ULU YAM, Aug 7 — One town is most famous for its noodles, the other for the killing of 24 villagers by Scots Guards during the Malayan Emergency, henceforth known as the Batang Kali Massacre or British My Lai. The two towns are located in Hulu Selangor, about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur.
Sleepy, bucolic and blessed with abundant greens spread out in between traditional and Chinese new villages, they make for an ideal weekend side trip when the city starts to get on your nerves.
Adventure seekers love these fringes of the capital for the natural waterfalls, forests, and rivers that can host a variety of outdoor sports. Leisure travellers enjoy sightseeing these spots, and relaxing in the hot springs.
For food enthusiasts, there’s more to Ulu Yam’s famous lam mee that makes it worth a trip here. I joined a day tour led by Batang Kali native Tek Eng Seng, who promised to take our group of 10 to sample some of the best offerings in his hometown and neighbouring Ulu Yam.
We reached the latter first, and exchanged surprised looks as we found ourselves in front of a school nestled within a housing estate. Our itinerary stated a guava farm as the first stop and while we observed many trees fruiting lushly by the roadside and inside the gardens of local homes, it sure didn’t look like the kind of place to find a guava farm.
A few minutes and several turns on small housing roads later, we arrived at the unlikely scene, set at the end of a short row flanked by modern suburban houses. There’s no signboard but as we drove through the open gate, there was no mistaking the guava trees that surround the eight-acre property.
As we nibbled on sweet, crispy slices of the farm’s signature Emperor Guava, Tek explained that it is a Taiwanese hybrid that bears sizeable fruits that weigh, on average, 1 kilogram each.
The biggest single fruit they have recorded to date was about a quarter of a bowling ball in size and weighed a hefty 2.7 kilogrammes! If that’s not impressive enough, these fruits are grown organically, and have higher fibre and nutrients content than the regular guava.
Ho Wee Ming had been experimenting with this hybrid since 2009, after moving here from Johor to escape the humdrum of urban living. Starting with vegetables, he gradually moved to planting guava, expanding the farm as his labour began to bear fruits.
Now his young sons, Eric and Jeffrey, are learning how to run this farm while Ho focuses on their new, bigger venture in Kuala Kubu Baru.
Jeffrey, who is only 16 and studies in Kuala Lumpur, goes back on weekends to assist while learning the intricacies of guava farming. It’s not exactly new to him; he has been helping to sell their vegetables at the farm after classes or tuition since he was in primary school.
A KTM Komuter zipped through the farm as Jeffrey explained that no pesticides are used on the farm, and the soil is enriched with a homemade fertilizer that’s a blend of fruits and ikan bills.
He pointed to the fruits on the trees, wrapped individually in newspaper and contained in a plastic bag each, to aid in their ripening while protecting them from prey.
The fruits produce moisture that dampen the newspaper, and that actually helps them last longer. As they packed our orders — they sell the guava at RM7 per kilogramme — Jeffrey and Eric advised us to do the same: Wrap the fruits in damp newspaper and keep in the refrigerator.
For now, those who are interested to taste and buy their award-winning guava (it clinched top prize in a local produce competition) will have to make a trip to their farm which, in time to come, may include homestay facilities, a cafe and a greenhouse by the lake. Also in the pipeline are dried guava tea bags, an innovation they hope to introduce by next year.
We left the Hos’ farm with several kilogrammes of Emperor Guava each and several more in our stomachs, collectively. You’d think that would render us unable to stomach lunch but as Eric told us, organic fruits are broken down and digested quickly, and we would be hungry in no time.
Less than 10 minutes’ drive and we arrived at A Palm Restaurant, which is known for their five signature dishes, each a rich serving of meat or seafood. There was tong po-style braised pork belly, claypot prawns curry, claypot fish head curry, broiled vegetables and perhaps the most unexpected of the mix, claypot bak kut teh. On paper, it’s a clash of strong flavours but as the dishes arrived piping hot, any doubts we had were cast aside.
