So far, my search for fiddleheads in and around greater KL has turned up nada. It appears I may have to fly to Sarawak to feed my craving. In the meantime, I'm making do with pucuk paku, the tender ferns that are available in almost every wet market -- and quite a few grocery stores -- in town. They're not roast-able, as fiddleheads are, but they've got the same sort of pleasing asparagus-crossed-with-artichoke-with-some-grass-thrown-in kind of flavor.
At home I've been tossing them in a fry pan with a bit of garlic and oil. But about a month ago, over lunch with another KL food blogger and a couple other friends at Little Penang Cafe's new KLCC outlet, I sampled a lemak ("fatty" -- usually from coconut milk) and zippy pucuk paku salad that rocked my world. "If you like this, you must try the version at Muhibbah," said food blogger advised. I needed no prodding. The following Saturday Dave (also a pucuk paku fan) and I hot-tailed it over to Muhibbah for a light lunch.
Muhibbah Seafood occupies a cavernous storefront in TTDI, conveniently close to Applied Imaging, where we have our slides developed. Its thirty or so tables, most of them big ten-seaters with lazy susans in the middle, are cooled by copious ceiling fans. This is the sort of place to come for a casual stuff-with-rice kind of meal. The menu lists lots of prawn, squid, and la-la (clams) dishes and a selection of vegetable and dofu preparations. I'm told that barbecued fish is on offer at night.
Let me get right to the point: Muhibbah's kerabu paku pakis (fern "salad", not on the menu - consult the board on the wall) is sublime.
We're talking expertly blanched fern - tender stems and curled tips - that displays not the slightest bit of sliminess (speaking from experience, it can happen, if the pucuk paku is cooked too long) and a satisfying touch of crunch. We're talking carefully sliced bird chilies and shallots, thin shavings of fresh lemongrass. We're talking a snappy dressing of lime juice, palm sugar, perhaps a wee bit of fish sauce or belacan, and a whisper of coconut milk, just enough to add body without overwhelming the vegetable in lemak-y heaviness. There's a bit of Thai influence here, it seems to me, but nevermind. No matter the origin, this salad is glorious.
Oh yeah -- we also (as advised) sampled Muhibbah's deep-fried sotong (squid).
You know, I generally try to avoid things deep-fried. There's something about foods immersed in hot oil that's just so .... well, oily. And deep-fried squid, calamari, whatever you call it, is so rarely done right. Well, someone in Muhibbah's kitchen really knows how to work this dish. To start with, the pieces are small enough to ensure that the squid is cooked to a state of exquisite tenderness in the brief time it takes to crisp the coating. The latter is light and crunchy (oh, how I detest overly breaded deep-fried coatings). Tentacles are the best bites, worth fighting over, blissfully browned and crunchy. These tasties go down easy as popcorn, one right after the other. An accompanying dipping sauce of fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, and chilies is nice but not necessary.
Feeling the need for one more dish, we settled on stir-fried kucai flowers just because we had no idea what they were.
They turned out to be Chinese chives. Another masterful preparation, this time consisting of pungent, garlicky chives stir-fried with carrots, a few small shrimp, tender ginger slivers, garlic, and oyster sauce. This dish suffered only from the fact that it followed the blockbuster combo of kerabu paku pakis and squid; it really was delicious enough to merit ordering again.
The only downside of this meal is that I learned after the fact that we'd ordered a small plate of the pucuk paku, when medium and large sizes are available as well. I'm envisioning a dinner at Muhibbah in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future: ikan bakar (grilled fish), more squid, and a big, BIG fern salad.
Muhibbah Seafood, 50-54 Lorong Rahim Kajai 14, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail. Tel. 03-7727-3153 (within 5 minutes of the TTDI exit off the Penchala Link).