THE clams arrived at our table hot, fat and juicy, stir-fried in a caramel-colored paste that was by turns sweet and salty, and flecked with laksa, a spicy-bitter green herb. I knew immediately why Id come to Penang, an island off Malaysias west coast near the Thai border. This was a gastronomical Eden, where popular pastimes include questing for the best fried noodles and where one of the free tourist magazines is named simply Food Paradise.
I was on my third or fourth clam when Mun Tip a friend of a friend who, for no reason other than her pride in Malaysian cuisine, was showing me around Penangs finest restaurants broke my reverie.
Actually, Ive had a better version of this, she said. It should not be sweet, not large clams, and with more belacan, the pungent shrimp paste that is a cornerstone of Malay cuisine, like fish sauce to the Thai, or butter to the French.
Except that this wasnt strict Malay cooking. The restaurant, Ocean Green, was ostensibly Chinese, and the stir-frying exemplified a Chinese cooking concept called wok hei, whereby you can literally taste the heat of the pan in the food. I pointed this out, hoping somehow to redeem what I thought was the best dish of the evening.
Thats the thing about Malaysian food, Mun Tip said cheerily. Everyone uses each others ingredients.
And there are a lot of ingredients and cooking techniques to use. While the ethnic makeup of this equatorial Southeast Asian nation is roughly two-thirds Bumiputra, a quarter Chinese and 7.5 percent Indian, such a census is wholly inadequate when it comes to capturing the culinary allegiances of 25 million people.
For the Chinese are not simply Chinese, but Cantonese, Hainanese, Hokkien, Hakka and Teochew each with its own traditions and recipes. The Indians are Tamils, Punjabis and Bengalis. And the Bumiputra include ethnic Malays, both Muslim and non-Muslim, as well as numerous indigenous groups with diverse religious (and culinary) preferences. And even that fails to take into account the centuries of intermarriage and the hybrid cuisines that emerged, or the lingering colonial influences of the Portuguese, Dutch and British.
But whatever the origin, there is one way to classify what people eat in this nation of immigrants: unbelievably delicious.
Of course, deliciousness is a matter of taste, and Malaysians, whatever their ethnic heritage, are intensely regional. So I began my exploration of this culinary melting pot in Malacca, a historic port town on the southwest coast that was a hub of the global spice trade between the 16th and 19th centuries and the namesake of the Strait of Malacca, still a vital shipping lane.
It was in Malacca, 100 miles south of the present-day capital, Kuala Lumpur, where Chinese immigrants first settled. Zheng He, the famed Ming-era admiral also known as Cheng Ho a Muslim, as it happens arrived in 1409 and established trade ties with China that led more of his countrymen to relocate there.
Those pioneering men, isolated from their homeland, married local women, and a new culture began to take shape. The men were known as baba, women as nyonya and the families became known as Peranakans. The clothes they wore and the food they ate incorporated both cultures.
Soybeans were in; pork was out. Noodles and stir-frying were introduced into Malay kitchens, while Malay-style slow-cooking embraced Chinese ingredients. Chopsticks also disappeared from the dining table: Malays traditionally eat with their hands. Eating with utensils, they say, is like making love through a translator.
You can glimpse their hybrid lives at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum, the restored home of a rich baba with an interesting mixture of Chinese and British furnishings: downstairs, a formal greeting area with mother-of-pearl-inlaid lacquered chairs; upstairs, a Victorian sideboard displaying century-old bottles of Hennessy. (Alcohol, apparently, did not follow porks lead.)
The museums enormous open-air kitchen, with its woks, ice-cream maker and gaily decorated nyonya ceramics, will make you hungry. Luckily, just down the street, past more baba shophouses, is Donald & Lilys, a quiet restaurant that makes an excellent nyonya laksa, a bowl of thick rice noodles in a coconut-fish-curry broth with spongy fish balls, blood cockles, slices of fried tofu and laksa leaves. For dessert, order cendol, a bowl filled with crushed ice, coconut milk, green wormlike noodles and sweet red beans. Its better in Malacca than anywhere else in Malaysia because its topped with the local sweetener, gula melaka, a rich caramelized palm sugar flavored with pandan leaves.
Pause for a minute to consider the origin of each ingredient of the nyonya laksa: The noodles are Chinese, as is the tofu. The delicate fishballs might be Teochew, a lighter version of the Cantonese variety. The coconut milk, laksa, pandan leaves and gula melaka are native Malay. And the curry spices cumin, turmeric, coriander, cloves and nutmeg? Indian. Or Malay.
