As you may have picked up in the last blog, we are finding Malaysians to be simply some of the friendliest people on the planet. From the charming ladies at George Town Tourist Information to our ‘Workaway’ host Krish and his liberal top-ups of whiskey in the Cameron Highlands. Krish, a retired bank manager, bought De Native as a place to meet travellers and enjoy their company with his buddies, Velu, Cochi and Kannan who together make up an outstanding collection of ‘older men behaving badly’… They loved a glass or two at the fire and now and again would get the munchies. Some delectable curries and surprising dishes resulted. On one memorable occasion a friend drove up from Kuala Lumpur with an icebox full of blue crabs and ray wings. The barbeque was lit at 1am and an early morning feast ensued.
One of Malaysia’s greatest passions is certainly food and the national cuisine is a fine mish-mash of Malay, Chinese and Indian with jollops of everywhere else thrown in when it suits. Malays talk about food the way the English talk about weather. The main topic of conversation for Malays at breakfast is nearly always ‘what’s on for lunch!’ On our way back to George Town we took a break from Workaway for a few days in the city of Ipoh. Before leaving De Native we asked Velu for some recommendations on what to see and do at Ipoh. “Try the boiled chicken and beansprouts, Ipoh’s famous for it” was his reply, “Oh, and the Soybean milk…” This was the entrée to a rather splendid little city, one of those places we’d never previously heard of and now we wonder why? With a compact city centre and easy sprawl streets lined with more of those five-foot walkways and yet another art trail to meander, we quickly settled in for the next installment of this phase of our adventures, which we have now entitled “Om, nom, nom; munching our way through Malaysia.”
The boiled chicken looked distinctly unappetizing; pasty-looking whole chicken boiled in a watery broth, carved up and served with a side of equally pasty-looking stir-fried beansprouts. Our noses said otherwise and the final tasting was delectable to the point that we wondered would they really think we were greedy gannets if we ordered another plate or two? Honestly, even sitting here writing about that simple repast has set my taste buds flowing. Ipoh yielded other culinary surprises including biscuit shops selling a delectable peanut brittle and another Ipoh specialty, chicken biscuits named after a cook at the Chengzhu Restaurant in Guangzhou, China, called Siu Fung, which means ‘Small Phoenix’ (stop sniggering at the back there…). Apparently, in Cantonese, Siu Fung is also the slang term for a small chicken, hence his name was applied to his very own biscuity invention. The flat crispy biscuits are typically made from lard, ‘nam yue’ (fermented beancurd), maltose, sugar, candied melon, 5-spice powder, and sesame seeds, all seasoned with a pinch of garlic and salt and bound together by egg before baking and not a chicken in sight. The result is a sweet and savoury treat that went quite well with a cuppa back at the hotel.
Much as we could have lingered in Ipoh to explore its many options for expanding our waistlines we had that appointment with Nazlina back in George Town, where our next ‘Workaway’ experience awaited, as we became little helpers in her world-famous cookery school. The ‘Spice Station’ located in the heart of the old town, next to Campbell Street wet-market has been operating for the past seven years. Nazlina Hussin was waiting to greet us and bid us welcome to her school. The bikes would live downstairs, safe and dry in this monsoon season behind roller doors while we moved in to the small bedroom upstairs adjacent to the school with free use of the kitchen to cook in the evening on the odd occasion when we were not stuffed to the gills from the days activities. Nazlina lives on the other side of Penang so we received simple instructions on how to set up the class for an early 7:30am start the following morning.
Cookery School Day 1: The smell of fresh roasted Penang coffee pervaded through the school, the floor was swept and mopped, the workstations were gleaming and everything was ready to go… Enter Peter Van Der Lans, a giant of a Dutchman and warm-up act for the day. Initially Peter seemed a bit gruff and his size can be a tad intimidating but, over breakfast, he set out the itinerary for the day and was quickly into his repertoire of great George Town tales. Breakfast itself consisted of freshly made Roti Canai (pronounced ‘chennai’); a stringy Indian flatbread served with a side of dhal brought in from a little stall across the street. Peter then led the students on a tour of the daily market, which runs from around 5 to 11am every day of the year. We have walked through these same markets alone and in ignorance, perhaps a little intimidated by the sheer amount of unrecognizable and unfamiliar produce on display, reluctant to waste the stall holders time asking inane questions about things we will probably never buy just to satisfy our curiosity. Walking through the market with Peter is an act of illumination making the weird familiar as we filled in the gaps in our lexicon of Asian market produce. We can now identify a whole gamut of fruit and veg from jackfruit to galangal, banana flower to ginger flower, lotus root and pandan leaf. We can spot an ‘old’ cucumber from a ‘new’ (old ones are orange and make good soup), well know the merits of your stinky bean and pick the choicest of four-angle beans for the days salad.
