Forget the museum, the art gallery, the church or the zoo. Wet markets are one of my favourite plates to visit when aboard, the culinary underbelly of a city with its maze of makeshift stalls, occasional puddles, and smiling locals determined to feed the people with good fresh produce, poultry and seafood.
Our second day in Malaysia would take us to Imbi Market, one of the last surviving wet markets in Kuala Lumpur, but first - breakfast.
Mr Roti Maker - we meet again
I suspect I was the only person who slipped downstairs for breakfast that morning in the hotel. Everyone else exercised restraint in anticipation of the fooding ahead, but the novelty of freshly made roti tisu for breakfast was too much for me to resist.
Roti tisu pyramid
It took only a few hand gestures with the roti maker to let him know a roti tisu made in a pyramid -- not folded in a crepe like the day before -- made all the difference. He smiled obligingly and used asbestos-like fingers to shape the hot crispy shell into a party hat for one.
Roti tisu for breakfast
Delivering newspapers at Imbi Market
* Warning: Graphic images of animal slaughter are included in this section
Robyn Eckhardt from EatingAsia was our tour guide for the morning. A freelance food and travel journalist, Robyn and her husband, photographer David Hagerman, have been based in southeast Asia for the past 14 years. She knows her food, and we trail behind her as she picks up jicama, okra and tropical fruits to explain their consumption and use in local Malaysian cuisine.
Robyn Eckhardt from EatingAsia
Shoppers in Imbi Market
I could have happily wandered around for hours in Imbi Market, drinking in the sights, sounds and smells. I love how shopping at wet markets isn't just a chore but a social activity, and one that involves seeking out the freshest and best produce at the lowest possible price.
Stallholder carving out the eyes from a pineapple
Frying yu tiao bread sticks
Yu tiao fried bread sticks
We breakfasted on yu tiao fried bread sticks, the soft pillowy dough resting beneath a tea towel at the stall. The old man at the counter was calm but quick with his movements, rolling the dough out into even lengths and then flattening two together before sliding them into a simmering pool of oil to deep-fry.
These bread sticks are often sliced thinly and served with congee rice porridge, but here we greedily ate them on their own, crunching on the golden shell until we hit the fluffy donut insides.
Serving noodles for breakfast
Peanuts and pulses
The wettest parts of the market are where the poultry and seafood are sold. As we stomped our way along the wet tiles, we noticed a commotion of activity toward the back of the market. It was here, we realised, where trays of live chickens were stacked seven-foot-high, would meet their inevitable demise.
* Warning: graphic images of animal slaughter ahead - click here to skip
Slaughtering the chickens by severing the jugular vein
I could hear someone gasp in horror behind me as the meaning of the scene in front of us slowly sank in. Death was happening as we watched, a sharp knife silently severing the jugular vein of each chicken. The men worked together: methodically, patiently, almost rhythmically, as the life of each chicken was extinguished.
Of course death was here. It was already around us. In the chicken carcasses being jointed by butchers. In the lifeless fish covered in cubes of ice. In the slabs of pork belly next door. But to see each chicken dying, sucking their last gasp of breath, was a sobering reminder about the necessity of death whenever we eat meat. I didn't know whether to look away as a sign of respect, or if I had to keep watching as a form of carnivorous punishment.
Tossing the washed chickens into the drum to be de-feathered
The entire process of preparing a chicken for consumption continued without ceremony in a macabre production line. After the chickens are killed, they are washed and transferred to a rolling drum to be de-feathered. The chickens are washed again, gutted and then are presumably ready to sell.
Washing the chickens
Gutting the chickens
The secret pork butchery
We had to step past the chicken slaughter area to reach the secret pork butchery. Although the majority of customers at this market are pork-consuming Chinese, the pork section is kept in a separate discreet area out of respect for local Muslims. It almost feels like an underground club. We step through the narrow doorway to find a large room filled with pork. Hanging from hooks are trotters, tails, ribs and flanks. Business is brisk.
Roast pork stall (tucked between two pork butcheries)
Sticky rice dumplings
Draining rice noodles
All that shopping is guaranteed to make you hungry. The food stalls at Imbi Market are said to offer some of Kuala Lumpur's best hawker food.
