Make that would-be vacation food. Back in June we planned a 3-day break at a couple of favorite stays on Langkawi.The plan was: no computers, no work. Just 3 days to read and sleep, see friends, eat and drink, see a bit of the island. Our first proper, non-working vacation in three years.
Plan aborted. About a week before we left we were contacted about a feature for Tiger Airlines' inflight rag (in the current issue which, if you're flying the airline this month, you 'll find on-board; the photos in this post are out-takes).
For better or worse, we said 'yes'. We figured we'd extend our visit to Langkawi by 2 nights, spend our first three days vacationing, and then devote the last couple to the job.
As we should have predicted, it didn't quite work out that way. In fact our vacation didn't really begin until the night before we flew back to KL, when we arrived back at our lodging at 8 too exhausted to do anything but grab a bottle of wine and make for the soaking tub in our room. We were asleep by 10.
Oh well. We still had a fantastic time. I've really taken a shine to Langkawi, an island that I never thought I would like at all, since I reported a feature there last September for Travel+Leisure. It's not your classic gorgeous tropical isle. Its beaches certainly aren't the best in the region, and swathes of the landscape are marred by thoughtless development. And despite the island's relatively recent designation as a UNESCO Geopark, LADA (Langkawi Development Authority) seems determined to prioritize rapid development over the preservation of its natural assets.
But for now Langkawi still has spots of beauty -- jaw-dropping beauty, in fact -- if you make the effort to find them. Rising before dawn is entirely justified when you can see and hear the rain forest come alive from the peak of Gunung Raya and get close enough to a flock of giant hornbills to hear, and almost feel, the thunderous 'whoo whoo whoo' of their flapping wings. As one of my interviewees for the story said, this island still boasts spots of real, primal nature, in some cases just 15 minutes from the door of your hotel.
Locals are laid-back and friendly. Coming from Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi feels like an entirely different Malaysia. And since the island's residents are mostly Malay it's a great place to eat Malay food.
Everyone on the island knows Siti Fatimah.This casual, open-air establishment has been open for more than 16 years. It's a family-run business and mom -- that's Siti Fatimah -- is still in the kitchen, cooking up more than twenty dishes every day.
This is a lunchtime place, and for the most varied selection it's best to arrive by noon or so, especially when tourist season is in high gear and Malaysians arrive by the busload for their mid-day feed.
We ate spectacularly well at SF over the course of two lunches. Highlights included sambal tumis udang (above), small shell-on prawns in a sweet and spicy sauce punctuated by the bitter snap of tiny eggplant; fresh bamboo shoots in a mild chili sauce heavily scented with star anise; pucuk paku masak lemak, tender fresh fern tips stewed with mild spices and fresh turmeric root in coconut milk; kacang goreng kunyit, turmeric-fragrant, crisp-tender green beans with slices of chewy, briny fishcake; and ayam makak kecap, free-range chicken coated with a sticky-sweet and entirely finger-lickable kecap manis-based sauce.
Several grilled fish are always on the menu, and SF does an excellent ulam (fresh and blanched vegetables and fresh herbs) that includes a number of unusual greens and banana flower -- along with the usual okra, wing beans, and cucumber -- and can be eaten with one or all of three different sambal (chili sauces).
Probably our hand-down favorite dish was the sweet, sour, fruit, spicy, and utterly beguiling kerabu manga (opening photo), a salad of skin-on ripe mango, shallots, and fiery cili padi dressed with budu (an intense fish sauce along the lines of Thai bplaa raa), sugar, and kalamansi. Truth to tell it was this dish especially that drew us back for our second meal at SF.
Siti Fatimah is also the place to try perhap's Langkawi's only true-blue local specialty: kerabu beranok, a salad of fresh raw sea cucumber, chopped and tossed with cilantro, shallots, grated coconut, chilies, fish sauce, coconut milk, and lime juice.
On this dish I cry 'Uncle'. I was first served sea cucumber over 25 years ago in Sichuan, where it was (and maybe still is) standard Chinese banquet fare. Back then I hated it's slippery goopiness. In this dish I didn't care for its gristly toothsomeness, despite the overall pleasing mix of flavors.
But to each his own. It's something everyone should try at least once.
If you're heading to Langkawi make room in your schedule for Siti Fatimah. In fact, I would consider heading to Langkawi just for a meal or two at this place. Mom is cooking -- and she's very, very talented.
Restoran Siti Fatimah, Bt. 5 1/4, Jalan Kampong Tok Senik, Kawasan Mata Air, Langkawi.
More Langkawi recommendations, based on experience: Stay here or here, book some sort of nature tour with this outfit, and if you're hankering after Italian food and/or an incredibly reasonably priced bottle of Italian vino, head over to L'Osteria in Pantai Tengah.