Our arrival in Kuala Lumpur just happened to coincide with Eid, the Muslim New Year. Having done no research prior to arriving in Malaysia and underestimating just how Muslim this country actually is, we were thoroughly punished with the unbelievably insane crowds converging on the nation’s capital for the holiday.
Compared to the craziness of Kuala Lumpur (or “KL”, as the locals call it), neighboring Petaling Jaya (or “PJ”) was sounding very pleasant, and we heard that excellent food could be had there. We decided to hop on a bus and visit Grace, a Malaysian local we had met three months back on a tour bus in Vietnam. Upon getting to her quiet neighborhood, we immediately sensed that this was more our style. She walked us to her house to relax before tackling the night market.
Grace and I had met briefly on a tour bus and talked for maybe ten minutes. After that we kept in touch through Facebook, but in reality we were strangers to each other. I was touched that despite this fact, Grace took on the role of hostess since we landed in KL.
So there we were in PJ, sipping on soy milk and chatting with Grace, Goh and their surprisingly tall daughter Pei Ji. Soon, we were walking down the narrow streets towards PJ’s smaller Thursday night market, checking out the various fruit, candies, electronic accessories, and of course, the food stalls. Grace had warned us not to eat too much because we were having durian for dinner, so we just drooled our way past the deep-fried fruit, satay, dofu fa, and other delights. After purchasing a salt-encrusted smoked chicken leg and two kilos of mangosteens (they were crazy cheap), we headed to the durian tents.
Now this was totally unexpected. First of all, I didn’t know that outdoor stalls specifically devoted to durians existed. Second, I had no idea so many people loved to frequent these places to pig out on durian. In the West, durian is associated with Thailand, so I didn’t know that Malaysians also treasured and loved this fruit. We saw more instances of locals stuffing themselves at a durian stall and more “No Durian” signs in Malaysia than we saw in Thailand.
For those of you who don’t know what a durian is, it is a large fruit with a hard, spiky shell. Most people hate the smell of it and therefore can’t stomach the actual fruit, but we like it. It’s one of those things that once you associate the smell with the wonderful flavor of durian, the smell makes your mouth water. The thing about durian, though, is that a cup of it contains about 700 calories. It’s something you should probably have in moderation.
We passed on the all-you-can-eat durian stand (because really, that is insanity) and decided on a stall mostly because the guy was really assertive. We sat down while Grace and Pei Ji picked one of about ten varieties and watched the durian guy deftly crack open the shell to reveal the custardy meat nestled in the pods.
On our very first night in KL fresh off of a flight, we stopped in front of a durian stall across the street from our hotel and inhaled the lovely, pungent scent of the durians lined up there. “Would you like to try?” A young local stood off to the side of the stall, eating from a pod. He assured us that he wouldn’t be able to finish it by himself anyway so we thanked him and tried it. It was sweet with a sharp fermented flavor, and I really dislike that alcohol-y flavor in some durians. Our friend Peggy told us when we saw her in Hong Kong that Malaysian durians were better than Thai ones, and at this moment, I started to doubt her taste in food even though it is usually discerning.
So when I bit into this durian in PJ, I was expecting the same thing. Instead, what I got was a sweet but refreshing flavor, with no alcoholic aftertaste. Excellent. Grace watched us eat, which was unfortunate for her because she doesn’t like durians and the eating of it is a messy affair. Especially for me.
Now the second one was even better. Called the Kantung (or something like that), this durian packed a flavorful floral punch with a sweet aftertaste. It was finger-lickin’ good. It’s a good thing these places have a sink with soap for pre- and post-consumption.
After we stuffed ourselves with about 1500 calories each, Grace asked, “How about Musang King next?” We sadly declined. I couldn’t eat another bite of durian, even though the offer of tasting the king of the king of fruits was tempting. The most expensive and sought-after durian in Malaysia would have to wait until next time.
As we walked back towards their home, we ran into Grace’s husband Goh and their son Chuo Shuan who were stepping out for dinner. We accompanied them to the brightly lit food hawker court, selling everything from claypot rice to various noodle dishes. N couldn’t help herself and got an ABC, her first authentic one from Malaysia. I picked at the chicken leg while the family ate a real dinner. Goh explained to us that durian is a food that packs “heat”, so people (well, mostly Chinese who believe in the heat/cold food thing) drink fresh coconut or eat mangosteens at the same time because they are “cooling” foods.
We had a little bit of time before our last train back to KL, so Grace and Goh drove us to an Indian tea shop they like to go to at night when they feel like getting out of the house. There, we had a nightcap: hot and sweet teh tarik, or pulled tea, also known as the national drink of Malaysia. It’s entertaining to watch these guys “pull” tea, pouring it from one mug to another while pulling their hands apart for dramatic effect. Grace and I watched a guy pull tea in the back of the restaurant before sitting back down to finish our milky teas.
A few months ago, we had met Grace and Goh on a tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. I remember N and I crawling through the dark and sweaty tunnel after this couple, and Goh had offered to help us through some of the elevated drops in the tunnel. Now here we were, in this quiet neighborhood, experiencing a part of a regular routine they liked to partake in when they were at home.
The next day after dinner, we honed in on a group of Mainland Chinese tourists talking excitedly in front of a small durian stall in the Bukit Bintang neighborhood of KL. They picked and prodded at the durians and seemed to know what they were doing, so we followed their lead and went for a small Musang King. We stood at a small table behind the stall and ate with a gloved hand. Peggy was right. Malaysian durians might just be the best in the world.