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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia: Caterpillar fungus, Brinchang Markets and assam laksa

"They're worms!" we cry out to Billy as we lean in closer to inspect.

Billy laughs. They're actually caterpillar fungus, a parasite that attacks hibernating caterpillar larvae and taps into its circulatory system. The fungus starves the larvae, enveloping the insect and taking on its shape until it is effectively mummified.

The Chinese call it dong chong chao. With a long list of reputed antibacterial and therapeutic properties, it's a highly prized and valuable medicine.

Here at the local fruit and vegetable market in Brinchang, Malaysia, the caterpillar fungus are spread in huge piles on sheets of tarpaulin on the ground. It's day five of our recent Malaysia/Thailand trip and all of us are keen to explore the local markets.

The morning markets are quiet, with only a few locals wandering between stalls, but there's plenty of fresh produce, and the high-altitude backdrop of the Cameron Highlands make for a spectacular setting.

Local fruit and vegetable market in Brinchang, Cameron Highlands

Habanero chillies

Cameron Apple

The Cameron Apple is actually a South American native fruit, also known as a pepino, melon pear or tree melon. We didn't get a chance to try any but apparently it tastes like a cross between a cucumber, rockmelon and honeydew.

Local strawberries 1/2kg for RM10 (about AU$3.60)

The strawberries are plentiful, plastic trays of fruit huddled around old-fashioned scales in hospital green.

Strawberry umbrellas

And where there are strawberries, there are strawberry souvenirs. We found strawberry cushions, ear muffs, hats, gloves and socks throughout our travels in the region. Here at the market, strawberry-patterned umbrellas hang above tables filled with tomatoes, cabbages, cauliflower, sweet potato and mangosteen.

Market stall operators

Sweet potato balls 8 pieces for RM2 (about AU$0.72)

The sweet potato balls were addictive, a small orange cube coated a thick batter that was deep-fried, covered with toffee and sprinkled with crunchy sesame seeds.

Steamed corn RM2.50 (about AU$0.90)

Local market-goers

Having completed our morning exercise -- the calorific benefits of strolling should never be underestimated -- we head back into the van and look for breakfast.

Uncle Chow Kopitiam

"Let's go to Uncle Chow's!" I yell from the backseat, having just spotted a sign on the side of the road. A professionally printed sign in chocolate brown points the way to the kopitiam, or coffee shop.

There are lots of signs to follow, we discover, a game that sees us peering through windows trying to spot the next road marking to caffeinated sustenance.

Uncle Chow Kopitiam

It's still early when we arrive but Uncle and Aunty Chow are bright and chirpy. The laminated menu offers three set specials as well as heartier fare like nasi lemak (RM7.90/AU$2.80), mee hoon soup (RM7.90/AU$2.80), toasted tuna sandwich (RM7/AU$ chicken congee (RM6/AU$2.15) and fried kuey teow (RM6 /AU$2.15).

Value Meal Set A RM5 (about AU$1.80)
Roti bakar with butter and kaya, two soft boiled eggs and kopi

Set A, ordered by Minh, is one of the best value meals - two slices of roti bakar, or toast, served with butter, kaya, two soft boiled eggs and coffee.

Soft boiled eggs are one of those comfort food dishes that most Malaysians adore. The eggs are not so much soft-boiled as barely set. The egg whites are so runny they are more like a milky soup, with two lustrous orbs of golden egg yolk shimmering just below the surface. It's a strange concept to deal with at first, but once you season the eggs with soy sauce, salt and lots of white pepper, the mixture is perfect for dipping in torn shards of toast - a Malaysian version of "dippy eggs" or boiled eggs and soldiers. Bursting the skin of the egg yolk is always the best part.

Roti bakar with butter and kaya RM2 (about AU$0.70)

Kaya toast was a revelation for me on my first visit to Singapore last year. Unlike the ones I'd sampled there, the toast at Uncle Chow's is thick and fluffy. Personally I find this upsets the optimal butter and kaya to toast ratio. My ideal version of kaya toast involves super thin slices of crunchy toast, slices of cold butter and lashings of rich pandan-flavoured kaya coconut jam.

