In Kelantan rice is all the time everywhere, in every imaginable form: pressed into squares, formed into logs and stuffed with fish, loose and coconut milk-scented, sweetened with smoky palm or white sugar and folded into banana leaves, steamed in tins, brightened with turmeric or sunset-hued curries, ground and made into thick wide noodles for the local version of laksa.
Our favorite Kelantanese rice dish by far is nasi kerabu, a salad-y concoction of purple-blue rice (tinted with a liquid made with the petals of the pea flower preferably, but often with food coloring) topped with kerisik (grated coconut, dry-fried), sambal (chili sauce), sweetened ground fish, budu (a super-fermented fish condiment that's a kitchen staple of southern Thailand, and is reminiscent of Thai bplaa raa) and a mixture of bean sprouts and fresh herbs sliced thin.
Nasi kerabu topped with kerepok (fish crackers) and accompanied by salted egg and fried fish
Dave and I have been enamored of nasi kerabu since we moved to Kuala Lumpur six years ago, where we made its acquaintance at a grotty street stall in front of the Chow Kit post office. So it was no hardship to find ourselves scouring Kota Bharu last week for superior versions.
We found one on our second-to-last morning in town -- and revisited it the next day -- at the lively wholesale morning market that sprawls over a pot-holed parking lot in the center of town, home also to the city's night market. There, mostly women vendors squat behind mounds of produce displayed in plastic bags or loose on tarps spread on the concrete.
At one edge of the market in front of a row of drinks shops, young studs preen as they work an enormous smoking grill covered with halved chickens; at the opposite side of the parking lot a fresh chicken seller singsongs come-ons into a megaphone. Porters push metal carts laden with tree trunk-sized bunches of petai (stink beans), hedge rows of water spinach (morning glory), and kilos upon kilos of lada hijau, the long pale green chilies that Kelantanese love to stuff with a sweet-savory mixture of ground fish and coconut.
In the midst of all this chaos two lively ladies serve a very fine nasi kerabu (pictured above), and an equally delicious nasi dagang (steamed unpolished rice enriched with coconut milk, eaten with fish or chicken curry), both cooked in their home kitchens while most of the city sleeps.
nasi dagang with hard-boiled egg and mackerel curry
From before dawn until they pack up around 10am the crowd around their stall is steady to bordering on overwhelming. It's a mix of housewives and office laborers, shoppers at the market and those passing through on the way to work. There's a wee bit of jostling -- especially when someone places an order for a dozen packets -- but it's all done in a good-natured Kelantanese sort of way.
We'd love to send you to their stall, and to Kota Baru's wonderfully lively wholesale market. But today was its last day. The market is being moved several kilometers outside of town to an "agro bazaar" on the side of a highway.
The relocation is no doubt a boon for the individuals contracted to construct the building and charged with collecting rent from the vendors. But as is so often the case, it's a hardship for the people for whom this conveniently located market is been central to daily life -- both as a source of income and a place to find good-quality produce at reasonable prices.
Should you be up for a trek outside of town, you can find these ladies' excellent nasi kerabu and nasi dagang at Taman Agro Business Negara, Highway Pasir Mas Salo. We think you'll find it well worth the effort.