In Malaysia, Spice Is the Food of Life

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In Malaysia, Spice Is the Food of Life

JOHOR BAHRU, Malaysia - It is easy to drive right by Johor Bahru, a small city in southern Malaysia, just outside Singapore. Many people on their way from Singapore to other parts of Malaysia take in the tropical beauty of Johor, but only as it flashes past their car windows.

If tourists do stop in Johor Bahru, they usually spend only enough money to sip on a cool, refreshing drink. Hence Johor Bahru has earned a reputation as a "Coca Cola city." Those spending more than the cost of a Coke are often shopping or buying sex in this border town.

Or that is how it used to be.

The capital city of the state of Johor has been reinventing itself. The Johor state executive councillor, Chua Soi Lek, is also the chairman of the tourism and environment committee. For the past three years, he has been promoting Johor's natural beauty and food products.

Twenty percent of the state is rainforest, of which the most famous is Endau-Rompin National Park. While manufacturing is the city's main source of income, agriculture comes close. Watermelon, pineapple, papaya, jack fruit and durian are just a few of the area's fresh specialties. With such diversity and plenty of fruits growing here, it came as no great surprise when the city snagged the rights to host the first nationwide Food and Fruit Festival.

The outdoor festival kicked off at the end of June with fireworks, a parade, ethnic dancing and stalls of cooked food and fresh and dried fruits.

More than 10,000 people took to the city square to walk and eat shoulder to shoulder. There were outdoor dining areas, but few empty chairs. But why sit when row after row of food is calling?

A Malaysian meal typically includes a generous serving of rice, a spicy condiment called sambal - ground chilies and shrimp paste - and a selection of lauk, or side dishes. Spices are integral to these dishes. Wet spices include shallots, ginger, garlic, fresh chilies and turmeric. The spices are often pounded in a mortar and pestle. The major dry spices are coriander, cumin, aniseed, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom.

At the festival, the portions were only sample size, so there was no need to worry about proper eating etiquette. Since the ringgit is weak compared to the dollar (won cannot be converted to ringgit directly, and instead must be converted to dollars first), it costs little to spend a midsummer's night feasting and reflecting on the country's rich history.

Malaysia had periods of Portuguese, Dutch and then British rule. Its famed port, Melaka, drew ships from all over the world, particularly China and India. Now the food culture of the country draws from that diverse past.

The spices of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian food wafted through the festival stalls, but the food was distinctly Malaysian. For example, because of Malaysia's Islamic character, none of the Chinese dishes contains pork.

The satay was particularly delicious - cubes of meat, poultry or seafood marinated in a spicy sauce, skewered on bamboo sticks, roasted over charcoal and dipped in peanut sauce. It is a popular Malaysian dish and a good choice for the less adventurous.

For more typical Malaysian fare, laksa and nasi lemak stand out. Noodles, coconut milk, chilies, lime, garlic and onion go into preparing a good laksa. The dish is supposed to be outrageously spicy. There is a popular Malaysian saying: "The more you sweat, the better it is. If you don't sweat, the cook is a lousy cook."

Nasi lemak is a simple breakfast food made of rice cooked in coconut milk. It is vaguely similar to juk, Korean gruel.

For lighter fare, try the penang rojak, a spicy fruit salad.

South Indian food was also prominent at the festival. The rich flavors of lemongrass, galangal, lime leaf, coriander leaf and curry leaf enhanced the many curry dishes.

Three dishes similar to bread are hoppers, chapatis and paratha. Hoppers are made of ground rice soaked in coconut milk. Chapatis is unleavened wholemeal flour served with curry or dhall. It is similar to nan, except that nan is baked while chapatis is cooked in a frying pan or iron griddle. Paratha is probably the most popular of Indian breads; it is rich, layered, flaky and served with curry or eaten as a light snack.

For Chinese food, there was char mee, fried yellow noodles with bean curd.

The festival is traveling across the country, and will be at Kuala Lumpur until July 29.

There are no plans for the festival to go international, according to Han Jung-hee at the Seoul branch of the Malaysian tourism board. Nor are there any Malaysian restaurants in Korea. So if the craving hits, the Internet is the best guide to whipping up a meal.

Two of the most notable sites include:, which is based in Singapore, but includes Malaysian recipes, and

Only eight recipes are listed, but they include satay and peanut sauce.

by Joe Yong-hee

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