Seriously Slow Food

Terence working his way through a plate of Hokkien mee

 

I kissed a snail. And not in that metaphorical ‘someday my Prince will come’ sense. I mean an honest-to-goodness crustacean (or would that be mollusk?) from a plate of stir fried spicy sea snails.

I blame Terence entirely. He made it look so easy. “Just scoop up a shell with sauce, and suck,” he says, languidly working his way through the first few. “We call them chut, chuts,” because that’s the noise you make when you eat them,” he laughs. Later, I’m told “chut chutting” also means ‘kissing a snail’ in Cantonese. They taste musky, of dark water and deep fish tanks. The sauce is thin and fiery, a clever foil to their chewy heaviness.

This adventure begins at the Taman Paramount railway station, in Petaling Jaya, a Malaysian city adjoining Kuala Lumpur. We’re meeting Terence, who is the co-founder of ‘Food Tour Malaysia’, (http://www.foodtourmalaysia.com/) which focuses on guiding tourists through the country’s intimidatingly diverse cuisine. And I’m keen on exploring a world beyond gleaming food courts set in shopping malls, where I’ve been eating little besides Char Kway teow, sweet Kaya toast and steaming teh tarik, ever since I landed in Kuala Lumpur.

As we walk to Terence’s car, he explains why we’re in the more prosaic Petaling Jaya instead of glitzy Kuala Lumpur. “Most people work in Kuala Lumpur, and live here. So it has a much more local flavour… The restaurants are home grown and passed down from generation to generation. Recipes are guarded.” He adds thoughtfully, “Chinese cooks are like Kung Fu masters. If there are 10 secrets they will only tell you eight.”

We begin at his favourite Malaysian hawker centre. It’s dinnertime, and customers relax over sentimental soap operas on television while chatting with the cooks over dinner. As I watch a bowl of cockles breathe heavily, Terence gestures to a stall owner and he brings us a handful of warm banana leaf packets, held together with toothpicks.

“Otak Otak,” says Terence, explaining how the stingray is marinated, wrapped in banana leaves and then grilled. It’s spicy, with sharp definite flavours: kaffir lime, red chillies and smoky charcoal. We’re given small blue bowls of aromatic lamb stew next, tasting of coriander, pepper and golden fried onions. Of course no Malaysian meal is complete without nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and served with crisp anchovies, peanuts, a boiled egg and generous dollop of spicy sambal that stains the rice red.

The next stop is the rambunctiously energetic Chinese Restaurant Ahwa, known for using coal fires to give their food an unmistakable edge.

There are cheerful yellow-orange paper lamps dancing between ceiling fans like pineapples on parade. We begin with tall glasses of cool barley water, and refreshingly tangy lemonade spiked with dried sour plums.

Terence orders vegetarian Popiah rolls, rice crepes stuffed with shredded jicama, a Mexican Turnip, stir fried so its unusual nutty flavour and juiciness is a contrast to the crisp cucumber and bean sprouts, all topped with a thick sweet bean sauce. There’s also a plate of boiled squid, curling at the edges, tossed with spinach and covered with big handful of crushed peanuts. We also eat Kwao Teo in a glistening glutinous sauce, embedded with coral prawns. And chicken satay served with an addictively sweet-salty peanut sauce, spiked with galangal. The snails make their appearance at this stage. They’re followed by another challenging dish-fried Hokkien mee, thick noodles blackened with rich soy sauce, and cooked in pork lard. It’s a cult dish is Kuala Lumpur, and Terence’s infectious enthusiasm — the same reason I’m a crustacean’s kissing cousin — inspires me to try a few bites. Let’s just say I expanded my horizons, and then went back to eating satay.

Dessert is at a bustling night market, alive with chatter and randomly placed tube lights. We head to a Chinese sweet soup stall, featuring massive bowls from which you serve yourself. We try sweet red bean, mung bean and peanut soup, sitting on unstable plastic chairs and soaking up the sense of community.

“Indian?” asks Terence. It seems like the ideal way to end the night.

The Indian hawker centre’s reassuringly familiar, alive with Tamil music and girls in raucously coloured skirts. We’re served hot masala tea and sweet appams, with a jiggly core of coconut milk and jaggery.

I chat with the store-owner in Tamil. “What’s he saying?” asks Terence, curiously. I plot my revenge. The joys of turning tables on a local when you’re abroad!

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Kuala Lumpur: Going Underground

With Jennifer (centre) after a spectacular dinner.

For how long can you admire the Petronas Towers? Following tourist trap tradition in Kuala Lumpur, we have a drink at the chic Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the Traders Hotel, dutifully gasping at the startlingly pretty towers while sipping on over-priced cocktails.

Then, we rebel. Hop into a cab and head to Jennifer’s Underground Supper Club. We’re determined to make the most of our ‘city break’ by exploring layers of Kuala Lumpur independently. There has to be more to Malaysia than the staid KL-Cameron Highlands-Batu Caves-package advertised mindlessly by hordes of over-enthusiastic travel agents.

