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Courting food in Malaysia

Malaysians are busy celebrating the Chinese New Year in style. From high-profile gatherings to much more enjoyable international cuisine, it is time for a tasty bite, says ZIYA US SALAM.

GONG XI Fa Cai. Gong Xi Fa Cai. That was the written word. That was the spoken word. That was the sound of music emanating from across Malaysia this past week as the local residents and many foreigners greeted each other on the Chinese New Year. And as one drove down to Danga Bay, the scenic beach of the southern State of Johor Baru, many a banner welcomed one and all to the venue of celebrations. Selamata Datanga Ke Danga Bay. Welcome to Danga Bay.

The celebrations, attended by the king and his spouse, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, his Cabinet, and the Chief Minister of Johor Baru, among others, however took off and ended on a wet note. Yes, in Malaysia on the Chinese New Year's Eve and on the New Year Day, it was, to borrow a local cliché, raining lions and tigers. As thousands of people huddled under make shift tents and many a pretty little thing clung on to an umbrella, Danga Bay was a far cry from just a couple of days earlier when one had driven down one lazy afternoon for a leisurely bite. Then one had come gazing the high tide all along. There were ripples, waves, silence, and sunshine. And one entered the beach to find an excellent food court where everything was available at one place, if not under the same roof - the place has no roof!

There were Western Food Courts, there were Thai delicacies. There were mainland Chinese delights, and those from the coastal region. There was Arabian food centre. And Japanese offerings too. There were drinks ranging from the fruits to Coca Cola. There was an Indian food corner as well. And amidst all the foreign food varieties, there were a few food shops selling traditional Malaysian food. No queues, hardly any separate cutlery or crockery. This was one common joint where one could savour food from most parts of the world at a price which would go down well in many a part too. For as little as five ringgits one could have a fulfilling meal in an ambience where one did not need to choose one's neighbours, one did not need to look over one's shoulder to find a perpetually persisting waiter with a rehearsed smile. It was self-service, and enjoyable too. Food under an umbrella or a makeshift roof in front of the beach against an interplay of waves and sunshine.

Hey, but this food court is not the only thing enjoyable when it comes to food in Malaysia, Chinese New Year or any time all the year through. In almost every major city, be it Melaka, Ipoh, Selangor or Kuala Lumpur, you can come across simple, sober food courts, where all that you have to do is take a round of the premises, go through a list of offerings from different countries, go to the counter of your choice, and order the food you want. No cribbing about not getting the food of your own country, no waiting for fastidious waiters, no offering of tips, and no prices to make you cringe. Be it the City Centre or Eden Gardens, be it a dosai or sambhar vada, be it fish or chicken, be it rice or noodles, everything is available every other kilometre in this land of rubber. You just have to show a bit of elasticity of movement, and palate. And joy is yours! Hey, by the way, don't expect to get too many rotis or naans to come your way here! Remember here they hardly say Happy New Year. It is almost always Gong Xi Fa Cai.

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