Cheap eats in Terengganu
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.