This post was originally published on October 13, 2015.
When we travel, we make our own waves within a new place– within a foreign culture that is present existentially beside our own, no matter how far in distance or customs. I have always loved to travel and have been grateful enough to have the opportunities to do so. Travel expands our minds and alters our personalities in seemingly beneficial ways. No matter the hardships one may face when traveling, the hardships will always make you greater as a whole. Sometimes when traveling, you may not face hardship at all.
A month ago I returned from the country of Malaysia, a destination unknown to many that is nestled between Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. Malaysia is a country of many cultures, comprised of ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indians, and indigenous and aboriginal groups, among expatriates and other Southeast Asian nationals. Therefore, Malaysian cuisine consists of a variety of tastes distinct to each ethnic group within the country. I ate many delicious things while I was in Malaysia ranging from fresh chicken soup to ikan goreng (deep fried fish) with spicy fish sauce. The food was to die for. I miss it each and every day and wish we had such cheap and fresh food in the United States!
Throughout my Malaysian journey, I ventured to different parts of the country, which truly allowed my mind and body to become immersed in this versatile culture. I went to Malaysia for work, where I set up scientific instruments in schools so students can collect data and participate in citizen science. My mother joined me for part of the trip and we began in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (known as KL to the locals). On our first night, we visited the bustling Chinatown of KL, where we dined at a streetside cafe and watched the people walk by. A monk came to our table, where we donated a few ringgits (the currency in Malaysia) in exchange for colorful rope bracelets. We dined on lamb satay and sizzling chicken with Tiger beers in hand. We ventured up North the following day to the state of Perak. As you continue more north into the country, things change a bit. The body becomes more covered. The lifestyle becomes more conservative. The attitude becomes more timid. But, the food remains exceptional.
We stayed in the town of Ipoh for two days and nights. Ipoh is the capital of Perak and is rather large in size, but is considered a sleepy town where people value the daytime hours more than those when the sun is down. Ipoh has a large Chinese population and is known for various Chinese-Malaysian dishes like Lou Wong’s bean sprout chicken or the many dim sum stalls. I tried the famed Lou Wong bean sprout chicken soup; the noodles in the delectable broth nearly melted in my mouth– I have never tried food so delicate in my life. For a savory dessert, my mother and I split a Malay pau (same thing as bao or baozi, a large stuffed, steamed bun) that was filled with chicken curry. As Muslim people only eat “Halal,” they refrain from eating pork, whereas a lot of Chinese pau usually contains pork inside. While in Ipoh, we visited a few cave temples that were beaming with energy and beauty, where we received good luck from tossing spinach to turtles and kneeled before golden Buddha statues. In the old town part of Ipoh, we sipped on the famous Ipoh white coffee and ate authentic Indian food laden in eccentric spices and coconut milk.
Our next destination was Kampar, an old tin mining town located in the Kinta Valley. If it was not for a school visit in Kampar, I probably would have never visited this quaint little town. Kampar was a booming town back in the late 1800s when tin-mining rendered wealth for the Kampar residents. After WWI, the tin-mining industry went downhill, thus Kampar lost its prominent industry, so to say. A major highway also was constructed in the 1980s, so Kampar lost many visitors that were just “passing through” in previous times. At the turn of the century, a college came to Kampar and, within the last six years, a university. Now Kampar is a busy college town, brimming with students and an array of culinary options. When we first arrived, my mother and I tried some more chicken soup, this time with different noodles. It was amazing– we even saw the chicken chopped up right in front of our eyes (and, yes, the head was still on the chicken when this occurred, though it was dead already). I could live on soup and Malaysia really catered to my preferred tastes. My mother and I tried Kampar’s famous claypot chicken, which is chicken and veggies cooked in claypot on top of hot charcoal. This way of cooking gives the dish a delicious smoky flavor and the food toward the bottom is a bit burnt, which adds to the unique taste.
Following a long wait at the train station and an even longer ride aboard a decrepit train, we were back in KL for a few days, where we dined on the 57th floor of the third Petronas Tower (the other two are taller “twin” towers), visited a Hindu temple, and did a bit of shopping. There was, of course, work involved, but I will save that for a later time (or I may not.. this blog is used to expressive my creativity outside of work, though I love my job ). My favorite part of our return to KL was spending time at the Batu Caves, a large Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Murugan, who is the Hindu god of war, and exemplifies protection, knowledge of truth, strength, and his purification of human ills. In front of the caves is a giant gold statue of Murugan adjacent to a 272 step staircase leading into “Temple Cave,” the largest temple in the cave network. Many Hindus from around the world make a pilgrimage to the Batu Caves every year. It is a place that brings your Self to the highest vibration, where you feel the frequencies of higher powers and all of those who have been in the temple before you. My mother and I got blessed by a pujari (Hindu temple priest) and vibhuti (sacred ash) was smeared over our third eyes.
