Thursday, 6 May 2010

Beyond Idli and Naan

Fret not! You are not alone. There is a large community of Indian expats in Malaysia with most of them hailing from South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andra Pradesh and Karnataka. And though I'd in the past found most to be cautious about stepping away from familair food, they are all not just rotating between doshas, idlis and naans.

Yes, you the South Indian expat, is tempted to keep an eye out for the familiar smells and sights of food. To some of you, you may have been somewhat concerned at the onset, that living in a foreign land could mean no Indian food within quick reach. But you later discovered in your first week in Malaysia that this country hardly fits into that stereotype. Here, getting acquainted with the quintessential Malaysian past time, i.e. food (Indian or otherwise), would have been followed by the realisation that the familiar tastes of India are all at a stones throw from wherever it is you are!

Yet other South Indian expats have been timidly declining food choices that my fellow Malaysians have been pointing out over time. Sometimes, you may have accepted a dinner treat or two, realising post-meal, that neither the treator nor you, was educated on what was going to be acceptable to your palate. Those meals could have turned out to be disastrous, leaving you hungry, unsatisfied and craving for a good biriyani. Worse still you would have gone on to conclude that the best thing would be to remain safely devoted to your previously chosen Indian restauraunts. You must have made about 15 trips to Sharavan Bhavan in two weeks, if you'd done that!

However, what my point is that your journey does not need to end with successfully identifying Indian places to eat. The induction to Malaysian food that you will receive, if you so allow it, will cover the smogasboard of fascinating Malaysian cuisine. And all within the boundries of familiar meats (chicken, fish, prawns, beef, mutton and lamb). Vegetarians may be at a loss away from India, but the meat eater has no excuse to seek the comfort of sambar a day into your Malaysian stay. You need not worry that eating in a regular city restaurant will result in the unwitting introduction to pig's blood or snake meat, as some of my friends have experienced in their trips around exotic Asian cities. Having said that, a choice of extreme cuisine is not impossible to find. This post is however, not about the extremem choices, but just everyday ones.

Back to "common Malaysian food" - You can often discern the palatability of a dish, through your nose, can't you? So, to start with, remember use it to guide you to what's good to eat. Chances are, perhaps the spicier dishes will call to you immediately.

My advice is to try, try and keep trying different "common Malaysian food" like nasi lemak, roti canai, char kuay teow, mi siam, nasi goreng, rendang ayam/ daging (photo above)etc. If your saliva glands do not respond the first time, remember to start with something closest in smell to your more familair foods. These would be chicken rendang, roti canai and nasi goreng - the last of which I've even found in menus at restaurants in Chennai! Roti canai is probably the best example of something that is very close to home - it is almost synonymous in taste and texture to the pranthas you will find in India. And though your next instinct will drive you to a meal of that ever so familiar idli or tandoori roti, try steering yourself in the direction of a well-prepared nasi lemak. You may be pleasantly surprised and best of all, you'd have expanded your food repertoire.

Remember that repeated trials of the items in the above list of Malaysian choices will most likely lead you to a new opinion of a particular dish you've already sampled. Why? Because it is not guaranteed that a dish tried in two different places is likely to be exactly the same! Though a nasi lemak is a nasi lemak, you will find more than a few subtle differences from one vendor to another. This is characteristic of Malaysians who love to vary their recipes of standard dishes, to show off their creativity in the kitchen.

A nasi goreng pattaya with its eggy covering may be just about the only common denominator between the dish being served in shop A versus shop B. I've had red hot looking nasi goreng pattaya and a completely bland version. The best part is that Malaysia is so diverse that consumers who enjoyed shop A's version may be a set of clientelle that is completely different from those who prefer shop B's. And yet, both shops thrive. There is no absolute answer to the best dish.

So the best test? Your nose. If it smells good, you'll probably like it. So dive in. If your nose has deceived you once, don't give up. As your nose trains you to distinguish tastes you prefer among Malaysian dishes, you'll get savvy enough to be the official food guide for your friends and family visiting from your homeland!

So, be adventurous and try Malaysian food. Rest assured that by the time you leave Malaysia, you'll be wishing Chennai had a restaurant selling Char Kuay Teow!


LION GIRL said...

Yes, the last time I went to China for a week, we were already discussing about asam laksa, curry noodles, char kuei teau etc n instead of going home direct, we went straight to the hawker stall n feasted! Hehe.

Shobha Janardanan said...

Yeah, that's so like us Malaysians! We have so much choice and it is somewhat restraining when we've to settle for just one of the many Asian delights.

I bet that your trip to the hawker stall was absolutely satisfying!