For an Asian food market fanatic like myself, Kota Baru's Central Market is indeed the stuff of dreams. Outdoors, stall after stall manned by shouting vendors proffering gorgeous fruits; inside, row after row dedicated to nothing but prepared kuih (sweets) and savory snacks in one section and, in another, mound upon mound of vegetables both familiar and mysterious. All buttressed by an admirably chaotic seafood section marked by a nose-wrinkling stench and a floor slippery with scales and guts; an upstairs dry goods section stocked with a mind-boggling array of packaged goods, from sweetly addictive orbs of puffed rice grains bound together with dark palm sugar to ingredients for just about any Malay, Chinese, or Indian dish one might be craving; and an extensive food court where Kelantanese specialties can be ordered to carry out or enjoyably eaten in.
To top it off, much of the market's colorful action takes place on the floor of a hexagonal, perspex-roofed atrium (below), allowing voyeurs (and photographers) willing to climb a few stairs to the second and third floors a bird's-eye view of the comings, goings, and tradings.
Women rule the market roost at the KB Central Market, making up the majority of inside vendors. In the atrium, these ladies sell from the center of low-to-the-ground wooden platforms, their goods arranged around them on all sides. This vendor - mother of five, as she proudly informed us - called Dave over to take her photograph and, after unsmilingly staring down the lens for a minute or two, allowed her good humor to get the better of her.
Though the usual vegetal suspects (cabbage, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, ginger and garlic and cilantro and mint and such) - are in evidence, there's much on display here to pique the cook's (or eater's) curiosity.
Turtle eggs are a local delicacy. Those of the leatherback turle are officially off-limits (it's possible to view the protected species laying their eggs nocturnally on Terengganu and Kelantan beaches at certain times of the year) but those of other species are legally collected and sold. I'm not of the if-it's-there-eat-it persuasion, but they yolks are said to remain liquid long after the whites have cooked through.
Wild mushrooms supplement the abundant, snow-white oyster variety. They're virtually a staple at primarily Malay-food markets like Temerloh town's Pekan Sehari.
I'm hoping a knowledgeable reader can identify these two vegetables: a long, firm, thick-skinned olive green "leaf" (under okra bundles) which was referred to by its vendor as, I think, peko,
and a green stem adorned by both leaves and whispy fronds.
In Kelantan it's rice rather than noodles that rule, and the Central Market's food hall is an ideal place to track down a couple of Kelantanese rice specialties: nasi kerabu and nasi dagang.
The former dish is based on rice tinted blue - traditionally, from petals of bunga telaga (pea flower, clitoria) but now often from dye - and the latter on nutty, reddish unevenly milled rice cooked in coconut milk or water. Stalls serving these specialties offer a variety of prepared dishes, from huge tiger prawns cooked in chili sauce to hard-boiled eggs and simple stir-fries of mixed vegetables, to go with the rice.
Front and center above is the well-known Kelantanese dish of small squid stuffed with glutinous rice and braised in a sweet sauce.
Nasi kerab is served garnished with ulam (fresh vegetables and herbs like bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and peppery daun kesom leaves) and grated coconut that has been fried with chilies and palm sugar; a generous dab of sambal and a few kerepok (crispy fish crackers) complete the picture.
This vendor's nasi dagang was perfectly delicious; note how the individual rice grains remain distinct (rather than clumping together in a heavy, oily mass), indicating that the rice has been steamed instead of boiled. Chicken stewed in spicy coconut gravy until it's nearly falling off the bone and fresh, briney clams stir-fried with onions, green beans, and chilies are the perfect complement.
Though rice is Kelantan's favorite starch, noodles can be had as well, in the form of laksam. These thick, sticky noodle rolls are doused in a sweet fish and coconut gravy and garnished much as nasi kerabu is, with a tangle of fresh herbs and vegetables and a decent dose of fishy and spicy sambal.
In three visits to KB's Central Market we barely scratched the surface of the prepared edible offerings available in the magnificent food hall. But we managed to make a decent dent - I'm still working off the kilos gained in those four days - and gained exposure to enough wonderful treats to convince me that a return trip is most definately in order.
Kota Baru Central Market. Things get going around 8am; it's open till about 4p or so, though the food hall starts to peter out around 2p.