Then we were off to the island of Borneo. I have not felt such a deep and meaningful connection to a place in a long time. I love islands. I love the sea. I love the rainforest. I smile at the memory of waking up to the birds’ calls and insects flying about the jungle canopy. I appreciate the sacredness of biodiversity and the blessed wildlife that I hope we, as humans, can help sustain in existence. I relish in the tastes of the fresh fish served at dinner time; the orange of the sunset where it meets the sea will never fade from my mind. We started in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the state of Sabah, which is located on the South China Sea, and met my boss and his friend from Thailand. In Kota Kinabalu, there are various outdoor markets, like the fish market, fruit and vegetable market, and the Filipino market for handicrafts. We walked through each and picked up some great souvenirs (handmade Batik items, house decorations, and the wonderful BUDU sauce that I use in this recipe– it is similar to a fish sauce), while we observed the way of life on Borneo. We watched the sunset over the South China Sea and the boats in the harbor.
One night for dinner, we had a South Indian meal served on banana leafs. Years ago when I was in Malaysia for the first time, I ate a banana leaf meal three times in my mere two days in the country. I was very happy I could introduce the beauty of a banana leaf meal to others. Each banana leaf meal is served with 4 sides (various fruits and vegetables like cucumbers and potatoes), along with rice topped with sambar (vegetarian gravy), as well as your main. I had spicy chicken for my main, as well as roti naan. I can’t even begin to describe my love for banana leaf meals and the complexity of all of the flavors presented within the meal. I would absolutely recommend you try this South Indian delicacy if you ever have the chance.
We headed across the island to Sandakan the next day. Per Google Maps, the drive should have taken 6 hours, but in Malaysia they drive on the other side of the road! This was a challange for me at first, but I quickly got used to driving on the opposite side of the road through winding, mountainous roads. We stopped at the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia on our way– Mount Kinabalu– along with a little mountain town called Ranau where we had a midday meal. We dined at a Malay restaurant and I had a spicy helping of Tom Yam soup. Tom Yam is a hot and sour soup with notes of lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce, crushed peppers, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. There were prawns, shrimp, and chicken in mine, as well. The soup is cleansing, delicious, and hot in terms of heat index; I needed to chug my drink after each bite (I can’t handle the heat like Malaysians can!).
Anyways, the drive across Borneo was quite memorable as a rainstorm started about three hours into the drive. We were driving through the rainforest, so I guess rain should have been expected. It started pouring really, really hard and I was cruising up and down hilly passes in a small car called the Proton Saga blasting Malaysian folk music with my boss and mother in tow. I just wanted to make it across the island before dark. Finally, we were getting closer and closer and the rain settled down a bit, when the only road to get to Sandakan was closed due to an accident. All of the other cars turned around and started going down a dirt road… We followed. And there we were, offroading through a palm oil plantation. I have never seen a palm oil plantation until our drive across Borneo. As many people here in the US and other Western countries are generally against palm oil production due to its devasting effects on biodiversity, wildlife, and the likes, it was disheartening to see a plantation in person. I am certainly not for palm oil plantations, as orangutans, elephants, sunbears, and other animals continue to lose their habitat day by day. The biodiversity that is lost by solely planting palm trees can never be replaced. But then you are faced with the reality of these people… Of these palm oil plantation owners, of the workers who must work on the plantations to support their families.. And you are brought to the crossroads of reality, in which it’s the environment versus the humans.. And which would you prefer? To have a species languish in numbers or to have a family that is not able to put food on the table? And here we are in a Catch-22.
We finally made it Sandakan in the evening. Sandakan was my least favorite place on the trip as it’s relatively dirty and smells foul. I did appreciate the seaside views and feel, but there was a lot of garbage both on the streets and in the water. Being the environmentalist I am, it was a upsetting to me. While in Sandakan, we did have good Chinese food, plenty of alcoholic beverages, and went to a wonderful handicraft market.
