What Malaysians in Bangkok crave when they miss home

What do Malaysians miss the most when abroad? Malaysian food, of course! — Pictures by CK Lim
What do Malaysians miss the most when abroad? Malaysian food, of course! — Pictures by CK Lim

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BANGKOK, April 22 — My mind has been wandering the soi — the narrow streets and alleys — of Bangkok recently, especially with the Songkran celebration last week.

(Sawasdee Pee Mai! Or “Happy Thai New Year!” to my Thai friends and readers, by the way.)

I miss the colour and the cacophony, the aromas of street food such as the ubiquitous pad Thai, kai jeow (crispy Thai omelette served over rice) and kao niew ma muang (mango sticky rice), the smattering of conversations I can’t help but overhear and only half understand (or, to be honest, far less than that).

Sure we can get som tum — that spicy-sour-umami salad of shredded green papaya — in KL as well but as anyone who misses Bangkok as much as I do, we know it’s not quite the same.

Which is perfectly fine for there is something wonderful about enjoying what is fresh and local to where you are rather than spend hapless moments dreaming of dishes you have tasted long ago in another land.

I never understood how friends and former colleagues would hunt down nasi lemak and roti canai during past vacations and work trips. It always seemed like a lot of trouble.

Instead of mee rebus in Tokyo, why not enjoy a bowl of ramen? Rather than search desperately for banana leaf rice in London, let’s try the chicken tikka masala.

The inaugural Penang Street Food Festival in Bangkok drew fans of Malaysian delicacies.
The inaugural Penang Street Food Festival in Bangkok drew fans of Malaysian delicacies.

Times have changed. A global pandemic would do that. I now feel that the old me was an uncharitable chap.

Now that nearly no one can fly, what with the closed borders and travel restrictions, I understand the urge to spend a pretty penny for a mug of freshly pulled teh tarik in Amsterdam or Abu Dhabi.

Which made me wonder: a Malaysian who is dreaming of Songkran in Bangkok might long for pad Thai but what would a Malaysian who is living in Bangkok crave?

After all, though Malaysians who are living, working and studying abroad aren’t exactly stranded, it isn’t exactly an easy commute with periods of mandatory quarantine on both sides if a return trip is required.

Preparing Malaysian delights such as 'cendol' and 'nasi kandar.'
Preparing Malaysian delights such as 'cendol' and 'nasi kandar.'

When coming home to our tanahair is no longer the frequent, fuss-free affair it used to be, it is no surprise that the very taste of home is what you miss the most.

Fortunately for Malaysians living in the Thai capital, they had a taste of just that earlier this month at the inaugural Penang Street Food Festival in Bangkok. Organised by Kelab Malaysia Thailand (KMT) with the support of the Embassy of Malaysia in Bangkok, the food fair offered an impressive variety of much-missed Malaysian fare.

We are talking about a dozen booths serving up favourites from Penang, a beloved haven for Malaysian street food if ever there was one. Imagine asam laksa and char kway teow, prawn mee or Penang white curry mee.

And that is just the noodles selection.

Freshly fried Penang 'char kway teow' is always worth the wait.
Freshly fried Penang 'char kway teow' is always worth the wait.

Visitors — Malaysians and foreigners residing in Bangkok alike — could enjoy delicacies from the island such as chee cheong fun, roti canai, pasembur, rojak buah and sotong kangkung.

Nasi kandar or nasi lemak? Why not have both?

Those with a sweet tooth weren’t left out as there was an array of traditional desserts and snacks such as bingka ubi, cucur badak, kuih ketayap and everyone’s favourite muruku.

What a feast.

'Pasembur', a sweet and spicy Malaysian dish that is hard to find in Bangkok.
'Pasembur', a sweet and spicy Malaysian dish that is hard to find in Bangkok.

While vendors at various stalls busied themselves with preparing Malaysian delights such as cendol and umpteen cups of teh tarik, happy and excited diners wandered from stall to stall, spoilt for choice.

There was some element of first mover advantage, if one could call it that; the portions of the popular Penang staple, nasi kandar, for instance, ran out early. The early bird gets the last of the kuah, apparently.

The queue for the freshly fried Penang char kway teow was perhaps the longest but worth the wait. Some visitors had never encountered pasembur, a sweet-spicy and nutty Malaysian salad of shredded jicama, prawn fritters, potatoes and bean curd that is hard to find in Bangkok.

Those who had tried pasembur before might be reminiscing about Gurney Drive where they probably tasted it for the first time. Memories of Gurney Drive and of Penang and of Malaysia and of home.

Happy diners wandering from stall to stall, spoilt for choice.
Happy diners wandering from stall to stall, spoilt for choice.

What do Malaysians miss the most when abroad? Malaysian food, of course.

But we miss Malaysian food because we miss home. And to dream of a day when everything is safe again, everywhere in the world, a time when home is nearer and closer than where it currently resides, in our hearts.

Till then, the way to a Malaysian’s heart is through his/her belly. So you’d forgive us for queueing up for char kway teow and roti canai. Of course, you do. Why, I bet you’d like to join the line too. Jom?

For more slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.

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