Journey to the East Coast,where rice matters

Nasi Dagang with a purplish hue is a signature rice dish of Kelantan (left). The women still run the show at Pasar Siti Khadijah in Kota Baru (right). – Pictures by James Tan
Nasi Dagang with a purplish hue is a signature rice dish of Kelantan (left). The women still run the show at Pasar Siti Khadijah in Kota Baru (right). – Pictures by James Tan

KOTA BARU, May 4  A few years back, had anyone told me that the sleepy town of Kota Baru in Kelantan offers some really tasty eats, I would have rolled my eyes in disbelief.

Possibly clouded by political propaganda and overwhelmed by the gastronomic delights found in other states, Kelantan was never in my radar for a good many years. Even the sheer thought of driving all the way to Kota Baru sounded torturous; but as luck would have it, we had to drive to Kota Baru town (KB for short) for work more than once.

That first visit back in 2009 was an eye opener for me. A stark reminder that we should never, ever limit our horizons because of assumptions and hearsay.

Not only was KB this beautiful town that was far from lifeless (try getting stuck in traffic during peak hours when everyone’s going home for dinner and you will forget that you’re miles away from Kuala Lumpur!), but I was really mesmerised by the magnificent array of Kelantanese cuisine.

These are mostly rice dishes and then there is a variety of egg-infused kuih-muih with some heavily influenced by the Thais (Kelantan shares a border with Sungai Golok/Kolok, the town infamous for post-sunset entertainment).

Don’t be afraid to indulge in rice dishes when you’re here. It is deemed not sinful to kick off your day with a packet of rice or two. In fact, having anything else seems out of place when you have crazily infectious feasts of nasi from coffee shops and pushcart stalls around town.

At Kopitiam Kita, I was spoilt for choice. This coffee shop occupies a spacious corner lot complete with dozens of tables and chairs best suited for kenduris I felt. Open only in the mornings until 1.30pm, the place is always buzzing with the staff routinely serving a breakfast crowd from all over town.

This is a self-service outlet; you walk over to the long tables lined with baskets filled with packages of rice sourced from all over Kota Baru and even neighbouring towns. From Nasi Berlauk Air Dingin, Nasi Tumpang, Nasi Dagang to Nasi Gulai and Nasi Lemak, this startling range of rice dishes was bewildering during my first visit.

Pick your preferred option (if you’re lost, go for the basket with the fastest moving item; the locals know best), then grab your cutlery and be seated. You only pay at the end of your meal. Then order a drink and dig in.

Trust me, you won’t be satisfied with merely one packet of rice.

I tried the Nasi Dagang with Ikan Tongkol and the Nasi Tumpang. The former consists of slightly purple-reddish grains indigenous to the state called beras nasi dagang which is slightly glutinous after being steamed with coconut milk; this is then served with either tuna (ikan tongkol), chicken or beef curry.

Nasi Tumpang, meanwhile, is this interesting cone-shaped packet of rice comprising steamed white rice layered with meat floss, curry and sweet gravy.

Traditionally meant for travellers (as one can imagine from the compact shape and ease of eating even without the assistance of fork and spoon), I felt that the Nasi Tumpang here would have been better with more ingredients and flavours.

(From left) Roti Titab is their version of French toast with a half boiled egg and creamy kaya. Nasi Tumpang was a dish traditionally meant for travellers. The steamer with the individual aluminium containers of rice
(From left) Roti Titab is their version of French toast with a half boiled egg and creamy kaya. Nasi Tumpang was a dish traditionally meant for travellers. The steamer with the individual aluminium containers of rice

If you are not sold yet on the idea of rice for breakfast, you still should not walk away from Kopitiam Kita. The other signature item here is the Roti Titab; a twist on French toast with the addition of a dollop of coconut and egg jam (kaya), and a half-boiled egg for that protein boost!

After a hearty breakfast of rice, you must be wondering what to have for lunch. Note that noodles or fast food ain’t that big in Kota Baru so be prepared for your second rice bonanza of the day!

Hover Restaurant serves Nasi Sumatera or rather a very Kelantanese take on the famed nasi padang from Indonesia. Replicating the serving sizes and style of nasi padang, once you’re seated comfortably you will be served with successive plates of dishes ranging from fried kampung chicken (5 pieces per portion), curry chicken, prawns or beef, sambal eggs, sayur masak lemak, bergedil (spiced potato patties) and even turtle eggs.

Naturally, steamed white rice will be served with the dozen of so savoury dishes placed in front of you; tempting one into trying a bit of everything. No worries as they will charge you based on how many pieces of chicken you take, how many eggs you had or if in the case of non-itemizable dishes (vegetables, for example), you will need to pay for the entire portion.

The Malay pakcik aka “human calculator” at Hover has garnered quite a number of fans for his quirky style of calculation; mumbling the prices of each dish you took and adding them up in rapid, successive manner. All without the use of a calculator. How accurate his mental arithmetic is, that’s another story.

Delicious fried ayam kampung at Hover Restaurant; you only pay for what you eat (left). You just have to marvel at the sheer number of choices available at Kopitiam Kita where there is more rice than you can handle! (right)
Delicious fried ayam kampung at Hover Restaurant; you only pay for what you eat (left). You just have to marvel at the sheer number of choices available at Kopitiam Kita where there is more rice than you can handle! (right)

But be prepared to pay higher than average prices here. The place is an institution with half a century of legacy, and you’re paying for top notch fried ayam kampung here. The rest of the dishes are just passable only though.

And when it comes to dinner, there is one stall along Jalan Kebun Sultan aka Chinatown named Warisan Nasi Kukus that draws a huge crowd every evening.

Nasi kukus is served freshly steamed in their individual aluminium containers in a huge, layered steamer. Hence, the rice is always soft, fragrant and goes well with the curries.

The “human calculator” is the owner of Hover and is well-known for his trademark “chants” while toting up your bill
The “human calculator” is the owner of Hover and is well-known for his trademark “chants” while toting up your bill

The stall at Jalan Kebun Sultan is perpetually packed with people so best to come earlier (apparently the locals have their dinner at rather late hours) and don’t forget to try their crispy deep fried chicken. I had the curry fish and also a piece of bergedil (potato and meat patty) and my rice was drenched in a mixture of curries. As messy and unappetising as the rice looks, the taste was simply outstanding. Definitely one of the best nasi kukus in town.

And there you have it: three meals of rice in one day. Kelantanese love their rice, and it shows in some of their most popular creations; nasi dagang, nasi kerabu and nasi ulam. The next time you overhear a friend planning a trip to the east coast, invite yourself to the party. You might just return with unforgettable, lip-smacking experiences worth sharing over and over again.

James Tan loves good food and blogs at Motormouth From Ipoh (www.j2kfm.com)