Food & Drink

Local Markets in Malaysia and Cooking at Home

This post was written by Kat Fatland

It's no secret that from humble mamak's to five-star fine dining, Malaysia is a cilinary paradise. But with so many affordable options, has the pleasure of home cooking gone by the wayside? kat Fatland doesn't think so, and shares here why, even in Malaysia, there can be great value in connecting with local markets and cooking at home.

If I were asked to describe Malaysia in three words, I think I’d choose “Complete Sensory Overload.” No matter where I find myself, it seems there’s no escape from the constant intermingling of smells, sights, sounds, tastes, and touches that surround me. Contributing largely to the sensory experience is the fact that here, life largely exists on the streets. People are always about town, not just walking around, but shopping, looking, eating buying, watching. Part of Asia’s incredible appeal is getting wrapped up in the whirlwind of activity street-side, allowing your brain to shut off its inner conversations and focus completely on what’s external, taking in, sometimes not by choice, all those sensory stimuli a city has to offer.

But perhaps the most concentrated outlet for this sort of sensory overload are the local markets. Open in the early morning when the air is at its thickest, one is greeted immediately with the compounded smells of freshly cut meat and gutted fish, laced with the sweet fragrance of jasmine and holy basil and blended with the ubiquitous odour of sweat. Even on the haziest of mornings, the market’s colours juxtapose against one another in vibrant array: the purples and yellows of hand-cut flowers contrasting with the greens and slightly tinged browns of bok choy, fresh cabbage, and herbs. One can practically taste the syrupy sweetness of the passion fruit, mangosteens, and lychees on display; can feel the bitter bite on the tongue from the salted, pickled plums from the stall next door.

Walking around the market is a great way to get to know any city in Asia, but the markets in the city you’ve settled in take on a different purpose: a trip to a local market suggests you might be carrying a grocery list – and a grocery list suggests you might actually be cooking. And herein lies the one of the great questions many expatriates are confronted with during our time in Malaysia: Why cook when you can eat out for less than 10 ringgit?


For less than a bag of chips at the grocery store, one can devour a meal that’s not only tasty, but world-renowned for its incredible flavour: Laksa, for example, is mentioned on many lists as one of Asia’s tastiest dishes. And isn’t a warm, fishy noodle soup in some ways equal to the market’s sensory overload? Eating at a food stall, savouring the depth of flavour in each spoonful, and the pungent smell of sambal atop your dish (or that of someone else’s): it’s a sensory experience in edible form, a microcosm of the market itself.

However, regardless of flavour or price, there’s a difference between consuming a local meal and creating one of your own, using local ingredients. Chopping up a few sprigs of coriander and tossing it in with the curry paste and coconut milk you saw being made fresh that morning creates a deeply satisfying sensory experience all its own. There’s something uniquely participatory in engaging yourself fully in the textures, tastes and smells of locally bought ingredients and combining them into something dynamic and new. By cooking with market produce or meat, you links yourself into the long chain of events that brought each ingredient from the farm, into the hands of the local sellers, and eventually onto the dinner table. In doing so, you engage your community in an entirely new way.

Back in the States, with my grocery store list of ingredients catering largely to convenience, I cooked meals almost entirely made from pre-packaged goods. From store-bought salsa to frozen chicken breasts, from instant brown rice to canned black beans, I’d make perfectly adequate concoctions in less than 10 minutes (a cooking skill all its own, to be sure). But undoubtedly, a feeling of dissatisfaction with my “work” always remained a bad aftertaste. I was utterly mystified during a good restaurant experience, clueless about the flavours at work. Like many of my fellow Americans, I was simply disengaged from what I was cooking or putting into my body.

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But here in Asia, where much of those “convenience” ingredients don’t exist, or worse, look exceptionally terrible (frozen pizzas, at least at my grocery store, are practically an abomination to the form), I found reason enough to start cooking for real. Soon, something unexpected arose from my cooking endeavours. As I attempted to master a good curry recipe, I found myself savouring the curries we ate at the local food stalls. While I toiled with my stir-fries at home, I slowly gained the ability to pick out what was going on in the stir-fries I enjoyed at our favourite local haunts. By gaining the ability to hone my sense of taste, I’ve gained an entirely new appreciation for the local cooks’ incredible capacity to deliver such complex tastes and smells to so many people on a daily basis. Cooking, after all, is a language in itself, and like all languages or dialects, once you understand the basics, an entire world opens up for you to explore. Plus, now that I know what work really goes in to making those local dishes I love – so much grinding for such a small amount of shrimp paste! – I feel a greater appreciation for the entire process.

Cooking with market ingredients is a simple, delicious way for expats to actively get involved in their local environment, with their fellow community members. It provides a means of experiencing Malaysia in an entirely new, dynamic way. Meeting a local’s eye as you both reach for a handful of cherry tomatoes; thanking a produce supplier for throwing in an extra lime or stalk of lemongrass for free with the rest of your bounty; examining what a freshly butchered chicken is supposed to look like; each of these moments adds depth to the sensory overload we all know and (usually!) love.

When choosing whether to go out or stay in for a home-cooked meal, the answer lies in the balance. Each offers its own unique range of sensory detail to enjoy and savour. There are plenty of ways to make the most of your time in Asia, and plenty of experiences in which to immerse yourself. In the end, whether you’re indulging in a big plate of noodles from your favorite mee lady, or relishing your own meal made from the local ingredients of your favourite market, you’re almost always making the right choice.

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Source: The Expat April 2013

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