It may be sprawling, its streets may at times be beset by far too many automobiles, it may have more malls per capita than any other Asian city (I don't know this to be true, but it seems like it should be), but Kuala Lumpur isn't exactly a throbbing metropolis. In fact there are times when this city - especially in comparison with Saigon, where the steady thrum of tens of thousands of motorbikes can literally shake your house during rush hours - seems almost laid back.
Still, sometimes a brief escape from the urban landscape appeals. Just one hour and forty-five minutes from KL lies Temerloh, in Malaysia's state of Pahang. This generally sleepy town springs to life on Sunday mornings, when it hosts the "Pekan Sehari", or "one-day market".
Winding for about a mile and a half along one bank of the Pahang River (Malaysia's longest), the Pekan Sehari has a decidedly "Sunday" feel about it. It seems there's nothing that can't be purchased here. In search of motorized toys for the kiddies? Batik sarongs in riotous colors? Dates from Iran, golden raisins from Xinjiang, dried figs from Turkey? A hand-hewn wooden oar, perhaps? Or how about herbal potions for whatever ails you, peddled by a microphone-toting gent with an energy level that belies his going-on-80 years?
As evidenced by the overloaded shopping baskets carried by most visitors, there's no shortage of business being done at this market. But there' also plenty of shuffling and strolling, "window" shopping, and gossiping going on, interspersed with respects payed to town elders, and the showing off of grandkids dressed with care. There's also lots of - this is Malaysia, remember - eating.
Dave and I knew to be on the lookout at the Pekan Sehari for the Pahang delicacy called satar, a paste of fish, coconut, lemongrass, and chilies, wrapped in triangular banana leaf packets, skewered three to a stick, and grilled. We didn't have the heart to tell this vendor that his sales pitch (medical researchers in India have determined that banana leaf fumes and essence promote fitness and health) were wasted on us.
But is it yummy??!! That's all we cared about. That's all we ever care about.
No disappointment here. The female half of this vending duo told us that she has been peddling these beauties at the Pekar Sehari ever since taking voluntary early retirement from HSBC twelve years ago. Between Sundays, when she rises at 5am to pound together ingredients for both the satar and the moist, fishy curry puffs she sells alongside them, the Johor native hikes Taman Negari's jungle trails and pops down to Singapore for the occasional spot of shopping.
Her satar are wonderful - on the spicy side, sweetness balanced by lots of lemongrass, a paste not pounded to mush but studded with discernable shreds of fresh fish. Her husband's skills at the grill are not to be sniffed at either; note the bits of char on the satar, which bestow not only a pleasant smokiness but a nice bit of chew as well.
Most of the market's vendors and customers are Malay, and the majority of vendors selling ingredients are women. We purchased a bottle of fragrant, flowery honey from this friendly woman for less than 3 US dollars; had we been in search of honeycomb, we need have looked no further than a stall away.
In the early nineties Temerloh was promoted by Malaysia's Tourism ministry as "Bandar Ikan Patin" (Town of Patin Fish), after a variety of catfish that is said to derive its especially sweet flavor from the shellfish and aquatic plants particular to the town's stretch of the Pahang River. But now, according to an article earlier this year in Malaysia's New Straits Times, increasing pollution in the river means that the majority of patin sold at the Pekan Sehari and beyond is farmed. In fact, these days patin fish is less in evidence at the market than dried fish, sold whole or, if the fish is especially large, filleted.
Malaysian coffee is not well-known outside of the country; most beans grown here are consumed locally. That's a shame, because in Pahang especially you'll find some exceptionally fine joe. At the Pekan Sehari's halfway point, an elderly gentleman uses a gas-powered grinder to turn Pahang beans into fine powder. The coffee sells for 2 ringgit per 100 grams.
Perched on a low stool next to the coffee vendor is a man selling hard discs of palm sugar with a wondefully rich and complex flavor.
A good portion of the produce sold at the Pekan Sehari is foraged by villagers. Fleshy mushrooms, feathery fungus light as sawdust, long red-leafed fern stems, and bamboo shredded and displayed on banana leaves are just a few of the "wild" items on offer. Buah kuran (known in Brazil as acai and touted for its amazingly high level of anti-oxidents) is a purplish-black fruit with a thin, brittle shell-like rind and a curiously fuzzy, tart interior. Frankly I couldn't quite grasp the attraction of this fruit, which is eaten "shell" and all.
