Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Traditional Breakfast

There was a time when traditional Malay dishes of Kedah, especially breakfast, was out of style. People went more for roti canai, or the all-rounder nasi lemak, However, I am glad to see that dishes like Peknga and even Pukut Ikan Masin is gaining momentum commercially.

Pulut ikan masin was consumed a lot by Malays of yesteryears, but is not a dish originally from Kedah. It is glutinous rice with freshly grated coconut and friend or roasted salted fish. This is a dish most commonly taken by those who labours in the field or sea, such as paddy farmers and fishermen. It is a simple dish compared to rice, and able to last.

Peknga is synonymous with Kedah, or the north. Originally known as Roti Kisot, it is a basic bread dish eaten with fish curry. This is truly a dish that was borne out of necessity and the abundance of resources.

The Malays used to have an abundance supply of coconuts in their kampung, which is why coconut or coconut products, are always present in so many Malay dishes. Ikan kembong was the cheapest source of protein at the time. Beef was expensive, and chicken is a labor-intensive job, furthermore, fish curry was always made in a large quantity where they feed their large families. As there was no refrigeration back then, they had to device a way to finish off the curry the next day. For this, Roti Kisot or Peknga with Fish Curry is able to feed all, using resources they already have to finish off the dish they already have. Simple, economical and satisfying.

On the name, nobody can really say how the name Peknga was devised, but a popular legend has it that it is short for TemPEK dalam BelaNGA (stick it on the pan/gridle). The original name, however, is based on the act of making it: Roti is bread, Kisot is moving around while kneeling/on your knees. It is said that Malay ladies move around on their knees a lot to make this bread as the old traditional wood-coal stove is low and closer to the ground. With the name Peknga getting more commercial, roti kisot has found its name to be a bit more obscure and only known to older generations.

Since I was young, I remember my mother making Roti Kisot for breakfast, with the leftover fish curry from the night before. I cannot talk about today's generations but a lot of my friends in the northern region will talk about their mothers making their best roti kisot/peknga experience.

Unlike the normal bread, Peknga is not made from dough but from batter and basically has young, grated coconut or bananas as the main flavor. The flour is usually combined with water and seasoned to a consistency slightly stiffer than pancake batter, then adding the grated coconut or mashed banana.

Making it on the pan or gridle can be tricky. From personal experience, try not to use a non-stick pan or you might find the work frustrating. The batter is ladled on to the griddle and spread to the desired size with even thickness. Too thick, you might find the peknga batter uncooked inside, too thin and you end up with a crispy dry crust.

A good peknga dish must satisfy both aspects: a good tasty bread and a good fish curry, usually ikan kembong or Atlantic Mackerel. I have been to a few places that serves peknga but usually end up disappointed. Majority of them have good curry but the peknga hardly has the taste of young, grated coconut. I could have sworn one of the places used husk of grated coconut...that place I will never return. One place had a peknga that was perfect in texture, but sweet. Not surprising as they are Pattani Malays.

With all these letdowns, I rarely order Peknga anywhere. However, my friend recommended me Warung Klasik, where traditional Malay breakfast is served, and I was made to understand that place, which is next to his house, was given a slot on Majalah 3 and now very popular. Despite the fact that I avoid mainstream/upmarket places, curiousity got the best of me and I actually had a good experience there.

Finding the place was quite tricky. Located on the Jalan Alor Setar - Kangar, the restaurant is located by the roadside, on the left from Alor Setar and on the right from Perlis. It is about 5km from the traffic junction of Jalan Putra/Lencong Barat/Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah, and about 1.5km from the Kuala Sungai town. The stall is located by the road, with a small signboard stating its name. It's a bit tricky as there are no landmarks for me to describe.

The restaurant is open from morning to afternoon, serving dishes like Peknga, Pulut Ikan Masin alon with rice and its dishes for those who preder something heavy.

