March 17, 2006

Rice Rules in Kelantan

Kb_nasi_kukus_gals_at_steamer

A casual search of my (or this blog) tells me that, in Kuala Lumpur, we eat a lot of noodles. Head out in search of street grub in this city and it's almost guaranteed that noodles - souped up or stir-fried, sauced or plain, lardy or low-fat - are what you'll find first.

Not so in Kota Baru, capital of Kelantan, the northeastern Malaysian state known for its rice dishes. Though there are certainly noodles to be had here (especially at any of the city's numerous Chinese coffee shops) rice seems to appear at every turn. Blue-hued nasi kerabu and coconuty, semi-polished nasi dagang come immediately to mind, but these aren't the only rice options on offer.

Kb_nasi_kukus_rice_steaming

Zakini Nasi Kukus, an airy shop on the northern edge of town is the place to go for nasi kukus (steamed rice). This husband and wife-owned operation, which began life as a 'meals on wheels' cart about twenty years ago, offers individual aluminum bowls of steamed rice, to eat with a huge variety of Malay meat and vegetable tasties. Rice afficianados will appreciate the deliciously unique texture of these grains: puffed, extremely light and fluffy, and elongated to the point that they curl just a bit at the ends.

Kb_nasi_kukus_daves_plate

We came for the rice but stayed for the amazing array of flavorful dishes. The 'airiness' of the steamed rice means it is extra absorbent, just the thing to accompany (clockwise from 12 o'clock) a crunchy outside-moist inside potato 'cake', liver sate, deep-fried quail, and tender but not mushy eggplant in a complex, spicy sauce.

Kb_nasi_kukus_my_plate

But why stop there? (We didn't.) Especially when (clockwise from 3 o'clock) there's also chili-rich, coconut-free goat curry, mild boneless fish simmered in coconut milk, and a turmeric-scented stir-fry of cabbage and long beans to be had.

Of special note is Zakini's sambal (pooled at the bottom of top plate): a textured, limey, not too fishy but plenty fiery pounded mixture of fresh green and dried red chilies.

Zakini Nasi Kukus, Jalan Wakaf Mek Zainab, on the north side of the street about halfway between Jalans Atas Banggol and Kebun Sultan, Kota Baru. 11am-ish to 11pm.

Kb_nasi_air_served

Nasi air (lit. 'rice water') is Kelantan's version of rice porridge and, though it's available all over Kota Baru, cavernous Mak Su Nab is - we were told by a desk clerk at our hotel - the place to sample it.

This nasi air - a loose and soupy rather than thick 'n creamy porridge - is a delightful bowlful of distinct, soft-but-not-mushy grains of rice, skinny rice noodle threads, finely shredded chicken, bits of cow stomach, and the barest strips of fried tofu, all in a full-flavored meat broth garnished with fried shallots and chopped scallion.

Kb_nasi_air_close

What makes this porridge distinctively Malay (as opposed to Chinese-style) is its subtle hit of savory and sweet spices - I could detect cloves, cinammon, nutmeg, and black pepper, but I'm guessing there's much more to the spice mix than that.

Nasi air is Nak Su Nab's raison d'etre, but its menu is surprisingly long and varied. We sampled kailan ikan masin (Chinese broccoli stir-fried with fragrant kecap manis and chunks of salted fish), kerabu perut (a bracingly limey and spicy cow stomach 'salad'), and ayam percik (grilled chicken doused in a sinfully rich coconut sauce) and judged all to be worthy accompaniments to the main attraction.

Kb_nasi_air_ayam_percik

Mak Su Nab, Jalan Hospital (south side of the street, east of the General Hospital), Kota Baru.

March 08, 2006

Daytrippin': Return to Kampar

Kampar_old_smoking_guy

What is it about this place? What is it about this wee town on the old road to Ipoh that can lure us out of the sack by 7am, and into the car for an hour and 45-minute drive, on a Sunday?

It might to be its infectious hustle

Kampar_smoking_man_2 

and bustle.

Or it could be the aging-gracefully town mascot.

Kampar_doggy

(You'll find him in the parking lot by the wet market. Everybody knows him.)

Perhaps it's the friendly locals,

Kampar_ayi

or the nostalgic atmosphere of good times gone by.

Kampar_guiness_sign

Yes, it could be all that. But if I were to be honest, it's more likely this:

Kampar_dim_sum_display_1

On this fine morning we're here to investigate the offerings at a rice porridge stall in the town's food hall. But first, we're in need of a little fortification, in the form of strong Malaysian coffee and solid refreshment, at Kit Leng Food Center just up the street. Here you'll find curry mee and freshly made chee cheong fun; we opt for a couple of dim sum.

Kampar_dim_sum_ha_gaw

The shrimp dumplings are simply stunners, better than any we've had before, in Hong Kong, China, Malaysia - anywhere. The rice flour wrappers are tender but not not soggy, and the shrimp is so fresh it tastes as if it was pulled from the water not an hour before. The shellfish is just the tiniest bit 'crunchy' - a most desired characteristic for this type of dim sum, but one that seems beyond the reach of so many dim sum purveryors.

Kampar_dim_sum_bean_curd_skin

The dumplings are a hard act to follow, but these rolls of rough-chopped pork filled bean curd skin come through with shining colors. Again, the freshness of these beauties is evident - though they're wallowing in a shallow pool of soy-based sauce, the bean curd's not flabby; there's even the slighest bit of crunch to be found at the tips of the rolls. Rolled tight, they're compact and juicy, bursting with flavor.

Much as we'd like another 6 or 10 orders of dumplings and rolls, time's a-wasting; things start to wind down at the food hall by 10:30am, so we hustle up the street towards porridge. Unfortuantely we're waylaid by an unfamiliar dish on offer at a mobile stall.

Kampar_gluten_chee_cheong_fun_1

A husband and wife team are working furiously to service a long queue; most customers walk away with five or more orders. A Kampar-ite helps us order to spec (extra vinegar-soaked chilies) and then pays for our package, refusing our money (didn't I say 'friendly'?). We're told the name of the dish is zhu cheong fun; 'zhu' means 'pork' in Mandarin, but there's no sign of the pig in this mash, just strips of savory soy-stewed gluten and green beans, wide chewy rice flour rolls, a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, and the aforementioned chilies. It's a wonderful mouthful, a bit sweet and mellow with a sour kick from the chilies. We'll return to Kampar to seek out this dish and sample it with some of its other sauces.

Bellies nearly full but appetites eager, we head without further delay inside the still-humming food hall.

Kampar_food_hall_bustle

Stall no. 59 is operated by an outgoing auntie (fourth photo from the top) with a startlingly loud voice, her (not surprisingly) silent husband, and their thirty-something son. The set-up was started years and years ago by the husband's parents, immigrants from China's Guangdong province, and serves up what auntie tells us is 'good traditional Guangdong porridge' .

The rice porridge, unseasoned and 'loose' or watery (as opposed to thick Hong Kong-style) is eaten with any of a variety of side dishes that emerge from a large steamer,

Kampar_ayi_steamer_display

from auntie's wok, or from a couple of stew pots manned by her husband. We attempt (but ultimately fail) to sample them all. Highlights here are a deliciously piggy, almost smoky steamed mix of chopped pork and an unidentifiable, pleasantly bitter, Chinese green (small saucers above); cubes of firm tofu stewed with slices of flavorful fish cake and scallion; wonderfully crispy-tender pieces of amber-colored chicken that auntie has first marinated, then stewed, and finally flash-fried in her wok; and beans that look like extra-thick, wrinkled snake beans (anyone know what these are called?), slow-cooked with ikan bilis till tender.

Kampar_ayi_wrinkled_beans

The blockbuster here is the one dish we managed to sample on our first gluttonous visit to Kampar, the dish that made this stall a destination on this second visit: steamed egg.

Kampar_ayi_custard_served

Here auntie is offering up a sublime saucer of firm yet yielding, velvety egg custard, touched with toasted sesame oil, topped with scallion slices, and encasing a surprise of well-seasoned chopped pork -  a delectable Chinese version of the classic breakfast combo.

Kampar_ayi_custard_close

As we eat and photograph our way through the dishes littering our tabletop auntie offers up a steady stream of high-volume commentary. When she puts a kabosh on Dave's trigger finger we know it's time to go - but the steamed egg insures our return.

On the way out of town we discover, at a deli/restaurant on one of Kampar's main drags, ethereal baked char siew buns with a flaky pastry and a not-too-sweet, brick red filling of deeply smoky pork and scallion. Unfortunately immediate consumption obviates the possibility of photos.

Next time.

Kit Leng Food Center, spitting distance of the food hall, Kampar. Zhu cheong fun vendor outside Kampar food hall, on the lane facing the parking lot/wet market. Early mornings, days ???. Guangdong rice porridge and dishes at stall no. 59, food hall. Yummy char siew buns (steamed are available too, only in the mornings) at Kam Ling Restoran, 105-107 Jalan Idris.

March 02, 2006

Roadside Snack Attack

Kb_putu_herba_before_steam_1

Public transport in Malaysia is well-developed, cheap, and fairly efficient. With the likes of Air Asia flying to all corners of the country for as little as 15 ringgit (less than five US dollars) one way, why resort to car travel?

