AFAR chose a destination at random and sent chef John Currence on 24 hours’ notice to a hot, sweet, sticky country where he followed a trail through the cuisine to the people who make it.
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HUMIDITY HITS LIKE A BRICK wall as I step out of the plane. I am 36 hours and 13 time zones from my home in Oxford, Mississippi, and know absolutely zero about Malaysia other than what I have gleaned from a 15-page entry in a Lonely Planet guide. I am exhausted and slightly apprehensive but bursting with curiosity. After my cab crawls into town, I dump my gear, dying to roll.
“I want to take you to Chinatown. How adventurous are you?”
Jen Charm is my guide, and this is how she greets me as I hit the lobby of the Shangri-La, my home base in Kuala Lumpur, known to locals simply as KL, for the next six days. Moments later we tumble out of a cab into the soggy KL air and plow into one of the old quarters of the city. Chinatown, it turns out, is just slightly more Chinese than I am. The streets are lined with Thai and Vietnamese vendors hawking Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Ray-Ban, and Montblanc forgeries. Jen guides me through the pitchmen, down a side alley, through a wet market of fresh fish and vegetables, and past a row of stalls serving up curries, noodles, and fish balls. Between two tents, we find Koon Kee Wan Tan Mee. A bowl of tender little noodles with a spicy beef sauce and crispy chicken feet slides in front of me. “You eat chicken feet?” Jen chuckles. They are rich and lightly spicy. Each nibble fills me with joy. The owner obviously sees few American faces in his place. He is ecstatic that I love his food and offers bites of several other things—pork with sweet barbecue sauce, a sour duck and egg soup.
My conversation with Jen turns to the struggles Malaysia has with immigrants flooding across its borders from the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Bangladesh, Thailand, and elsewhere. “The country has been prosperous,” she explains, “and the Malaysian people don’t want to do the unpleasant jobs.” Jen spends her free time commuting to a refugee village several hours outside of KL to help teach the new arrivals to build houses, thatch roofs, and cook with the ingredients and materials indigenous to Malaysia. But the commute is hard on her, at 52. “I will not be able to go much longer,” she says. “I just love being able to help.” We spend the better part of an hour looking at pictures of the families she has helped. She beams with pride. I can feel Jen’s heart breaking as she shows me a picture of a woman wearing a pair of sneakers Jen had given her off her own feet. “They were the first shoes she’d had in years,” she says.
Six hours into my first day, I give out. I tell Jen I have to crash before I soldier on. She offers to wait at the hotel, but I tell her to go home to her family. I will rest and venture out into the night by myself.
I tell them I live in Mississippi. “Elvis!” Intan exclaims. “I love Elvis!”
One long nap later, I find my way to Suraya, a cheerful, bustling, slightly chaotic Malaysian restaurant in Kampung Baru, a five-minute cab ride from the hotel. I am told to wait and am assured it will not be long. A dozen different people greet guests wandering in and tell them the same thing. Two young ladies dressed in the traditional Islamic hijab enter and stand to my left. I am suddenly taken by the arm and seated by myself at a table for four. I gesture to the two women that they may join me. It strikes me that I may be violating Muslim holy law, and I regret the potential embarrassment. But they look at each other, shrug, and sit with the out-of-place bald, chubby foreigner. Their names are Intan and Shuv. Though I assume I could not look any more American than I do, they ask where I’m from and perk up when they hear United States. I tell them I live in Mississippi. “Elvis!” Intan exclaims. “I love Elvis!” They both smile ear to ear.
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A barrage of questions ensues. I’m here to taste Malaysia. I am a chef reporting on this intriguing place, and I’m in search of true Malaysian cuisine this night, I tell them. Delighted, they grab a menu, debate in Malay and English, giggle, and order. Plates with whole fried fish smothered in garlic-chili sauce, oxtail stew, greens braised in shrimp paste, and wood-grilled cockles arrive en masse. Intan and Shuv tell me about their families (they are both from Penang), their studies (accounting) at a local university, and their dreams of meeting husbands and starting their own families. They insist on seeing pictures of my wife and daughter and demand detailed information about my restaurants and what I do. I feel the rare tug of people genuinely wanting to know about who I am for no other reason than because it somehow enriches them to have met someone new. The exchange of that currency, the palpable honesty of this momentary friendship, gives me peace. I leave feeling like I have been to the most moving church service imaginable. I sleep as well as I have in decades.
