Some time ago I came across an article claiming that the best seafood curry noodle in KL is to be found at a place called Restoran Yu Ai (Chinese for "friendly affection" or "fraternal love"). I've long forgotten the source of this assertion, and, as a relative newcomer to this land of hardheld opinions on what's good and what sucks, I've no basis on which to judge its verity. Nonetheless, thanks to a quick scribble in my "eat here now" notebook Dave and I found ourselves at this unpreposessing shop around 2pm on a recent weekend day.
Our first glance inside was not encouraging -- only one table was occupied, a certain sign to hightail it on out of there if ever there was one. One step inside, however, and it became clear why diners were scarce. Despite the heroic efforts of those ceiling-mounted industrial fans, the place was hot as Death Valley on a summer's day. We were waved upstairs, to a long, narrow room of flourescent-lit, air-conditioned cacaphony. Every single table was filled with clearly satisfied customers slurping, smacking, demurely belching behind hankies, and tossing all manner of seafood refuse onto their tabletops (there is also seating out back, under a couple of trees). In a matter of moments a table turned and was wiped clean, and we were seated and placing our orders for two seafood curry mee and grass jelly herbal drinks.
Five minutes passed, then ten minutes ... when it appeared we'd have a bit more of a wait we ventured back downstairs to the inferno to have a look at our curry noodles in the making.
It's quite an operation, really. Prep and cooking take place around an inverted "L". The display case at the front of the shop, at the bottom of the "L", holds a selection of rice and wheat noodles: kuay tiaow, loh see fun ("rat tail" noodles) mai fun (thin rice noodles), yellow mee, and a thicker round wheat noodle that's dried in flattish cakes. Next to the display case, at the joint of the "L", a cauldron split in half holds broth and boiling water to soften the noodles. Moving away from the joint of the "L" and up (or down) its long side, three large pots hold Yu Ai's no-doubt-secret recipe noodle soup bases.
Up top and, unfortunately, hardly visible, is qingtang -- literally "clear soup". Though anything but clear (it's actually tannish), this soup base is Yu Ai's non-spicy offering. The wicked looking brick red broth on the lower left is tomyam. Not to be confused with Thai tomyam soup, which is clear and sour and may be spiced with whole chilies, this Malaysian-style tomyam is thick with chili paste and fiery. In the pot to the right is the base for the dish that drew us to Yu Ai, a bright red chili-coconut curry studded with cubes of deep-fried tofu.
The real action takes place next to the pots of soup base, at the grease coated, gas-fired eight burner stove.
It's here that a couple of noodle jockeys prepare seafood curry, tomyam, and qingtang noodles, one order to a pot.
When the orders are coming fast and furious, these guys display a range of almost balletic movements, first dipping broth into pots, then adding base, monitoring the boil and moving pots onto and off of and back onto burners, and finally sloshing finished curry or qingtang or tomyam over bowl after bowl of noodles (dried noodles are added directly to the broth as it cooks, as above). Dancing around and behind and in front of each other with lightning speed, they -- miraculously -- never collide.
Yu Ai's noodle jockey support cast includes the man in yellow to the right of the stove (a few pics up, above), who portions out seafood and adds it to the individual pots at just the right moment; and a lad behind the front display case who prepares bowls of parboiled noodles, adding a dollop of chili paste to some -- for customers who have requested theirs "extra spicy".
Once plated (or, more accurately, "bowl"ed) and garnished, noodles are ready to be ferried outside and upstairs to loud crowds of hungry customers.
Our filled-to-the-brim bowls of curry with yellow mee noodles boasted a good variety of seafood: thick sticks of brown squid, juicy mussels, lots of tiny clam shells loath to let go of their meat (at Yu Ai, one cannot be afraid of getting one's hands dirty), and 4 or 5 head and tail-on prawns. Along with the seafood, nubs of white meat chicken, those chunks of fried tofu, and a dense garnish of chopped Chinese celery added up to rather a large pile of food.
Yu Ai's tawny curry is deep and complex, with layers of warm spices like cinammon and cloves and ground coriander, a hint of sweetness from the coconut milk, and a hit of chili that sneaks up from the back of your tongue after about the fifth spoonful. Tofu chunks act as little sponges, soaking up fragrant curry.
Along with lots of kleenex, each table stocks a stainless steel container of chili bean paste and a plastic tub of a gutsy, garlicky, fresh-chili-and-kalamansi-juice sauce.
I've noticed on more than one occasion that when it comes to noodle soup/gravies, Malaysians tend to portion out chili sauce etc. to the tiny saucers provided, and then pluck individual ingredients from their bowl to dip. My more crude habit -- developed, I suppose, in China and ingrained in Thailand -- is to dump sauce into bowl and stir. I found Yu Ai's tart kalamansi-based sauce to be a nice foil to the curry's sweetness.
Still, no matter how you dip it, dunk it, or dump it, this shop's noodle jockeys turn out a supremely fine bowl of seafood curry noodle. A return visit -- to sample Yu Ai's tom yam -- is, I think, a must.
Restoran Yu Ai, 42J Jalan Segambut Utara. Open 8am to 5pm.