Travel inspires us (and it's the muse for this blog). February was a good month because we spent a fair bit of time on the road.
The only problem with being away is, well, being away. Between the travel, the preparations that precede it, and the catching up that inevitably follows, it's been too long since we've had time to pursue a favorite weekend activity: road tripping. It's one of the joys of living in Kuala Lumpur, being able to jump in the car and find yourself somewhere interesting and entirely different to the city in the space of an hour or two.
At the tail end of January, before the Philippines and Sumatra, we spent a Saturday morning with an ebulliant retired imam in a village about an hour from Melaka. We'd gone there to learn the secret to making superior gula Melaka (palm sugar), in preparation for a presentation we'll be giving on the topic in Chicago next month (details to follow, for Chicago readers who have nothing better to do on a Sunday than listen to us yammer. Pssst - samples from the region will be available for tasting). It was a wonderfully productive - but exhausting - six hours, and we had to hurry back to KL for a dinner engagement. We decided to stop and refresh (ie. eat) in Muar.
Muar is, like Kampar and Temerloh, one of those overlooked yet intriguing Malaysian towns that remind us why we love this country. True, there's not much going on here. There's no major tourist sights, no spa hotels, no gorgeous beach, no - as far as I know - legendary restaurants. But the place has got personality. It's got it's own small-town version of hustle and bustle. It's got lovely (and, unfortunately, crumbling) pre-war buildings and its share of resident characters.
Muar is the sort of town we'd like to explore inch-by-inch over a whole day, rather than hit at warp speed in search only of something to put in our mouths.
We arrive at 1:30 with bellies rumbling (having skipped breakfast, not by choice but by dint of getting lost on the way from Melaka to gula) without map or guidebook (the older section of Muar is fairly small, but the town itself sprawls). But our snack-sensoitive radar kicks in, and with not much effort we find ourselves parking the car just a block away from a whole street devoted - in the middle of the day mind you, this is no night market - to deliciousness.
Jalan Haji Abu is anchored by Kim San Market, which is really just a Malaysian-style coffeeshop set-up, with a clutch of hawkers and a beverage service. We spy duck, roasted pork, a couple types of noodles. But we never make it inside. There's just too much happening on Haji Abu - vendors line both sides of the street for 1 1/2 blocks.
We start with fried shrimp noodles ('chao xiang mian' is what the sign reads) prepared at a cart parked across the street from the shopping center facing Kim San. Yellow mee noodles are fried not-quite-dry with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, scallion, and fish cake. They're greasy enough to inspire a moment - just a moment - of guilt, before we give in to their so-bad-for-you tastiness. The not-too-fiery but very fishy sambal and a squeeze of kalamansi heighten our enjoyment.
And we're not alone. As we're scarfing we watch car after car pull up to the stall's 'drive-in-window' for takeout orders.
After lunch we stroll up the road and find stir-fried carrot cake, something not often seen on the street in KL. But we've just eaten, we're really not hungry, and we've got to hit the road. We keep on, but we're not buying, not tasting, just looking.
Muar is known for its otak-otak, pounded and seasoned shrimp (or fish) paste smeared on a leaf and grilled. OK, maybe just two. It's a local specialty, after all. Merely a light snack to hold us till we get back home.
We come to a wonton mee stall and keep moving - until we notice a man behind the counter making shuijiao ('water' dumplings) on the spot. Oh, alright. We love shuijiao. One bowl, please.
The pork filling is studded with garlic chives and pleasingly heavy on the black pepper, and the wrapper is perfect, neither thin and wimpy nor thick and flabby. We're very pleased with this find.
By now we really are behind schedule and our bellies are much fuller than they should be in light of the fact that we've got what promises to be an especially fine (and expensive) dinner ahead. But on the way into town we passed a busy fish ball noodle stall, parked all alone a couple of blocks away from the gluttonous frenzy of Muar's 'eat street'. Investigation is required.
Wide wheat noodles - chewy and obviously homemade - serve as the bed for these fish balls, a variation on the thinner fish ball-appropriate noodles we've come to expect in KL. They're tossed with soy and topped with greens, ground pork, and a few slices of indifferently roasted pork. Other than the pasta there's earth-shaking here, we think, until we taste the snow-white fish balls. Nubbly outside, they're Incredibly fresh and taste of nothing, we're sure, but fish flesh. There's hardly any bounce here, so little in fact that they could be described as delicate. The accompanying broth shows the same attention to piscene detail, with a whiff of the sea and copious bits of seaweed.
We may now be too full for dinner, but these fish balls are definately worth busting a gut over.
That night we tell our friends about lunch in Muar. Our suggestion that the little town might be worth an overnight stay elicits guffaws. Well, we don't know, but we'll certainly head back. There's just something about Muar.....
Fried shrimp noodles, fried carrot cake, otak-otak, heavenly shuijiao and, judging from the crowds around the stall, wonton mee - and much, much more - on Jalan Haji Abu. Fish ball noodles stall in front of Kedai Minuman dan Makanan Kiang Nam on Jalan Abdullah, a less-than-five minute walk. Muar, Johor.