Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Blast from the past: Malaysian dining adventures

Through all the blogging adventures, I realized recently that I never recounted my favorite thing that happened to me in Malaysia. Knowing that I've only gone through about half of my China trip, and none of my Cambodia trip, I'm going to finish off Malaysia once and for all! Pre-apologies to Marie, whose account of this story I've already read, for any passages that are unintentionally very stylistically similar to yours. I know that subconscious plagiarism is still plagiarism. I'm too lazy to ensure it doesn't happen.

During our day trip to Melaka, after a fair amount of touring, Ryan, Karinne, Marie and I got into lunch mode. Our guidebook recommended a particular satay restaurant as exceptional, and after a whole lot of aimless and not particularly enjoyable wandering, we found it. We also found another pair of western backpackers sitting dejectedly in front of it, frantically reading through their guidebook to find a Plan B, because it was closed. Damn.

So we just kept walking until something looked clean and edible, which took about 30 minutes. We were seated by a jolly-sized Indian woman carrying a baby with all of the grace and care of a lineman carrying a football (note to all sports illiterates: linemen don't normally carry the football). Our first attempts to order off a menu on the wall met with little success. Chicken tandoori? No, don't have that. Naan? No, don't have that either. I started wondering what the hell kind of Indian restaurant we were actually in. Our waitress started wondering when the hell we were going to actually order.

Our increasingly impatient waitress/candidate for mother of the year started throwing out recommendations with increasing urgency. Chicken with rice! Lamb with rice! A brusque statement that was hard to understand, but may or may not have been "Order already!" Frightened by the waitress's suddenly stern stance, Ryan and Karinne opted for one order of chicken with rice and one order of lamb with rice. I noticed that most of the other tables in the restaurant had plates set up at each seat with a stack of samosas, pakora, and other fried treats. I pointed at one and and just said, "That!" Who knows what Marie was about to order, because the waitress had given up on her altogether and just stomped away after I made my request.

About two minutes later, the waitress returned with two banana leaves, which she inexplicably placed in front of Ryan and Marie. Without explanation, she scooped heaping stacks of rice, condiments, salads, and pappadums onto the banana leaves. She deposited metal bowls filled with chicken and lamb in the center of the table, along with a large plastic serving contraption filled with miscellaneous indistinct fried things. And with that, she was off. With no utensils on hand, Ryan and Marie cautiously picked at their stacks with their fingers, while Karinne and I began serving ourselves fried goods (with no apparent controls on what and how many we took) and contemplating why we had been deemed unworthy of banana leaves of our own.

Eventually, we mustered the courage to stand up for our rights and demand banana leaves of our own! We were granted half-sized banana leaves befitting our evidently second-class social status. Ryan got a free refill on his stacks-'o-food, probably because he is much bigger than all of us. But as we started digging in, our confusion and concern gave way to the realization that, whatever the hell we were being given, it was really good.

Then, without warning, at least two tour buses' worth of Indian tourists streamed into the restaurant and filled out every available seat. Karinne and I had our backs to the door, and wee began laughing aloud as a seemingly interminable stream of chatty visitors passed into our field of view, having no idea just how big the group would turn out to be. The function of the plates of fried goods at the other tables became immediately clear, as the whirling dervish-like mass of diners sat down, annihilated the pre-set plates, and vacated the premises within about 15 minutes. Transfixed by the scene, we barely made a dent in our plates...err, leaves...as the carnage unfolded. The restaurant emptied out as quickly as it had filled, and we were left with our suddenly high-spirited waitress, who sat near our table joking as we absolutely ravaged the contents of our leaves, leaving a trail of delicious destruction in our wake.

Fully-stuffed, we sat back and decided that this was the greatest meal we'd had in a long time, even before we received our bill and discovered that the whole feast had come to about US $2.40 per person. Fantastic.

Marie and I take different lessons from this experience. She understands it as a lesson against judging people. She had written off our waitress and the rest of the restaurant staff as rude, she says, when in fact they merely knew something we didn't - that the restaurant was about to be descended upon by hordes of ravenous tourists. "So, the next time you think people are being rude to you, consider," she admonishes in her account, "you may just be ignorant."

I look at things a bit differently. Honestly, the waitress was being rude. The fact that lots of people were coming doesn't change that, it merely explains it. I just took it as a cultural thing and wasn't that put off by it in the first place, though it was a pleasant surprise to see her warm up to us after the tour group had passed. To me, the rudeness - and the presence or absence of rudeness - isn't the issue.

Instead, I take it as another reminder of the awesome foibles of travel, and the malleable attitude one needs to bring on the road. I consider our banana leaf lunch the highlight of our trip to Malaysia, and it seems like it should be nothing. A Plan B! A half-assed reaction to not getting to do what we actually wanted to do! And when the food came out, plunked onto banana leaves sans silverware, I think the main thing that kept us from just getting up and leaving was morbid curiosity, not an expectation that things would work out. But that's where the adventure was: in adapting to a little adversity, doing something random and unexpected, and powering through a situation that wasn't necessarily ideal long enough to discover that it was actually awesome. And I remember that $2.40 lunch far more vividly than any "tourist attraction" Malaysia had to offer.

1 comment:

-clint said...


my grampa died so i had to return to knoxville, I'm in Oklahoma now so I will miss the rehearsal dinner, but i'll def be your date to the wedding.