Allaudin pours on the love, in the form of gula Melaka
Since embarking on a our new lives a few months ago Dave and I have become 'regulars'. In Malaysia at least, this is new for us.
Back in our San Francisco Bay Area days the folks at Solano Cellars knew us well. In Bangkok, Fridays were reserved for a certain (now defunct) street side gai yang spot and every Sunday evening our rears were parked on the same two plastic chairs on Soi Suan Pluu's sidewalk as we watched a beloved phat tai vendor pull together our orders. In Saigon too, we had our favorites.
Then we moved to Kuala Lumpur, started this blog and - since Dave spent Mondays through Fridays toiling in a proper office - were obliged to squeeze our foodish explorations into weekends. At the time I was aiming for at least four posts a week. You can do the math; we didn't have much opportunity to become a regular, anywhere.
Recently we ate lunch at the same place two days in a row. And Dave didn't snap a single photo, either day. He doesn't always have to take photos now.
We're lucky enough to have moved, in January, to a neighborhood with a great morning market, a fine Sunday pasar malam, good hawker-populated coffee shops, and a few street vendors of note. On the mornings that we decide to head out for a caffeine jolt we walk into our favorite coffee shop with two fingers raised and utter not a word. Soon enough a helper arrives at our table bearing two cups just the way we like it: inky and potent, with milk.
Just like magic. Or, like being a regular.
We've also become a familiar sight at the stall of this couple. Allaudin and his wife have been dishing up pasembur (aka Indian-style rojak) and cendol in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, a neighborhood about 20 minutes from KL's Golden Triangle, for over 23 years. She's a tiny woman - the top of her head doesn't even reach my shoulder - with a big voice ('Rojak! Cendol! Boss! Rojak?) and an even bigger smile. He's an amiable guy who shows pride in his work.
I never much liked pasembur until I tasted Allaudin's. It looks a mess (it's pretty difficult to combine shredded cucumber and jicama, hard-boiled egg, deep-fried bean curd, and chopped-up fritters on a paper plate, douse it with brown sauce, and make it look elegant), but it's a perfectly scrumptious mess.
Most pasemburs suffer from a gloppy, saccharine, peanut butter-ish sauce that completely overwhelms the flavors and textures of the dish's other ingredients. Not Allaudin's. His sauce, on the thin side so it mixes easily through the crunchy vegetables and chewy-spongy tofu and fritters, isn't sticky sweet but is barely chili-spicy and rich with dark-roasted, lightly smoky-bitter peanut flavor.
A few days ago he talked us into opting for optional udang (prawns). Crunchy, a little fiery, with a fresh shellfish flavor, they made a great addition.
The couple's cendol's tasty too, with its firmish pandan 'noodles' and good quality gula Melaka. Allaudin will gladly drizzle a little extra gula on your mound of shaved ice if you ask.
A couple days ago Dave and I were sitting in front of Allaudin's ice shaver, sheltering from the sun under a plastic umbrella and sharing a single plate of pasembur. When we finished our rojak I raised a finger to order one cendol.
'Satu pasembur, satu cendol.' Allaudin's wife explained our standing order to another customer. Then she nodded at us and smiled.
Jayang Super Cendol, in front of the Maybank Building, TTDI, afternoons.
Just a quick, unillustrated post - because internet speed here in KL is so sluggish it would take 5 hours to upload a photo (note to Malaysia's powers that be: when it comes to internet services, government monopoly is so not working) - to link to our article on the Hoi An specialty cao lau in yesterday's Wall Street Journal Asia.
We'd love to tell you more about one of the spots included in the 'Sources' list at the bottom of the article, but there's that little issue of connectivity ... next week, perhaps.
After making a project of frequenting Southeast Asian markets over these many years, we're still making discoveries.
The other morning we stopped by a Malay stall at our local market to pick up bamboo shoots for a Burmese curry and there, nestled amongst the bunches of various green leafy vegetables we've seen a million times, were these gorgeous turmeric flowers. I can't recall having seen these before at any market - perhaps it's a seasonal item?
At any rate, the friendly guy running the stall advised us to pick the leaves off of the stalk and eat them as we would any other ulam (the fresh and blanched veggies that accompany a Malay meal, to dip in sambal or not).
These babies don't keep well in the fridge, so we had at them as soon as we got home. The leaves have a delicate butter lettuce-like texture and taste bright and 'green'. Not surprisingly, there's a hint of turmeric flavor and the root's characteristic astringency.