There are 2 types of peknga, the regular or banana, with fish curry for you to dip the bread. For the curry, you can just have the curry, or you can have it with fish, depending on how you like it. The peknga is slightly smaller in size, but think and well cooked - crispy on the outsude, soft on the inside. With the young grated coconut in there, you can eat the peknga on its own. The fish curry is light, which is a typical kampung Malay style, that goes perfectly with the peknga. The curry is not spicy hot, just nice. Mind you, don't be fooled by the size, minutes after eating it, you might find the peknha expanding in your stomach.

The pulut is nice as well. The glutinous rice was well cooked and steamed, with young grated coconut and salted tamban (or something similar) hot off the wok. I am guessing that, not only these dishes were made with care, the young grated coconut plays an important role as well. It gives a rich, sweet and slightly salty taste and texture to the peknga and the pulut dishes. Rice with other dishes are also available there, but I didn't try as it was too early to go for rice. I am confident, however, that the dishes are nice as well as I noticed that most of the dishes were almost gone.

I am glad to see how traditional Malay dishes are becoming popular again. At one time, these type of food were considered by some Malays to be "of low class" and non-commercial. The restaurant, despite its small size, has been packed since early morning, and this is proof that people long  for this type of food. Compared to other places which prefer to take shortcuts in preparing these dishes, such as skimping on the coconut, adding more water to the curry than required, cooking without steaming the pulut, being cheap with ingredients and many other tardiness, this restaurant shows that they are serious in preparing the traditional Malay breakfast of Kedah, an effort I most applaud. I do not mind paying extra for something like this, but the price is already reasonable.

I hope they will preserve the quality of the dishes and will be around for a long time.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Mee Bandung Muar: My Kingdom For A Decent Plate

In 1982, I was called up to register as a new student at Mara Junior Science College. As our Penang campus was not ready until 1984, I registered at our temporary campus at Maktab Rendah Sains Mara in Bakri, Muar, Johor.

At the age of 13, I have been traveled to Singapore, but never to Johor, let alone to a town on the west coast of the state, also known as Bandar Maharani. Being brought up in the north, I find the food there vastly different from the heavily-spiced, Indian, Thai, Aceh and Palembang influenced delicacies. The food was was simply different.

Muar town itself, at that time, was not much of a busy place. The shops were simple, mostly old buildings. I have not been back to Muar ever since I left it in 1983, but I can be very sure that the town has grown massively over the decades. Looking back, I realized that most of the time when I go out to Muar town on the weekends, I either rarely or never eat rice. In fact, there are 2 dishes that I remember vividly (and fondly) and enjoyed so much in Muar: Lontong and my all-time-favorite, Mee Bandung.

Mee Bandung originated from Muar. There was a misconception that Mee Bandung came from Bandung, Indonesia, but I was made to understand that the word "Bandung" is an old Malay language meaning "mixed." The popular "Sirap Bandung" has the similar meaning where sugar syrup is mixed with milk. Mee Bandung is a dish where the ingredients are mixed and cooked together, unlike most noodle dishes where the noodle is blanched separately and only mixed with the gravy or soup before serving.

Basically, Mee Bandung Muar's gravy is made of onions, shrimp paste, dried shrimps, chili, tomato and beef stock/broth. Once cooked together, vegetables are added along with noodles. An egg is added while everything boils and seconds before the dish is served, 3/4 cooked with the yolks still runny. In some versions, crushed peanuts are also included.

I remember looking at the bridge from the stall
In 1982, my all time favorite place in Muar town is an area located next to the Muar River where there are a number of stalls operating there, something like an open air food court. The only stall I visited there was Gerai Mak Limah, and, to me, she made the best Mee Bandung in town. I understand that the stalls are no longer there as the area has been developed, and I never knew whether Gerai Mak Limah is still operating or not.

Mak Limah was already middle-aged at that time, and she ran the stall with either her daughter or son. My menu is always the same when I go there: an order of Mee Bandung and a glass of Sirap Bandung. Today's Mee Bandung sellers usually up the ante by adding chicken, shrimp, fish balls and fishcakes, but back in 1982, Mak Limah's Mee Bandung was much simpler, yet hearty. There are a few cuts of beef, some vegetables and always, that cooked egg yet with runny yolks. I was always amazed by how she managed to prepare the Mee Bandung with taste that's always consistent and the eggs always 3/4 cooked, with the yolk never punctured. As always, it hit the spot.

