Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Satun Revisited: Good (6) Gravy! It's Laksa

On my first visit to Satun back in May 2011, I visited a small restaurant called Mak Bee Laksa. Actually this is just a translation, her sign was fully written in Thai. Family owned, the shop sells laksa and a number of dessert such as bubur kacang. Unfortunately, the dessert items are usually finished by the time we get there, so we had the laksa for dinner.

Being a newcomer in Satun at the time, I was quite careless, I forgot to look around before ordering. The menu doesn't really work as it is also written in Thai. The owners do speak Malay but their children and young assistants don't. I had a plate of laksa, which is more or less tasted like Laksa Lemak or Laksa Siam we have at home. It was only on my way out, to my dismay, I found out that I could've chosen any of the 6 gravy available.

What is laksa? Laksa is a spicy noodle soup, believed to be a merge between Malay and Peranakan food culture. It can be found, in variations in Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand and certain parts of Indonesia. There are dishes similar to laksa, such as:

* Mohinga, a Burmese fish noodle soup
* Ohn no khao swè, Burmese version of coconut chicken noodle soup
* Khao soi, a northern Thai noodle dish
* Khow suey, a noodle dish originally from the Shan state in Burma

In Malaysia alone, several versions can be found. Up north, the popular laksa dish would be the Assam Laksa, which itself has several versions:

1) Laksa Kedah - the most popular will be Laksa Telok Kechai. Laksa Kedah uses noodles made from rice, usually made fresh and wrapped in banana leaf. The soup is usually made of mackerel or some other sea fish such as tuna, garnished with boiled eggs and herbs.

2) Laksa Pulau Pinang or Penang Laksa - uses a different type of noodle, usually dried where it is rehydrated before serving. The noodle is a bit more robust in texture and taste. The soup is also made from fish with some versions adding pineapple to add the sweet and sour taste. The taste of the soup is more extended with the addition of galangal and lemongrass. The garnishing is a bit more elaborate with mint, torch ginger, onion and pineapple slices. This dish is usually served with prawn paste or otak udang.

3) Laksa Kuala Perlis - a crowd favorite, especially by those who travel to Langkawi via Kuala Perlis. Similar to Kedah and Penang Laksa, but differs in taste and garnishing where it uses catfish or eel.

4) Laksa Ipoh

5) Laksa Kuala Kangsar

(Note - my apologies, I have not tasted Laksa Ipoh and Kuala Kangsar, so I feel that it will be unfair if I comment on them)

The other variations that can be found in Malaysia are:

1) Laksa Johor - the noodle is similar to Penang Laksa, but the gravy has coconut milk, use kerisik, dried prawns, lemon grass, galangal and spices akin to curry.

2) Laksa Sarawak - I have not tried this but I was told by a friend that this laksa's gravy uses sambal belacan as its base.

3) Laksa Kelantan - the gravy is made from minced fish such as mackerel, fried with onions, garlic, ginger, datil pepper, belacan, 'kantan' flower, Vietnamese coriander or 'daun kesum', lemon grass and dried tamarind slice and coconut is also added. A condiment of ulam is served along with the laksa, making this dish quite close to the laksa I had in Satun.

4) Laksam - also from Kelantan, uses the same gravy as Laksa Kelantan but the noodles are broad and flat. (If I got this part wrong, please inform me)

I must admit that I am not a fan of Asam Laksa. I have always been more of a rich sauced laksa such as Johor Laksa, Laksam and Laksa Kelantan. Maybe that's the reason for being less-than enthusiastic when my mother told me that we were going to have laksa on the previous trip to Satun.

On this second trip, I laid my plans out properly, actually trying to pull a "Thomas Experience" for laksa at Mak Bee's. To my astonishment, the guy manning the shop (related to Mak Bee and speaks Malay too) actually suggested that he serve me a plate of laksa with 6 small bowls of the different gravy, or soup. I also made a bold decision not to ask whether the gravy are hot or not.

With reference to the soup or gravy in the picture above, let me list the types:

1) Not sure what it's made of, but the taste of cili padi and herbs are there. Mind you, this gravy is lava hot. Luckily I tried it last

2) This gravy is also very hot, with bamboo shoots and fish. I didn't get the chance to ask the type of fish.

3) This gravy is pleasantly spiced and taste more like the satay sauce. It is made of peanuts with coconut milk but not as thick as the satay sauce.

4) This gravy is mildly hot, made of fish with coconut milk. The taste is very similar to the gravy for Laksa Kelantan although it is smoother.

5) Believe it or not, this is green curry, one of Thailand's staple dish. Although there were no bits and pieces of meat, I recognize the chicken flavor. The gravy is quite hot.

6) Anybody who loves the northern laksa will recognize this instantly. It is the assam gravy. Although it is similar to the northern asam gravy, the taste of fish is not that strong and it is a bit more sour. The gravy is also a bit hot.

If anybody complaints that the laksa is not that hot, don't worry; there's always a bowl of cili padi available.

It is understandable why the people there choose to have the laksa for either lunch or dinner. A plate of laksa may not look much, but it is also served with a tray full of ulam and greens, such as eggplant, mint, terung belanda (tamarillo?), cabbage and others. Just like northern laksa where prawn paste is a condiment, my laksa dish was also accompanied by bean sprouts, cucumber, and some pickled vegetables. I swear that after a plate of laksa, each spoonful dipped into different gravy, with the fresh herbs and vegetable and condiments, I felt as if I had just finished hitting the buffet line. Gravy number 1 & 2, I think, scorched my tongue so much that tears were streaming down my eyes.

In Satun, my usual complaint is that the drinks I order, either Iced Coffee or Tea, is that they always make it very sweet. However, with the explosive gravy number 1 & 2, I just couldn't get enough of it.

There are times when I used to wonder how it would be when a simple dish is expanded in many ways. I guess the laksa I had in Satun was an extreme answer to that. I know now which gravy that I like should I return to the shop. I know I will not be choosing gravy numbers 1 & 2, but which should I choose between 3 - 6? I might have to pull another "Thomas Experience" then...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Satun Revisited

'Tis the time for vacation, and after a few weeks taking care of my family in the hospital and getting sick myself, it is time to take a break. Despite being almost voiceless, I made the long-planned trip to Satun, the southern province of Thailand. Again, we took the van to Wang Kelian, and cross into Satun. Going on a friday, there's not much of a queue at both checkpoints, and with Satun not being a popular tourist destination, I don't expect a huge crowd waiting for us there. Most of the vans and other transports usually use Wang Kelian checkpoint as part of their route to Patbhara (Kuala Bara), Taroutu Island, Phuket, and even to Hatyai. Even the stalls selling food and merchandise are not that many on that day. Of course, the stalls will be all open and fully packed with people on saturdays and sundays. In fact, we didn't even buy anything there, it seems that we just want to make our way to Satun...right after we stop by my granduncle's (Bang Tuan) for a delicious lunch.

