After leaving Hairi’s jungle outpost, it felt strange to be back in
civilization. Young people loitered near the seawall of a small city we’d come to, enjoying the breeze and eating take-away from the bustling outdoor market just a parking lot away.
Down below, a mess of boulders formed a wave break. Cats
pounced between the rocks, unhindered by their strangely mangled tails; some were stumps, others crooked, and a few had ends like lollipops.
I had voiced my sadness about these cats a week earlier, and was glad to have been told that it was simply a genetic defect found in Asian cats, not some sadistic sport carried out by knife-wielding youths.
Past the boulders, the tide was way out, exposing a wasteland of puddles
and sticky, shin-deep mud. Two Muslim girls, around twelve years of age, sat on
the boulders of the wave break singing along to the streaming music on their
phone. One girl casually tossed a rock between her hands, and finally lofted it
into the mud. The girls exploded in a fit of giggles as the rock splashed into the
mud, unexpectedly speckling their faces and their silky hijabs with mud. We
smiled at their reactions while our gaze shifted ahead.
“Look at that poor fish flopping in the mud!” Brad said.
A rather ugly fish, grey like the mud with spiky fins, was so far from the
water that there was no chance it would survive its own negligence. Soon the
mud plain was alive with movement, and I realized that there were hundreds of
these fish flopping in the mud. Could they all have ignored their natural instinct
to follow the shifting tides back out to sea? And then I noticed something even
more surprising: using their pectoral fins, these fish were actually walking! I
clearly knew nothing.
I later learned that this fish, called a mudskipper, deliberately stays
behind when the tide goes out, hiding in seaweed and tidal pools until the coast
is clear. At this point they begin their double life on land, retreating every so
often to their muddy burrows to stay wet, and defending their territory by
catapulting their muscular bodies up in the air in animated brawls with other
Eventually the sky darkened and we were forced to leave our rocky rest
spot. We wandered down the coast to the glowing canopy of an evening food
This was one of the most rewarding aspects of Malaysia: diving into
street food markets, never knowing just what we’d find. Depending on our
location, the options can vary widely based on the mix of the three main ethnic
groups in Malaysia. Down one street, a market will cater to the Chinese
community. Head down another and there may be halal food for the Muslims, or
perhaps mamuk , a cuisine that has resulted from the intermarriage of migrating
Indian Muslims and Malay women.
Our options were endless, but we gravitated toward mamuk . Clearly Indian
in flavor and technique, but only found in Malaysia, roti chanai is the most
common of mamuk foods. A skinny Tamil man with a moustache and a tank top
—and it is always this man—kneads, folds, oils, tosses and finally fries the
dough on a griddle. It is somehow both stretchy and flaky, and is served on a
circular metal tray with a few sides of spicy chutney and lentils.
While Brad usually ordered some variation of roti , I opted for thosai , a
crepe made from a mixture of rice flour and black dhal, left to ferment overnight
and then cooked on the griddle. We washed down every meal with a couple of
rounds of teh tarek , literally, “pulled tea,” made with sweetened-condensed milk
and poured back and forth between two containers arm’s length apart to mix and
froth it. The higher the pull, the thicker the froth. It is an artist’s process, worth
ordering if only to watch it being made.
When we weren’t eating food of Indian or Chinese influence, our Malay
food of choice was nasi, a variable rice dish. Malay food is not complete without
a healthy portion of noodles or rice, and ordering a meal without them is like
ordering a sandwich without the bread. It may sound boring by contrast, but the
combination of ingredients, flavors, and techniques mean that these dishes never
One hot afternoon I stopped by a small cart and pointed to an egg. It was
all I wanted, but before I could blink an eye, the vendor had twirled a piece of
parchment paper into a cone shape, filled it with rice, fried peanuts, dried
anchovies, a cucumber slice, a dollop of spicy bean paste, and a hardboiled egg
on top. He folded the parchment down over the top like a lid and handed it to
To drive through Malaysia is to blaze a trail from one great market stall
meal to another, and this night would be no different. After sitting and watching
the Muslim girls splash themselves with mud, and the cats searching for lizards
among boulder piles, and the walking fish chasing each other across the mud
flats, Brad and I sat down for dinner in front of an illuminated market stall in the
parking lot set back from the muddy coast. Tonight we would feast on satay
cooked over a charcoal fire, served with spicy peanut sauce, cucumber slices,
and tightly packed cubes of sticky rice. We washed our sticky fingers with hot
water from a communal kettle, and then finished the evening by sampling an
array of pink fluffy muffins and crispy pancakes oozing with crushed peanuts
We returned to the waterfront with full bellies, found Nacho, and said
goodnight to the cats and the walking fish. We would need our rest, because
tomorrow there would be more stops to discover on Malaysia’s food trail.