"Pull over. Pull over!! PUUULLL OOOOVEEEER!!!!!!!"
Dave was barreling down the Karak highway, sights set on a nap back home in KL after a morning of out-of-town culinary exploration (more on that later). But my eyes were drawn to thick puffs of smoke rising from the umbrella-covered wooden stands that began appearing roadside about 30 minutes from downtown. As we sped by one, two, three, then ten of them, I began to panic.
Granted, it might not have been prudent to cut across three lanes of high-speed traffic in quest merely of something edible but as yet unknown. But life is full of risks. I put my foot down and raised my voice.
Just as it appeared we had blown by the last vendor we rounded a corner and, blessedly, there sat three more -- and on the widest-shouldered stretch of road in miles.
What's on sale here is lemang: glutinous rice mixed with coconut milk, packed in a banana leaf-lined tube of bamboo, and cooked slowly over an open fire. It doesn't get much more basic than this; note the hefty logs smoking on a piece of sheet metal roofing. Suspended over the double rack next to the smokin' bamboo are pods of petai (stink beans).
Order up a tube o' rice and the vendor splits it,
pries it open,
and slices the rice log, leaf and all, right in the tube before sliding the cut pieces into styrofoam container, which is rubber-banded for the ride home.
It's a tricky preparation, lemang. Smoke the tubes too quickly over too high a heat, and the rice will come out hard and crusty. If the heat's too low, it will simply be undercooked. We watched the hubby half of a Malaysian couple purchasing a couple of tubes ahead of us squeeze theirs up one end and down the other before pronouncing it satisfactory.
Rice must be eaten with sauce, of course, and this vendor offers a selection of curries (as, presumably, do all the others): chicken, beef, or lamb. We chose lamb and, back in the car (no, we couldn't wait until we got home), dipped easy-to-handle sticky rice discs into a rich, complex red curry lightened with the tartness of kaffir lime leaves. So impressed were we by this vendor's lamb curry, in fact, that we returned a week later to try the others, and were pleased to find sambal petai (stink beans cooked with stinky-spicy sambal sauce) on offer as well. Beef: coconut-rich, spicy as all get out, meat falling-apart tender. Chicken: a bit lighter, sprightly with lots of lemongrass and more kaffir lime leaves. Sambal petai: a potent combination of stink beans, pungent sambal heavy on the belacan, and -- most delightfully -- plentiful tiny ikan bilis (dried anchovies). What a memorably delicous reek!
Lemang stalls, Karak highway. There are many on both sides of the road -- keep an eye out for a sign advising the presence of gerai lemang (lemang stalls) in the vicinity. And drive carefully!