My other pilgrimage with Jen is to Brickfields, a low-lying suburb that is KL’s Little India. Susila Vaaripan operates a bright, cheery place on Scott Street called Vishal. Jen has brought me here for the banana leaf rice. She gives me the full rundown on how to greet my host, how to eat with my hands, why using my left is frowned upon (of course, I am lefthanded), and how to fold the leaf when I am finished to show that I was pleased with my meal. A broad, waxy banana leaf is placed in front of me on the vinyl table covering, and rice cooked in coconut milk is heaped onto it. A gentleman comes by with stainless steel canisters of different curries and scoops them onto the rice. I take everything offered to me: greens, eggplant, lamb, chicken. Another man carefully dishes chutneys onto the banana leaf, next to the rice. A tiny stainless steel cup of rasam, a delightfully spicy lentil-tomato soup, appears, and finally, hot naan is dropped on the table. I dig in like I’m having my last meal ever. The flavors and textures explode across my palate.
Ms. Vaaripan joins us to say hello. We quickly collapse into a conversation about the importance of preserving tradition in food. Indian food, like Chinese, has mutated in Malaysia, but Ms. Vaaripan stays her course with astonishing results. As we natter away about heritage, I realize her cook is standing nervously behind me. Egotistical dickhead I am, I think he wants to say hello, so I turn to greet him with a big, dumb, presumptuous American smile. The hulking man is, however, looking directly past me toward the floor under the table, clutching a white napkin in his hands. I follow his gaze to the object of fascination, a giant cockroach. My immediate, hideous instinct is to stomp on it, but simultaneously I realize that such a gesture would be entirely uncool in a Hindu joint. The roach scurries off. It visits the table of a family with three teenage girls. Not one screams or stands on her chair. It runs under the table of an older couple who merely acknowledge the cook’s apology. The vermin pursuit ends when the gentle giant scoops up the insect and walks outside to the street, where he sets the roach free and says a momentary prayer before returning to the kitchen area, washing his hands, and going back to work. Everyone in the room resumes eating as if nothing had happened. At home, the Internet would be melting with Yelp reviews and Instagrams of the chase. I am at once overjoyed and saddened.
After three days in KL, it’s time for Penang. An easy, four-hour ride through beautiful countryside on a comfortable bus with Wi-Fi, drinks, and food service takes me to the old quarter of Georgetown. It’s littered with cafés, art galleries, souvenir shops, and restaurants as well as temples. The buildings and colonial-era feel are the municipal love child of Havana and the French Quarter of New Orleans. A mutual friend had connected me with New York chef and Malaysian food maven Zak Pelaccio, who in turn gave me a laundry list of places to hit. I find Zak’s do-not-miss spot, Fook Cheow Café. It is shuttered this day. A Confucius-looking elder out front points me down the street to Yi Bin. “Eat vinegar pork leg” is all he says.
Yi Bin is a tea parlor that looks like an apothecary, but it has a short menu of local Chinese dishes, including the pork leg I apparently have no choice but to eat. The owner breaks away from conversation with a pair of friends and seats me. I ask him if he will please select a couple of dishes for me and bring me his best tea. He dips in and out of tiny drawers, creating a tea blend. He delivers it in the most beautiful teapot I have ever seen. It is a miniature Dale Chihuly–Lewis Carroll acid trip in porcelain. I can’t take my eyes off it. He then launches into a Gatling gun explanation of the teas and local flowers in the blend. It is about three levels above my Philistine whiskey and coffee connoisseurship; all I hear is white noise. The tea is soothing, like peppermint, but bright, like citrus, and has something plucky along the lines of rosemary. I stop thinking about it and enjoy.
Vinegar pork leg, wine-roasted duck, fried rice with greens and onion, shrimp chips, and a dark soup of dried mushrooms descend like an avalanche onto my table. They are each remarkable. I can barely write notes quickly enough, I am so rapt.
A Confucius-looking elder points me down the street to Yi Bin. “Eat vinegar pork leg” is all he says.
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A white-bearded gentleman enters the room and clearly commands the respect of the group drinking tea with the owner. They all greet him enthusiastically but with reverence. When his tea is served, he sips it with the dignity of an elder statesman tasked with negotiating a peace treaty. Wisdom seeps from the cracks in his face. He turns to me suddenly and asks, “Who are you?”
