It defies logic, really, but great Malay food is nowhere near as thick on the ground here in Kuala Lumpur as is, say, scrumptious Chinese or ambrosial Indian. Oh, we know that there's boatloads of delicious Malay grub out there (we have fond memories of our best Malay meal ever), it's just that, we suspect, most of it is prepared in private homes, out of the reach of trolling grub seekers like ourselves. (We haven't yet stooped to knocking on the doors of perfect strangers to ask for a taste of whatever it is we've just whiffed outside their kitchen window. Never say never.)
So, a place serving memorable Malay fare is something to get on a soapbox about.
Fatimah Selera has been dishing up killer kampung kuisine (kampung means 'village' in Malay, so what we're talking about here is true 'mom'-style cooking) to its lucky Kampung Baru kustomers for several years. Since making our acquaintance with its mouthwatering offerings last December we've made a few return pilgramages. The pattern: head over for a full - I mean really full - lunch and leave with numerous plastic bags of goodies to stash in the freezer for a rainy day.
There's always a groaning sideboard-type display of dishes at the back of this modest, open-air restaurant. Affable Pakcik Nordin, Fatimah's proprietor, will happily describe every single one of them, if that's what it takes.
It's all good, but we think Fatimah Selera really shines when it comes to fish. Take, for instance, the beauty up top - ikan kembung (a smallish mackerel-y fish) stuffed with grated coconut, turmeric, chilies, and lemongrass and grilled to crackly-skinned perfection. Ikan kembung is oily and strong-flavored, making it both barbeque-friendly (crispy outside, moist within) and the perfect foil for the assertively-flavored stuffing. Served with a dipping sauce of kecap manis and chopped chilies.
Fatimah Selera also does a mean assam fish. Chunks of a meaty, firm-fleshed variety (sea bass?) are stewed in a sweet-tamarind sour, dried chili gravy. Lime leaves are in evidence on the plate and lemongrass and galangal announce themselves on the tongue. The sauce is neither so sour nor so spicy as to preclude spooning it up on its own after the fish is gone.
The house 'relish' brings to mind claims that Malaysian is the first 'fusion' (how I hate that word) cuisine. Here we have large, more-fishy-than-salty ikan bilis (dried anchovies), chilies, onions, a green leafy vegetable of some sort ... and preserved mustard, an ingredient more often associated with Chinese than Malay food. Everything is fried together, resulting in an irresistible salty, fishy, spicy, pickley-sour, sweet (note that the onions are lightly caramelized) side dish.
In true 'home cooking' style, it varies day to day. Long green chilies may be substituted for red, preserved mustard may be privileged over fresh greens, shallots may find their way into the mix. But two things are constant: those irresistably crunchy ikan bilis and the fact that this relish will be MIA from the table at the back of the shop by 2pm.
To say that Fatimah Selera does fish well is not to say that other items are second-best. We just happen to love seafood. The chicken curry is sublime, with (again) plenty of chilies, a rich essence of dried aromatics, and blessedly less coconut milk than your average version. It's always a ta pao (takeaway).
Pergedel (fritters) are expertly deep-fried, flavorful potato and vegetable nuggets nestled in a lacy egg jacket. Fatimah Selera's pecel jawa (blanched veggies and tofu doused in peanut sauce) satisfying and not too sweet, and the sambal belacan served with ulam (vegetables) is fresh, fishy, and hurts-so-good fiery.
Skip dessert, after a meal like that? Not with the likes of the restaurant's towering air jagung (literally, corn juice) - shaved ice, corn, and condensed milk - on the menu. This treat is tantalizing enough to silence any and all corn-for-dessert? naysayers.
Fatimah Selera Kampung, 5 Jalan Haji Yahya Sheikh Ahmad, Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. Tel. 03-2692-1073.