You Can’t Get What You Don’t Ask For
If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home. ~James Michener
The great thing about travel is that it lets you try new foods, meet new friends, and while learning about a new culture, you might even learn something about yourself. There is no reason to spend a thousand dollars on a plane ticket just to eat at McDonalds. Unless, of course, you go to Malaysia where McD’s serves a very respectable bowl of the local specialty, Bubur Ayam, or Chicken Porridge. Aside from that, stick to the local restaurants and eateries, specifically those with long lines. It may be less convenient, but long lines mean good food and high turnover.
Ella and I were staying in SuCasa hotel apartments on Jalan Ampang. More apartment than hotel, it has more space for the money, and the fully furnished kitchen provides options for eating in, while retaining the convenience of daily housekeeping.
Hock Choon grocery store is just across the street, and I love walking over to buy jackfruit and tiny little bananas. The iconic KLCC Twin Towers are only a fifteen minute walk away, and while other shopping areas are a little further, taxis are still relatively cheap in Kuala Lumpur. Besides, we felt comfortable here. This area was home for us in the late 90’s.
Malaysia is a beautiful country having much to offer any traveler, but for Ella and myself, Malaysia represents food. Our game plan was to eat our way through a two-week visit, making our way around the city to restaurants, food courts, and street vendors, indulging in all of our past favorites. We had both been craving Malaysian food, pungent, sweet, and spicy. In order not to miss out on anything we made a list of meals and snacks, and plotted accordingly in order to fulfill our every desire.
We began our first morning by going to a street vendor for nasi lemak, that quintessential breakfast treat of rice cooked in coconut milk, served with slices of cucumber, boiled egg, peanuts, fried ikan bilis, or anchovies, and spicy sambal sauce all wrapped up in a banana leaf. Later, we devoured meehoon goreng (spicy stir fried vermicelli) and char kuay teow (flat rice noodles fried with soy sauce, chili, and whole prawns) at roadside eateries, and slurped cendol, the local equivalent of a snow cone with shaved ice covered in heavy brown sugar syrup at the food court in KLCC.
One late afternoon, getting caught out in a sudden downpour, we ran to take shelter at Restaurant Nasi Kandar Pelita. As we were crossing the street a bus passed and drenched us in a shower of muddy water. There was nothing to do about it, so we went in and sat down, wiping our faces with tissues, then warmed up over plates of fresh naan and roti canai (flat bread) dipped in spicy dhal (yellow lentils), thin curry, and mint sauce. The meal was so satisfying, it hardly mattered to us that our hair was still dripping.
When evening fell we prefered to stay close to the hotel. We became regulars at a small Arab owned restaurant conveniently located just steps away from the entrance of the hotel. They served an eclectic mix of Middle Eastern and Malaysian food, and we sat happily sipping sweet, milky teh tarik while nibbling pita bread so fresh from the oven that it burnt our fingers. Soon the waiters began to anticipate our nightly visits, greeting us with wide smiles and seating us at a table on the deck, the evening temperatures being much to pleasant to spend indoors.
Each day we ticked another meal off our list and by the end of our two weeks, we felt that we had done a commendable job of making our way to all of our favorite places. Now it was time to prepare for our trip home.
The morning of our departure broke bright and sunny. We decided to have breakfast at what by then had become ‘our’ restaurant, then go directly to the airport. Crossing the street, we found the same waiter who had served us on all of our evening visits. Don’t these guys ever get a break?
At this earlier hour the restaurant had a decidedly different feel. We took a seat inside, where only one other customer sat with a cup of coffee, reading a newspaper. When I looked at the breakfast menu I was surprised, and frankly disappointed. I had anticipated that they would serve shakshouka, a staple breakfast item of all Middle Eastern countries. Instead, we saw a glass case holding trays of fried rice and spicy noodles, and a few sides. Delicious, no doubt, but perhaps a bit heavy just before a morning flight. Not all hope was lost, however, as I could see through a window in the back that the chef was definitely of Middle Eastern descent, so when the waiter came, I made our order.
“We’d like two cups of teh tarik, hummus, baba ghanouj, some olives, bread, and please ask your chef if he would make some shakshouka.”
Our waiter was thoroughly confused. “What?”
“Shakshouka” I replied. “It’s an egg dish.”
“I’m sorry maam” he shook his head. “We do not have that. Maybe you would like something from the menu?”
“I know it sounds strange, but I see your chef back there, and I am sure that he will know how to make this particular dish. Please ask him if he would make some shakshouka.”
“I’m sorry maam” he repeated slowly in order for me to comprehend, “but we do not have this on the menu.” He pointed at the breakfast items on the menu to confirm that what I was asking for indeed did not exist.
“Yes, I understand” I smiled reassuringly. “But this is a simple Middle Eastern dish that your chef will be familiar with. Please, just ask him. If he says no, then we will choose something else from the menu.”
He looked doubtfully over to the chef, then back at us, unconvinced of our request yet knowing that we were not going to be easily dissuaded. “What did you call it?”
“Shakshouka. Tell him that we would like it if he could make us a plate of shakshouka.”
Walking away, we could hear him repeating under his breath, “shak-shouka, shak-shouka, shak-shouka…”
In the back I saw the waiter speaking to the chef, who turned to see who was making the request. Seemingly unimpressed, he went back to his work with neither a smile nor a nod of agreement. Hopes deflated, we watched as the lone diner finished his coffee, quietly contemplating if we might have not been better off simply going to the hotel restaurant for the breakfast buffet.
Ten minutes ticked by. Fifteen. Twenty. Just as we were ready to give up on breakfast altogether, our waiter stepped out of the kitchen carrying a tray over his head. Thankful at that point that we would have something to eat before leaving for the airport, we didn’t care what he was bringing. Arriving at our table, he lowered the tray, and with a look that said he wasn’t quite sure what had just happened he sat plates of olives, hummus, and baba ghanouj on our table, along with a basket full of pita bread, and a beautiful plate of shakshouka.