After leaving Muar in 1983, I could never find the perfect Mee Bandung Muar, except for once. In 2000/2001, I was recommended to try a stall at a food court located next to the Petronas Station behind Ampang Puteri Specialist Hospital in Kuala Lumpur. The proprietor of the stall is referred to as Wak, a Johorean. His Mee Bandung was the closest to Mak Limah's although more on the lavish side. In fact, it was served in a clay pot, still bubbling. It was good until after a few trips there, the quality declined. The taste began deviating and we suspected that certain vital ingredients were skipped or skimmed, and that was the end of that.

Between 1995-1999, I was in Johor Bahru a lot, but despite the abundance on the availability of Lontong, the Mee Bandung was a far cry. Being up north, my chances of getting a decent, even if slightly original Mee Bandung is sadly thin. I have tried more than a dozen stalls in Alor Setar and Sungai Petani that claim to make Mee Bandung, which usually not even close. One time I tried Mee Bandung at a restaurant which looked quite posh, but the dish tasted like tomato puree diluted in water. Another stall put my tongue on fire with their Mee Bandung when they put 5 crushed Cili Melaka into the gravy.

Anywhere I can find a decent Mee Bandung here?
Almost 10 years ago, to satisfy the cravings for this dish, I managed to locate a recipe for Mee Bandung and made it myself. Understandably, the preparation was tedious, but the taste managed to satisfy. Still, it was tiring and quite difficult to keep overnight as the noodles were cooked in the gravy and will become soft and soggy if kept over. Furthermore, the taste is best when it's freshly made.

I still look forward to finding an eating place up north that serves an authentic Mee Bandung, it doesn't have to be lavish but the taste must be right. If anybody knows, I welcome your recommendations.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Kampung Fried Rice, Original Kampung Style(?)

Somewhere in the past, somebody, believed to be in China, created fried rice out of necessity. It has been long theorized that fried rice is a food made out of left-overs, as there were no refrigeration back then. It is always what was left from last night or previous day's dinner/meal, always the cold left-over rice, cuts of meat, vegetables and maybe eggs. Nobody knows whether he or she that created the fried rice ever knew that fried rice will be a food that will be enjoyed globally.

Today there are endless versions of fried rice. From Asia all the way to Africa, fried rice is enjoyed in each culture's way. In Malaysia alone, there are countless variations from one house to another and from one eatery to another. The Malays and Chinese have their similar yet different versions, and Indian Muslim restaurants have also included fried rice in their menu today. The influx of Malays from Thailand expanded the variation. Today, dishes like Nasi Goreng Pattaya, Nasi Goreng Cina, Nasi Goreng Padprik seem to dominate Malay stalls and restaurants. The Chinese, while many retain the original version (in essence) of fried rice, some modifications have been made. I understand that many Chinese have included frying pounded chili first when making fried rice as Malaysian Chinese prefer their fried rice hot and spicy. Even those who sticks to their traditional method of cooking serve the dish with an accompaniment of either pickled chili or cabai melaka/cili burung to give the fried rice an extra kick.

For me, fried rice in Malaysia is too commercialized and the Thai influence is too much for me to bear. In Alor Setar, if eating out, I would prefer the Chinese Fried Rice at Kuang Ming as it is hearty and holds no unwanted surprise (i.e. crushed cabai melaka hiding in the rice) for my mouth. But there's a fried rice recipe which is so simple, and yet you will never find it in shops in Alor Setar, that I always crave. I also realized that this fried rice is fast becoming extinct as I found out that younger generations have no idea about it. Also, I am not sure whether this recipe is purely northern or not.

When I was much younger, I used to wake up to the sound and smell of my mother preparing breakfast in the kitchen. The smell is enough to make me run to the kitchen. It usually consist of items from last night's dinner or left-over in the fridge: some sambal belacan, shredded fried fish, always ikan kembung, eggs (optional) and maybe some vegetables. My mother would sometimes slice some garlic and shallots. The shredded fried fish is mixed together with the rice, along with some thick soy-sauce and salt for seasoning.

