Last November, in Sri Lanka, we asked the question: “Where should we eat?” It’s normally an innocuous question, but it spurred a conversation and thought process that continues to this day, and which I think is answered in the photo above.
See, we were in Marissa, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, deciding what to get for dinner. All of the restaurants on the beach have these giant display cases full of ice and fresh fish; you walk up, pick a fish, and they take it out of the case to prepare it exactly as you request. We’d been to one place the night before, and it was excellent. It had been recommended by our AirBNB host, and Aja, a worker on our whale-watching boat, was a server and bartender at the restaurant, too, so we had personal connections to it. If we went again, we’d eat well, we’d have drinks with Aja again and hear more about his life, and our hosts would feel like they contributed to our trip. (My mouth still waters when I think of the grilled snapper they made me that first night…)
However, there were a number of other restaurants on the beach, and it was possible that they might be better. We only had three nights in town. “Where should we eat?” turned into a discussion of whether we should:
- Return to a restaurant we both thought was excellent and spend time developing local friendships, or
- Trying an unknown place in the hopes that it might be better.
We didn’t answer that question conclusively, but it has been a theme throughout this trip. If you have something good, why mess with it? But if you don’t know all the options, can you make a judgment about what your favorite is? If you have limited time to enjoy something, should you try to find something better? And what about other people you might encounter along the way – is it worth taking those blossoming friendships into account, or should you go for experiences, damn the relationships?
Eight months later, in Kuching, Malaysia, we stumbled into Mom’s Laksa around 7:30. The Ramadan fast had broken, and all of the fast-breaking customers had eaten and gone home. When we walked in, the woman on the left, Nora, correctly anticipated that we would have no idea what the food on the menu was, and the servers didn’t speak enough English to help, so she walked over with a server to help us order. Then, as business was slow for a little bit, she stayed to talk.
Nora ran a chicken stand inside the restaurant; she rented space from the restaurant, which mostly served Laksa soup, and she offered customers various curry dishes. Because her food didn’t compete with the Laksa that the restaurant was famous for, it was seen as a complimentary product that the restaurant didn’t want to provide. (I guess it’s like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell creating a joint venture.)
We further learned that Ramadan is a strange time for restaurants in Malaysia; many of them close down during the day, then reopen at night. Instead of her normal schedule, she started cooking around 4 p.m., served food to fast-breakers around 6:30-7:30, then stayed up to serve late-night partiers looking for drunk food, THEN she stayed up until 5 a.m. to sell food in the early mornings to people who either wanted to binge before their fast began, or who wanted to squirrel away food to eat at home after fasting ended. She got home by dawn to sleep for a bit before her next shift. We ended up talking to her about everything from her youth, her old job, her marriage, her new child, the role of women in Malaysian and Malaysian Muslim societies, gender roles, sports, movies, and a thousand other things.
The food arrived, and it was excellent, and I would love more fried chicken and laksa right this second. They also had a dessert called Pau, which was a sticky bun with filling; we got a chocolate one, then another, then a third. But at the end of the day, it was the interaction with Nora that turned dining at Mom’s Laksa into a special, memorable experience. She, more than anything, made us want to return.
So…we kept going. I think we ate their for five of our eleven dinners in Malaysia. Other places were great – Bistro 21 had excellent salads, and the burgers at the restaurant in the old Courthouse were phenomenal – but the soul food at Mom’s, as well as getting to know Nora, were what kept us going back. It reminded me that it’s the people we meet, and the interactions we share, that matter more than anything. Our networks are our greatest wealth, and it’s a poor traveller indeed who visits a new place and leaves it without making a friend.
The photo above was taken on our last night in town. Knowing that we were leaving, Nora brought her daughter and husband (far right) in to meet us, and then all of the staff wanted to get their picture taken.
Malaysia was a wonderful country to visit, with culture, wildlife and food all concentrated in Kuching. But of all the memories I have, it’s going to be the people that we’ve met who stand out. Nora, thank you for reaching out, helping us, and most of all for being our friend!