Monday, May 3, 2010

Economy Rice

Dripping with sweat is a theme explored from many different points of view in Malaysia. There's taking a short walk outside around noon time sweating which engulfs the forehead and neck mainly. If you have a backpack on your shirt is ruined for the day. There's also sitting by the pool sweating, where the intensity of the sun beating down on a perfectly still body will leave a fine layer of perspiration on your arms and legs. Jumping in the pool only helps momentarily before the cycle begins a new. One of the worst is sweating while you eat. Hot, spicy food renders the entire body damp instantly. At this very moment, even after a torrential downpour of epic proportions one would expect to cool things down a bit, I'm dripping with sweat while punching out this blog post.

It was something all together different when I found myself in the Kuala Lumpur airport a few days ago clutching my left cargo pocket repeatedly feeling for something not there. There was a split second where the world around me went quiet and the coolness I had been experiencing up to that moment abruptly turned to nervous tension and swollen rivulets of perspiration running down my face in every direction. In the place were I always keep a pouch containing traveler's cheques, cash, credit cards and my passport, was nothing. Sounds awful, I know. But let's back track for a moment and talk about what all happened before I found myself in this precarious situation and why spending a few extra days in Malaysia turned out not to be an out and out loss.

I hopped over to Malaysia from Vietnam and headed straight for the beach resort town of Batu Ferrenghi on the island of Penang. Penang is the birthplace of Hawker Stalls - a staple of street-eating on the Malaysian peninsula - and is generally recognized as having the best food around. On top of that the eats are cheap in a way you might not be able to imagine, and I had secured a complimentary place to stay. I was invited by my friends Jack & Meghan Yoss to join them in their rented condo, and for the first time since I began traveling I did not much of anything for an entire week. Only after sleeping late and lounging by the pool for a while would we make an effort to get up and search out dinner. Let me try and sum up what eating in Malaysia is like for the adventurous: If there is one place on earth that can truly please everyone, then it must be Malaysia. A veritable crossroads of gustatory culture, Malaysia had my head spinning seven ways from Sunday. Normally indecisive when it comes to dinner choices, I effectively gave up and just tried everything I could fit into a sitting. I'm still trying to process it all, but here's an idea of what sorts of food were laid out before me. Malaysia boasts many different influences to it's cuisine, so naturally each will be represented individually here and there. Indian and Chinese foods are dominant, but the trade route history of the area weaves in many other ethnic variations such as Thai and Portuguese. Where they all meet is at the economy rice tables. At first I skipped over these buffets while I was basking in the glory of fresh fish grilled in banana leaves, kway teow noodles, and of course, fried chicken - a highlight of Penang - only on Saturdays. When choosing became too difficult though, I made a plate of rice with a few selections of uniquely Malay preparations a part of my daily routine. This continued in Kuala Lumpur where the missing passport incident extended my stay. There are always an endless array of curries to choose from with beef, chicken and lamb varieties. Lamb stomach curry was a high point for me. Always a number vegetable dishes to balance out the plate as well. Whole hard boiled eggs also feature prominently in a way I had not seen before. Whether it was chicken, quail or both - the eggs were served in a masala sauce and cooked perfectly throughout. It was like egg salas, without chopping up the eggs. Another feature of the economy stalls, especially in Kuala Lumpur, is roti. The dough is stretched incredibly thin in a reverse pizza toss of sorts. It's more like they are slapping it against the table. Then it's brushed with ghee, folded over on itself a few times and cooked on a blazing hot griddle. Served with a little bowl of sauce from one of the many curries, a roti became my morning meal in KL, along with a cup of sweet coffee. A heaping plate of local food at a local price, while immersed in local chatter epitomizes what travel is all about for me.

So that is how it's been each and every day for me here, trying to decide what to try next and seeing how many different salads and curries I can fit on top of a pile of rice. I was initially disappointed that I would have to stay a whole weekend before having a chance to get into the embassy and replace my passport, but in the end it provided me an opportunity to relax in a magnificent and impressive city. I settled into a little routine and it felt nice to have a moment of life not devoted to sight seeing or moving on to the next location. The State Department came through for me and hooked up a new passport. I secured a new plane ticket and tomorrow I'll press on. It's interesting to note however, that the last thee days in Malaysia that were imposed on my by a pickpocket while riding the mono-rail, were in some ways the best I spent here. I even found myself thinking that Kuala Lumpur would be a really nice city to live and work in. It's modern and exciting with captivating architecture and efficient mass transit. Culture is everywhere and the food, of course, is great. If only it weren't so unbearably hot all of the time. I can only drip with sweat for so long before I begin to miss the cooler seasons.

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