Monday, October 8, 2012

The Kampung Fried Rice, Original Kampung Style(?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's the recipe again:

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 18, 2012

End of Ramadhan With New Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 21, 2012

We're Back With One New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's the price list available:

Nasi Arab Pak Tuan: RM7/set

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Legendary Nasi Lemak Ali

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Abang Nasi Tomato Mergong

I have explored a lot on the Indian Muslim food in Alor Setar, and believe me, I still have more. A few friends, and even my wife, asked whether there are any Malay eating places that might get my attention. I admit that I did write one or two, but with so many Malay stalls, restaurants and tomyam places out there, it can be very tricky. Another frustrating factor is the inconsistency of taste and even the performance of the vendors. I have written before about a very good Malay Char Koay Teow in Alor Setar, but he has since been opening irregularly and last I heard, disappeared from the place. Or the the tale of the 2 nasi campur restaurant in Pumpong which at one time were the happening at lunch hour that draws customers even from KL during the holidays. Today, even the locals are grumbling about the food quality and price there.

Excluding Indian Muslim or Mamak restaurants/stalls, it is rare to find rice with dishes being sold at night. You will find thai food stalls/restaurants or other type of food available, but not nasi campur style restaurant.

For those who are tired of eating Nasi Lemak, or looking for an alternative to it, there is a place popular among the locals of Alor Setar. Located in front of CIMB Mergong Branch at Seberang Jalan Putra is Abang Nasi Tomato. Contrary to nightly rice dishes of Alor Setar, this stall is owned by a Malay, and he has been in this business for decades. The huge pot serves hot, hunger-comforting tomato rice, usually from around 7:00p.m. to very late at night, except on Tuesdays.

Nobody really has the exact history or origin of Nasi Tomato, or Tomato Rice. One theory has that Nasi Tomato originates from Pahang, which was at first enjoyed by royalties. Another has it that it is a creation of two ethnic groups, the Chinese and the Indians. Another less-known theory is that it is a variation, or modified from the Middle Eastern Beriyani, modified out of necessity and flavor of the locals. Noreover, it is a feast food, usually using tomatos and yoghurt with a blend of spices. I don't know, the verdict is still silent.

Like the old-school Nasi Lemak Mamak shops, the queue is always there. The customers are from all walks of life, and you even have many Chinese and some Indians enjoying their hearty meals there. There are around 8-12 dishes available, usually consisting of fish, beef, chicken (or its parts) along with vegetables. Nasi Tomato is usually accompanied by Ayam Masak Merah (Chicken in Spicy Red Sauce) and Acar or pickles made from pineapple, cucumber and carrot, and don't worry, they're there. Somehow I noticed there are more people opting for Fried Chicken and fried vegetables instead of them. Maybe people want Nasi Tomato with dishes that suit them more than the usual kenduri fare. Despite the fact that this a Malay business, you can still find the Mamak element with many customers requesting for "kuah campur" or mixed gravy to go with their rice. The man at the counter is highly experienced as his mixture has never disappointed me in the years that I have been going there.

As I had chicken on my visits before, I decided to have my rice with fried fish, fruit acar and fried cabbages, of course with kuah campur. My wife had a similar one as well. We are not talking about fried ikan kembong here, it's a nicely cut chunk of a fish, I forgot to ask the name of the fish though. The rice was still hot, and the accompanying dishes were perfect. The fish was nicely marinated with the usual salt and tumeric and the curry mixture was excellent.

I have been there so many times, and during those visits I manage to see politicians from government and opposition having dinner, high ranking officials, businessmen with their families and/or friends having dinner there. I also noticed that those who eats there are mostly locals. Well, I haven't the chance to eat there during holidays so far, so I might have missed seeing them.

