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Exotic, delicious, and sometimes scary: my guide to Malaysian veggies

One of the best things about travelling is you get to eat a lot. Try different dishes, tuck into delicious street food at night markets, learn new recipes… and generally be a bit greedy because, after all, you’ve have to try everything at least once! As an intern at Fuze Ecoteer I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful little kampung away from the main tourist areas, allowing me to enjoy Malaysia and all its culinary delights like a local (or as local as I can be with my ghostly white skin and orange hair).

Living with vegetarian friends and having found one too many chicken feet floating in my curry, I’ve been cooking and eating a lot of veggies. Market stalls are piled high with exotic looking produce and I’ve seen more varieties of leafy green and mushroom than I can count. The many different ways of preparing vegetables is also fascinating. I recently enjoyed some sautéed lettuce, which was much nicer than it sounds. Malaysians definitely put the sweet in sweet corn, serving it lathered in condensed milk or as part of the dubiously named ABC dessert featuring colourful shaved ice, grass jelly and even peanuts. I still haven’t quite got to grips with the copious volumes of sambal (a paste of fiery chilli) served with every meal… but I’m getting there.

Encounters with gourds…

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Having only really seen gourds used as Halloween decorations, I was amazed to see how many different shapes, sizes and colours were on offer in Malaysia. One evening whilst shopping at the local night market with our neighbour, we saw a bunch of what looked like spikey cucumbers. Assured by our friend that they were really good, we took them home to cook. The spikes looked too tricky to remove without sacrificing most of the inside so I chopped them up into small pieces and hoped for the best. As we tucked into the curry, I looked around the table and saw a few grimaces. I soon realised why. The spikey exterior of the gourd had stayed very much intact and scratched its way down my throat as I swallowed. I was later showed how to remove the spikes by my Malaysian friend, Aemy. Better luck next time!

Our neighbours in Merapoh have a bitter gourd plant in their front garden – a tangle of vines and leaves with long, warty, dangling fruits. “You probably won’t like it, it’s a special taste” I was told one day as we walked past. How ‘special’ could it be? It can’t be that bitter if lots of people enjoy it, I thought. Wary of preparing it myself after the spikey incident, I ordered it in a restaurant where it came stuffed with tofu and spices. It looked nice enough. How wrong I was. The first bite was pretty inoffensive and the other flavours overpowered. But then came the bitterness. Extreme bitterness… enough to make you recoil. It tasted to me like nail polish remover. Definitely an acquired taste!13550968_256073668095179_671647918_n

It’s not all spikey and tongue curling, though, and I’ve had some of the most delicious vegetable dishes here in Malaysia. Here are two of my favourite so far:

Straw mushrooms with mint and oyster sauce

In the UK, I struggle to find more than 2 or 3 types of uninspiring mushrooms (especially without paying an extortionate amount of money) but here they come in all shapes, textures and flavours. I recently had some delicious straw mushrooms with a dense, almost meaty, texture and a rich flavour. They had been braised in a minty, dark sauce and tasted amazing. I struggled to find a recipe online so here’s my improvised version:

200g straw mushrooms

1 bunch of mint, finely chopped

1 small knob of ginger

2 cloves of garlic

1 tbsp oyster sauce

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp soy sauce

Chop and fry the garlic and ginger, add the mushrooms, sauces, sugar and mint and cook on a low heat until reduced.

Papaya salad

This is a night market favourite in the Ecoteer house and we queue up every Thursday to watch the lady crush away with her giant mortar and pestle to create a delicious concoction of fresh veggies in a sweet and spicy dressing. I’ve tried to make a note of everything she puts in so, allowing for a few minor quantity adjustments, here’s the recipe:

1 green papaya, grated

1 carrot, grated

1 clove of garlic

As many chillies as you can handle

2 tbsp tiny dried shrimp (optional)

1 tbsp palm sugar (this comes as a soft paste at the market)

Juice of 1 lime

1 tsp vinegar

1 tsp fish sauce

Blend everything together in a mortar and pestle then stir in the grated papaya and carrot.

Enjoy!