Just like my previous trip in May, we stayed at the Sinkiat Thani Hotel, a nice, clean and comfortable hotel (around 2-3 stars) located at 50 Bureevanich Road, Muang, Satun, Thailand 91000. The room is nice, with a single air-condition unit and they clean the room daily. Depending on the floor level and the position your room is facing, you might be lucky to get Malaysian television broadcast and Celcom signal (don't tell them) and be able to make some calls without having roaming charges burning up your wallet. As I was on the top floor, received clear transmissions of TV3, NTV7 and TV9. I was also able to text my cousin and receive a few work-related calls using my Celcom. My other Celcom line, however, is prepaid and automatically roams the moment we crossed into Thailand.

For this journey, I was ready to explore slightly deeper into the food and the eating culture of the region. The last visit was quite basic. It was also on the last trip, by a very strange coincidence, we bumped into our former servant, or "orang gaji", Kak Minah.

Who is Kak Minah? Back in the late 1970s, Kak Minah and 3 other young ladies went to work at my parent's house. I don't know much of why so many of them, but it was arranged by a relative on my mother's side who resides in Satun. The economy of Satun at the time was such that, many left Satun for Malaysia (especially Langkawi) to look for employment. There are still some workers from Satun in Langkawi today, but they are getting less and less. In the mid-1980s, the economic face of Satun changed pace, and many Malays of Satun returned to start small businesses, which includes travel transportation and selling food and drinks. Kak Minah sells kuih in the morning. One thing about the 4 ladies from Satun: their grandmother, or at least a close relative in their family used to serve at the governor's palace back in the early 20th century. The four ladies were very polite and proper, and during their years in service, we rarely go out to eat as their cooking, for us, was fresh and new.

Meeting Kak Minah in Satun on our last trip proved to be an advantage. Transportation, namely the tuk-tuk, is quite difficult and language was the other barrier. As I have explained before, the younger generation of Malays in Satun are unable to converse in Malay, especially in town area. One of Kak Minah's neighbors drive a tuk-tuk, Samsudin, or Pak Din. On this return trip, we called Kak Minah in advance and she met us at the hotel. She also managed to get Pak Din to drive us around on the 2nd and 3rd day, in short, we chartered his tuk-tuk service, which to him is quite a rare thing to get. With Kak Minah around, I do not have to rely on hand and facial signals anymore anytime I want to buy food from the Malay ladies who can't talk Malay, well almost.

With Pak Din's tuk-tuk service, we were able to go outside of town to the beach to get some nice, delectable and fresh seafood, the Satun Malays style.I was back with the familiars, also tried some of the new items, and some m ight be just peculiar. It was worth the 4 days we spent.

Just like the previous, I have to break up the articles, mainly by categories. I am hoping to dwell deeper into the food and eating habits of Satun. At one level, I must say that the drinks, kopi ais, teh ais etc are available, but the sugar content is much higher than the average Malaysian teh tarik at your favorite mamak stall. Luckily, in true Satun style, there's always a jug of drinking water served on the table, and you can use it to dilute the drink. At one shop, I made a glass of iced coffee into 2, as I had to lessen the sweetness. I am just guessing that for the people of Satun, with their daily diet consisting of hot/spicy and sour, the level of sweetness had to be on the extreme as well to soothe their taste buds and palates, I am just guessing there.

I'll be back with the articles soon.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Dosing Up With Dhosai in Alor Setar

How do we define thosai? It is not bread like naan or chapati; I guess the closest definition I can think of is a sort of crepe or pancake made from fermented rice batter, usually made on a gridle and hardly uses oil. It should be a healthy food.

Thosai, or Dhosai, dhosa or thoshay in Myanmar has been a staple dish in India for thousands of years. While nobody knows how many versions there are, in Malaysia, we have a few such as Ghee Thosai (thosai with ghee or clarified butter), Rava Thosai (different batter mixture with onions and chilli), Masala Thosai (thosai stuffed with vegetables such as potato), Egg Thosai, Oinion Thosai and a few more. A friend told me that, his mother used to soak rice with water and leave it overnight, before grinding them into batter the next morning. There are instant thosai batter available nowadays, but I have never tried them.

Over the years, Mamak shops in Kuala Lumpur introduced thosai into their menu, and today they made it in style. The thosai is made into a big, thin, crispy crepe which they roll into cylinder shapes before serving it in metal trays with a dallop of coconut chutney, dhal and fish curry. However, on a personal note, I find that thosai in that fashion simply refuses to absorb the chutney and breaks too easily. I still prefer the old school thosay, made in a round shape and then folded into a semi-circle, and the best accompaniment is always chutney. A few years back, I used to frequent an Indian shop in Penang where I really enjoyed the thosai with coconut chutney, tomato chutney and a green colored chutney, which I think was spinach and chilli.

One of the complaints I got from my friends in the past is the lack of Indian restaurants or food stalls in Alor Setar compared to Sungai Petani. I remembered frequenting one in Lorong Merpati (I can't remember the name) before it closed down years back. There was one Indian stall near the railway station, but many, including Indians, find the hygiene of the place questionable.

Don't get me wrong on this. There are loads of mamak restaurants and stalls in Alor Setar, but their chutney is always questionable. Their chutney is always way too watery, or diluted, and I can't stand the huge crispy thosai that either breaks up into pieces or refuses to absorb the gravy when you try to eat. We are talking about an actual Indian food stall or restaurant. There are talks that an Indian curry house will open at Kompleks Sultan Abdul Hamid, but this remains to be seen.

I was told by my uncle that he regularly eats thosai at stall down the road from his house. That surprised me as his house is located away from the road and the neighborhood is usually quiet and not much activity happens there. Anyway, I decided to try with my wife, and I guess we found our thosai place finally at Malathi's.

The location of Malathi is truly hidden away, and only those who knows visit the stall. It is located at Taman Sri Taman, inside the compound  of a house. The large area in front of the house was turned into a food stall. It is not a big place, simple yet homely. The morning menu is not luxurious:
1) Two types of thosai: plain or ghee
2) Chapati
3) Idli
4) Nasi Lemak bungkus (truly Malaysian)

We had ghee thosai, and of course, we had it with coconut chutney, which is very basic. The thosai is truly old school, with a crispy bottom and edges, while the rest is soft and fluffy. I could have sworn we were the only ones who were soaking away the chutney. The freshly made thosai, soaking the flavor of coconut, chilli and spices of the chutney, filling up hungry stomachs in the morning, simply delicious.

It was already close to 10 a.m. when we got there, so it is understandable that there were not that many people there. Most of the patrons there are Indians, a small number of Malays and even two Indian Muslims. Most of them were either enjoying thosai or chapati.

Like I mentioned earlier, the breakfast menu at Malathi's is simple and basic, but it is that simplicity and the exquisite flavors that keep bringing the patrons back for more, and that's just for breakfast, given its slightly hidden location. Next to the eating place is Modern Hair Saloon, famed for grooming the DYMM Sultanah of Kedah's hair.

Malathi's offer breakfast and lunch. Around 7 p.m., the stall is open again, serving chapati. Breakfast usually ends around 10:30 a.m. as they prepare for the lunch crowd.

