Cheap eats in Tereng­ganu

Time Out Malaysia Eating and Drinking Guide - - CONTENTS -

Tereng­ganu is an oft-ne­glected state es­pe­cially when it comes to mat­ters of food.

Joyce Koh found four de­li­cious cheap eats, all within walk­ing dis­tance of each other, in the heart of Kuala Tereng­ganu.

While ap­plause and ac­co­lades are heaped upon Pe­nang’s bril­liant street food scene, the northeastern state of Tereng­ganu sits qui­etly, known only for its jewel-like is­lands. For far too long we have skipped right through Kuala Tereng­ganu, think­ing only about our beach get­aways and gob­bling up barely ac­cept­able seafood fried rice dur­ing dive trips, obliv­i­ous to the fact that we’ve been miss­ing out on the mas­ter­ful, nu­anced cui­sine of this re­gion. Thanks to the abun­dance of co­conut trees all over the state, co­conut milk fea­tures heav­ily in Tereng­ganu’s ex­u­ber­ant cook­ing – from milky lak­sam to glo­ri­ously rich cur­ries. Hav­ing racked up plenty of vis­its to Redang and Per­hen­tian, I thought I knew Tereng­ganu al­ready. How­ever, a re­cent trip proved me wrong. This time, on a visit to Kuala Tereng­ganu, the state cap­i­tal, I took a cou­ple of hours off to ex­plore the town by my­self while my travel com­pan­ions took af­ter­noon naps. The junk food whole­saler lo­cated op­po­site my ho­tel told me that Chi­na­town was about five min­utes away on foot. Wonky um­brella in hand, I set off into

the swel­ter­ing af­ter­noon heat. De­spite it be­ing in a largely Is­lamic state, Kuala Tereng­ganu has a pretty Chi­na­town. It’s some­what com­pa­ra­ble to Jonker Street in Malacca, sans com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion. It was rather late in the af­ter­noon, and the places serv­ing some of the more fa­mous dishes in Chi­na­town, such as duck noo­dles, were closed for the day. Old men lounged at store­fronts, idly smoking and watch­ing the cars go by. Point­ing to a shop a few doors away, they sug­gested that I try Teochew lekor. Lekor is one of Tereng­ganu’s more fa­mous food ex­ports – a type of fried or steamed brown sar­dine sausage, which comes with a sweet and spicy sauce unique to each stall. Made with ikan parang (wolf her­ring), Teochew­style lekor is ex­clu­sive to Chi­na­town and is white in colour, much like fish balls. There were no vis­i­ble shop signs to go on, but I found the small shop eas­ily be­cause Mrs

Tiong, the moth­erly pro­pri­etor, was sit­ting at a ta­ble churn­ing out a pyra­mid of fish sausages while a pot of broth bub­bled mer­rily at the front of the shop.

‘I’ve been do­ing this for more than a decade,’ said Mrs Tiong. ‘It de­pends on the weather. I wake up at six in the morn­ing to buy fish from the fish­er­men at the dock. If the weather is bad and there’s no fish, then we won’t make it. We need re­ally fresh fish for de­li­cious fish cakes.’ True to her word, the Chi­nese-style lekor is fresh and springy, highly rem­i­nis­cent of Jo­hor’s bouncy ikan parang fish balls.

I was still han­ker­ing for some­thing savoury and the Chi­na­town shop­keep­ers were unan­i­mous in their rec­om­men­da­tions for bak kut teh. They pointed me in the di­rec­tion of Siang Ping Restau­rant, which is manned by a soft-spo­ken lady in her early for­ties. While chop­ping and toss­ing in spices and meat with de­ci­sive pre­ci­sion, she ex­plained that she is the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion to han­dle the business. Her fa­ther moved to Tereng­ganu from Klang when she was ten years old, and now her teenage daugh­ter helps out dur­ing school hol­i­days and week­ends. The pork soup comes in in­di­vid­ual clay­pots; the herby broth hits the taste­buds hard, tee­ter­ing on the fine line be­tween flavour­ful and salty. While I re­ally liked the fluffy white rice ac­com­pa­ny­ing the dish, the yau char kuay (Chi­nese crullers) were limp and those tough chunks of meat were no match for the more su­pe­rior bowls of bak kut teh I’ve had in Klang.

