Malaysia’s rich culinary diversity fascinated late celebrity chef Bourdain

THE sudden death of globe-trotting celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (pix) – he committed suicide in Strasbourg, France, according to police – has left his large following of fans and friends speechless and in total disbelief.

Bourdain, 61, who travelled extensively worldwide to do his televised food stories, mixing the quixotic with the audacious elements in his travel, had a good understanding of the intricacies of Asian cuisines.

Although he often spoke about his fondness for sushi, not many know that he was also fascinated by the culinary diversity of Malaysia, having tried food sold on the streets and in classy restaurants in big cities.

Bourdain's impressions of Malaysia's food culture are encapsulated in several video films.

He described Malaysia as a place where one meet Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus – Malays, Chinese and Indians – and called Kuala Lumpur a place where all these ethnic groups come together.

For him, Malaysia was a "land of fusion", a coalition of cuisines and cultures that blended over centuries.

"It is a place you can visit as a tourist, but it is best experienced as an enthusiast," he remarked in his travel show during a visit to a Kuala Lumpur market.

Bourdain, who travelled by Kuala Lumpur's metro trains, said that much like New York, Malaysia was a melting pot of many cultures, and that food and the markets were the best way to ''gain entry to people''.

His encounter with Chef Wan in Kuala Lumpur was quite an experience as he visited a market in the capital; and like Malaysians, Bourdain also ate food with his hands.

Bourdain visited Batu Caves, just outside Kuala Lumpur, climbing 272 steps to reach the caves, and also witnessed the Thaipusam festival, and sampled the exotic dishes served at food markets.

After meeting an Iban tattoo-maker, he got an Iban-style coiled-snake tattoo near his neck, and then took a journey by road and river to Iban tribal houses in Sarawak.

In Kuching, he became captivated by the Sarawak laksa.

Bourdain's encounter with a former headhunter was hilarious. The Iban served him lunch with freshly caught and cooked fish on the menu served with rice and vegetables cooked in bamboo over a fire.

At the longhouse, he saw human skulls scalped and preserved by former headhunters who still practice some of the rituals but not the head hunting.

Describing his own state of mind when he set out to meet the Iban tribe, Bourdain said: "I was brokenhearted and at a crossroads in my life when I first went up the Skrang River in Sarawak, Borneo.

"The people whom I met there, 10 years ago, hosted me and my crew in their longhouse. They fed us, looked after us and treated me with great kindness.

"When the chiefs invited me back for their yearly harvest festival, Gawai Dayak, I said I would come.

"It took me a while, but in the end, I did return," he reminisced.

On head hunting, Bourdain said, "The Iban people are wonderful hosts. It is true that once, they were headhunters, a proud tradition reflected in the faded tattoos on the fingers of the elders, and dusty bouquet of skulls that hung over my head in the longhouse.

"But the skulls are now gone, and there are more TV's and cell phones. When I arrived, friends and relatives from all over the world had returned home for the festival. The forest was denuded by timbering, but much is the same."

Bourdain described the habitat of the Ibans as "one of the most beautiful places on earth, as remote and as different from where I grew up as any place could be.

''The people are lovely, and the food, as everywhere in Malaysia, is incredible". It was, in the end, the best kind of adventure.''

Bourdain also visited Penang and found the asam laksa to be "delicious".