To those who would like to try this simple yet delicious fare, here's how to get there:

I did go for lunch there days later, I'll expand on that in a later article.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

And We Proudly Proclaim That Dadih Lives...For Now

After much debatre and speculation, I was made to understand that Abang Jo, the dadih-maker is still around. The fact that he sells murtabak at Taman PKNK really deceived me, and certain other people who were searching for him.

As my wife's birthday fell on the 11th of November 2011 (11/11/11), I thought that will be the perfect day to get original, no agar-agar dadih susu lembu. I called and ordered around 50pax of dadih, which he replied that he will have to look for fresh milk first before he can confirm. Now this guy is really rooted to his original recipe: no milk from cartons, no powdered milk, just real fresh cow's milk. However, the price has also changed: it is now RM1.50 instead of RM1.

I met up with Jo to pick up my order on the 11th of November evening, and he explained that he does not make rounds to sell dadih on motorcycle anymore because of his eye condition. I understand he went for an eye surgery previously. I don't blame him for that, he was peddling dadih on motorcycle ever since I was about 5 years old (as I remember it), and now 37 years later, age has taken its toll on him. Even then, he still looks strong and steady.

Despite the fact he does not make his rounds on the motorcycle in the late evenings anymore, one can still call and order the dadih, and arrange to pick up either at his stall or at his house.

The taste of dadih, made of fresh milk with sugar and enzyme from kasinai bark, is consistent as I remember it: creamy, not too sweet, soft buy slightly stiffer compared to the wet, wiggly milk agar-agar, and it is best when it's freshly made, still warm.

A note to remember is, when you keep in the fridge, always remove the lid so that the condensation will not turn the dadih sour. Some people enjoy the dadih after being refrigerated overnight as the dehydration by the enzymes goes a step further, making the dadih shrink slightly more and sweeter. The guests for the my wife's birthday dinner really enjoyed the dadih as the whole box finished within 15 minutes.

He simply laughed at the notion that he had stopped making dadih. To Jo, making dadih is a daily affair, even at his age. What surprises is that he told me that some of uncles and aunts who live nearby constantly orders from him almost every week...and they kept this fact away from me. I am just glad that we still have the chance to savour the taste of the original dadih.

Jo told me that he and his wife have been making dadih for the past 40 years or so, but it is now in danger of extinction. None of his children are interested to continue his legacy, and even the younger generations are more interested in easy jobs, in air-conditioned offices, without much labor work. That is quite sad to hear. There were a number of dadih makers in the 20th century, but will the new millenium witness its extinction? I am just hoping that somebody somewhere will find it in their heart to take up the legacy of Jo's original dadih, or we will be doomed to recognize the milk agar-agar as dadih.

To those who would like to try the original dadih, you can try contacting Abang Jo at 016-484-5685.

For my previous article on dadih, click here

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Thomas Experience@Mee Abu

Work has really picked up after Aidilfitri, and finally, at the beginning of the school holidays, health problem steps in. My wife was admitted to the hospital for suspected dengue, two days after she checked out, my son was admitted for fever. That left me as the only one out, except that I was also hit by vital infection, which gave me a respiratory problem, coughing and voiceless. In fact, at the time of this writing, my voice is still not back to normal yet.

Actually I was doing fine until my wife was admitted. I don't know how or why, but the private hospital staff placed another dengue patient with a severe respiratory infection in the same room with my wife, and in the end, my wife, my sister, visitors and me were infected as well.

Much has went on since Aidilfitri, and we found a nice place to eat as well, which I will write about later.

Ever since impressing Thomas at Mee Abu, it has suddenly become more-or-less, a style, or what my friends term as The Thomas Experience. I had friends who come to Alor Setar to have the Thomas Experience at Mee Abu as well. I guess Thomas' visit has set a precedence in tasting delicacies in Alor Setar.

What is The Thomas Experience? It's basically ordering individual dishes that is popular, or as I call it, samplers, and shared by everybody at the table. You might recall that, with Thomas, I ordered Mee Rebus, Koay Teow Goreng, Pasembor and Popia which both of us shared (For the full article, please click here). That's what my friends seem to enjoy. Of course, if you still feel peckish after that, you can always order whatever dish that you prefer most after tasting the samplers.

I guess I'll keep that trend should more friends decide to drop by Alor Setar and insist on the Thomas Experience at Mee Abu. Thomas really set a trend there. This method, I guess works well at Mee Abu as the shop has a number of dishes, but it might not work at nasi lemak mamak shops.

So, should anybody want to drop by Mee Abu, try the Thomas Experience (for groups with a minimum of 2pax), you'll get the chance to sample almost everything the shop has to offer.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mee Abu & Popia Jamal : Impressing Thomas

Thomas is a good friend of mine from Penang. He is a property agent from Penang, and despite of still being young, he has proven to be very capable in getting good tenants for my properties in Penang. He was in Alor Setar back in early July 2011, and I must say I was quite in a dilema at that time. When I went to Penang, Thomas took me to a very nice Indian restaurant where I enjoyed a festive spread of dishes, especially the lamb curry. Now that Thomas was in Alor Setar, where should I take him? As it was about 2.30 in the afternoon, I decided to take him to one of Alor Setar's legendary Indian Muslim restaurants, Mee Abu. Nasi Lemak Ali and Nasi Lemak Royal only open in the evening, so Mee Abu was the perfect choice.

According to those who know it, Mee Abu started off in the 1960s in front of the Royal Cinema (where Menara Alor Ria stands now) selling mee rebus and fried noodles. Later he set-up a small restaurant in Jalan Teluk Wan Jah which still is still in operation today and a branch in Jalan Sultanah. A few years back, as I was told, the two shops parted ways in management as the one in Jalan Telok Wan Jah is owned by Pak Abu's brother and the one in Jalan Sultanah by his children. Which one is better depends solely on personal preference, for me, I prefer the Jalan Sultanah branch. I have frequented the shop for years and I found that the particular branch has a better edge in taste. As I have said before, it depends on personal preference and taste.

The Mee Abu Shop is not that big in size as it has about 10 - 12 tables inside, and during busy hours, the atmosphere can be quite stuffy. As of any Mamak restaurants, you can see your dishes prepared at the front of the shop. Located just outside the shop is a lady selling popia, or spring, not fried, but the nice, freshly rolled ones. Would you believe that this branch of Mee Abu consist of 2 legends which started out as humble street food?

In the 1970s, an Indian Muslim by the name of Jamal set-up a stall at the very junction of Jalan Putra, just beside the Court building, next to Wisma Negeri and Balai Nobat. At the time, the road were not that busy. In a short span of time, Popia Jamal became a household name in Alor Setar. The generous fillings and his delicious sweet sauce drove Popia Jamal into one the of the legends of Alor Setar delicacies. When development was carried out in the 1980s, Popia Jamal moved out and not much was known of his new locations. In the mid-1990s, every now and then, I would see a Popia Jamal stall at pasar malams in Alor Setar. Today, one of Jamal's sons runs a Popia Jamal outlet at the Tesco Mergong Food Court. Jamal's daughter has a stall at Mee Abu Jalan Sultanah, which is a perfect addition to the already famous eating outlet in Alor Setar.

