Go anywhere in the world and the best food will undoubtedly be in someone's home. In our debut HomeCooking section, I drove up all the way to Tanjung Piandang for lunch admist the paddy fields
In the kitchen somekind of synchronised mayhem was taking place
“Are we there yet?” Right. The idea of stuffing my family into a van and driving all the way to Tg. Piandang for some kampung cooking seemed to be a good idea… in theory but after the 60th paddy field and gazillionth pot-hole humours were running thin. Here fishy, fishy
“Where on earth is she taking us?”
“I need to pee.”
“You said 1 hour, it’s almost 2 hours!”
See, sometimes you just need die-hard foodies to provide the right sort of company for a trip like this. Not family members easily unimpressed. Not city slicker kids that don’t really care if the fish they are eating were caught by their own little hands.
We arrived at Tg. Piandang, just a stone’s throw from Parit Buntar a little frazzled. Romil, whose kampung we are invading comes out with fresh coconut water, “just picked this morning by my brother-in-law”. Everyone calmed down a little. Kids are whisked away by Romil’s brood to fish by a hole. There were screams as one of them upended a ceramic jar and two slippery ‘haruans’ slithered out and made for the nearest excitable female.
I slipped away to the kitchen where somekind of synchronized mayhem is taking place. “We are running a little late,” said Zu, supermom and champion multi-tasker. On the menu today are all kinds of village delights. There’s ikan puyu, a fresh-water fish fiendishly difficult to clean and cook. It’s a hardy fish that which many are prejudiced over mainly because if its tendency to live in mud and stagnant water.
People also keep these fishies because they are said to ward off evil spirits and toyols (small goblin-like children that apparently goes around stealing 10 ringgit notes because they like the colour red). But I digress, today we’re going to eat it fried and cooked in a ‘gulai’.
They called it a kari but it looks more like a gulai to me
Also sitting demurely in a basin of water is a whole cow’s brain. “What are you going to do with this?” I asked Zu’s mum, Makcik Salasiah matriarch of the family. “No idea.” She smiled while pounding a nice batch of sambal kuinin. Apparently Romil, inspired by a Nasi Padang meal we had before (yes brains were involved) decided to buy it with the last tongue on offer.
The tongue has been boiled and lies grey on a chopping board looking disturbingly like an alien creature from planet X.
Some tongue action going on
Zu slices the boiled tongue thinly and then barbecues it on an open fire. This gives it a smoky flavour and seals in the juices. In between this she is frying swamp crabs and catfish massaged with salt and turmeric and telling off one of her kids who tromped in to let her know that his brother wouldn’t let him play with his computer.
Catfish, all ready for the hot oil
There’s only two stove-stops. Another of her kids run in barely avoiding the kampung chicken marinating in coconut water and mustard seeds to show her a giant beetle he caught.
I am hovering somewhere behind snapping photos and taking woks full of sizzling oil away from Zu and avoiding mortars on the ground. The chicken after getting cosy with the marinade is then fried rapidly in the roiling oil. Fingers burning we tore into the chicken- only way to eat it. It was a little sinewy as befits free range but also really moist from the coconut water. Hmm… I wonder how this chicken would taste like marinated in Malibu.
Chicken marinated with coconut water then fried in crackling oil
Crabs after fried were set aside and now it’s time to make the sauce. “You making ketam mayonis mum?” Another kid comes in and asks.
“Hey, habislah rahsia mak,” Zu says affectionately.
“Since when does kampung food have mayonnaise in it?” One of my sister pokes her head in.
“Since the 21st century,” another one quipped.
Zu throws in her spice concoction and lets it sizzle, I can see turmeric and blended onions and garlic in it. Then she throws in the crab and adds a generous dollop of mayonnaise. This gives the gravy a thick creaminess to it. “I discovered this by accident,” grins Zu.
Swamp crabs fried with turmeric and mayonaise, traditional meets modern!
So Zu’s fried the chicken and sliced the tongue. The catfish and ikan puyu is sizzling nicely skewered on sticks.
Almost time to eat!
The crabs are done, dripping with sauce that can make anyone weak in the knees. The air assam for the tongue is made from lots of fresh chopped tomatoes, chillies, onions, a bit of belacan and lots of kerisik. There was a bit of havoc when the kerisik seemed to have disappeared. Watching all this, Makcik Salasiah who has her dishes cooked well beforehand just smiles the smile of a veteran of many, many impromptu feasts.
Finally Romil comes in. He’s to cook us fresh river prawns, his only dish for the day. Except there were no prawns at the market that day due to a storm the night before. Never fear, there is a huge basket of lala instead. He’s a bit of a gonzo cook. You’ve heard this from me folks, Romil makes the best kuey teow goreng outside of a street hawker. If you ever get the chance, go to his house in Ara Damansara and get him to cook you some. So with the lala he fries some stuff up, tomatoes, onions, salt and sugar, tosses in the whole lot of clams then cracks two eggs.
It’s delicious! By this time it’s near 3pm. Zu fries the ikan pekasam (fish picked and fermented in salt for months). In her version, she makes a spicy, briny marinade, rolls the fish in it then fries it.
We all sat down on the floor to enjoy this. There's an odd-looking dish within all this bounty. Fat, glistening fish sacs are piled in a bowl coooked in a light yellow gravy. It's one of Makcik Salasiah's specialty. Fish roe in a village curry.
Look at those fat fish sacs!
The eggs are from an ikan duri. “Can’t find it anywhere in KL,” says Adam, eldest of Romil's kids. And I haven’t seen it myself. The eggs after you burst the sac is huge, round caviar about the size of a macadamia nut. It’s delicious, with texture like Taiwanese bubble tea but chewy and milky.
Rich and milky with a fabulous chewiness
The ikan puyu has been cleaned well hence not too 'hanyir'. Everyone got stuck in. There’s so much food! Kuinin was fiery and sweet mixed with hot white rice and the fried salted ikan perkasam is like a dream date. The tongue was smoky and tasty in the air assam. I added more rice and took a whole fried catfish, so fresh you can taste the river in the soft flesh.
The crabs and lala were the day’s best dishes. Crabs in mayonnaise and turmeric- ace! Crunchy and creamy and spicy. You just want to lick all of the sauce off your fingers. As for Romil’s gonzo lala it’s just so fresh- a wicked dish!
Everyone groaned and had to have a short nap and strong black kampung coffee in order to survive the drive back.
And as for the brain? It’s probably still in that basin for all I know.