I can think of a few other uses for them - mixed with grated coconut, chopped dried chili, and a bit of fish sauce for a 'salad', or stirred into Indian-style 'congee' flavored with the root (or turmeric powder) and fried curry leaves. This morning I made a sort of Indian yogurt rice - leftover rice softened in the steamer, stirred into lots of yogurt seasoned with popped mustard seeds, a bit of turmeric powder-enhanced mustard oil, salt, and chopped cilantro - and as I ate it I couldn't help but think what a nice addition this flower would have made.
One aspect of Southeast Asia's culinary culture that continues to fascinate me is how, in many cases, every bit of the plant is used. Here we have the turmeric flower, which is eaten as a vegetable. The leaves and root are used too, as flavoring agents. (And the whole plant is fantastically good for you.) Nothing is wasted.
Sounds like a prescription for frugal eating that long predates current economic woes.
Coming up soon - cooking a part of the banana plant that you might never have thought of as food.
Or, in the case of Yut Kee, more pork. This Hainanese coffee shop has long served char siew (barbecued pork), breaded pork chops, and roti babi, or 'pork bread' - a wickedly appealing dish involving dough, so-tender-it's-almost-gelatinous shredded pork, onions, Chinese sausage, and a deep fryer.
A couple months ago rolled pork roast was added to the menu. It's a special item, available only on Fridays and Sundays.
The pork roast came about two years ago around Christmas, owner Jack tells us, when the price of turkeys soared through the roof, threatening to sour the family's seasonal catering business (which is run from their restaurant behind Yut Kee, the Boddhi Tree). 'Let's do pork roast instead,' Jack said to his wife Margaret. The roasts were a hit and this last Christmas Jack decided to share the love with Yut Kee customers.
The recipe is Jack's Australia-resident sister-in-law's: take a gorgeous, well-marbled slab of meat, roll it around a thinly spread stuffing of chopped pistachio nuts mixed with salt, pepper, butter, garlic, and sage, tie it up, and pop it in a convection oven for 2.5 hours.
The smell of these burnished beauties precedes their appearance; when they're pulled from the ovens shortly before 11:30am a porky fog envelopes the entire coffee shop. They're carried out on a tray to the front of the restaurant and placed on a folding table between cash register and sidewalk, where they taunt passers-by silly enough not to stop.
Margaret does the carving, carefully making sure that each order receives its due share of crackling, and adding a dollop of housemade apple sauce on the side.
The roast is a lovely-to-look at swirl alternating layers of meat, fat, and a bit of stuffing, moist and tender (takeaway is available, but do yourself a favor and try it, at least once, in the coffee shop, while it's still hot). There's just enough sage in there to scent the meat but not overwhelm its delicate pigginess, and the crackling is so exquisitely crisp it detaches from the meat with the slightest nudge of a fork.
The applesauce, made with white wine, is unfussy and a bit tart, perfect with the rich meat.
A few weeks ago I would have been hard-pressed to imagine myself eagerly digging into a traditional roast on a wiltingly hot Kuala Lumpur morning, but I uncharaceristically followed up my first order with a second. I just may become a Friday regular.
Roast pork, from 11:30a till it runs out (usually by 1pm, says Jack), Fridays and Sundays only, Yut Kee, Jalan Dang Wangi, Kuala Lumpur. Closed the last Sunday of the month.
It's shrimp season on Pulau Ketam, a little island off the coast of Klang. A few weeks ago, needing a collective break from our computer screens, we rolled out of bed before the sun was up, hit the road, and arrived at the jetty in time for the 8:45am ferry.
As soon as we'd pedaled past the two-block 'downtown' (a bicycle's the way to go here) we began to notice shrimp - on front porches and back porches, tables and chairs, sidewalks and sheets of plastic suspended above the ground - laid out to dry in the sun. Who knew shrimp has a season?
On the Teochew half of the island we came across a woman tending to her crustaceans, which were spread out on the wooden decking in front of her house.
She swept them into a pile in the middle of the space, then into a dustpan, and lifted the pan high, shaking the shrimp back out onto the deck. This ensures that they dry evenly, she said. She does it once a day.
How long does it take the shrimp to thoroughly dry? I asked. She looked at me like I was an idiot. Depends on the sun, of course. This batch had been out for two days.
"These are Malaysian shrimp, not Indonesian," Ms. Chua assured us (Is there a difference?), "and I don't add salt, preservatives, or any coloring. Have a look - my shrimp aren't so red like others."
