Looking back on three weeks of exotic and interesting vegetarian and vegan Malaysian food and drink, it is difficult to choose the best and worst of what I sampled. Overall, everything was delicious and complex. The curries were rich, flavorful and varied. The drinks were refreshing after tromping through hot cities and humid jungles.
Here are my picks for the best and worst.
Strangest Drink I Liked:
Tie: Corn Juice and Umeboshi-Peach Smoothie
Sold, as many drinks are, in large, clear aquarium-like boxes, scooped with a ladle, I thought this yellow liquid was lemonade, pineapple, or mango juice. When they told me it was corn, I had to try it. It tasted like sweet corn, ice cold, almost like the milk leftover at the bottom of the corn puffs cereal bowl when I was a kid. A nice surprise.
This was in a brand new macrobiotic, organic restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. Apple-peach jam was blended with beet sugar and umeboshi vinegar to create a thick, sweet-sour smoothie that had me longing for more.
Strangest Food I Liked:
Vegetarian Mock Fish
Chinese have a long history of creating mock animal dishes using vegetable and grain products, especially soy and wheat. At several places, we ate mock fish, which used a piece of nori, laver seaweed, as a skin substitute. Just that small amount of seaweed was enough to impart a fishy-ness to the dish and a realistically stretchy texture of fish skin. One was served mounded into the shape of a whole fish, and inside we found a sugar cane stalk pretending to be the backbone.
Strangest Vegetable I Liked:
Petai, Stinky Beans
These looked like jumbo green edamame, with a similar taste and texture to match. We had them cooked in a spicy chile dish, which I dubbed “Malaysian Chili Non Carne.” Later we pulled over at a roadside stand during one of our long bus rides to purchase and eat some raw.
Some of the other people in our group found them disgusting and bitter. They were okay but had a green taste that I would never crave again. They get their name, “stinky beans,” from the tendency, like asparagus, to make your urine smell like them.
Favorite Vegetarian Mock Meat:
Vegetarian Char Siu
As a child, my mother and grandmother put slices of Chinese sweet roast pork, or char siu, into bowls of saimin, Japanese noodle soup, along with fried egg, fish cake, and green onion. It is also part of the filling for a Hawaiian snack food from the Chinese culture, char siu bao, or manapua in Hawaiian.
I tried to ignore the fact that the red coloration was probably produced with some red food coloring with carcinogenic properties, and instead tried to appreciate the fact that because we ate it so often, odds were good that I could successfully figure out how to make it once I got home. Every version we tried at the many different restaurants had a chewy texture and sweet-salty taste with hints of Chinese five spices. I wish I had some now…
Favorite Malaysian Vegetarian Dish:
Rendang is the national dish of Malaysia. Meats include everything from beef to mutton to chicken. Vegetarian versions mimic the meats, or use firm vegetables like nangka, jackfruit. The curry is a dry one, meaning the sauce is cooked until there is almost no liquid left.
We sampled one particularly delectable version of beef rendang at a Nonya (Malaysian and Chinese fusion) restaurant in Padang, where the “meat” had a stringy texture. It was served with equally bizarre bread that was pillowy soft, sweet, and made up of column-like strands compacted together.
Worst Thing I Ate:
This notorious “King of Fruits,” named after the hard, sharp spines covering it, is so pungent that it is illegal in many places in Asia to take into elevators, buses, and other public places. The smell reminds me of rotten onions, and unfortunately, the taste was pretty much exactly like it smelled, only sweeter and creamy, with a lingering foul aftertaste. Ugh. But at least I got to try it!
Durian lovers can indulge in candy, filled chocolates, ice cream, and cake, if the fruit isn’t enough.
Strangest Ingredient I Liked:
Bunga Kantan, Torch Ginger Flowers
We have a climate similar enough to Malaysia that we are able to grow torch ginger here, but I had never eaten it until I went to Malaysia. It was used in herbal rice and other curries, where it imparted a peppery, pungent, succulent texture and taste just like the flower smells.
Strangest Condiment I Hated:
South Indian Chiles
These chile peppers are soaked in yogurt, then dried in the sun, resulting in a burnt, bitter, spicy hot taste that I tried once and never again after that. Our tour leader, however, was crazy about them, so he collected the unwanted ones from the rest of us to devour happily with his Indian food.
Most Addictive Food:
We ate a shrimp-flavored snack like this as kids, called shrimp chips, in Hawaii. The chips on this trip were plain or onion versions, made from tapioca or rice flour, and deep fried. The result is Asian potato-chip-like junk food.
“Very more-ish,” as the Brits on our tour would say. (“More-ish” is their term for “addictive”…because you eat it and keep wanting more.)
Malaysian cuisine is clearly one of the least known and under-appreciated of all the cuisines in the world. Combining thousands of years of culture from its three main ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese, and Indians, the results of this culinary fusion are indescribably complex and delicious. I will be craving Malaysian food from now on.