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When Malaysians Eat.

Went to Chi (that's spelled with the character for Che/Sik/Eat) for our weekly bowl of Roast Duck Konlow Mien. The shop is about five minutes walk from where I work, and you will not believe how grateful we are that authentic Hong Kong noodles exist in Perth just five minutes from work. We spent about a year stuck in this area with nearly nothing tasty to eat except the rather tasty and nutritious salmon don at Kabuki, about six doors down. Chi is actually a branch of the original restaurant in downtown Perth, which I used to go to back when I was taking lessons from Yumi last year. It's run by the same Jovial Owner as the one downtown, who usually comes over to our table for a natter. About Jovial Owner stuff, like the choice of po po (grandmother!) music (very good 60s-90s Cantonese ballads), the really cool ambience (it's very Hong Kong noodle shop, but not in that dingy, hygiene of doubtful values kind of way; it's very minimalist and classy Chinese design, but with the open humongous kitchen and the roast ducks hanging in the window) and why Malaysian customers always complain that Hong Kong-style Pak Cham Kai (boiled chicken) doesn't taste as good as Ipoh Hor Fun (flat rice noodles, Ipoh-style). Jovial Owner is horrified Malaysians would do something like drive five hours for a cup of perfect Kopi O. He's flabbergasted Malaysians do this all the time. And how exactly do we spend all our non-working hours eating and shopping and drinking Teh Tarik?



1. It Starts at the Root.

Look, you can't have good food without good ingredients. This seems obvious. But when you live in a high-rise city with three million other people, the need to get the perfect soup chicken becomes kind of whatever we can get that's not raised in a cage. Malaysians will do anything for the good raw stuff. In fact, when visiting other Malaysians, it is the common custom to bring along some kind of food with a rarified history to impress your host. Like, "This bunch of bananas came straight off the tree from my cousin's orchard in Pahang," or, "This pot of cincalok (dried prawns fermented in rice water) was made by real grandmothers back in Sarawak." Well sure, no host is going to refuse any old food, but it still looks damn cool if your food comes with such wild and verbose taglines. But I digress.

Back to the soup chicken theory. A good soup chicken is preferably one that spent its entire life running around a yard, or better yet, an entire village. It would have spent its days eating real corn and whatever decomposing bits of rubbish that people like to leave under the eaves of their homes. It would be skinny, and a bit tough, like one was trying to bite into jerky. Oh, and it can usually also kind of fly. And for a very good soup chicken, only the insane or masochistic would even consider trying to fry it.

Alternatively, you could have a garden chicken, which would be less stringy and remarkably more well fed, but only fed on real corn. The typical garden chicken would be an ex-layer, and layers come with all kinds of cool stuff like unhatched, undeveloped eggs inside the cavity, which makes a lovely addition to any clear broth. Mmm. Eggs.

Neither chicken, of course, being usually within the reach of a city of three million people packed in terrace houses (idea stolen from the English) and apartments. This is why Malaysians already living in a city with more supermarkets per square kilometer than you could imagine would survive still go to the traditional, icky wet market, to purchase authentic out-of-town live chickens that would then be slaughtered and plucked on the spot. Oh, I did mention the perfect soup chicken had to be murdered fresh, right?

Many supermarkets have also jumped on the bandwagon, selling (we hope) authentic "village chickens", pre-slaughtered and chilled in their Poultry sections. It's worth noting that many Malaysian supermarkets don't have too many meats frozen, as Malaysians really don't like frozen meat. Chilled air-flown Australian prime free-range beef? Fresh living crabs? Swimming fish? You get the idea.

Some Malaysians in major cities also take to keeping a chicken or two in their backyards. Depending on the area, this might be illegal, but the point is, you can raise your own real corn fed chicken if you really wanted to. And the amazing part is, er, quite a lot of people actually do.

2. Prime Ingredients Cost.

During major festivals, like the upcoming Chinese New Year, a good soup chicken can fetch a price of RM100 (USD25). Strict government regulation usually helps bring prices down, but good chicken connoisseurs know that if you're going to get a chicken for that all important family reunion dinner, you might as well get it right. And of course, this also applies to a whole range of other ingredients you wouldn't believe. Take durians.

