Apr 25 2012
We cycled the 2260 kilometres from Singapore to Bangkok in 18 days. I’d like to say that it was pure grit and determination that kept us going, but really it was the food. When you are cycling six to nine hours a day, you need a lot of fuel to keep going, and you can partake with gusto and without guilt. Southeast Asia provides food with no problem. The regional cuisines are fairly well defined — central Thai, southern Thai, northern Malay, Perenakan, Melakan, Malay-Indian, Chinese — but the interesting part is where they blend together. Cycling happens at such a slow pace that you slowly evolve into a new food region instead of just arriving; it’s like jet lag, only with food instead of time zones.
In Bangkok and the first few days of biking south, noodles and Isaan food were king. Isaan is the region northeast of Bangkok, but its food is immensely popular in the central region. Fried noodles, noodle soup, pounded papaya salad (som tam) and roasted pork powered us through. As we approached the more Muslim south, the picture slowly began to change as pork (while still existent) began to be replaced with chicken. Curries started to contain much less coconut milk, but more chillies, and the food in general got spicier. Roti (a layered, flaky bread baked on a wide griddle), while available in central and northern Thailand, started showing up on every street corner, served with condensed milk and sugar.
Past Hat Yai, we crossed the border into Malaysia where pork almost immediately disappeared from all but ethnic-Chinese kitchens. Where southern Thai food is firey and fishy, in northern Malaysia the fish stays in but the chillies all but disappear, replaced with coconut milk and spices — black pepper, curry leaves, ginger, anise and cinnamon. Nasi kandar is what’s for lunch in Malaysia, where 10 to 20 pre-made curries, stir fries and vegetable dishes are mixed and matched on steamed rice.
In Penang, the large Chinese community left an indelible mark on the island’s plate including Perenakan cuisine, which developed when traditional Chinese dishes were cooked using locally available produce. It’s a cuisine special to the west coast of the peninsula, stretching from Phuket to Singapore, with Penang as its beating heart. The large Indian community in Penang serves the hungry out of tandoor ovens, curry pots and dosa griddles. We had to stay two days in Penang to get our fill.
Heading south the food changes again in the more mountainous centre of Malaysia, seeing variations on coastal dishes created by replacing fish with lamb, beef or occasionally goat. Melaka has its own special variation on Perenakan food, influenced both by the Portuguese colonists and their proximity to Sumatra.
Cycling south from Melaka we were close to the finish. I had dreams of Singapore laksa as we sweated along the highway leading to the causeway. Singapore might be subjected to sniping about its sterility and boringness (both untrue), but sour tongues are silenced when it comes to Singapore’s food scene. Singaporeans are serious about it and we are all the better for it: chilli crab, laksa, dim sum and hundreds of steaming hawker centres serving it forth at all hours. I ate my weight in curry mee.
We were also thankful for the food that travellers don’t normally wax poetic over: Magnum ice cream bars and Cornettos, Mars bars, M&Ms, dried mangoes, dried pineapples, dates, grilled dried squid, nori sheets, almonds, cashews, peanuts fried with chilli and makrut leaf. They might seem like banal snacks, but standing at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, they are your ticket to getting somewhere. Snacks were the unsung heroes of this cycle journey (that and Tiger Balm).
Was it worth it just for the food? It was. It was, without a doubt. I would do it again tomorrow.
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