In Malaysia street food with its abundance of smells alone convinced me to join in local custom and eat at hawker centers for breakfast, lunch or dinner. From fried rice to pulled noodles, curries and stir-fries, sweets and fruits, a hawker center is a cluster of food stalls usually centered around an open-air area with tables and chairs.

Convivial eating and street food at its best it is also a great opportunity to brush shoulders with locals and learn what, in fact, is floating in your bowl of steaming noodle soup. It’s how I discovered the rubbery thing in my seafood curry was sea cucumber; that the suffocating smell coming from coconut pancakes across the table was the durian pulp they were stuffed with; and that you can nibble the meat off the crispy fried chicken feet or crunch down on the whole thing: it’s totally up to you.

 

There was a hawker center close to the open-air market where I shopped for seafood, vegetables, fresh noodles, tofu (blocks to sheets) and poultry. And, despite the sickly smell of meat butchered fresh on open tables in the hot, humid air of the tropics: it’s where I got fresh pork. Sometimes, before shopping, I’d pop in for pulled noodles, murtabak or, most often: laksa.

We lived in Miri for four wonderful years in a bungalow surrounded by jungle greenery. Hornbills came to rest on our patio roof or, more annoyingly: sharpening their bill on the rotating fan in our bathroom window at 6am. When one late afternoon we saw a giant monitor lizard climb up the drainpipe along the side of our house we finally knew where that noise at night, of something heavy landing on our bedroom ceiling, came from.

My son cycled to school on a bike path a stone’s throw from the beach. That beach was one for jungle adventures and playing in the surf rather than lounging. There were often sandflies and the occasional snake, tree logs washed ashore from upstream logging industry — a controversial topic: jungle making way for palm oil plantations. In season fishermen hauled in pink shrimp to dry in the sun. That smell of rotting shrimp permeating the air isn’t something I miss but I do miss fresh-made belacan, that fermented shrimp paste that becomes so addictive when mixed with ground chili padi and lime juice.

I’m scratching the surface of four years living in our little jungle environment. Of dancing in a tropical downpour; of listening to the swelling noise of crickets singing; of seeing dinosaur horseshoe crabs scurry on the shoreline; of jumping nervously at a hiss from the bushes; of that incredible loud concert of bull frogs after heavy rains that rang for miles and lasted for hours, preferably at night; of eating giant prawns tossed with coconut milk and curry leaves; of fun runs and spectacular sunsets; of midnight swims in a moonlit sea.

Nasi Lemak is a staple in Malaysia that rapidly became a staple for us, too. Nasi is rice and lemak means coconut. It sounds simple, and in many ways it is. Nasi Lemak is coconut-based rice served with a basic traditional garnish of ikan bilis (tiny little anchovy-like fish fried crisp). peanuts, slices of cucumber and hard-boiled egg. You can pick it up wrapped in banana leaf. More complete dishes can include anything from beef rendang to chicken curry, in addition to the basic garnish of eggs, fishes, cucumber and peanuts.

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Cookbook Suggestion

Hawker food is typically not something I make myself, for the simple reason that even if the dish turns out well it will never ever have that same quality as when ordered from a hawker stall and eaten in a bustling street life ambiance. Still, many years ago I bought this little book. This ‘guide to Malaysia & Singapore hawkers food’. Hawkers Delight was published in 1991 by S.Abdul Majeed & Co. It’s a thin, literally pocket-book format recipe collection of 24 hawker food favorites — divided into mains, desserts and drinks, and an extensive glossary at the end. Find recipes for murtabak, roti canai, satay, chicken rice and goreng pisang. It is definitely a guide for anyone visiting a hawker center and not knowing what to order; as a cookbook it may be a little daunting for a novice in hawker food.

This recipe for Nasi Lemak is from Hawker Delights, lightly adapted for the blog:

NASI LEMAK

Serves 4-6

  • 3 cups white rice, washed and drained well
  • 5 cups coconut milk
  • 3-4 fragrant pandan leaves (knotted for easy removal)
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
  • 6 shallots, peeled and chopped fine
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 pinch cinnamon
  • 3 cloves

Put all ingredients in a pot or rice cooker, bring to a boil and lower heat to cook until all liquid is absorb. This will take about 20 minutes but check: Loosen the rice grains and test for doneness. Add a little water if the rice is not well cooked when all liquid is gone. Cover pot tightly until rice is fluffy. Remove the pandan leaves.

Serve rice hot with sambal ikan bilis (chili sauce made with tiny fish), cucumber slices, peanuts and hard-boiled eggs.

Miri is a city in the state of Sarawak on the Malaysian side of Borneo. Borneo consists of three countries: Malaysia (Sarawak & Sabah), Brunei (Miri is close to the border with Brunei) and Indonesia (Kalimantan). From Miri as base it is easy to explore Borneo highlights like world heritage site Mulu Caves, Niah Caves; Kuching (bus drive or short flight away) is the capital of Sarawak and the gateway to Bako National Park.

Also in the series Street Food Stories check out Street Food Stories: Old DubaiStreet Food Stories: Puerto VallartaStreet Food Stories: Bangkok