Malaysia's northeast coasters are known for their sweet teeth. Sugar, in the states of Terengganu and Kelantan, isn't just for dessert - most dishes, from curries to sambals, are heavy on the stuff.
It's not surprising, then, that food markets in Terengganu and Kelantan are a kuih lover's dream come true. The selection of glucose-high foods at even the smallest gathering of vendors is astounding. On Wednesdays Chendering, a small fishing town about six kilometers south of Kuala Terengganu, is the site of a petite pasar malam (night market).
Here, food stalls lining both sides of an otherwise quiet neighborhood blacktop stretch for only the length of a long city block or two - not a particularly large market, by Malaysian standards. But sold from the trays, gas-fired steamers, and makeshift ovens topping these tables are enough sugar-laden delights to fuel a classroom of kindergartners for a month.
Everything's lovely to look at, especially the multi-hued, elaborately layered and molded watermelon-lookalike steamed cakes offered by several sellers.
The kuih below left is a Terengganu specialty called bronok: sago, sugar, and coloring boiled until thick, shaped into a lumpy ball, and rolled in freshly grated coconut. It's jelly-ish and, well, sweet.
Each batch of this rice flour-based kuih flew off the vendor's table as fast as she could remove it from the molds (readers - name?).
Steam-baking leaves the bottom half of these treats with a browned, appealingly crackly exterior. Inside and on top they're fluffy-chewy. The dark stripe of unsweetened cocoa breaks up this kuih's overall sweetness.
These kek mari are an east-west concoction based on French Marie biscuits.
I'm not a fan of packaged cookies or biscuits, but these moist, kind-of-chocolate squares held a strange allure. Put it down to the fact that they reminded me of chocolate Carnation Breakfast Bars, a favorite foodstuff of my culinarily unsophisticated youth.
For Dave and I, the star attractions of this orgy of tooth decay were these unusual putu piring, steamed 'pancakes' enclosing a core of dark, smoky palm sugar and topped with shredded coconut. Unlike the rice-flour-only versions we've sampled in west Malaysia these tasties combine rice and finely ground corn flours (thus the yellow tinge).
To make the putu, the vendor pats flour mix into the concave bottom of these stainless steel steamer attachments, tops it with a few small chunks of gula melaka (palm sugar), and then caps the sugar with another, mounded layer of flour. The putu are covered with a piece of cloth and carefully turned upside down onto the steamer (see opening photo). After about five minutes they're removed, cloth and all, from the steamer, and turned out onto a piece of banana leaf or plastic. For me, biting into a fresh, hot putu piring is about as close to kuih paradise as one can get. This corn flour version was especially memorable, the rusticity of the corn highlighting the unrefined gula's complex, undiluted flavors.
These lengths of bamboo contain a putu piring relative. The ingredients are essentially the same, but in this variation the palm sugar is not cooked. Instead, only rice flour and grated coconut are stuffed into the tubes and steamed.
When the putu is finished, the vendor uses a poker to push the now-compact rice flour and coconut roll out one end of the tube onto a pieces of plastic. It's broken up and topped with gula, which melts a little from the heat rising off of the rice flour. At this point it's ready to eat.
This kelepa (coconut) shake vendor had trouble keeping up with the demand for his concoction.
Cool it was, and a refreshing salve for our parched throats, but also verging on sickly sweet and lacking any discernible kelapa flavor. Its popularity is testament to the insatiable sweet teeth of the locals.
Lest shunners of all things sugary think Chendering's market holds nothing to pique their interest, it's worth noting that savory offerings, while not in the majority, are not entirely absent either. Spicy noodles,
kerepok lekor (chewy, deep-fried 'crackers' made of ground fish and/or shrimp),
grilled (and sweet-sauced) chicken wings,
Kelantanese nasi kerabu (blue-hued, coconut-scented rice) and Terengganu's famous nasi dagang (glutinous and unpolished red rice steamed in coconut milk),
and freshly patted and griddled naan
are all available to balance the sugar buzz.
But if truth be told, in Chendering it's mostly about the sweet stuff. Come for the savories, if you like, but stay for the kuih.
Chendering pasar malam, Wednesdays from about 5 to 9 or 10pm. From Kuala Terengganu, drive south about 6 km. The market is on the street running to the left of the first stoplight after the Kuala Ibai bridge. You can't miss it -- look for the crowds.