Public transport in Malaysia is well-developed, cheap, and fairly efficient. With the likes of Air Asia flying to all corners of the country for as little as 15 ringgit (less than five US dollars) one way, why resort to car travel?
Lots of reasons. Malaysia's roads are excellent; even the old roads that Malaysians like to moan about, the two-lane trunk roads, are in far better shape than anything you'll find in, say, Vietnam, or even Thailand. Travel at the right time of the day and they're fairly empty as well. A car gives you the freedom to set your own schedule. Souvenirs can go in the trunk, which means not having to cart them around from hotel to hotel. Having your own set of wheels means not having to deal with Malaysian taxi drivers, who, quite frankly, can be a real pain in the arse at times. And with a car,...
OK, wait a minute. Who am I trying to kid here? The best reason to travel by car in Malaysia is that it allows you to eat whatever, wherever, and whenever you like. A car gives you the freedom to sample whatever roadside nubbins fate throws in front of you. It enables up-close investigation of regional delicacies that just might be dished up from unassuming stalls like this.
In the northern state of Kelantan the road from Cabang Empat to Tumpat is lined with vendors selling putu piring, steamed rice flour cakes filled with palm sugar. We stopped in at this one and were told that the first batch was still a half hour from ready. "We shall return!" we cried, climbing back in the car, and continued on until, fifteen or so minutes later, we reached a road block. Tumpat was flooded, and the road was closed. No matter; we turned around and by the time we reached the stall, our putu were ready.
These putu piring are assembled in essentially the same way as their Kuala Lumpur cousins: a layer of rice flour is tamped down into a circular metal mold, topped with palm sugar, and then capped with more rice flour (top photo).
But in other respects these putu herba, as they're called, are a variation on the theme. 'Herba' in Malaysian simply means 'herb', and that's as much as I could get in the way of description from the friendly vendor. But a gander at the herba (above) that she mixes into her palm sugar filling led me to guess that it's ground fenugreek seeds that give these Kelantanese putu their intriguing flavor.
Another respect in which these putu differ from those we've run across in KL is the way in which they are cooked: wrapped completely, rather than partially, in thick cotton cloth, and then steamed uncovered. As they steam, the cakes' filling seeps through the dough and stains their cloth wrappers.
A certain heft in weight and texture, and a decided stickiness further differntiate these putu. Could there be some glutinous rice flour in the dough? Extra dark palm sugar in the filling makes them sweetly smoky, and the fenugreek adds a nutty, bitter, and almost medicinal (but not in an unpleasant way) note. An altogether more substantial snack than those found streetside in the country's capital.
The next day, on our way back to Kota Bahru after a bit of kite shopping near Pantai beach, this hand lettered sign advertising unfamiliar snacks reeled us in.
Akok are small, wrinkled egg and coconut milk 'cakes' - unfortunately they were not of offer here that day. But the baulu were delightful enough to suffice.
This vendor oversees the baking while his wife mixes the baulu batter - eggs, white sugar, rice and wheat flours, and a leavening agent - and packages deliveries. Prep is simple. The batter is ladeled into greased oval molds and baked for about 10-15 minutes. This vendor's 'oven' consists of a layer of hot charcoal and a charcoal-filled pan the size of the cake mold; the cake pan is sandwiched between the two.
I had sampled baulu before (without knowing what they were) and found them to be dry and tasteless. Judging from the cakes above, freshness is key. Hot from the 'oven', these treats boasted a thin, golden, crackly exterior and a pale, fluffy and crumbly interior. Their pleasingly mild flavor hinted at vanilla and reminded me of a childhood favorite - Nilla Vanilla Wafers.
When it comes to Malaysian sweets small batch is best, it seems. I'd love to say these baulu exhibited a staying power superior to their mass produced relatives, but our bag o' baulu didn't make it back to the hotel.
Find putu herba vendors (there are at least 10 of them) about 10 kilometers from Kota Bahru on the road to Tumpat, late afternoons (after 2pm). Akok and baulu vendor is about 10 minutes from Pantai beach on the way back to Kota Bahru, right hand side of the road. Afternoons.