After the customary food photos had been snapped, we dug in with gusto, relishing the sweetness of the fresh prawns swimming in a flavourful curry. The pork belly was a little dense but moreish in taste, the mild herbal soup of the bak kut teh let the pork slices be the star of the dish, the fish in the other curry was cooked just right — moist and tender.
A Palm is just one of many restaurants in the area that is popular with locals. As Tek cautioned, if you really want to taste the best his hometown has to offer, you would have to spend days just eating.
This being a food trip, as soon as lunch was done, we were already thinking of dinner and on this tour, we would have to work for it. After stopping to smell the flowers, literally, at orchid specialist World of Phalaenopsis, we made our way to Kampung Bukit Chandang in Batang Kali.
This Chinese new village is a quiet enclave that sits at the foot of the town’s highest peak by the same name, and is a showcase of vernacular Malaysian architecture through the years. The oldest are the all-wooden structures, followed by the half-wood half-brick homes that are typical of new villages. Modern houses are entirely brick and mortar.
We trooped to the Balai Raya, a multi-purpose function hall and focal point of Kampung Bukit Chandang, where the head of the village was waiting to take us through a noodle-making workshop. Everyone at this village, we were told, knew how to make the town’s iconic lam mee, which is wheat flour noodles in a thick, starchy soup.
Everything we needed was already laid out on the long table: Flour, alkaline and regular water, and red plastic tubs to hold and knead the mixture. Preparing the mixture was the easy part — just add a few drops of alkaline water to the flour followed by water — but it is the kneading that is key.
The dough cannot be too wet or the noodles will stick together and be too soft when cooked. We were instructed to add the water bit by bit and work the dough with a good amount of strength to knead, pull and fold. Basically, the more of a workout you give the dough, the more “QQ” (springy) the noodles will be.
While our would-be noodles were enjoying a strenuous massage, we were working up a good sweat inside the Balai Raya, where only fans served as ventilation. Luckily for us, the skies decided to open up and gave the village a good drenching, bringing temperatures down with a bit of breeze.
It did, unfortunately, mean that we had to skip the village stroll and sunset watch but Kampung Bukit Chandang had another highlight for us. Just round the corner from the Balai Raya, in a corner house with a semi-open back kitchen, a tradition was being kept alive through a cottage industry.
For the Hokkiens, who make up the majority of Batang Kali’s population, there are no gifts more esteemed than mua lao and lao huei, which are presented as wedding gifts. Made of glutinous rice, yam and maltose, these puffy biscuits are coated in sesame seeds or rice pops, respectively.
At the third-generation family run Swee Len Food Industries, these scrumptious snacks are still made the traditional way, a painstakingly arduous task that involves seven important steps spread out over seven days.
Every single component has to be prepared from fresh ingredients and done by hand, then shaped into greyish-purplish sticks and finally, baked using firewood.
To observe the entire process, you would have to make repeat trips throughout the week. On any given day, visitors can only catch one of the seven steps and in our case, the workers were breaking up clusters of dehydrated glutinous rice grains that would be used to coat the lao huei.
Crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, they’re the kind of snacks where it is hard to stop at one. We did, only because dinner awaited in the form of the anticipated lam mee.
At one of countless restaurants in town that serves this local specialty, we tried both the white and the dark versions. The former is the original way that lam mee was served, with vinegar on the side so you could customise the tartness to personal tastes. The latter is more commonly found these days, with the vinegar already pre-mixed into the starchy broth to give the dish a dark appearance.
Both versions have their merits as it depends on how vinegary you like the broth to be. Most importantly, whichever version you order, the homemade noodles promise to be springy and satisfying to the bite.
Like Ulu Yam and Batang Kali, there’s certainly more to the towns and their foods than meet the palate and eyes. Batang Kali may have had a sordid past and some unsavoury associations, but by the end of this tour, you will agree that the only crime was not having enough time to savour more of the town’s specialties.
For this and other guided tours of Ulu Yam-Bentong Kali, contact Tek Eng Seng at 019-380 8871. This tour (“A Look Into Batang Kali”) can also be booked through LokaLocal at www.lokalocal.com
Born and raised in a small town, Vivian Chong thinks nothing tastes better than small town food. Read more of her food adventures at http://thisbunnyhops.com/