Lots of reasons. Malaysia's roads are excellent; even the old roads that Malaysians like to moan about, the two-lane trunk roads, are in far better shape than anything you'll find in, say, Vietnam, or even Thailand. Travel at the right time of the day and they're fairly empty as well. A car gives you the freedom to set your own schedule. Souvenirs can go in the trunk, which means not having to cart them around from hotel to hotel. Having your own set of wheels means not having to deal with Malaysian taxi drivers, who, quite frankly, can be a real pain in the arse at times. And with a car,...

OK, wait a minute. Who am I trying to kid here? The best reason to travel by car in Malaysia is that it allows you to eat whatever, wherever, and whenever you like. A car gives you the freedom to sample whatever roadside nubbins fate throws in front of you. It enables up-close investigation of regional delicacies that just might be dished up from unassuming stalls like this.

Kb_putu_herba_stall

In the northern state of Kelantan the road from Cabang Empat to Tumpat is lined with vendors selling putu piring, steamed rice flour cakes filled with palm sugar. We stopped in at this one and were told that the first batch was still a half hour from ready. "We shall return!" we cried, climbing back in the car, and continued on until, fifteen or so minutes later, we reached a road block. Tumpat was flooded, and the road was closed. No matter; we turned around and by the time we reached the stall, our putu were ready.

These putu piring are assembled in essentially the same way as their Kuala Lumpur cousins: a layer of rice flour is tamped down into a circular metal mold, topped with palm sugar, and then capped with more rice flour (top photo).

Kb_putu_herba_in_hand

But in other respects these putu herba, as they're called, are a variation on the theme. 'Herba' in Malaysian simply means 'herb', and that's as much as I could get in the way of description from the friendly vendor. But a gander at the herba (above) that she mixes into her palm sugar filling led me to guess that it's ground fenugreek seeds that give these Kelantanese putu their intriguing flavor.

Kb_putu_herba_steaming_closeup

Another respect in which these putu differ from those we've run across in KL is the way in which they are cooked: wrapped completely, rather than partially, in thick cotton cloth, and then steamed uncovered. As they steam, the cakes' filling seeps through the dough and stains their cloth wrappers.

Kb_putu_served

A certain heft in weight and texture, and a decided stickiness further differntiate these putu. Could there be some glutinous rice flour in the dough? Extra dark palm sugar in the filling makes them sweetly smoky, and the fenugreek adds a nutty, bitter, and almost medicinal (but not in an unpleasant way) note. An altogether more substantial snack than those found streetside in the country's capital.

The next day, on our way back to Kota Bahru after a bit of kite shopping near Pantai beach, this hand lettered sign advertising unfamiliar snacks reeled us in.

Kb_nilla_wafer_sign

Akok are small, wrinkled egg and coconut milk 'cakes' - unfortunately they were not of offer here that day. But the baulu were delightful enough to suffice.

Kb_nilla_wafer_vendors

This vendor oversees the baking while his wife mixes the baulu batter - eggs, white sugar, rice and wheat flours, and a leavening agent - and packages deliveries. Prep is simple. The batter is ladeled into greased oval molds and baked for about 10-15 minutes. This vendor's 'oven' consists of a layer of hot charcoal and a charcoal-filled pan the size of the cake mold; the cake pan is sandwiched between the two.

Kb_nilla_wafers_oven

I had sampled baulu before (without knowing what they were) and found them to be dry and tasteless. Judging from the cakes above, freshness is key. Hot from the 'oven', these treats boasted a thin, golden, crackly exterior and a pale, fluffy and crumbly interior. Their pleasingly mild flavor hinted at vanilla and reminded me of a childhood favorite - Nilla Vanilla Wafers.

Kb_nilla_wafers_display

When it comes to Malaysian sweets small batch is best, it seems. I'd love to say these baulu exhibited a staying power superior to their mass produced relatives, but our bag o' baulu didn't make it back to the hotel.

Find putu herba vendors (there are at least 10 of them) about 10 kilometers from Kota Bahru on the road to Tumpat, late afternoons (after 2pm). Akok and baulu vendor is about 10 minutes from Pantai beach on the way back to Kota Bahru, right hand side of the road. Afternoons.

March 01, 2006

Kaya Convert

Kaya_k_terengganu_coffee_shop_toast

I was slow to discover the charms of kaya. But now that I have there's no turning back.

Who can blame me for initially turning my nose up at this 'jam' of coconut milk, eggs, and white sugar? My first taste of the concoction was from a can plucked off a dusty shelf in an Asian market in California. Inside, I found not a trace of coconut flavor - just sweet, thick, exceptionally sticky blech. It took fourteen years for me to learn that 'real' kaya has as much in common with the canned stuff as a Maggi chicken cube dissolved in water does with long-simmered homemade chicken broth.

Kaya means 'wealthy' or 'rich' in Malaysian, and those words accurately sum up its attractions. Lushly coconuty, extravagantly eggy, and deeply caramely, kaya tastes something like a moist macaroon, a well-executed flan, and mom's butterscotch pudding all rolled into one.

Its natural partner is bread, and the pair is a standard Malaysian and Singaporean kopitiam menu item. (Nothing puts a kopi-stoked caffeine high into overdrive like an order of kaya toast.)

Some prefer their dough sliced from a loaf, while for others only a bun will do. I can't play favorites. Less than a week after swooning over butter and kaya-slathered sweet, puffy, soft-as-a-baby's-bottom xiao mianbao (little buns) in Kuala Terengganu (above) I was swearing eternal allegiance to the larger, wheatier, and altogether more substantial puffs on offer at Kuantan's Kememan coffee shop (below).

Kaya_kemaman_toast_shot

Then with one bite of Village Park's kaya toast all thoughts of buns were wiped from my mind. This restaurant's Singaporean owner decrees that plain white loaf be sliced super thin, evenly toasted on both sides, and then sliced again. The "raw" sides are stuck back together with the barest slick of butter and kaya mortar. The result is an ethereally light but saporific kaya toast that, after the initial crunch, practically melts in the mouth.

Kaya_village_park

Beyond the loaf-versus-bun debate, there are a three requirements for a memorable kaya toast. Bread or bun should be white - not sourdough, not whole-grain nuts 'n stuff, not chewy artisanal provincial French doorstop bread. I'm not a white bread fan in general, but it's really the best kaya base.

If the dough product is to be toasted (kaya is also eaten with steamed bread) it should be over charcoal (or at least not in a toaster - use your oven's broiler instead; all the better if the oven is powered by gas). And the medium of lubrication should be butter, not margarine (Kememan comes out a loser on this point). Kaya and butter may be served on the side, but if an order arrives pre-spread the layers should be thin, ant there should be re-enforcements on the plate.

Readers who have been living a kaya-less existence (if you've tried it but don't like it - huh? - this won't apply to you) and can't purchase the good stuff (ie. not canned, not jarred, not mass-produced) should consider making their own. I can think of a few uses, other than as a bread spread, for this delicacy: as filling for a vanilla or chocolate sponge roll, as a topping for ice cream (a bit beyond the pale, perhaps), used instead of frosting on a rich chocolate cake (or in addition to frosting, between cake layers).

Kaya_spoonup

This recipe looks quite good (it's from the author's grandmother). It's not clear as to the amount of coconut milk to be used, so I'll clarify. Based on a survey of five different recipes, 600 ml of coconut milk, 10 eggs (the bigger the yolk the better), and 400-500 grams of sugar (depending on how sweet you want your kaya) seem to be the standard quantities.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • canned coconut milk will, unfortunately, produce an inferior product. But making your own isn't that hard (or time consuming, if you use dessicated coconut). From freshly grated coconut: place 2 cups coconut into a blender and add 1 1/2 cups very hot water. Blend for a few seconds. Line a sieve with cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Pour the coconut mixture into the sieve, gather up the corners of the cloth, and squeeze the liquid out of the coconut. From unsweetened, dessicated coconut milk: bring 2 1/2 cups water and 2 cups coconut to a simmer in a pan. Pour into a blender and proceed as for fresh coconut. Both methods should produce about 350 ml/12 ounces of thick coconut milk.
  • if you use a double boiler constant stirring throughout the entire process is unnecessary, unless you desire an absolutely smooth kaya (for those, like me, who like a bit of texture, small lumps are not a problem). Some recipes require the kaya to be cooked over a double boiler for as long as 4 or 5 hours. Have a look at the photo above, see how your product compares in terms of consistency, and continue to cook if necessary.
  • the recipe can be halved.

Refer to my Malaysian coffee post for addresses of the kaya toast spots mentioned above.

February 17, 2006

Kampar's Meal in a Loaf

Kampar_chicken_bread_spoonful

We were advised, prior to our roadtrip to Kampar, a quiet little town straddling the old Kuala Lumpur-Ipoh trunk road, not to leave without sampling its specialties: biskut ayam (chicken biscuit) and roti ayam (chicken bread).

Biskut ayam, a thin, sweet, crunchy "cookie" topped with what can only be described as powdered dessicated chicken, did not tickle my fancy. At all. I can do sweet and savory in one mouthful, but cookie and chicken just don't mix, not in my book. Sure, I'll allow that perhaps the cultural context in which my culinary preferences were molded does not allow me to appreciate the gustatory delights of a foodstuff resembling a Chinese almond cookie sprinkled with Knorr's chicken powder. But I'll leave it at that. For me, the door is ever closed on chicken biscuits.

