Finding nutrition in low-cost Malaysian food is harder than finding honesty in a political debate. We’ve been in South East Asia for a while now and, although we absolutely love the spice and flavours, before we arrived in Thailand the lack of fruit and vegetables was really starting to take its toll.
While eating on a budget, you will find no end of canteens and market stalls to satisfy your hunger pangs (I’m not picky about my food, I’ll pretty much eat anything from anywhere). The hawker stalls in Singapore were cheap and of an extremely high quality, the warungs in Bali offered plenty of diversity, and the backstreet cafes on the Philippine island of Palawan provided excellent local dishes well within our daily spend limit.
However, for some reason, Malaysia’s budget food seemed to completely omit any fruit or vegetables, and the options we could select within our price range were somewhat lacking. The chances are, if you’re a backpacker you’re going to be eating nasi goreng or mee goreng (stir-fried noodles), or variations of those dishes (I found out later that neither of those dishes are actually Malaysian). Maybe with a laksa or tom yam soup thrown in to spice it up when you can afford to stretch it a little. This doesn’t leave you with much room for nutrition. We even started to order vegetable side plates but they almost always came in a sugary sauce.
Coupled with the lack of healthy options I found it difficult to work out restaurant etiquette. I can get extremely nervous when I’m not sure what to do and the people who work in the café or stall just stare at you, waiting, which doesn’t make it any easier. I tried to build my confidence and tackle it with a smile, but every time we stepped into one of the cheaper places for Malaysian eats my heart skipped a beat.
I would see people around me with amazing-looking food, and for some reason I would always end up with the worst-looking dish. Now, I know I can’t be too hard on myself because I don’t speak Malaysian, but surely there was a better way to do this.
One evening we were looking around a seafood market in Kota Kinabalu, which seemed amazing. You could just pick out your seafood and they would grill it for you. We walked around the market a couple of times and after getting heckled too much I started to get stressed out.
We sat down in one of the waterfront market stalls and asked for a menu. We looked it up and down and knew the only thing we could get that was within budget was nasi goreng and mee goreng. It was obvious we weren’t interested in the seafood and the woman taking the orders ignored us for at least 15 minutes while she fawned over those who came in after us and ordered whole fish and giant shrimps. Eventually, when everyone else had been seen to, we placed our order for the two dishes and a couple of bottles of water. By this time I was feeling a bit down, the shouting from men selling the seafood and the dirty looks from the woman taking the orders had ruined my experience of the famous market.
Even when we threw the budget out the window, fruit and vegetables just weren’t forthcoming in Malaysia. You couldn’t order particularly fresh dishes in the cafés (by fresh, I mean not coated in sugar) and it was pretty hard to find any fruit stalls. We were certainly eating over the RDA for sugar and fat intake, and we weren’t getting anywhere near to our five a day. We’d be lucky to get one! It made us feel slightly groggy because it’s also hard to keep yourself hydrated without fruit and vegetables. Which made the confidence issues while eating in local places even worse.
We decided that to counteract this we were going to try having an apple a day. However, even finding a place in Malaysia to buy fruit and vegetables is ridiculous – turns out you have to spot a real grocery store, they don’t just sell them in normal convenience stores. It’s not that out of the ordinary to have to buy fruit and veg from a grocer’s but, for the life of me, I just couldn’t find one anywhere!
Typically, on our last day in KK, and our last day in Malaysia, I stumbled on the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was a full-on fruit and veg shop just around the corner from our hostel, tucked away down a backstreet. There were so many different types of fruit that I bought apples, melons and fruit in yoghurt, all to eat before we jumped in a taxi to the airport.
I never did quite crack the etiquette in Malaysia. I vowed to myself that by the time I got to Thailand I would be better at this. I’d heard amazing things about the street food there and I wanted to enjoy it rather than feel like I’d just ordered something cheap that wasn’t fulfilling. Nearly two weeks into our Thailand adventure and I can safely say that I’ve had no issues with trying multiple types of street food. We’ve eaten so much fruit and veg, and we’ve ordered exactly what we meant to order every time. Why was Malaysia so difficult?