Thursday, January 19, 2012

Traditional Fresh Water Fish Dishes...In Kuala Lumpur?

Fresh water fish is really making waves nowadays. What used to be cheap, almost valueless item sold in the market 30-40 years ago are now some of the most expensive items on the menu. There are even farms breeding catfish, patin and several other types all accross the country that supply restaurants and marketplace.

On my return trip from Kuala Lumpur, I use to stop at R&R Sungai Perak for the Gulai Tempoyak Ikan Patin, which is my favorite. My friends from Perak and Pahang will criticize my choice as Kuala Kangsar has the dish and much better in taste. I did try the one in Kuala Kangsar, it was very hot so I reverted to the one at the R&R.

Most restaurants that serve kampung-style food in Alor Setar usually have catfish, either fried, grilled or in curry on their menu. It is not surprising as popular fresh water fish in Kedah is more on catfish, haruan and puyu as they were readily available in paddy fields and canals.

I must admit that I am not a fan of eating in KL. I feel that the Malay food there is severely commercialized and lost most of its authenticity. I do feel that Thai food has, in a way, overtaken Malay food in many ways, not to mention the advent of Indonesian food such Bakso and Ayam Penyek. Also, there's not many place there offers fresh water fish on their menu...of course, I could be wrong on this, so I apologize in advance.

My friend, Zaliny, during his trip to Alor Setar, promised to take me to a place that will change my perception about eating in KL. Now Zaliny and I have been friends ever since we were in Form 1 back in MRSM Balik Pulau, Pulau Pinang. Just like me, he looks for food that has is really good, with true flavors and authenticity. After completing my business, true to his words, he took my cousin and me out for dinner.

Zaliny took us to a restaurant called Restoran Samudra de Menara Tinjau, located at the Kompleks Pelancongan on the Jalan Ampang-Ulu Langat. I must say that the location is quite a change from the normal urban scenario, being on a hill, past the over-crowded lookout-point. The area is quiet, with a very big parking area. On certain days, the restaurant can be quite packed with tourists. Zaliny has contacted the proprietor in advance and ordered some items that, as I was about to find out, will shatter my perception.

I was made to understand that the cooking is Pahang style, but I understand it, Pahang and Perak's cooking is similar in so many way, only differed in certain preparations.

For dinner, Zaliny has ordered rice accompanied by these dishes:

1) Gulai Tempoyak Ikan Patin
I am so used to the version at the R&R Sungai Perak (northbound), which is quite watered-down and modified to suit the pellet of travellers. This version however, spares no quarter. The fish, caught wild, was fresh and firm, leaner as it is not too oily compared to the bred one used at the R&R. The spices were wholly complete and a lot of tempoyak is used, and as a result, the gravy is thicker and richer which we can either eat with rice or take it in like soup. The flavor of the fish is there and the gravy is sourish, slightly hot and slightly sweet, as it is supposed to be. We ate it with rice, and later, as soup. Simply irresistable.

2) Masak Lemak Ikan Baung with Rebung (Bamboo Shoots)
I am familiar with masak lemak, although I skip this dish in stalls and shops as they proproeters seem to be stingy on the coconut milk. Anyway, all the masak lemak I have tasted before never had fresh fish. The masak lemak is rich in flavor: spices, herbs, bamboo shoots, fish and coconut milk. The bamboo shoot is almost sweet, without much smell.

3) Grilled Ikan Krai
In some places in KL where they boast of Ikan Bakar, I find them disappointing. This was because of the lack of spice used, and sometimes when the spices are right, they were too stingy to dab them properly on the fish, maybe for cost purposes.

This dish, with a very healthy dose of spices and herbs, lathered richly onto the fish and grilled to perfection, is the most outstanding. I can just eat the fish without bothering for rice. The firm flesh, the jubilant smell of burnt spices on the fish adds richness to the eating experience.

4) Udang Galah Fried With Sambal Petai
Udang Galah is a species of fresh water prawn, and it is such a delicacy, especially in Kedah. Although it was abundant in Kedah, the 1980s saw its decline and the udang galah could not be found in the rivers in Kedah anymore nowadays. Back in the 1960s to mid-1970s, I had a grand-uncle who operates a stall in a kopitiam beside Masjid Zahir, selling a noodle dish simply called Mee Kakak. The name was derived from his nickname "Syed Kakak" where in Palembang, kakak means brother. To make his dish, he would go and catch udang galah himself.

Back to the Udang Galah at Restoran Samudra, the firmness of the flesh defines the freshness of the prawn. Despite the fact that the prawn was marinated with spices such as tumeric and chilli, the spices never over-powered the taste of the prawn. Combined with the traditional style dry sambal petai, it is a dish that you could not stop going back for more.

4) Ulam with Sambal Belacan and Tempoyak.
What's a Malay traditional dinner without ulam? Fresh ulam, consisting of cucumber, bitter-gourd and some other leafy green; now that perfects the feast. A dab, or more of tempoyak with your ulam and perhaps mix it with a little sambal belacan fills your moth with an explosion of taste and flavors. The tempoyak, or fermented durian has a sweet and sour taste, and a perfect combination will be with the sambal. You can just sit there, listening to the crunching sounds from everybody's mouth.

Despite having fresh water fish, I must say that none of them smells like grass. I guess they really know how to clean the fish perfectly.

Many years ago, I used to go to village areas such as Pendang and Kuala Nerang where they serve fresh water fish as kenduri dishes. They were very good, but they were not as rich as the dishes served at Restoran Samudra. I think I can safely say that these dishes are fit for kings, rich in tradition, overflowing in taste and flavor and a very tight quality control. Mind you not to burp in the car after the meal, unless you have a very strong air freshener.

Zaliny was right, I can get good food in KL, and what's more surprising, the cooking is traditional. Now how can I compete with that? In Alor Setar city, food outlets label themselves as "Kampung Style" just because they have Daging Bakar, Catfish dishes and ulam, the rest remains a fusion of almost every state in Malaysia. At Restoran Samudra, when they say traditional cooking, they really mean traditional.

If you want to try the dishes there, make a start to Restoran Samudra de Menara Tinjau located at Kompleks Pelancongan, Jalan Ampang Hulu Langat. If you're coming from Ampang, it should be on your right, you can't miss it. It is time to eat traditional.

I would suggest calling ahead to know what are the fishes available on that day, and perhaps cut back on the waiting time for the food.

Samudra d' Menara Tinjau is on Facebook, at this link 

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