Durians (lit. thorny, to describe a fruit with a hard, spiky shell and an equally preposterous smell) are the Malaysian National Fruit. We eat it raw, stick it in cakes, pickle it and boil it with sugar. Prior to the durian season, a good tree in a reputable orchard can be booked a year in advance. During the durian season, people drive hours out of the city to sometimes the other end of Peninsular Malaysia to get good fruit. Fresh fruit that fell the night before (you can't pick a durian -- that's life-threatening; you wait for it to fall off the tree) that you hack in two and eat by squatting on the roadside after an arduous road trip tastes better than the fruit they drive down to Kuala Lumpur you get pre-hacked and packaged in a supermarket.

Some Malaysians are so obsessed with their local fruit, they buy and start weekend orchards to drive to for picnics. Of course, some Malaysians actually own family orchards that have been around generations, or know this relative in that kampung in this state that knows someone. You get the idea. And everyone usually has a favorite strain of a particular fruit, which is how a certain tree in a certain orchard grown from certain soil that for some reason only exists on a particular hill in someone's home district tastes better than neighbors 1 km down the road. It's also much cheaper to buy fruit from the producers, obviously, though Malaysians would probably be flabbergasted if you asked where the fuel and tidbit costs for a roadtrip came in.

3. But Who Drives Five Hours for Coffee?!

Pfft. Local coffee defies any Starbucks or Dome! Only fashionable idiot youngsters would think local coffee that costs 1/4th the price of a Mocha Stawberry Caramel Ice-Blended Frappy Thing tastes better than the standard breakfast food of all Malaysians, and they still drink the local stuff more often anyway. Hai Peng's coffee shop has been churning out its self-grown, self-fried, self-ground coffee beans for 65 years and counting. A good cup of their Kopi O (black coffee) or Teh Si (white tea) with a wholesome plate of their homemade toasted buns slathered in rich homemade kaya (egg and coconut jam) and real margarine is guaranteed to restore your wakefulness for the five hours home to KL. In fact, it'll probably keep you up well into the next morning, so be very careful about those cuppas. People drive hours from all over to buy 1 kg buckets of the coffee beans or tubs of the kaya to bring home to family and friends. German tourists rave about it in their blogs. Hai Peng Lou has been featured in all the national newspapers (some more than once), and nearly all the Malaysian food review shows (that's right, Malaysian TV obsesses about food far away from home). While you're in Kemaman, do also wander down near the coast for the equally famous Stuffed Crabs. It's your normal de-shelled crab, meat removed and minced with onions and veges, restuffed and coated in meringue before being baked to a lovely golden brown. In fact, while you're along any Malaysian coast, try the seafood, because Malaysian coasts are just good for their seafood (and proper cooking methods!).

Five hours too far away for you? Drive an hour out of Kuala Lumpur to Tanjung Malim (in Perak, it's just next door) to Yik Ming's coffeeshop, also famous for its home-fried coffee, homemade kaya and Pau (Chinese steamed buns). People buy frozen and fresh packs of their pau, along with the obligatory 1 kg pack of coffee and kaya, to bring home to relatives and friends. Yik Ming has also appeared in national newspapers, and lines of people appear from neighboring states daily to grab more stuff. It's also a little known thing that Yik Ming is good for it's Cantonese Fried Meehon (crispy rice vermicelli in egg sauce with seafood). I usually grab a plate when I'm there. Good stuff.

Speaking of the perfect noodle, it's always worth asking people where and what their perfect noodles are. Sure, you could always walk into any hawker centre and grab a plate of random noodles and hope it's good, but this is a hard method, and often disappoints. Real good noodle shops are nearly always hidden away behind some large building in the middle of town in the midst of some crazy alleyway where you simply cannot find parking, and the air-conditioning is shot (if it exists). Check Chinatown (Petaling Street and surrounds) if you're in Kuala Lumpur. Rumors exist that the best Ipoh Hor Fun is found near the old Rex Theatre, in a shack that sells nothing but perfect pak cham kai, stir fried beansprouts and only hor fun soup. And before you go, chicken is chicken, beansprouts are beansprouts, hor fun is just blinking hor fun! You've already heard my tirade on chickens. Ipoh Hor Fun uses the best boiled chickens, cooked till slightly pink on the bone, served with soy sauce. Beansprouts are not just beansprouts. The proper beansprout from a hor fun shop is raised on specially monitored water, and the soy sauce its served with is usually restaurant grade (even if the hor fun shop in question is a shack). (I could probably do an equally long tirade on the merits of restaurant grade superior soy sauce, but you really don't want to hear that). And hor fun is not just hor fun. Good shops either make or buy it fresh (but the authentic version is clearly made by the shop), and chop accordingly. It is firm, smooth and has a silky texture that goes down your throat like jelly.

