Thai curry has made it onto many British menus in the last decade but the same can’t be said of the cuisine of neighbouring Malaysia, which is why John Torode decided to go there for his new cookery show.
So is the food similar?
It’s completely different! Malaysia is made up of three cultures: the Malays themselves, the Chinese and Indians. And each has kept their identity including their own religions and ceremonies – great food is born out of ceremony, especially religious ceremony and feasting. So what you’ve got is these three cultures, all living together, all preparing amazing food and that’s why it’s so special.
Was it your first time in Malaysia?
Many, many years ago I did a trip where I caught a train up through Asia to Thailand and we stopped off in Penang, which left a burning mark on my mind. So I thought it would be a good idea to go back there and have a look.
Street food tricycle cart in Penang
What did you find?
The street food is extraordinary. You can get anything you want off the street and it’ll be absolutely delicious. Every stallholder specialises: they only cook one dish over and over and over – and because of that it’s always perfect. Well, my tastebuds were pretty tickled!
Go on, make us hungry.
Because it’s an island, you get this abundance of seafood as well as the traditional Malay food, and the Chinese and Indian influences. Penang was recently named the best place for street food in Asia. People who live in Kuala Lumpur fly down to Penang for food weekends.
Where else did you go?
I landed in Kuala Lumpur and then I went to Seremban, Langkawi, Penang, Ipoh, Tringano, Kota Bharu… All the way around. I just jumped in the car and off I went.
How did you cope with the heat after all these years in Britain?
I bloody loved it. It was around 37 degrees every single day. The thing that gets you is the humidity. But if you’re an Aussie, you understand how to keep cool: wear more than one layer.
Kuala Lumpur skyline
Do you travel in style or simply shoulder a rucksack?
Don’t be ridiculous! Vile things. I have two very nice suitcases. Packing for a TV series is quite an art. I shower at least twice a day and I make sure I wash in something fragrant.
Penang aside, where did you salivate most?
I loved Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. It was so vibrant and exciting. The chicken wings are just to die for. And I liked Ipoh because it had some of the most interesting food I ate while I was in Malaysia.
What did you wash it all down with?
Because there’s a very large Muslim community, there’s no alcohol. So in your local Chinese restaurant you might drink beer, but that’s about it. But I had a few beers with the boys after work – a bit of fried squid and a couple of coldies.
Did you have time to do anything apart from feast?
When you’re driving, you get to see everything. If you see something, you can just pull up and look at it. But at the end of the day, the reason I wanted to go to Malaysia was to eat. I don’t think you can ever understand the food properly unless you understand the people and the culture.
That’s why Malaysia is so fascinating: you’ve got three cultures with very different religions cohabiting. So you’ve got a Buddhist temple next to a Hindu temple next to a mosque. It’s quite incredible.
John Torode’s Malaysian Adventure is on weeknights on Good Food at 8pm, beginning on Monday 11th January
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