Roti ayam, however, is a whole 'nother story. It's quite an ingenious creation, really: chicken curry baked in a bag of grease-proof paper that's been tucked inside a huge loaf of bread. This isn't a one-pot meal, it's a one-loaf meal.

Kampar_chicken_bread_served

But beyond the novelty factor, what does Kampar's roti ayam have going for it? For starters, the curry - red, with plenty of fragrant fresh curry leaves, sour and zesty with chili and a hint of lime - is kick-a**. Big chucks of long-stewed, tender chicken slide right off the bone. And the bread, slightly sweet and eggy (think challah) with a crispy, burnished crust and a tender crumb, is divine on its own, and just this side of heaven dipped in the curry.

I've been pondering the origin of this strange and wonderful treat. Kampar, a mostly Chinese town, also has a fairly large Indian population. Indian curry in a Chinese-style sweet baked dough - here we have the Malaysian ethnic mix on a plate. (I've considered, and discounted, the possibility that roti ayam is distantly related to that most frightening of American mall 'pub' food, chowder in a bread bowl.)

Is Kampar's chicken bread worth a stop on the way to Ipoh or back down to KL? Yes, most definately. I'm fairly certain it's also available to go, to be re-heated, if not baked, in one's home oven. The place to find it is here:

Kampar_chicken_bread_sign

Yau Kee Restaurant, 55 Jalan Idris, Kampar. Tel. 05-465-1738. Open 7am-6pm. About 24 ringgit for one loaf (hey, it's big!).

February 13, 2006

Green Tea Soup for the Soul

Lui_cha_served

In the world of Malaysian food, lui cha fun is rather an anomaly. It's not a dish made with coconut milk, sweet or savory. It's not fried - in oil or lard. It contains no pork, chicken, lamb, or beef. It's light and fresh and full of fiber. Lui cha is ... healthy.

It's hard to imagine that the Hakka, a Chinese dialect group known for their seductive ways with fatty cuts of pork, invented lui cha fun. This Ho Po (a Hakka subgroup) dish of steamed white rice topped with vegetables and served with a green tea-based "broth" is about as far from khaw yoke (thick slices of stewed pork belly served with taro or preserved vegetable) as watered-down Horlick's is from a vanilla milkshake. It's poverty food, a dish invented of hardship and displacement, a satisfying meal conjured from cheap and portable ingredients stretched by tea and water.

It's commonly referred to in English as "Thunder Tea Rice" but the Chinese characters more accurately translate to something like "Pounded Tea Rice" (lui = to hit or beat). The name derives from the way the dish's broth is traditionally made: green tea leaves are pounded to a paste with peanuts, sesame seeds, and herbs and then steeped with water.

Lui_cha_vendor

This Ho Po Lui Cha Fun vendor, who's Shah Alam business was established by her husband's grandfather, employs a slightly different method, pounding sesame seeds and peanuts separately from tea and herbs, and then mixing tea (lower right, in the plastic green tub), nut paste (next to the tea), and hot water by the bowlful.

Lui_cha_ingredients

Her camouflage-colored broth is fresh, clean, and "green" tasting, with a white pepper bite and a bitter note from the tea. Nut oils lend richness but overall it's surprisingly light, with a stong vegetal note that screams "good for you", an impression that's helped along by the accompanying bowl of a small portion of rice topped with peanuts, black-eyed peas, chopped mustard greens (both blanched fresh and sour preserved), blanched long beans and cabbage, tiny cubes of firm tofu, and salty dried shrimp.

Lui_cha_closeup

I'd heard that lui cha fun is an acquired taste, and I know more than a few Malaysians can't stand the stuff, but I found it to be a superb combination of flavors and textures, reminiscent of the Japanese rice-and-green-tea dish ochazuke. Moistened with the well-seasoned broth, healthy rice and vegetables are transformed into savory spoonfuls - a fine break from fried and otherwise rich Malaysian foods but also a delightfully different dish to seek out based on its own merits.

If you're just visiting KL, without transport to this vendor's stall, and curious about lui cha, I understand it can also be had at Restoran Chuan Hupp on Jalan Wawasan Ampang 2/10, in Ampang. Perhaps readers will weigh in with other closer-to-KL spots to find this dish.

Copious thanks to C for the recommendation.

Ho Po Lui Cha Fun vendor, Xin Dajia Restoran, Jalan Sepadu (next to Public Bank), Taman Industri Axis, Section 25, Shah Alam. Early morning till 4pm-ish.

February 09, 2006

"When You See It, Eat It,...

Klang_wonton_noodle_kid_1

...for who can say if it will be there tomorrow."

It's a motto that Dave and I travel by. A sort of gustatory version of "Seize the day." And it's meant that most of our journeys have been marked by countless culinary pleasures, and a few surprises too.

Occasionally our day-to-day throws up the stone to be unturned, the opportunity not to be missed. Such was the case a few Sundays ago as, after a satisfying lunch of bak kut teh, we idled at a long red light on our way out of Klang. In front of us a gentleman carrying a girth hinting that he appreciated the delicious things in life herded three young boys. They were hurrying. As I turned to watch them pass I noticed not a few other bodies - families, singles, couples, young and old - walking briskly from other directions. Like rivulets to a stream, all were converging at a single point: a nondescript, open-air stall.

Klang_wonton_noodle_stall_2

Bak kut teh lingered in our bellies. (Truth to tell, we'd just shared an ice kacang as well.) We weren't hungry in the least. We had no idea what was being dished up at this no-name stall. But when would we be in Klang again, and at just this time of the day? Clearly, the situation warranted investigation. When the light turned green Dave made a U-turn.

Klang_wonton_steam

As we approached the stall we could see that every table was filled, every seat taken. Waiting customers clustered outside or hovered over the chairs of those still eating. All were waiting for a most common dish, something that's found in every other Malaysian coffeeshop: wonton mee.

But what wonton mee!

Klang_wonton_mee_mee_served

Springy noodles tossed in a dark soy-based sauce, neither especially sweet nor markedly salty, that lubricated and only lightly seasoned the springy strands. I caught a whisper of pig, suggesting that lard played a part as well. On top, slices of tender, exceedingly smokey barbequed pork and a couple of stems of green vegetable. Accompanying wontons in a rich, caramel colored meat broth sported silky skins thicker than those we sampled in Kampar, and a pleasantly chewy pork filling.

Klang_wonton_noodle_wonton_close

Perhaps the best wonton mee in the vicinity. The folks crowding the tables around ours - many working on multiple bowls of noodles and dumplings - certainly seemed to think so.

Wonton mee stall, Jalan Mantin in the general vicinity of Courts Mammoth, Klang. Till 8pm or so.

January 25, 2006

Daytrippin': Old-Fashioned Deliciousness in Kampar

Kampar_guy_on_bike

There's only one thing that might motivate me, on a holiday, to roll out of bed before dawn, and if you're a regular reader of this blog there's no need for me to fill in the blank. And so it is that the wee hours of the second-to-last day of 2005 found Dave and I rubbing our eyes and chugging caffeinated soda while hurtling along the North-South highway. Our motivation? A tip from C that char kuey teow prepared the old-fashioned way, over live charcoal (instead of gas), can still be had in Kampar, a dimunitive town straddling the old Kuala Lumpur-Ipoh trunk road.

Kampar_town

Nestled against a ridge of tree-cloaked hills, Kampar is a compact cluster of shophouses, Chinese clansman guilds (marked by the upright poles in the photo above), and temples, many dating back to the 1880s, when huge tin deposits were discovered in the surrounding Kinta Valley. Dubbed "Kam Poh" ("precious as gold") by Chinese who'd come to mine the valley's ore, the town grew by WWII to be the fourth largest city in Malaysia's Perak state.

Kampar_temple_1

Kampar is rich not only in economic history; in December of 1941 it was the site of a fierce WWII battle in which the greatly outnumbered British and British Indian armies managed to hold off Japanese forces for four days. And, surrounded by barbed wire fencing and the site of numerous casualties, Kampar was a center of guerilla strife during Malaysia's Emergency period.

Kampar_peeling_paint_chinese_characters_1

Today Kampar is a relaxed, easy-going town where bicycles are almost as numerous as cars. Everyone seems to know everyone else, yet strangers are treated as friends. While the paint peels from architecturally notable shophouses that lie sadly abandoned along the main street (the characters above advertise an air-conditioned movie house), a university branch recently established nearby promises to breathe new life into the place.

Kampar_bike_and_wooden_door 

Meanwhile, for established residents social life appears to revolve around Kampar's numerous coffee shops and its enormous open-air food hall. This bustling emporium of gastronomy, pleasantly breezy owing to copious ceiling fans and its situation alongside the Keranji River, boasts some 48 stalls (though on any given day a certain number are closed) serving up everything from curry mee to plain rice porridge. Lively chatter at tables of retirees (ladies segregated from men), housewives toting young children, teens on school holiday, and men at break from work or on their way to the shop makes for a high, but not ear-splitting, noise level. It's a congenial - and appetizing - spot in which to find oneself around breakfast time.

Kampar_ckt_fire_closeup

We headed straight for stall no. 32, where this man has been frying char kuey teow in a huge flattened wok over a charcoal fire - an art he learned from his mother - for over forty years.

