Two weeks after I arrived in Kuala Lumpur
, it was all over the news: an American fast-food chain had accidentally sold thousands of non-Halal beef burgers to nearly as many Muslim Malaysians. Panic streaked across radio airwaves and through the devout. Religious leaders issued decrees absolving the unsuspecting sinners. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about, so my roommate, a beautiful local-born but Canadian-educated environmental researcher, tried to explain. "Food in Malaysia can be... complicated," she smiled sheepishly.
* * *
My first morning, with the crunch of 12-hour jetlag in my bones, I walked to work alongside a 10-lane highway. Warned about purse-snatchers on motorcycles who had pulled a woman to her death a few days before, I clutched a cloth purse to my right hip. The sun was a low-hanging orb, fuzzy on the edges from smog and dust, and the humidity made moving feel like swimming. In a nondescript concrete office building beside the Eastin Hotel Petaling Jaya, I trudged into the cheap restaurant where I'd been told I could find breakfast.
On a flickering backlit plastic sign, an oversized piece of white bread floated in midair alongside two yellow-yolked eggs, over easy. Of all the pictures that ran along the back of this long, fluorescent-lit eatery, these Western symbols of breakfast were the most familiar. They were also the least appealing. My top lip was coated in a film of perspiration, my pink cotton v-neck already felt heavy in the oppressive early-morning heat. I stared searchingly at lines of text, rows of small black letters, unfamiliar and intimidating in Bahasa Melayu
To my left, on a small green and white speckled arborite table, a tiny woman in a dark blue hijab and rounded Elton John glasses tore at something that looked like bread and dipped it in something else that looked like gravy. "That," I pointed to her table. "Please." The bushy-moustached man behind the counter raised his eyebrows incredulously, but put out a matching tray. "Roti tissu
," he pointed to the bread. "Curry. Fish," he pointed to the sauce. With a hungry rumble in my stomach, I picked an inward-facing table against the wall, and watched my food as warily as the people behind the counter were watching me. Imitating the small woman's right-handed scooping technique, I mopped some of the greasy bread, thinner than a crepe and crisp brown on one side, through the lumpy brown-red sauce.
It was sublime.