A casual search of my (or this blog) tells me that, in Kuala Lumpur, we eat a lot of noodles. Head out in search of street grub in this city and it's almost guaranteed that noodles - souped up or stir-fried, sauced or plain, lardy or low-fat - are what you'll find first.
Not so in Kota Baru, capital of Kelantan, the northeastern Malaysian state known for its rice dishes. Though there are certainly noodles to be had here (especially at any of the city's numerous Chinese coffee shops) rice seems to appear at every turn. Blue-hued nasi kerabu and coconuty, semi-polished nasi dagang come immediately to mind, but these aren't the only rice options on offer.
Zakini Nasi Kukus, an airy shop on the northern edge of town is the place to go for nasi kukus (steamed rice). This husband and wife-owned operation, which began life as a 'meals on wheels' cart about twenty years ago, offers individual aluminum bowls of steamed rice, to eat with a huge variety of Malay meat and vegetable tasties. Rice afficianados will appreciate the deliciously unique texture of these grains: puffed, extremely light and fluffy, and elongated to the point that they curl just a bit at the ends.
We came for the rice but stayed for the amazing array of flavorful dishes. The 'airiness' of the steamed rice means it is extra absorbent, just the thing to accompany (clockwise from 12 o'clock) a crunchy outside-moist inside potato 'cake', liver sate, deep-fried quail, and tender but not mushy eggplant in a complex, spicy sauce.
But why stop there? (We didn't.) Especially when (clockwise from 3 o'clock) there's also chili-rich, coconut-free goat curry, mild boneless fish simmered in coconut milk, and a turmeric-scented stir-fry of cabbage and long beans to be had.
Of special note is Zakini's sambal (pooled at the bottom of top plate): a textured, limey, not too fishy but plenty fiery pounded mixture of fresh green and dried red chilies.
Zakini Nasi Kukus, Jalan Wakaf Mek Zainab, on the north side of the street about halfway between Jalans Atas Banggol and Kebun Sultan, Kota Baru. 11am-ish to 11pm.
Nasi air (lit. 'rice water') is Kelantan's version of rice porridge and, though it's available all over Kota Baru, cavernous Mak Su Nab is - we were told by a desk clerk at our hotel - the place to sample it.
This nasi air - a loose and soupy rather than thick 'n creamy porridge - is a delightful bowlful of distinct, soft-but-not-mushy grains of rice, skinny rice noodle threads, finely shredded chicken, bits of cow stomach, and the barest strips of fried tofu, all in a full-flavored meat broth garnished with fried shallots and chopped scallion.
What makes this porridge distinctively Malay (as opposed to Chinese-style) is its subtle hit of savory and sweet spices - I could detect cloves, cinammon, nutmeg, and black pepper, but I'm guessing there's much more to the spice mix than that.
Nasi air is Nak Su Nab's raison d'etre, but its menu is surprisingly long and varied. We sampled kailan ikan masin (Chinese broccoli stir-fried with fragrant kecap manis and chunks of salted fish), kerabu perut (a bracingly limey and spicy cow stomach 'salad'), and ayam percik (grilled chicken doused in a sinfully rich coconut sauce) and judged all to be worthy accompaniments to the main attraction.
Mak Su Nab, Jalan Hospital (south side of the street, east of the General Hospital), Kota Baru.