Kampar_ckt_dude

The size of his vessel allows him to churn out multiple customized orders (eg. more egg, less sprouts) simultaneously. To start off, he places fresh rice noodles and bean sprouts in the hot pan

Kampar_ckt_noodles_sprouts_start

and, quickly scraping his spatula side-to-side and up and down, with the occasional toss thrown in, mixes them together while incorporating dark soy and chili sauces.

Kampar_ckt_stirfry

Noodles and sprouts are then pushed off to the cooler edges of the pan to wait, while he scrambles a few eggs in the center.

Kampar_ckt_eggfry

When the eggs are nearly firm he brings noodles and sprouts back into the action. Though our photos don't quite capture it, he's pressing - noodles to pan, eggs to noodles - as much as he's stirring. As a local observed while we stood side-by-side watching the master's spatula fly about the wok, it's a technique that results in a perfect integration of eggs and noodles.

Kampar_ckt_served

The final product is altogether different from the fluffy char kuey teow I wrote about here. Cooked over a lower heat for a longer period of time, these noodles have absorbed more sauce and are consequently a bit "wet" and heavy, which works well with their exceptionally deep, smoky charcoal flavor. This char kuey teow contains no shrimp, only sweetly briney cockles, and plenty of them. More bean sprouts thrown in at the very last minute are a nice touch, a bright, light ,and fresh note. Sambal served on the side was as fiery as I like it, but this plateful was so fine I didn't want to sully the flavor with any add-ins other than a squeeze of kalamansi.

In my book this dish - and the opportunity to observe its unusual preparation - justified the hour and forty-five minute drive. But why stop with char kuey teow? We didn't, stepping just across the aisle to stall no. 45 for an order of wantan mee that came highly recommended by an elderly char kuey teow bystander.

Kampar_wantan_mee_lady

The noodles and wantan served at this stall are handmade, as they have been for probably seventy years or so. The business was started by this lady's grandfather; now one branch of the family pulls noodles,

Kampar_wantan_mee_noodle_display

while the other stuffs wantan.

Kampar_wantan_mee_dry_dumplings

Ordered dry, mee are mixed with a mixture of broth and soy sauce, mounded on a plate and topped with bean sprouts, tender chicken breast pieces, slices of smoky BBQ pork, and sliced scallions. 

Kampar_wantan_mee_mee_served

They're just as a mee of this type should be: springy, with an ever-so-slight, barely detectable "crunch" - al dente but not quite as Italian pasta connoisseurs understand the term. Served in a rich chicken and meat broth sparked with white pepper, the wantan (three each of prawn and pork) are small, with thin, nearly translucent wrappers. Despite their delicacy the gossamer sheets of dough resist dissolving in the hot broth, holding their shape all the way to our mouths. In flavor and texture these wantan have, for me, set a new standard against which all will be judged.

Kampar_wantan_mee_dumpling

Feeling it time to walk off our noodles and dumplings, we headed for the nearest exit - only to come face to face with a woman preparing hot-off-the-steamer chee cheong fun (stall no. 15). A language barrier may have prevented us from getting the story of her and her specialty -- unlike most of the other vendors she appeared to be well on the younger side of forty -- but it did not hamper our attempt to sample her product.

Chee cheong fun (often referred to in English as "rice noodle rolls") start out as a water-thin batter of rice flour, which is ladelled over a muslin-ish piece of cloth stretched over a frame and set over the holes of a rectangular steamer.

Kampar_chee_cheong_fun_spreading_batter

After batter has been spread on the cloth the contraption's lid (just visible to the left) is replaced. After the dough has steamed for about five minutes the fabric frame is removed and the now firm chee cheong fun quickly scraped onto a smooth work area (to the right of the steamer). Bits of filling (chopped pork or shrimp, in this case) are dotted in 4 rows along its surface, and then the dough is pushed, with a sort of wide palette knife, from the top and the bottom into two side-by-side dough "logs".

Kampar_chee_cheong_fun_rollup

They're separated with the knife, placed on a plate, and then sliced. Finally the chee cheong fun are doused with a soy-based sauce; here I detect hints of ginger, five-spice, a meat-based broth. This vendor keeps her sauce warm in a crock pot - a nice touch.

Kampar_chee_cheong_fun_served

Chee cheong fun fresh off the steamer is so different to rolls that have been made ahead of time - wondefully light and airy, almost fluffy. Sambal served on the side was pleasantly pungent with shrimp paste, but I elected to forego it so that tasty combo of fresh rice dough and fragrant sauce could shine through.

Stumbling out of the food hall and into the sunshine, we suspected that this time, we might have overdone it. Yet still a whole town of goodies awaited; we weren't finished yet.

But this post is. More Kampar to follow, eventually.

January 19, 2006

Medicinal Pig

Bakkutteh_klang_pot_on_fire

Hot and sour soup. Mapo tofu. La jiao. Dandan noodles. Yuxiang pork shreds. Chinese cooks can scorch the tongue and set the lips atingle so well that it's easy (for a chili addict like myself, anyway) to overlook what they consistently do even better: comfort food. Since moving to Malaysia I've become convinced that when it comes to edible hugs, no one does it better than the Chinese. And for the ultimate in Chinese comfort food, I nominate bak kut teh.

Unappetizingly translated as "meat bone tea", bak kut teh is a Hokkien (from China's southeast Fujian province) soup/stew of pork, spices like black pepper and star anise and cinammon, and Chinese medicinal herbs such as tong sum and kei chee (wolfberries). Now, I've long been of the mind that there's food, and there's medicine, and never the twain should meet. Eating - and feeding others, for that matter - should be about pleasure; injecting a medical purpose into a meal just seems wrong. Bak kut teh boosters make some pretty incredible assertions about this meal-in-a-claypot: it's alleged to cure stomach flu, prevent rheumatism and cancer, boost the immune system, strengthen bones and kidneys, and generally rid the body of toxins, among other things. I'm not sure I buy into the medical legend, but there's no denying the dish is delicious.

Bakkutteh_kuantan_sign_2

I first encountered bak kut teh on Christmas Day in, of all places, Kuantan. On this last evening of our Malaysian east coast eatathon Dave and I were recovering from a grueling 5-hour drive from Kota Baru, most of it in a monsoonal downpour. Neither of us could summon the energy to set off in search of the seafood for which Kuantan is famous, and so we ended up wandering the city's shuttered downtown in search appetizing sustenance. The sign at this simple storefront, with its unmistakable claypot illustration, beckoned.

Bakkutteh_kuantan_bubbling_pot_1

The owner of this shop wouldn't tell us which herbs and spices she includes in her bak kut teh, and my indelicate palate could be certain only of the presence of white pepper, cinammon, and clove. Five hours of simmering produces a complex, rich broth and pork meat that falls off the bone in tender shreds. In addition to bone-in pork, our claypot included reconstituted dried tofu, fried tofu cubes, and four or five chewy dried shiitake mushrooms, and was crowned with a clump of raw enoki that softened in the broth's steam. Lightly spiced but not bland, simple but not boring, this bak kut teh was as addictive as a bowl of thick-cut, kettle-cooked potato chips; when Dave and I finished not a single drop darkened the bottom of the clay pot. (Delectable also was the shop's velvety soft hot and sour mustard greens, cooked overnight and available only on Sundays and Wednesdays).

Having entered the restaurant exhausted, we left - despite our full bellies - revived, uncertain whether to credit the restorative powers of Chinese herbs or the rush of culinary discovery.

In Malaysia (the dish is common in Singapore as well) the origin of bak kut teh can be traced to Klang, a town about 30 km southwest of KL. Capital of Selangor state until 1880 (when it lost the title to KL) and once center of one of Malaysia's most important tin-mining regions, Klang, starting in the 1800s, attracted huge numbers of employment-seeking southern Chinese immigrants, including natives of Fujian. No Malaysian can pinpoint Klang's bak kut teh ground zero, but few dispute that this bustling town is the place to go to sample the best.

As new devotees, we were eager to dine on bak kut teh at the source. So Sunday, we took to the Federal Highway and, detailed map in hand (thanks HMG!), made our way to Telok Pulai Bak Kut Teh.

Bakkutteh_klang_inside

Bak kut teh is traditionally a breakfast and - judging from the number of extended families dining at this restaurant - Sunday brunch dish. We ordered a pot for two, one "veggie", and rice, and snagged a plastic container of fried shallots that was making its way around the restaurant to sprinkle over the latter. A plate of youtiao (fried dough sticks; Chinese crullers), cut into 2-inch chunks, arrived with saucers of diced fresh chili and soy sauce.

Bakkuttehklang_greens

The veggie - baby bok choy, on this plate - is simply blanched, drizzled with oyster sauce, and sprinkled with fried garlic. Well-prepared, delightfully crunchy, but in the end a mere accompaniment to the main event.

Bakkuttehklang_pot_served

Unlike our Kuantan version, this bak kut teh included three different cuts of pork (thick-cut rib layered with a pleasing amount of fat; lean, boneless loin; and tender pieces of what I'm guessing to be shoulder or rump) and was adorned with several leaves of head lettuce. Mushrooms were few and far between and, in what I would call the restaurant's only misstep, are unmistakeably canned. Fluffy squares of deep-fried tofu and a few large sheets of dried tofu (11 to 3 o'clock in the photo) are likeably chewy and soak up the porky broth.

