It has been almost a week since my return from Malaysia. I remember the frenetic pace of activities before my departure. As my boys’ school year came to a close, there were spring recitals (yes spring!), day trips, picture taking, and graduation parties. On my end, I had to shop, pack, cook, and write. It seemed like I would not be able to get it all in before I left. My days were hectic but thank God, all things eventually worked itself out. Getting on the plane was like settling in for the night. It gave me time to chill out before experiencing the fast pace city life once again. Hard to believe I am now home, still dealing with jet lag and adjusting to our quiet life back here in Minnesota. It seems harder to get over the jet lag this time round. Perhaps it is because I had such a prolonged and somewhat traumatic journey home but that is a story for another post. For now, let’s get back to Malaysia.
I landed in Kuala Lumpur mid morning. The first thing that greeted me as I got off the plane was the heat and humidity. It was like walking into a wall after the coolness of the aircraft. The humidity was probably hovering around 90% to 95%. I felt my clothes getting tighter and stickier as I began to perspire. Even so it was good to be “home”. I was anxious to see my parents and nieces who were at the terminal to meet me. It has been two years since I last saw them. They have aged and grown and so have I. The city skyline continues to morph and change and has become a little less familiar to me with each visit.
My Dad asked if I would like to stop by the nursery. I am after all a food blogger and could not pass up the chance to be reacquainted with the plants, fruits, and vegetables of my native land. I was also curious to see how long I could endure the heat and humidity that threaten to engulf me, trying hard to recall how I dealt with it in the past. I am proud to say that I did pretty well, at least for about an hour. The company and surroundings kept me entertained and occupied.
The first plant that I came across was the banana plant and aptly so as bananas are the second most cultivated fruit in Malaysia. About 50% of the banana growing land today is cultivated with Pisang Berangan and Cavendish bananas. In the old days however, we ate mainly pisang emas and pisang rastali. These were eaten on their own or fried in batter known as pisang goreng, a tea time favorite. More plantain-like varieties namely pisang raja and pisang tanduk were used mainly for cooking.
Talking about bananas bring to mind a popular childhood rhyme that goes like this…
Pisang emas dibawa belayar,
Masak sebiji di atas peti,
Hutang emas boleh dibayar,
Hutang budi dibawa mati.
Golden bananas brought on a voyage,
One ripen while in storage,
A debt of gold can be repaid,
A debt of gratitude to your death bed.
This is by no means a scholarly translation but you get the gist…LOL!
The other ubiquitous fruit in Malaysia is the papaya. The papaya tree grows easily and matures quickly. They can be started from seeds of store bought papayas, producing fruits within a year of planting. It is a fruit that I took for granted until I moved here. Now, it is one of the fruits I look forward to eating whenever I visit my parents.
Pure sugar cane juice known as air tebu is a refreshing and very popular drink in Malaysia. The canes are chopped into shorter sections with sharp tips to be fed through a set of stainless steel rollers. The rollers crush the canes producing a green colored liquid. The liquid is strained and the pulp discarded. Sugar cane juice is usually served cold with crushed ice. You have to give it a try if you ever get the chance to visit.
My quest for purple sweet potatoes ever since I made those spiral mooncakes ended here at the nursery. If only I could bring some home but bringing plants, fruits, and vegetables into the United States is strictly prohibited. It was most convenient that the purple sweet potato plants also have purple leaves. Leaves of the regular sweet potatoes are quite tasty stir fried with sambal belacan (spicy shrimp paste mixture). Tapioca (cassava) can be steamed and eaten with freshly grated coconut and brown sugar or made into kuih bingka (tapioca cakes).
The next day, mom made bubur cha cha with purple sweet potatoes and taro. In Malaysia, taro is known as yam.
Next, we moved to the vegetable section. I was thrilled to see two of my favorite vegetables – kacang panjang (long beans) and kacang botol (wing beans). I immediately got mom and my nieces to pluck some of each so that I can get a taste as soon as possible. Long beans can be purchased here but wing beans are almost impossible to find. I have only seen it once and you betcha I bought enough and more!
Almost every dish in Malaysia is served with a side of chilis. In the old days, cut red chilies or pickled green chilies in soy sauce were the norm. Today, most coffee shops serve cut chili padi (bird’s eye chili) in an effort to cut cost as the price of red chilies are much higher. Kacang bendi commonly known as lady’s finger and kangkung (water spinach) are found in abundance. Both are popular and relatively inexpensive. Thankfully as of last summer, water spinach is once again sold in Minnesota. It was considered an invasive non native aquatic species and was banned.
Finally, we have the beloved pandan (pandanus/screwpine). These palm-like shrubs are liberally used in Southeast Asian cooking to add a distinct aroma to rice, curries, and desserts. Fresh leaves are torn and tied into a knot and submerged into the cooking liquid. The fragrance of pandan is unlike any other. The scent is sweet and floral, almost sensual. It absolutely fills the kitchen when used in baked goods. Extracted pandan juice can be used as a natural coloring and is incredibly fragrant.
Pandan extracts and flavorings are inferior to the real thing. Pandan paste has a better flavor but it also has an artificial green color added to it. The Indians use kewra, an extract from the pandanus flower used to flavor drinks and desserts. It is said to have the same fragrance. I have personally not seen or used kewra.
Mom also cooked steamed lady’s finger (okra). She used sambal belacan (the real thing!) for the dressing. My quick and easy version is an adaptation using bottled garlic chili sauce.
I really enjoyed my visit to the nursery but after about an hour under the hot tropical sun, I was ready to head indoors. I badly needed a cold splashing shower and a change into clothes more suited for the climate. My tummy was growling and I couldn’t wait to fill it with some delicious local fare.
When in Malaysia, one cannot help but notice the abundant hawker fare every where. Hawker food is found in the cities, suburbs, street corners, and even out of the way places. Malaysians love to eat and are passionate about their food.
This chee cheong fun (steamed rolled rice noodles with tofu and fish cakes) was purchased from a moving street vendor parked close to the morning open air market in my parents’ neighborhood. Chee cheong fun is usually eaten for breakfast.
The top two pictures show the hae mee (prawn noodles) in PJ New Town. Although this vendor’s hae mee is pretty good, there is dissenting opinion in the family as to whether it is the best in town. The bottom left pictures shows the new style popiah (spring roll) with raw carrots and jicama wrapped in nori. Not sure of the reception for this one. My personal favorite is curry mee although I can’t say I have a favorite stall as I no longer live there. I had this at the “banana leaf” coffee shop in Sea Park which turned out to be pretty good. No trip to Malaysia is complete for me without eating at least one bowl of curry mee.
One of the perks of visiting mom is that I get to eat all my favorite dishes, meal after meal. This is kong ah sam fish – ikan kembong (Indian mackerel) cooked in lemongrass scented tamarind juice, an old family recipe that I have not encountered outside. It is tangy, slightly spicy, delicious, and a breeze to cook.
I hope you have enjoyed this post. There will be a few more in the days ahead. Have a wonderful day!