Malaysia – The Edible Tropics

This cold weather is making me think very wistfully of  last November when I spent 12 days in Malaysia and Singapore.  It was HOT there!

Two of us from the Butterfly Center went to Penang, Malaysia, to attend the biannual conference of the “International Association of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers” (IABES) – which is, as the name suggests, an organization of live butterfly exhibits from around the world, as well as the businesses that supply us with butterflies.  The Cockrell Butterfly Center has been an IABES member since 199?, and I currently serve on the board.  Economic hard times meant fewer attendees in 2009 than were at the 2007 meeting in Ecuador; however, there were representatives from about 25 organizations.  It is truly an international group, with participants from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Having the chance to share ideas and problems with our international counterparts at these meetings is a big draw, but so is the opportunity to see a new part of the world.  I had never been to Malaysia and was eager to learn more about it.

In case your geography is shaky, Malaysia is in Southeast Asia, south of Thailand and north of Indonesia.  Peninsula Malaysia is separated from Malaysian Borneo by the South China Sea.  Penang is a large island off the northwest coast of Malaysia – its main city is Georgetown.  Since parts of Malaysia were under British rule from the late 1700s until 1957, English is widely spoken, and most signs use the Roman alphabet (or Latin alphabet), which made it easy to get around.  While primarily Moslem, Malaysia is very multicultural and tolerant of many religions – in Penang we encountered mosques, Christian churches, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist temples, all within a block or two of one another.  Racially speaking, the native Malays are basically Indonesians, but other large ethnic groups include Chinese and Hindus (i.e., people from India).

Things I didn’t expect – how modern and industrial Penang was (and we didn’t get to Kuala Lumpur, which is even more modern).  There are lots of cars and lots of motorcycles. There are also many interesting colonial buildings in the city center – and as mentioned, places of worship of almost any religion you’d care to name.  There are also fun street markets with exotic fruit and vegetables and lots of seafood and weird things like black-skinned chickens.

I love to eat and to try new things – and eating seemed to be a national pastime.  Every morning our host took us to a different warren of “hawker” stalls, small open-air places serving their own specialty, whether spicy noodles or soup, Chinese style roast pork or duck, Indian food, or even pizza, hamburgers or French toast.  Most of our breakfasts consisted of noodles in a more or less spicy broth with a variety of toppings (including cubes of congealed chicken blood, the only thing that I didn’t particularly relish).  One day we went for dim sum (yummy Chinese dumplings, chicken and duck feet in sauce).  For dinner, we hit the hawker stalls again, or a Chinese restaurant, and a couple of times tried the “Steamboat” arenas which seem to be very popular with the locals.   The “Steamboat” is a big pot of steaming hot broth in the center of the table, into which you put your selection of meats, seafood, and vegetables, pulling them out as they are cooked.

We snacked on a number of exotic fruits sold on street corners and in markets.  Jackfruit (related to mulberries and figs) is shaped like a huge green knobby oblong sort of ball.  Inside, large chunks of yellow or orangish flesh, which is sweet and tastes sort of like a combination of banana and pineapple (or maybe those tropical banana-pineapple lifesavers), are packed into white, inedible flesh.  Not bad, but I found it cloying after a couple of pieces.

I preferred rambutan, a weird-looking fruit resembling reddish sea urchins that is closely related to litches.  The pearl-colored, eyeball-sized and shaped fruit inside the rind is sweet and tart, and surrounds a good-sized seed.

And then, of course, there is durian, infamous fruit of the Asian tropics.  Durians are not quite as big as jackfruits (and not related), perhaps up to a foot long and almost as wide, and are covered with large spines.  You have to cut them open to get to the delicacy inside.  It’s definitely an acquired taste – the sweet (to me, overly sweet) whitish flesh has a penetrating smell that has been variously described as rotting meat, or feces, or … you get the picture.  The locals love this fruit – and it is not cheap.  Apparently it is also a favorite food of orangutans.  However, perhaps catering to delicate North American and European noses, many Malaysian hotels forbid guests from eating durian in their rooms!

Far and away my favorite of all tropical fruits is the mangosteen.  Despite the name they are not anything like mangos.  Mangosteens are very hard to find in the New World (I saw them in Panama once), and can only be found “in season” in their native Southeast Asia.  From the outside they look sort of like a purple persimmon.  But breaking open the thick purple rind you find what looks like the segments of a white tangerine inside.  Delicious!!!  I’m not sure how I’d describe the taste – sort of a cross between strawberries and pineapple but milder.  Just the right combination of sweet and tart and juicy.  Mmmm!  My mouth is watering just thinking about them.  Too bad it will mean another trip to Southeast Asia before I get to enjoy them again :- (

I seem to have gotten sidetracked by the edible side of Malaysia. In my next blog I’ll talk a bit more about the natural history, and about the fabulous city of Singapore!