Day One: I arrive at Kuala Lumpur airport tired and bleary-eyed after the red eye from Delhi. It would be nice to go to a hotel and sleep the day off. Instead, I am stuck at the airport’s transit area waiting for my flight to Penang. Fortunately, I am not shooting today so I hope to catch up on my sleep once I get there.
By the time I do get to Penang, I’m almost completely knocked out. We are shooting at the historic Eastern and Oriental Hotel for my Discovery Travel and Living show. The Eastern and Oriental used to be one of Asia’s grand hotels and was founded by the Sarkies brothers who also ran the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
It’s a beautiful property and is now owned by a Malaysian property company which uses the brand on condominiums and the like. It is relatively small and claims to be an all-suite hotel presumably on the grounds that its rooms are slightly larger than normal. My room is nice enough. But a suite? Hardly.
I wake up in the evening and my intrepid producer Robin Roy has the bright idea of trying Baba and Nyonya cuisine. This is one of Asia’s more interesting cuisines and is said to have been created when a Chinese princess married into a ruling family in Malacca in what was then Malaya several centuries ago. It combines many influences: Chinese, Malaysian and even Indian.
We end up at a restaurant recommended by the hotel and are blown away by the food. Our favourite is a fried chicken called Inchikabin (spellings vary depending on which menu you are reading) but we like nearly everything else as well. Robin is now determined to include Nyonya cuisine in our episode on Curries of Asia.
Day Two: We shoot at the Eastern and Oriental. The high spot is the high tea, a Penang tradition that the hotel has reverentially maintained. I’m not sure about the provenance of many of the dishes – how authentically English is a mini cheesecake anyway? – but the experience is fun and the general manager regales me with stories from the hotel.
He once noticed a woman wandering around the garden with a vase. He asked what she was up to. She said that her father had been very attached to the hotel for much of his life. And so she thought it would be only fitting if she could scatter his ashes around the garden.
The general manager says he thought about it for a minute and then decided: why not? So the ashes were duly scattered and periodically he runs into the woman standing in the garden, holding a glass of wine and conducting a conversation with the spirit of her dead father. In India, they’d probably arrest the general manager for allowing something like that.
Dinner is at another Nyonya place by the seaside. I’ve eaten Nyonya food in Singapore and it has not always been as excellent as it was the night before. This meal confirms my prejudices. The food is rubbish. I go back to the hotel and order noodles from Room Service. They are excellent.
Day Three: We wander around Penang, taking shots of the town. Apparently, pinang is the local name for betel nut. So when the Brits got here and saw the betel nut trees, they decided to call the town Penang.
It’s actually an island, largely dominated by the Chinese, but the Malaysian government has taken the intelligent step of banning high-rises in the city centre. The old colonial buildings have been lovingly preserved and many – like the Town Hall – are still used for the purposes for which they were built.
I imagine it can get quite boring after a while but for a stay of this duration, it’s actually the perfect destination, pretty, peaceful and historical.
I tell my driver that while the historic centre of Penang is very pretty, what I really want to do is to eat the food that the locals enjoy. He takes me to a hawkers’ centre some distance away from the centre of town and tells me that one half has Malay-Chinese stalls while the other half is all Malay. I find a table in the centre and try everything.
All the food is terrific but I have two favourites. One is an omelette made with fresh oysters and the other is the familiar Malaysian standby of Char Teow Kway, a dish of noodles with seafood, bean sprouts, bits of pork and pretty much anything else that the cook happens to have handy. The food is dirt cheap but gosh, is it good!
A quick lunch at the Eastern and Oriental before we depart. The food at the vast dining room is served buffet style and it really is the best thing about the hotel. If you steer clear of the western stuff, the local food is excellent. Most of the other guests are locals from Penang who have come specially for the buffet which I guess is an endorsement. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the restaurant serves ostrich at every single meal. As ostriches are not part of the Malaysia I had imagined before getting here, I am startled by this obsession with a bird that cannot fly. But Robin loves the ostrich dishes.
Then it’s off to Penang airport and a flight for the short (less than an hour) journey to Kuala Lumpur where the second part of our shoot will take place.
We arrive in Kuala Lumpur in the middle of a rainstorm. I’m staying in a modern hotel, the JW Marriott, but it is comfortable, sleek and largely well run. It’s a change from the history of the Eastern and Oriental but a nice one.
We are going to Kuala Lumpur’s food street to shoot. Robin wants me to wander through the rain (he’s mad as all producers tend to be) poking at various food stalls before settling down to eat Laksa (noodles in a soup). We have two problems. First of all, I’m damned if I’m going to walk through a rainstorm and secondly, I don’t even like Laksa that much.
We compromise. We find a stall that makes Char Teow Kway. Robin films the cooking. And then the dish is brought to me so I can make appreciative noises for the camera. In fact, the Char Teow Kway is not very good, not a patch on the Penang version. Then, as the rain slows to a drizzle, I wander through the food street while the camera follows me excitedly. It’s nice to get back to the dryness of the Marriott.