As with any good shop that serves noodles with soup, the stock isn't any old stock either. Good noodle shop stock usually has a si fu behind it, who will monitor the simmering pot of carefully mixed bones, white peppercorns and secret herbs and spices for hours on end. Good noodle soup of any sort is defined by the soup as much as the noodle! Never waste good soup if you stumble upon it, and never look down on the efforts behind a simple bowl of noodles in clear stock. Top of the line noodle shops usually have a si fu for the stock, a si fu for the individual meats and a si fu to mind the noodles. People train for years to make the humblest foods. But yes, it's also true that foods that include the name of a home state or district (eg. Penang Fried Kway Teow, Kajang Satay, Sarawak Laksa) usually implies that the best examples of those dishes come from home.

That's why Malaysians travel miles to find them.

4. And That's Why It Has to be This Shop, Not That One From the Same Chain That Just Opened Next to Your House.

Consistency is one of those rare traits that a lot of good chain stores can mess up. In Malaysia, some of the reasons can be plain lack of quality control. In an equally large number of cases, chain restaurants open new stores with slightly different concepts, and usually very different chefs. This is because chain restaurants, like the major Chinese restaurant chains, usually open restaurants in different areas tailored to different clientele. Using the same example of major Chinese restaurant chains, each restaurant in the chain will carry a different menu, up to the whim of the master chef hired to run the kitchen of said restaurant. Foods served are dependent on individual promotions. One restaurant may be having a lobster month, another from the same chain down the road may be doing duck. Malaysians will travel across cities to find their favorite restaurant, even if a restaurant from the same chain just opened next to their house. This usually takes about an hour in traffic, hence why Malaysians don't actually mind just driving out of the city and avoiding all that. This theory isn't restricted to major Chinese restaurant chains. Quite a number of different cuisines have chain restaurants in Kuala Lumpur espousing heterogenous menus across shops. They always grow up to be an individual species, in their tiny pockets of the city, attracting different predators to germinate their offspring even farther ashore.

My personal theory of chain stores is never trust a chain restaurant of chicken rice, coffee, cheesecakes, sushi, teppan and Thai cuisine. Especially not if they have a standard menu. Not unless you really know the shop, or you're that hungry. On the other hand, the standard shops in a typical Kuala Lumpur suburb typically includes at least one chicken rice chain, coffee chain, cheesecake chain, sushi chain and maybe a KFC, but I'm digressing, again.

Good experiences I've had were with yong tau fu (stuffed tofu, fried or souped) chainstores, Taiwanese won ton noodles, nasi lemak vans (staple Malaysian breakfast food: rice steamed in coconut milk, served with fried peanuts, anchovies, egg, cucumber and a choice of curry), HK noodle houses, Chinese restaurant chains, coffee cream bun bakeries and Japanese sit-down restaurant chains that are not teppan or sushi (although this is dependent on what you're ordering, usually; if you have a choice, go for the individual concept restaurant).

I mourn the departure of the Mos Burger.

I hail the rise of the Roti Boy, even if it still takes 15 minutes to get a damn coffee cream bun with a whole knob of butter in the middle at 5 PM right next to the busiest subway stop in KL because people call in and order hours in advance for 20 pax so you have to wait for the freshly baked, piping hot buns to come out of the oven to you in greasy paper bags. And then I hate the migraine I get because I suddenly remember I'm not supposed to take high doses of coffee.

Drat. Oooh. Roti Boy's lesser known cream corn buns are nice too.

And now you sort of know why Malaysians travel for hours, sometimes with multiple modes of transport, sometimes over water and wailing monsoons, sometimes on fuel worth 500 times the price of a meal, just to get a perfect bowl of noodles/cup of coffee/fluffy bun. Because we're nuts, absolutely bonkers, and there's a whole rabid nation of us that wants to eat and shop and eat like we have no cholesterol. Yes, "That's why."

I leave you now with my Weird Friend Quote of the Day, brought to you by markfinnCabbit: "Cabbit not eat fish. Cabbit eat vegetables like carrots and chicken and cow."

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