Just south of the Thai border, on the northeast coast of Malaysia, lies Kota Bharu, a city of sweet, scrumptious Malay fare different from the rest of the country.
Kota Bharu is the capital of Kelantan, an intensely religious state ruled by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, and where Friday, the Islamic day of rest, is a holiday for nearly everyone. The shops are shuttered and the offices are closed, but the streets are packed with crowds gathered for sermons and prayer.
The night market
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And at night, the people head by the dozens to the pasar malam — the night market — to hang out with friends or to enjoy some of Kelantan’s delicious and unique food.
“I come here to enjoy myself and look around,” says Muhamad Hakim, a young man hanging out with about a dozen other young men, drinking iced tea and juices at the long tables.
One of his friends blurts out something in Malay, and they all explode with laughter — probably something off-color. For a people forbidden to drink in bars, the night market is where young guys go to cruise, though in this conservative society, Hakim will certainly be driving the 15 miles back to his home village alone.
A unique rice dish
But above providing a place for young people to eye each other, Kota Bharu’s night market is the best place to sample Kelantan’s unique food. The state’s beloved favorite is a concoction called nasi kerabu — nasi meaning rice, kerabu meaning the variety of chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, and vegetables cooked up to go with it.
A young woman and her mother stand behind an enormous nasi kerabu stand, where you can choose between three kinds of rice — white, blue and yellow — which is rolled up into a paper cone. Then you choose your toppings from the dozen or so arrayed before you. The most popular are chicken in coconut sauce, prawn and squid in tomato sauce and fish eggs in oil.
The toppings are added, and then the whole concoction is folded up into a neat parcel and secured with elastic bands, so you can take it home or to the tables by the juice stands, where televisions play a steady stream of Malay soap operas and Premier League soccer.
A hint of sweetness
The prevalence of both coconut and sugar means that Kelantan food is sweeter than the rest of Malaysia’s. Sauces are made usually with either tomato or coconut, and can be quite spicy — but not always. They do, however, almost always have a bit of sweet to them.
Also popular at the night market is murtabak, a crepe fried with chicken, beef or banana, that is made into something like a fried sandwich.
To make the banana variety, the chef pours the batter onto a sizzling oiled pan and then adds a mixture of chopped bananas, whole raisins, butter, sugar, eggs and condensed milk. Once it’s finished frying, it’s all wrapped up into a tidy square and served wrapped in paper. The outside crepe is very crispy, the inside sweet and flavorful, but lava-hot.
Murtabak is a huge hit with tourists. Eke Overbeek, a young visitor from the Netherlands, describes the concoction as “lovely,” but curses because she keeps eating it too fast without letting it cool.
A trip to the dessert stand
For a place so famous for its sugar, the final trip is, of course, to the dessert stand, where there is a booming variety of colorful treats — coconut jellies, caramel pudding, coconut milk cake, rice cake with peanuts, and pastries stuffed with jam. Most of the offerings are crumbly and a bit dry, but the choux pastry in particular is magnificent.
Syamin Yusoff, a local technician, comes every weekend to the market. Tonight he’s drinking iced tea and eating Maggi noodles, even though he argues nasi kerabu is the best meal in Malaysia. He can’t speak much English, but he can get across that it’s both the “friendliness” and the “sweet” of the food that makes Kelantan and Kota Bharu different from the rest of Malaysia.
Main photo: A boy has trouble deciding at the desserts stall. Credit: Copyright 2017 Jo Turner