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A Birthday Feast

Did I really eat four meals in one day?

sunny 93 °F

On Saturday I celebrated a birthday. Not mine or that of anyone I actually know or have ever met. Yesterday was a federal holiday here in Malaysia to mark the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who is essentially Malaysia's king. This country is a constitutional monarchy, though not in the same sense as in the UK, Spain, Japan, etc. Rather, the king is elected by a council of other sultans representing Malaysia's nine peninsular states (the two states on the island of Borneo - Sarawak and Sabah - are left out of this arrangement), with each state taking a turn every five years. The current Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Mizan Zainal Abidin, is the sultan of the state of Terengganu in the northeastern corner of the peninsula. Although his actual birthday is January 22nd, but the first Saturday in June has been designated as the king's birthday.

There's no better way to celebrate a birthday in Malaysia than to eat, so I started my day having breakfast at the hotel. I remember reading the reviews of the Hotel Puri on Trip Advisor when I was planning this trip, and some previous guests had commented that the breakfast was not up to snuff. The hotel management must have been paying attention, because the buffet spread was larger than what I had been expecting. Nothing spectacular but certainly enough to get me started for the day. I mentioned before that this hotel has several large courtyards with trees, flowers, plants, etc. The one that serves as the breakfast room also has a fountain stocked with koi, which never cease to fascinate me with their random color patterns.

At 11am I got a call from the front desk saying that Gavin had arrived, so I went downstairs to meet him. He had brought his friend Sean, and Sean brought his girlfriend May. Sean and Gavin went to a private college together in Kuala Lumpur (not the same as a university in Malaysia but still post-secondary) and speak Cantonese to each other even though both are completely proficient in a host of other languages. Sean and May use Mandarin, though, so he would be jabbering about something to Gavin in Cantonese and then turn his head and switch to Mandarin with May without missing a beat. Then he would say something to me in English. Mind you, these guys also speak Malay and probably one other language that I'm missing. It's really impressive and watching them made me feel linguistically inadequate. My Mandarin is functional, but I still mix up certain tones and therefore will use it only when I really need to.

Our first destination was to try the Melaka specialty: chicken rice ball. It's not as exotic or bizarre as it may sound. The immigrants to this part of Southeast Asia who came from the Chinese island of Hainan brought with them a dish called Hainanese chicken rice. It's pretty much a boiled free-range chicken served with white rice made with the stock from the chicken - it always is served with a chili sauce on the side. Perhaps it's because I've never had a really good example of this dish or didn't grow up eating it, but it just doesn't speak to me (no me llama la atencion, para los que entiendan esta frase). Here in Melaka, the custom is to form small balls with the rice, about halfway between a golf ball and a tennis ball in size. The ones that we were served yesterday didn't meet the standards of my companions, and sure enough, I could tell that there was something not quite right. I think the rice balls were on the older side because they had a certain texture that frequent rice eaters can detect.

From there we crossed the Sungai (River) Melaka, first passing another chicken rice ball restaurant with a line snaking out the door. Hmm, guess we went to the wrong place. We wandered down the riverbank for a bit and came to a big wooden galleon ship that had been turned into a museum. Melaka is full of little museums, many of which allude to the glorious history of this city that for many years was the most important trading post in Southeast Asia. We decided to pay the RM3 entrance fee (about 90 U.S. cents) and board the ship, which was already very crowded. As it turned out, the ship was built sometime in the 80s as a reproduction - even so, for that price I didn't think it was a complete waste of time or money.

The heat had started to kick in by this point, so we headed to that cafe I had visited the previous evening to get something to drink. I ordered the cendol ice breeze again and sucked it down. This particular cafe serves coffees that represent the styles found in all of Malaysia's 13 states, but unfortunately none of them appealed to me in the least bit. A common practice is to roast what are already low-grade robusta beans with sugar, salt, and even margarine, the result being a sticky, black mess that sounds disgusting. I was slightly curious to try one of these variations but decided against it. One of the offerings - I forget which state it represented - actually has wheat added during the roasting process. Not appealing.

If the heat and humidity weren't bad enough, the sun had emerged at this point and was beating down on us when we left the cafe. Ouch. I think I have a mild case of photophobia (or just a lot of common sense) because I don't like walking or sitting in direct sunlight. So we decided to take refuge in Gavin's car with the A/C blasting away and drove around the city, initially aimlessly but then in search of the Medan Portugis, the neighborhood that's home to the Portuguese descendants. It's a popular destination on weekends for the food, and none of the other three had ever been there. I played the role of navigator, which was kind of ridiculous since all I had was the map in the Lonely Planet book., Also, some of the major streets are one-way, which forced us to drive around in circles and down back streets. Finally we got on the road leading to the Medan Portugis and pulled into the main plaza-like area. Sure enough, there were some restaurants all clustered around an open-air shopping mall type of complex. It looked like most of the restaurants were closed, but one of them - Restoran da Lisboa - had a bunch of tables on the shaded patio where people were eating. We sat down and ordered a fish in a chili sauce, fried eggplant (not breaded), and "chicken debal" (debal means devil," though I think the spelling has evolved from the original Portuguese word). The chicken was just OK but I liked the fish and the eggplant a lot.

