Funny how life happens when you least expect it.
On the road again today, we made for the Taman Negara (National Park) from last night’s stop on Balok beach near the city of Kuantan. Our drive, with a prevailing wind, was to take around three and a half hours. Leaving at noon it was inevitable we’d be hungry before we arrived but no worries there – eating appears to be the Malaysian national sport and we’d find a fruit stall if nothing else en route. By two we were hungry. By three we decided it was time to stop. The road was pretty deserted (it may have been the 64, close to the turn off to the 62 to Maran for those hoping to find it again) but we spotted a fruit stall that had bananas, dragon fruit, watermelon and longan and grabbed our chance while we could.
When we pulled over we noticed the fruit stall was actually beside a small place to eat that had an even smaller menu, most items including sup. A middle-aged man with a very smiley face approached.
“Makan?” he asked us, wondering if wanted food.
“Yes please!” we said and sat down at a table covered with sticky-backed plastic (aka fablon).
“Lunch finished!” he said, still grinning.
Our faces fell.
“You want mee rebus?” he asked.
We knew mee meant noodles, but had not a clue what rebus might be. Whatever, though lunch was over it seemed that they could rustle us something up after all.
“No meat,” he said, looking crestfallen. “No sup.”
That didn’t matter. “Vegetables?”
He nodded. “You want chicken?” Clearly, chicken did not count as meat.
And so, for the sake of simplicity we ordered four whatever it was with chicken but without soup. Ordering two limau ais (lime with ice) and two te tarik (literally ‘pulled tea’ that is milky, sweet and rather delicious) we sat under the corrugated roof and waited.
In seconds it seemed, a bowl of what looked suspiciously like a red soup, topped with bean sprouts, shredded chicken, dried fish, spring onion and tofu and then topped with an upturned hard-boiled egg, was placed in front of each of us. We dug in. It was delicious. Boy, was it spicy though!. Hot with chilli, sweet with lemon grass and creamy from coconut milk though thankfully laced with fat egg noodles to soften the kick.
It was so delicious that Josh ordered a second one and I did something I have never done before but have really wanted to on many occasions. I approached the kitchen corner and spied one solitary saucepan on a gas hotplate. The lid was on. Rats. I looked for the smiley man. He was behind the till.
“Sedap!” I said, which Josh had just taught me was the word for yummy.
He grinned. “Where you from?” he asked.
“England,” I said. “But we live in Kuala Lumpur. The boys live in England.”
“They want Malay girls?” he asked and collapsed into giggles. Then he introduced me to his wife, Aziza and then to his daughter, who said her name was Bi, which she told me meant ‘darling’. Then she collapsed in a heap of giggles too. I have looked it up since and I am sure she was pulling my leg.
Now comes my moment of courage… I tilted my head towards the lidded saucepan. “Can I see?”
And so Bi lifted the lid and there was a glistening sea of rebus, the colour of home made roasted tomato soup and ringed with a golden halo that showed our soup that was not a soup contained a fair quantity of oil. I took a deep breath. I simply could not resist any longer.
“How do you make it?”
And so once smiley Dad had given me all the wrong ingredients Bi stepped in to explain that first she fried chillis, onion and garlic with a little ginger, then she added bruised lemon grass and topped up with coconut milk, adding water if it was too thick. I expect she cooked it slowly for a long time until the oil separated, but I won’t know for sure til I try it out myself at home. There was a little salt and sugar too and that was it. I guess that our unsoup was then assembled by pouring the rebus sauce over pre-cooked noodles, adding some more coconut milk then a few shreds of something green, like Chinese cabbage and the bean sprouts and scattering the spring onion, shredded chicken, a few dried anchovies and cubes of tofu on top of that, before adding that upturned egg.
“Now you bring your friends from Kuala Lumpur?” suggested smiley Dad.
And if I had the faintest idea where I had been and could find the shack beside the fruit stall somewhere on the road to Kuala Tahun I would do for sure.
“Not find rebus here. Only mee,” he continued proudly. “Johor food. I from Johor.”
And so, if you are down that way, you can be sure that if you find someone with a fabulous sense of humour selling mee rebus you have struck oil because he is the only one. They also have the most rustic, ‘interesting’ loo we have had the pleasure to experience.