Malaysia: Feast in the East

By Helen van Berkel

From butter prawns to tea and scones, expect the unexpected when dining in Malaysia, says Helen van Berkel.

The Petronas Towers viewed from the SkyBar at Traders Hotel. Photo / Tourism Malaysia
The Petronas Towers viewed from the SkyBar at Traders Hotel. Photo / Tourism Malaysia

It was love at first bite. A hint of chilli, lashings of cream and rich, succulent jumbo prawns. Malaysia is all about food - conveniently, so am I.

First introduced to the prawns at the Chinese Restaurant in Kuala Lumpur's ParkRoyal Hotel, I was immediately hooked and became more and more obsessed with them with each day of my stay.

But the thing about Malaysian cuisine is there is always something new around the next corner. The country has been settled by waves of immigrants, from the original Malays, to Chinese and English, and Malaysia has adopted - and adapted - each nation's cuisine as its own.

It was impossible to walk beyond the doors of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur without coming across a food outlet of some kind.

Turning right from the ParkRoyal Suites, the first is Lust - an outdoor corner bar. But my immediate goal, though it is a hot and steamy Friday afternoon, is food rather than liquid refreshment. I strolled the famed Bintang Walk, the city's iconic shopping precinct, where tucked between every shop, it seems, is a hole-in-the-wall food outlet.

But I was in need of air conditioning so my first stop was the Lot 10 mall where we wandered through a Laura Ashley store with its displays of dainty, frilly clothing and past shelves of genuine Prada handbags in search of the promised food hall.

Once there, my first food experience was in fact Thai - a bubbling pot of stock on the table into which went sliced fish and chicken, fishballs, cabbage, beans and mushrooms. After a couple of quick minutes' simmering, I could pluck them out again, dip them in chilli sauce and enjoy.

Malaysia seems to absorb the exotic foods of the surrounding nations as quickly as it does their people and cultures. Which brings me back to those glorious prawns at the ParkRoyal Chinese restaurant - allegedly the best in Kuala Lumpur.

I would have happily sacrificed my waistline to compare it with the many, many other Chinese restaurants in the city but, without having the time to put it to the test, I decided it probably lives up to its reputation, right from the first sip of traditional Chinese tea which was a fusion of chrysanthemum flowers, wolfberries and herbs. The silk-clad server refilled our cups with a dramatic flourish and a bow, replacing every sip from his pot's arm-length spout.

With a strong Muslim influence in the day-to-day life of Malaysia, alcohol is glaringly absent. You will be offered tea in a restaurant rather than a glass of wine.

It is available though, if you look for it, and the next night we set out on foot for the SkyBar at Traders Hotel for drinks. On the 30th floor, beside an open window taking up half the wall, it offers magical views of the brightly-lit, stainless-steel clad Petronas Towers.

Next stop was the Q Bar in the Westin Hotel for a few more cocktails and some salsa dancing before walking back to the hotel through city streets packed with people making the most of cooler evening temperatures.

That's when you really notice the scarcity of alcohol in Malaysia, because what the streets were definitely not packed with were slurring, leering, shouting drunks.

Those who don't want to get too experimental in their eating plans in Malaysia need not panic.

One of the most notable wave of immigrants to the country were the English, who occupied the country until the late 19th century, bringing with them a fondness for tea and scones with jam and cream. The English influence on Malaysian cuisine can be seen at the Cameron Highland Resort, in the central Malaysian state of Pahang.

Surveyor William Cameron discovered the blessed cool of the highlands in 1887 while on a mapping expedition and was rewarded for his lucky accident by having the region named after him.

British expats would head to the highlands, about 1500m above sea level, to escape the cloying heat of the lowlands. So in honour of its British namesake we felt a traditional Devonshire tea was called for. The Smokehouse is a short walk from the Cameron Resort Hotel - although we drove to avoid a thunderous monsoon storm. This English Tudor-style hotel, built in 1939, is one of the most famous buildings in the highlands. Whitewashed and black timbered, the establishment wouldn't look out of place among the green dales of Devonshire.

Even the gardens, with their colourful flowers neatly arranged in old wine barrels, were exquisitely English.

Given a break in the monsoon rain, it would have been nice to have explored the tranquil ponds, pergolas and sprawling gardens, but we made do with prowling the dark passages and staircases of the oh-so-English hotel. Flowered chintz and four-poster beds abounded - they no doubt transported those early Brits back to their beloved homeland. The Devonshire tea and scones came with strawberry jam, made from the berries grown in the extensive plantations that sprang up hereabouts.

The strawberry plantations also gave rise to the famed local strawberry juice: nothing but strawberries, juiced and served. Delicious.

Those English settlers realised the potential of the fertile mountain slopes for growing tea and the biggest plantation here is Sungai Palas, which belongs to Boh, Malaysia's largest tea brand and part of a 1200ha expanding enterprise.

The road to the Sungai Palas plantation is not for the fainthearted. We three in our car were bemused by the speedbumps on the windy road flanked with steep drops and blind corners. We could only guess, as we honked our horn at the numerous switchbacks to warn any oncoming traffic of our presence, at the driver behaviour that made those humps necessary.

Tea drinking is taken very seriously in this part of the world. Our guide at the plantation derided the habits of tea drinkers the world over.

Flavoured teas are for Philistines: "If you want fruit drink," he declared, "drink fruit drink." The only way to drink tea, he insisted, was with real leaves - bags are for idiots - a little milk if desired, a little sugar.

Later, back on the coast, at the Tangjong Jara resort in Kuala Terangganu, I was re-acquainted with another version of those fabulous butter prawns.

It was a hot, long and at times stressful drive to reach the blissful calm of Tanjong Jara, where we were greeted with a rosella, the resort's signature drink made with extracts of hibiscus flower. There is nothing more refreshing after a long, hot dusty drive.

The gregarious chef Ann greeted us at our table and promised to teach us how to create some of her delicious fare.

That meant our next stop was a visit to the nearby Dungun wet market. Rows and rows of fish, some still flapping, were laid out as the traders filleted and chopped.

The market was awash with the odours of fresh fish, scrawny cats (Chef Ann confessed she had adopted 11 of them) scrounging for scraps, and the laughter of stallholders, thrilled at being asked to pose for photos.

Back at the resort, there was barely time for a dip in the infinity pool before it was back to the restaurant for a cooking lesson. Chef Ann had laid large woks on gas flames next to a collection of bowls with the ingredients for our lesson. The butter prawns were a popular choice and there was a jostle for space as we fought to sample the tasty morsels we had so proudly created. Our second dish was beef cooked with lemak chilli padi, washed down with more rosella juice.

We were nicely sated for a few minutes, but we couldn't help be hungry for whatever taste sensation Malaysia had in store for us around the next corner.

* Helen van Berkel travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia.

* May-laysia is a month-long celebration of Malaysian food. Visit the site for recipes, restaurants and events.

- NZ Herald

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