Malaysian Cooking Class

Finally, the thing I had been most looking forward to–our cooking class. We were staying at a sort of hotel in a village in the countryside, in small huts built on stilts, in the style typical to the state of Perak, where we were.

The largest hut in the center was just for meeting and eating. The owner and his wife, who also own a hotel on an island accessible by a 15-minute ride in their metal boat (watch your butt when you sit down in this blazing sun!), were our guides and hosts for our time there.

Ibu Asiah and her friends Ibu Anita and Ibu Zalehan had spent time preparing some of the ingredients we’d be using in the class. They had also spent hours earlier that day making us a delicious lunch of rice with herbs: Centella asiatica, gotu kola or brahmi, henna, and the leaves of a Garcinia species; fried tofu in a soy sauce, and a spicy vegetables with sambal (chili paste.)

Vegan herbal rice with torch ginger flowers (the pink bits)

Vegan herbal rice with torch ginger flowers (the pink bits)

They also spent several hours with me watching their every move, taking pictures, asking them what things were called, what they had just added to the wok, and what I could do to help, in my imperfect Malaysian, and them answering in Malaysian and me not understanding most of what they said. Fortunately, Ibu Asiah knows so much English, my Malaysian was not really necessary, but I always try.

Ibu Anita working hard

Ibu Anita working hard

(I think it’s very ethnocentric to visit a country and not use their language, or at least try to. Even if it’s just please, thank you, and hello, I think it makes a world of difference.)

At any rate, we were given recipe cards with specific amounts of ingredients and preparation directions, which is nice. All the “recipes” I have been collecting so far by trying to talk to the locals has been just a list of items and a general idea of how it’s done. I need to go home and figure out all the details that make a dish delicious.

We watched as Ibu Asiah and Ibu Zalehan chopped onions and garlic and pounded galangal and chiles in a stone mortar and pestle.

Ibu Zalehan pounds curry paste, while Ibu Asiah explains.

Ibu Zalehan pounds curry paste, while Ibu Asiah explains.

The first dish was a pineapple curry, which used a ridiculous amount of curry powder (about 1/2 cup for one pineapple) to create what became one of our favorite dishes we have eaten anywhere to date. The spices cooked down into a rich, complex broth which offset the sweet-sour pineapple perfectly.

Ibu Asiah stirs pineapple curry while her son, Azam, asks, "What step are you on, Mama?"

Ibu Asiah stirs pineapple curry while her son, Azam, asks, 'What step are you on, Mama?'

The second dish was curried nangka or jackfruit. Coconut milk and herbs created a spicy broth for the jackfruit, which has a texture unlike other vegetables. It’s not really fibrous, yet it maintains its firm texture even when cooked, yet it’s still soft…kind of hard to describe. If you have eaten banana flowers before, it is very similar.

The third was peanuts fried in shallots, garlic, onions, and chiles. This was almost like the sos kacang or peanut sauce we have had several times before already, except it is more like a snack or condiment. The peanut sauce is the same sort of thing, plus water and coconut milk, then blended.

She gave us a small sample of each dish as it was completed, and it was all I could do to lick the plate clean. Ibu Zalehan kept asking if I wanted more, but I told her in Malaysian that I’d wait to eat with the others, because if I ate it now, I’d eat it all. At least, that’s what I think I told her in Malaysian.

It had been 6 hours since lunch, and I was getting lightheaded with hunger by then, especially after having spent the last hour in the blazing sun, kayaking with another woman, who had never kayaked before. We were having problems just going in a straight line, and we were both hot and frustrated.

Her husband, who has a sarcastic, witty, British sense of humor, was making comments and giving directions from his solo kayak in the water nearby. Normally I enjoy his repartee, but I told him to shut up, or I was going to whack him upside the head with my paddle. His wife was a little more polite. “I’m very frustrated right now,” she said. “Please don’t joke about this.”

Needless to say, we made it all right. Not sure I’d do it again, but it worked up an even bigger appetite, so I was more than ravenous by the time we had dinner that night.


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