It is the broth that, without a doubt, is the highlight of TPBKT's version of bak kut teh. Lushly seasoned, unabashedly fatty, thick with miniscule bits of pork, and as dark as coffee, it would make a fine meal even on its own, without adornments. And it's simply glorious sopped up with cruller sponges.

Bakkutteh_klang_plate

Each clay pot of bak kut teh is assembled to order. As we found out when we ventured back to TPBKT's prep area after lunch, diners can have their bak kut teh assembled not only with specified cuts of meat, but can add on innards as well.

Bakkutteh_klang_prep_station 

After a pot is packed with pork, mushrooms, and tofu skin it's filled to the brim with broth and set on the fire (opening photo) an brought to a boil. Added to the pot just before it's pulled from the flame, lettuce arrives at the table still crunchy.

I can't yet attest to the veracity of the medical claims made about bak kut teh, but its pull is akin to that of a drug. I couldn't stop thinking about the dish after my maiden meal in Kuantan, and found myself (someone who prefers chili spice and is not especially fond of hot soups in tropical weather) with a fierce craving for another bowl less than twenty-four hours after our lunch in Klang. Simply put, meat bone tea is a dish that - like the the very best comfort foods - satisfies in every possible way.

Kedai Kopi Jalan Besar, B74 Jalan Besar, Kuantan.

Telok Pulai Bak Kut Teh, Klang. Directions: take the Federal Highway to Klang, continue over the river, and pass an Indian temple on your right. Turn right at the first light after the temple (you will now be in a construction zone). Turn left at the first intersection, pass a field on your right, follow the road to a T-section and turn right. At the second traffic light turn right (you will have passed an Economart on your left). Continue straight and take the overpass (not the small road to its left). Note a row of shophouses on your right just as the overpass bottoms out; turn right at the first light to enter. The bak kut teh shop in this post is the one (there are two in the same row) furthest from the traffic light, towards the overpass.

January 16, 2006

Bubble-icious

Kb_roti_bubbles

Roti - it's so been done. At least here.

Kb_roti_vendor

Still, this Kota Baru Old Market vendor's technique is intriguing - and the result flavorsome - enough to merit another post devoted to this snacktime (ie. anytime) favorite.

Initially, the method here is indistinguishable from that at other stalls. Dough is flattened on a well-greased surface,

Kb_roti_prep_1

then tossed and spun,

Kb_roti_prep_2

and flipped and twirled,

Kb_roti_prep_3

until its surface area has expanded several-fold (and its thickness has decreased by the same measure).

It's after the slap-down, when the tissue paper-thin dough is laid back to rest on slick prep counter, that things get interesting. In the blink of an eye, this roti master pinches an edge of dough between thumb and forefinger and pulls it straight up to eye level, simultaneously drawing a small circle in the air to form the dough into a long, twisted rope. Lowered back to the work surface and wrapped around itself, the rope becomes a shiny, dough-encased air bubble (see the opening pic). At this point it's left aside, under plastic, to rest for 5 or so minutes.

When he receives an order our guy pulls out a bubble, smashes it flat, then pops it right onto the griddle (egg roti, before hitting the pan, are rolled again, drizzled with lightly beaten yolk and white, and folded into a squarish envelope).

Kb_roti_griddle

Though we observed other roti vendors in Kota Baru employing the same rope-and-bubble technique, none allowed their dough blobs to sit a bit before griddling. I'm convinced that this master's bubble-and-rest method is the secret to his superbly light, airily layered roti.

Kb_roti_served

That, and the fact that instead of slicing it with a knife, he lightly smashes each roti between his two open palms, first horizontally and then vertically, breaking it along its natural fault lines. The idea is similar to that which dictates that parmesan reggiano cheese be broken with a chisel, never cut: a break along the natural fissures in the cheese (or the roti) lets the layers speak for themselves. More texture = more flavor.

Kb_roti_served_close

Accompanying daal and curry? Good, I guess. For me, this snack was all about the dough.

Roti Canai Ramli, on the Jalan Tengku Petra Semerak side of the Old Market (Pasar Besar). Morning to mid-afternoon.

January 11, 2006

What (My) Dreams Are Made Of

Kb_mkt_flowers_and_veg_ea

For an Asian food market fanatic like myself, Kota Baru's Central Market is indeed the stuff of dreams. Outdoors, stall after stall manned by shouting vendors proffering gorgeous fruits; inside, row after row dedicated to nothing but prepared kuih (sweets) and savory snacks in one section and, in another, mound upon mound of vegetables both familiar and mysterious. All buttressed by an admirably chaotic seafood section marked by a nose-wrinkling stench and a floor slippery with scales and guts; an upstairs dry goods section stocked with a mind-boggling array of packaged goods, from sweetly addictive orbs of puffed rice grains bound together with dark palm sugar to ingredients for just about any Malay, Chinese, or Indian dish one might be craving; and an extensive food court where Kelantanese specialties can be ordered to carry out or enjoyably eaten in.

Kb_mkt_birds_eye_view_ea_1

To top it off, much of the market's colorful action takes place on the floor of a hexagonal, perspex-roofed atrium (below), allowing voyeurs (and photographers) willing to climb a few stairs to the second and third floors a bird's-eye view of the comings, goings, and tradings.

Women rule the market roost at the KB Central Market, making up the majority of inside vendors. In the atrium, these ladies sell from the center of low-to-the-ground wooden platforms, their goods arranged around them on all sides. This vendor - mother of five, as she proudly informed us - called Dave over to take her photograph and, after unsmilingly staring down the lens for a minute or two, allowed her good humor to get the better of her.

Kb_mkt_vendor_ea

Though the usual vegetal suspects (cabbage, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, ginger and garlic and cilantro and mint and such) - are in evidence, there's much on display here to pique the cook's (or eater's) curiosity.

Turtle eggs are a local delicacy. Those of the leatherback turle are officially off-limits (it's possible to view the protected species laying their eggs nocturnally on Terengganu and Kelantan beaches at certain times of the year) but those of other species are legally collected and sold. I'm not of the if-it's-there-eat-it persuasion, but they yolks are said to remain liquid long after the whites have cooked through.

Kb_mkt_turtle_eggs_ea

Wild mushrooms supplement the abundant, snow-white oyster variety. They're virtually a staple at  primarily Malay-food markets like Temerloh town's Pekan Sehari.

Kb_mkt_wild_fungus_ea

I'm hoping a knowledgeable reader can identify these two vegetables: a long, firm, thick-skinned olive green "leaf" (under okra bundles) which was referred to by its vendor as, I think, peko,

Kb_mkt_peko_ea

and a green stem adorned by both leaves and whispy fronds.

Kb_mkt_mystery_veg_ea

In Kelantan it's rice rather than noodles that rule, and the Central Market's food hall is an ideal place to track down a couple of Kelantanese rice specialties: nasi kerabu and nasi dagang.

Kb_mkt_kerabudagang_ea

The former dish is based on rice tinted blue - traditionally, from petals of bunga telaga (pea flower, clitoria) but now often from dye - and the latter on nutty, reddish unevenly milled rice cooked in coconut milk or water. Stalls serving these specialties offer a variety of prepared dishes, from huge tiger prawns cooked in chili sauce to hard-boiled eggs and simple stir-fries of mixed vegetables, to go with the rice.

Kb_mkt_nasi_stall_dishes_zoom_out_ea_1

Front and center above is the well-known Kelantanese dish of small squid stuffed with glutinous rice and braised in a sweet sauce.

Kb_mkt_nasi_stall_dishes_ea

Nasi kerab is served garnished with ulam (fresh vegetables and herbs like bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, and peppery daun kesom leaves) and grated coconut that has been fried with chilies and palm sugar; a generous dab of sambal and a few kerepok (crispy fish crackers) complete the picture.

Kb_mkt_nasi_kerabu_plate_ea

This vendor's nasi dagang was perfectly delicious; note how the individual rice grains remain distinct (rather than clumping together in a heavy, oily mass), indicating that the rice has been steamed instead of boiled. Chicken stewed in spicy coconut gravy until it's nearly falling off the bone and fresh, briney clams stir-fried with onions, green beans, and chilies are the perfect complement.

Kb_mkt_nasi_dagang_ea

Though rice is Kelantan's favorite starch, noodles can be had as well, in the form of laksam. These thick, sticky noodle rolls are doused in a sweet fish and coconut gravy and garnished much as nasi kerabu is, with a tangle of fresh herbs and vegetables and a decent dose of fishy and spicy sambal.

Kb_mkt_laksam_ea

In three visits to KB's Central Market we barely scratched the surface of the prepared edible offerings available in the magnificent food hall. But we managed to make a decent dent - I'm still working off the kilos gained in those four days - and gained exposure to enough wonderful treats to convince me that a return trip is most definately in order.

Kota Baru Central Market. Things get going around 8am; it's open till about 4p or so, though the food hall starts to peter out around 2p.

January 05, 2006

Marvelous Mee in Kuala Terengganu

Kt_chinatown_pedicab

Kuala Terengganu doesn't get much travel press. This town in Terengganu state on Malaysia's east coast is better known as a way station en route to the paradisical Perhentian Islands than as a destination in and of itself.