Rice with shredded fried ikan kembong and sambal belacan
My mother would start by frying the garlic and shallots, and then the sambal belacan. The aroma at this time will be so delightful. Those who do not want it too hot will add some sugar into the sambal. When the mixture is slightly caramelized, the combination of rice, shredded fried fish and soy-sauce will be poured in and fried. After the rice is almost cooked, usually between 3-4 minutes (my mother uses medium fire on her stove), she will some vegetables, such as cabbage or some other greens. One or 2 eggs are added into the fried rice and cooked for a further 1 or 2 minutes before taking the wok away from the stove.

In some versions, like with my parents, we enjoy this dish accompanied by fish curry, also from the night before, buy I enjoy it whther just plain or with curry.

Now that my mother is tired and buys most of the dishes from shops outside, and my wife and I are too busy to cook most of the time, we rarely get the chance to taste this. I still get to eat this dish, although with a slight variation, when I go to my in-laws.

I asked a few friends from KL on this version of fried rice, but none of them has ever heard about it. Does this version of kampung fried rice available outside of the Northern region? I would love to know that, and whatever variations that they offer.

Here's the recipe again:

The Malaysian Malay Nasi Goreng Kampung, or also playfully known as Nasi Goreng Kampung, Kampung Style

A clove of garlic and some shalolts - sliced
1 cup of cold rice - do not use rice that has just been cooked
2 tablespoons of sambal belacan - can add more, depending on preference
2-3 fried ikan kembong or similar - deboned and shredded
1 egg (optional)
Mixed vegetables (optional)
Some oil for frying

1) Combine rice, shredded fish, salt, fish-sauce (optional), thick and light soy-sauce and mix well. In some version, the egg is also added.
2) Heat oil in a pan or wok, throw in the sliced garlic and shallots and fry them for a few seconds
3) Add the sambal belacan into the hot oil. In some versions, the garlic and shallots are mixed with the sambal belacan and poured in together into the hot oil.
4) Depending on preference, either fry until the sambal combination until slightly caramelized or slightly dried and caramelized (garing)
5) Add the rice mixture and keep stirring for the next 2-3 minutes, depending on the flame before adding the egg (if not mixed into the rice yet) and vegetables. Before adding the egg and vegetables, you can add more soy-sauce if needed.
6) Remove from stove, plate and enjoy.

I am lucky as the food stall I frequent near my office was able to cook this fried rice for me, as long as I debone and shred the fish myself, which is not even hard to do. This is indeed a home recipe as you can never find it in stalls and restaurants (so far). Those who has never tried should give it a go. I even made this dish a few times when i was studying in Hawaii...a few times as every time I start frying the sambal belacan, it drove the non-Asian occupants of Essex House crazy.

I really hope that I am wrong about the new generation not knowing this recipe. I also hope that this fried rice recipe is not confined to the northern region only. Please keep me informed on this matter.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

End of Ramadhan With New Inspiration

This year has been, indeed, different. We had a new stall selling Tepung Talam and other sweet dishes at where we were doing our business, which is a welcoming sight. However, about 10 days ago, we were chased off the area by the Alor Setar City Council, or Majlis Bandaraya Alor Setar (MBAS) for "creating traffic hazards". Coincidentally, their visit was about half and hour after the Datuk Bandar of Alor Setar (head of MBAS) came to buy Nasi Arab from Chet. It was an irony which we find it hard to swallow.

We were forced to relocate about 300 meters away to a Medan Selera located next to the Esso gas station. I find the place quite bizarre as there was nobody selling anything in the food court. Sales for both Nasi Arab Pak Tuan and my dishes dropped as many thought we stopped selling and many more didn't know we were there despite Chet's banner at the old location. I realized MBAS just wanted to somebody to "liven" up the place as it is dead almost every Ramadhan season. The location, next to a school and a traffic light junction after the new bypass made the area laden with a horrendous traffic congestion, putting off a lot of people from going there as parking was a problem.

