Getting Fat and Heatstroke in Kuala Lumpur, Part One

Hi! Or I should say, “Selamat petang!” (Good afternoon!” It’s 3:36 here in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, aka “KL.” Where to begin?

Let’s see, first a quick summary of the trip over. Thank the gods for earplugs, since for most of the 8-hour flight to Narita, Japan, there were two or three screeching brats on the flight, the type that squeals in mock terror at the top of their ear-splitting vocal range. Nobody even seemed to notice. I was busy reading two paperbacks and a magazine.

Then I rushed through the Narita airport to catch my 7-hour flight to Singapore. I fell asleep after a forgettable meal of…see, I’ve already forgotten it, but I am SURE it had iceberg lettuce in it! I slept for several hours, despite the almost constant announcements by the flight crew saying, “The seatbelt sign has been turned on.” There was enough turbulence to make it like a Disneyland ride.

On flights like that, I’m happier to be asleep; otherwise, I keep worrying we’ll plummet out of control and crash into the frigid Pacific Ocean below, where I’ll bob and choke on ocean waves, clinging to the life vest which I may or may not have retrieved from under the seat in front of me, where it took up valuable legroom, being afraid to kick and hoping like heck that a shark will not come up from the black depths and take a chunk out of my abundant legs, just like in the movie Jaws, which I never should have gone to see with my cousin back in the 70’s…

Where was I? Oh yah. Then I slept on the floor of gorgeous Changi Airport in Singapore, after checking my email for free at one of their stations…yet another reason to love Singapore! But I was too worried I’d oversleep and miss my final flight, so I spent most of the 6-1/2 hour layover reading another book, walking, and eating some leftover sunflower-oatmeal rolls from my chocolate dinner party (see my previous posts for details and mouth-watering pictures…wish I had a leftover piece of cake right now) and rehydrated hummus, mixed with lukewarm tap water from the bathroom. Fortunately, because I’ve been to Singapore before, I know the tap water is safe, so I ate in perfect confidence.

Then I sat in a sleepless but exhausted, groggy state for the one-hour flight to KL airport, where it took me much longer than necessary to get my bag, because I couldn’t figure out how to read which baggage claim carousel was mine, and I waited at two different ones for nothing.

The guy in charge of the tour I’ll be joining met me at the airport. Then, because a room was not yet available at the hotel, he kindly took me on a walk around the block in the heat, which was “cool” for here. That was very helpful, since I got lost even while he was showing me the way! But I kept asking to get my bearings, and he pointed out to turn left at the KFC and right at the 7-11 to get back.

I have mixed feelings about seeing all these companies in other countries, since on the one hand, it brings a welcome sense of familiarity in places where otherwise I can feel overwhelmed with a foreign culture. On the other hand, it’s not always a part of my culture that I’d like to see represented. Fast food spreading all over the world is not a sign of progress, at least in my eyes.

He helped me get to a money-changing place that had a good rate, then I went to a nearby vegetarian hawker center to eat. A hawker center is a small shop space full of different hawkers, or individual food cart vendors. In many parts of Asia, like Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, there are hawkers with moveable carts who usually set up shop at meal times or pull them around the city, stopping here and there to sell.

This one, the Blue Boy Vegetarian Center, is exclusively vegetarian, so despite the signs advertising things like prawn curry, I could eat anything without worrying about landing in the hospital after unknowingly consuming some kind of seafood and having an allergic reaction.

There wasn’t much to choose from at that hour, after breakfast but before lunch, so I chose what they had available. The young woman brought me plate with a pile of white rice in the middle, two types of orange-red curries, and condiments of peanuts, sliced cucumbers, and fried bean threads.

Vegetarian Nasi Lemak, rice with curries, and Ais Limau, limeade

Vegetarian Nasi Lemak, rice with curries, and Ais Limau, limeade

(I’ll have to add photos later, because not only do I not know how to do that here, this place is so dark, it seems more like an illegal gambling hall than an internet place, and I can’t see anything other than the silouettes of other people using their computers, and my blinding screen.)

When I asked her what it was called, she giggled and replied, Nasi Lemak. It’s a Malaysian nonya dish, which is a culture created from the marriage of Chinese to Malaysians. They took ingredients and methods from both cuisines and formed a fusion which stands out on its own.

One of the red pastes had a sweet flavor like sloppy joes, until the heat slapped the back of my throat, and I recognized it as sambal, a fiery condiment paste made by grinding chile peppers. The other was a coconut milk-based curry. On first bite, I could detect the kaffir lime leaf, adding a pleasant lime fragrance, with chunks of potato and a fake meat that alternated in consistency between dog food and remarkably chewy and reminiscent of roast pork or kalua pig, without the smoky flavor.

The final condiment was some kind of sauteed green. As soon as I put it in my mouth, I recognized it as sweet potato leaves. I suppose one is supposed to mix all ingredients together, since the blend of flavors and the crispiness and crunch of the cucumber, fried bean threads, and peanuts offsets the gloppiness and heat of the curry.

The ais limau is like a fresh lemon or limeade, made with sugar, water, ice, and tiny citrus fruits resembling mostly still-green calamondin (calamansi in Filipino.) When they make it, they squeeze the limau, then throw them in the glass. I wasn’t sure if you’re supposed to eat them (but then again, since when do I do things the way you’re “supposed to,” anyway?) So I ate one, which was sweet-sour, with a bitter rind, like any other citrus fruit.

I asked one of the other women if people eat the limau, and she replied, “No, no,” and frowned. They probably spend slow times in the afternoon exchanging stories about the dumb things the foreigners do and ask. Oh well.

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