Thomas and I were at Mee Abu around 3.00pm, and I thought to myself, "How do I get Thomas to taste (almost) everything that Mee Abu has to offer?" Thomas made it known to me that, being from Penang, he is no stranger to Mamak food, but I prefer to let him taste first and judge. In the end, I decided to order single servings of Mee Abu's famous Koayteow Goreng, Pasembor and their trademark Mee Rebus. Of course, a single set of 3 pieces of Popia Jamal as the opener or appetizer, is a must.

The spring rolls, or popia, unlike some other popia stalls, has quite a moist skin, filled with crunchy vegetables such as bean sprouts and a sort of a sea-food flavor. The sauce is just nice, not too sweet and not too hot. The single pieces are quite large in portion, and as an appetizer or snack, the popia is just perfect.

Among the basic items used to make Mee Rebus, Koayteow Goreng and Pasembor is the use of sauces and gravy. Upon entering the shop, you might notice 3 large pots on the cooking stall. One will have the hot sauce, which usually in bright red in color, the second is the sweet sauce and the biggest pot contains the gravy for the Mee Rebus. All these sauces are used in different portions in making the 3 dishes that we ordered, giving each dish its unique blend of taste. Unlike Penang Mamak food, which usually uses more seafood in their dishes, Mee Abu uses cpw lungs, which have been boiled until it's tender, and also gives a different flavor compared to others. Also, the crispy cucur, or fritters complement the dishes with its tasty and crunchy texture.

After all these technical or overly-too-draggy explanation, one thing remains, Thomas really enjoyed himself. Although he is not a big fan of cow lungs, he went all out for the dishes. He loved the pasembor and koayteow, but differed slightly at the Mee Rebus. The savoury fried flat-noodles, the sweet and hot pasembor and the lavish noodle with gravy, all, except the Pasembor, cooked over a charcoal burner. Yes, charcoal, no gas. The Mee Rebus is actually quite hearty, with noodles, bean sprouts, cow lungs, fritters, boiled egg with a rich, thick gravy with a beefy flavor. Even Thomas acknowledged the difference in taste and flavor that distinguish the differences between Penang and Alor Setar Mamak food. In fact, I must say that this also distinguishes the difference between Alor Setar's old school Mamak food and the new ones.

The big names of Kedah have patronized this restaurant over the many years it has been in operation. The former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamad, tycoon Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary and many more, including politicians from government and opposition have eaten at Mee Abu before. Legend has it that Tun M suggested that Mee Abu set-up a branch in KL but they decided not to after considering many factors. Well, politicians can raise hell in state assembly at their allocated time, but when it comes to food, you can see them sitting at the same table.

I promised Thomas that we'll be at Mee Abu again the next time he drops by Alor Setar. There is another dish on the menu that we did not try: the Murtabak. We were a bit too early on that day, and when they started making murtabak, we were way too full. I was very happy to see how pleased Thomas was with his new "food-exploration." I was even happier to see how much he appreciated and identified the differences in the food culture. I am just hoping that he won't be upset with me if he starts needing new clothes after all the food that I introduce everytime he drops by Alor Setar.

For those who would love to try the old-school Mamak food of Alor Setar, Mee Abu will be one of the perfect places to start. They open early in the morning, serving roti canai and nasi lemak, and then their trademark Mee rebus/goreng, pasembor and popia from afternoon till evening. Murtabaks are available around 4.30 in the evening. The prices are reasonable. Who knows, you might just run into somebody who is somebody in Kedah there. Then again, with all the food to savour, who actually cares?

Here's how to get there:

Monday, September 12, 2011

Makmur With The Irreplaceable Ganti Susu

As Ramadhan draws to a close and Syawal waltzes in, almost every Muslim household got busy in their kitchen. My mother will be busy preparing her famous Mee Rebus (Palembang Style) and her home-made Rojak. One of these days, I will try to write down her recipes here for all.

Among the snacks that come abundant during Hari Raya are the Hari Raya biscuits. Various types such as cookies, tarts, self-concocted variations and many others seem to dominate the market. My main target, just like every year, is the Makmur. Many of you, I am sure, have tasted Makmur before. It's a cross between a baked cookie dough with a crumbly texture, rolled in fine sugar. The modern Makmur will have either peanuts or dates inside, but the original Makmur has the delicious and creamy Ganti Susu.

What is Ganti Susu? Well, I never found the actual translation that befits the word, but basically it's sweetened and hydrated milk solids (my apologies to those who actually knows the actual meaning) which is derived from boiling milk and sugar and reduced to solids.

Makmur came about to Kedah in the early 20th century. Nobody can really pinpoint its actual origin, but if my research is correct, it is Middle Eastern/Mediterranean in nature. I watched a tv program called "My Greek Kitchen" a few years back and saw that the host did make a similar dessert treat with a Makmur-sounding name and the dish itself uses reduced and solidified milk as its filling as well. As I have mentioned much earlier in this blog, many of the food item in our long family line have been Middle Eastern/Mediterranean in nature.

Again, Tok Wa Arab, our great-grand-aunt, is credited as the person responsible for bringing this tasty treat here. Just like most of the dishes that she popularized, making makmur is also tedious and more meticulous than one can imagine, despite its simple ingredients. I have never tried making it, as making ganti susu alone involves hours of non-stop stirring. My wife used to take orders for makmur and make them during Ramadhan many years back and I remember too well that she sat in the kitchen from morning to night making makmur.

Historically, the ganti susu is made from buffalo milk, which is richer and creamier, but as time goes by and with the buffalos decreasing in number, cow's milk is used and nowadays, full cream milk is used.

I don't know the exact measurement or the ratio of how much milk is used to make how many kilos of ganti susu, but let me give you a brief walk-through the process, and for the adventurous ones, you can always try it.

Before I proceed, I must tell you that some relatives believe that the recipe should never be released, but i believe that it is up for anybody to try. After seeing this, you might understand why.

To make ganti susu, you will need:

1) 2 cartons of full cream milk
2) 250 grams of sugar
3) Full cream milk powder
4) Ghee (clarified butter)

* Pour full cream milk and sugar into a deep pan, turn the stove on to the lowest possible fire and stir continuously. Ensure the stirring is constant to avoid the milk from getting burnt. Stir until it thickens and solidifies.

* Once the milk solidifies (not dry), turn the fire off. Move the pan away from the stove and use a spatula or spoon to ensure that the solids do not stick to the pan.

* Add full cream milk powder to the mixture, a little at a time, until you get the desired texture, which should be not too dry and not too wet and it should be able to be shaped.

* Once it cools down, you can shape the ganti susu into small, oblong pieces. To do this, you need to smear ghee onto your fingers first.

