Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Asia tripping - part II: Muar, Johor, Malaysia

This is the second of several brief posts of my recent trip to Asia: photos, food and a few thoughts.

Muar, Johor, Malaysia
A super luxury bus (from a not so luxurious temporary bus terminal) brought us south from Kuala Lumpur to Muar, in the Johor state and close to Malacca, which we unfortunately didn’t manage a visit to in this overnight trip.

Muar River
Muar is a small riverside town with a rectangular city centre just several streets wide. On arrival I noted that there weren’t really any lanes of the road, or at least none that anyone was using. I also noted what seemed like a larger Malaysian Indian population; though perhaps it was just the areas I saw.

Streets of Muar
It wasn’t a touristy place at all, but I was told that Muar is renowned for otak otak, a fish paste grilled in banana leaves, among other regional variations of dishes commonly seen in Malaysia.

Tom yum fish, from an outdoor Thai seafood restaurant in Muar
On our one and only night in Muar, we were treated to an outdoor Thai-styled seafood restaurant to feast on dishes cooked from a huge, open stainless steel kitchen. Fish appeared to be a specialty here, served on fish shaped burner stoves at the table, and in this instance, in a spicy tom yum broth.

Black pepper mud crabs
Novelty burners aside, I only had eyes and fingers for the small mud crabs, served in a lip-smacking, dry black pepper sauce. Oh so good. The crab is hard work, especially the little legs, though the oily peppercorn-dotted sauce kept me going. I’ve never tried this style of crab before, but will be sure to look out for it on future menus.

As seems to be customary, we headed out for supper after dinner; scarily not long after the last of the crabs. The hawker shops were busy with loads of late dining customers, as well as pacing - though not quite approaching - stray dogs.

Watermelon juice - large
Drinks were essential in the warm night air, perfect for beers and/or the biggest glass of watermelon juice I’ve ever seen. Even accounting for the ice in it, this was a seriously gigantic juice.

Otak otak stall
We were seated right by the road, coincidentally next to the otak otak stall. We leaned over and learnt that the stallholder didn’t have many left, and that’d he’d close up when he sold out.

Otak otak on the grill
We weren’t quite hungry yet, but ordered 10 each of the fish and the prawn otak otak varieties, just in case he might run out later. The long banana leaf packages were placed onto the grill, a few minutes each side till the leaf charred a little.

Pile of fish otak otak
When done with cooking the fish version, the stallholder rolled them all up together in newspaper and brought them to our table, then started on the prawn ones.

Fish otak otak
Packaged between two strips of banana leaves and stapled shut (apparently toothpicks were used back in the day), eating them was simply a matter of removing one leaf and nibbling the yellowed pat of soft fish cake.

I found the flavours a lot more subtle than expected, which was actually appropriate post the big dinner we’d had. There’s a hint of char flavour infused into each, which along with sweet and smooth fish and a handful of spices, made for quite the beer and chat snack, albeit a small one.

I preferred the (slightly more expensive) prawn otak otak for its richer flavour and slightly lumpy-with-prawns texture. The end result is like any fresh seafood – a pile of discards (banana leaves) that are rolled up into newspaper and tossed out.

Fruit rojak
Post dinner and apparently full as we were, we managed to also share a rojak, a mostly fruit salad doused in a slightly spicy and savoury thick sauce and crushed peanuts. I remember pineapple, rose apple, pawpaw and fried tofu cubes amid the jumble of ingredients – quite the unusual salad and probably ideal as a appetiser, I think.

Streets in city centre, Muar
The true hot weather of Malaysia reared its head the next day, as leaving the air conditioned hotel was like walking into a medium heat oven. Walking the streets, many shops were not yet open, although all the food stalls were already bustling.

The roti chef at Sri Kaveri, Jalan Abdullah, Muar
We somehow stumbled upon a shop front that really got me interested, and not being a touristy town, I think the chefs were equally bemused with the tourist and her camera as I was with the town.