Keropok lekor may be Tereng­ganu's most fa­mous ex­port, but xiao mian bao (‘lit­tle buns’ in Man­darin) is the best known ex­port of Kuala Tereng­ganu’s Chi­na­town. A sta­ple of ev­ery lo­cal’s break­fast and tea, the dish con­sists of seven puffy round buns packed tightly to­gether, each stuffed with var­i­ous fill­ings such as shred­ded co­conut or but­ter. Also known as Roti Paun, the buns are sold in almost ev­ery shop in town and also served in ko­pi­ti­ams, toasted with a whis­per-thin layer of fra­grant kaya and but­ter. The shop­keeper told me the bak­ery that churns out th­ese fresh buns was ‘some­where around’ and sug­gested that I go for a chat with the baker. When I stum­bled upon the bak­ery, it turned out to be a small shop lot that dou­bles as the own­ers’ home. Mr and Mrs Lau had just fin­ished for the day and were set­tling down for a well-earned lunch at the crazy hour of four in the af­ter­noon. Ac­com­mo­dat­ingly, Mr Lau showed me some news­pa­per clip­pings dis­played next to his huge oven. The hus­band and wife team be­gin their bak­ing process in the morn­ing to al­low the yeast the eight hours it needs to rise. That’s when I found out the rea­son for the cu­ri­ous round po­si­tion­ing of the buns: Sixty years in the business and three gen­er­a­tions later, they’re still us­ing old, round tin plates as bak­ing trays.

Chi­na­town is a de­light­ful place for leisurely strolls. With ev­ery other al­ley­way re­veal­ing a new mu­ral or art in­stal­la­tion and plenty of lo­cals will­ing to share their sto­ries, I had to re­turn for a sec­ond visit. Pasar Payang, the fa­mous mar­ket in Kuala Tereng­ganu, is prac­ti­cally ad­ja­cent to Chi­na­town. A faded mus­tardyel­low build­ing houses the mar­ket, where stalls are laid out like a maze. Gi­ant tins of bis­cuits and cook­ies line up amongst moun­tain­ous piles of seafood chips, and cats weave around un­der­foot, care­fully man­ag­ing to avoid be­ing tram­pled on by the crowd.

Amidst the ranks of seafood snacks was a dis­play of desserts: huge, round trays of kuihs stacked on top of each other, a coli­seum of sweet things. The old man at the counter was busy tend­ing to his crowd of reg­u­lars and had no time for gawk­ing tourists. Curtly he said, ‘Those are kuih akok. A-K-O-K.’ This was my first en­counter with kuih akok, which is also re­ferred to as kuih akok ke­dut (mean­ing ‘wrin­kled kuih’). There were big, flower-shaped kuihs and small, in­di­vid­ual ones as well as round fat cakes I could iden­tify as kuih bahu­lus.

I was rather drawn to the green and brown ones, which promised fra­grant pan­dan and gula Me­laka flavours. In their wrinkly brown or green skins they’re not the most pho­to­genic of desserts, but I de­cided to pur­chase one of each. I took a bite of the tofu-like snack. And another bite. How do you de­scribe this Tereng­ganu dessert? Think of a Por­tuguese egg tart, take away its crispy, flaky pas­try shell and leave the wob­bly cus­tardy crème brulée cen­tre. That’s akok. Ear­lier, a help­ful cus­tomer had told me that there are four ba­sic in­gre­di­ents to this Tereng­ganu del­i­cacy – eggs, co­conut milk, sugar and flour. The wrin­kled outer skin was slightly caramelised, re­veal­ing a soft, sweet and creamy cen­tre. Pan­dan fea­tures strongly in the green ones, but I pre­ferred the brown gula Me­laka va­ri­ety as the flavour was not too sweet and smoothly paired with cus­tard. Since there wasn’t any crispy pas­try to counter the soft cus­tard, akok’s caramelised skin plays a big part in bal­anc­ing the tex­tures, and they’re best eaten warm. I con­tin­ued wan­der­ing in the mar­ket, look­ing at green Thai man­goes with deep orange flesh, pyra­mids of dried chillies and de­press­ing pack­ages of tur­tle eggs.

At the en­trance of Pasar Payang, cars and an old wooden bus trun­dled by slowly, re­flect­ing the un­hur­ried pace of life in Tereng­ganu. Emerg­ing from the murky depths of the mar­ket, my eyes took some time to ad­just to the glar­ing sun­light. I stood there for a mo­ment, weigh­ing my op­tions. Then I headed back in for a sec­ond help­ing of akok.

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