Thursday, April 5, 2012

My Malaysian To-Do List

The word is out that I am friends with half the country of Malaysia. Well, that might be a tiny exaggeration but as I explained here, I am extraordinarily blessed to have found some wonderful and genuine friends in a small country on the other side of the earth.

So when am I going to jump on a plane and go meet these people in person? I am asked that question all the time. Of course, it's a lovely idea and it would be a fantastic adventure and I hope someday to make it all come true.

But a plane ticket to Malaysia costs a lot of money. I won't be going any time soon.

That's just all the more reason to plan out my trip. For the past couple years, I've been keeping a list of things to do and places to see in Malaysia, once I finally get my feet on the ground over there. Here's what I have in mind:

1. Learn the language.

Let's face it, I've got my work cut out for me. Not only do I need to master Bahasa Melayu, the formal Malay language, but my friends from Kelantan also use their own dialect of BM that is so distinctive and different as to almost be a separate language. As I understand it, they speak both forms of the language at pretty much the same time, switching effortlessly back and forth, throwing in some English every now and then, as they see fit. Uh oh. Sounds challenging.

But here's the thing. In 2010, an American man named Ben Bradshaw made a huge splash in Malaysia by mastering the mother tongue and posting videos like these, and also the one shown here, where he calls out, "Gomo Kelate Gomo," the rallying cry of the Kelate Football Club. So really, if this pretty boy can cross the language barrier, then so can I.

2. Drive on the wrong side of the car and the road.

Malaysia was a colony of Great Britain for a couple hundred years, and when the Brits finally pulled out, they left behind their backwards driving protocols. Yep, Malaysian cars have the steering wheel on the right, and everyone drives to the left side of the road. What the what, I can't wait to drive backwards! First, I'll have to convince someone to let me drive their car, and then I will try my hand at this fascinating sport. Can't wait.

However, if these Asians won't trust this American woman driver (and wouldn't that be a delicious irony, given American perceptions of Asian women drivers), then maybe I will just grab a motorcycle or a four-wheeler like this one, sit right down in that centrally located driver's seat, and point it down the middle of the biggest Malaysian expressway that I can find. That ought to resolve the drama about left versus right, once and for all.

Photo credit to Mohd Hazli Aziz

3. Make myself at home in Kelantan.

It only makes sense that my international flight would take me directly into Kuala Lumpur, the big city of Malaysia and the current living and working place of most of my friends. It'll be great to see their homes and their offices and all the places where they live their day-to-day lives.

Of course, I will also want to visit their hometowns in Kelantan. As you may recall, the Kelantanese (or Kelate) are exceedingly proud of their home state and I'll be sure to check it out. But I won't just flit through on a typical tourist junket. I want to see what it's like to live in Kelate. I want to run errands at the grocery store, wander around the neighborhoods, see the local hangouts, and most of all, meet my friends' extended families. To be honest, I'm hoping to sit on my friends' parents' couches and chat about life in Kelantan and life in America until we all get hungry. Then I'm hoping the mamas and grandmamas will take me into the kitchens and show me how to cook Kelate style. I promise to wash all the dirty dishes in thanks for their hospitality.

Photo credit: Farizul Izwany

4. Eat a lot.

I am planning to try a lot of new foods. Not gonna lie, I'm a little concerned about budu. It's a popular Kelate condiment made mostly of fermented fish. And I'm not sure what to think about durian, the notoriously malodorous fruit. Hmm. There's also a lot of talk about eels and calamari and anchovies and octopus and other such slippery things that don't appeal to me any more in Malaysian cooking than they do in American dishes. But I'll be a trooper and try it all.

 Not every meal will be are two dishes I'm sure to like:

Photo credit: Abe Ej

This bowl is full of crab, shrimp, loksam noodles and cabbage leaves. I would eat it all up in a heartbeat.