Which is a shame, because while it's true that the town isn't particularly large and may not have much to offer in the way of nightlife, it does have a few attractions that make it worth at least an overnight pit stop. An ideal morning jaunt is to KT's sprawling central market housed in a pleasing old building; see it now, before it's moved to a spanking-new, characterless mall that will be the curse of the town's riverfront in about a year or so. The town's wonderful state museum, with its impressive collection of traditional Terengganu art and handicrafts (too bad the majority of the display labels are in bahasa Malaysia only) with a few lovely old, reconstructed traditional Malay wooden houses dotted around its peaceful, park-like grounds, can easily occupy an afternoon.

And then there's KT's tiny Chinatown. Occupying just three or four continuous blocks of riverfront real estate, the area is a treasure trove of vintage wooden shophouses

Copy_of_kt_chinatown_wooden_shophouses_1

and picturesquely moldering cement buildings with ornate facades.

Kt_chinatown_1930_bldg_1

Around 8 o'clock on a Tuesday morning last month, a couple hours before the central market up the street would kick into full gear, the area's quiet was broken by just a couple of cars and motorbikes, but more than a few bicycles and pedicabs.

Kt_chinatown_street_o_shophouses_1

And the din emitting from the front of this long and narrow Chinese kopitiam (coffee shop) near the Chinatown bridge, stuffed to the rafters and doing a ferocious business.

Kt_chinatown_kopitiam_1

The specialties here? Coffee, toast and kaya (more on that delectable Malaysian combo later), and noodles. With just one cook, two woks, and a roomful of mouths to feed, food prep up front happens at warp speed.

Kt_chinatown_chef_in_action

At this point it's worth asking: at the pace she moves, over two constantly smoking woks, how is it that this chef-ess manages not only to avoid breaking a sweat, but to keep her make-up flawless as well?

Kt_chinatown_chef

Coffee and toast kept the hungries at bay while we waited the twenty minutes or so that it took our hokkien mee to be plated.

Kt_chinatown_hokkien_mee_dished_up

Thick, squared-off yellow noodles, egg, pork slices, and pieces of round cabbage generously sauced in dark soy -- tasty enough.

Kt_chinatown_hokkien_mee_served

But, as nearly any Malaysian will tell you, the defining feature of a stellar hokkien mee is lard. That's right, artery-clogging, pudge-producing animal fat. Hokkien mee fried in lard, possessing an undefinable extra dimension of piggy smokiness, is sublime in a way that even the best hokkien mee fried in plain oil never can be.

And this dish of noodles? Plenty lard-ful. 'Nuff said.

Followed up by a superb dish that our elfin waitress (curiously enough, the same woman who had waited on us the night before at Straits Restoran; apparently the Chinese community in KT is not large) dubbed simply "Cantonese noodles". For this treat pork shreds, egg, and Chinese broccoli leaves, suspended in a superbly comforting meat broth-based gravy,

Kt_chinatown_canto_noodle_gravy_stir

are ladelled atop a handful of  mee xin (dried skinny rice noodles) that have been deep-fried into a crispy, golden nest.

Kt_chinatown_canto_noodle_dishup

The gravy itself is mouth-wateringly mellow: smooth, eggy, and richly meaty. Expertly crisped mee  somehow absorbs the gravy in some spots while repelling it in others, creating a combination of soft noodles, still-crisp noodles, and noodles somewhere in between, moistly chewy with a pleasant "stickiness". I do love my lard but if push were to come to shove I'd have to rate this primo plateful a notch or two above the hokkien mee. [And if any KL readers know where to get a first-class version of this dish in the area, please do advise!]

This little coffeeshop (locals call it Ah Hung, though I couldn't spot a sign on the building) is a gem in Kuala Terengganu's Chinatown, meriting a stop before catching a boat to the islands. The problem as I see it is (especially since food on the islands is rumored to be quite sub-par), as long as Ah Hung is in business, I might never make it to the dock.

Ah Hung Kopitiam, 136 Jalan Bandar (near the bridge), Kuala Terengganu.

January 04, 2006

Daytrippin': Temerloh's Pekan Sehari

Temerloh_river_scene

It may be sprawling, its streets may at times be beset by far too many automobiles, it may have more malls per capita than any other Asian city (I don't know this to be true, but it seems like it should be), but Kuala Lumpur isn't exactly a throbbing metropolis. In fact there are times when this city - especially in comparison with Saigon, where the steady thrum of tens of thousands of motorbikes can literally shake your house during rush hours - seems almost laid back.

Still, sometimes a brief escape from the urban landscape appeals. Just one hour and forty-five minutes from KL lies Temerloh, in Malaysia's state of Pahang. This generally sleepy town springs to life on Sunday mornings, when it hosts the "Pekan Sehari", or "one-day market".

Temerloh_colorful_market_scene_1

Winding for about a mile and a half along one bank of the Pahang River (Malaysia's longest), the Pekan Sehari has a decidedly "Sunday" feel about it. It seems there's nothing that can't be purchased here. In search of motorized toys for the kiddies? Batik sarongs in riotous colors? Dates from Iran, golden raisins from Xinjiang, dried figs from Turkey? A hand-hewn wooden oar, perhaps? Or how about herbal potions for whatever ails you, peddled by a microphone-toting gent with an energy level that belies his going-on-80 years?

Temerloh_medicine_man

As evidenced by the overloaded shopping baskets carried by most visitors, there's no shortage of business being done at this market. But there' also plenty of shuffling and strolling, "window" shopping, and gossiping going on, interspersed with respects payed to town elders, and the showing off of grandkids dressed with care. There's also lots of - this is Malaysia, remember - eating.

Dave and I knew to be on the lookout at the Pekan Sehari for the Pahang delicacy called satar, a paste of fish, coconut, lemongrass, and chilies, wrapped in triangular banana leaf packets, skewered three to a stick, and grilled. We didn't have the heart to tell this vendor that his sales pitch (medical researchers in India have determined that banana leaf fumes and essence promote fitness and health) were wasted on us.

Temerloh_satar_man

But is it yummy??!! That's all we cared about. That's all we ever care about.

Temerloh_satar

No disappointment here. The female half of this vending duo told us that she has been peddling these beauties at the Pekar Sehari ever since taking voluntary early retirement from HSBC twelve years ago. Between Sundays, when she rises at 5am to pound together ingredients for both the satar and the moist, fishy curry puffs she sells alongside them, the Johor native hikes Taman Negari's jungle trails and pops down to Singapore for the occasional spot of shopping.

Temerloh_satar_shown

Her satar are wonderful - on the spicy side, sweetness balanced by lots of lemongrass, a paste not pounded to mush but studded with discernable shreds of fresh fish. Her husband's skills at the grill are not to be sniffed at either; note the bits of char on the satar, which bestow not only a pleasant smokiness but a nice bit of chew as well.

Temerloh_honey_lady_1

Most of the market's vendors and customers are Malay, and the majority of vendors selling ingredients are women. We purchased a bottle of fragrant, flowery honey from this friendly woman for less than 3 US dollars; had we been in search of honeycomb, we need have looked no further than a stall away.

Temerloh_honeycomb

In the early nineties Temerloh was promoted by Malaysia's Tourism ministry as "Bandar Ikan Patin" (Town of Patin Fish), after a variety of catfish that is said to derive its especially sweet flavor from the shellfish and aquatic plants particular to the town's stretch of the Pahang River. But now, according to an article earlier this year in Malaysia's New Straits Times, increasing pollution in the river means that the majority of patin sold at the Pekan Sehari and beyond is farmed. In fact, these days patin fish is less in evidence at the market than dried fish, sold whole or, if the fish is especially large, filleted.

Temerloh_fish_on_scale

Malaysian coffee is not well-known outside of the country; most beans grown here are consumed locally. That's a shame, because in Pahang especially you'll find some exceptionally fine joe. At the Pekan Sehari's halfway point, an elderly gentleman uses a gas-powered grinder to turn Pahang beans into fine powder. The coffee sells for 2 ringgit per 100 grams.

Perched on a low stool next to the coffee vendor is a man selling hard discs of palm sugar with a wondefully rich and complex flavor.

Temerloh_palm_sugar

A good portion of the produce sold at the Pekan Sehari is foraged by villagers. Fleshy mushrooms, feathery fungus light as sawdust, long red-leafed fern stems, and bamboo shredded and displayed on banana leaves are just a few of the "wild" items on offer. Buah kuran (known in Brazil as acai and touted for its amazingly high level of anti-oxidents) is a purplish-black fruit with a thin, brittle shell-like rind and a curiously fuzzy, tart interior. Frankly I couldn't quite grasp the attraction of this fruit, which is eaten "shell" and all.

Temerloh_buah

Temerloh's pastel blue and pink mosque marks the market's end, at which point it's time to head back into the fray and get serious about sampling the delectables on offer.

Temerloh_mosque

Sweet tooths will leave the Pekan Sehari more than satisfied. Just about every fifth vendor offers dodol, a caramel-like coconcoction of coconut milk and palm sugar that, according to one purveyor, is stirred for a full five hours before being formed into thick pancakes. They'll keep for up to a week at room temperature.

Temerloh_dodol

I discovered this luscious treat on our second visit to the market. Dangai consist of two thick, chewy coconut and rice flour cakes sandwiching a sprinkle of coarse-grain white sugar. Lightly grilled on both sides, it tastes a bit like a coconut macaroon that's been kissed by a BBQ.

