"Are you hungry?" my uncle Taru asked when he picked me up from the bus station in Ipoh. I collapsed into the passenger seat of his car and confessed that I was famished: It had been a long journey from my home in New York to my mother's native city a couple of hours north of Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. And, besides, I said, eating is the main goal of this trip.
It had been 20 years since I last saw my uncle, and he was exactly as I remembered him: friendly, fun, young at heart despite his 54 years. A high school history teacher, he's one of the last of my mother's siblings remaining in Ipoh; the others have migrated to the capital or out of the country over the years, like my mom did in the early 1970s. As we drove into downtown, past the palm oil trees that line the road, Ipoh seemed much more modest than a city of 750,000 people; the low-slung buildings and narrow streets gave it a small-town feel. We pulled up next to a vendor pushing a wooden cart selling ais kacang, a delicious treat of sweetened shaved ice that is my mother's favorite thing in the world. The vendor piled a fluffy mound of the ice in a bowl, drenched it with brightly colored fresh fruit syrup and liquid palm sugar, sprinkled it with sweet corn kernels and cubes of chewy agar-agar and grass jelly, and topped it all off with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Though I hadn't been back to Ipoh since I was a small child, this was one Malaysian specialty I remembered well. "The food in Ipoh is just as good as ever," my uncle said. "You'll see."
His words and the ais kacang energized me. I knew from my parents, and from the books and websites I had been devouring lately to learn more about my heritage, that one way to better understand what it means to be Malaysian—or part Malaysian, in my case—was through the country's cuisine. My mother is a second-generation Malaysian born in Ipoh to a family that emigrated from Punjab, in northwest India. (She met my father—an Indian from Bangalore—while studying nursing in England.) Her family came to Malaysia, like many Punjabis, during this part of the country's tin mining boom of the early 20th century, a period that brought not only Indians, but Chinese as well—along with their different cuisines.