Sunday, 22 January 2012

The food poisoning line-up: whodunnit?

Trying new cuisines isn't without its perils, as my long-suffering travel companion Normal Matt discovered on our journeys around Malaysia. Plenty of people joke that you can't travel around southeast Asia without one bout of food poisoning, but Normal Matt was unlucky enough to suffer twice in the space of two weeks. And nasty, body-ravaging food poisoning it was, too: shivering, whimpering and getting close and personal with the toilet bowl. Ouch.

So whodunnit? Was it Hainanese baked fish, hastily prepared crab, or that delicious-tasting (but dubious looking) icy drink that landed him in difficulty? Let's line up the main suspects from our taste tour of Malaysia...


Suspect 1: self-poisoning through beef rendang


















Say it isn't so, I didn't poison Normal Matt with my own cooking? A fantastic day of learning how to cook Malay cuisine, at the excellent LaZat cookery school in Kuala Lumpur, produced a mighty fine beef rendang, spicy sesame salad and more coconut sweets than we could eat. Pride prevents me from considering this a genuine contender in the vomit stakes.

Suspect 2: foul fusion



















Is there even a fish under there? This delicious Asian-Portuguese fusion seemed like a great idea that the time, and it was even worth the mouth-searing effect of the spices. Tomato, chilli, limes and an unknown kind of fish were the perfect energy boost after touring around Melaka all day. So what if the cafe had no lighting, a strong musty smell and a chef whose delight at seeing us suggested he hadn't had a customer in days..?

Suspect 3: failure to avoid the ice























Even if this beauty was to blame, I'd risk it again. Avoid the ice, warn the guidebooks, but is that really possible when it's blended so deliciously with cream, beans and frothy milk, into the amazing Red Bean Freeze? If I could import a cafe chain back home, it would be Old Town White Coffee, the Ipoh-based home of great coffee, speedy Asian fast food and the beany delight pictured.

Suspect 4: beans and pasta aren't a dessert



















This is looking a little more likely. Cendol, the gorgeously refreshing combination of pea-flour pasta, kidney beans, shaved ice, palm sugar and coconut, is an acquired taste but an unmissable flavour of Malaysia. But did we really have to try it from that greasy-looking stall?

Suspect 5: hastily prepared crab






















Even the intrepid Normal Matt doesn't look sure about this one. This insane Penang fish restaurant scooped critters right out of their tanks, hurled them onto griddles and served them up in a flash. Unless you're Normal Matt, in which case they forget your order, leave you hanging for 45 minutes, and then whisk your chilli crab up at even quicker speed. Someone clearly forgot to wash their hands along the way. Gag.

Suspect 6: Delhi belly...in Malaysia?


















I adore Indian food (plus it's perfect for gluten-free eaters like me), so I insisted on marching to every Little India we found in Malaysia. Deep-fried paneer cheese, hot rogan josh, and carrot halwa to finish - I was in food heaven. I thought frequenting restaurants that were busy, lively and full of locals would keep us free from festering food bacteria, but now I'm not so sure.

I guess we'll never know

It's hard not to speculate when one of you falls ill - was it the fish? was it that drink? - but too much self-flagellation won't get you anywhere. Different food poisoning bacteria take differing amounts of time to make you sick, so tracking down the culprit is tough (unless you get a medic involved).

The amount of time NormalMatt spent at the porcelain altar didn't ruin his holiday. He even reminisces on the experience with the thoughtful wisdom of a battle-scarred survivor. We certainly won't be avoiding local food on our future travels, but with a few paranoid extra items on our packing lists (how big do they make those bottles of alcohol hand gel?) I suspect our rucksacks are going to be a little bit heavier.

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