A map of flavours (I) – Southeast Asia

If there is a universal language, I’d like to think it’s the appreciation of good food. Asia is nothing if not famed for her abundance and diversity of flavours, sweet to sour, spicy to simple, noodles to rice. I love eating, and cooking has been a part of my life and a huge part of my career. I grew up surrounded by the familiar smells of spices, caramelizing meats, heat and the tinkling of crockeries. Naturally, that curiosity extended into discovering the map of flavours that represent Asia, and there’s no better way to start than in Southeast Asia.

1. Nasi Lemak

Smack dab in the middle of ancient maritime trade routes is Malaysia, and nothing speaks of the giant influence of a variety of ideas and that seeped into the flavour profile of the country. Nasi Lemak literally means Fatty Rice. A staple, it is white rice cooked with coconut milk (hence the name), served with a spicy savoury sambal, cucumbers, fried anchovies, peanuts and egg. It can also be served with spiced fried chicken, seafood or fish.

Usually sold in palm sized pyramids made of banana leaves, Nasi Lemak is eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s cheap, has all the basic ingredients of a full meal and most importantly, bloody delicious! The kingmaker in any Nasi Lemak will always be the Sambal, which must balance savoury, spicy and sweet that comes from being caramelized for long periods and the savoury undertones of belacan (shrimp paste). Found everywhere in Malaysia, the best Nasi Lemak can be found in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, although regional variants do exist.

A takeaway Nasi Lemak, presented using the traditional banana leaves. Photography by multifacetedgirl / Pixabay

2. Rendang

While Rendang can be found in Malaysia and Singapore, the ones in Indonesia showcase the greatest diversity in its usage and selection, much like curry in India. Rendang is a dry spicy meat, stewed along with a variety of spice depending on the region. It can be chicken, beef, mutton or duck and even vegetarian options like jackfruit. By stewing it for long hours, the meat becomes very tender it falls of the bones and absorbs the magnificent and complex  fragrance of the spices.

A very famous example of where you can find some of the best Rendang is in Padang. Nasi Padang, or Padang Rice is like a buffet of rendang served with rice that you can pick according to your liking and truly showcases some of the most varied examples of this method of cooking. The smell is hard to put in words but I’d say it’s a complex but beautiful marriage of coconut, fennel seed, onion, cardamom and pepper.

A plate of Rendang styled lamb, usually served with rice. Photography by Stu Spivack / Wikimedia Commons

3. Tom Yum Kung

Thailand, paradise for travelers worldwide, and also home to some of the spiciest food in the region. The word Tom Yum is well known worldwide, and nothing encapsulates the Thai experience like having a bowl of Tom Yum Kung along a busy street cooked fresh to order. This spicy and sour soup is a glorious combination of herbs and spices like kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal, spiked with a subtle amount of Nam Prik Pao.

It can be made with pork, prawns or chicken. The creamy spicy aroma wafting from a hot bowl of Tom Yum Kung will always evoke the image of Bangkok’s busy streets and Krabi’s gorgeous beaches. Beware though, locals eat it very spicy but as a foreigner, it’s safe to say they’ll definitely tone it down for you (but where’s the fun in that?)

Tom Yum Kung is usually very spicy. Photography by minipukkik/pixabay

4. Banh Mi

A quirk of the colonial era, Banh Mi has always struck me as a very interesting fusion of local and foreign ingredients in Vietnam. The French brought baguettes, and the local Vietnamese adapted it to suit local taste buds with the addition of Vietnamese produce. A baguette is sliced in half, and filled with a combination of meats, vegetables and condiments, making a sandwich. Popular fillings are roasted pork meat or cold cuts, cilantro, pickled radish and carrots as well as mayonnaise, chilli sauce and pate. The crusty baguette holds the rich fillings that is bursting with condiments, evoking sweet, salty and sour all in one bite. Banh Mi can be found from high end eateries to roadside vendors in Hanoi all the way to Ho Chi Minh.

Simple yet delicious, Banh mi is the best budget food in Vietnam. Photography by vtostar / Flickr

5. Kare Kare

I remember the first time I took a bite of this Filipino dish. It left me confused, and like a young lover, quickly and madly in love. Kare Kare is a meat stew in thick peanut sauce, made with beef or pork, as well as other parts like oxtail, calves feet and even offal. The vegetables usually outnumber the meat, like eggplants, okra and green beans. The dish is stewed with onions and roasted peanuts. In some cases, peanut butter is used instead. Annatto adds a subtle hint of nuttiness and color. Kare Kare is normally eaten with Bagoong, a savoury shrimp paste, calamansi juice and rice. Manila and Pampanga has some of the best Kare Kare in the country. While Lechon and Adobo are more well known, I love the creamy nuttiness and savoury layers that come with this very simple dish.