My mother flew back to the US and my boss and I headed to the rainforest for a conference. We spent four days in Sepilok, where we visited the orangutans and sun bears, attended a conference, went on hikes, and much more. It was the greatest feeling in the world to be surrounded by such lush vegetation, animals, and insects. We had a lot of traditional Malay food, as well, and were fed five times a day (breakfast, tea time, lunch, supper, and dinner). Our meals were filled with fried fish, chicken, duck, noodles, rice, samosas, and kuih (bite-sized desserts, many of which had a gelatin-like consistency to them).. All of which were spiced to perfection. While at the conference, we were treated like family by everyone there. We were truly welcomed into Malaysia with the utmost warmth. I never wanted to leave. To meet people for the first time and to become close with them over just a few days is one of life’s greatest gifts. It is very much a blessing to share in this thing we call life together, no matter what age, nationality, gender, or religion we may be and forgetting that differences even exist between us. Writing that statement almost brings me to tears. I hope those inflicted with pain, war, and conflict throughout the world will be able to have this feeling of coexistence someday.
The last weekend of my trip was spent in Malacca City, a European-style city about two hours south of KL. Malacca City was coined a UNESCO heritage site in 2008 and is filled with beautiful Dutch and Portuguese architecture and artifacts. I was by myself for this portion of the trip and enjoyed exploring the extensive history of the city. I strolled around in the Chinese artist district, visited the crazy crowded night market on Jonkers Street, walked up the historic St. Paul’s Hill to St. Paul’s Church, spent time on the riverside, explored near old cannons from the days of Portuguese occupation, tried the Nyonya food (a cuisine that came about from the intermarrying of early Chinese migrants with local Malays), and overall had a wild time by myself. I capped off the my time in Malacca City with some Pad Thai (I hadn’t eaten much Thai on the trip at all, even though I was so close to Thailand) and many drinks at a place called Reggae on the River. I hung out with the owner and his friend for awhile and had a healthy serving of cocktails with fresh sugarcane and lime (YUM!).
My last night of my trip was spent near the airport, where I had one of the best meals of the entire trip in a small town called Kota Warisan. For under $4 USD, I had a fresh vegetable soup, roti naan, tandoori chicken, and fresh coconut water. I will forever remember that meal and how, when I was eating it, thinking about how much I would miss the cuisine in Malaysia. The spices, freshness, eclecticness, diversity, low price, and complexity of all of the dishes I tried over my two and a half weeks in Malaysia have resonated deeply within my palette since I left. I wanted to create a Bloody Mary full of memories, depth of flavor, and love for Malaysia. Therefore, I bring you the recipe for the Saya Cinta Malaysia Bloody Mary. Within the mix, you will note various flavors and spices I mentioned throughout my travel tales and that are prominent in Malaysian cuisine (whether that be Malay, Chinese, or Indian). In the garnish, you will find some classic foods I had on my trip. If you interested in visiting a place full of culture, cuisine, wildlife, mountains, and warm people, put Malaysia on your list. It is an inspiring place.
Saya cinta Malaysia Until we meet again.
Mix (Makes 1 Pint Glass-Sized Bloody Mary)
- 1.5-2 oz vodka
- 5 oz tomato juice
- ⅛ lemon squeezed
- ⅛ lime squeezed
- ½ tbs Budu sauce (or any type of fish sauce)
- 1 tsp coconut milk (it sounds weird, but trust me, it’s good!)
- ¼ tsp shrimp paste
- ½ tsp ground lemongrass
- ½ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp ground hot/Thai/red Pepper
- 1 tsp ground garlic
- Chinese sausage
- Mini pau
- Cucumber slice
- ½ hard boiled egg
- Chinese celery
- Lime wedge
- Fill a glass halfway with ice.
- Pour the vodka into the glass.
- Pour in the tomato juice.
- Squeeze the lemon and lime into the glass.
- Pour in the Budu (or fish) sauce and coconut milk.
- Add the shrimp paste. Mix together.
- Toss in all of the spices.
- On a plate, pour out some salt or Bloody Mary rimmer.
- Grab another pint glass (this is the one your actual cocktail will be in) and rim it with a lemon or lime wedge.
- Rim the same glass with the salt or Bloody Mary rimmer.
- Transfer the materials from glass to glass aka “rolling” to mix all of the ingredients together nicely. Your drink should end up in the rimmed glass.
- Place the Chinese sausage, mini pau, cucumber slice, ½ hardboiled egg, and mushroom on a skewer.
- Place the skewer upright in the glass.
- Toss the Chinese celery into the glass.
- Place the lime wedge on the rim of the glass.