My chance to finally visit Asia came when I joined other food journalists and cookbook authors touring Malaysia.
Just the names — Kuching, Sarawak, Malacca, and Balik Pulau — seemed so exotic, and so did the sights and sounds. As we toured the hornbill-studded hillsides of the clove and pepper farms that supplied San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based Spice Hunter, I fell in love with the country, watching geckoes skittering up the vine-clad wall of a Buddhist temple, sharing a rickshaw ride through neon-streaked streets and hearing proboscis monkeys crashing like airborne refrigerators through the canopy of the rain forest.
Naturally, being on a cooking-themed trip, my fellow travelers and I were on a quest for exotic tastes in this country that is a crossroads of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, and indigenous cultures. From first-class city hotels to jungle lodges, we all competed to dine on the most extreme menu items — soup made from snow-frog glands, abalone and sea cucumbers blended into a dish called Buddha Jumps Over the Wall, or fried beef lung with fiery chili paste.
But one night as I crunched upon a piece of fried chicken in a restaurant in Penang, I had a revelation. This was almost as good as the fried chicken my South Carolina mother-in-law lovingly cooked for family.
David Bailey with his mother and sister
It made me think of other common denominators between dishes here in Malaysia and dishes at home: The spicy crabs and steamed prawns reminded me of my father-in-law’s Lowcountry shrimp boils. The freshly picked stir-fried ferns brought to mind my momma’s collard greens tangled with hog jowl.
As adventurous in her own way as I was, my mother served our family Indian curry, Japanese sukiyaki, and crab foo yung, sharpening my taste buds and setting the table for my future as a food writer.
Now, all these years later, as I tucked into sassy chicken satay from riverside hawkers in Kuching or dined on pillowy dim sum on the tip-top floor of a gleaming skyscraper in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, I had come full circle — realizing that cooking from the heart and simple pleasures are universal.
When you go on a quest, a friend told me, you won’t necessarily find what you’re looking for. But when you’re lucky, what you’re looking for finds you.