Some friends from Turkey came to visit this past weekend. I had a great time hanging out with Melissa and Emirhan in Antalya when I stopped by en route to Istanbul (from Damascus), so I naturally returned the favour and put them up at my place. After three dinners (not at the same time, albeit the same night), Emirhan gave up at the sight of three relatively small Asian girls chomping away at their 20th meal of the day and said it must be that we all have two stomachs, the other one being the one that leads straight to refuse.
Kuala Lumpur is a funny place. It contains no immediately obvious tourist attractions (not to me anyway) and the lay of the land is hard to grasp. It’s a sprawling mess of cities, townships, and everything in between; the lack of acceptable public transportation makes it hard to get around. In other words it’s a city not for tourists, but for visitors who have the time and ability to stay, sit around, drink teh tarik, and make new friends.
Unless you’re here to eat and have both the ability and desire to match us locals on our tremendous stamina for eating.
To say “eating” is a national pastime and obsession is not merely stating the obvious, it also woefully understates the true extent of the obsessive nature of this common indulgence which is the mark of a born-and-bred Malaysian (and to an extent, but less so, Singaporean). It is neither a task nor a hobby — it is a way of life. Every aspect connected to the act of eating is performed with loving care and preponderance; the final act of eating is nowhere near a climax, for there is no start, nor finish. Evidence: have an awesome lunch or dinner with a group of Malaysians (or Singaporeans), the ones who are passionate about food (almost everyone is, but there are some who are far long gone). Say nothing. Listen to them speak, and make a mental note of what their conversations are about.
I’d wager that 90% of the conversation is about food. Not about the food they’re eating at that very moment, no, not at all (beyond the expected “this is good”, “this is fucking amazing”, or “this is awful”, which pervades in the first five minutes or so) — it’s more likely to turn into a rare moment of Malaysian/Singaporean introspection and cultural analysis. “This is far better/worse/comparable to/cheaper than/better value for money compared to…”, the connoisseur declares, not with the pomp or authority of a food critic, but with a heart of tender love, “but I’m afraid to say the hawker in (insert any other part of town) is better.” He is bound to be accosted with fierce interjections, because everyone’s a passionate food critic in this part of the world, and sometime cultural and culinary commentator too.
If you’re truly lucky, and understand the local vernacular well enough, you might be witness to a display of shocking real-time food gossip, one that knows neither state nor national boundaries. We all do this to some extent — we know exactly how many of the famous hawkers got started, how their families fell apart from intra-family bickering, how the secret recipe diverged into dozens of different locations and took on their own styles, which one remains true to the original secret, right down to the very last minutiae such as “the chilli in the 4th brother’s version is inferior to the one made by hand daily by his 2nd brother. However the cousin’s newly revised version (open from 10am to 8pm at this other location), is by far the best.”
We even plan our holidays around food. I know my family does, and so do many of my friends. In fact it was no big deal to find that so-and-so’s family had just driven 8 hours northwards to spend a night in northern Malaysia, in order to eat wanton mee at that location, nor was it surprising that they would choose to drive back down not on the expressway, but through the trunk roads that would take them through certain other locations where they could, you guessed it, eat some more (hard-to-find versions of food we love).
From the time I was 15, I developed a strange habit of stealing my passport and bringing it to school with me. I had the good luck to have gone to school in a fine educational establishment. It gave me many wonderful things: it developed my writing abilities, and my school-time activities in those days taught me how to multi-task like crazy and how to play truant, but above all its location on Bukit Timah Road, Singapore, featured one untapped resource — bus 170 to Johor, Malaysia. I hopped on it frequently to lunch (alone, for I was an introvert — and still am) in my school uniform. Then turned back around and went home to a suburban estate in Singapore like it was the most normal thing.
Because it was. At least where I came from.
Moving to Malaysia made this even more unavoidable. I am surrounded 24⁄7 by fantastic local food, much of it towering heads and shoulders above the Singaporean versions which, despite sharing the same characteristics, are now mostly inedible from a combination of neglect, lack of innovation and tradition (at the same time), rapid development killing our long heritage of ‘street’ food, and other things like that. Say what you will about how the food is better here because it’s ‘unhealthier’ or ‘dirtier’ — I don’t care. (The free use of pork lard is a Malaysian Chinese habit I fully endorse, and begrudge our Singaporean hawkers for not indulging in.) I wake up most mornings in Malaysia thinking about eating noodles. I have travelled far and wide but I care for little in the world (with the sole exception of jamon iberico) than a good bowl of southern Chinese Southeast Asian noodles. bakchormee in Singapore; pork noodles, soup or kon lo in KL. And wanton mee, the northern Malaysian version of which I find far superior by far to our chilli and tomato-addled sickly versions down south. When I am not thinking of noodles, I am thinking of nasi lemak. The very idea of eating noodles and rice for breakfast is alien to many. No scene is more striking than one onboard any airline leaving or entering Malaysia or Singapore on a long-haul flight, when breakfast is served at 5.30am. Stewardesses, onboard Emirates, Malaysian Airlines, or Singapore Airlines flights, come by patting passengers on the shoulder with breakfast options, having to explain the only local option, nasi lemak, to those who don’t know. “Rice steamed in coconut milk… served with chicken curry… fried bits of little fish.. and… a big dollop of spicy sambal.” Of course, all the locals happily tuck into our spicy chicken curry coconut rice at 5.30 in the morning, while most other passengers think us insane.
So while we didn’t have very much time to re-educate Melissa and Emirhan on the wonders of local food, we tried our best. Since there are few pleasures greater than the delights of a superb Ramly burger, the sort that can only be found in Malaysia, we headed straight for one. Followed by satay Kajang. Followed by two rounds of lok-lok. (A lok-lok truck is a contraption of a truck that’s been pimped up to allow for the display and storage of fresh sticks of meat and seafood, to be dipped into communal vats on the rims of these trucks, each filled with boiling hot soup, into which one cooks your sticks of food in a DIY fashion. It went out of fashion (or was outlawed) in Singapore even before I was born, so I eat at one every other day in Malaysia and find great pleasure in it.)
By this time Melissa had already given up on the idea of eating anymore, but Emirhan tried his best. We had one round of lok-lok, rested for beer, and returned an hour later for more.
That’s when I realized how much of a stereotype we had all become. Scurrying to the truck at 2am, we noticed most of the sticks of food had been packed away for the night. Anxious, we all did a spontaneous mini-sprint to the steamboat — separately. In another moment of unplanned synchronized gluttony, we immediately took out our phones from our pocket… and laughed. We knew precisely why the other person was doing it.
We had to check the time the lok-lok truck stopped selling food… because… we just had to.
And then we ate. And ate some more. And went home and planned what to eat in 5 hours’ time.
That’s when I knew I am indeed native to this land. A gluttonous, perpetually hungry native.