Ed Lee, the chef-owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky traveled to Penang, Malaysia. Here, he shares his impressions and favorite food highlights.
“This was my first time in Southeast Asia and it was very eye opening. Southeast Asia is a cauldron of different cultures: Chinese, aboriginal Malaysian, Indian, Thai. They kind of all exist separately and then overlap to create this completely different, distinct cuisine. We spent an entire week just eating and visiting markets. As an American, you notice there’s very much an extremely wealthy, upper-class society and then there is the lower-class society that is so poor. In America you could find a millionaire wearing jeans and a t-shirt. In Malaysia class is much more clearly defined. From a cuisine standpoint, if you are Indian you cook Indian cuisine and the idea of doing something different doesn’t cross your mind. These cultures cook a dish for generations and you feel like you are eating history. A laksa I ate may have been made the same way for 10 generations.
In such a rigid social class structure there is a very defined food culture so there is no risk of me going back to Malaysia in two years and saying I wish that place still existed because there is 99% chance it will still be there serving same thing. I’d meet these old women who had been making soups for 30 years. If think about it, if you make one soup for 30 years you’ll be damn good at it. This old woman is not going to get inspired by a food show and change her recipe. I had one version of laksa soup at a food stall and it would be different from every other version in the city. There’s a permanence to it that is a little comforting.
The food in Malaysia is pretty much all street. You eat things from bags with a fork. They do not even give you a plate. This trip gave me a new appreciation for what street food is: very simple and rustic. When we define Southeast Asian cuisine I think we mean food that is sweet, salty, bitter, and umami all in one bite. It’s very, very different from western cuisine. We don’t have all five flavors pushing and pulling on the same plate. We course it out, first plate sour… there’s a progression.
In Malaysian cooking you get all five flavors on one big plate and you don’t eat in courses. It’s a very difficult thing to pull off to try and balance all five flavors.
My favorite dish is laksa because you get bitter from bitter squash, sweet from tamarind, and salty from the fish sauce. The fish sauce is so strong you smell it and go oh my god this is too much. There is too much going on and it smells kind of funky but you eat it and something happens in your mouth and it’s balanced. I’m obsessed with fish sauce and the way they use it. It’s in everything. I explain to people imagine a bowl of ramen you’d make at home. Add a half teaspoon of fish sauce and it adds more depth and layers of flavor.
I went home and made all of these different laksas. Laksa is like saying noodles. There are so many different versions—some with thick, almost gravy-like sauce and some that are complete broth. And every region thinks they make the best laksa.
I have to say the sweets were not my favorite. I’ve always said that Asians make the worst desserts. Most are in the form of slushies or drinks. We had a really harsh black tea with condensed milk and one sip made you think your teeth would rot off.
We did have shave ice with syrups and red bean things that don’t look edible. I fell in love with mangosteen over there. We’d go to the market and just buy armfuls and eat them right from the shell until our fingers turned purple. The fruit was revelatory. You have never eaten a mango until you have eaten it right off the tree there. Durian is so foul and funky and stinky but the Malaysian durian is really milder.
Aside from food, I found their idea of nightlife very interesting. They have this very elaborate form of karaoke where they get together in a room. It’s not like public karaoke, here they rent a room and get together and drink cognac. They don’t drink scotch or wine and don’t really like beer. They drink cognac not as an after-dinner drink but they do shots of cognac. One night 15 people went out and finished 24 bottles of cognac and I was like, can I get a beer? The nightlife spots are palaces of light and music and are really bustling. The music is bad disco and pop. There is nothing redeeming about it. They play full on Britney Spears and Ace of Base.”