I HAVE just spent a week grazing the length of Malaysia on a completely unnecessary holiday. It is a wonderful country for fresh, cheap and interesting food, from the banana pancake, backpacker haven of Tioman Island in the south to the country's largest food market in the far north Islamic town of Kota Bahru. It's a night market which opens at 5.30 pm, selling satays, filled murtabaks (pancakes stuffed with meat, vegetable or bananas), barbecued meats, kebabs, sweet dishes and fruit drinks. Come sunset the market quickly empties for the call to prayer and a man with a megaphone parades the square ejecting the greedy. Half an hour later the market fills up again. Fasal, an Iraqi refugee, had a constant queue at his chicken kebab stall; his secret, he says, is to buy fresh chicken breasts at the market, marinate the meat in lemon juice and spices overnight in the freezer. He cooks it on a rotating spit, mixes the juices with freshly cut tomato and cucumber, and then fills a hotdog roll with the freshly cut meat and a splash of chilli sauce, and sells it for just 1.30 ringgits (HK$2.60). When I returned to Hong Kong, I was so inspired by Fasal's skills with marinating, I decided to pursue the matter. The word marinade comes from the Latin word marinara, or from the sea, as meat was once soaked in a briny solution to preserve and add flavour. A marinade is a mixture of oil, acid and seasoning. There is no need to marinate food for long; for seafood, 15 minutes is enough, and three hours is the maximum for meat at room temperature. You can invent your own marinades using acids like yoghurt, wine and citrus juices, oils such as sesame, olive and walnut, and fresh or dried seasonings. Leave meat for too long in an acid-heavy marinade and it will break down the fibres - a lesson I learned the hard way when I marinated what I thought was tough but cheap kangaroo steak with papaya overnight. Papaya has a very strong enzyme, papain, which is used as a medicine to aid digestion. Skippy broke down to the texture of cat food, and none of my guests will let me forget the night of mush. To relive happy memories of Fasal's kebabs, I tracked down a Hong Kong substitute: Pita Place, shop 75, at the back of Chungking Mansions, Nathan Road. It's a tiny shop with an open kitchen, where there are two rotating, vertical spits of marinated chicken and lamb, known as shawarma. A halved, toasted pita bread is filled with freshly chopped chicken or lamb, a light lemon and garlic sauce, spicy harissa and shredded lettuce, all for $27. Pita Place has been operating for more than six years. The original owner, Tunisian Rafet Azaiez, fell in love with a Hong Kong music teacher while travelling in Europe. They returned to Hong Kong and he worked at Va Bene and Bacchus before opening his own shop, which has queues out the door at lunchtime. I had resolved to eat well and cheaply and managed to secure an invitation to tea at The Helena May, Garden Road, a lodging house for 'women of moderate means'. I seriously contemplated becoming such a woman on the strength of the superb carrot cake. It was everything a carrot cake should be: rich, dense, spicy and served slightly chilled with a thick veneer of cream cheese icing for the moderate price of $14 a slice. It is possible to order whole cakes for $160 but you need to befriend a member. Still in pursuit of economical dining, I went to video night at Green's Cafe at 43A Graham Street, Central. Every Sunday and Wednesday night, owner Nick Snowdon moves back the tables and chairs and shows a movie on a large screen suspended above the diners' heads. He charges $100 for the film show and a three-course veggie meal. Last Sunday, Snowdon showed the Lindsay Anderson cult film O Lucky Man! This 1973 British movie, starring Malcolm McDowell, became even more surreal as the evening continued. Snowdon had loaned the video to a friend for a stag night. Mid cooking, he abandoned stove and cafe to collect it, giving me instructions to don an apron and make a cheese sauce for the lasagne. On his return, the lights were dimmed and the film started. Snowdon served up a feast of carrot soup with pesto toast, vegetable pancakes, Spanish omelette, lasagne (with a superb cheese sauce) and baked bananas and coffee. Then from one extreme to the other. My uncle arrived in town on a short visit and took me out to dinner. As he was flying out that night, he would be in 'plane clothes' so didn't want to go anywhere with a dress code. I chose Yu seafood restaurant at The Regent hotel, which has stunning harbour views, is relatively near the airport, and most importantly, if you order the seafood platter the staff tie huge white bibs round your neck - so what you wear underneath is irrelevant. The platter (not cheap at $730 for two) is definitely worth writing home about; any crustacean worth its salt is embedded in a huge mountain of crushed ice. You can rotate the platter at your leisure, spearing passing shellfish, then dip them in a selection of six sauces. It was impossible to completely finish the platter - forcing my uncle to order a doggie bag. Several hours later, he enjoyed some of the finest and most expensive shellfish to be served in economy class.