Before we left the beer haven that is New England, I distinctly remember proclaiming things like, “This’ll be a great chance to exercise more and cut down on our drinking.” We may have also said things like, “It’ll be easier, too, since it’ll be harder to get booze in a muslim country.” I believe we may have also added that because of the heat and humidity, drinking any sort of alcoholic beverage would be generally unpleasant. Well, I have started exercising more, but everything else was just lies to make us feel better–like things were actually going to be different. If I’m going to start with the bad news first, I might as well start working my way back up that list of proclamations.
Too Hot, Too Humid
This was the one I really thought would work. Living next to the jungle, it’s constantly hot and sticky to the point that clothes will molecularly bond to your skin. It’s hard to do a sexy striptease when you have to dig around in the kitchen for the meat scissors. It’s even harder to contemplate filling one’s body with anything but water. Combining oppressive humidity with something that reduces stamina and coordination would seem to result in a mouthful of concrete somewhere alongside a half-paved road.
What we didn’t really count on was the prevalence of air conditioning. Almost anywhere there are people, there is A/C. Malls have it. Buses have it. New houses are practically required to have it built in. I’ve even seen units attached to shacks built out of plywood and corrugated tin. It is easy to find a cool place to sit here, and when you can, hey! Why not have a drink?
Eventually, though, your body adapts to the environment, and suddenly, sitting at an outdoor restaurant on a congested road with exhaust fumes, body heat and steam from cooking prawns swirling around you doesn’t seem so bad, especially when there is an ice-cold glass of beer gathering condensation into an ever widening pool on the table in front of you.
It’ll Be Harder (Because It’s a Muslim Country)
I came here with the “das ist verboten!” jitters about a lot of things. But like pork, it’s more expensive, maybe, we don’t have access to the same quality and selection we had in Boston, and you can’t get it at every store, but unless you’re a muslim, it’s pretty easy to get. The only inkling of taboo I get from booze purchases is the weird stares we get from the cashiers when hauling a flat of beer onto the counter and then stacking wine bottles on top of it. But you get used to them. They’re the same stares I get just being a white westerner. People will stop what they’re doing and stare at me as if I have a giant lizard tale sprouting from my butt. Not everybody, but enough to notice. One of these days, I’m going to turn and go, “Boo!” One of these days.
Kuala Lumpur is a mix of people from all over the world. Even though the majority (and state-sponsored) religion is Islam, the populace is filled out not only by ethnic Malays, but by Chinese, Indians, and Tamils, not to forget the people from all over East Asia, the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and others–though not a heck of a lot of Jews, it seems–abound, and they like to drink. But what?
Let’s take a look.
Surprise! This is one of the local brews. Granted, it’s based in Singapore, but it’s the local pride and joy here. Equivalent to Budweiser or Miller in the USA, Tiger Beer is Malaysia’s answer to the age-old question, “What mystical potion will allow me to yell incoherently from the balcony?” In the supermarket, you can typically find it alongside its foreign counterparts: Carlsberg, Heineken, Tsingtao, Asahi and Guinness. A flat of 24 cans runs about 112RM, which is about $30US. Not cheap, but it is the less expensive of the options. People keep telling me that they “know a Chinese guy down in Melawati” who sells flats for 100RM, as long as you pay cash. We’ll see about that.
As it turns out, the cultural and religious restrictions on this kind of thing here are somewhat overstated. We have a sign in our apartment building that says no pets are to be housed in apartments (legally, you have to have a house or some other landed property to house a dog or cat), but dogs and cats are everywhere. Likewise, there is a sign in the alcohol section of supermarkets that says muslims and people under 18 are not permitted. Much like the warning about pets, the sign often appears to be a formality.
Fat Bird! Our Kiwi neighbors turned us on to this, and now we throw as many bottles as we can into our cart whenever we see it in stock. Apparently, it’s also a local favorite and tends to disappear quickly. It’s ever-so-slightly sweet, semi-dry, and not too alcoholic tasting. A bottle here goes for between 30 and 40RM (roughly $10US), and is of somewhat higher quality than one might expect for its price range.
White wine tends to keep better here, since it is typically refrigerated. If you get a red wine, you need to either drink the whole bottle the night you get it, or you need to have a cool, dry place to store it. Needless to say, that can be hard to do here.
It’s vodka. I can make a pretty wicked Bloody Mary and like to show off with some cocktails occasionally, but generally have little desire for it otherwise. A 1-liter bottle goes for about 100RM, maybe less. It’s about what you’d expect.
Those who know me, know that there’s a special place in my heart and stomach for sake. KL has some pretty good choices when your cravings involve raw fish and fermented rice. During a recent outing to sate one such craving, I came across a new favorite: Mio (pictured above). It’s a sparkling sake, which sounds odd, but it has a light, fruity flavor that, combined with the underlying riciness, really compliments the saltiness of seafood. As a goof, I even had it served hot, and it was still quite good. In a restaurant, I went through two bottles at about 30RM each (a little more than $10US), but the way alcohol is sold here, I’m guessing that it would be roughly the same in a store.
Now if I could just find a store that sells sake….
Makgeolli/Makkolli (like Gaddaffi/Qadaffi) is a Korean rice beverage. Some advertise it as rice wine, but ZenKimchi argues that it is more of a rice beer. Think of Sam Adams, but rice instead of barley and hops. In terms of strength, Makgeolli is actually closer to beer than wine, anyway. It has a unique taste and is slightly effervescent , but is somewhat reminiscent of weak sake. If you added cinnamon and other spices to it, you might have an alcoholic horchata.
It is also apparently traditionally served in a bowl with a ladle.
The scariest part of the drink is that, like soju, it is very often sold in plastic bottles. For westerners as far as alcohol is concerned, this is typically a sign of extremely low quality, but in this case, it’s just the preferred vessel for transport, since you’ll likely be pouring it into a big fancy bowl, anyway.
Of course, those are not nearly all the options available to someone looking to catch a buzz in Southeast Asia. I have a bottle of Laphroaig burning a hole on its shelf in my pantry as I write this. An then, this coming weekend, there’s a cider festival at a bar in KL proper. And who says autumn doesn’t exist here?