Temerloh_dangai

String hoppers - thin, almost fluffly noodles that are the result when rice flour batter is extruded through a sieve onto a hot convex griddle - are a treat when eaten warm with a sprinkle of brown sugar and grated coconut. These were purchased near to the market's start.

Temerloh_string_hoppers

Appam - fluffy "pancakes" that show up in various forms (made from fermented rice flour or not, filled and folded in half or unfilled and sold in the round, crisp-crusted or soft and fluffy throughout) all over Malaysia - can be had "regular" or "special" (filled with chocolate sprinkles, coconut, white sugar, and, yes, canned creamed corn) at a stall near the bus station.

Temerloh_special_appam

I'm embarassed to admit that the creamed corn-chocolate combo put me off of trying this taste sensation. I'll try to gird my tastebuds and attempt a bite or two next trip to the market.

Aching feet can be rested at any one of several sit-down snack spots. Near the market's end sits a coffee shop advertising noodles and beverages and offering, from it's outdoor tables, a bird's-eye view of market comings and goings against the backdrop of the muddy, slow-moving Pahang.

A short walk from the beginning of the Pekan Sehari, a fiesty granny oversees a canopy-covered family operation selling nasi lemak (rice steamed in coconut milk and served with a choice of meat, fish, and vegetable dishes) and noodles. The mee pedas boast a spicy beef broth fragrant with star anise, ladelled over yellow mee noodles, Chinese celery bits, and fried shallot pieces. It's richness comes not from coconut milk but from a good many beef shreds floating about the bowl.

Temerloh_noodle_pedas 

Just past the U-shaped fish section lie a cluster of stalls selling char kuey tiaow and nasi lemak - but one would have to be crazy to choose either of those items over the wickedly delish sate and laksam dished up by a couple of well-fed siblings (we suspect they are, anyway - they look an awful lot alike), each anchoring the end of a long prep table. We followed our nose to the sate (lamb and chicken), which is marinated in a sauce hinting of honey and skillfully grilled over a continuously raging fire by brother.

Temerloh_sate_scorched

The superbly charred morsels-on-a-stick are served with a chili-infused peanut sauce that doesn't suffer, as many sate sauces do, from sugar overload. Pressed rice squares prove handy for dipping up leftover peanut goo.

Temerloh_sate_served

The sate are matched in scrumptiousness by sister's laksam, a Kelantanese specialty of thick rice flour "pancakes" rolled into ropes,

Temerloh_laksam_rolls

sliced into thick chunks, and topped with a slightly sweet (sweetness is a hallmark of Kelantanese cuisine) coconut milk and fish "gravy". Shredded cabbage and fresh bean sprouts add crunch, and this lady's fresh sambal delivers a hefty chili kick and enough sourness, from either lime or kalamansi juice, to cut the sweetness of the gravy. This laksam is as good, if not better, than any we sampled in Kelantan, but if chewy rice rolls are not your thing sister will dish up gravy and fixins with laksa noodles instead.

Temerloh_laksam_served

After a few hours of strolling and stopping, and a few bellyfulls of food, it's time to head back to KL. The beauty of Temerloh's Pekan Sehari is that it's far enough, and enough of a contrast to where we came from, to comprise a sort of mini-vacation. Yet it's close enough to allow arrival at home in time for a well-earned nap - no matter what one's form of transportation.

Temerloh_going_home_1

Temerloh's Sunday market starts around 7am. Though it supposedly lasts till 2pm, many vendors start to pack up shop around 10am, so it's best to arrive as early as possible.

December 31, 2005

Thai'd Up in Kelantan

Cheng_mai_setting

How to get to Thailand from Kota Baru? Take the Yahya Petra bridge across the Kelantan River, follow the 12 o'clocks off a couple of roundabouts, and turn down a side road that quickly turns narrower than a single car width, dangerously pot-holed, and hemmed in by jungle on all sides. Soon you'll think you were in Malaysia's neighbor to the north: big-eared, ridge-backed dogs loll on shady patches of grass, a radio blares Thai pop, sun glints off the mirrored mosaic pieces adorning a wat. On route to the Thai temple you've passed Ban Kok and Pu Ket; just up the road is Cheng Mai. This is Kelantan's prime Thai restaurant row.

On our third night in Kota Baru, we made the journey to Wakuf Baru, in Tumpat District, for true-taste Thai food. Having lived for a period in Bangkok (admittedly, an all too short one), Dave and I are pretty picky about our Thai treats. Disappointing versions in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Singapore have left us wary of any food claiming to be Thai dished up outside the country's borders. It seemed likely though that if good stuff were being dished up outside of Thailand it would probably be by Chinese Thais living less than two hours from the Malaysian-Thai border.

On a rainy night (they were nearly all rainy, in Kota Baru) Cheng Mai Restoran is the by far the most crowded of the bunch (which also includes Sawasdee, on the main road) even though it is also the most difficult to get to. Whole Chinese-Thai families and extended families, and groups of beer-guzzling men, occupy huge round tables. Which may be one reason the two of us are virtually ignored for about 10 minutes after we arrive. Eventually a waitress saunters over to our table with pad and pencil. A few words of the little Thai I retain elicit a grin and soon enough we are ordering way to much food (hey, that's our style): fish deep-fried and topped with chili sauce, squid salad, chicken in pandan leaves, BBQ'd pork, and stir-fried morning glory.

Cheng_mai_fish

The fish is nothing less than a work of art, slashed vertically to ensure even cooking and expertly fried with a deliciously crispy layer that extends nearly half an inch deep into its flesh. Topped with a "salad" of thinly sliced lemongrass, chili, shallots, and scallions, slivered kaffir lime leaves, and chopped coriander that's been tossed with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, and tamarind, it's hot and cool at the same time, refreshing and spicy all at once. We asked for it phet phet (extra spicy) and Cheng Mai delivered. To me, the true mark of the dish's authenticity is that sour overwhelms sweet. This is puckeringly good stuff.

Cheng_mai_squid_salad

Squid salad arrives warm, and it's the classic version: tender squid rings and the odd tentacle cluster or two, chinese celery, shallot, coriander, chilies -- fish sauce-y and aggressively limey, laid out on a couple of lettuce leaves. Wonderful. The waitress has really taken our pleas for spiciness to heart; a few bites of this put me out of commission for a good five minutes, until white rice and cold water can tame the flame on my tongue.

I wish I could share an image of Cheng Mai's memorable grilled pork, notable for its incredible moistness and smoky char mixed with black pepper zing. Served with cucumber wedges, scallion stems, and coriander sprigs, it's not tongue-numbingly spicy, just delightfully zippy.

Ditto the chicken in pandan leaves. Unlike versions I've sampled in Thailand these are not boneless bite-sized pieces of chicken, but big, knobby whole chicken thighs about half the size of my fist, wrapped generously in pandan leaves. The whole package is deep-fried, producing a moist bird touched but not overwhelmed by oil, deeply flavored with a slightly sweet marinade.

Finally, what I would consider the ultimate test of any restaurant claiming to produce "real" Thai food: pak beung fai daeng, or morning glory (water spinach) stir-fried with chilies, garlic, yellow bean sauce, and fish sauce.

Cheng_mai_pak_beung_faidaeng

These digital camera pictures certainly aren't the best, but I think the photo above shows that Cheng Mai really gets this dish right. Leaves are wilted, stems are still a bit crispy. Garlic is in chunks. Chilies are copious (and darn hot, too!). Sauce is thin, not gloppy. What you can't tell from the picture is that the seasoning is spot-on, just salty enough, just fishy enough, just yellow beany enough. One of my favorites greens dishes of 2005.

Cheng Mai Restoran, Wakuf Baru. From Kota Baru, take the Jambatan Sultan Yahya Petra Bridge, and the 12 o'clock roads from both roundabouts. At the end of the road take a right and then, perhaps 100 meters later, a left at the sign for Pu Ket Restoran (there's also a sign for a wat, in English and Thai). Keep on that road as it twists and turns, past the wat, to the very end, where you'll find Cheng Mai. Closed for Chinese New Year's and major Thai holidays like Songkhran.

December 28, 2005

Chicken Town

Ayam_percik_menu_1

There were a few things I expected to find in Kota Baru, capital of Kelantan, Malaysia's northeastern-most state. Given the season, I anticipated lots of rain (the monsoonal downpour that began soon after we arrived lasted 23 hours, and we didn't see the sun until an hour before we pulled out of town four days later). I'd read in guidebooks that the city's central market is phenomenal (we spent three mornings there and have the slides to prove it ... more later). I'd heard that it's hard to walk a block downtown without bumping into a temptingly edible something or other (KB is a snacker's paradise).

What I didn't expect is that the town smells like chicken. Fried chicken. Roast chicken. BBQ chicken. Chicken in a soup. Chicken on a stick (a.k.a. sate). I challenge anyone to spend an hour or two walking the streets in the center of KB between the hours of, say, 7am and 9pm, and not run smack into a wall of smoke, steam, or otherwise airborne molecules of bird essence.

Rather than fight it we decided to embrace it, starting with a quest for the ultimate ayam percik. Asked for recommendations, an enthusiastic and well-fed (always a good thing to look for in someone making dining recommendations) member of the staff at our hotel sent us to Yati Ayam Percik, a stall-cum-open storefront (with an enclosed air-conditioned room) on a stretch of creepily dark and quiet road about half a kilometer from Kota Baru's hub.