Or maybe Portuguese. For it was those seafarers (along with the Spanish) who spread New World ingredients like chili peppers throughout Asia and Africa, and it was Malacca they chose to colonize in 1511. Even today, their presence can be felt: St. Pauls Church sits roofless atop Flag Hill in the town center, and theres a neighborhood still populated by their descendents, where shrines to the Virgin Mary can be seen in homes and one occasionally hears Portuguese spoken. And, of course, they cook, although to my palate, any Portuguese influence was undetectable and there was no vinho verde in sight.
Better, perhaps, to indulge in Peranakan flavors. And at Baba Charlie Lee, in a semi-open kitchen down a skinny one-way alley facing the strait, youll find a rainbow of flavors. Mr. Lee specializes in kuih, a local cake that comes in dozens of varieties and hues ranging from pandan-leaf green and royal blue to racy yellow and jet black.
Kuih are not what Westerners normally think of as cakes. Theyre glutinous, and as likely to be stuffed with savory dried shrimp as with sweet grated coconut or sesame paste. Occasionally, though, the texture is less alien, as with apam ba kua, a light, spongy kuih served with a banana dipping sauce thats almost like a crepe.
Avoid the temptation to drive away, as I did, with several pounds of kuih. Youll need your appetite for dinner at Bibik Neo, a delightful restaurant whose facade is clad in cheery yellow-and-green wooden slats. Like most Malaysian restaurants, the interior is utilitarian, which seems entirely appropriate for a place that specializes in simple, homestyle Peranakan cooking.
Vivien, a friend of Mun Tips, had brought me there to sample local food youd have a hard time finding outside Malacca, let alone outside Malaysia. Joined by her mother, Valmae, they ordered up an omelet with salted shrimp; squid sautéed with sambal, a spicy chili sauce; ayam pongteh, a deceptively simple chicken stew flavored with garlic, soybean paste and gula melaka; and crunchy bright-green petai, also known as stink beans a name began to make sense about 12 hours later.
Typical, Valmae decreed with instructive delight as each dish arrived. This is typical nyonya food.
If this is typical, I thought, then what does amazing taste like?
THE answer, I hoped, would be found in Penang, which everyone I met in Malaysia agreed is foodie heaven. Like Malacca, mountainous Penang was the hub of an earlier round of globalization, when merchants from far-flung origins British and Malay, Siamese and Dutch, Chinese and Indian, Sumatran and German gathered on this formerly uninhabited island to conduct business. But unlike Malacca, which dwells on its illustrious past, Penang is forward-looking. A glut of high-tech companies like Intel and Motorola has earned it the nickname Silicon Island.
Luckily, development has not destroyed the lovely early-20th-century structures of Georgetown, Penangs main city. Many of the British administration buildings retain their original function, and shophouses exhibit an array of styles, from the humble, unventilated homes of the first settlers to the Corinthian columns and carved stucco of the wealthy Straits Eclectic period. (Malaysia is seeking designation of Penang and Malacca as Unesco World Heritage cities.)
The pride of Georgetown, however, has to be the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, built in the 1880s by its eponym, who had come to Penang at age 16 and built a banking and railroad fortune, eventually becoming Chinas consul general and gaining a reputation as the Rockefeller of the East. His indigo-washed home, restored in 1990, is certainly worthy of John D., with 38 rooms, Scottish cast-iron works, tiles imported from Stoke-on-Trent and a cavernous courtyard. (Worthy, too, of Catherine Deneuve Indochine was partly shot there.)
Today, the mansion is a hotel, its rooms furnished in a luxurious turn-of-the-century Chinese style, but with central air-conditioning and Wi-Fi in the courtyard. It also has a manager, a Kuala Lumpur transplant named Eric Fam, renowned for his knowledge of local food.
As long as Im living in Penang, Mr. Fam declared, I shall only eat good laksa.
Not a difficult task, especially if you stick to assam laksa, a noodle soup that combines tamarind juice, steamed and flaked mackerel, pineapple chunks, mint leaves and a big spoonful of sambal. Its a Penang specialty for a reason.
But dont wait to try it on a Wednesday, at least not in the nearby town of Balik Pulau, reputed to have some of the best laksas around. As I discovered the hard way, laksa vendors take Wednesdays off to clean their stalls. So I made do with Hokkien prawn mee (long egg noodles in a rust-colored shrimp broth) and rose apples and jasmine limes from a tropical fruit farm in the mountains.
It wasnt until the next day at lunch, at Georgetowns Joo Hooi Cafe, that I finally got to satiate my laksa urge. The bowl that arrived was a master class in contrasting textures and flavors, with each ingredient striking an almost perfect note: the rich and oily mackerel, the sharp mint and spicy sambal, the sour tamarind and sweet pineapples. And the thick, round white noodles were the chewy embodiment of q, the Chinese analog of al dente.
I would have eaten two more bowls, if I hadnt also ordered char kway teow, a platter of rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese sausage and blood cockles, that was the very essence of wok hei.