Good enough for us. We purchased half a kilo (opening photo) to take home. Sure enough, they're honestly delicious - not too salty, with true prawn flavor. A little bit sweet, even. I've yet to cook with them; we've just been eating them out of hand as a snack.
Thank you, Ms. Chua (shown here, in front of her beautifully painted house, with one of her sons).
Ms. Chua and her shrimp can be found at 113A Bagan Teochew, Pulau Ketam.
'If it ain't cooked and you can't peel it, don't eat it' is a mantra for many travelers determined to keep stomach bugs at bay. It's one I just can't subscribe to here in Southeast Asia, where most of the time temperatures hover around scorching and rolling carts packed with peeled fresh fruit beckon from many a corner.
Last Saturday we found ourselves in front of this Jakarta vendor ordering up some rujak, a fruit and vegetable salad that assumes a number of forms in Indonesia, Malaysia (where it's called rojak), and Singapore.
We love the simplicity of this Javanese rujak: watermelon, jicama, buah kedondong (a small oval, green-skinned fruit with a spiky pit that's intensely sour, also known as ambarella), ripe papaya, and rose apple sliced onto a plate, sprinkled - if you wish (we didn't) - with a sourish powder,
and accompanied by a small mound of chopped fresh chilies mixed with white sugar and salt and a dab of sticky sauce consisting of little more than gula merah (palm sugar) pounded in a mortar with chilies. Of course we took an immediate shine to the gula concoction; its slight smokiness and heat married seamlessly with the light, juicy, sweet-and-sour fruit.
Perhaps even better - certainly more intriguing - was the rujak tumbuk ('pounded' rujak, above) that we sampled the day before, prepared by a vendor from Jogjakarta who carries his business in two wooden boxes suspended from either end of a shouler pole.
'That is very, very old,' said an observer, his voice heavy with awe, as he pointed to the worn - but lovely, with its orange and green paint job - mortar in which our order of rujak would be tumbuk'd.
Into the mortar went the base: salt, crumbled trassi (dried shrimp paste), and chilies. Tumbuk, tumbuk, tumbuk. Then the fruit and vegetables: kedondong and jicama, green mango, rose apple, and lobi-lobi, a red cherry-lookalike that's crunchy, juicy, and sweet-sour (it's also preserved and served, with ice and sugar syrup, as a drink).
After pounding the ingredients almost to a pulp the vendor pulled out a chunk of palm sugar and shaved a piece into the mortar. More tumbuk, tumbuk, tumbuk, and then he spooned the mash into a plastic tray.
All that pounding had released the juices of the fruit and vegetables to create a fair amount of 'sauce' that was salty, sweet, spicy, and fragrant with the slightly heady funk of shrimp paste, and had a little bit of 'body' courtesy of the starch from the sweet potato. It made for a fantastically refreshing few mouthfuls.
A few years ago in Padang we savored a rujak made with a similar mixture of fruit and vegetables but served with a fiery peanut sauce.
We can't wait to return to Indonesia and see what else the islands do with fruit salad.
This will go down as one of our more memorable urban dining experiences: sate Padang (skewers of grilled beef and pressed rice cake doused with spicy, peanut-free sauce), eaten to the tune of a traveling kuda lemping troupe's gamelan as evening falls on Jakarta's Taman Fatahilla.
According to a number of Jakartans I spoke with last week, five years ago this square in front of the Jakarta History Museum (and the lanes that spoke from it) was far from the sort of place you'd want to find yourself in the evening - unless, that is, you were involved in illicit activities. Jakarta's got a long way to go if it really intends to preserve its built heritage, and Fatahilla is still a bit on the gritty side, but it's become a legitimate gathering place of sorts for young people and families and out-of-towners.
A great spot to while away a couple of hours, sample some street treats, and bask in the warmth of a Jakarta-style welcome.
We spotted these gorgeous hot pink guavas on our first morning in Jakarta.
We know them from Saigon, where they appear in the market once or twice a year, hang around for a week or two, then disappear without warning. Our last trip to Vietnam, in December, coincided with their season but we were so busy we kept forgetting to buy a bag to take back to our hotel. We ended up leaving the country without tasting a single one.
Guavas are native to central America and/or Mexico. The guava most common to Southeast Asia is fist-sized or larger with grass-green skin land crunchy white flesh. It's one of our favorite tropical fruits, though we don't eat too many of them in Malaysia, where their subdued flavor (and sometimes just plain tastelessness) pales in comparison to the floral sweet-sourness of their Thai cousins.