I used to say that making bengkang susu is a time-consuming and tedious work, but making ganti susu really amplifies on that. In fact, I am not that comfortable giving out a recipe which I have never tried before (by choice). One thing for sure, the fruit of this labour is incredibly addictive. One might find their stock of ganti susu decreasing everytime they turn around, preyed by spouse/children or even neighbours. The combination of milk and sugar, concentrated by reduction of the liquid is something to keel over for. Maybe that explains why makmur with ganti susu is such a hot item in certain households.

It is quite unfortunate to know that the number of people who makes the original Makmur are decreasing in number. In Alor Setar, on our last count, there are only 3 of our aunts who still takes order for Makmur. I understand that in KL, there is 1. If the younger generations do not pick the trade up, then even Makmur might just be a lost recipe that old people will keep talking about while the young ones have no idea. Certain family recipes are already considered lost (I might be wrong, I hope), I am hoping that we can still preserve whatever that we have left...and that's still a lot. Maybe compiling it all and make a cookbook out of it will be a grand idea.

To those who would like to try the ganti susu recipe, I wish you the best, and take a chair to the kitchen and place it near the stove. You'll need it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Interviewed, Published, Scanned and Preserved

Last week, Chet and I received a visit from Cik Nadia, a journalist from New Straits Times, along with the photographer, Encik Shahrizal. Cik Nadia has visited my blog and it seems that she was curious about the food, and the idea of passing down the recipes to a new generation.

I must say that she caught the basics of what our food is all about, although I feel that we should've sat down and elaborated more. One slight misunderstanding that stood out for me is that I got the godam recipe from Chet's grandmother. In reality, I got the recipe from my mother. But it;s my fault, the interview was quite disjointed due to customers coming to the stall to buy. I did tell her that Chet's grandmother makes the best godam, and almost all the ladies of Kampung Perak learnt the art of cooking from her.

I am happy to see an exposure on the food that was generated by a subculture that came to Alor Setar about 100 years ago. I will be even happier if we can reintroduce these food to the new generation. Below is the news clipping from New Straits Times, 22nd August 2011. Thanks, Cik Nadia.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

My Sister's Food Business - All Along The Family Line

I always believe that any community, wherever they're from, try their best to maintain whatever heritage or culture that they brought along. The Chinese and Indians came and settled in Malaysia, and they brought along their rich culture, as well as their food culture. Even the different communities of the Malays, such as the Minangkabau, Javanese and Achinese brought their eating culture which in turn, enriches the world of food in Malaysia.

The Al-Jafrees were one of the earliest families of Syeds to settle in Kedah, followed by the Jamalullail of Hadhramaut, Yaman. The Barakbah came much later, in three waves. The first settled in Kubang Rotan (near Kuala Kedah). The former Menteri Besar of Kedah, Datuk Syed Razak bin Syed Zain is from this line. The second group settled in Langkawi, and I was told that the Adabi group is owned by them. Among the last were the Barakbahs who settled in Kampung Perak, specifically, behind the Masjid Zahir of Alor Setar.

Although I never had any formal training on cooking, I must say that my family came from a line that is rich in food culture. My father is from the Barakbah family of Kampung Perak, while my mother is from the Al-Idrus family from Kelantan. My paternal grandmother is from a Shahab family of Aceh. The blend of all these created a plathora of flavors in our house. I always feel that my mom is the best cook ever, and I am sure that everybody will feel that their mother is always the best cook, ultimate!

I have an elder brother, who is a photographer. In contrast to me, he is quiet and very artistic in his photography (You can check out his work in the links on the right). Despite all that, he is always the best at making steaks and stews. The last time we ate his cooking was lamb stew, eaten with country bread, and that was mind-blowing.

As for me, like I said, I never had any formal training, but I spent hours in the kitchen at home watching my mom cook. When I was studying in Hawaii, I emulated her cooking, and to my surprise, they actually worked. As I always loved cooking, I kept on experimenting and expanding on my cooking. I always remember making Salmon Fish Head Curry in Hawaii and called my friends over for dinner.

My sister, Sharifah Rohaizan, I can safely say that she is the heir to the culinary art in the family. Although she originally graduated with a degree in fashion design, she concentrates a lot in f&b with flair. I remember when she started learning on how to bake cakes, I will be the first one to taste, especially her exquisitely moist and rich Banana Cake, hot from the oven. Her speciality includes cakes, western/mediterranean dishes and the traditional Syed/Sharifah traditional dishes. Also, her chicken chop, to me, is always an event by itself. I still order my favorite cheesecake and pasta from her from time to time. Yes, I don't buy from bakeries that much with her around.

When I started selling kuih during the Ramadhan about 5 years ago, all of the dishes that I sell now were made by her. Her bengkang susu was more exquisite, the godam was more immaculate, and even she was surprised when her dishes were totally sold out in less than 1 hour. She also produces frozen food such as currypuffs and other things. Back then, I used to sell 4 types of currypuffs: black pepper beef, black pepper chicken, regular beef and regular chicken fillings. There was one time that I remember somebody ordering from her a godam, made in the traditional way, complete with banana leaves.

About 2 years later, her schedule began to tighten up when her customers started ordering different dishes and cakes, and even kuih raya during the Ramadhan season, to which my wife took over the making of bengkang susu and I took over godam and baked macaroni with cheese. However, we maintained a steady supply of currypuff from her as it was, and still is, high in demand. It seems that as many people buy frozen curry puffs from her, the ready fried black-pepper beef curry-puff which were sold by me is always sold out as well. There are times I used to envy at how easy she made it look, and I still can't figure out how she made the pastry smell buttery even when she used no butter. Well, that should teach me a lesson: I am such a lazy crust when it comes to pastry.

There could've been more dishes to be sold this year, but Rohaizan's assistant has been on maternity leave since end of July 2011. However, it must be noted that, unlike me, her business is daily for the whole year. She still takes order, although had to be selective as she is running the operations alone at the moment. The frozen curry puffs are still available, and chocolate cake is available as well during Ramadhan.

I feel that, for those who are interested, it is best to call and inquire directly from her on what is available. She can be contacted at her business line at 017-5606800.

She has 4 daughters, and I believe that, in time, they will inherit her skills and continue this small family heritage. Even as now, I believe that her skills are still expanding.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

...And Pasta Is Back!!!

I crossed Baked Macaroni With Cheese from the Ramadhan menu last year as I had to takeover the making of Bengkang Susu from my wife as she became very busy with her daily chores and work, and despite the dish's absence, I find that customers are still asking for it.

This year, one of my neighbors, Chef Jamal wanted to make Lasagna to add to my menu. However, after some delays, we sat down a few nights ago and discussed again and I agreed with him that the cost is a bit too high to sell during Ramadhan. The cost alone is about RM5 per slice, which is understandable with the quality that Chef Jamal insists.

It was a scorching hot and humid day today, but my sister brought me a surprise to be added to my Ramadhan menu: Baked Macaroni with Cheese. As her routine is quite packed with making frozen food that her customers order all along this Ramadhan, she can only make a tray with 15 slices, and I mean 15 slices of baked macaroni with beef bolognaise sauce, topped with creamy cheese sauce.

