Way back in July we spent some time in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state, in the northeast of the peninsula, working on a feature story for Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia's September 2011 Food Issue.
Khota Baru or KB, as Malaysians call it, held many surprises for us. In what is often described as the country's most conservative Islamic state, we found its friendliest people -- warm and incredibly welcoming to outsiders. And there, in a city that most tourists breeze through on their way to the Perhentian islands, we ate as well as -- maybe even better than -- than we do in Penang. The food in Khota Baru and around is mind-bogglingly good.
We ate the best of many great meals in Wakaf Baru, a scruffy town about 20 minutes from downtown Kota Bharu by car. I opened my article with a paen to that dinner, which we'd never have had the pleasure of eating if not for the guidance of Kota Bharan hotel manager by day and food writer by night Addie Chang:
Waiting on dinner in Wakaf Baru, I sipped grassy sugar cane juice and watched bullets of rain bounce off a Singapore-bound train. When the last car had passed families popped out of vehicles parked on the other side of the tracks and made their way across to Restoran Kampung Kulim. The restaurant's dining area, a corrugated metal-shaded patch of concrete furnished with plastic tables and chairs, comes with a view of a Thai Buddhist wat, one of hundreds in this northeastern Malaysian state where 95% of the population is Malay and Muslim.
The family that owns and runs Kampung Kulim are Hokkien Siam, a term for descendents of marriages between immigrants from China’s Fujian province and Thailand. They speak a mixture of Malay, Fujianese and Thai, a linguistic fusion that plays out on the plate in dishes incorporating coconut milk and chilies, bitter melon and taucu (fermented bean paste), curry paste and budu, a wincingly odiferous fermented fish condiment beloved in southern Thailand and along the northeastern Malaysian coast.
We ate a few dishes that night: hong bak, an intriguingly salty-sweet stew of pork belly made with star anise and copious shavings brown palm sugar, mustard leaves simply fried with sliced pork and dang hoon heh, a sparingly seasoned red coconut curry with whole prawns and vermicelli.
But the dish that stays with me 9 months later is siew gai or grilled chicken. I have eaten much grilled chicken in my time in southeast Asia. Restoran Kampung Kulim's is sublime, as in beyond-description sublime. I could have written 1,000 words about that siew gai alone. But then half my article would have been about chicken.
It's all in the technique, as Dave and I found when we walked out back of the restaurant to its open kitchen. There we found a lean, mean septuagenarian grilling machine laboring over a coconut husk-filled trench, using upturned, jerry-rigged cracker tins to infuse their birds with extra char.
After dropping a whole chicken -- unmarinated, lightly salted -- onto an upright "spit" set in the middle of the coconut husk embers (think beer can chicken with a rod replacing the can), the master griller drops a square cracker tin on top. As the fire rages around the can, creating enough heat to brown and crisp the chicken's skin, the coals beneath the chicken burn slow enough to cook its flesh without drying it out. Exces oil drips out of the chicken carcass during the cooking process. After just 20 minutes the bird is finished.
When the chickens are done the grill master passes them on to his colleague, who commands the chopping block. Before they're served he arranges the cleavered birds on a banana leaf round -- a nice touch that lends a bit of extra fragrance to the dish.
These two gentleman have been working together at the restaurant for decades, they told us. (They're both also farmers.) Surprised at first to find themselves being photographed, they quickly relaxed and got into it.
Presumably everyone who eats at Restoran Kampung Kulim knows the story behind its spectacular grilled chicken, but I'm not sure how many diners make their way behind the scenes to thank these men for their brilliant work. After all they're just doing what they've been doing, day after day, for years.
For more from our time in Kota Bharu, visit Dave's photographic tour here.