Temerloh's pastel blue and pink mosque marks the market's end, at which point it's time to head back into the fray and get serious about sampling the delectables on offer.
Sweet tooths will leave the Pekan Sehari more than satisfied. Just about every fifth vendor offers dodol, a caramel-like coconcoction of coconut milk and palm sugar that, according to one purveyor, is stirred for a full five hours before being formed into thick pancakes. They'll keep for up to a week at room temperature.
I discovered this luscious treat on our second visit to the market. Dangai consist of two thick, chewy coconut and rice flour cakes sandwiching a sprinkle of coarse-grain white sugar. Lightly grilled on both sides, it tastes a bit like a coconut macaroon that's been kissed by a BBQ.
String hoppers - thin, almost fluffly noodles that are the result when rice flour batter is extruded through a sieve onto a hot convex griddle - are a treat when eaten warm with a sprinkle of brown sugar and grated coconut. These were purchased near to the market's start.
Appam - fluffy "pancakes" that show up in various forms (made from fermented rice flour or not, filled and folded in half or unfilled and sold in the round, crisp-crusted or soft and fluffy throughout) all over Malaysia - can be had "regular" or "special" (filled with chocolate sprinkles, coconut, white sugar, and, yes, canned creamed corn) at a stall near the bus station.
I'm embarassed to admit that the creamed corn-chocolate combo put me off of trying this taste sensation. I'll try to gird my tastebuds and attempt a bite or two next trip to the market.
Aching feet can be rested at any one of several sit-down snack spots. Near the market's end sits a coffee shop advertising noodles and beverages and offering, from it's outdoor tables, a bird's-eye view of market comings and goings against the backdrop of the muddy, slow-moving Pahang.
A short walk from the beginning of the Pekan Sehari, a fiesty granny oversees a canopy-covered family operation selling nasi lemak (rice steamed in coconut milk and served with a choice of meat, fish, and vegetable dishes) and noodles. The mee pedas boast a spicy beef broth fragrant with star anise, ladelled over yellow mee noodles, Chinese celery bits, and fried shallot pieces. It's richness comes not from coconut milk but from a good many beef shreds floating about the bowl.
Just past the U-shaped fish section lie a cluster of stalls selling char kuey tiaow and nasi lemak - but one would have to be crazy to choose either of those items over the wickedly delish sate and laksam dished up by a couple of well-fed siblings (we suspect they are, anyway - they look an awful lot alike), each anchoring the end of a long prep table. We followed our nose to the sate (lamb and chicken), which is marinated in a sauce hinting of honey and skillfully grilled over a continuously raging fire by brother.
The superbly charred morsels-on-a-stick are served with a chili-infused peanut sauce that doesn't suffer, as many sate sauces do, from sugar overload. Pressed rice squares prove handy for dipping up leftover peanut goo.
The sate are matched in scrumptiousness by sister's laksam, a Kelantanese specialty of thick rice flour "pancakes" rolled into ropes,
sliced into thick chunks, and topped with a slightly sweet (sweetness is a hallmark of Kelantanese cuisine) coconut milk and fish "gravy". Shredded cabbage and fresh bean sprouts add crunch, and this lady's fresh sambal delivers a hefty chili kick and enough sourness, from either lime or kalamansi juice, to cut the sweetness of the gravy. This laksam is as good, if not better, than any we sampled in Kelantan, but if chewy rice rolls are not your thing sister will dish up gravy and fixins with laksa noodles instead.
After a few hours of strolling and stopping, and a few bellyfulls of food, it's time to head back to KL. The beauty of Temerloh's Pekan Sehari is that it's far enough, and enough of a contrast to where we came from, to comprise a sort of mini-vacation. Yet it's close enough to allow arrival at home in time for a well-earned nap - no matter what one's form of transportation.
Temerloh's Sunday market starts around 7am. Though it supposedly lasts till 2pm, many vendors start to pack up shop around 10am, so it's best to arrive as early as possible.