In Jakarta we've heard these pink guava called jambu biji (biji=seeds, to distinguish them from rose apples, I suppose, which are also called jambu) and jambu merah (merah=red). Their skins range in color from the green above to pale yellow (they seem to yellow as they age and soften). There's a few textures going on here, from the skin, which is thickish and firm (we never peel them) to the outer flesh - soft and a little grainy, like a Comice pear - to the inner flesh, which is slippery smooth and soft as barely-set custard. Then there's the seeds, not unpleasantly hard and entirely edible.
Jambu merah are fantastically fragrant: tropical-floral and, when they're ripe, a little musky. They taste 'unreal' in that way that mangosteens and passion fruit do, sweet and sour and intense and 'different', like Hawaiian Punch but in a good way - without the preservatives, fake flavors, and sweetener. Speaking from an American's perspective - one not raised on tropical fruits, anyway - when you bite into a pink guava (or a mangosteen or passion fruit) you know you're far, far from home.
They're also 'super fruits', packed full of vitamins C and A, 'good fats' and omegas, and dietary fiber.
Which is a good thing, because when we spied jambu merah we vowed not to make the same mistake we made in Vietnam. We've been carting them back to our hotel and eating, on average 4 or 5 a day each. We've also been stopping for jambu merah shakes (tidak manis - without sugar, though there's usually some sweetened condensed milk involved) whenever possible (one of the great things about Jakarta - fresh fruit juices and shakes on nearly every corner).
And this morning we're eyeing our luggage, trying to figure out if there's room to pack a kilo or three back to Kuala Lumpur.
Koh Ati ('koh' for 'Elder Brother') cooks a mean kepala ikan (fish head). He's been doing so, in a miniscule shack tucked between a sundries store and a canal a short walk from Jakarta's Old Town, for over thirty-eight years. We find his warung by chance as we trace wider and wider circles out from Fatahillah Square, hunting architectural remnants of Dutch and Chinese influence on the city's past.
The sign, a plywood plank advertising three dishes in clear, no-nonsense lettering, speaks to us. So does the sight of Koh Ati laboring over a chunk of fish in his 'kitchen'.
Just inside the warung a helper stirs the burbling contents of a wok; we see cabe rawang - small green chilies guaranteed to leave a tingle on the tongue - and, in a nearby bowl, white tunafish heads and fillets. The fog wafting around the room smells of turmeric, coconut milk, galangal.
When our half a head arrives its eye socket is stuffed with chilies. Somehow, in Indonesia, this seems appropriate. The meat is firm, sweet, so fresh. The gravy is not as lemak (rich with coconut milk) as we thought it might be, but bright with lemon grass and that certain appealing galangal astringency, and tamarind-tart. We clean the bones of meat and finish every last drop of sauce.
And then, because we've seen other customers come, eat, and leave with smiles on their faces, and because Koh Ati is clearly serious about his food, we order more:
lao mie, chewy wheat noodles with sweet roasted pork, choy sum (Chinese mustard), and bean sprouts in a shallow pool of anise-flavored, soy sauce-enriched goo, and minced pork seasoned with five spice, wrapped tight in sheets of bean curd skin, deep-fried to order to a spectacular crisp. The latter reminds us of the Penang Nyonya dish lor bak.
We could, if we had the stamina, continue on; the two narrow metal counters in Koh Ati's warung that serve as dining areas hold bowls of crackly-skinned deep-fried chicken feet and steaming chunks of pork leg. Outside sits a plastic basket mounded with beautifully marbled pork belly. We could idle an hour or two, just to see what Koh Ati does with that belly.We could, but we just can't. Not today.
As we leave Koh Ati, finished chopping tuna heads in half, steps back in front of the wok. We get the impression he wants us to know that it's he, not his assistant, who does the cooking.
'Is this Chinese?' we ask, pointing to the contents of his wok.
Koh Ati has told us that his parents came to Jakarta from the southeastern Chinese town of Chaozhou. If he were in Malaysia he would certainly describe himself as Teochew. But the history of Chinese in Indonesia makes this all a bit more complicated.
'No, this is Indonesian food,' he replies. And the noodles and bean curd-wrapped pork? No, not Chinese - Indonesian as well.
We leave the parsing of origins and identification for another time. Right now, all we hope for is a chance to revisit Koh Ati and bear witness to his way with pork belly.
Warung Koh Ati, two blocks west of Kali Besar, a couple blocks south of Hotel Batavia, alongside the canal, Jakarta.