Heavy rain started around 3.20p.m  in Alor Setar today, and by the time I reached the sales location, it was still drizzling. As the Nasi Arab Pak Tuan tent was full of people and stuff, I decided that if the rain doesn't stop, I will go home. Eventually, even during the drizzle, there was a huge crowd lining up for the Nasi Arab, and one of my aunts wanted some bengkang susu saw the the baked macaroni and wanted some. That was it: while I was slicing and packing the macaroni and bengkang from the car boot, the crowd saw and as a result, the macaroni was sold out in 20 minutes, the other dishes followed suit later.

I'm really glad to have the Baked Macaroni back on the men. I always enjoy my sister's cooking, and I really hope that my customers will be too. My sister told me that she'll try to supply the macaroni dish until the 28th of August.

Baked Macaroni with cheese is at RM2.20/slice.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Trials and Tribulations at Bazaar Ramadhan

What do you look for when you buy food for breaking of fast? I don't go to the Bazaar Ramadhan that much, mainly because there's too many people and there are too many traders, at most times I really have no idea what to get. Sometimes I would just some traditional kuih, and at times, some dishes to accompany the rice.

I usually meet a number of people carrying stacks of food at the bazaar, and I assume that there are a lot of people they are buying for. I must say that my menu for breaking of fast is actually simple. Back in Penang before 2005, for a few years, I spent the whole fasting month eating the RM1 murtabak and fried noodle (cooked in a big skillet) for breaking of fast. When the taste and quality of both dishes went down, I had to make my own.

I usually look for something nice and worthwhile for my breaking of fast. What frustrates me most are the traders who skims on ingredients or simply makes their dishes even when they know their product is way, way off.

My wife bought some kuih and dishes from the bazaar at the Darulaman Stadium. I must say that most of them were very nice. Despite the fact that I sell curry puffs, I still love to try curry puffs bought from others, and truth to be said, my wife chose very well. The beef curry puffs contain beef, unlike some traders who ask you whether you want beef or chicken, but end up with potatoes and taste the same.

Still, the pulut udang was disastrous. Pulut udang is glutenous rice cooked with coconut milk, filled with dessicated coconut cooked with spices and prawns, grilled over charcoal. The rice was nice, you can taste the creamy texture of it being cookec with coconut cream, but the filling...boy, they squeezed the cream out of the dessicated coconut and used the husk of the dessicated coconut to make the filling. Although you can taste the spices, you can't even taste the prawn overall, the taste was hollow.

My wife also bought the famous kampung-style beef curry with banana stems. I've written on this before where this delicacy is famous in kampung areas during kenduris. Fresh beef, banana stems, curry powder, no
coconut milk, cooked and simmered until the beef and banana stem is extremely tender and juicy, so what could go wrong? I was extremely disappointed though. The cuts of beef were hardly US Choice, it was more of cartilage and the worst part of chuck. What shocks me most is that there was only a little amount of stem and a big amount of banana trunk which was chopped to small pieces. Banana trunk is much tougher than the stem, even when you cook it for a long time. The long queue and the RM5 price tag don't do justice at all, and that will give that dish a very bad reputation.

I am not saying that all traders create short cuts in their quest to make more profit, a small percentage of them are. With hundreds of traders located in one bazaar, how do people know whether it is good or not? I guess that the old practice of "the stall with the longest line is the always the best" doesn't really apply here. I remember queueing up for Roti John for my son last year at the same bazaar. It was the stall with the longest line, but I noticed that the ingredients (eggs, what seemed to be like beef, spices and onions) were very watery and the black pepper sauce was watery as well. In the end, we ended with a very bland Roti John, soaking with liquid from the ingredients and sauce. Even my son couldn't stomach it well.

I understand that taste differs from one person to another, but I know that even some of the kuihs and dishes sold at the bazaar cannot really be passed as something nice to be eaten. In the past, Bazaar Ramadhan stalls used to be filled with a lot of housewives who use their homely culinary expertise to whip up delicious home-tasting delicacies. Even as it gets more and more commercial today, the food should be wholesome and tasty, worth the money that people want to spend. They had a long day of fasting, let them savour the food that ends their trials and tribulations of the day.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Simplest Dish

There are times when the combination of rice, curries, vegetables or even kuih will not satisfy the cravings after a long day of fasting. My favorite is a simple dish, maybe too simple to call it a dish or delicacy, but this has been eaten in the past and still a practice in certain areas. I believe that this is not only well-known in Kedah, but the rest of the country as well. It is rice, with minyak sapi (clarified butter) with salt/soysauce.

This dish is not eaten in the fasting month only, but anytime of the year. We know of one relative inj Kulim, who is in his 80s, eat this daily. How to prepare it? Very simple, and I am sure there are many out there who knows this very well:

1) Get a plate of hot, steaming rice

2) A teaspoon of minyak sapi, depending on your liking. You can use the expensive stuff like QBB, but the best is still the minyak sapi from Indian shops where they sell it by weight. The color is paler than the golden rich color of the canned ones.

3) Salt to taste

4) Mix them up and enjoy. If not enough minyak sapi or salt, add them moderately.

My breaking of fast with this dish will not be complete without some pandan syrup mized with squeezed lime/calamansi juice. Pandan syrup? Well, it is a staple in my family's breaking of fast. We never liked the rose syrup and rarely buys any cordial outside. The making is very simple too, my wife boils sugar with a little water, along with 2-3 pandan leaves until the sugar is dissolved.

I suggest a try of the rice with minyak sapi and salt. It is simple and yet so wholesome and satisfying. Okay, I wouldn't say this is a health food, just good flavor and clean taste.

For those who are trying and ends up with their third plate of rice, well, don't blame me.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Passing Old Recipes To The New

It's the 5th day of Ramadhan, and I must say it has been some of the hottest days in Alor Setar. The heat was searing, and I keep drinking more and more water during the breaking of fast to keep myself from being dehydrated. Despite all that, and the problem of location, the sales have been fine.

My niece who is studying at a polytechnic in Alor Setar came by for the weekend. Interestingly, tonight she indicated that she wants to learn to make one of the best-selling item during Ramadhan, the Bengkan Susu, or Milk Pudding. And I was always so willing...after all, I taught her younger sister and cousin to make Godam.

It's not actually a close guarded secret, Bengkang Susu came to Malaysia from Palembang, brought by the Syeds and Sharifahs. My research so far made it a fact that the dish did not origin from Palembang. It is most likely of Middle Eastern/Mediterranean origin, like the Godam which originated from Shepherd's Pie. Even the rich, milky kuih Makmur originated from there as there is a dish very similar to that in the Mediterranean. With the migration of the Ba'alawis to South East Asia, the dishes somehow evolved and localized, turning into the dishes that we have today.

The basic ingredients for Bengkang Susu are Milk, Rice Flour, Sugar and water. In the past, buffalo milk was used to create a very rich bengkang, but with the number of buffalos decreasing, milk powder was used as substitute. The best milk powder would be the full cream one. I'm not sure about low fat, but anybody can always try.