Day Four: Lunch is at Shook!, a multi-cuisine restaurant in the Starhill Gallery mall which is attached to the Marriott. The modern multi-cuisine restaurant is just over a decade old. The most significant and influential example of the genre is Mezza 9 at the Singapore Hyatt.
Mezza 9 is influential not just for its cuisine (Western and a variety of Oriental styles) or the way that it is served (from open kitchens) but also for its design, by the Japanese firm of Super Potato who have gone on to design what seems like half the world’s trendy restaurants including London’s Zuma. In India, you can see the Super Potato style at China Kitchen in Delhi and at China House, San Qi, Wink and the Thai Pavilion in Bombay.
Shook! is also a Super Potato restaurant but it is Mezza 9 updated for the present day. There’s the same mixture of cuisines, and the same open kitchens. The food turns out to be excellent. I have grilled Wagyu, a sea bass (the real thing, not some Chilean version) with a Thai sauce, lots of sashimi and tiger prawns in their shells.
I speak to the chef, Kevin Cape, an Englishman who has lived much of his life in Asia and is married to a girl from the north east of Thailand. Kevin is trained in the French tradition (he worked at the Connaught and with the Roux brothers in London) but has a great understanding of Asian flavours. Though his job as Corporate Chef of the company that owns Shook! means that he oversees hundreds of restaurants, he is entirely familiar with the intricacies of Shook’s menu.
I tell him that Super Potato have returned to India. Just as Mezza 9 revolutionised Singapore eating and Shook! has influenced KL’s food scene, the latest Super Potato restaurant is a new generation variation of the same genus. Zest, the new restaurant at Emporio in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj is even more ambitious than Mezza 9 or Shook! and aims to provide a larger variety of cuisines. There will be at least three Indian cuisines (Hyderabad, Lucknow and South Indian coastal), French, Italian, Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Lebanese.
Kevin is intrigued by the idea and we agree that if Zest works it could be the Next Big Thing in Asian eating.
In the evening, Robin decides to film the cooking of a Nyonya curry. We enlist the help of Florence Tan, a celebrated TV chef who makes it step by step, demonstrating how much Nyonya food owes to Indian cuisine (including curry leaves) while I watch fascinated. The shoot takes place at a lively local restaurant owned by another TV chef, the flamboyantly camp Ismail Ahmad who takes a great shine to Robin (“I can be your Maid Marian”) and hams it up for the cameras. Ismail gets his cooks to make me some Rendang with Nasi Goreng and of course it is terrific.
Day Five: My last day in Malaysia. My friend Beate Mauder of Indiva Marketing, a hotel consultancy, has suggested that I go to Carcossa Seri Nagora, part of the old Governor’s house complex which has now been turned into a hotel. Beate says that it used to be run as an Aman property and the new management still has ties to the Aman family.
Before I do that, I decide to take the advice of Bhawna Singh, who is coordinating with Discovery on behalf of Tourism Malaysia. Bhawna suggests that I go for a foot treatment, the highlight of which is fish therapy. I have read about this. I gather that you can even do this in India now. My mental image is of a peaceful experience where they take you into your own private treatment room. Then they put a bowl of water containing a few fish in front of you. You put one foot into the bowl while the fish nuzzle your ankle lovingly. It doesn’t sound so bad. And after all, it’s one more story for the column.
What actually happens is this. I am led to a communal area where loads of people are sitting at the edge of a channel of water. Many have already put their feet into the water. Tentatively I join them and no sooner have my feet touched the water than hundreds of little fish start nibbling at them. I am told that (a) the fish are from eastern Europe (perhaps this is meant to make me feel better but I begin to wonder if it means that the charges are higher than usual) and (b) that they will strip away all the dead skin from my feet. I have just about got used to this strange sensation when I am informed that it is only an appetizer.
I now have to put my feet into another channel where bloody great catfish will feast on my toes. Bravely, I dunk my feet into the water but the feeling is not pleasant. The fish are ugly. They feast on the skin between my toes and I can only bear it if I look away. While all this is happening, I get an SMS. My concert in London will not happen. Michael Jackson who I had hoped to see perform has just died.
Years from now, when your children ask you, “Daddy, where were you when you heard that Michael Jackson had died?” know that you will never be able to top my answer: “Oh son, I was feeding my feet to the fish.”
I make it to Carcossa Siri Nagora for high tea. This is as dodgy as the Penang version. Crème brulees for English high tea? But the hotel is nice. It’s set in the middle of a park in a hilly area in the centre of Kuala Lumpur and seems green and peaceful. I guess the equivalent would be the conversion of one of our Raj Bhavans into a small hotel.
In the evening, as I wander through the expanses of KL’s fancy international airport (not in the league of Changi, no matter what they tell you), I think back on the last few days and decide that I have seen too little of Malaysia. I know that I’m due for another visit.