If you would like to try Nasi Tomato Abang, I was told that the stall is listed in the GPS, maybe you can check and confirm it. It is located right in front of CIMB Bank Mergong Branch in Seberang Jalan Putra. There are a lot of stalls there, just look for the one right in front of the bank, with dishes on the counter, a huge pot of steaming tomato rice and a seemingly never-ending queue. You can go there by following the directions on the map below:

The food is wholesome and hearty, so make sure to bring a good appetite and an empty stomach when you go there. And I better remind myself to bring the digital camera on my outings, the night photo shots with this handphone is terrible.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Ultime Sloppy Burger in Ampang - Burger Belemoih

I depend a lot on my cousin and my friends when I look for a nice place to eat in Kuala Lumpur. Years of travel has actually taken me off hotel and fancy restaurant food. My cousin, Syed Abdul Rahman Putra, who happens to live very near to my dad's apartment in Setiawangsa seems to find new eateries every time I arrive in KL. We ate at so many places such as Saba (Arabic food), Fareed (Nasi Lemak Royale style in Sungai Buloh, article will be ready soon), Homst, Andullah Chan's to name a few.

Despite the fact that I go to OM Burger Ampang during almost all of my trips to KL, I never really wrote about it, as I find that he is already well known. I found blog after blog that features him. My cousin and I refer his stall as "Burger Belemoih" which is the northern dialect for Sloppy or Messy Burger. I don't think that name is original anyway.

The stall is run by a husband and wife team, always referred to as Pakcik and Makcik by his clients. I am not sure how long he has been in this business, but I'm guessing it has been a long time, judging from his very relaxed pace in preparing the food. He has almost all types of Malaysian-style burgers available: beef, chicken, hot dog, with egg, with cheese or both, the double and double specials. On the nights when we skip dinner, we can always safely bet on the double specials.

People might say that, a burger is just a burger. Om's seems to serve an ultimate to this experience. He is very generous with the sauces, with the bun liberally slabbed with margarine before going onto the griddle, and a rich slap of mayonnaise after that. I usually prefer mine without ketchup and chili sauce and extra mustard for my hot dog. From the taste, I am guessing that grade has something to do with the taste as the burgers and hot-dogs don't really taste exactly like other stalls. He could be using a better grade burger meat and sausages from Ramly (or other manufacturers) for his business.

I must advice here that this is not really the place for healthy food. His slightly indented griddle has grease pooling in it, in which he grills the burger meat, fries the eggs and cheese. For my cousin and me, what matters is that it is delicious, filling and satisfying. I mean, the burger is so sloppy (and big), we had to eat it with fork and spoon.

I can safely say that, should anybody who craves an ultimate burger to satisfy that hunger pang, then Om Burger Ampang is your destination. This Kedahan is impressed. They are open daily from 8pm to 5am and located outside 7-11 outlet in Jalan Kolam Ayer Lama in Ampang.

Here are 2 links if you want more info and pictures on OM Burger in Ampang. 

My profound apologies for using pictures from other blogs, something went wrong with the memory card of my camera and I lost all the pictures I took.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Hailam Food of Alor Setar

Some might find that small operated food stalls and restaurants in Alor Setar can offer surprises. For me, nost of the places where I enjoy dining most are small. Maybe because the food is more homely, or maybe the proprietor cooks better in a small-crowd environment.

Compared to the cosmopolitan areas such as Kuala Lumpur, Alor Setar lacks Chinese food that Malays enjoy. I have tried Homst in Taman Tun Dr Ismail and Kota Damansara, Abdullah Chan's restaurant at Wangsamaju, and I really wish they would set up a branch or two up north. They were really packed, and most of the food I tried really hit the spot.

Alor Setar does have a few restaurants with a mish-mash or combined Thai/Chinese/Malay/Western food on their menu, such as Riverbank Restaurant at Taman Habsah and ET Restaurant at Taman Golf. I must admit that they're good and authentic enough. At one time, in the 1970s and 80s, the coffeeshop at Rukun Tetangga was very popular. The Hailam cooking was enjoyed by so many, and by all ethnicity. It was a husband and wife-ran operation where the husband was the cook. I vividly remember his Fried Mee, black in color, with a slightly thick sauce at the bottom. Some call this Mee Goreng Hailam, but the fact you are there to order Hailam food, I usually just call it Mee Goreng. It is the type of dish which makes me want to call for seconds.

When the husband passed away, the wife took over; but the food differed. Despite serving to full-house crowds at lunch-time, most of the base customers have shifted away.