The measurement should be quite exact in making this dish, but one can still adjust the amount of sugar and flour for sweetness and soft texture. Milk on the other hand, should be more exact, after all, it is the main flavor here. Even water must be measured exactly, too much will make the dish watery and less will turn it hard and dry.

Once the ingredients are mixed together and stirred to get rid of lumps, the batter is stirred over a slow flame. The stirring must be continous so that the bottom part will not get burnt. Once the batter thickens, it is poured into a well greased baking tray and straight into a well heated oven and baked at 180 degrees for 30 minutes or until it is well baked with the top part nicely caramelized.

I must say that she does it pretty well, and for once this week, I don't have to bake anything for tonight. I know her mom will be pleased with her, and I really hope that she will be able to do a repeat performance when she goes home a few weeks after this.

Is this the passing of the torch, or simply handing down family recipes? Whichever I see it, I hope the recipe will continue on for generations to come as there have been a number of family recipes that have long gone and forgotten.

I spoke to Chet, my cousin and Nasi Arab Pak Tuan owner, we hope that one day, we might get down and try to get most, if not all, the recipes of the Syeds and Sharifahs of Alor Setar back and reintroduce them to the younger generations.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Back To Ramadhan

amadhan is here again and yes, I'm back in business, next to my cousin Syed Nasir, or Chet, who sells his traditional Nasi Arab.

My menu remains the same: Godam (Shepherd's Pie), Black Pepper Beef Curry Puff and Bengkang Susu (Milk Pudding). Despite the price of its ingredients have gone up, I still maintain the same price as ever, which is:
Godam : RM1.50/piece
Black Pepper Curry Puff  : RM0.35/piece or RM1.00/3 pieces
Bengkang Susu : RM0.50/piece

So I don't make much from the sales, but selling and watching how people enjoy the food gives me such satisfaction.

For those who are looking for Chet's Nasi Arab, please be informed that Nasi Arab is RM7.00/set. It's worth it, I must say.

This year, we are located in a slightly different place, about 100 meters before our usual place. We were in 3 different locations for the past 3 days, although being on the same road and withing a 100-meter radius, but it disrupts our customers' routine as they missed the place and had to turn around on a very busy road. Believe it or not, I am doing more of a bootsale, where the food is being sold from the back of my car. Of course, if I get a table, I would have a better display.

As like every year, I am making sure that the taste and quality of the food product is uncompromised. I am just hoping that the customers are fully satified with the food product that I made. My schedule for Ramadhan is busier than ever; a hectic 9am to 1.30pm, finishing all my work at the office, then head home to bake the godam and fry the curry puffs. After Maghrib and breaking of fast, I'll be stirring the Bengkang and bake them, which usually finishes around 10.30pm, if there are no extra orders for the Bengkang. The bengkang is usually refrigerated when it has cooled down. This is because the bengkang is usually enjoyed slightly cold, but not too cold.

By the way, if things go well, next week, I will be selling lasagna as well. One of my neighbors, Chef Jamal has confirmed that he will be making them, but for a limited time. We have not finalized on the price, but it might be around RM5.00. It might sound pricey, but it is bigger than the godam and its ingredients are more expensive, considering the use of beef, pasta, cream and cheese.

Well, if you are looking for Nasi Arab Pak Tuan and some kuih for the breaking of fast, or even for tea (for non-Muslims), head down to Jalan Sultanah (Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah), we are located in front of the car wash, right in front of Sekolah Sultanah Bahiyah and the legendary Mee Abu.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sampling in Satun 3 : The Nostalgic Nasi Lemak

One of the most iconic trademark dish of many countries in South East Asia is Nasi Lemak. It can be found in Malaysia, Indonesia, certain parts of the Philipines and even Southern Thailand. Nobody can really say much of its origin, but it was believed to be in existence hundreds of years ago.

Not many people can resist the temptation whenever the aroma of nasi lemak is in the air: the fragrant smell of rice boiled with screwpine leaf (daun pandan), ginger and coconut milk. In both Malaysia and Singapore, the customary accompaniment of nasi lemak will be sambal tumis with ikan bilis and a slice of hard-boiled egg. Sambal tumis is dried chili ground with onion and garlic to paste, fried in hot oil until fragrant, with tamarind and salt added to taste. The ikan bilis, or the Asian version of anchovies are deep fried until very crispy. In some versions, the anchovies and/or hard-boiled eggs are submerged into the sambal tumis. Depending on preference of the region, the sambal can be very hot or mild. Sometimes cucumber slices and fried peanuts are used for garnishing as well.

The traditional presentation of nasi lemak is by wrapping them in banana leaves for that additional aroma and enhanced flavor. Some hotels and restaurants still use banana leaves to line their plates when they serve nasi lemak. It was believed that the Chinese in Singapore or Malaysia (depending on who you listen to) expanded the list of accompaniment to the nasi lemak. Fried chicken, fried eggs, omelletes, kangkung, sausages and many more became additional accompaniment. Nowadays, most stalls and restaurants that sells nasi lemak have quite an expanded list of accompaniment. Even the readily wrapped nasi lemak has numerous main dish such as fish, beef and checken.

Certain kampung areas do not use coconut milk in their nasi lemak. The nasi lemak of the Indian Muslim in Kedah doesn't use coconut milk either. They usually fry onions with spices such as cardammon, cinnamon and others before adding them to the already washed rice with screpine leaves. In some cases, tumeric is also added.

Back in the mid-1970s, before I started schooling, I was living in Taman Sofiah in Jalan Kuala Kedah. There used to be an Indian man who carried a huge flat-bottomed rattan basket on his head coming around the housing area almost every morning. He sold kuih, along with nasi lemak and fried noodles wrapped in banana leaves. The Indian man never made it, he only collects the products from the people who made them and sells them. I remember fondly of the nasi lemak, the gravy (not sambal tumis), shrimp or a slice of hard-boiled eggs and long beans. Little did I know that, I'll be having a bite into deja-vu more than 30 years later.

On the second day in Satun, my wife and I headed to a restaurant located in a shophouse accross from the hotel (Sinkiat Thani Hotel) which we were staying. I was anxious to see what the Malays of Satun eat for breakfast, which I hopes was not sweet. The day before, I made an instant realization that none of the kuih sold by the Satun Malays are savory. Each of them are bitingly sweet.

To my delight, I was introduced to the shop-owner, a middle aged lady who goes by the name of Mak Piah, and she has been making nasi lemak for more than a decade. Like I mentioned before, the Satun Malay restaurant and eateries rarely sells varieties of food like what we have in Malaysia. Mak Piah sells nasi lemak, pulut ayam goreng (glutinous rice with fried chicken) and drinks. There are 2 major accompaniment to the nasi lemak: a mildly spiced fish curry and fried beef with long beans.

