Just forty-five minutes from Kuala Lumpur lies the sleepy town of Bentong, which comes alive every Sunday for a well-attended morning market.
Bentong sits almost exactly halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Temerloh, site of another popular Sunday market. Though they're near each other the two markets couldn't be more different. Temerloh's market meanders riverside, nearly one kilometer along a winding road; Bentong's occupies the five-or six-block length of one of the town's three concrete shophouse-lined main streets. Both markets have a lazy Sunday atmosphere and are the setting for nearly as much meeting, greeting, and gossiping as serious shopping, but Temerloh's feels decidedly rural (despite the fact that Temerloh is a fairly large town), whereas Bentong's evinces a bit more of an urban-style bustle.
Most of the prepared foods (satay, satak, laksam, dodol) at Temerloh's market are Malay, and much of the produce on display (banana stem, feathery wild mushrooms, fern tips) will end up in Malay-style dishes. There's a small Malay food section at Bentong's market, but most of the vegetables and prepared edibles sold there are Chinese.
The differences are a reflection of the towns' populations. Temerloh is home primarily to Malays, while the majority of Bentong-ites are Chinese Malaysians. On the Sunday we visited Bentong, a exhibition on the foods and tourist attractions of China's Guangxi province was being held in its Chinese Assembly Hall.
Mah Sau Lan, an Ipoh resident who grew up and still has family in Bentong, was helping out with food displays (unfortunately everything was under plastic, making it all but impossible to capture the dishes on film). In between consultations with her co-organizers she told me that some 60-70% of Bentong's ethnic Chinese residents (the town also has a small Indian population) trace their lineage to Guangxi, many of whose natives immigrated to Bentong seeking work on the area's palm oil plantations.
The town is known for its ginger, which to this palate tastes a bit stronger and more peppery than ginger grown elsewhere. Roots of a more esoteric nature are foraged from Bentong's surrounding forest-carpeted hills.
This sign advertises the root of a type of mountain gourd or bean, alleged to clean the body of poisons and ease neck and abdomen pain, as well as general body aches of unknown origin.
The Sunday market is a vegetable lover's dream. Outdoor aisle after aisle are lined with tables heaped high with commonplace greens like baby bok choi, choi sum, gai lan, water spinach (kangkong), and amaranth,
as well as more unusual items, like this small-leaved burgundy hued plant.
Mak choi, a tender leaf edged with widely spaced sawtooths is,
according to Mrs. Mah, a favored green vegetable in Guangxi. It has a wonderfully strong, bitter bite that tempers a bit (but doesn't disappear) with wok-frying or boiling, making it a perfect foil to the fatty dishes that Guangxi ren love.
Bentong's central market building is the place to find a variety of fish, both fresh (including patin catfish from Temerloh, crab, clams, squid and tiny squid heads that we mistook - with much glee -for baby octupus) and dried.
In the poultry section are rows of black-skinned chickens, no doubt destined for Chinese herbal soup pots. A few meters away, another product for which Bentong is justly famous -tofu - is sold from woven rattan trays.
These plump, thick-skinned cakes boast an interior smooth as the proverbial baby's bottom. Though intended to be eaten cooked, this bean curd - the most flavorful and, well, 'beany' I've ever come across - is wonderful simply dabbed with soy sauce.
The surest sign that Bentong is a Chinese town is the central market's large pork section. In most Malaysian markets offence to Muslims is avoided by placing pork sellers in an out-of-the-way space, such as a separate building to the rear of the market proper. In Bentong roasted and fresh pork meat vendors are just off one of the main entrances, next to the poultry section. Though they're behind stalls offering roast duck (opening photo) and not easily visible from the area's entryway, there's no mistaking the smell of freshly butchered pork. With 6 or 8 vendors cleavering ribs, legs, shoulders, and every other part of the pig to order, this section of the market is a must-visit for lovers of 'the other white meat'.
Sunday market, from 7am to about noon (rain or shine), Bentong (about 10 minutes off the Karak Highway).