Peanuts are the key of a good Kare Kare recipe. Photography by icon0com / pxhere

6. Mohinga

The national dish of Myanmar, Mohinga. A breakfast staple, Mohinga is a fish based soup served with rice noodles. Due to its ubiquity, every region has their variances and unique features, like less soup or different condiments. The scent of coriander leaves, lime and fried onions meld perfectly with the intense fish broth. I love the ones with egg and pe gyaw (split fried chickpeas) that lend a nice crunch to the flavourful lemongrass and ginger scented soup. It’s easy to find Mohinga everywhere in Myanmar, from Yangon to Mandalay, and while it is commonly eaten for breakfast, many eateries now offer it all day, every day.

The national dish of Myanmar is a breakfast. Photography by Lucyken/ pixabay

This article is the first part of a series about food and traveling called A map of flavours, more stories to come soon.

West Kalimantan, the place that time forgot

The warm Pontianak air hit me with a hard, humid slap. Touts jostled for attention at Bandara Supadio, vying for my money. I flew in from Kuching, my home city on the Malaysian side. With no one to share a cab, I walked into burning sunlight, hoping to get a cheaper ride further away from the arrival hall. Across the parking lot a voice called out to me. He is an ojek driver, offering his services to drive me into the city.


On the back of his motorbike, we rumbled into the traffic. A sprawling urban city, Pontianak is the capital of West Kalimantan (Kalimantan Barat or KalBar as the locals say), and my first stop in this province. Borneo might be shared among 3 nations, but many from the Brunei and Malaysia side has never stepped foot in the lands of our Indonesian brethren, including myself. I decided on this trip at the spur of the moment, seeing how cheap flights were.

Pontianak is a city of motorcycles and cars. It’s a city of the working class, not much geared towards tourism. I enjoy watching a city waking up and winding down, throwing up dust as it scuttles to work in the day, and settles as the sun sets. Coming from Sarawak I thought I knew what humidity is, but Pontianak is on a whole other level. The only city in the world to sit exactly on the equatorial line, the days are sweltering and wet. But hey, I like a challenge.

One prominent feature of this city is the brackish canals that run parallel to the roads. Apparently being built on peatlands, the city is not immune to floods or sinking. Despite not being pedestrian friendly – you need to crisscross roadside stalls and broken pavements, or no pavements at all – the best way to truly experience this rugged city is by walking. One of my favourite places is the uniquely named Pasar Flamboyan, an enormous wet market that sells all kinds of fresh produce. Be warned, the smell can be nauseating for some. Yet it’s also where I stumbled upon a hole-in-the-wall serving amazing noodles. I just followed my nose.

One thing that stayed with me is the delicious variety of home grown coffee available in Pontianak. I couldn’t get enough of it! My hostel sits above an amazing café with acoustic pop live bands. It happened to be the only hostel I could find in Pontianak. Most visitors use Pontianak as a jumping off point to the national parks in Pangkalanbun, so you almost never see any foreigners traipsing through the city.

One night as I was leaving the only shopping mall (my adaptor broke), I met a friendly local by chance. He worked as a security guard for one of the commercial lots that I passed. He agreed to send me back to the hostel. In the end he drove me around and brought me to an amazing local food spot.

“My mother is a Malay from the Mempawah Sultanate, my father a Bugis from Sulawesi. I’ve lived in Pontianak almost all my life. I love it here. 

We should always be honest. That’s my personal belief and principle. Once you betray someone’s trust, you can never get it back. That’s why I get plenty of opportunities for side jobs. Because when you’re honest, opportunities will always come knocking”.


I took a public bus from Pontianak to Singkawang, a city by the coast 4 hours away. I caught a glimpse of rural town life as we stopped to pick up passengers standing by the wayside. School children thronged the bus, hanging from the roof, leaning out the doors.

Singkawang is a predominantly Chinese city, also known as The City of a Thousand Temples. Downtown is laid in a grid, old shop lots plying generational trade. There is a calm stoicism to this place, a relatively easygoing, quiet working city. I walked along the numerous old shops, wandering past paper offerings, abandoned cinemas and coffeeshops.

So Singkawang itself was once part of the first democratic republic in Southeast Asia called the Lanfang Republic, founded by a Hakka migrant from China. It sat in the confusing geopolitical alliances and wars between the Pontianak, Sambas and Mempawah Sultanates. The Chinese, upon invitation from competing Sultanates in the region, began mining gold especially in Monterado (a corruption of El Dorado). But sadly like any other form of government in the region at the time, the Dutch colonialist came and gatecrashed that party.

