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 rolls...no, 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.