I explain that I have come to Penang with the understanding it is ground zero for street food. “Where you eat?” he asks. I reply that I have a list of things I’d like to try but no plans yet. His stare of suspicion blossoms into warmth. “You come my house,” he says. “My family has restaurant. I make Hakka!” The Hakka are an ethnic Chinese people—with origins in northern China centuries ago and a rich agrarian history in southern China—that have continued to migrate slowly southward and ultimately overseas. Their culture, dialect, and food remain alive and suited to survival in different places. Mr. Choi, the white-bearded man, is a durian farmer. Finding fresh durian is a bucket-list item for my trip. This is pay dirt, I think. But it turns out I won’t be eating any. The “smell like hell, taste like heaven” fruit is not quite in season, Mr. Choi tells me. “Durian not ripe,” he says. “Only durian here from Thailand. All crap!”
Back at the hotel, I consult the concierge and general manager about what gift to offer Chinese hosts who have invited you to their house. “Chinese love fruit,” says the manager. “Pineapple symbolizes prosperity.” It will be my mission to find the best pineapple I can. I spend the rest of the afternoon walking the streets, visiting temples, and snacking on samosas, fried shrimp cakes called cucur udang, and sticky rice cakes while I search for the perfect pineapple, which I find at a market a few blocks from my hotel. My mission completed, I return to my room and take a shower, and Mr. Choi arrives in his pickup truck to take me away to dinner.
The next thing that happens illustrates my entire life in a nutshell. I climb into his truck, and he immediately eyeballs the plastic grocery sack in my lap. “What you bring?” he asks. I tell him proudly I wanted to bring him and his wife a gift for having me over, so I got a pineapple because of its significance. I beam with cleverness. He looks at me wryly. “My wife dead. I farm pineapple, too,” he says matter-of-factly. He hands me a beer and grins.
At Mr. Choi’s house/restaurant, Feels Like Home, I am seated at a corner table of the modest dining room. His daughter brings out plates of tender corn dumplings in a mushroom broth, “drunken” chicken that has been poached in cold rice wine, a “dragon’s head” meatball, and what may be the highlight of the evening, a glass of near-frozen nutmeg juice. Each bite is better than the last, and Mr. Choi launches into a disquisition on the importance of sustainable and organic farming. He says he works with a young man from an adjacent farm to provide vegetables for local schools. I could just as easily be listening to Alice Waters. It is the perfect sound track to one of the most comforting meals I have had in years. I have made a friend I will cherish for life.
Early the next morning, I take the bus toward Kuala Lumpur and continue two hours farther south to Melaka, once the most thriving port in Malaysia. The old part of town was home to influential and wealthy Chinese traders and the epicenter of the Baba Nyonya society, an insular culture of Chinese men (Baba) and women (Nyonya) who settled in the area, stuck to Chinese tradition and decor in their lavish homes, and developed a creole language and cuisine. My destination is Baba Charlie, a confectionery business that supplies a number of the night markets with traditional Nyonya cakes: pandan leaf–wrapped concoctions of sticky rice, coconut, and palm sugar, colored by local flowers.
I find Baba Charlie’s operation in a carport at the end of an impossibly narrow lane off the main road into Melaka. Five women seated at folding tables work diligently. It is clear from their expressions that tourists only complicate their time. One of them cuts bright blue squares of rice cake and wraps them in wax paper. I ask her if the basket of purple flowers across the table is where the cakes get their color. She nods, clearly hoping I will go away. I ask a couple more questions about flavoring and technique. The women seem to sense I know something about food, and before I know it I am seated at the table, being instructed in how to roll ondeh-ondeh—green glutinous flour dough balls—and stuff them with sweetened red bean paste. They will be boiled and rolled in coconut and sesame seeds. The ladies start talking about introducing me to their daughters. One hugs me and says I can stay and work with them as long as I want.
I am sad as I gather my things to leave. I have fallen for this sweet, sticky, and delightfully welcoming country. I came here looking for “cuisine.” It exists, but it’s for scholars and thick wallets. Better yet, I found food, beautiful food, and people who confirmed for me that food is only as good as the souls you share it with.
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