If you spend any time at all in South East Asia you will quickly learn that eating is serious business. Your average Malaysian – Bruneian ethnic Malays in particular – are eating, preparing food, or thinking about ‘makan’ (eating) for much of the day. It is an essential part of everyday life, and not something to be overlooked or rushed.
Thinking about the ‘merchandise’ travel theme on Ailsa’s lovely blog, wheresmybackpack.com, my mind jumped to one of the hallmarks of South East Asian cuisine, and Malaysian cuisine especially. Fish and seafood.
Dishes vary, depending on location – mainland (West) Malaysia, East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo), Brunei, Singapore. But there are some ever popular ubiquitous classics. Ikan bakar – fresh caught grilled fish, cooked over little smoky fires at the side of the road here in Brunei; nasi goreng, liberally sprinkled with tiny fried anchovies; laksa noodle soup, laced with shrimp paste and served with a generous portion of big juicy prawns mixed in.
But even knowing the Malay palate, I am still astounded by their love of seafood and fish as snack convenience food. Dried strips of reconstituted fish to gnaw on? I cannot even imagine why you would want to put that in your mouth! It makes my stomach turn just thinking about it! And crispy fried cuttlefish, flavoured with various added extras, such as lemon, chilli, or chilli sugar? It’s a less awful prospect than dried fish sticks, but only marginally.
Maybe that reaction is purely because I’m vegetarian?! Although I’m inclined to think that there is a bit more to it. That perhaps there is an element of familiarity and regional, or even global, cuisine cultures which come in to play. Certainly, eating out here can be a bit of a challenge at times for vegetarians. The idea of marking menu items with a V for vegetarian is a very Western concept that hasn’t emerged in even embryonic form here yet!
Shrimp paste is liberally used in many dishes, as is sambal, which is a spicy sauce, commonly made from either shrimp paste or squid. And even when you order ‘sayur sayuran’ (vegetables only’), you’ll still often get a bowl of chicken broth on the side, complete with a floating chicken foot, or some unidentified offal. So when we eat out I do my best to convey my requirements and then try not to over-analyse the ingredients once something is delivered. Lumps of chicken are a step too far, but I’m coming to terms with not knowing whether my ‘vegetarian’ dish is cooked in ‘vegetarian’ stock or not. Otherwise we’d never be able to eat out, and I think an important part of embracing the country you live in is dining out, watching the world around you, and experiencing the food it offers.
The markets and supermarkets, on the other hand, are a great place to just look at all the weird and wonderful local delicacies. Some things we’ve tried and loved, some things we’d never touch again. Take my husband’s view on chicken floss doughnuts for example. Really, meat…floss? On a sugary doughnut? One bite was plenty, thanks. One bite too many in fact! There are many other things – like the rancid smelling durian fruit – which we are still working up!
I am quite a confident foodie and I like the flexibility of being able to be adventurous. But I will admit that some of the foods out here are so far out of my culinary – and cultural – comfort zone as to be utterly beyond consideration. So it is nice to have the reassurance of the admittedly considerably more expensive, but familiar, imported goods available. For those days when sweetcorn ice-cream just doesn’t cut it, and what you really crave is good old vanilla!