Pasar Turi is a disorganized mess of a market that exudes energy and authenticity. Produce are sold on the ground, spilling onto roads. A must visit is Rumah Marga Thjia (Thjia Clan House), a historical complex with multiple generations still living within. In the evening I went for a short hike up Rindu Alam, a viewpoint overlooking the blue Teluk Bajau beach. Singkawang is well known for weekenders from all across the province.

“I was born in 1943. I’m the 4th generation. Currently this complex is home to the 7th generation. The Thjia family, my great grandfather came from China. He settled in Melaka. His son got sent by his boss to Singkawang as a labourer. He built this place in 1902. 

I have 8 children, but only two are here with me and my wife. The rest have moved to Jakarta. Many of us are now in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia. They’ll usually come back for Imlek. I’m actually Hokkien. But by my generation we lost the language because we mix so much with the Khek. I can understand it. But I’m more fluent in Mandarin and Hakka.”


My final stop is Sambas, the town with an open secret. 3 hours away from Singkawang, the road veered north, deep into the hinterlands. Sambas is relatively small, a collection of shophouses in the buzzing town centre and suburban village homes radiating outwards. Located at the banks of the Sambas River, a walk on the raised walkways by the riverside gives you time to absorb its dark past.

If you live in Borneo, you would have heard of the ethnic conflicts that dominated the West Kalimantan province in the 90s. Sambas is ground zero for one of the worst riots in history.

The Dutch colonialists implemented a Transmigrasi program that resettled poor and landless people from Java and Madura to less densely populated islands, like Borneo and Papua. They were given land, homes. Depending on which side of the story you listened to, one or the other is to blame for instigating the riots. Things came to a head in 1999 in Sambas when indigenous Malays and Dayaks allied and massacred the entire Madurese population of Sambas.

They raped, hunted and killed 3000 Madurese who held the town under siege. Many fled to havens in Pontianak and Singkawang. Reports of cannibalism by the victorious Malays and Dayaks were a thing of notoriety, with one Western journalist reporting seeing charred femurs and plastic bags of stringy grey human flesh skewered and shared. The war galvanised the entire West Kalimantan province, with fighters coming in from the deep jungles and coastal cities.

The stories I heard echoed memories of my youth when reports first filtered across the border towards my hometown of Kuching. I slept that night with more questions than answers.

On my last day, I visited Istane Alwatzikhoebillah, Royal Palace of Sambas. Small and compact, the wooden structure is now a museum. Upon enquiry a local introduced me to an old man who lived in a row of houses behind the small palace. Turns out they are the caretakers, and relatives of the royal family.

“Those of us who live here are the descendants of the Sambas Royal Family. We don’t get any funding to maintain the palace. We do what we can to keep this place open to visitors.

You know we are related to the Brunei Sultan? That Bolkiah? But they’ve never visited us. Not once. Of course we can go and see him in Brunei. But by right he is the one with wealth. He should come and see us. Out of respect at least. The rich should help the poor no? I’m old, but I still work. I have to.

The palace has spiritual guards. Ghaib. One at every corner and the main entrance. When the Madurese were here, we the people asked the spiritual warriors to fight with us. Against their black magic. Sambas people don’t use magic. We follow the laws of Allah. We have faith in the power of Allah. Alwatzikhoebillah.”

I said goodbye to Sambas and got in the rented transport. He drove me to the border, arriving at the Aruk-Biawak border crossing, where I crossed back into Sarawak. The journey took me along newly paved roads, part of President Jokowi’s drive to increase connectivity between all major cities in Kalimantan and the Malaysian border. There’s an amazing view as you zoom closer towards the border, picturesque mountains carpeting the landscape.

“There’s no more Madurese here. They dare not step on this earth. We all went to Sambas, back then in 98′. Burnt the bodies in the city where you stayed. We ate their flesh. Sikit aja.

Back then we had no proper roads. To get to school we had to paddle a small boat-7 of us- a week to reach Sambas from Aruk. Went home once a year for Christmas. Life was tough. You know beras merah (red rice)? I don’t think you know red rice. It’s a type of cheap rice we got from Malaysia in the 90s. Made in Vietnam I think. Normally it’s horse food. But it was all we could ever afford. Dry and hard to eat. I tell my children to study hard. At least now their school is in Aruk. No excuse for them not to finish school.

