Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mealtime in Malaysia

Monday saw the launch of the 100th edition of the Michelin guide here in France, the "bible" for gourmets (and gourmands) with deep pockets and a taste for fine dining around the world

No real surprises as many of the "ups and downs" had already been leaked over the weekend, and as expected only one restaurant joined the guide's crème de la crème three-star club.

It just happens to be a regular haunt of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, Le Bristol - a mere hop and a skip (or a bloated belly wobble if you like) from the Elysée palace - his official residence.

Say no more!

Of course while many French - rightly or wrongly - consider France to be the very standard bearer of haute cuisine, or at least the arbiter thereof, with food and drink being high on any region's list of priorities, other countries have more than enough on offer to tickle the taste buds of the curious traveller.

Guilty as charged - a somewhat contrived way of sharing some of the food that passed my lips during a recent food frenzy in Malaysia.

Living in a country which prides itself on its gastronomic tradition, and hailing from one which rather lacks a reputation for culinary excellence, food and eating have always been part of the joy of travelling for me.

Trying out local dishes gives also gives me the chance to gain an insight into the culture - well that's my excuse and although it might be stretching a point a little too far, I'm sticking to it.

So without too much (further) ado, here's a taste of just one meal among many, I had the pleasure or downing last week on the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

Just sitting here bashing away at the keyboard fair whets the appetite as I try to make some sense of the long-hand notes I took immediately after the meal.

Well I could hardly sit there stuffing my face with a computer on my lap now could I? That would surely have been one step down from those sitting through a meal with a mobile 'phone clapped to the ear.

There are a few (for my chops) unpronounceable names, and I only hope the spelling is correct. But I'm sure if I make the odd error I'll be forgiven.

It was a blow-out of reasonable proportions - four courses and eleven dishes (I counted) - suitably named the Malaysian heritage menu.

For starters, l'entrée of course. Not just one, but three separate dishes.

Otak otak udang - prawn cake in banana leaf, Pai tee ayam dan Sayur-sayuran dengan sos cili - chicken pai tee with chili plum sauce and Kerabu pelam - local young mango salad.

The prawn cake won me over immediately - something of a surprise as I'm not usually a great fan, while the plum sauce was rather overpowering and the young mango salad tasted a little soapy - or at least how I imagined a bar might taste if I were actually to try eating one.

Not the greatest of beginnings perhaps, but it left room for improvement.

Next up, Sup makaman laut bersamo tomato - or seafood soup with tomatoes.

Surprisingly the tomatoes weren't as overpowering as I had feared. How come I can never get just the right tanginess when using them in soup?

And the whole dish really came alive when washed down by a cheeky little Australian Sauvignon blanc. That really was something of a treat as of course what's usually available back home in France is.....well......er.....French wine and nothing else.

On to the main course - four dishes - they definitely needed to be eaten in the correct order from the least to the most spicy. Thankfully the waiters were on hand to offer guidance.

So bearing that in mind the course kicked off with the Siakap merah goreng tradisi dihidang bersama sos liman kasturi or deep fried snapper with dried herbs, the mildest of the four, and then moved on to the Daging kurma - coriander spiced beef, deliciously tender and rather heavy on the coriander.

But really no complaints on that front as I could eat the stuff until it comes out of my ears.

The Sayuran segar bersama herba masala or masala vegetables went down a treat, which just left the spiciest of the lot requiring some attention, the Ayam merah dimasak dengan jintan or chicken braised with tomato, chili and fennel seeds.

Actually there was nothing to worry about even for this wimp of a palate as it wasn't overly "hot" and had a pleasingly distinctive and lingering aftertaste.

Nasi berperisa oren - orange rice and Papedum lada hitam - black pepper papadum accompanied all four dishes as did another Aussie wine - this time a Shiraz.

Finally pudding or dessert - not exactly my favourite as I don't have much of a sweet tooth and perhaps harbour too many childhood memories of British school dinners and "afters" (prunes and semolina - yeeurk).

So when I discovered that we would be served Kuih loyang dan bebola ais limau kasturi or
steamed banana pudding in banana leaf and crispy fritter with calamansi sherbet, I wasn't exactly brimming with excitement.

But again I was pleasantly surprised and the portion was not a gut-busting size.

All right so the meal might not have been the stuff of worthy of Michelin's three stars, but it sure left one person happily replete and convinced that through his tummy he had experienced some of the culinary delights of another culture.

And all that without the belt-adjusting bloated sensation often felt after a heavy and rich meal back home.

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