We drive away from the city’s sparkling skyscrapers into quiet residential areas filled with sprawling bungalows. Jennifer Palencia aka ‘Jen’ is part of the first wave of cooks in Asia opening its homes to guests. Underground restaurants such as this allow people to experience unconventional settings and unexpected food. I found Jen on Facebook, and booked the dinner online. Even as we draw up to the house, I’m not quite sure about what to expect.

Natasha, Jennifer’s eldest daughter, is standing at the door in a stripy apron welcoming guests with smiles and hugs. Featuring three fat tabby cats, who stalk around like stern food inspectors, the setting manages to be both formal and welcoming. We walk into a living room draped in golden light from chandeliers twisted with flowers. Every surface is covered with quirky knick knacks ranging from polka-dotted porcelain gumboots to a big pot flashing with tiny golden fish. As we’re assigned our places on a long tables set with professional precision, featuring gleaming wine glasses and a regiment of cutlery, the room fills with soft jazz music. The artist is Mia Palencia, Jen’s second daughter and a popular jazz singer.

Everyone’s dressed up in pretty dresses and stiff shirts. Jen’s youngest daughter is sitting on my right, along with a group of her friends discussing the best places to grab a snack after a night of clubbing. They open a bottle of wine for everyone. The generosity is as unexpected as it is endearing. It quickly feels like we’re having dinner with friends and family. An astonishing feeling in a city where we know nobody.

On my left is a charismatic young man who works for Facebook. “And don’t even think of telling me you hate the new timeline,” he groans, mock rolling his eyes, before enthusiastically helping me plot my next few meals in Kuala Lumpur. His charming housemate pulls out her iPhone to give directions.

In the meantime, Natasha arrives holding up and explaining the first course: mushroom tartlets, with buttery pastry. The evening unfolds like theatre. There are risotto balls, savoury madeleines topped with plump caviar and moreish truffles of chevre and cream cheese rolled in crunchy crushed almonds then wrapped around juicy grapes. And these are just the highlights.

By the time we hit the entrée, luscious Portobello mushrooms filled with a blend of ricotta cheese and sundried tomatoes, we’re on a food high. While we eat the main course, roast beef served with billowy Yorkshire pudding, Natasha introduces her teenage brother Christian Palencia (So that’s four children in all) who strums on his guitar, and performs a couple of original songs. He’s cutting his first record this month (I’ve been listening to him on SoundCloud ever since I got back).

Despite protests on being stuffed, we manage dessert (And some of us manage two). Apple pecan buttercrisp pie scented with cinnamon and served with ice cream. And flaky French pastry topped with vanilla bean flecked Chantilly cream and berries.

I’ve been plotting another first on this holiday — signing up for a cooking class. Jen’s tourist cooking classes are fairly recent, but have enthusiastic reviews on Trip Advisor. I’m back at her house bright and early the next morning. My classmate today is Chris, a hunky young Californian backpacker who’s travelling the world. Over cups of strong coffee in Jen’s living room, he tells me about his adventures in Beijing involving encounters with fried scorpions (Backpackers always have the best conversation openers). We’re learning how to make Malaysia’s staple dish: Nasi Lemak. The kitchen is bright and airy, mercifully air-conditioned and we cook in time to a peppy playlist courtesy a laptop in the corner.

Natasha showing Chris how to make a killer turmeric chicken

The class is deceptively laidback, with lots of banter and laughing, between cooking tips and history lessons. Later, I realise I inadvertently learnt a lot about Malaysia in the process. Jen’s husband Brabon opens by showing us how to make his ‘Fast and furious salad’, a crafty mix of tinned pineapples and cucumbers spiked with chillies, shallots, vinegar and lime. By mid-morning, there’s turmeric chicken roasting in the oven, coconut rice bubbling quietly on a stove, and we’re knee deep in colourful family history. Like much of Malaysia, Jen’s family is a mix of various influences. Her grandfather was Australian, sent to Sabah to manage a plantation. He married a local girl. Her Eurasian father fell in love with a woman of Filipino and Spanish decent.

When he was captured as a prisoner of war, Jen tells us, her mother would swim underwater to set up fishing nets so she could feed her children. Brabon’s grandfather was a Belgian soldier who married a girl from Sabah. Their daughter in turn married a Filipino man and had nine children, the youngest of whom was Brabon.

As we settle for lunch, Christian comes downstairs and teaches us how to tie a batik sarong, while Natasha mixes us rose milk, made with ruby-coloured syrup, thick evaporated milk and lots of ice. They tell us, with unconcealed pride, how Jen was Sabah’s first woman DJ. “We lived so dangerously,” sighs Jen. “We would leave the club at 3 a.m., then take a boat to an island to swim in pitch darkness.” The children grew up running on the beaches and swimming in the sea. “We’re a real Malaysian family,” smiles Jennifer. “We’re American, European, Asian. And we cannot live without our Indian roti-dosais !”

(Find Jen’s Supper Club on Facebook or call them on +60 377287909)

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