Meanwhile back at the school we cleared away the breakfast dishes and then helped Nazlina equip the workstations for the class ahead occasionally nipping out to shop for last minute ingredients, a sheer joy with that market right on your doorstep. We welcomed the prospect cooks back from their market tour with a chilled glass of water and then Nazlina sat everyone down to run through the dishes for the day, which were customised to cater for any allergies or special requests. Nazlina is an outstanding cook and teacher. Small, with a round face permanently beaming that huge smile, she took the class effortlessly through the intricacies of a table full of fine fresh ingredients as the education begun at the market continued and the ‘whys and wherefores’ of each recipe were fully explained; then it was time to cook. On a normal morning we prepared around five dishes ranging from Malay classics like Nasi Lemak and Beef Rendang to more hybrid fusion plates such as Beef in Black Curry Sauce. We also cooked fish and seafood; Barramundi steaks, just caught, bought and fileted at market that morning, coated in salt and turmeric, deep-fried and topped with freshly made Sambal. We learned the craft of de-inking and preparing fresh squid to make a simple dish of fried squid tossed with tomatoes, garlic and ginger all drizzled with lemon juice. Exotic yet simple salads were crafted from those four angle beans, sliced and tossed with shredded ginger flower, lemon grass and Belachan (fried shrimp paste). Each plate was a dish of sheer delectation in its own right and the lunches that followed left us pleasantly filled for the rest of the day. As the guests left we said our farewells and then set to cleaning up to make ready for the next class.
We stayed with Nazlina for a whole mouth-watering month and in that time only ever witnessed delighted customers leaving the premises. Whilst performing our ‘Workaway’ obligations, we got to know the people at the market from the many fishmongers with their individual special catches to the crowd of Indian guys who spent all morning processing coconuts and where we obtained fresh milk and grated flesh. At the rear of the market was a poultry stall with freshly slaughtered chicken and duck, the meat still warm from the animal’s body heat. Nazlina has made numerous guest-appearances on British and Australian TV cookery shows. Indeed John Torode, of BBC ‘Masterchef’ fame, visited recently to make a pineapple curry with Nazlina as part of his TV series on Malaysian cooking. You can view the full episode, which also contains glimpses of more fantastic George Town street-food on YouTube at https://youtu.be/EquLm-soBH8.
After class we had long chats with Peter who also offers guided tours of the island. It was Peter who recommended we visit the Crag Hotel way up on Penang Hill. The hotel, sadly now abandoned, was the location for the fabulous UK Channel 4 drama ‘Indian Summers’, where it provided the setting for the Royal Simla Club. We spent a hot sweaty day hiking along the route of the world’s steepest funicular railway that runs to the summit of Penang Hill. It was worth it for the magnificent views and also for the hour or so that we spent wandering around the abandoned hotel. We sat on the same porch where Julie Walters, playing the thoroughly dislikeable character of Cynthia Coffin, lorded it over all and sundry in the series set in the twilight days of 1930s India under the Raj. Sadly Channel 4 axed the series, which was originally due to run for 5 seasons, after the second season following a drop off in the audience figures between season 1 and 2. The Crag Hotel has since fallen into abandonment and disarray but the signs proclaiming the Royal Simla Club are still there along with an assortment of TV show props abandoned around the place.
Another day took us on a ramble around the Kek Lok Si Temple complex with its spectacular views over George Town but by now our month at the school was coming to an end. Sadly our 90-day Malaysian visas were due to expire so we had to make a run south to Singapore to exit the country for a while. There were big hugs and sad goodbyes to both Peter and Nazlina as we dusted off the two motorcycles downstairs and took once more to the road. We left having gained a wealth of experience both in the realms of Malaysian cuisine and in town life in this wonderful little city of George Town that we had grown to love. Malaysia however, had one more surprise in store for us. Back in the Cameron Highlands we met a gentleman by the name of Peter Yoong, in the middle of his cycling trip from Penang to Kuala Lumpur on a little Brompton folding bicycle. Peter runs a guesthouse in the city of Puchong, not far from Kuala Lumpur and is preparing to cycle around the world. He invited us to stop by on our way south. But this is Malaysia so it our visit became yet another foray into fabulous food. Within seconds of rolling up at the door we were hailed by the time-honoured Malaysian greeting ‘have you eaten yet?’ It doesn’t really matter if you have or not as a feast is invariably standing by… in this case a luscious dinner of Tilapia fish steamed in Miso paste accompanied by a delicious battered pumpkin dish drizzled with Soy Sauce. We will forever remember our Malaysian days by neither name nor date but simply by what we ate. The following morning we visited a local market for an Indian breakfast of Roti and Dhosas and later dined at a clay-pot chicken stall for an ambrosial chicken and rice stew. Peter and Alice were excellent hosts throughout and we left wishing our two-night stopover could have been longer. However the time on those Malay visas was fast running out so there was nothing else for it but to head to Singapore…
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Ipoh and George Town