It rained buckets our first evening in Kota Bharu. We sat in our room sipping vodka we'd brought from Penang, watching the sky turn from mud to black and waiting for the rain to stop. It didn't. So around half past seven we grabbed umbrellas and went in search of dinner.
Kota Bharu goes to bed at sunset. The streets were empty, the sidewalks rolled up. We splashed our way past Pasar Siti Kadijah to the night market and found it a shadow of its 2005 self. There were no crowds, no buzz. Nor was there anything tempting on offer at the few stalls weathering the storm.
So we headed back to the hotel, passing fast food joints belching out that nasty elixir of too-sweet baked goods, preservatives and grease that hangs over airport food courts. No thanks. We'd rather go hungry, and were reconciled to doing so until we turned onto Jalan Tok Hakim and saw, three blocks up, a promising glow.
'Hello my friend!" shouted the white taqiyah-capped proprietor as we stepped over the threshold of Kedai Kopi Din Tokyo.
Pak Din grinned at us as if we were long-lost friends, then pointed to a place at his counter. "Come in, come in! What will you eat? What will you drink?"
Kedai Kopi Pak Din Tokyo is an indoor kuda, the Kelantanese term for old-fashioned coffee stalls with U-shaped counters and long wooden benches that must be mounted like a steed (kuda is Malay for horse). Inside the interior of the U sits a big boiler on legs where Pak Din makes good, strong Chinese kopitiam-style coffee and tea by pouring water through grounds-filled cotton socks suspended from metal rings. At the U's base is a long stainless steel trough over which he "pulls" tea by pouring it glass to glass, stirs quail eggs into hot ginger infusion and steeps eggs in boiling water before serving them in classic kopitiam green-and-white saucers.
Short and sturdily built, Pak Din is a blur taking orders, serving drinks and food, selling cigarettes, making change and shaking hands, all the while spewing friendly banter and communicating, via the occasional shout, with the kitchen at the back of his shop. If there's a break in the action he makes good use of it, wiping down counters, replenishing the water boiler from a red plastic bucket and keeping glasses -- always at the ready, stacked in a drainer over the trough -- warm with splashes of water from the boiler.
What would we eat? On a night like this, our backs wet and our pants soaked to our knees, something hot and comforting sounded about right. So thought Pak Din's patrons, most of whom were leaning over bowls of the house specialty: sup ekor (oxtail soup).
We ordered two bowls of soup and spooned it up slowly, marvelling at this concoction of meat, bones, tendons, cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg that tasted too good to be medicine yet instantly rendered us healthy, happy and certain that the world is a beautiful place. The hyper-distilled broth was deep, real deep, a gut-punch of meat essence. When we got to the bottom of our bowls it came as no surprise to find them stained sup ekor brown.
By now the rain had stopped but we lingered, reluctant to leave the comradely warmth of Pak Din's U. We ordered a hot milky teh tarik just for the enjoyment of watching his exuberant way with the pull, and then another because the first was so darned tasty, the tea strong and bitter enough to not be overwhelmed by sweetened condensed milk. We sauntered back to our room wired and satisfied.
We returned to Kedai Kopi Pak Din the next day and the next and the next, always around 7am for our caffeine fix and then once or twice again, for tea and a banana leaf-wrapped nasi lemak or a few Kelantanese kuih plucked from the trays and plates lined up along the inside edges of the counters. During the day Pak Din's staff set tables out front of the shop, and if there were no places at the U two were always found for us there.
On our last day in Kota Bharu, after a morning of too much food and before the long drive back to Penang, we stopped in to bid Pak Din farewell. Dave couldn't resist ordering a couple of soft-boiled eggs. When they arrived he followed the lead of other diners and blanketed them with black pepper from a shaker on the counter. (That black pepper is a Kelantanese touch, courtesy of the state's long-porous border with southern Thailand. In other parts of Malaysia it would be white).
We agreed that if we lived in Kota Bharu -- which would never, ever in a million years happen -- Kedai Kopi Pak Din would be a daily stop, if not for the sup ekor, the coffee, or the soft-boiled eggs then simply for the pure pleasure of Pak Din's hello.
Kedai Kopi Din Tokyo, 3945 Jalan Tok Hakim, downtown Kota Bharu, Kelantan; 012/959-0153.