The puri chef
We’d hit roti jackpot and this was just the way I’d wanted to start the day, if not every day. The speed in which these pastry masters were sending out roti, dosai and puri to the packed restaurant was astonishing.

Milo ais
Default drinks for us in Malaysia were Milo ais and teh ais; both chilling and saccharine for a cool kick-start to the day.

Teh ais
Each table had a set of three canisters filled with dipping sauces: a couple of curries and a yoghurt sauce. These were then ladled out onto the sectioned metal plates that the roti arrived on.

Roti canai
My favourite back home, roti canai was perfectly flaky and crisp outside, and hot and chewy inside. I try not to think of speed and price compared to Mamak at home.

Roti telur bawang
The egg and onion roti has a light helping of filling inside the flaky casing, a slightly more substantial breakfast option.

Roti tisu
And to really show our adoration for all things roti, we also each got a sweet one to end the meal, as if our drinks weren’t sweet enough.

The roti tisu was the roti maker’s work of art – an impossible construction of paper-thin dough cooked with ghee and sugar until crisp, and holding its form when immediately rolled into a cone shape.

Roti bom
The roti bom was rather the opposite, thicker and infinitely richer and heavier with its dripping, sugared margarine inners. This certainly made me smile, and may have caused a slight toothache too.

Colourful streets of Muar city centre
After breakfast it was nice to walk around the still quiet town, the heat hopefully doing something sauna-like to offset the load of carbs, fat and sugar we’d just consumed. And like the locals, we sought relief inside air-conditioned shopping centres – until lunch anyway.

Noodle chef at Yong Kuang Restaurant, Muar
A little out of the main town centre, we’d requested a family friend to take us for the best wonton mee. The Malaysian style wonton mee was completely new to me, though really just repackaged components of familiar dishes.

Cooked egg noodles served dry on a plate, topped with Chinese barbeque pork and served alongside a small bowl of broth with a couple of floating pork wontons – nothing really new, but still an unfamiliar combination.


Sui gao - pork dumpling
I loved the sui gao though, which we ordered in addition to the meal which also had wonton. The bigger sui gao dumplings were filled with a scrumptious minced pork mixture and floated about in a light yet deeply flavoured broth, as did the smaller pork wonton.

BBQ pork and noodles of wonton mee
The noodles were topped with beautifully tender Chinese barbeque pork, while the al dente egg noodles sat in a dark sauce of soy and other seasonings with some blanched choy.

Roast pork
We also ordered a plate of Chinese roast pork, or siu yook. The delicate layers of fat and meat, and of course the seemingly-always-crunchy-in-Malaysia crackling, of the siu yook are a fabulous addition to the meal. The pork seems more moist and tender than any I've had in Australia, even suckling pig.

With that, scoffing down our lunch signalled the end of our whirlwind trip to Muar, as we hurried to make the bus back to Kuala Lumpur for new year's eve.

More Asia tripping posts to come, including more Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong.


Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I'd love to visit Malaysia one day! And just for the food alone-it always looks amazing! :D

john@heneedsfood said...

Otak otak, mud crab, just two of my favourite things. In one of my favourite countries! I'm dying to get back!

Tina said...

Hi Lorraine - You could make a trip for the food alone!

Hi John - Two of my faves too!

Minh said...

Amazing, your post reminded me just how much I love (and miss) Malaysian food! I'd give my arm and a leg for a Milo ais right now...

Tina said...

Hi Minh - I miss roti...

Anonymous said...

Oh Muar! Never realise that Aussie food blogger will go there LOL. Such a pity that you didn't try Assam fish which is the best food in Muar!! Best wanton mee in Muar is available only at night in Muar town.

Tina said...

Hi Anonymous - I was only there for a night and two half days, which made it difficult to try more food. A local took us for the wonton mee lunch :)

Wesli_1 said...

Muar - you could stay for a month and eat a different thing at every meal. You can get otak-otak in Sydney but I'm yet to find it cooked Muar style - i.e. chargrilled inside the coconut leaves (not banana leaves, or in one big piece on a platter). The oil released from the coconut leaves it what gives the magnificent aroma...


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