flavour of the duck and adding a refreshing crunch. This delicious delicacy was definitely a welcome first for us.

Suckling pig
On the first day of the Chinese New Year we again gathered around the table with Pey Shan’s family for some steamboat but this time accompanied by the pièce de résistance, roast suckling pig! Another delicacy for the occasion, the crispy skin of the roasted piglet is delicious when dipped in plum sauce.

Chinese salad (prosperity toss)
Another special dish that we experienced on the first day of the new year was a salad of shredded vegetables, smoked salmon and a sweet sauce, tossed high in the air by all members of the family accompanied by cheerful wishes for the year ahead.

Roti Canai
Malaysia is a real melting pot of races, something reflected in its food. Whilst the dishes described so far have been mainly Chinese, Pey Shan was also keen for us to try some traditional Malay food. To this end we sampled Roti Canai, a flaky pancake type bread, similar to the Indian paratha and enjoyed by dipping in a curry sauce. Another variant (I believe) of this bread was fried and rolled into an upturned cone, draped in strawberry and chocolate sauces, providing a sweet snack or dessert.

Laksa is a fantastic curry noodle soup with a good lashing of spice, often served up in hard to finish quantities!

Rotiboy buns
The smell wafting out of a Rotiboy stall promises that a treat is in store. These scrumptious little buns are best sampled straight from the oven, with a sweet crunchy outside giving way to the soft fluffy interior and molten butter centre that will always leave you wanting more.

Theobroma hot chocolate
The best hot chocolate in the world. There’s really not much more to say as words simply will not do justice to this mug of chocolate heaven. I’m just sad that this chain originating in New Zealand hasn’t made it out to Europe yet!

And with that we say goodbye to the intense flavours and spices of Asia and look forward to a new culinary adventure in South America…


Malaysia – truly Asia


The leaning tower in the Teluk Intan Town Square, with lanterns to mark the New Year

We’re on the shuttle to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, soon to depart Asia after five months of wonder, wats, wontons and, well, spicy food.

The past week’s been a blur since arriving in KL and meeting Pey Shan and her fantastic family. We travelled to their home in Teluk Intan, a few hours drive north of the capital, a quiet town in which we refreshingly seemed to be the only westerners. Our journey now takes us to Dubai, then Gatwick for a week of catching up before heading out again to South America. We’re already planning some time on the beach to get us through the stress of it all!

Chinese New Year was brilliant, a lively buzz of colour, drumming, lions, and lots and lots of food. The festivities begin on New Year’s Eve with ‘Reunion Dinner’, where the whole extended family comes together to eat and catch up over platefuls of delicious food. We were very warmly welcomed by the Heng family and spent a tasty evening eating the collective soup called steamboat, as well as other delicacies. They also had some sky lanterns which we managed to light, launch and see sail away despite the best efforts of the wind and telephone cables.

At midnight is the ‘ancestor praying ceremony’, where respects are paid to the family ancestors, spirits represented through various icons on a shrine. Huge incense sticks are lit and while they burn, prayers are said along with wishes for the future, made in the all-important southerly direction that we’ve found everywhere in Chinese culture. Symbolic money and origami boats are also burned, something which we happily took part in after a good craft session of folding them first.


At the ancestor praying ceremony


Lighting the sky lantern

Back home, it sometimes seems like New Year’s Day is just an excuse for a day off to nurse the hangover from the night before. Not so here, where the lack of abundant alcohol means you’re not quite so worse-for-wear, and more importantly, the festivities continue – with New Year’s Day 1, New Year’s Day 2 (also a public holiday), and then another thirteen days of celebrations (alas, working days) to mark the occasion.

On New Year’s Day itself, we dressed up in the traditional colour of red (symbolising prosperity) and attended the annual Lion Dance at the Family’s shop, a leading tyre business in the town. Neither of us have ever had the chance to appreciate this spectacle up close, and it was a real treat, with two extremely dexterous two-person lions dancing for half an hour or so to ward off the evil spirits. The dance is accompanied by a drumming and cymbals, all in the Chinese spirit of auspicious celebrations being as loud as possible. Amid the clamour and brash ferocity of the lions, there were touches of absolute elegance, with the creatures variously worshipping at the shrines in the building, rearing up on just two legs to eat lettuce leaves suspended from a doorway (I can’t quite imagine a pantomime horse managing that!), and at one point turning a collection of fruit into a multi-tiered shrine with lit candles, and the lucky number 8888 spelled out in tangerine segments on the floor. There was also the very sweet sight of Pey Shan’s cousin’s young toddler being simultaneously intrigued and terrified by the lion, which itself loved toying with him. The lions themselves were a work of art, with the huge puppet heads replete with blinking eyelids and moving ears – as well as a flapping mouth to chase after the little kids!