I was in prison for 2 months. For smuggling Malaysian goods. Got caught at a roadblock in Galing. 30kg of sugar. I was just carrying it for someone else. Now it’s even harder to bring things across, unlike the old days. We are so far from Pontianak. That’s why things are cheaper from Bau and Kuching.”

It’s curious how travelling a few hundred kilometres away from home can show such a different way of life. We all come from the same island, yet lead such different experiences. I merely explored a single province in Kalimantan. This is a land of stark contrasts, where the everyday man grits his teeth and works harder. The people are proud, yet warm and passionate.

I hope to return and explore the other 4 provinces to the east and north one day.

I have been met with nothing but friendly charm. It lies outside the typical travel trail, land connectivity and basic infrastructure outside major cities remain basic, but the raw, unfiltered experience travelling through Kalimantan has showed me this is a place worth visiting and exploring. It is a place that despite so much setbacks, has still managed to retain its essence.

RTWhat? The Southeast Asian perspective

Round The World, or RTW, is shortspeak for travelling long distances across multiple countries, circumnavigating the globe, over long periods of time.

Market in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, Malaysia

This definition however, is subjective.

I come from a family of curious explorers. I was born and raised in Malaysian Borneo, where the lines between urban and rural living is often blurred. We would enjoy holidays in my parent’s villages to the north or south, usually overlanding in a car for 12 hours.  We spent weekends in ancestral farms, trekking to waterfalls or picnicking by the beach. It was a simpler life that left an indelible mark in the way I view the world today.

The first time I heard of the term RTW was on my first solo backpacking trip to another state in Malaysia in 2012. The concept itself blew me away. I met so many travellers who shared their experiences living the life, travelling across multiple regions. 2 months, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years. It got my imagination fired up.

Market in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Malaysia

One thing that struck me was RTWs are usually a thing of developed nations like Europe, Australia or North America. As a Malaysian I have never heard of fellow countrymen who RTW-ed. And then budget airlines exploded onto the scene. AirAsia, Cebu Pacific and Lion Air began ramping up their promotions and a new way of flying was born. Literally “Now Everyone Can Fly”!

More and more younger Malaysians started travelling overseas, exploring the greater region of Southeast Asia and beyond. Formerly obscure terms like backpacking, shoestring, location independent, became the new norm. Out of this budget travel mindset, a niche and highly independent subgroup began making a name for themselves. They were pioneer Malaysians who RTW-ed. There isn’t an exact figure but a few articles from Google suggest that Malaysian RTW travelers are a rare breed.

Why is that? Why won’t anyone want to be free and roam across the vast lands that lay outside our home? It comes down to a few simple factors. And the biggest one is, you guessed it: MONEY.

Sun-dried noodles in Kuching, Sarawak

With a relatively weak currency against the US Dollar or Euro, it might take an average Malaysian twice or 3 times as long to save. With a depressed economy and uncertain job prospects, saving up for the future seems like the more logical and sensible thing to do. For example, a part timer in Malaysia is paid MYR 6 (USD 1.40/ Euro 1.20) per hour. I don’t want to get into the intricacies of cost of living and median household income, since I’m no economist, but you get the gist. A Westerner can fly home and earn enough from a part time job in a supermarket to travel again, a Malaysian needs to hold down a stable source of income.

Fear. A primal instinct designed to preserve us long enough to pass on our genetic code. Many Malaysians, like so many of their brethren out there, are scared of the unknown. Fear of terrorism, fear of death, fear of insecurity and loneliness. Social media and instant news has not made things any easier for us to explore the wider world, or try to understand our fellow human beings. Not everyone is adept at being surrounded by the unfamiliar for longer than a week.

It might seem like an alien concept to Westerners, but the Asian culture has always prized family over individuality. Living with parents, even after marriage, is not rare. Responsibilities and obligations are high on our list. Those who could afford the freedom to travel are usually the middle class, with healthy, financially stable parents and siblings. Fo the vast majority, major concerns like putting food on the table and caring for sick parents always trump less important wants like travel.

The author, overlooking Pugu Beach, Sarawak, Malaysia

So if travel can be a luxury, why do I aspire to RTW?

Simple, because I want to. My plan is to save up for 5 years and hopefully, against all odds, have enough to RTW travel for a year, or 6 months, on a moderate budget, backpacking. I am privileged to have a family that is financially stable and understanding. I love traveling, learning new cultures, eating new food, meeting locals. I collect stories. I get high on the sensory assault. I might even learn more about myself. That and the added advantage of having one of the world’s most powerful passport!

For now I’ll just take shorter trips and explore my backyard more.