Hailam cooking is by the Hainanese. Historically, many of the Hainanese in Malaysia were involved in the hospitality industry. For Kedah alone, the state-owned rest houses in the state and Kedah House in Cameron Highlands were run by the Hainanese. They were the operators, running errants from maintaining the premises, cooking and even the laundry. I cannot verify this, but I was told by my Chinese friend that Hainanese never sell pork in their food business and most of them cater to all races in Malaysia, most by getting supplies from Halal suppliers. The concept, as I was told, are now being adapted nationwide where pork-free Chinese restaurants have become favorite places. Among the most significant, unfortunately less remembered contribution by the Hainanese to the Malaysian culinary feast are the Chicken Rice and Chicken Chop.

Another Hainan restaurants where you might find more Malays eating there is Kedai Kopi Kuang Ming, located at Stadium Darulaman in Jalan Stadium. The location is just next to Hotel Sri Malaysia. Despite passing-by in front of their shop for the past 30 years, I never knew much about them. A few years back, my colleagues and friends were telling me about a nice simple Chinese shop that sells lip-smacking dishes, and to my surprise, they were talking about Kedai Kopi Kuang Ming.

The shop has been in existence for more than 30 years, and it was always located at the stadium: first outside the stadium and when the shops were built, the shop continued at its new location. The shop is a husband-and-wife-run operation, both of them, as I understand, are already in their 60s, which we passionately call Uncle and Aunty. Aunty cooks the dishes, and unlike the male-dominated restaurant cooks who cooks almost one dish a minute, her cooking is more home-style, no rush but never that long.

Uncle took over the shop from his father, and has been doing so ever since. A famous story stated that, at one, somebody asked his father why he never sells pork-based dishes in his outlet, he answered that he has been selling his dishes for decades and his base-customers have already known him well for his dishes, and he will not change it for anything. One or two of his sons converted to Islam and married Malay ladies.

In his heydays, Uncle use to have a wide-selection menu and frequented by so many, including government officials, police officers and businessmen. Now as Uncle and Auntie are over 60, Uncle told me that he doesn't have the strength to do the same. The big round tables have been replaced by small ones. The menus are nowhere to be seen. Uncle told me that now he usually serves his regulars who usually knows what is available. It's quite rare for him to find a very enthusiastic chap who even brought his wife and son as his new customers.

On weekdays, my wife and I usually order the usual simple dishes. One might assume that Auntie might take her time as you can hear the ladel scarping against the wok slowly in the kitchen, but she gets it dome in just a few minutes. Fried rice is usually simple, but this one is packed with eggs, pieces of chicken, shrimp, squid, fishcakes and mix-vegetables. Usually, if one of the seafood is not available, it will be counter-balanced by what is readily available.

The fried noodle dishes usually have 2 styles: wet or dry. My wife prefers dry style, while I prefer the other. Just like the fried rice, it is packed with the combined cuts of chicken and seafood, along with freshly cooked vegetables. The wet style usually has a little sauce, black in colour. It is not too thick, meaning that Auntie uses not too much corn starch, making the flavour more evident and giving the desire to customers to finish up the dish to the last drop. The fried koay-teow, dry version, has an additional taste: peanuts. I believe that crushed peanuts are used in the dish. This is not surprising because I remember, back in the 1970s, my mother used to sprinkle crushed peanuts when she makes fried koay-teow as well.

My wife's favorite is Fried Bihun. The dish is simple enough, and yet I can never emulate it in my kitchen. The strands of rice vermicelli are soft, combined with the chicken, prawns and vegetables, creating a tasty concoction that my wife enjoys with her condiment of sliced bird-chilli in soy-sauce. Unlike many Chinese cooks who have evolved to a more-Malaysian style of combining chili paste in their cooking, Uncle and Auntie remained loyal to their traditional method. If your tongue requires a little heat, you can request sliced chili, bird chili or pickled chili. I prefer the last one.

All of our dishes are always accompanied by Mixed Vegetables, which we order on every visit. It is made with fresh vegetables, depending on what is available, mushrooms; usually 2 types, chicken, shrimp, squid, fishcake, all stir-fried to perfection. The crisp vegetables, made wholesome by its accompanying cuts of meat and seafood, completes our lunch.

On Thursdays, Uncle and Auntie sell Mee Kari for breakfast, usually between 8.30 to 10.00 a.m., depending on availability. I have nor tried this as my many attempts resulted in frustrations. Yes, it sells out fast...too fast to my liking.

