James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Crunchy, Salty, Sweet and Spicy Fried Thing Is One of Life’s Great Pleasures

A Crunchy, Salty, Sweet and Spicy Fried Thing Is One of Life’s Great Pleasures

Banana Fritters in Kuala Lumpur

Comfort food comes in many forms. For me, it comes in the shape of the humble banana fritter, served hot from the wok. If you love the combination of crunchy and sweet, one bite of a deep-fried piece of banana fritter will have you… oh, who are we kidding? Nobody stops at one bite.

Growing up in Malaysia, regardless of how much you earned or whether you lived in town or a little village, a tea break around 3 pm was mandatory, served with fritters or other kuih (tea-time snacks). Fritters were sometimes fried at home, but usually bought from vendors who tended little wooden carts just down the road. A few pieces were usually enough to tide you over until dinner.

Today, little stalls selling banana fritters and other popular tea-time snacks such as fried tapioca and jackfruit, curry puffs, fish crackers, and more, can be found all over the country. In fact, one of the best things about a Malaysian road trip, if you avoid the ubiquitous highways that tear through the country, is the food lined up along the trunk roads. Local fruits, fresh coconut water, and, of course, fried food galore are just a few of the temptations that will have you waylaid.

Thankfully, hidden amid the office blocks and condominiums of the capital city, Kuala Lumpur, fans of all things fried can still find street vendors deep frying bananas and fish crackers—best eaten piping hot from the wok and best avoided when rubbery and cold—along the cobbled pavements and in front of grim ‘no hawking’ signboards. These vendors offer a taste of simpler times, and most importantly, you can get a few pieces for one Malaysian ringgit.

Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find that sweet spot that only a deep-fried banana fritter can touch. Street vendors are slowly disappearing from the streets. With crackdowns initiated by city authorities on vendors without licenses, as well as ongoing gentrification, the humble purveyor of banana fritters may not be just down the road anymore. The changing appetites of urban dwellers also mean that deep-fried fritters, though delicious, are kept for special occasions rather than a regular affair. Will the day come when there will be no more street vendors plying their greasy fare by the homogenous high-rises of KL?

But there’s always hope. To take a photo for this story, I walked down the road from my office in one of the business districts earmarked for further development. A new mass-transit station was being built nearby. There were a few street vendors set up that day, and I made my way to a new push-cart with the words Pisang Goreng Johor (banana fritters from the Malaysian state of Johor) in bright red letters. The vendor was a young woman and she had just put out a batch fresh from the wok. After I placed my order, I asked if I could snap a photo of her wares. She smiled and asked if I would be posting it on Instagram.

As I walked back to the office with my greasy paper bag, I snuck a piece, dipped it in the chili & soy sauce concoction that made it authentically ‘Johor’, and ate it. It was crunchy, salty, and sweet, the piquancy of the chili a delightful addition. Simple pleasures.

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