Sleepy Terengganu was a small town that offered a lot less than we thought. Compiled with the fact that it was an area of Malaysia still devoutly Muslim, there was not much for us to do on a boring Sunday afternoon.

Except of course, eat.

Hawker stalls are huge throughout Southeast Asia (they don’t really exist in the same capacity here in China), perhaps no place more popular than in Malaysia. Each Malay city seems to have its pockets of hawker stalls just as Los Angeles has its strip malls, New York has its parks, and Chicago has its rooftop farms. Local families and tourists alike were seen dining at these humble establishments, although this one seemed to get a little less fanfare than some of the other ones we visited.

After sitting down and getting our hands on some flimsy menus, this old man came and sat down with us. For about five minutes, he didn’t say a word, and proceeded to puff on a cigarette that didn’t seem to get any shorter. Finally after deep discussions over the translation of several meny items, he finally piped up saying “ikan, FISH.

So that proved it, somehow he worked at one of the hawkers, maybe he was a regular, who knows. He continued to help us through the menu, though his “translation” were probably not any better to what we could have figured out ourselves. A welcomed guest at first, we all soon realized he did not speak more than five words of English (rice, chicken, fish, soup, and yes).

Luckily breaking down a Malaysia menu is simpler than in other parts of the world. Like most meals that were had on our trip, our options consisted largely of different preparations of rice (Nasi) and noodles (Mee), various selections of friend chicken (ayam), or soups like Tom Yam. Naturally we kept our eyes peeled for goreng, meaning fried, as in fried rice and fried noodles.

And of course, we could not help but order a favorite dish of the trip: Nasi Goreng USA, or USA fried rice. Fried rice served with a fried egg on top and a side of soy sauced beef bacon and vegetables. The DiploMan got this for every other meal of his, I think.

Liu Gong- small town living

Where does an hour and a half down the Li River take us?  Nowhere, really.  But in the middle of nowhere is a small town called LiuGong (留公).

In our exploration of the small village, we came across as family restaurant on the top of a hill overlooking the river. Built on a cement slab with a stone roof that looked like a carpark, the aesthetic was pretty similar to the rest of the town.  A small group of Chinese tourists and a couple of Czech bikers were sitting around the fire pit in the middle of the concrete floor- so of course we were inclined to join.

As the river and cold had built up our appetites, we ordered a few plates of homestyle fried rice.  I’ve just finished reading Jen Lin-Liu’s Serve the People- a stir-fried journey through China, and there are a few passages that jumped out at me while reading.  One is a bit of advice which was passed down to the author: “there is a difference between best restaurants and favorite restaurants”.  In the states, I don’t think I had much of a distinction.  I though Franny’s, or Prime Meats, and ok Blue Hill too, were simultaneously my favorite and the best restaurants.  But things differ in China, where class distinctions are so apparent, and there is such a huge jump between new and old.  The best restaurant in town might not be my most favorite, and vice versa.

Something about this meal- eating on fold-out mini chairs on a concrete slab, among karsts rising out of the fog, with and international cast of characters snapping pictures left and right- I found to be so memorable and endearing.  One of my favorite meals in China so far- even if it wasn’t really a full “meal”.  I had ordered a tomato-beef fried rice, and each time my huge spoon hit the bottom of the shallow cheap plastic plates, I scooped another spoonful of beefy tomato-y rice into my mouth with glee.