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The tastes and pungent smells of Malaysia's street food

By Zain Verjee, CNN
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Tasting the flavors of Malaysia
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Zain Verjee tasted durian, the smelly 'king of fruit' of southeast Asia
  • Malaysian food has influences from China, India and Malay
  • Chilis and garlic are the common ingredients in all cooking

Watch the half-hour i-List Malaysia show on Nov 6, 12.30, 19.00; Sunday, Nov 7, 11.00, 19.30; Monday, Nov 8, 02.00 (All times GMT)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, CNN -- I was told I'd either love it or hate it.

The critics warned, "It smells terrible," ominously adding my body heat would "instantly rise."

Some Malaysians praised it. "It's the King of Fruits." It's called the Durian - deep green, imperfectly round and extremely prickly. "Do it." "Don't."

I was torn. I took the plunge in the packed Jalan Alor street in the Bukit Bintang area of Kuala Lumpur. I spotted the Wong Kee Quality Durian stand that has been there for about twenty years. Mr. Beaio's swift machete strokes delivered a fleshy, creamy pulp.

RELATED TOPICS
  • Malaysia
  • Asia
  • Kuala Lumpur

It wasn't that bad -- somewhere between crème brulee and blue cheese. I'm told it's an acquired taste.

Warning: Breath gets bad. Fast.

I spotted something more familiar in the open-air street food area, known here as a hawker's center: chicken and beef satay.

Rudi, running the five-year old family food stand, told me many locals and tourists come by each night. It was pretty happening by 7pm.

I nibbled a few sticks of meat loaded with spicy peanut sauce and wandered down the street. It felt like I was in the middle of a hot kitchen. I admired the char kuey teow (fried flat rice noodles), the nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk), Fish on ice and roti canai (flat bread) cut and fried expertly. It was cheap, very cheap compared to Western standards.

Steam and smoke wafted from the grilled fish and pan-fried noodles. It smelled delicious but forced the occasional coughing fit because the smoke was so sharp.

Music, punctuated with the loud clunking of old silver fans, cut through the humid air, and mingled with loud chatter of hungry guests huddled around red plastic chairs and tables.

I was struck how the food here really reflects the diverse culture of Malaysia, influenced by Malay, Indian and Chinese cooking culture. They have two things in common here, as one busy cook told me, "chilis and garlic."