Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What I was doing two weeks ago today (5)

Some may think this blasphemy, but... I wasn't all that impressed with the food in Malaysia.

Yes, it's certainly a step up in quality from what we get at most hole-in-the-wall type places in China.  And basic grungy restaurant fare is pleasantly cheap (particularly welcome in a country where almost everything else is at least 1.5 to 2 times as expensive as in Beijing [and, god knows, Beijing is now 1.5 to 2 times as expensive as it was just a few years ago!!]).

But it's not a huge step up in quality. In cheap'n'cheerful places like this, you can't expect haute cuisine; it's going to be cheap cuts of meat, crudely chopped up with the bone fragments left in, and left to nurture bacteria on a barely warmed counter display for hours, or days.

Moreover, in KL at least, the great majority of the restaurants are Chinese. Did I want some Chinese food? I was constantly being asked by the front-of-house hucksters. Well, don't take this personally, but - NO, I was rather hoping for a change. The few Thai places I found seemed OK, but fairly unremarkable. There was one of the big Hindu festivals in progress, so a lot of the Indian restaurants seemed to be closed. And the local Malaysian nonya style cuisine - well, it seems to be a little bit limited in range, and heavily focused on seafood (which I'm allergic to); I have much the same problem with our own dear Café Sambal here in Beijing: once I've had the nonya chicken and the beef rendang (the latter strangely elusive down in Malaysia last month!), there's not an awful lot else for me in the way of entrées.

So.... my food experience in KL, while not terrible, had decidedly failed to live up to the high hopes friends had encouraged me to have for it.

But I found things rather better in Penang, where I spent the period between my two weekends in KL. In particular, I happened upon Restoran Kapitan, on Lebuh Chulia, just on the edge of the 'Little India' district in the old colonial settlement of Georgetown (which a couple of years or so ago became a UNESCO World Heritage site; its balconies and wooden shutters and ramshackle [poorly maintained, mouldering in the tropical damp, and slowly, inevitably losing the war against the termites] charm are a little reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans). It seems like just one of the run-of-the-mill 'food court' type restaurants that abound in Malaysia ('indoors' but open to the air, the ground floor of a building stripped of walls and doors; and usually with several disparate serving counters touting different kinds of food in a frenzy of barely co-ordinated entrepreneurism); but it's a little larger and more professionally run than most of them. And, although it offers a fair range of Malaysian dishes as well, it's pretty solidly Indian - so I was finally able to satisfy a yen for Indian food that had been building steadily for some months, until it had become practically an obsession.

I was particularly intrigued by their 'naan special'. 7 or 8 ringgit seemed rather a lot for a naan bread, however scrumptious and fresh-from-the-oven made-to-order it might be. However, I learned that - as well as being freshly baked in just a few minutes and very, very scrumptious - they were also enormous. And the 'special' came with a selection of dips.... and half a tandoori chicken! That was VALUE. I went back the next day as well (twice): great food at knockdown prices - at last, the cheap nosh paradise I'd been dreaming of!

They don't sell beer, alas (although their freshly-made fruit lassis are gorgeous! I think I had at least one mango - in some form - every day I was in the country; god, I love fresh mangoes!). So, afterwards, I had to repair half a mile or so down the road to the unassuming Monaliza Café - my other great discovery of that week, where the beers are icy cold, and (at least, by Malaysian standards) reasonably cheap.

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