We've recently been working on an assignment that focuses on Kuala Lumpur and its surrounds. Over the last year we've become so occupied with for-print projects that vacations and weekends are no longer our own. Rarely do we have time, anymore, to wander without purpose, to open ourselves to spontaneity and aimlessly explore this place that we call home. We're not complaining - well, yes we are, a little - but how wonderful it's been these weeks to have an excuse to revisit the places and people and foods that we've come to love since we moved to Kuala Lumpur almost three years ago. Perhaps the best part is that, as a result, we're seeing some places in a new light.
Last weekend we returned to Pulau Ketam ('Crab Island'), a small island just a hop, skip, and a jump from KL. On our last visit we and a gzillion other daytrippers disembarked the ferry at high noon. After a mediocre lunch at one of the crowded seafood restaurants on the island's main street we wandered around, sweaty and listless, under the unrelenting mid-day sun. Less than two hours after we arrived we left, sensing that we'd missed out on whatever it is that Pulau Ketam has to offer.
This time we did it right, heading out from KL early on a Saturday and arriving at the jetty in time for the 9:30am ferry but, by luck, hitching a ride on an open-air charter boat instead. It was a slow chug-chug to Pulau Ketam (an hour on this craft, versus half an hour on the regular ferry) but an infinitely more enjoyable ride - with a wide-open view from the deck and the sea breeze in our face - than it would have been in the claustrophobic, capsule-like enclosed regular boat.
Once on dry land we rented a couple bikes and headed out in no direction in particular. Cruising around at this rather cooler hour, with Pulau Ketam's raised concrete and wood-plank sidewalks almost to ourselves, we could more easily revel in the island's quietude and take in its colorful houses and many lovely and unusual Buddhist temples. The interior of the one above, colored a deep jade green from floor to ceiling and and furnished with pretty hand-painted altar and geomancer's chair, is especially striking.
Many shops had yet to open for the day, and some residents were still in their pajamas.
As for nourishment, with no plans (other than to avoid a repeat of last visit's disappointing lunch) we were open to all possibilities. On one of the roads spoking off Pulau Ketam's 'main street' fate, and our bicycles, led us to a dumpling assembly line on the front porch of a yellow wooden house.
Ah Hong and his wife have been making and selling their chai kuih for about ten years. Their daughter helps out when she's not in school.
The best, the best - well, it's a risky assertion, labeling something 'the best'. But these chai kuih are tremendous. Really. We rate them in a class of their own,
with their rice flour wrappers rolled out so thin that they're translucent,
and their fresh tasting jicama-carrot-bean curd filling that's cooked long enough to tenderize the vegetables but not so long that all flavor and toothsomeness leaches out.
After a turn in a steamer Ah Hong's family's chai kuih are sprinkled with crunchy flakes of freshly fried shallot and sold with a homemade dipping sauce that combines lots of garlic, fresh chilies, vinegar, and a hint of tomato, to transcendent effect. We had ours poured directly around our chai kuih and ate them then and there on Ah Hong's porch, oooohing and aaaaahing our way through the lot. The sauce was so tasty I had to restrain myself from drinking what remained after the dumplings were gone.
It's almost a sin for chai kuih this masterful to be sold on Pulau Ketam, beyond the easy reach of us city dwellers. And more so to be sold unadvertised, well off the island's main food street, where most daytrippers will never find them.
To be continued...
Chai kuih, 328 San Ma Street (San Ma Lu), Pulau Ketam. Sold every morning, except on public holidays.