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Sides and Snacks - Malaysia: Food Fantasy

[Do Not Use]DK Publishing logo[Do Not Use]DK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks

Malaysia: Food Fantasy

To put it mildly, we were not thrilled to be stranded overnight in the gritty truck-stop town of Johor Bahru, Malaysia. But, figuring we might as well make the best of it, we decided to check out the local open-air market.

The moment we walked in, our overnight stay began to seem less a delay than a delight. We wandered past stalls featuring frogs’ legs, boar snouts, and huge piles of greens whose names we didn’t know, then browsed the seafood section, where giant eels, cockles, spiny lobsters, and four types of crabs lay on glistening rows of ice. Next we hit the fruit stands, crowded with specimens that seemed too bizarre to be real: Red-orange rambutans, bristling with pointy spikes; purple-brown mangosteens, the white inner flesh tasting of molasses, lemon, and cream; beadlike chiku, gooey and sweet as boiled frosting; huge orange-yellow jackfruit, mealy and mellow, hinting of vanilla. Other fruits, like mango and papaya, were familiar in form, but had flavors of a depth and complexity we had never experienced. When we walked back to the hotel at dusk, we discovered that the parking lot had been transformed into a hawker center, with dozens of bicycle-propelled food stands arranged around a handful of folding tables and chairs. Excited, we joined the crowd and sampled dish after dish—stingray tail dabbed with hot sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf, and roasted in hot coals; plump and satisfyingly fatty curried frogs’ legs; water greens sautéed with chiles and garlic. Instead of dessert, we ordered what looked like a fruit salad, rich with the variety we had seen earlier at the market. It was a classic example of Malay food, the sweet, fecund intensity of the fruits perfectly complemented by a peanut sauce laced with chiles and a hint of belacan, their beloved fermented shrimp paste. The moral, it seemed, was clear: Never underestimate a truck stop.

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