People here love food. It’s said that Malaysians live to eat, not the other way around. Most countries have a specific food culture, some stronger than others and some better than others, but Malaysia really walks the walk when it comes to food pride. Here, everyone gushes about the diverse cuisine and each kind of food that represents their cultural heritage, diversity, and liveliness. Forget “where are you from?” or “how do you like Johor?”, but on arrival the first ice-breaking question directed at me was always, “have you tried _______ yet?” This enthusiasm and curiosity about what foreigners think of their food makes me smile.
Malaysians are genuinely enthusiastic about their famous cuisine and that adoration is felt all over the country. From fine dining restaurants to hawker stalls with plastic tables and chairs set up by the roadside, the foodie culture here is truly something to marvel and it permeates all of its cities. There’s an assortment of diverse, delicious international cuisines to choose from, but for now I’m discovering real Asian food, because Lord knows American Asian didn’t prepare me for the real deal. I’ve taken a crazy liking to North Indian food and the amazing naan bread that’s a buttery, greasier version of the tortilla. I’m trying different tastes and pushing my comfort level with more exotic foods, but there’s definitely weird things that I’ll probably never try like chicken feet and pig intestine. And sure, there’s this craze for Ramen noodles and an entire aisle dedicated to them in the supermarket I can’t quite understand, but hey, I’ve got time.
Like in Indonesia, spice is the king of flavor, and I’d venture to say it’s spicier here than anywhere else I’ve ever tried. It’s the kind of spice that burns fast and long, not the gradual kind that creeps up on you. Oh how I love spice, but unfortunately my stomach is less of a fan.
In general, the idea of a strictly Malaysian meal is blurred. This country is a huge melting pot and so is the food. Inspired by Chinese, Indian, Thai, and other cuisines, there are never rigid walls up on a particular dish. This same fluidity applies to the idea of eating schedules. Feasting and tasting goes on at all hours of the day and night, with some mamak stalls staying open 24/7. A mamak stall is usually run by the Indian Muslim community and is a casual establishment. After some partying with friends one night, we headed to one of these food stalls at 3 a.m. for some snacks to witness late night eating first hand. As I looked to my left, I saw an entire family around the table eating out for what Malaysians call “supper.” With small kids still in their pajamas, eating quietly and half asleep, it struck me as both bizarre and funny. Apparently, this is a normal Sunday tradition for some families.
SHOPPING at MARKETS & HALAL:
As for grocery shopping? It’s not like in the US, where a grocery store is a huge one-stop shop. In Johor, I might need to visit three different places to get this and that and cross off all the items on my list. Mixing and matching is what works best for us, so reaching outside the bounds of shopping in one place involves hitting up the local markets in addition to the supermarkets. The outdoor “wet” markets are great, affordable and offer the freshest meats and a vibrant array of fruits. I love these markets for fresh fruit and veggies, herbs and spices; you can also find shark, sting ray and fresh chicken before the butcher. It’s no picturesque weekend farmer’s market though, with questionable hygiene standards, cats wandering around, and mosquitos buzzing about. Regardless, it’s quite the experience.
As Malaysia is 60% Muslim, almost everything is halal certified. Pork is not so easy to come by, but there are separate rooms for that in markets. It’s less difficult than in Indonesia, but even buying it in a supermarket has certain…protocols. When we first moved here, I had the good fortune of experiencing an embarrassing Halal moment at the local supermarket. For those who don’t know, pork is forbidden for Muslims to consume or even touch as it’s not considered halal. In my naïvety and absent-mindedness that day, I handed a fresh pack of pineapple ham right to the cashier who happened to be Muslim. She looked at me in discomfort and said, “I’m Muslim.” It still hadn’t quite clicked and I just stared at her, perplexed. She blushed and handed it back to me, motioning that I needed to scan the ham myself. And there you go, I never forgot to pay for my non-halal products at the other counter again.
With all my free time and job hunting from home, I’m taking to the kitchen, embracing cooking from scratch more than ever, taking time to experiment and create all my cravings little by little. So what do I cook at home? Well, I’ve been dabbling in my fair share of Asian dishes with mostly curries and stir-fry on the top of my list. I infuse ginger, lemongrass and other herbs popular in Asian cuisine into dishes full of vegetables and lean meats. As for Western food, I’ve been perfecting classics like pizza and baked goods from scratch. All these tasty items got taken for granted in the States just because they were so ubiquitous. Now I know if I can’t find the restaurant or bakery to give me what I want, I’ll make it!
