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Cooking up a storm in a summer paradise

Matthew Burbidge

When you get tired of R&R on a Malaysian ­tropical island, what ­better way to pass the time than learning to cook like a local?

‘We don’t have winter here,” Michael Tan, guest liaison officer at the Pangkor Laut resort, said almost apologetically. “It’s just the same all year.”

Pangkor Laut is an island of 120 hectares of dense rainforest just off the west coast of Malaysia in the Strait of Malacca. The resort is on one of the bays and some suites are built over the water and others are set into the hillsides. The rooms all have the distinctive pitched roofs of Malaysian architecture and are linked by wooden decks. Translucent fish the size of cucumbers swim around the pilings and giant monitor lizards (some are 2m long) laze around on the beach and in the shallows.

Like Singapore, the place still has more than a whiff of the British. According to a book by Yip Yoon-Wah, the island’s resident naturalist, the Dutch occupied the neighbouring island of Pangkor until 1734 to secure the tin trade coming down the Perak River on the mainland. The Treaty of Pangkor in 1874 resulted in the British establishing themselves in the area, but it was only in 1943 that ­Colonel Spencer Chapman set foot on the island.

He later wrote a book called The Jungle Is Neutral, telling of his fight against the Japanese in Malaya. Escaping from the island, he swam 50m offshore from Emerald Bay to a waiting submarine, which was then hounded out by the Japanese.

Fertile ground
According to Yip, a common narrow band of vegetation can be found along the shores of all countries on the Indian and western Pacific oceans, established by seeds carried by the currents. It looks a little like South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast, with frangipani and palm trees.

On Pangkor Laut, the land rises steeply beyond this strip of vegetation and is covered with rain forest. Giant bird’s nest ferns, so named because of their shape, grow from many of the trees. The ferns trap falling leaves, which decay and form humus. Another species of these epiphytes, is the strangler fig.

Hearing screeching sounds, I looked up to see an entire tree seething with bats feasting on the fruit.

But what can you do on the island other than to swim or laze around? Many visitors come for the spa and its many treatments; others come for the cooking class. It takes an entire morning and a little of the afternoon and starts with breakfast at the resort’s “feast village”—a giant kitchen, or rather many kitchens, preparing Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western food.

A typical Malay breakfast consists of a square roti that is fried on a hot flat top and then laid on the counter. It is broken up and served with a delicious mildly spiced yellow dhal and fried onion.

A Swiss couple who had also signed up for the cooking course and I headed out on a boat to a nearby fish farm, which was really only planks lashed to plastic barrels to form the ponds, all covered with shade cloth. Three men—and at least 10 dogs—were living on the farm when we visited. It smelled like fish sauce, only stronger.

Fish in a barrel
A fishing rod was produced and I poked the hook into a seemingly empty pond. Two seconds later I had “caught” a sea bass just short of half-a-metre long—as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

The fish flapped away in a plastic sack all the way back to the resort, slowly suffocating, something the Swiss said would not wash with their countrymen back home.

Malay chef de partie Ramlah Ahmad was waiting for us in the kitchen, her knife at the ready. She showed us how to make a simple and spectacular sinus-clearing clear fish soup and a tasty chicken soup, made with a paste of ginger, garlic, lemongrass, onion and shallot. It is fried with cinnamon, star anise and ground cumin, dhania, turmeric and fennel. Three or four cups of chicken stock are added, then small pieces of chicken (one could substitute prawns), lime leaves, pieces of cooked potato and carrot and chopped coriander roots.

It is garnished with chopped tomatoes, spring onions, fried onion and fresh dhania.

Ahmad comes from Pangkor and has been working on Pangkor Laut for the better part of 20 years. Her main task is to prepare the nasi (rice) hideng (many dishes) every night for the traditional Malay part of the menu. It is a small mound of basmati rice prepared with raisins, surrounded by small bowls of cooked strips of brinjal, chicken curry, curried prawns, fish curry and sweet-and-sour fish.

Pangkor Laut is an idyllic island resort—you can be pampered at the spa and swim in the blood-warm sea, far away from the crowds of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.


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