Getting a taste of foodie culture in Malaysia
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Our minibus is winding its way through Kuala Lumpur at night, a metropolis of blinking skyscrapers and shabby streets dominated by tacky high-rise buildings.
We are heading in the direction of Terengganu, a state on the east coast of peninsula Malaysia, for the first half of our culinary tour, before making our way over to Malacca in the south-west.
Arriving at Tanjong Jara Resort four hours later, we are greeted by chef Ann, a cheeky, effervescent character who greets us with a knowing wink. Ann grew up in nearby Dungun and worked in kitchens around Malaysia, before returning to take up her position here.
The beach-front resort is pleasingly green, its gardens filled with fragrant flowers and palms. Large monitor lizards swim along the muddy river that cuts through the site, and numerous bird species can be heard twittering in the trees.
Our first stop is the nearby Pasar Besar Dungun indoor wet market (where stalls sell fresh meat, fish and produce). Still dressed in her chef's outfit, with a scruff of hair poking out from the back of her cap, Ann takes us on an animated tour of the place.
Outside, an elderly woman is selling fish satay skewers, heated from a charcoal grill on the back of a motorbike. As we pass through the entrance, a stall owner draws heavily from a cigarette as he chops his fish. Beside him are vendors selling stingrays, squid and sharks.
The market is aglow with exotic spices and vegetables. As we meander through a network of stalls, we spot petai beans, bitter melons and cashew apples. Tropical fruits such as rambutans, lychees and durians also add colour to the mix.
At one point, Ann stops to hand me a duku fruit the size of a conker. I peel it to reveal a fleshy centre that tastes like grapefruit.
Next, we make our way over to a cluster of low-key eateries at the back of the market. Sitting on plastic chairs, we nibble on fish sausages and banana fritters straight from the fryer, washed down with sirap bandung, a popular drink made of condensed milk and rose syrup. We also sample fish crackers (keropok keping) made in Terengganu.
"In Britain you have fish and chips. Over here we have fish crackers," Ann jokes.
On our third night, we are treated to a torch-lit meal at the resort's private beach area. Hosting us is Captain Mokh, a spritely Malaysian man in his 70s, sporting a goatee and bucket hat, who had taken us on a jungle tour earlier that day.
Our meal is prepared on the beach using the east coast tradition of sand cooking. Fresh seafood is wrapped in banana leaves before being buried in sand and coconut husks over a charcoal fire.
The method was traditionally used by Terengganu fishermen making pit stops while out at sea. The smoke from the charred coconuts also adds flavour to the food.
Terengganu's remote setting, with few Indian and Chinese immigrants, has led to a predominance of Malay culture here, influencing the food. We tuck into our main courses of south China sea lobster, flavoured with turmeric and garlic, and red snapper served with steamed glutinous rice, coconut milk and spicy tamarind sauce.
We learn that coconut and turmeric feature heavily in east coast cooking, along with lime leaves, pandan and lemongrass. The region also has an abundance of rice-based dishes. One of the most distinctive of these is nasi kerabu, blue-coloured rice eaten with fried chicken or dried fish. The blue colour comes from the petals of butterfly-pea flowers.
We are left to enjoy a dessert of mango, tapioca pearls, Terengganu brown sugar and coconut mousse served in a young coconut. Over the buzzing of cicadas, the captain tells us stories about his colourful life of undercover military operations and living with indigenous tribes, as we finish off our wine in front of the lapping waves.
A five-hour car journey brings us to the Majestic Malacca, a restored 1920s Straits Settlements mansion-turned-heritage hotel. On arrival, the impeccable furnishings and fittings, as though lifted from a Wes Anderson film set, seem immediately at odds with the city.
Indeed, walking round Malacca is a curious experience. Perhaps owing to its historic centre's Unesco listing in 2008, it is swamped with visitors, many of whom are from China and Singapore, who have come to view the crimson colonial buildings.
The Malacca River is a strange mouthwash-green in parts, lined with potted plants and tourist-trap bars. In the city centre, there are gimmicky rickshaws blasting out loud music, taking visitors from one attraction to the next.
On an evening stroll beside the river, which is lined with purple and green neon lights, it's almost impossible to escape the sound of terrible reggae pop.
Despite this, the city plays an important role in the country's foodie heritage, largely due to the unusual intermingling of cultures. Chinese settlers arrived in Malacca in the early 15th century. They blended with the local Malays and became known as Baba-Nyonya or Peranakans.
Peranakan cooking is a key component of Malaysia's food scene, with coconut milk, galangal, candlenuts and kaffir lime leaves among the common ingredients.
Malacca became a major trade settlement on the route between China and India. In 1511 the Portuguese took control of the city, which later passed under Dutch and British rule. Now, Malacca contains a blend of architectural styles that reflect the integration of these cultures, a key reason for its Unesco status.
"The Portuguese influence in Malacca is represented through Kristang food," notes Ve Ann Hoh, marketing communications executive of YTL Hotels. "It's still quite an exclusive cuisine, as few have mastered it."
In the Majestic's dining room, we are sampling Kari Debal, also known as devil's curry.
The hotel offers traditional Kristang dishes with a contemporary twist. Kristang are descendants of early Dutch and Portuguese settlers who married locals. While Kristang takes its inspiration from Portuguese, Dutch and British traditions, it is also influenced by Malay sambals, Indian curries, and Chinese stews and soups.
Chef Khay has been kind enough to show us how devil's curry is made, using a single wok. The soup-like dish was traditionally a Kristang solution to wasted Christmas dinner leftovers. It consists of braised chicken and potatoes in a fiery gravy. Dried chillies, ginger, vinegar and mustard seeds help to create the sharp and tangy flavour.
Other distinctive Kristang dishes on the Majestic's menu include crispy fried fritters infused with fermented krill (cincalok fretu) and the mildly hot sambal nanas – sautéed prawns and pineapple cooked in a sweet and sour sambal.
The Chinese influence on Kristang cooking can also be seen in the hotel's soy limang terung – stir fried aubergine in soy and lime gravy.
Our food tour ends with a Peranakan afternoon tea in the Majestic's porcelain-tiled library. Sipping on Cameronian Gold Blend tea, we taste a range of colourful glutinous rice and coconut-based Nyonya desserts.
On the car journey back to Kuala Lumpur, I reflect that the most memorable and distinctive dishes of the trip have been cooked in front of us, using the most basic techniques imaginable.
So, what is the country's secret? Why does the food taste so good in Malaysia?
After a week at home I find that my shopping list has changed dramatically and I'm on my way to finding out.
Need to know
Doubles at YTL Hotels' Tanjong Jara Resort, the Ritz-Carlton, Kuala Lumpur and the Majestic Malacca start from £270 with breakfast. Visit ytlhotels.com
Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) flies twice daily direct between London and Kuala Lumpur onboard the new Airbus A350 and onwards to the rest of Malaysia.