The components here create a more moderate affair, the kaya jam more of a caramel flavour than eggy custard. I eat it all regardless.

Kopi-O RM1.80 (about AU$0.65)

A dark brown pool of coffee is heaven to any caffeine addict. Malaysians tend to drink their coffee extra sweet - in a Kopi-O, a pool of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup is mixed into the drink by a quick stir with the spoon. The intense sweetness of condensed milk is an addictive counterbalance to the bitterness of coffee.

Har mee RM7.90 (about AU$2.90)

Forget about cereals or fat-free grapefruit for breakfast. Is there anything better than a hearty bowl of noodles for your first meal of the day?

Billy's har mee is a prawn noodle soup with a rich stock made from prawn heads. Shreds of chicken, strips of tofu and silky tubes of kangkong water spinach intermingle with prawns and noodles in a fragrant seafood soup.

Curry laksa RM7.90 (about AU$2.90)

Curry laksa is not for the faint-hearted, particularly first thing in the morning. Specks of chilli oil dot the surface of the spicy coconut soup. Sprigs of mint rest on top of deep-fried tofu puffs, fish balls and rice noodles. There are plenty of things going on here, although Simon wishes it were spicier.

Assam laksa RM7.90 (about AU$2.90)

I've saved the best for last - assam laksa. Unlike traditional laksas, assam laksa does not contain any coconut milk or coconut cream. Instead the soup is made using mackerel, tamarind and lemongrass, giving it a distinctive hot and sour flavour.

It's one of my favourite dishes, and I hadn't expected much from this tiny life cafe far from the original home of this dish, Penang.

Rice noodles and assam laksa

It's amazing.

The soup is so thick with chunks of mackerel, it's a murky slurry of deliciousness. Fresh mint, raw onion rings and sweet pineapple chunks lift the dish, which carries undertones of lemongrass, chilli, galangal and tamarind.

This is a dish that's spicy and sour, fishy and sweet. It's the best assam laksa we find in all our Malaysia travels, including several assam laksas in Penang.

Only later I discover that Uncle and Aunty Chow are originally from Damansara, Petaling Jaya, just outside of Kuala Lumpur. The couple decided to retire in the Cameron Highlands, setting up the kopitiam coffee shop. Today they feed locals and tourists kopi, kaya and crazy-good assam laksa, and even now that laksa is one of my favourite Malaysia memories.

> Read the next Malaysia post (Ipoh tortoises, rojak and yong tau fu)
< Read the first Malaysia 2010 post (Kuala Lumpur)

View Larger Map

Uncle Chow Kopitiam
Unit C2-G-01, Block C2,
Taman Royal Lily,
39000 Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands
Tel: +60 (12) 205 2778

> Read the next Malaysia post (Ipoh tortoises, rojak and yong tau fu)
< Read the first Malaysia 2010 post (Kuala Lumpur)
21 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 6/24/2010 12:54:00 am


  • At 6/24/2010 9:39 am, Anonymous Minh said…

    It's silly, but I regret not buying a strawberry umbrella lol.

    Man that Assam... I'd go back to Cameron just to try it again!

  • At 6/24/2010 10:34 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    aw i want assam laksa now.. with a side of fungus.. not

  • At 6/24/2010 11:20 am, Anonymous bowb said…

    SIGHHHHHH. you make me hungry, and all i have here is the very last end bit of a loaf of slightly stale bread. that portion of kaya you got with your toast looks very miserly! the har mee on the other hand... just magical. drool, and sigh.

  • At 6/24/2010 11:46 am, Anonymous Hannah said…

    Strawberry earmuffs! YES!! And I've wanted to try the non-coconut assam laksa for years, I kid you not, but have never ever seen it anywhere. Which really means I need to make it myself, doesn't it? Sigh for laziness.

  • At 6/24/2010 11:51 am, Blogger 2-minute Noodle Cook said…

    Thanks for sharing the caterpillar fungus info. I once saw those "worms" in a soup thought the worst

  • At 6/24/2010 3:53 pm, Blogger Laura said…

    I'll take a bowl of Rice noodles and assam laksa over a healthy breakfast, maybe just once!

