Obsessed with Food


During our time in Indonesia and even in Sabah before then, shopping was always about what was available rather than a menu plan that resulted in a shopping list. The traditional markets in every town were where we did the majority of our provisioning. Located in the town by the fish dock or sometimes out of town on the main road they were all much the same. Wooden grubby stalls under some kind of roof, permanent or tarpaulin with many stalls all selling the same things, some goods more tired looking than others.

On offer in the dry section were onions (mostly shallots), chillis, peanuts, garlic and dried fish products alongside rice, eggs and a few dried beans. Vegetable stalls had small quantities of root veg like potatoes and carrots, celery leaves (used as a herb), green beans and long beans, tomatoes, an occasional pumpkin, a wide variety of local greens like kangkung (water spinach) which are great if you cook them that day but don’t keep long, white cabbage always expensive and often past its best but at least like pumpkin will keep for a week or more and tempeh (a cheap soyabean and fungus product that we fry as a substitute for mushrooms with breakfast eggs). Fruit stalls found along the street are piled high with seasonal tropical fruit and avocados. The ‘supermarket’ small or large always had a huge range of snacks, biscuits & sweets plus coffee & tea, baby milk, piles of rice in sacks, noodles and a small selection of tinned food, mostly sardines.

Meat is usually chicken from the traditional market, bought live and butchered for you on the spot, I only found pork a couple of times in Sabah and beef once in Belitung, though I am a bit fussy about the fly population and so particular about the stalls I’ll buy meat and fish from. The wet markets have a range of fish and seafood but though cheap it is often not that fresh and the market smell overpowering so I usually avoided that area. At the Indonesian bakeries whose main products are sticky cakes and bread rolls with toppings like slices of chicken frankfurter and chilli sauce, bread usually has a high sugar content, though the sliced ‘sandwich’ wholemeal can be fine.

If that seems like a long list just re-read it, there is not much variety. You only have to eat out at any of the street stalls or beach cafes to realise that nasi lemak (rice with a bit of cucumber, a couple of bits of bony fried chicken, a scattering of dried whitebait or fried shallots topped with a fried egg) or nasi goreng (similar but the precooked rice is fried and you may find a couple of prawns in it) are the staple diet for most islanders. Variety is had by swapping rice for noodles and if offered, add some soup to the result.

Only food like rice & packaged products that are easily transported reach most of the islands, everything else depends on what can be grown nearby, hence lots of fruit but not much variety in the meat or vegetable department. Very little is imported from outside Indonesia due to the expense of distribution.

As a result our main protein came from eggs, chicken or pulses like lentils as we caught little fish ourselves. Almost every evening meal for three months featured carrots, cabbage and green beans in varying proportions unless we opened a tin of spinach or peas. Cutting into a pumpkin meant we’d be eating it every which way for a week!


Hence on our arrival in Malaysia, when we visited the small supermarket in central Port Dickson the huge range of fresh veg on display had Kay and I excited like kids in a toy shop. Later Kevin and I took a trip to Tesco in Lukut on the outskirts of Port D, again the range and quality of the veg had us bemused.

After our recent land excursion to KL, it was time to check out and head northwards. Friday afternoon we made a rapid tour of immigration, the marine department and customs, spending about five minutes in each office handing in forms and passports to gain a domestic departure clearance. Then we walked across the town centre to the newish waterfront development and the large TF Value supermarket.

It was difficult to limit our shopping to just what we needed for the next four or five days, we both could have filled the trolley with vegetables! Pea shoots, a choice of lettuce, Japanese cucumbers (like a thinner version of a European one and infinitely better than the ubiquitous seedy, slightly bitter, stumpy local one), green cabbage, peppers that weren’t wrinkly, coriander, mushrooms and more; all grown in Malaysia. We also stocked up the freezer with packs of minced beef packaged in plastic tubes rather like pet food or salami but fine for curries and pasta dishes, curry puffs and hash browns. A few other bits and pieces including two enormous chicken legs (enough for at least two meals, cost 8MYR, £1.60), fruit, a net of potatoes, cream cheese and seafood tofu (for a laksa) plus a bargain bottle of ginger wine and some spiced rum completed our food shopping.

Some 300 MYR (about £60) later Temptress’ fridge and coolbox were brimming once more with vegetables that we had only dreamed of since leaving Singapore. Food in West Malaysia is cheap and plentiful and pretty good quality too. Have we become obsessed with food? You bet, it is simply so satisfying to plan a menu, go shopping armed with a list and come away with virtually everything needed. Plus a few things we hadn’t thought of! And more food shopping adventures await as Temptress sails north to Thailand.