We are now on a tiny island east of the Malaysia peninsula, called Lang Tengah. When I last posted, from Penang, we were on an island off the west coast. I’ve often likened the mountains in the middle to the backbone of a sleeping emerald green dinosaur and this trip would take us right over the top of it on Route 4.
Eating has been an important part of our holiday so we didn’t prepare a packed lunch for our five hour journey to south of Kota Bahru, knowing we’d be sure to find something on the way.
Two hours into our journey and we were peckish. The route, though lined with trees and kampongs, had shown a distinct lack of roadside eateries apart from the odd rest stop where you can find cups of corn or chickpeas and drinks machines, but little else. But then we crossed a vast calm airforce blue expanse of water, lined with mangroves and things changed. There, like magic, was a rainforest resort, with a public restaurant overlooking the lake.
“It’ll be hotel food,” said Sam. “It won’t be as good.”
But the menu was interesting with a range of local and Thai dishes and juices made from local fruits and so we made our selection. At least we’d get to eat off china and drink out of glass for a change.
Firstly, our three top choices of both food and drink were unavailable and secondly, when the food did arrive, everyone’s tasted exactly the same and was a uniform brown. The loos were clean though and the view was gorgeous. And it had been cheap.
About half an hour later the landscape changed and it was as if the roadside trees had all been decorated for Christmas with the cherry-red baubles of rambutan. The earth was ruddy as rust. Stalls appeared in front of every house it seemed, selling pyramids of them as well as dusty yellow dukong. Bananas and beans hung on strings from the rafters. And now and again heaps of durian, the pungent local favourite, shaped, I always think, like a hand grenade, could be found. Josh started to get excited.
“Let’s stop for durian!” he suggested. After four months here he overcame the smell weeks ago and was fast becoming a connoisseur.
Ian, who’s seen plenty of signs in hotel lobbies and hire cars banning the fruit from entry because of its pong, was not impressed.
“Not in the car!” he wailed. “No way.”
“We can eat it on the roadside, Dad. You gonna try some?”
Ian shook his head with exasperation but pulled over. Then he put his head in his hands. A Malaysian friend of mine once shared on Facebook that she was off to eat durian as a kind of last supper before they moved to Europe, but her husband could not bear to be anywhere near her afterwards and she had to shower and clean her teeth before she could see him. The thought that eating outside the car might actually not make any difference did cross my mind, but I did not say anything.
“Sure,” I said, recognising I was being complicit but I was feeling brave that day. I’d last tasted durian 25 years earlier when Ian and I had done our last Malaysian road trip. It had been so disgusting, tasting, I thought of cooked mushy leeks in a sweet white sauce, that I the smell of it in malls and markets had made me take detour ever since. Back then, we’d taken one bite, recoiled in horror and thrown the rest of the fruit in the boot of our hire car, dangerously close to our snorkeling gear. Years later our dive masks had still reeked.
So we stopped at a small stall on the edge of the road and Josh bought rambutan, dukong, which I rather like, and one single durian. Dukon are about the size of a greengage and have the texture of a very juicy lychee. The grow in clusters on the tree’s trunk.
The fruit could not have been fresher. The vendor’s trees were in the very same layby. Perching on four tree-trunk stools the stallholder got out his knife and cut the durian into four segments. Josh put out his fingers and prised out a butterbean shaped fistful of creamy yellow fruit. The smell was not too bad.
Gingerly I went next, taking care not to breathe through my nose as I lifted a small amount of fruit out with my finger tips. It was delicious! Soft , sweet, mild and only vaguely leeky. If anything it was more like very gentle mango.
We knew that durian could make your stomach hot and that it would swell inside you so we were not to be gluttonous. Sam wasn’t so enamoured. A first-timer, I wondered whether eating durian was a bit like a vaccination and the first time you ate it was pretty nasty but after that you no longer feared the fruit.
Now I know first hand that eating durian does not make your fingers smell good and we were delighted to see a hosepipe running nearby where we could rinse them off. Wisely, I also rinsed my mouth before getting back into the car.
Once we had passed ‘fruit road’ the journey became drab again, with low kampong houses and parched grassland, dusty with sandy soil. The closer we got to the coast the scrubbier things became as we moved from the colourful land of the rambutan to the flat lands of the spindle-trunked coconut.
We were staying in a resort on the beach. It was nothing special so I shan’t bother to tell you its name and anyway it took hours to find it and even then the guard on the gate tried to turn us away, convinced we were in the wrong place. We took one look at the over-priced evening buffet and headed out to try and find a local roadside café for supper. Luckily, the car did not smell of durian.
Initially all we found were places offering a variety of noodle and rice dishes ‘Maggi’ style. We’d already had our Pot Noodle equivalent for lunch and were not willing to endure it a second time. Eventually we found a busy place called Bo$$ that had mis-matched chairs under a corrugated iron roof. The sign said that they sold ikan bakar. We knew ikan was fish, so that was good enough for us, being on the coast as we were. We now know bakar means grilled.
Immediately we were led to four polystyrene boxes and asked to choose our fish then say how we wanted it cooked. We chose pomfret, crab and squid and had them steamed or fried and served with garlic kankung. This was surely a family owned establishment with everyone taking turns with the cooking, serving and baby-minding. A television was on and diners clustered round it, enrapt. You couldn’t get more local.
While we waited for our food the heavens opened and rain pelted so loudly on the roof we could not hear ourselves speak. Water poured off the roof in stair-rods, our car was suddenly marooned in the middle of a shallow sandy lake and we could not even see the opposite side of the road.
Our food, of course, was great, particularly the spicy crab. It seemed we had not succeeded in ordering the house speciality and unbidden, they brought us a foil parcel of fish baked in a reddish spicy sauce, that was even more delicious than what we had chosen. Not only would they not accept money for it, but, in typical Malay fashion, they would not take a tip either. Our entire meal cost less than it would have done for one of us to have had that mediocre buffet back in the resort.
Using the tops of those polystyrene boxes as umbrellas, we made a mad dash for the car in the slowing rain, which had cleared by the time we got back to our room.
Sam was right. Hotel food was not a patch on street food. This is a road trip and so it makes sense that we eat on the roadside.