On Malaysian Food and Petai

When in Rome, eat Italian food. When in Malaysia, indulge yourself in nasi lemak, curry, chilli pan mee, char kuey teow, bak kuh teh, and nasi briyani. To do otherwise would be heretic. Well, not really. But your taste buds would be missing out on so, so many things.

I think my five-year-plus stay here has turned my palate Malaysian. If I suddenly had to pack my bags and say farewell to this country forever, one of the first things I'd miss would definitely be THE FOOD. Caps locked, italicized, underlined.

I could rave on and on about the food here in My. True, some of my friends aren't that affectionate about it ("Everything tastes like curry!", "Everything is so red!", "Everything is so spicy!") but I believe the adventurous will love it. Nasi Lemak (fatty rice) as the national dish is a must try. There are also a variety of noodle dishes (both dry and soup-based) that noodle lovers will surely enjoy. Malaysian food is good all year round, Malaysians eat all day round, but there's a season when it's particularly fun to enjoy a real good gorge-fest - Hari Raya Aidilfitri. After the Muslims go through a one month fasting period, everyone goes on an extended period of feasting. Hurrah for Malaysian food!

I'm not really a big fan of petai, though. Petai is a type of bean aptly called by some people as "stink bean". Some friends made me try it out while I was still a neophyte here. 

"Try this out, Mari. It's delish." Friend puts a piece of petai in Mari's dish.

"Okay." Mari pops whole thing in her mouth. Friends await Mari's reaction.

"It's... fine." Friends burst out laughing.

The thing is, petai is also called "bitter bean". It has a tart, bitter taste in addition to a smelly aftertaste. People don't usually eat it on its own. Nor do they put the whole thing into their mouth and chew it like an almond nut (it's even bigger than an almond, dear friends). I think it will be enough to say that the bean didn't make it to my top ten must eats in Malaysia. It did make it to my top ten things to trick newbies into eating or doing. Insert evil laugh here.

I found out that petai actually tastes okay when mixed with sambal or when it's eaten with some spicy dish. On its own its something that I'll say no to. But with something else... it gives that something else a unique flavor.

I think God throws in a lot of petais into our life and we tend to isolate these instances and regard them as stinky and bitter. But when we mix in some spicy chili, some shrimp paste - different flavors from different aspects of our lives, or different ways of thinking perhaps - we realize that life isn't really that hard to swallow after all.

Hmmm. Maybe I should try eating some petai tomorrow.


Be Mobile. Be Very Mobile.

If there’s one thing I learned from being a dormer in a Malaysian university, it’s this: It pays to be mobile. Be very mobile.

I can not recall how many rooms I had moved into during my two years as a masters student. Wait, maybe I can. I must have trailed through six different rooms or so. Yes, six rooms in two years.

Twice I had to move after happily settling in because of some dorm mix ups. Twice more I had to move because, in my university, students who chose to stay during the summer break had to be displaced and kept inside a single block. And then I of course had to change rooms because each academic school year called for a new one. I only had to study for two years, so there you go. You can do the math.

Having had to move around that much, I needed to make sure i could pack up and relocate at a moment’s notice.

It was hard to be mobile, though. I came to Malaysia with only fifteen-plus kilograms worth of luggage. However, I seemed to have accumulated plenty more stuff with the passing of each additional semester. I hoarded books, papers, readings, clothes, kitchen utensils, toiletries, and cleaning materials. A lot of them were necessities. But the rest were by products of me being a pack rat.

Imagine what it was like to lug those things around three times every year.


My most memorable move was, of course, the first. In less than a month — or was it a week? — of occupancy, I woke up to the sound of someone knocking on my door. The person was gone by the time that I got around to opening it, but there was a note left lying at the floor:

“Please come to the office immediately.”

I thought I was in some sort of trouble. Did I break any dormitory rules I didn’t know about? However, when I got to the office, they simply informed me that the management was planning to use my block for transients. “You have to transfer to another one,” they told me.

“When?” I asked.

“By this afternoon,” was their reply.

Thankfully, I only had minimal belongings at the time. But I did own a thick, wooden study table. A friend had passed it to me with every good intention in mind. Well, it took a LOT of effort lugging that THING all the way from Block F to the third floor of Block D. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had someone to help me. But since I didn’t have any friends at the dormitory yet, I had to transport everything including that desk by myself.

It took me several trips to get my things to and from Block F and D. By the end of the move, I felt like I had done more than a day’s worth of exercise already.

Looking back, I realized I should have brought a trolley. Especially if I had know that it wouldn’t be my last time to do that relocating thing. But then again I didn’t expect to have moved around so much. So I never got around to buying one.

Right now, it’s time for me to do some moving again. Not to another block in the dorm, though. I had long graduated from that part of my life already. I’m moving to a new apartment, and gosh, my belongings seemed to have multiplied by a thousand and one times this time.

Thankfully, I now have some friends to help me out, unlike before. One of them has a trolley too.

I still wish I had taken my dormitory lesson to heart though. I wish I had managed to keep myself mobile. But oh well. After this move, I’ll make sure that I do.

Well, my belongings have now increased exponentially after five years.