The proceedings finished with a blessing of the family cars, with the lions ceremonially cutting open tangerines on their bonnets (with their teeth, of course), before – to everyone’s amusement – getting in to the front seat of the cars, revving the engines and honking the horns!


The lion dance in full swing


The cars getting their blessing from the Lions

The New Year is about welcoming prosperity into the household, with this marked by adults giving red envelopes with money to children and those who are unmarried. We were touched to also be welcomed into this tradition, with a number of different visitors also bestowing upon us a small red gift and hence some spending money to celebrate.


Red envelopes given at New Year

It was a great to really feel part of the various CNY celebrations, and we really want to thank the whole family for making us feel so very welcome. This is the first time in five months that we’ve really been made to feel at home and part of something very genuine, and not a facade for tourists. We only hope that we can find similar hospitality in South America – any offers welcome!

We drove back into KL yesterday, passing through tropical countryside to match the humidity and searing heat. The landscape is frequented with former tin mines, many now flooded into large manmade lakes, and others since converted into palm oil plantations, one of the few trees that will grow in the sandy soil left behind from the mining. From a distance, the plantations make the hills look like they’re covered in a green fur, with their thin spiky branches creating the illusion of soft hair. Up close, you can immediately recognise them as manmade, with rigid lines of trees perfectly spaced apart, despite a few wayward tree’s attempts to break the mold.

Almost everywhere we’ve been in the past five months, the TV has been running a Malaysian Tourism campaign, ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’, so much so that the tune’s stuck in my head. It actually feels like a fairly accurate catchphrase when you get here, because this country is quite the melting pot for many of the different cultures of the continent. Indigenous Malay live alongside large communities of Chinese, as well as Indians – both Hindus and Muslims. It’s the most culturally diverse place we’ve been to in a long time, with our walks around cities going through Chinatown, little India, and past the mosque, Chinese temple, church, and then turning a corner and finding us next to the Hindu temple. It’s interesting to see that as a legacy of the British rule (albeit largely under slavery) that brought these people together, it is English, and not Malay is still the common language that unites the different groups, with signs and even radio stations often using English rather than the official national language.

On our drive, Pey Shan had also pointed out the ‘New Chinese Villages’, ghettos created to hold the communist Chinese community and contain their radical politics after the withdrawal of the British. Those people have since migrated to the cities, but it makes you reflect on just how far the country has come from the days of colonialism to have such a multicultural outlook, along with a thriving independent economy too.


At the Thean Hou Chinese Temple we visited with Pey Shan in KL

This morning we got up early to see one of the symbols of the country’s economic growth – the Petronas Twin Towers, which are an iconic landmark of the city. I was expecting to say that they’re visible from anywhere, but they don’t quite live up to that billing – when we first arrived here a week ago, it took us a walk most of the way across town before we first saw them. That’s perhaps more of a measure of how sprawling KL is and how many other skyscrapers there are, since the towers are still pretty high, at 452m, and fairly recently the tallest building in the world.
Visiting the towers was a fun morning, with a carefully guided tour taking us round, and fantastic views from both the skybridge halfway up, and observation deck on the 87th floor. It all started a little disconcertingly though, with a hologram introducing us to the towers and an instructional video that eerily reminded me of ‘aperture science’ in the computer game Portal, where things don’t work out quite so well for the participant. Fortunately, we made it back down in one piece and are all set for the adventures ahead!

It’s a strange feeling, heading home after five months away. We’re sad to leave Asia after an amazing time here, so many colours, smells, tastes and experiences – but it will also be brilliant to see folks back home again and catch up, if only briefly. I think we’re both looking forward to those home comforts – brushing your teeth without needing to use bottled water, snuggling up under a cozy duvet, and of course the delights of home cooking. We’ve heard rumours that it might even be below 25 degrees back there, but are holding out on bringing an Indian summer back with us! Of course, having said that, it’s only for a week, so before we know it, we’ll be packing our bags again and boarding a flight – destination Rio and the energy of the Brazilian carnival.


Gong xi fa cai!

20120123-153417.jpgWe’d like to wish everyone a very Happy Chinese New Year!

We’re in Teluk Intan, Malaysia with our good friend Pey Shan and her family to celebrate the occasion, and are happily enjoying the festivities.

Last night we had a huge feast of steamboat, and we’re about to tuck into roast piglet for dinner. This morning we saw a fantastic lion dance, about more while we’ll tell you in a future post.

All the best for the year of the dragon!

Simon & Laura xx



The feast last night!