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.