Anytime fare

Last Updated 20 January 2018, 17:28 IST

"Bhaijaan, kya khilau?" the familiar Punjabi-tinged Hindi drew me in a foreign land. I was in Malaysia, exploring the little-discovered state of Selangor when the hunger pangs struck. I decided to head into one of the bustling restaurants lining the streets of Kuala Kubu Bharu when I heard these words. Inside was a cornucopia of activities as busy Malaysians scooped up platefuls of delicious-smelling food, while a multitude of servers hustled about.

I turned to Amjad, an immigrant from Lahore, Pakistan, who had apparently recognised my subcontinent face and called out to me. The initial hesitance of being an Indian passed as I mentioned I was from Delhi and he enveloped me in his arms like a long-lost brother. Here I was in a foreign land, making a friend across the border for the first time, who was willing to feed me some of his specialities. I had entered a mamak, a 24-hour restaurant where the strict definition of borders and cuisines had ceased to exist.

Gutsy game

The Malaysian way of eating is quite simple: eat frequently, and eat outside. With most of the Malaysians relying on these 24/7 restaurants to take care of their five to six daily meals, they have become a hotspot of activities. The colonists from an era gone by, the Chinese traders and the immigrants from India have combined their cuisines together to create a unique blend of dishes.

As the job opportunities flourished, more people from (especially) the Indian subcontinent poured in, bringing with them their own condiments and techniques. This made the mamaks a potpourri of cultures and flavours alike.

After the initial surprise of the place, I decided to check on the menu and a tightly bound spiral of plastic sheets was plonked down in front of me. The menu extended to more than 300 items and covered the gamut from Chinese to Indian, from Malaysian to Indonesian, and everything in-between. What I mean by everything in-between is that the traditional boundaries of the different cuisines have been dissolved to create dishes which borrow heavily from multiple ones at the same time.

Although the physical menu did have me confused on what to order, the visual menu had me pondering even harder. Not a single inch of the restaurant lay unused as dishes upon dishes lay on display, the visual cues causing my salivary glands to activate. Large fish heads, chicken legs covered in marinated, skewered pieces of meat, and a multitude of seafood lay in covered containers as the chefs hustled to finish up the orders. Seeing my dilemma and Amjad already having approached our table twice in hope of an order, my host Sharmila Valiasamy decided to take pity and order.

A plate of nasi goreng and a glass of cold tea were ordered for me, while she planned to consume a plateful of roti canai curry. As Amjad headed off, happy that his awestruck customer had finally ordered, I ventured out to explore the other parts of this 200-seater restaurant.

All around I saw people of various ethnicities sitting with their friends, partners, and colleagues, devouring platefuls of noodles, rice and a variety of gravies. The restaurant doubles up as your neighbourhood 24/7 store with cigarettes, sweets and other knick-knacks also available with the cashier.

The Goreng Paprik Seafood (RM 9.50 = INR 150) in itself was a cornucopia of flavours. The slightly sticky rice had been fried in a typical nutty Indonesian sauce and was covered with chicken and seafood of all kinds, before being topped off by an omelette. A single bowl meal that was quite filling. The Roti Canai Curry (RM 8 = INR 128), on the other hand, was quite reminiscent of my trip to Kerala. The roti canai was heavily influenced by the flaky Malabari  parantha  that was constructed of multiple layers akin to a filo pastry. The accompanying mutton curry could have been found in the by-lanes of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.

There was a warm umami taste to the mutton curry as it warmed me up. A tinge of creamy coconut cream in it added a typical Malay touch to it. The menu had a litany of other things to keep one occupied; masakan à la  Kampung (Kampung-style cuisine) and nasi kandar, originating from Penang, which consists of steamed rice along with a variety of curries.

Drinking chocolate

A surprising addition to the beverage menu here was Nestle's energy drink, Milo.

Found all over the country from five-star hotels to roadside stalls, the country seems to be in love with its warm, chocolatey taste. Malaysians love their tea, too, almost as much as the Indians. But the tea here is used in quite a different avatar. The use of sweetened condensed milk instead of the regular skimmed version gives it a richer, sweeter taste that eliminates the need for a dessert.

But being a Bengali, it is pretty much sacrilege to let go of any kind of dessert, and I absolutely fell in love with the Malaysian kuih dadar  (made out of coconut shavings stuffed in a crepe of sticky rice). It was pretty similar to the paatishaptas I used to roll out in my childhood.

I had gone into the Shaaz Curry House in search of something to assuage my hunger pangs, instead, I came out with a discourse on the intertwining of food and culture that defines Malaysia.

(Published 20 January 2018, 11:46 IST)

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