On weekends, if my family and I want something simple and satisfying, we would usually go to Uncle and Auntie's for a spot of lunch. Uncle himself won't remember all of the items on his previous menus, but he would recommend certain items such as curry, sotong masak sambal or/and fried chicken. We look forward to try the curry one of these days.

Paying RM4.00 for a generous portion of fried rice or the noodle dishes, loaded with chicken, egg, seafood and vegetables is really a bless. You leave the shop, wondering whether you can work on an extremely full stomach or not. I feel that it is better than some of the Menu Rakyat 1Malaysia I saw in Kuala Lumpur.

I guess Uncle and Auntie are the last in their generation to inherit the shop. Their children don't seem to show any interest as they are now working elsewhere. One of them is a university lecturer, I'm not sure about the others. I guess I better enjoy the good at Kedai Kopi Kuang Ming while it is still available. The food is good, the herbal tea cools you down on hot Alor Setar days and the ambience is very relaxed. Deep inside, I wish somebody in his family will continue the business later on and keep the delicious dishes coming for the loyal customers.

You can reach Kedai Kopi Kuang Ming below:
 and here's a closer view of the location:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Malathi's Lunch Thursdays : Simple Indian Food With Rich Flavors

My wife and I usually spend our lunchtime at Malathi's almost every thursday. I have written before on Malathi's, but on breakfast , and lunch is such a treat compared to breakfast. Why Thursdays? On Thursdays, we have a choice, either normal rice or the Beriani. Malathi serves a simple, yet memorably mouth-watering Indian food for lunch.

I have stated before that there is not many Indian restaurants available in Alor Setar compared to Sungai Petani or Kulim, to me, one of the most powerful attraction to eat there is the closer-to-home taste. One might notice that the rice and dishes are not doled out in huge pots, instead they are prepared in medium and large ones. At times, if you drop by after 1:30pm, you might be disappointed to see that most of the dishes are already cleared. It is understandable as this is a family run business. The proprietors, Puspa and her husband, Maran prepares everything. The cooking is done by Puspa and her mother at their house, which is close-by. Supplies are sourced daily and cooked by Puspa and her mother. For me, the limited quantity is a plus: the taste of home-cooked is there, no mass-produced curries here. Another factor is that there are no leftovers by the time Malathi is closed, ensuring fresh start for the next day.

Some people might find that Beryani made from non-Basmathi rice can be a turn off, but for me and wife, what matters is the taste and flavor, and how well the curries and vegetables mix with the rice.

The Beryani at Malathi's might be a tad different from the usual affair, and looked much simpler. A set of Beryani has the rice, chicken in a rendang-smelling gravy, dhal and vegetables. I was made to understand that previously, the chicken was marinated and cooked with the rice, but on popular demand by customers, the chicken is cooked seperately. In a way, the chicken in its marinate gravy became a much-sought-after dish on its own. The chicken is marinated with spices and slow-cooked in a pot. It smells like rendang but has a very different taste and not spicy hot. This is the dish that usually runs out first before anything else. For me, to go there and find that the chicken dish is still available will be such a bonus. It tastes well with white rice as well.

The seperate preparations for the rice and chicken led to theorize that Malathi's Beryani is a variation of the Hyderabad Beryani, where the chicken is marinated seperately from the rice, but slow-cooked together. Then again, there are so many variations between continents, countries, regions and families. One thing for sure, this Beryani is good.

There are the basic vegetable dishes, usually 4 of them daily. The greens are usually chopped quite finely, root vegetables are usually in bite-sizes. Among my favorites are the curried or spiced pumpkin and the spiced-bitter gourd. On Thursdays, you will find combination of cucumber, onions and chilli in yoghurt, which is a sort of acar.

The curries served at Malathi's are extraordinarily good. According to Maran, his mother-in-law concocts her own curry powder. I have read that in India, you will not find curry powders in shops as each house blends their own. This makes the curries at Malathi's unique in a way as this seperates their curries from the old school Mamak shops in Alor Setar, despite both groups using no santan or coconut milk in their curries.

Basically, there are 3 types of curries: fish, mutton and chicken. The curries are not too thick, nor too watery, just perfect. The spices are well balanced, and memorable: the fish curry has that slight tangy taste of asam, the chicken curry is slightly hot and the mutton curry (actually thick sauce) is hot. The strong spices on the perfectly prepared mutton ensures a good spicy flavor without any smell from the mutton. I must say that the mutton goes perfectly with the Beryani. There's also fried fish and fried chicken. On Thursdays, there is also Ayam Masak Merah. I must admit that I have not tried it yet. I was told by my wife that the dish is good, but after kenduris where they serve Ayam Masak Merah in every one of them, my appetite for it has still not returned.