COFFEE CULTURE, FORGET STARBUCKS:
Coffee culture is surprsingly strong here. With a mixture of Kopitiam hangouts and specialty coffee shops everywhere, it’s a bit bizarre that none of them open before noon. In light of my recent stomach problems, I’ve ditched caffeine but still appreciate a good cappuccino and the lovely frothy art every now and then. With no need to travel too far to get to the nearest Singaporean or Korean style specialty coffee, coffee lovers would be right at home in Johor.
So, what’s Kopitiam? Kopitiams are traditional coffee shops found in SE Asia, usually offering simple things like egg, toast, kaya (coconut jam) noodles, etc; Although the food choices might be simple, the drinks are less so. For the unfamiliar it can be quite daunting.
I never knew there were so many kinds of KOPI and TEH, but here’s a guide incase you’re lost like I was:
- kopi oh = hot black coffee (sweetened)
- kopi oh peng = iced black coffee (sweetened)
- kopi oh kosong = hot black coffee (unsweetened)
- kopi oh kosong peng = iced black coffee (unsweetened)
- kopi = Coffee with condensed milk (sweetened)
- kopi peng – iced White coffee (sweetened)
- kopi ‘c’ – hot coffee with evaporated milk (sweetened)
- kopi ‘c’ kosong – hot coffee with evaporated milk (unsweetened)
- kopi ‘c’ peng – iced coffee with evaporated milk (sweetened)
- kopi sterng – iced coffee extra smooth. Usually tastes better than regular kopi (sweetened, extra smooth)
- teh oh = hot tea (without milk, sweetened)
- teh oh peng = iced tea (without milk, sweetened)
- teh oh kosong = hot tea (without milk, unsweetened)
- teh oh kosong peng = iced tea (without milk, unsweetened)
- teh = Tea with condensed milk (sweetened)
Literally meaning “to touch your heart,” dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and other treats. Inextricably linked, tea-tasting and dim sum are a Cantonese custom of clattering plates and bustling families looking for a seat for their Sunday brunch. Think tapas but Asian style; weary travelers on the ancient Silk Road relaxed and refreshed with the same dim sum snacks. Here in Johor, Dim Sum is a family affair on Sunday mornings, and has quickly become my Sunday favorite, where I especially look forward to those fluffy buns and savory dumplings with piping hot herbal tea. It’s common for the server to bring a bucket of boiling water with utensils and tea cups submerged inside. Trying to drink tea out of these small cups is no easy feat since the tea is just as piping hot as the cup. My particular favorite is the buns you see below called Char Siu Bao with barbecued pork inside. The steamed vegetable dumplings are lovely as well.
MMM, ASIAN FRUIT:
I wish Americans and Europeans embraced fruit and vegetables in their cuisine as much as Asians typically do. Shopping for fruit is easy here because it’s everywhere, prices are reasonable and the quality is unbelievable. There are shapes and sizes of fruits I’d never even dreamt of until I moved here, many of which I’ll be sad to leave if we ever move. There’s the heavenly level of sweetness in the mangos and pineapple, combined with stench of the world’s most pungent fruit: Durian (the locals swear it’s good). There’s always a large range of flavors here in Asia! With fruit stands galore offering a healthy post-lunch snack alternative, munching on exotic Asian fruits is fast, easy and cheap. My mission is to get healthier this year by kicking my sugar addiction, and luckily it’s not so hard with all this surplus of fruit around.
Overall, this country is a perfect match for me and my taste buds. New restaurants are sprouting up every week in JB and they seem to have great potential. The foodie culture is growing everyday and the community for Western type restaurants is too. My enthusiasm for food has followed since I was a chubby cheeked, curly-haired kid. Googling stock photos of gourmet food helped me pass the time during lazy summers in Texas, and growing up in the restaurant business fueled the fire even more. My curiousity has only gotten stronger while traveling abroad, with each country adding to my repertoire of tastes, and I’m happy to say JB will serve as a two year masterclass in all Asian cuisines.