As some of you may already know, in early July we spent some time working in Kota Bharu, the capital of Malaysia's Kelantan state. Situated in the northeastern corner of peninsular Malaysia, Kelantan abuts southern Thailand. Its fusioninst cuisine shows Thai, Chinese (Hokkien/Fujianese, especially), and Indian influences. Most travelers breeze right through Kota Bharu on their way to and from the Perhentian Islands, completely unaware that they are missing out on one of the most interesting gastronomic scenes in Malaysia.
The fruits of our labor are now on the newstand, in the form of a feature article on Kelantan's wonderful (often overlooked by those heading to or coming from the Perhentians) cuisine for the September issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia. (It's the annual Food Issue, and you can buy a digital copy here.View Dave's out-takes from 5 days of shooting on his photo blog Sky Blue Sky, here.)
After 5 days and nights of pretty solid eating we came away with so much more material than I could ever pack into 2,000 words. Deciding which dishes, eateries and experiences to include in the article, and what to leave out, was a laborious and somewhat painful process. On the bright side, we have this little space in which to share what didn't make it onto T+L's pages.
On our last full morning in Kota Bharu, on full stomachs but with our time in what had turned out to be a very delicious town coming to an end, we ate sup tulang (bone soup, literally) and grilled beef beneath a big plastic canopy near the river at a place called Lido Corner.
Sup tulang is one of those humble Malay dishes that visitors tend to overlook. It's not as visually seductive as a lovely hibiscus-colored curry or as intriquing as blue rice tossed with dry-fried coconut, chili, and a riot of herbs. Meat soup is what sup tulang is, basically. It has no noodles and boasts no textural bits, such as bean sprouts or cubes of deep-fried tofu. But this everyday dish can be a real stunner, a comforting yet exciting combination of warm spices and the depth of flavor that can be coaxed from tough Malaysian beef.
Lido Corner does sup tulang right. The broth is golden from turmeric and thin but every so slightly viscous from all those long-stewed bones. It hints at nutmeg, star anise, cloves, cardamom and no doubt several other spices that I wasn't able to pinpoint. Each bowl contains a hunk of chewy beef on the bone and a more tender boneless piece that, if you're lucky, will be attached to a silky length of tendon. Chinese celery floating on the surface of the soup lightens it up with a shot of freshness.
At Lido Corner we also made acquaintance with something new to us: daging bakar or Malay-style grilled beef. I'm not great at identifying cuts but this reminded me of flank steak -- distinctly striated to the point of being almost ropy, cut relatively thin. Tough Malaysian beef again, but tough beef that goes astonishingly tender over the coals. Charred and smoky, sliced into thin strips and eaten with a sweet-spicy chili sauce with enough fire to really balance its sugar, this daging bakar was an unexpectedly delicious find. It's something I'd return to Lido Corner for even if the sup tulang wasn't on offer.
As with most every place we ate at in Kelantan Lido Corner is an extremely friendly spot. Walk in, line up and place your order (there's ayam bakar, or grilled chicken, too), and carry your own plates to one of the egg yolk yellow tables. The drink of choice is sugar cane juice. Bean sprouts, served on the side of your plate of rice, are the only vegetable on offer. Think of it as a meal devoted to protein.
Lido Corner, a stone's throw from the Grand Riverview Hotel right on the river, downtown Kelantan. Open 12-6 every day. The grills are going non-stop -- follow your nose.