Photo credit: Abe Ej
This is lompat tikam, which literally translates as "jump stab." Interesting name for a dessert. Anyway, here is how it was described to me: "The green stuff is made from rice flour, mixed with pandan leaves (to make it more fragrant plus to add the green color on it), the red one is the sticky rice, it is cooked and red coloring is added to give an iinviting look of it. FYI, these dessert is best to be eaten with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup."

5. Learn how to cook authentic Roti Canai and Nasi Dagang.

I've tried to make a few Malay dishes at home. Of course, it's an easy thing to find recipes online, and once the metric measurements are translated to English units, it's simple enough to follow the technique. But I'm missing one essential ingredient of the cooking process: the essential ingredients! In every recipe I have attempted, there is some particular form of rice or specific spice that I can't track down, and I'm pretty sure that ruins the authenticity of my dishes. Alas. But when I'm in country, I will rely on my friends' mamas and the local Tesco to keep my cooking real.

This was my first attempt at Roti Canai, a breakfast bread similar to Indian nan. It isn't quite legit, but it is loaded down with butter so who can complain about that?

6. Go to a Red Warriors game.

This will be a great day. Can't wait to walk into the stadium and see a red sea of Red Warriors fans. There'll be vuvuzelas blasting and sunflower seeds to eat and the rebana ubi drums pounding, and of course, lots of yelling and cheering going on. I will lose my voice and it will be fantastic.

Photo credit: Nasirullah Yusoff

7. Go hiking and adventuring in the wilds.

Malaysia is a tropical land, near the equator, and bursting with interesting natural features. There are mountains to climb, jungles to hike through and waterfalls to explore. Big and little islands surround the penninsula and beaches abound. I want to climb Broga Hill at dawn, bask in the crisp air of the Cameron Highlands (it will feel like home, I'm sure), and swim in the pools at many a waterfall.

Photo credit: Fana Rani
Photo credit: Kamaruzaman Haji Zaid Al-Kelantani
Photo credit: Sych Losstarrot

8. See a giant lizard. From far away.

It shocks me to think about what creepy crawlies might be lurking around the lush tropical vegetation of Malaysia and photos like this one don't help me one bit. It's a lizard - a BIG lizard - just chilling in the middle of the road. From the car, I'm good. But I am not sure how I'd react if I met one of these beasts in a more of a one-on-one. Don't even want to think about that.

Photo credit: Mat Ja Abdul Malik

9. Cook for my hosts.

Just as my friends and their families will no doubt prepare lovely meals for me, I hope to return the favor. I'd love a chance to feed my friends in their own homes, with some of my go-to favorites, such as spaghetti and meatballs, and blackberry pie. Hmm. Don't suppose they have a lot of blackberries in Malaysia. Might have to see if I can manage a durian pie. How hard can it be?

10. Spend time with my friends.

More than anything else, of course, I want to enjoy the face-to-face company of my friends. I want to play with the babies, help the wives in the kitchen, watch football matches, listen to music, and most of all, sit around with my friends, joking and laughing, just as we do online.

Once a year, during Ramadhan, my closest group of Kelantanese friends get together for Buko Poso, the breaking of the fast after sunset. I see pictures like this one, of all their friendly faces, the table groaning with empty plates, remaining scraps of food, and that strange pink beverage. No matter what time of year I may happen to visit, I want to sit at a table just like this one with all of them, and eat a splendid meal. When that happens, I will mentally check the last item off my Malaysian to-do list and say, "Yes! I've finally made it!"

Photo credit: Mohd Yuzairie

Save me a seat, people...I'm coming as soon as I can!


  1. that will be great! by the way, i'm the one who sit beside my friends who hand in the air with green parka. :)

  2. Also, go to Langkawi. I will keep adding to our list in these comments, okay, Hammie?

  3. Perhentian and/or Redang Island, in Terenggenu.

    Penang, for the bridge and the food, of course.

  4. hey how come my pic is not listed there... :)

    1. If I listed everyone and everything I wanted to see, this would be the longest blog post ever written!


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