Alas, that was to be my final assam laksa, either because I arrived too early, too late or on the wrong day everyplace else.
Other feasts, however, made up for the laksa deficiency. There was the Northam Beach Cafe, a collection of hawker stands that sell grilled stingray and an addictive oyster omelet. In a painstakingly restored shophouse called East Xiamen Delicacies, I ate yam rice and mee teow, a salty fried rice noodle.
At Hameediyah Tandoori House, I tried murtabak, an Indian flatbread stuffed with egg and potatoes and served with curry sauce. And at roadside stalls, I stopped for nasi lemak, a Malaysian staple made of coconut rice, sambal, dried fish and a single rich lump of curried beef all bundled inside a banana leaf.
Yet even after this orgy of consumption was at its proper end, I extended it another day, returning to Malacca for one last dinner with Vivien. We drove out of town to Umbai Baru, a fishing village at the end of a little country road that was more like a seaside food court, with fishmongers crowded around shared grills and woks.
The catch at Sri Kemajuan looked especially nice, so we ordered a Malay-style grilled fish and kangkung belacan, a ubiquitous side dish of spinach stir-fried in shrimp paste. A long picnic table was dotted with baskets filled with leaf-wrapped bundles of coconut rice. When the sambal-slathered fish arrived, we unwrapped our rice, and I glanced around for a fork and spoon. No way, Vivien said, holding up her bare right hand.
We dug in literally to the beautifully moist fish, dangled the kangkung into our mouths and scooped up fistfuls of rice. By the end of the night, my digits were sticky, my lips were tingling, my belly was full and my head was spinning. I finally understood why Malays forsake utensils. Making love, indeed.
HOW TO GET THERE
Malaysia Airlines (800-5520-9264; www.malaysiaairlines.com) flies to Kuala Lumpur International Airport from Newark, with a stopover in Stockholm, three times a week, and from Los Angeles, through Taipei. Fares for late November start at $1,038 from Los Angeles and $1,080 from Newark.
The Kuala Lumpur airport has Hertz and Avis offices, both of which offer weekly rentals with unlimited mileage starting around $350. The North-South Expressway is a modern toll road along the west coast.
WHERE TO STAY
In Malacca, the Hotel Puri (118 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock; 60-6-282-5588; www.hotelpuri.com), once a wealthy Peranakan familys home, has 50 clean, modern rooms around a tree-filled courtyard, as well as a cute spa. Doubles start at 110 ringgit, about $30 at 3.75 ringgit to the dollar.
The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion (14 Leith Street, Georgetown; 60-4-262-5289; www.cheongfatttzemansion.com) is easily the most atmospheric bunk in Penang and affordable; rooms start at 250 ringgit.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Meals in Malaysia are often small and snacky, so you get to try more dishes. Big meals, though, are served family style. The prices below are for a typical meal, without beverages unless specified.
Donald & Lilys, behind 31 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock; 60-6-284-8907; 8 ringgit.
Hoe Kee, 4-8 Jalan Hang Jebat (a k a Jonkers Street); 60-6-283-4751; 10 ringgit.
Bibik Neo, 6 Jalan Merdeka; 60-6281-7054; 24 ringgit.
Baba Charlie Lee, 72C Jalan Tengkera Pantai 2; 60-6-284-7209; kuih about 1 ringgit.
Sri Kemajuan, 2 Pengkalan Pernu, Umbai Baru; 30 ringgit.
In Georgetown, Penang:
Northam Beach Cafe, 674 Gurney Drive; 20 ringgit.
Joo Hooi Cafe, Jalan Penang an Lebuh Keng Kwee; 6 ringgit.
Ocean Green Restaurant and Seafood, 48F Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah; 60-4-226-2681; 50 ringgit (with beer).
Hameediyah Tandoori House, 156 Campbell Street; 60-4-261-1095; 5 ringgit.
East Xiamen Delicacies, 53 Love Lane; 60-4-263-3818; 15 ringgit.
WHAT TO DO
Malacca has a number of museums worth visiting, besides the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum (48-50 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock; 60-6-283-1273; admission 10 ringgit).
The Stadthuys Complex (Jalan Gereja; 60-6-283-6538; 5 ringgit), contains history and ethnographic museums in the well-preserved buildings of the Dutch and British colonial administrations.
The Cheng Ho Cultural Museum (51 Lorong Hang Jebat; 60-6-283-1135; 10 ringgit) tells the story of Zheng Hes voyages in a 15th-century warehouse depot he opened.
The Penang Heritage Trust (26A Stewart Lane, Georgetown; 60-4-262-8421; pht.org.my) leads walking tours; 50 and 60 ringgit.