Sweet Village II: More to savour in Kuala Gula

  • Features
  • Saturday, 22 Mar 2014

This huge charcoal kiln can produce RM8,000 worth of black gold a month. A trip participant poses with the slow-burning fire that dries up the wood.

Discover the ‘black gold’ and ‘green wealth’ of Kuala Gula.

IN the first article of this Glutton on the Go column two weeks ago, I revelled in the delights of Kuala Gula, a “Sweet Village” packed with seafood (delicious and cheap), sights (including gory ones) and smells (of brewing belacan).

This fishing village, tucked away in the north-western corner of Perak, punches above its weight as an attraction for both foodies and tourists largely because of the “green gold” of the well-preserved Matang mangrove forest reserve off its coast, which serves as a rich breeding ground for all kinds of sea creatures.

Before getting into the great seafood we had on a weekend bus tour here, let’s look at the “black gold” produced here from the mangroves – charcoal.

Those pieces of fuel may be regarded as archaic in this day of gas cookers. But many food lovers, including myself, still swear that the best fried kway teow and Hokkien mee must come from a roaring charcoal fire – there’s just that added zest and scent in the noodles.

Or, to borrow the slogan from a fast food chain, “it’s the woood that makes it goood”.

The red snapper is a divine mix of Nyonya and Indian curry styles, reflecting the best of Malaysian synergy.
The red snapper is a divine mix of Nyonya and Indian curry styles, reflecting the best of Malaysian

Black gold

The production of charcoal here was once regarded as a sunset industry but it has picked up again in the last 20 years, thanks to demand from the Japanese.

Apart from being burnt for barbecues, steamboats, tea-brewing and sauna steaming, charcoal is also used to filter water, purify the air (think of fridge odour removers) plus, it is believed, to absorb radiation.

Our very knowledgeable local guide, Tan Eng Chong, adds, “Don’t forget that charcoal can also be used in cosmetics and when baking bread. And when you have food poisoning, what do you take? Charcoal pills!”

Charcoal is “made” in kilns that look like huge igloos. The crucial point is that the mangrove logs inside the kilns are not burnt, but merely dried out by prolonged low heat.

The logs are baked for eight to 10 days at a temperature of 83°C to remove all moisture from the wood, and then baked for another 12 to 14 days at 220°C. They are then left to cool inside the kiln for at least eight days. The whole process takes about a month.

Perfectly seasoned:The crab was stir-fried with a kamhiong seasoning that did not overpower its natural sweetness.
Perfectly seasoned: The crab was stir-fried with a kamhiong seasoning that did not overpower its natural sweetness.

“Forty tonnes of green wood go into a kiln, but only 10 tonnes of charcoal comes out,” explains Tan. “Only the front part is burnt to produce heat and smoke.

“The flame has to be carefully controlled 24 hours a day. If it enters the kiln itself, then all the logs inside will be burnt to ashes. Hancur (destroyed).”

Experienced workers know if the wood inside is burning or just drying up by the scent of the smoke coming out.

Tan let us have a whiff from a kiln’s funnel and voila, there was a wonderful, sweetish tanginess to the smoke. Why, the kiln was almost like a giant shisha, the waterpipe smoked in the Middle East!

I was wondering why nobody smoked this stuff (mangrove wood “high” anyone?); but Tan explains that the sweet smoke is actually collected in liquid form and exported to Japan for the cosmetics industry!

“A kiln can produce RM8,000 worth of charcoal for each cycle. The industry may look rough, but the kiln owners all live in big bungalows,” smiles our guide.

The prawns fried with oats in butter sauce are both crunchy and succulent.
The prawns fried with oats in butter sauce are both crunchy and succulent.

Green wealth

The huge Matang forest reserve (from Kuala Gula down to Port Weld) covers some 400 sq km (about 1.3 times the size of Penang island).

The mangroves have been sustainably and systematically harvested – area by area – for decades and support 350 “charcoal kilns”. In other words, this is a never-ending stream of wealth and jobs.

Indeed, before Chinese New Year, some dealers stuff their warehouses with charcoal right up to the roof. This custom is believed to bring in more prosperity because the Chinese word for charcoal is tan, which also sounds like the word for profit.

Another source of green wealth here are the coconut trees. Most Malaysians think of these trees as a source for refreshing juice and rich santan for nasi lemak. But don’t forget the sweetly pungent alcoholic brew called toddy.

We only have time for a quick stop to see A. Vedhamuthu at work, climbing up trees to collect the coconut flower sap, which is later fermented into toddy. He does 60 trees a day from 7am till 5pm – that’s a massive outdoor “gym” workout.

These mangrove logs have been sustainably harvested for decades from the Matang forest reserve to make charcoal.
These mangrove logs have been sustainably harvested for decades from the Matang forest reserve to
make charcoal.

Scrumptious seafood

We’ll look closer at toddy in other instalments of this Glutton on the Go column, which of course is about both travel and food. With so much marine life sloshing around the waters of Kuala Gula, seafood has to be the star attraction here.

For lunch, we stop at a Chinese eatery called Soon Soon Lai, one of those wonderful Malaysian gems that has downmarket looks and costs but absolutely upmarket flavours!

The crab is cooked in kamhiong (literally, golden fragrance in Cantonese) style, a term used because of that certain zing (or kam) you get from stir-frying anything with curry leaves.

A.Vedhamuthu, 55, climbs up 60 coconut trees a day to collect the flower sap to be fermented into toddy.

Kamhiong can easily end up overpowering the natural flavours of food, but our dish is perfectly seasoned to blend well with the inherent sweetness of the crab flesh and, even better, roe.

The prawns fried with oats in butter sauce is another winner, as the oats add to the external crunchiness while being finely balanced with the prawns’ internal juiciness. It’s all about the timing when cooking these dishes.

Then comes the steamed red snapper with curry sauce. The fish is fresh with that springy, snappy bounce to it, pardon the pun. This is only to be expected given that we are at a fishing village.

But what blows me away is the sauce, which is neither the (often overly) rich and lemak curry that Nyonya restaurants serve, nor the (sometimes overly) hot and spicy stuff of Indian fish head curry.

Rather, it’s something uniquely in between, with enough spicy gusto in counterpoint to a rich, thick curry sauce.

Forget about the cacophony of politics for a while. This, to me, is the best of what Malaysia is: the blending of different cultures in a land of rich resources. This is our home.

Andrew Sia likes to expend energy exploring new places so that he can create stomach room for more delectable dishes. If you have some suggestions for him, write in to star2@thestar.com.my

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Lifestyle , Seafood , Mangrove , Charcoal


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