2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Secret Beer on a Muslim Beach

Secret Beer on a Muslim Beach

Staying cool at Batu Ferringhi, Malaysia

Nobody told me that the beaches in Batu Ferringhi would be too hot for leisure in April. The heat in Malaysia is punishing, and when I got there I found that on a clear day the beaches were deserted except for a sweaty construction crew hammering together a new dock.

I walked along the shore for an hour until I found a seaside pool that accepted non-guests. It was in a resort called Cool Bananas and it became my sanctuary for the day.

I took dips and read on the grassed pitch overlooking an empty stretch of sand. I watched the foreign couples that roamed the grounds, the men in bathing suits, baseball caps and the women hidden behind black abayas.

I paid for a one-day membership. The Chinese pool manager told me that most of the guests came from the Middle East, places like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia.

“Do they drink here?” I asked. We were standing by the bar.

“No, never,” he said. “Just juice, coca cola.”

There was a mosque nearby. Throughout the day it broadcast a muezzin’s call that you could hear clearly from the tiki hut Sunset Bar. I had one glass of a wine there and after sunset, when it felt as if I had stayed long enough, I walked back towards Shalini’s Guest House (“A Home Like A Home”) where there were food vendors overlooking the beach.

There were two operations there, one run by Malays and the other by a Hindu man named Raj who had bright eyes and a thick mustache that wrapped around his whole face. Both sold the same fish but Raj’s was cheaper, and he swore that he made a great steamed lemon sea bass. I took up his offer for the sea bass and walked to the Malays, who had smoothies.

As I was about to order one, I heard Raj calling. He was standing there in the middle of the dining area, gesturing at me and grinning sheepishly. I returned.

“We have drinks here,” he said. “Do you want beer? Tiger, Heineken, Anchor.” And that was exactly what I wanted.

“But there is no beer on your menu.”

“Ninety per cent of my customers are Muslim. If I put beer on my menu, they won’t eat anything here.”

I sat down. Raj brought me the secret beer and we talked.

“I was born here,” he said. “I’ve had this restaurant for 17 years.”

Raj told me about his holidays. He had visited Australia, Singapore, and Ukraine, where his daughter had once studied. He was particularly fond of Ukraine.

“It is very nice there,” he beamed. “Very nice women.” He cupped his breasts with raised eyebrows. “I like it there very much.”

As the muezzin started again, I ordered my second beer. The fish arrived in a lemon, garlic broth, boiling over flame. Several cats purred at my feet and jumped to the table. I shooed them but they returned. Raj complained.

“The health inspector, next week he is coming with a big group. Ten people. A government group. I will have to hide the cats.”

Raj was going to round up the cats and stuff them in a cage, all ten or so of them. As he explained this, he scooped up my leftover fish parts and laid them by the cats.

“You can’t have cats in your restaurant,” he said. “Not on the table. This is very bad.”

I emptied my Tiger, content with my lazy day and my discovery, Raj, the friendly fishmonger of Batu Ferringhi, with his hidden beer and soon-to-be hidden cats.

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