Among travelers, there exists a hierarchical pyramid, somewhat like the food pyramid. At the base are the risk-averse who stay close to their accustomed tastes—the white-bread/brioche group. At the apex (the realm of forbidden sweets on the food pyramid) are the risk-addicted, those for whom a trip is defined by how far they venture into the heart of darkness. Part of the sensory expansion that traveling provides is the taste of new foods, and when journeying to foreign lands, mid-pyramid explorers often can scale higher to sample rare delicacies before losing their toeholds and slipping back to the familiar grains at the bottom.
With that in mind, I anticipated a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur as an opportunity to reach the summit of exoticism, because when it comes to food, the only thing that never crosses these lips is goat cheese. Of course it goes without saying that the abomination called the sun-dried tomato is also off-limits (especially if combined with goat cheese). Oh, and anything with curry in it. And sushi.
It was with this inclusive attitude that I confidently approached the first meal in Kuala Lumpur: breakfast at the hotel. After all, at a JW Marriott, how intimidating could the breakfast buffet be? It was terrifying. First up was nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk and wrapped with a lot of unidentifiable items in a banana leaf, accompanied by fried anchovies and a chili/shrimp paste. Most of the Western guests swarmed around the muesli at another table, choosing to remain safely at the bottom of the pyramid.
Eventually some of us decided to circumvent breakfast and try brunch, and through the insistence of a taxi driver we wound up, alas, at another buffet—this one at a revolving rooftop restaurant. Past the curries and near the corn ice cream, a group was focused on a covered platter of durian, Malaysia’s “king of fruit.” The word on this local delicacy is that it tastes like heaven and smells like hell; indeed, its reek is so noxious that it is banned from many KL hotels. “Try that if you dare,” challenged the Australian ahead of me.
His taunt ignited defiance, the impetus to rise above a lifelong fealty to white bread and all it stands for. “Why not,” I coolly rejoined, feigning indifference before it reached my tongue. Then, through a grimace and a choke, out came the words that would set me free: “I laugh at durian.” I was Edmund Hillary atop Everest.
Reveling in rebellion, I left the buffets and hit the streets, ignoring Stateside doctors’ warnings to avoid sidewalk vendors—and desperate for something strong enough to purge the lingering taste of durian. In Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown markets, the exotic fruits such as mangosteen and rambutan were as enjoyable to eat as they were to pronounce. Tandoori chicken beckoned in Little India, laksa (fish soup) near Bintang Walk. At a chaotic sidewalk café, the owner’s “best noodles in town” resembled a similar preparation that held no appeal at 7:30 am, but now, five hours later, the dish tasted fantastic, glistening with globs of plump mushrooms.
Finally, in a bold move, I surrendered to the hawkers’ urgings and tried the street version of nasi lemak, the banana leaf–wrapped concoction from which I had retreated in fear at the hotel. It was spicy enough to blast through the pores of the skin, and with each mouthful I became more convinced that acquiring new tastes is merely a matter of timing. You see, in Malaysia, the time for breakfast is at lunch.