Our old location? Well, it remained the same as we found out that we never created any taffic obstacle. In fact, there so many stalls located by the side of the road along Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah that MBAS never bothered to see. The Ramadhan Bazaar next to Insaniah posed a more dangerous traffic scenario where masses of vehicles simply park and double park along the road with accidents almost daily. However, since the Bazaar was endorsed by MBAS and the vendors are paid for, MBAS never bothered to monitor.

Anyway, this year saw the emergence of my sister's beef curry-puff and baked macaroni with cheese (pasta) above the others. Close at third will be my Bengkang Susu. One of my customers remarked that, at RM5 (RM2.50/slice), it is more filling and tastes better with a bigger size compared to the Lasagna bought at an international fast food joint. Usually if I crave for pasta, I would buy 2 pieces first before selling the rest. I also understand that my sister supplies about 400-500 pieces of karipap daily to a stall operator at the Bazaar Ramadhan at the stadium, and the vendor still find it hard to meet the demands from his customers.

As the last business day is today, Friday 17th August, I was quite hesitant to make too many kuih. Fridays are usually slow as people usually prefer to stay home and cook or go and eat outside for the breaking of fast. Being in the new place doesn't really help my confidence either, plus, it was raining in the first half of the day. However, I still prepared triple the amount of what I always bring, plus the extra trays of godam (shepherds' pie) and bengkang susu that some special customers reserved. My wife and my son even decided to go along and assist me. Alhamdulillah, the whole supply was sold in less than one hour.

My stall received visits from a number of friends and close relatives, just like the years before, and I really appreciate them coming over and I really hope that they enjoy the food we prepared.

My cousin showed me a picture of his mother's godam, which was more traditional and original compared to mine. That really gives me an inspiration to revise my godam preparation for next year. Her pie follows the authentic style where the mashed potato is used as the base and crust of the pie, with the beef filling in between. My version is a more modernized and simplified version where, due to the size of the cup, it has no base. The beef filling is at the bottom and the mashed potato is on the top as the crust. In fact, the original rustic shepherds' pie in Greece, as prepared by farmers, are more in the style of my aunt's, which is hard enough to be sliced and held. Looks like I'll be experimenting a lot on this for the next 11 months.

If we are to be in the same location next year, I think by that time, many of our usual customers will know of it by that time. To my customers, thank you very much and I really apologize to those who did not have the chance to try my dishes when they came over.

I wish all, Selamat Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, Maaf Zahir Batin, from Syed Alfian Barakbah, Sharifah Rafita Shahab and Syed Muhammad Zulkifli.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

We're Back With One New

Ramadhan is here; here we are again, back to the same area, but slightly ahead of the previous location. Well, we had to, with the new by-pass, people just might not notice usa there.

I was happy to see another stall being set up next to Syed Nasir's Nasi Arab. The stall sells the popular Tepung Talam from Jitra. He used to have another branch at Restoran Mama, also on Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah, but I rarely get the chance to buy the tepung talam because it was sold out before 4:00 p.m.

Now what is tepung talam? Tepung talam is a sweet dish, with 2 layers, usually served during tea time, or any time nowadays. The bottom layer is usually made of brown sugar and flour, cooked until it thicken and becomes the base. The top part is more gelatinous and, what Malaysians say as, "lemak". It is made of coconut milk and rice flour.

I rarely buy tepung talam because I find that the quality has really gone down the drains. They use too much flour, some use very little coconut milk, some use no coconut milk, but try to substitute it with more flour...I mean, it is ridiculous; if you can make a proper tepung talam, do it nicely, and those who don't, go home. Many people I met do not mind paying extra for good kuih, including tepung talam.

Now, Mak Anjang Tepung Talam one of the best in Alor Setar. At RM1.50 a piece, (quite a strip) it enjoyed a a good sales on the first day of Ramadhan. It was doing well before Nasir can set up his tent yet for the Nasi Arab.

I was at Nasir's tent to get some Nasi Arab for my parents, and the crowd is as phenomenal as ever. There was a long line forming at the Nasi Arab stall as I was leaving. Generally I must say that, the crowd will mostly be Muslims, being the fasting season. However, I have seen how more and more Chinese and Indians are beginning to get into the queue through the years. If the food is good, everybody has a right to taste it.

