MALAYSIA, DAY ONE: CALL ME ISMAIL OR LEX
A slightly fraught flight from Chiang Mai meant the good people in Bangkok Airport were treated to the unlikely sight of me sprinting through the terminal to make my connection to Kuala Lumpur, all the time making audible and imaginative threats to the gods of travel.
But, make it I did and, a few hours later, I was safe and sound in my guesthouse in the slightly dubious environs of KL’s Puduraya Bus station.
A few weeks ago, I received a comment on the blog to my post about the best tastes of 2007. It came from Lex Stir, an irrepressible teenage blogger and food fiend from Kuala Lumpur and finished with the order that, if I was coming to Malaysia, I should get in touch so she could show me where all the real stuff was. So I did.
True to her word, she spent the morning of my first day in K L showing me around her favourite haunts of the Chinese neighbourhood of Jualan Petaling where we stuffed ourselves on Yong Tau Foo (vegetables stuffed with fish paste) and some fabulous pastries all washed down with Soya bean milk mixed with Cincau grass jelly.
After a brief side trip to show me where I could pick up the best Char Kway Teo on my return to KL from Penang, it was time to head off on KL’s slightly shambolic public transport system to the suburb of “PJ” state where, Lex said, her favourite stall for the staple of “Chicken rice” was to be found.
As we plonked ourselves down in front of the small restaurant which was already packed with an eclectic crowd of businessmen, builders and shop workers, we were joined by Lex’s friend, Amanda who was studying in a college close by.
Given that they were both young enough to be my daughters, I only understood about 10% of what they said to each other particularly as most of it seemed to be in text speak and, being teenagers, they did not seem to feel the need to stop for breath at any point. The whole conversation flowed together into one long sentence
Well, you get the picture.
I did not mind however and just sat with a beatific smile sucking down a plate of excellent noodles topped with appropriately chewy roast pork.
After lunch, the young folk had to head off to their real lives but, Lex made a suggestion of a place I should head to for supper which is why, a potter around a mall and a quick shower later, I was in Bangsar and sitting down in the air conditioned dining room of Rebung, staring down a plate of Malay noodles.
Rebung’s owners are an unlikely combination combining the forces of Malaysia’s first Astronaut and one of its most famous chefs, Ismail Ahmad who has become famous for his dedication to preserving traditional Malay dishes.
They offer a buffet of about 30+ items daily, but I did not think I could do it justice after all my eating during the day so stuck to a plate of Kway Teo Bandung, which combined the flat Kway Teo noodles with a fiery sauce filled with meat and seafood.
Chef Ismail saw me sitting on my own and came over to chat ordering the staff to bring me a bowl of Rebus Ayam, a deeply flavoured bowl of clear chicken stock flavoured with five spice, Chinese parsley and root vegetables.
After my meal, he insisted on explaining all the dishes in the buffet to me which he said came from many regions of the country but were all ‘poor man’s food” They included curries made from salt fish, coconut and lemongrass alongside others made from smoked dried beef with chillies and shallots. There were spring rolls being made with fresh crepes of rice flour and mackerel being grilled and topped with a fiery sauce of chilli, lime and tamarind.
As we toured the buffet, the energetic Ismail kept passing me nibbles to eat until I felt like I had eaten another full meal and was already moving my schedule around in my head so I could come and try the buffet before I leave for Singapore.
He must have read my mind because, as I was leaving, he said
“What are you doing Saturday?”
“Nothing special” I replied.
“So” He asked “do you want to come and spend the day in the kitchen with me and my team and you can see how we make all of these?”
It took me about a tenth of a second to blurt out “hell yes” and make arrangements to be back there at an agreed time before heading off for a nightcap close by in Telawi
I’ll report back. Should be fun