  • At 6/24/2010 4:18 pm, Anonymous Amy @ cookbookmaniac said…

    me wants the assam laksa :(

  • At 6/24/2010 11:01 pm, Anonymous john@heneedsfood said…

    Pretty strawberry brollies! I've never tried kaya and really look forward to my first taste. And that fungus looks like long wichetty grubs :p

  • At 6/25/2010 4:27 am, Blogger Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook)! said…

    Oh that fungus... I think I've seen it before somewhere! Possibly on another blog somewhere though haha =D Can't remember.

    Awww you lost me at Strawberries, and sweet corn... some of my fave things to eat. So CHEAP! All the things I could do with strawberries!

  • At 6/25/2010 1:34 pm, Anonymous Marc @ Wanderingcook said…

    Wow what a great post. I love all the photos and it's making me look forward to my SE Asia trip later this year.

  • At 6/25/2010 2:51 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Mmmmm craving some roti and kaya! Fungi... not so much

  • At 6/26/2010 2:01 pm, Blogger Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) said…

    I was so confused by caterpillar fungus as a child...and the explanations offered by Chinese elders wasn't much help either!

  • At 6/27/2010 6:39 pm, Anonymous huiwen said…

    nice blog. what camera you using there? :)

  • At 6/27/2010 10:49 pm, Anonymous Trissa said…

    Caterpillar fungus - hmmm - not quite sure about that one... but the curry laksa looks absolutely yummy - like something I could totally enjoy. I am enjoying your travel writing Helen - can't wait to hear more.

  • At 6/28/2010 1:26 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Minh - lol. I was secretly tempted by those strawberry umbrellas too. Wasn't the assam awesome? We should've ordered a bowl takeaway. lol

    Hi chocolatesuze - I am constantly craving assam laksa. Ha, I'm sure that fungus is good for you.

    Hi bowb - Small portions of kaya make me sad. The har mee was good but oh that assam laksa was amazing.

    Hi Hannah - I found a few packets of assam laksa base in the Asian grocery stores. Next I have to get me some mackerel!

    Hi 2-minute Noodle Cook - The worms are quite confronting and reseearching them was even more fascinating. I'd be intrigued to try them once :)

    Hi Laura - Just once? Don't they say you eat breakfast like a king? lol

    Hi Amy - Me too. I miss it all!

    Hi John - I have a feeling you'll be making some kaya soon? lol

    Hi Angie Lives to Eat (and Cook) - The prices are crazy cheap. Such a pity I couldn't pack extra stomachs.

    Hi Marc - Glad you enjoyed the post. I am sure you will have an amazing time!

    Hi FFichiban - Cos you bring the fun guy yourself?

    Hi Mademoiselle Delicieuse - Oh I can imagine the explanations you got as a child as to what those tasty morsels were! lol.

    Hi Huiwen - Thank you. I use a Nikon D90.

    Hi Trissa - The assam laksa was great. So glad you've been enjoying the posts. It's been fun reliving the eats and travels all over again :)

  • At 6/28/2010 4:46 pm, Anonymous Forager said…

    The Assam laksa looks so rich and amazing! Yum!

    As for the caterpillar fungus - those were the poor man's plant versions of the caterpillar fungus. My parents had a plant in our backyard.

    The real stuff looks totally different - like an actual caterpillar with legs, segments, a head and pincers AND about 100x more expensive and sold in tiny quantities.

  • At 7/02/2010 12:35 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Forager - Ahh interesting. Billy said there were a plant but I could only find mention of caterpillar fungus online and thought his parents were fibbing. lol.

    Do you know the name of the plant? I've tried searching for it but come up with nothing so far...

  • At 7/02/2010 11:12 pm, Anonymous Faith said…

    I loved Cameron highlands =) We went strawberry picking, and it was something like towards the rainy season. Tons of strawberry-based food and merchandise there.

  • At 8/03/2010 3:23 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Faith - Cameron Highlands was lots of fun. The strawberry umbrellas were so cute!

  • At 6/26/2011 2:41 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Are you sure that those fungus things aren't chinese artichokes?

  • At 11/10/2011 10:53 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Your are right. It is not cordycep but chinese artichoke tuber(Stachys affinis).


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