I'll be setting up my stall tomorrow. For those who'd like to take a leap of faith and try what we offer, our location is as below:

Basically, we are just across from Sekolah Mengengah Sultanah Bahiyah, and just next to the Shell station on Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah.

Here's the price list available:

Nasi Arab Pak Tuan: RM7/set

My stall:
Godam (Beef Pie with Potato)    RM1.50/piece
Bengkang Susu            RM0.50/piece
Beef Currfy Puff        RM0.50/piece

New - Tepung Talam Mak Anjang : RM1.20/piece ( not a small piece)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Kerabu Daging Mentah: Raw Or Cooked, It's A Meaty Affair

Kedah, like the other northern states in Peninsular Malaysia. has one way or the other influenced by Thailand. Many parts of Kedah, in the past, spoke Siamese on a daily basis. There are also cultural influences that can be found in Kedah, despite the urbanization and modernization today.

In certain village areas, they still maintain the tradition of slaughtering a cow for festive occassions, and the dishes they make for the feast, will have beef as its main ingredient.

I was at a kenduri in Pendang with my family and my mother, and true to its core, a cow was slaughtered in the morning. I was really rearing for the occassion as I was told that they made Kerabu Dagimg Mentah (Raw Beef Salad) as one of the dishes. I spent more than 2 decades hearing about this dish, and missed numerous occassions when they dish was served at a number of kenduris that I missed.

Some might think, "Raw Beef?" or even "raw beef for salad?" but this dish is simply a-must-try. It is traditional, and it is a one of the old Siamese influence in the Malay culinary world.

Kerabu has been loosely translated as salad, popular in South East Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Singapore. Asian greens and herbs, meat and even seafood are combined and is usually healthy because it uses no oil. The Malaysian kerabu differ slightly from the Thais as it sometimes incorporates kerisik, which is grated coconut that has been toasted and later pounded until the oil appears. The Thai kerabu usually uses toasted nuts or cashews for fat.

I am sure many people have tasted this kerabu, but this is my first, and my relatives seem to notice it. They seemed to enjoy every one of my inquiries on the dish, and from what I gather, the dish is always made using fresh beef. The beef is usually wrapped in paper to absorb the blood. Once that is done, it is blanched in hot water for a very short period of time. I am guessing that this procedure cooks and seals the outer layer of the meat. The beef is then cut fine or minced, using knives. The term "mince" is used roughly here as the beef is, despite being cut fine, it is still chunky, not too fine like the machine-minced beef you might buy at hypermarkets. Onions, lemongrass, galangal and pepper, which have been finely ground is added to the beef and mixed together. Kerisik and lime juice is added as well, along with ground toasted rice. All of these produce a rich, fragrant and delicious kerabu. Maybe the term "salad" used being used too loosely here since the closest elements you get to vegetables in here are the herbs used to mix with the beef. I guess that's the closest I got to the recipe as I couldn't understand some of their slang. They are from Kedah, but living in a kampung where talk with a more Siamese-like slang which can be melodious, but slightly difficult to understand.

The kerabu was very good, and for first-timer like me, I enjoyed it so much, even without rice. The beef was so tender and with all the spices and herbs, you won't even know that the beef is raw. The taste and texture resemble a lot like kerabu perut (cow tripe salad), except for the fact that it uses raw beef.

We had 4 dishes for the white rice, and 3 of them are beef: Beef (with liver) curry, a soup made of other cuts of the cow's meat such as tripe, lungs and other, the kerabu daging mentah and wild bamboo shoot cooked with spices. We were enjoying the dishes while other guests outside were already enjoying their tea time, ketupat and beef rendang.

The dishes are simple, yet hearty. The curry and soup doesn't use much spices in there but I have mentioned before, fresh beef is the star of the show. I would understand that people who takes health seriously will give this a miss. But I always prefer kampung-style kenduris compared to the stereotypical town kenduris where nasi minyak, ayam masak merah are always the main dishes. Even the beef curry was prepared in a typical kampung-style instead of the usual indian-influenced style of the city.