Ayam_percik_display_1

For those unfamiliar with the dish, ayam percik is a Kelantanese mainstay that tastes a lot better than it reads: BBQ chicken with a creamy, flesh-colored sauce that bears a frightening resemblance to Thousand Island dressing (without those little green sweet pickle bits).

Ayam_percik_ayam_2

Integral to the success of the dish is, of course, a nicely grilled piece of bird. Yati scores high in this regard; the sliced breast above, marinated in a slightly sweet mixture that includes chilies and palm sugar, is lightly crispy and wonderfully charred, without being burnt. The percik sauce, thankfully, has nothing at all to do with salad dressing; it's a smooth and incredibly rich concoction based on coconut milk. Other ingredients include lemongrass, palm sugar, candlenuts, and ...? The combo really works: hot, lean bird tasting of the coals and lukewarm, opulently spiced sauce (more sauce is served on the side). Even better with a dab of Yati's fiery, limey sambal.

Regular EatingAsia readers will understand that, though we'd come to Yati for the ayam percik, we certainly couldn't stop there. The bird shared our table with nasi ayam (lit. rice and chicken), which turned out to be glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk, molded into a patty, and stuffed with chicken dry-cooked with lemongrass, chilies, palm sugar, and a bit of coconut. The whole is wrapped in banana leaf and grilled. Delicious, if a bit filling. In truth, I'd have preferred a bit more chicken stuffing, but the excess rice served as a useful sop for leftover percik sauce.

Ayam_percik_nasi_ayam

Along with ayam percik, Yati's most popular takeout item appeared to be its nasi kerabu (rice "salad").

Ayam_percik_nasi_kerabu

For this dish, rice is heaped with bean sprouts, sliced long beans, chopped lemongrass and scallions and chilies, deep-fried shallots, chicken "floss" (imagine chicken jerky ground in a coffee mill till nearly powder), slivered fresh herbs, and peanuts, and sauced with a bit of sweetish chili and peanuty goo. Toss the ingredients about a bit and what you end up with is a riot of flavors and textures in every mouthful. Straggling end bits are delicious piled onto the dish's accompanying kerepok (fish paste crackers, visible nestling above fork and spoon).

Kerabu perut (cow's stomach "salad") was an ordering blunder -- not because it wasn't good, but because (1) I'm not a huge fan of stomach and (2) we'd mistakenly ordered the same dish at lunchtime two days prior. (That's what I get for not studying bahasa Malaysia... or learning from my mistakes.)

Ayam_percik_kerabu_stomach

Still, as far as innards go this was quite a decent dish. Imagine all that makes a Thai green papaya salad so delicious (palm sugar, lime juice, fish-based sauce, chilies, garlic, tomato) tossed with slices of stomach instead. If you love stomach, your're swooning. Then again, if you're at all like me you're thinking, "Kerabu stomach please, hold the innards and substitute green papaya or mango."

We couldn't close the meal without trying at least one of the curries contained in a double row of giant woks, balanced on gas burners, that gurgled away steps from our table.

Ayam_percik_curry

Our choice was duck, and while I couldn't describe the meat as falling-apart tender, this dish vies with the ayam percik as my favorite of the meal. The curry, complex with spices like (I'm guessing here) cinammon and cloves and cardamom, not at all fiery in spite of its vividly chili-red cap of oil, served as the perfect counterpart to an extremely gamey piece of bird. That's a compliment to the cook -- this is one curry in which sauce did not overwhelm the main protein ingredient, and in which spice and meat were perfectly balanced in every bite.

No matter where you stay in Kota Baru, you'll need a car to get to Yati, but it's worth the effort. And that's not just my opinion. On a dismally wet evening this place was fairly crowded when we arrived and packed when we left, all the while doing an admirably steady takeout biz.

Yati Ayam Percik, Jalan Yong Yunus, Kota Baru. Till 11pm or so. Yati also has a stall at Kota Baru's night market.

December 22, 2005

Going Fishing in Kuala Terengganu

Terengganu_chinese_beer

Truth to tell, after a looooong drive to lovely Kuala Terengganu (KL-Kuantan, an easy 3 hours; Kuantan-Kuala Terengganu on the trunk road, a tortuous 3 1/2), it wasn't dinner we were fishing for. Around 7pm on the first day of our east Malaysia road trip, we went in search of a calming, stiff joint-loosening pre-meal aperitif in darkened, seemingly dead-to-the-world KT. First stop, "Traveller's Cafe", which our Rough Guide to Malaysia describes as "one of the few places in the vicinity where you'll get a beer with your meal". Having no interest in the cafe's western fare, we planned to skip the meal, down the beer, and then move on for solid sustenance.

The staff gave us some pretty strange looks when we walked in. Perhaps they knew what we were after, but were no longer serving the hard stuff? "We're here for a beer," Dave muttered out of the side of his mouth, as if he were speaking through the back door of some gin joint during America's Prohibitionist period. Closed for a private party, came the reply.

Back in the car, driving aimlessly and wondering where we'd eat dinner let alone get a drink, we spotted a bright and busy Chinese coffee shop -- with a big green and white Carlsburg sign above the counter. Lucky indeed, because the Straits Restoran turned out to serve not only beer, but truly memorable food as well.

We kept it simple, sticking to seafood (being on the South China Sea coast and all) and vegetables. Of the latter, kangkong (morning glory/water spinach) stir-fried with belacan was a bit overcooked for my taste, the kangkong reduced to a slippery wet rag-like lump with little texture (belacan tasted fine -- sufficiently fishy-pungent and plenty fiery). But a dish listed on the menu board as yu chao dou ya (bean sprouts stir-fried with fish; bean sprouts ikan masin in Malay, I think) was heavenly. The fish in question is a piece of a salted (and preserved) fillet, cut into chunks, rinsed -- and perhaps soaked? -- before cooking to decrease the salinity. The soft (but not mushy) chunks of fish, about half an inch square, proved the perfect pungent complement to bland bean sprouts stir-fried with soy to just crisp-tender.

Terengganu_fish_with_mango

We hit a home run with our two seafood picks. The first, a snapper (or snapper-like specimen), was prepared malai fengguang (Malaysian-style, or with Malaysian tastes). Thai culinary influence was evident in this taste treat (Terengganu state is separated from Thailand only by Kelantan state), in which the fish was deep-fried and topped with a mango and onion "salad" dressed with a sweet and sour chili sauce. The flavors of this dish, if not the preparation of the fish itself, were reminiscent of a Thai dish known as "exploded" catfish (pla dook foo), in which boned catfish is cooked and deep-fried to a sort of brittle, cottony mass and topped with shredded green mango, chopped chilies and scallions, and coriander, and doused with a lime-fish sauce-chili dressing. My own tastebuds (probably harkening back to some yummy pla dook foo enjoyed in Bangkok) wished for a bit more sour and a lot more hot in our "malai" fried snapper (our elfin waitress -- very friendly and willing to endure with a smile my strangled Mandarin -- warned of its spiciness but frankly the dish didn't register at all on my own personal Scoville scale). Nonetheless, the fish was perfectly crispy, nary a smidge of grease on the plate, and the contrast of hot piscene with cool, sour mango was a lovely one.

Our big splurge this meal was 4 huge prawns (at 28 ringgit total -- well less than U$10 and thus still a bargain in my book) cooked with a method new to me: steamed with egg white (and topped with ginger and scallion shreds, and coriander).

Terengganu_chinese_prawns

I'm not sure I could say that the egg white itself added a lot to the taste of the prawns (a solidified pool of egg white is just visible at the bottom right of the plate above), but the combo -- a bite of fresh, firm and briney prawn, alternated with soft, gingery egg white -- was wonderful indeed.

All in all an excellent meal (families continued to pour into the Straits as we devoured our dinner; in fact the place was packed when we left around 9pm) for a total of 92 ringgit of which much, much more than half consisted of prawns and ... beer.

Straits Restoran, 99 Jalan Patani, Kuala Terengganu. Open till 1am.

October 04, 2005

Grilled Rice Rhapsody

I've been eating fairly widely, and quite regularly, since landing in KL a couple of months ago.  Not a single dog in the bunch yet -- pretty indicative, I think, of the quality of the snarf scene here. 

Favorite so far?  I would have to say that it's the freshly grilled pulut panggang we came upon after a shopping spree at the Kuala Selangor fish market a few weeks ago.

Grill_rice_leaf_griling

Grill_rice_leaves_done

These dimunitive leaf wrappers are packing a whollop of flavor: coconut-scented sticky rice enclosing a filling of dried prawns, sambal, and finely shredded lemongrass and coconut.

Grill_rice_leaf_display

Pulut panggang boasts a mix of flavors that, to me at least, is instantly appealing: a little sweet, a little savory, a little fish-stinky and a little spicy-hot, all accented with the teeniest touch of smoke.  The kind of combination that lends itself to breakfast, lunch or snack (it's certainly not enough for dinner!). 

KL offers many wonderful treats, but I think I left a piece of my heart at that pulut panggang stand in Kuala Selangor. <sob>

Grill_rice_leaf_open

KL readers, if you're out there: I'd be forever in your debt if you'd tell me where I can find these lovelies in the city!