Mak Piah has a mixed Malay-Indian heritage, but her cooking is totally Malay. The nasi lemak is not too heavy on coconut milk, but the smell of giner is present although it doesn't overpower the rice. I did detect the absence of screwpine leaves although Mak Piaj said she uses them. She also added that sometimes they add cinnamon and/or cloves to the rice.

The fish curry is not the normal Indian-inluenced curry one might find in Malaysia. The spices are quite mild but balanced and they use more coconut milk in it. The closes resemblance to it would be the Ikan Tamban Curry popularly eaten with Nasi Dagang in the west coast, without the heat of the spices. The fish was meaty, and it tasted fresh.

There is no sambal tumis in sight. In fact, I realized that I have not seen any sambal tumis anywhere near the places I explored in Satun. The anchovies were there with the nasi lemak though. The curry is very mild, this might be a setback to those who love the extremely hot taste. Of course, true to the Thai influence, you can request sliced cili padi from Mak Piah.

The combination of nasi lemak with the fish curry brought me back to my childhood days. I realized that this is the nasi lemak that I used to enjoy 30 years back when I was younger. I never knew the reason why that particular nasi lemak disappeared totally from Alor Setar in the 1980s. Some people might find it strange to eat nasi lemak with a slightly watery fish curry, along with anchovies and fried beef with long beans. You can eat it with the fried chicken, but the population there might find it strange because they usually eat the chickens with pulut or glutinous rice.

My mum's friend really made her point when she told me on the previous day that, Satun's food reminds her of the Kedah food back in the 1960s. She might have to add 1970s to the list, although at that time, the nasi lemak with the curry might have already been a dying breed.

Mak Piah told me that the curry accompanying the nasi lemak is usually fish, although sometimes shrimp is used, but never beef or chicken.As I understand from my studies, the sambal tumis originated from the south of Malaysia, most probably Malacca (in theory), and just like every food in Malaysia, it travels everywhere. My mum remembers that there were 2 types of nasi lemak before the 1970s, one eaten with the same type of curry as above, and the other with sambal tumis. With the absence of sambal tumis from the Satun Malays' menu, I have to assume for the time being that they never got influenced by the southern Malaysia nasi lemak. Although food of any region will evolve and change in accordance to taste, preference and influence, I made a wish that this particular nasi lemak will remain unchanged.

I would really love to go back and enjoy the taste that I always remember from my childhood days.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sampling in Satun 2 : My Grand-uncle's Little Restaurant By The Highway

My mother told me of some wonderful cooking by my Grand-uncle every time she returns from Satun, and this time, on this trip, I get to see and taste what that was all about. His restaurant is located on the main highway that links Hatyai and Satun. I found out from our tour guide, or the van driver, that my Grand-uncle's restaurant is well known among the Malays of Satun and a popular stop by tourists. For those who are heading to Satun, ask to go to Restoran BangTuan, and they might just know where to head to.

My Grand-uncle, Tuan Mohammad, or Tuan Mat, is 45...although being only 3 years older than me, the family rank placed me as his grand-nephew. Fair and gentle looking, he spent the 1990s working in That restaurants across Malaysia before deciding to return to Satun and operate his own. The restaurant, like most Malay owned restaurant in Satun, is family owned. His wife and daughter and some relatives work there as well.

You can order your food from the menu, or you can have rice with already prepared dishes. I was also made to understand that he also makes noodle and fried rice dishes, but with what I was enjoying, I forgot all about it. Already prepared were the rice, Kari Merah Ikan Keli (Catfish in Red Curry), Kari Hijau Daging(Beef Green Curry), Asam Pedas Ikan Grukgruk (I have no way of translating that) and Daging Goreng Kacang Panjang (Fried Beef With Long Beans). We ordered 2 additional items:  my Grand-uncle's famous Sup Tulang (Beef bone Soup) and plain omelets.

On the subject of omelets, I was always intrigued with the way omelets are prepared in Thai food eateries. They seem to be perfectly done: crispy outside and really moist inside, and all my attempts at emulating that usually end up with either burnt, dry or uncooked inside. I did try to catch how they made it in Tuan Mat's kitchen. Surprisingly, it seemed as normal as I make it: eggs, a dash of fish sauce, stir it a bit, a generous coating of oil on a very hot wok. Strange that the oil seems to be smoking when he finally poured the eggs in, and the eggs never burnt. I guess that no matter how passionate your hobby might be at cooking, you still need to learn and practice.

As the tasting proceeds, my tongue exploded with fire and brimstone with the red curry. The spices are simple, but true to Thai influence, red cili padi was used. For those who can't get enough of cili padi in their diet, this will be a perfect dish for them. The fish was fresh and cooked to perfection. The shocker of it was when my Grand-uncle told me that he made the dish not as hot as it is supposed to be.

The green curry, on the other hand, was extremely mild. You can almost taste all the herbs and spices used in there. The beef was very tender, accompanied by the slightly bitterish taste of terung belanda. I'm not sure what terung belanda called in English though, it is usually mistaken as green peas in general.

The Asam Pedas is quite a pleasant surprise. It is as Malay as any asam pedas you might find, but with a twist. It is slightly hot, and the gravy is thicker. The Malaysian asam pedas usually uses Asam Keping or Asam Gelugor, but this Asam Pedas uses a lot of tamarind, or asam jawa. It's thicker and more sourish, but extremely pleasant to the stomach. The fish makes a perfect accompaniment to the dish.

Apart from the asam pedas, the fried beef with long beans is one of the most common dish one might find in Kedah, although not that many nowadays with the price of beef today. I remember fondly of my mum making it when I was much younger, and how it used to be in nasi campur stalls back then. Nowadays, the beef has been substituted with chicken liver or other bits to create the same dish. Tasting the fried beef with long beans really brought me to the past. The taste of the tender beef, opinions, soy-sauce and turmeric was very evident. Still, there is another twist to that, camouflaged among the long beans are slices of cili padi that might catch you by surprise. I must say that this dish is the only Kedah Malay dish that almost didn't evolve...if it weren't for the cili padi.

The piece de résistance has to be the Sup Tulang, or Beef Bone Soup. One might assume that being in Thai, it will have the smell of kaffir lime leaf, sourish with loads and loads of cili padi. Well, it doesn't. The meat was so tender and falling of the bones, with the cartilage almost melted. The taste is extremely well balanced: sweet, sour, hot and well salted. The broth is clear apart from bits of onions and cilantro. You won't find the "dusty" residue at the bottom of the bowl from the beef being boiled. I was told by Tuan Mat that the water must be boiling for quite some time first before putting any beef into it...I don't know whether that method really works, but I'll be trying it soon. The simple, clean yet rich flavors in the soup made it the only dish that everybody almost never stop eating.

To accompany our lunch, we had iced tea and coffee. Be warned, if you think your favorite mamak stall serves your drinks extra sweet, Restoran BangTuan tops that. Not to worry, there's always a jug of drinking water ready for diluting.

We spent almost 2 hours at the stall before finally leaving for the hotel. With food that simple and good, does it ever surprise anybody that we were back there again 2 days later, on the way back to Malaysia?