Friday, December 09, 2011

White Coffee

Each of Malaysia's three main cultures has a distinct food style which sometimes gets mixed.  Kueh Teow is a Chinese rice strip dish that changes into something with a new twist when eaten at an Indian restaurant. 

The food in Malaysia is great. So what's to drink?  In spite of being a Muslim country alcoholic beverages are readily available.  There are all kinds of tasty tropical juice drinks too.  But what everyone seems to want in Malaysia is something they call "white coffee".  There are several national chains that base their reputation on their white coffee.  I tried it, it's nothing special.  So, what's white coffee?

White coffee is heavily pedaled in Malaysian supermarkets.  So I stood in the aisle and read the ingredients on the label.  Essentially it's instant coffee mixed with non dairy creamer and sugar and plenty of chemicals.  According to the Wikipedia entry white coffee in Malaysia started as coffee beans roasted in margarine but has deteriorated into what I found in the supermarket. 

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Malaysia Wrap

On previous trips to Asia dinner was sometimes a hunk of tofu and some yogurt and fruit from the local supermarket because I couldn't decipher the menu in restaurants or I couldn't stomach the possibility of eating dog or donkey.

I ate in real restaurants in Malaysia.  English is something of a bridge language between the races in Malaysia as well as a mark of class and prestige so restaurant menus are in English. The British had a colonial history in Malaysia so it's real English that almost always makes sense to my American eyes and ears. And the food is belt busting great too. There are plenty of Indians so there are Indian restaurants as well as those great Nasi Kandar joints. The Chinese are very big in Malaysia and many of them are Eleanor's Fujian peeps to boot so she quizzed the waiters and ordered for us off the menu. 

I'd like to know more about race relations here but two weeks won't be enough. The Chinese are the economic engine where ever in Asia their diaspora has taken them and Malaysia is no exception. Many Chinese seem to live their whole lives in Malaysia apart from the majority Malay.  Among their own kind they speak their Chinese dialect at home and among their own and English in business. We were befriended by a Malaysian Chinese woman on the bus to Penang who told us flat out that she spoke Hokkien and English but not the national language of Bahasa Malaysia.  A Cantonese man in Penang told us casually over dinner that in his opinion without the Chinese Malaysia would be Iraq.

Many of the Chinese seem to be one flavor or another of Christian, yet another factor that differentiates them from the majority Malay Muslims. Malaysian Indians do much the same although some of them are Muslim.  My guess is that the Malay resent the Chinese to this day (and vice versa), in 1969 that resentment was made formal in race riots that officially killed nearly 200.  Majority Chinese Singapore was once part of Malaysia but broke away after an earlier series of anti-Chinese race riots.

The Malay feel threatened by the success of the Chinese and the other non Malay ethnic groups in Malaysia. The majority Malay control the government and have made Islam the official state religion.  Each day the local English language newspapers are filled with domestic political stories and photos, almost always of  Muslim women politicans in their head covering or male Muslim politicians wearing their chosen headgear of a black pillbox hat.

But this isn't Saudi Arabia, you're free to buy pork, wash it down with a beer and then stumble into the street and get hit by a car driven by a woman. Strange to me, the public spaces have been full of the sounds of Christmas, including some very religious Christmas songs and displays that in the States would make the ACLU wail all the way to the Supreme Court. 

But there are in your face reminders that Islam is the state religion. In our hotel there was a quran by the bedside.  We stayed in a part of town called KLCC.  It's an immaculately tidy government created showcase mega-development anchored by very upscale shopping and the Petronas Towers, which represent the state owned oil company. There's a beautiful park in KLCC and inside the park is a mosque which blasts sermons and calls to prayer at daybreak.  Many women wear a kind of head and neck covering open balaclava that leaves only the face visible.  Women visiting from the Middle East are easy to spot, they dress for Islamic success in a head to toe in a black shroud with only a slit showing to the world for their eyes.

One other ethnic group that I had never heard of before is the Kristang.  They seem to be non Malay mutts, a product of Malaysia's European colonial past.  Tony Fernandes, head of Air Asia and one of Malaysia's most prominent entrepreneurs is Kristang.

So Malaysia has had a difficult and somewhat bloody multicultural history.  What else?  People smoke, even in Starbucks.  It gets two showers a day, smotheringly equatorial hot.  Forget about winter, Kuala Lumpur is less than 250 miles from the equator so the sun is up at 7am and down at 7pm with only slight variations throughout the year.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Penang Eats

Penang has a great reputation for great eating and I'm finding that it's deserved.  One afternoon Eleanor and I went to a Nasi Kandar restaurant on Jalan Penang named Jaya.  There's no A/C and no wifi.  It's open in the front with no door and it's open 24/7. 
Here's what we had for lunch. 
One tandoori set meal at 8.50 RM.

One lime water at 1.50 RM

One mango lassi at 3.50 RM

One Nescafe Shake at 2.20 RM

One Roti Chicken Roll at 5 RM
That's 20.70 Malaysian Ringgits for a delicious lunch for two. 
In US money that a grand total of $6.61

Here's the bill:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Georgetown, Penang

Eleanor really can speak Hokkien.  Georgetown is supposedly around 40% Chinese and many of them are Hokkien speakers.  On the way from the Georgetown bus station we were shown around town by our Hokkien speaking cab driver.  I haven't a clue what he said but he supposedly told Eleanor where to eat and what to avoid.

We didn't know how good we had it in Kuala Lumpur.  We were staying in a new 5 star hotel in the 5 star part of town and quickly grew used to it.  Jet lagged we'd wander each morning in the dark past the Petronas Towers to our roti and mee noodle breakfast at the 24 hour ever hopping Nasi Kandar Pelita, with free wifi!

In comparison Georgetown, especially the old part of the city at first glance appears kind of third worldy, grimy, mildewed and tumble down.  The sidewalks are falling apart.   Our hotel is a renovated old Chinese shop house brought up to date with solar power, sensor activated compact florescent lighting, in room jacuzzi and much needed and appreciated air conditioning.  The furniture has been restored but the wifi is weak, slow and goes out entirely every few hours. 

Slowly some of the stronger points of Georgetown have made themselves evident.  There is wonderful Indian and Chinese food here.  We haven't had a bad meal since arriving, a great meal for 2 can cost $12 US.  The city has a British history reflected in some of the street names that the Malaysians haven't wanted to or have been able to change.  The capital of Penang state is still called Georgetown and the city that faces it on the mainland is still called Butterworth.  Posted streets are still known as Hamilton, Dickens, and  Campbell.  Our hotel is on Jalan Hutton.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Kuala Lumpur: Want to Get Away?

Gosh, do I ever.  It’s been a rough year for me with a death in the family and all that being an executor of an estate entails.  It’s coming up on a the one year anniversary of my Mother’s death and I’ve overseen the distribution of house and property in the way that my Mother wished.  Seattle is cold, wet and dark this time of year.  Escape beckons.

Kuala Lumpur is more than 8000 miles from Seattle.  In flying here I easily lapped myself at more than 30 hours of being awake.  But it’s a world away and that’s what I wanted and what I really need.  To crawl the streets of a steamy tropical metropolis just north of the equator.  To stuff my face with fragrant, creamy durian.  To relax when the withering sun saps my strength. 

There’s fresh durian (but unlike Thailand there's none in the supermarkets) and I’m also eating durian ice cream.  But temps are in the sticky 90’s, the food is great, our hotel has the pool in the middle of their bar which is a great escape from the steamy streets and having the sun rock down out of the sky and beat down on my poor balding head.  To hear the Muslim call to prayer as the morning sun lights up the Petronas Towers on the way to our roti breakfast.