For some who loves a an additional kick to their eating experience, there is jar of fried dried chilli, available as a side dish to your rice. There is also a jar of mixed fruit acar on the table, which is a sour concoction to accompany the rice and dishes. As I have mentioned before, with the family busy preparing food on a daily basis, I find it understandable that Malathi's uses a commercially produced acar. There is always the freshly-made Rasam, the soup-like concoction made with tamarind and spices, either to have with your rice or drink it afterwards to settle the stomach.

On certain days, you will find a more Malaysian dish at Malathi's to go with your rice. At one time, I had Ayam Masak Kicap and at another, there was Sambal Tumis with Ikan Goreng. This is, after all, Malaysia.

The lunch crowd at Malathi's is a colorful mix of Indians, Malays and Chinese, usually coming in around 12:30 noon and earlier on Thursdays. At times, you'll find doctors, businessmen and even government officers enjoying the food at Malathi's.

I definitely cannot compare the ambience and the services that you might find at big restaurants and hotels, the taste and flavors Malathi offers can easily match up with them, even without the Basmathi.

Malathi is open everyday except Saturdays, with Breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., Lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. and at 7p.m., Malathi opens again serving light food  like thosay and chapati. If you're going for lunch, try being there before 1:00 p.m.

Getting there:

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mee Sham's Roti Dholl, And More

My wife kept telling me of a restaurant in Jalan Alor Setar-Gunung Keriang that is famed for a novelty dish called Roti Dholl. The dish is very popular there. I had no idea what it was all about, so, one nice Saturday, we decided to drive up there and sample it ourselves.

The name of the shop is Restoran Mee Sham, located at a shop house in Jalan Gunung Keriang, about 10-20 minutes drive from Alor Setar city. It occupies the whole ground floor with a choice of sitting inside or outside the shop. Parking, depending on time, is quite a cinch. It is an Indian Muslim, or Mamak restaurant, but most of the employees are Malay.

Roti Dholl, as I was told, originated when the owner of Mee Sham was operating originally behind AMBank in Jalan Putera. With the opening of the restaurant, they shifted their operations to the shophouse, while his nephew still runs the stall in Jalan Putera.

The dish is a piece (or two if you want) of roti canai, shredded, with an egg, fried sunny side up and flooded by the gravy, usually dal with a little sambal. It kinda reminded me of the Roti Bintang back in Satun, but Roti Dholl differs in the making and presentation and even the way to eat it.

At first, I do feel a bit odd having the roti, with the seasoned egg yolk flowing into the gravy. Somehow, it seems to add richness to the gravy and perhaps the best alternative to the plain Roti Telor.

Roti Dholl is available in the morning, until about 11:00am, then starts again at 4:00pm. True to the claim, Roti Dholl is extremely popular with the locals there. According to the owner, about 300 roti dholls are sold during the morning shift. There are several newspaper cuttings which displays media reports on the popularity of Roti Dholl in that area posted on the wall.

There are quite a number of choices that you can find at Mee Sham: they have Nasi Kandar or Nasi Lemak, as it is better known, Nasi Ayam and noodle dishes. I tried the Mee Rebus, while my wife had Mee Goreng.

The Mee Rebus has a rich, thick gravy, with bean sprouts, boiled egg, crunchy fritters, beef and topped with a slice of lime. The taste was excellent, you can taste the beef stock in the gravy and the portion was quite sizable. I dare say that the Mee Rebus can stand to be a fresh alternative to Mee Abu's.

The Mee Goreng too stands up to the mark, albeit being slightly sweetish.

The nasi lemak looks tempting, but by that time, all of us were full.

Scouting around the nasi lemak counter, I noticed that the curries were of old school Mamak style, with an addition of new ones. I might just return to sample these soon.

Restoran Mee Sham is located at Jalan Alor Setar-Gunung Keriang. If you are from Alor Setar heading to wards Gunung Keriang, the shop can clearly be seen on the left after passing by a Petronas station on the right.