After we finished eating I wandered over to the gift shop near the entrance to the complex and found the owner at the back with her school-aged daughter. The woman (whose name was Sharon) looked Latina and definitely was not Asian. I asked her if she spoke Portuguese and we ended up having a ten-minute conversation, though the version she spoke was unlike anything I had ever heard before. Still, it was pretty cool to talk with a descendant of the original Portuguese colonists in their native language. She told me that Kristang is not taught in the schools, so it's up to the parents and grandparents to teach it to the children. I looked at the homework her daughter was doing and noticed that she was writing sentences in Bahasa Melayu. I bought a jar of mango chili sauce that she had made and canned herself...looking forward to trying it with rice.

As we were leaving the Medan Portugis, Gavin decided that I needed to try durian. If you've never heard of this tropical fruit that grows only in Southeast Asia, it's larger than a football and is covered with hard, pointy spikes that can do some serious damage. What makes durian famous, however, is its rather pungent smell, which has been compared to blue cheese, unwashed feet, and other unsavory odors. Most Westerners are completely turned off by durians, but it's got a huge cult following in this part of the world. Even so, airlines, hotels, etc. typically ban durians because of the rotten smell they emit. I tried one when I was in Beijing last August but it turned out to be unripe, so I don't really count that as my first durian eating experience. I have to say, once you get used to the smell it's actually kind of good - the creamy texture is nice too. I'm not anywhere close to going out and buying one myself (they sell them at Asian grocery stores in the U.S.) but I'd eat it again if one were put in front of me.

When we got back to the main part of town, Sean and May said they wanted to keep eating (with no prompting from me, I swear!). We drove to a very famous restaurant that serves satay celup, which apparently is a Melaka specialty in which you dip the skewers into a vat of bubbling sauce that cooks the raw meat. The line snaking out of this joint, Capitol Satay, was ridiculous so we decided to find a Nonya place instead. The Baba-Nonya culture started when the male immigrants from China intermarried with local Malays starting several hundred years ago. They adopted the Malay language but held on to many Chinese traditions, customs, and beliefs. The Babas were the men and the Nonyas were the women, and since the women did almost all of the cooking the food goes by that name. It's probably one of the first fusion cuisines in the world, and when my sisters and I were here in 2004 we had a great meal on New Year's Eve at a Nonya restaurant in Penang.

Lonely Planet recommended Bayonya which was in a busy commercial part of the city. It was packed but we were able to score a table, even though we had to sit on plastic stools due to a shortage of chairs. By this point I was fading pretty quickly and dozed off right at the table while we were waiting for the food to come. Shortly after I woke up, three dishes were placed in front of us: assam sotong, belacan kangkong, and ayam rendang. I think assam is the Malay word for tamarind, and sotong is squid or cuttlefish. Belacan, or shrimp paste, is an essential ingredient n Southeast Asian cooking, and often is sauteed with vegetables like kangkong (water convolvulus, or what we all "kong xin cai" in Mandarin). Yes, I know "convolvulus" sounds like it should have been uttered on a certain "Seinfeld" episode (remember Mulva?), but it is one of my favorite vegetables and one that I remember my dad cooking a lot when I was growing up. The last dish, ayam (chicken) rendang, was more familiar as I had eaten rendang on many occasions in the past though usually with beef. All three were quite good, but the squid took the cake - the sauce was a rich, deep brown (almost black) with a perfect level of tartness. I was close to spreading it over white rice but unfortunately had eaten all of the rice on my plate already. In more familiar company I would have eaten the sauce with a spoon or, at home in complete privacy, licked it right off the plate. It was that good.

Gavin and his two friends dropped me off near my hotel - I was stuffed and could barely waddle up the stairs to my room. I lay down for what was supposed to be ten or so minutes, after which I was going to get up and meander to the next street for the Jonker's Walk weekend night market (Jonker's Walk is the touristy name for Jalan Hang Jebat, the main thoroughfare in the Chinatown area of Melaka). I crashed hard on the comfortable king bed with the A/C droning above me.

Posted by alsandiego 06:44 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food

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