There were a few things I expected to find in Kota Baru, capital of Kelantan, Malaysia's northeastern-most state. Given the season, I anticipated lots of rain (the monsoonal downpour that began soon after we arrived lasted 23 hours, and we didn't see the sun until an hour before we pulled out of town four days later). I'd read in guidebooks that the city's central market is phenomenal (we spent three mornings there and have the slides to prove it ... more later). I'd heard that it's hard to walk a block downtown without bumping into a temptingly edible something or other (KB is a snacker's paradise).
What I didn't expect is that the town smells like chicken. Fried chicken. Roast chicken. BBQ chicken. Chicken in a soup. Chicken on a stick (a.k.a. sate). I challenge anyone to spend an hour or two walking the streets in the center of KB between the hours of, say, 7am and 9pm, and not run smack into a wall of smoke, steam, or otherwise airborne molecules of bird essence.
Rather than fight it we decided to embrace it, starting with a quest for the ultimate ayam percik. Asked for recommendations, an enthusiastic and well-fed (always a good thing to look for in someone making dining recommendations) member of the staff at our hotel sent us to Yati Ayam Percik, a stall-cum-open storefront (with an enclosed air-conditioned room) on a stretch of creepily dark and quiet road about half a kilometer from Kota Baru's hub.
For those unfamiliar with the dish, ayam percik is a Kelantanese mainstay that tastes a lot better than it reads: BBQ chicken with a creamy, flesh-colored sauce that bears a frightening resemblance to Thousand Island dressing (without those little green sweet pickle bits).
Integral to the success of the dish is, of course, a nicely grilled piece of bird. Yati scores high in this regard; the sliced breast above, marinated in a slightly sweet mixture that includes chilies and palm sugar, is lightly crispy and wonderfully charred, without being burnt. The percik sauce, thankfully, has nothing at all to do with salad dressing; it's a smooth and incredibly rich concoction based on coconut milk. Other ingredients include lemongrass, palm sugar, candlenuts, and ...? The combo really works: hot, lean bird tasting of the coals and lukewarm, opulently spiced sauce (more sauce is served on the side). Even better with a dab of Yati's fiery, limey sambal.
Regular EatingAsia readers will understand that, though we'd come to Yati for the ayam percik, we certainly couldn't stop there. The bird shared our table with nasi ayam (lit. rice and chicken), which turned out to be glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk, molded into a patty, and stuffed with chicken dry-cooked with lemongrass, chilies, palm sugar, and a bit of coconut. The whole is wrapped in banana leaf and grilled. Delicious, if a bit filling. In truth, I'd have preferred a bit more chicken stuffing, but the excess rice served as a useful sop for leftover percik sauce.
Along with ayam percik, Yati's most popular takeout item appeared to be its nasi kerabu (rice "salad").
For this dish, rice is heaped with bean sprouts, sliced long beans, chopped lemongrass and scallions and chilies, deep-fried shallots, chicken "floss" (imagine chicken jerky ground in a coffee mill till nearly powder), slivered fresh herbs, and peanuts, and sauced with a bit of sweetish chili and peanuty goo. Toss the ingredients about a bit and what you end up with is a riot of flavors and textures in every mouthful. Straggling end bits are delicious piled onto the dish's accompanying kerepok (fish paste crackers, visible nestling above fork and spoon).
Kerabu perut (cow's stomach "salad") was an ordering blunder -- not because it wasn't good, but because (1) I'm not a huge fan of stomach and (2) we'd mistakenly ordered the same dish at lunchtime two days prior. (That's what I get for not studying bahasa Malaysia... or learning from my mistakes.)
Still, as far as innards go this was quite a decent dish. Imagine all that makes a Thai green papaya salad so delicious (palm sugar, lime juice, fish-based sauce, chilies, garlic, tomato) tossed with slices of stomach instead. If you love stomach, your're swooning. Then again, if you're at all like me you're thinking, "Kerabu stomach please, hold the innards and substitute green papaya or mango."
We couldn't close the meal without trying at least one of the curries contained in a double row of giant woks, balanced on gas burners, that gurgled away steps from our table.
Our choice was duck, and while I couldn't describe the meat as falling-apart tender, this dish vies with the ayam percik as my favorite of the meal. The curry, complex with spices like (I'm guessing here) cinammon and cloves and cardamom, not at all fiery in spite of its vividly chili-red cap of oil, served as the perfect counterpart to an extremely gamey piece of bird. That's a compliment to the cook -- this is one curry in which sauce did not overwhelm the main protein ingredient, and in which spice and meat were perfectly balanced in every bite.
No matter where you stay in Kota Baru, you'll need a car to get to Yati, but it's worth the effort. And that's not just my opinion. On a dismally wet evening this place was fairly crowded when we arrived and packed when we left, all the while doing an admirably steady takeout biz.
Yati Ayam Percik, Jalan Yong Yunus, Kota Baru. Till 11pm or so. Yati also has a stall at Kota Baru's night market.