Once we were hip to the fact that a fair bit of food on Pulau Ketam is made in the villagers' houses and sold from their front porches, we took an extra hard look at the pretty wooden cottages we were passing on our bikes, lest we miss another edible treasure.
We didn't have to look long; just up the street from the island's best chai kuih (OK, perhaps Pulau Ketam's only chai kuih, but that doesn't at all diminish their deliciousness) we found a memorable pan meen. The cook in question had a number of noodle dishes on offer, but she urged us to order something that incorporated her homemade fish cakes. Rather than cutting her pan meen (thick, flat wheat noodles) with a knife, she tears them into rough squares, and the result is pasta with extra texture and chewiness.
The dry version is served with crispy ikan bilis (dried anchovies), pork, and a few stems of choy sum - nothing new there. The highlights of the dish, other than the wonderful noodle squares, are the super fresh small prawns and the slices of fish cake which, as might be expected of fish cake made in a fishing village, taste truly of the sea.
slice of fish cake up top
No doubt about it, bicycle is the mode by which to see Pulau Ketam. The island has few trees, and once the sun comes out there are few places to hide. But a single humped bridge aside, the streets (if you can call them that, most are just about two bikes wide) are flat so that it's easy to get a cooling breeze going once the pedals are in motion.
Though Pulau Ketam is a good-sized island its raised walkways extend only so far; to cycle from the jetty to their end, if one rides with purpose, takes only about a half our. But there are enough tributary walkways (many of which are wood-planked rather than concrete and scarily narrow - you wouldn't want to tumble off the side and into the low-tide muck below) to keep the serious meanderer busy for a couple of hours.
At the proverbial end of the road a helmet-haired septuagenarian emerged from her sky blue house, gave us a beady-eyed once-over, and invited us to sit for a spell on her front porch. As soon as we accepted she softened up considerably. She doesn't speak English and my Mandarin is as rusty as a saw left out in a summer rain but we managed to learn that Mrs. Hsieh's parents came to Pulau Ketam from China's southern Guangdong province and that she's lived in there all her life.
We also learned that she and her six kids, one of whom remains on the island (her husband passed away years ago) produce bird's nests (you can see the concrete 'workshop', where the nests are laid and collected, just above her left shoulder). I'd only ever seen bird's nest in its finished form (below). It's usually dissolved in hot water and drunk with a bit of sugar, or made into a sweetish soup. Very good for the health, I've heard, and if Mrs. Hsieh's spriteliness is any indication I'd have to say that's no bunk.
Mrs. Hsieh was proud to show us some nests that had been gathered recently. She and the family clean them up and boil them down at the back of her house.
Supposedly 80 to 90 per cent of Pulau Ketam's population works, in one form or another, in the fishing industry. Mrs. Hsieh's son is no exception; he fabricates the massive bolts that hold fishing boat propellers to the rods that support them.
His workshop is a fabulous double-roomed jumble of machinery, workbenches, odd parts, brand new propellers and retired, rusted specimens. It smells of grease and hard work and, because it sits right over the water, salt. New brass propellers are things of real beauty; the pattern on the blades' surface looks just like wind ripples on the surface of an otherwise calm sea. Two thousand dollars (US) will get you a beauty to hang on your wall.
We'd like to go back and spend some time there, watching this craftsman at work.
All that flat-terrain cycling and shooting the breeze left us hungry, so on our way back to the charter boat (which,the captain had warned, would leave at 2 o'clock on the dot) we stopped for a snack. The oyster omelet cooked at a stall in front of Restoran Kin Hiong Heun on Pulau Ketam's main drag is justifiably famous. It's tender egg lightly folded around bean sprouts, chopped green onion, and plenty of not-too-big, and not at all overcooked, oysters. The accompanying dipping sauce is nothing to shout about, but the omelet is so good on its own the sauce is extraneous anyway.
After returning our bikes and stopping to make the sort of purchases one absolutely must make if one goes to Pulau Ketam (prawn crackers, dried shrimp and oysters, and a dry relish made from chopped dried shrimp fried with dried chilies - good for stirring into hot rice or congee) we boarded the boat bellies full, faces crimson from the sun, and as refreshed as if we'd just had a long weekend away.
Not a bad way to spend a Saturday ... or a twenty-second wedding anniversary.
Pan meen, 319 San Ma Lu (San Ma Road), from about 10am. Oyster omelet (or clam, if you wish), stall in front of Kin Kiong Heun seafood restaurant, from about 9am.