Yong tau fu stall
Customers choosing their fish paste-filled favourites at the yong tau fu stall
Popiah to go
Clockwise from top left: Fish congee rice porridge, chee cheong fun rice noodles, pan mee noodles with soup, and popiah
We commandeer a rickety table, wonky on the slanted ground, and huddle around a haphazard feast collected from around the market. The fresh popiah are the crowd favourite, stewed jicama rolled up with carrot, cucumber and peanuts. Pan mee is common throughout Kuala Lumpur, flat flour-based noodles served with minced pork, shiitake mushrooms and fried anchovies, available as a soup (wet) or doused with thick sweet soy sauce (dry).
Roast pork with crackling
A quiet bit of newspaper reading
We head to Yut Kee for an early lunch. Yut Kee is said to be one of Kuala Lumpur's oldest kopitiams or coffee shops, established in 1928 and now in its third generation of family ownership.
There's a lot of olde world charm here, from the dated decor to the happy faces of locals who have eaten here for decades.
Clockwise from top left: Chicken chop RM8.50 (AU$2.65), lamb chop RM13 (AU$4), roti babi (AU$2.50) and belacan fried rice RM6 (AU$1.85)
The menu is a curious mix of East meets West comfort food, in a style that reminds me of Hong Kong cafes. Here pork chops are drenched with gravy and served with fried onions and frozen vegetables. The roti babi combines a donut-like bread with shredded pork and Worcestershire sauce, and is said to be onf the cafe's most famous dishes.
I'm a greater fan of the belacan fried rice, the grains of chewy rice tumbled with strips of omelette, bean sprouts, spring onions and daubed generously with spicy shrimp paste.
Yut Kee is also famous for its butter cake and kaya roll, eaten as a snack with cups of coffee or tea.
Adding condensed milk
Tea and coffee
Current owner Jack Lee with Adam Liaw
Kopitiam founder Yut Kee above a photo of his son Jack
Inside the Yut Kee kitchen
Current owner Jack Lee is more than happy to lead us behind the scenes and into the kitchen. The kitchen is bigger than the dining room, and filled with woks, pots and non-plussed staff.
The kaya barrel
We're most interested in the kaya, the coconut jam which they cook in a double steamer for 18 hours. Over 70 coconuts are needed to fill the drum, and the kitchen makes a new batch of kaya every 3-4 days.
Kaya coconut jam for sale
Toasting bread over charcoal
They do everything the old-fashioned way here, including toasting the bread for kaya jam over charcoal.
Cutting up the kaya toast
Runny eggs, kaya toast and iced coffee - a typical Malaysian breakfast
We slather the thick slabs of toast with butter (from New Zealand!) and generous dollops of sweet custardy kaya coconut jam.
That evening we head to Bayan Indah for a cooking class in Kampung, or home-style Malay food. It feels much like a nature retreat, especially with the thriving gardens out the front, but we're soon set to work in teams to cook a banquet of dishes.
Peppercorns, hibiscus flowers and pineapples growing in the garden
Prawn and pineapple curry
Clockwise from top left: Chicken and pineapple curry, banana flower salad, onde onde and ayam percik grilled chicken
Nasi kerabu is one of my new favourite dishes, a delicate but flavourful dish of rice mixed with at least seven different herbs chopped into a fine chiffonade.
Making roti jala lacy pancakes
Everyone gets a turn at making roti jala lacy pancakes, using a special five-pronged pot to create swirls on a cast iron griddle. The soft roti jalan are eaten with curries, and especially good at mopping up any leftover sauce.
Making onde onde
We also made one of my favourite kuih, or desserts, onde onde. These bite-sized balls of pandan and glutinous rice flour dough are stuffed with palm sugar and then boiled until the sugar is melted on the inside. The balls are rolled in fresh grated coconut and popping one in your mouth is an explosion of liquid palm sugar syrup bursting through a glutinous dumpling. Terribly addictive.
Soya bean milk stall in Chinatown
And that wasn't all we did on day two. There was also a brief stopover in Chinatown in the afternoon. We weren't there for very long, and our energy was sapped from the humidity and the heat, but that didn't stop me from buying a bag of crunchy sweet potato balls, piping hot from the fryer, or snapping a few photos of the buzzing street scenes.
Making muah chee glutinous rice flour dumplings (similar to the Japanese mochi)
Clockwise from top left: Chicken soup stock for wonton mee, dishwasher hawker-style, mamak stall and roadside fruit stand
Local hawker stall in Chinatown
Deep-fried sweet potato balls 20 sen each (AU$0.06)
Grab Your Fork visited Malaysia as a guest of Malaysia Kitchen Australia and Tourism Malaysia.
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6/01/2011 03:46:00 am