I am glad and happy to be related to people who are still of the Malay-Siam culture. The rich combination yielded many a great thing, especially in the culinary world. I am not sure about elsewhere but I can be sure that kerabu daging mentah is not sold in restaurants. If it is, please tell me where. If you are in a kenduri where they serve Kerabu Daging Mentah, try it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Legendary Nasi Lemak Ali

When I was younger, my mother used to buy nasi lemak mamak almost every Friday, usually for breakfast, and extended to lunch. In those days, there were a lot of shops with Indian Muslims selling very good and tasty nasi lemak. Once in a while, she will buy from Nasi Lemak Ali as it is located at what today is known as former Pasar Besar Alor Setar, along Jalan Pegawai. There will always be fried chicken, some beef and kuah campur, or mixed gravy.

Despite her parents originally from Alor Setar, my wife was born and raised in Sungai Petani. Even she remembers fondly of Nasi Lemak Ali from her weekend visits to her uncle's in Alor Setar. Every morning during their stay, her uncle (my uncle too) will buy several packets of nasi lemak from Nasi Lemak Ali, with chicken and mixed gravy in together. Her brothers and her just love the breakfast feast.

Times have changed: the rapid development of Alor Setar in the late 70s and early 80s saw many Indian Muslim nasi lemak vendors moving from their original premise to other places. Some, like Yasmeen and Nasi Lemak Royale found new life (and better business) in their new places/names, while others, like Kedai No. 36, the mamak shop in front of Pasar Besar, simply disappeared. In the past, there were many good nasi lemak mamak in Alor Setar, Nasi Lemak Ali was just one of the competitor, today, it stands as one of the cilinary icon in Alor Setar.

People would come from all over the nation to try Nasi Lemak Ali. The latest legend I heard was that a group of Singaporeans, on the way to Hatyai, drove all the way from the island state without stopping at any R&R, just to eat ay Ali's. I normally avoid Nasi Lemak Ali during the holiday seasons. At one point, during Eid-ul-Fitri season, I saw a very long line coming out from the restaurant all the way to the shop building's corner and more.

I was there with my wife and my son, after so many years, to sample the dishes again. Why I haven't been there for a long time? Well, nasi lemak mamak normally is spicy but not hot. Nasi Lemak Ali is the only one that has a hot reddish-brown gravy, and that taste doesn't really appeal to me. However, for the past few months, I have heard some rumours that the rice and dishes have changed, and I was wondering whether it was true.

The setting at the restaurant has sure changed a lot in the many years since I've been there. It is brighter and there are tables and chairs set outside on the pavement as well, along with seating on the 2nd floor. We had nasi lemak, with fried chicken, mixed gravy and some fried strips of beef. We also had some dalcha as well. Each nasi lemak mamak in Alor Setar will always have fried chicken, fresh from the stove and you can find one of the restaurant employees frying the chicken in front of the shop, so you can be assured that the fried chicken is not yesterday's.

I must say that the rumours were just rumours. The rice, fragrant and flavorful, tasted as it was back then. The mixed gravy was nice and the fried chicken, crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. There are many dishes available for your choosing, but I would still recommend the fried chicken and mixed gravy. There's eggs, prawns, beef, mutton prepared in various ways.

The hot gravy, which is red in color is distinguishable, making Nasi Lemak Ali stand out from other nasi lemak mamak of Alor Setar. My cousin and his family from Kuala Lumpur simply love Nasi Lemak Ali because of that distinct difference. I'm not sure what curry it is, but I am not really in favor of it. However, everybody there loves it, so I guess that this is the taste that made Nasi Lemak Ali outstanding. Hey, hot or not, the empty plates on my table explains everything.

Nasi Lemak Ali is located on Persiaran Sultan Abdul Hamid (formerly known as Jalan Pegawai), which is next to the former Pasar Besar Alor Setar, Ice Factory and Rumah Kelahiran Tun Dr Mahathir.

I was told by my friend in Terengganu that his family and him have stopped eating in Penang when they found out Nasi Lemak Haji Ali. If you have the time, make yourself to Nasi Lemak Ali for a plate of culinary legend.