Does cruelty to crabs exist? Can humans be punished in giant frying pans? One hidden gem in Perak is rich in seafood, sights and smells, all thanks to the ‘green gold’ of mangrove forests. Our columnist stir-fries his twin passions of travel and food in a new column: Glutton on the Go.
KUALA Gula, a little fishing village tucked away in the north-western corner of Perak, is one place few would imagine as a treasure trove of food, adventure and sights.
Its name, translated as “sugar estuary” in Malay, comes from a century back when some swamps of the area were drained to plant sugar cane, the source of the “white gold” of yesteryears. Most of that crop is now gone, but I am glad that the “green gold” here has been preserved as the largest mangrove forests of Peninsular Malaysia.
For birders, this is a coastal sanctuary for some 200 species of birds, including feathered “tourists” who fly in from Siberia and Australia without passing Customs and Immigration.
For foodies, this means abundant seafood as the rich ecosystem here offers shelter, food and breeding grounds for all kinds of aquatic life.
“The waters are so rich that some fishermen here can earn over RM30,000 a week,” expounds our local guide, Tan Eng Chong, who is a part-time fisherman himself.
“When there are spring tides, the fishermen just go nearby, set their nets, sleep for two hours, and then haul in their catch. If they oversleep, they may not be able to even lift their nets because too many prawns have been caught!”
The true source of this watery wealth is the prudent management of the huge Matang forest reserve, where mangroves covering some 400 sq km (about 1.3 times the size of Penang island) have been sustainably harvested for decades.
I am on a group trip entitled Fascinating North: Taiping, Kuala Gula & Nibong Tebal, organised by ecotourism guide Green John Chan, and a bus load of Klang Valley people are being brought on a whirlwind weekend to see:
> belacan, soya sauce and salted egg factories
> the “making” of soft-shell crabs
> toddy wine collection from coconut trees
> charcoal production from mangrove wood
> birds and fireflies
> traditional coffee roasting
> roasting of humans (or how a Chinese temple depicts hell!)
We are given a chance to “work for our dinner” when our group go out in a motorboat. After enjoying the sights of the mangrove forests and fishermen at work, we are then handed some metal scoops.
“Don’t scrape into the seabed too deeply, just the surface,” advises Tan.
Within 15 minutes, we manage to haul up a few small buckets of cockles or kerang!
While fish, prawns, crabs and shellfish grab the seafood headlines, there is a huge, yet almost invisible, aquatic asset here.
This is krill, the tens of thousands of tiny shrimps which flourish in the mangrove ecosystem, crucial in the food chain of other larger marine species.
Known as udang geragau in Malay, they also feed the predator known as man – who uses them to make belacan, that pungent yet irresistible shrimp paste without which Malaysian cuisine would lose all its pizzazz.
“For a small place like Kuala Gula, we have ten belacan factories,” says our guide Tan, who maintains that no colouring or artificial preservative is used in the factory that we visit.
He explains the process in a mix of English and Malay:
After the shrimps are washed and drained, salt is added and the mix is left to ferment in large containers for three weeks.
The decaying shrimps congeal into a semi-solid paste, which is then spread out under the hot sun for drying – this produces the signature aroma which announces itself far beyond the factory’s gates!
Machines help to mill the paste so that it’s more “smooth” or homogenised, and then comes a second round of fermentation.
After this, the belacan is ready for to be packed and shipped out. But if there are no orders, the process of fermentation and sun drying are repeated for a third time.
“The longer you ferment it, the better the belacan smells. After four months, cukup wangi (very fragrant)!” declares our intrepid guide.
Well, why not? If people in the West can wax lyrical about the alluring aromas of rotting milk (cheese), why can’t we be affected aficionados about the belacan bouquet?
We’ve heard about how sharks die a slow death after their fins are butchered away and how geese are force-fed to make foie gras. But cruelty to crabs?
This, it seems, is what happens in the local industry for soft-shell crabs, a delicacy especially in Japanese cuisine.
Mangrove crabs do not have naturally squashy shells. Rather, as they grow, they discard their old shells in a natural moulting process and for just four hours, their new shells are still soft and spongy.
They key thing is to remove the crabs from salt water (and transfer them to fresh water) within those four hours before the new shell hardens.
“Workers have to stay awake the whole night,” explains our knowledgeable guide Tan. “If they happen to fall asleep, then they have to wait another month before the crab moults again.”
An added complication is that the freshly-moulted crabs are cannibalistic.
“In Taiwanese farms, they practise kinder methods. Each crab is kept in its own little box to avoid them from killing each other. One farm could have a few thousand boxes, like a crab condo,” Tan says.
“But here, they are all lumped into one big container and farmers cut the legs off the crabs to prevent them from fighting and eating each other.”
Crab mutilation has not entered the agenda of animal rights groups, which are usually more focused on cute, cuddly animals. Then again, some may claim this is poetic justice for the crabs’ own destructive tendencies, so is there some kind of lesson here for humankind?
On this trip, we are reminded of the “rewards” of being mean: being sliced in pieces by cart wheels, having our heads sawn by a hacksaw, or being fried in giant saucepans (the chillies are optional, I believe).
Fortunately, these are merely life-sized sculptures at the nearby Hua Seng Chinese temple, educating visitors on the perils of karma that await one in the underworld.
Still, I am left with a dilemma at the dinner table that night when deep-fried soft-shell crabs are presented along with sweet chilli sauce. But, yes, I confess that I partake of the crabs a little too eagerly – just like everyone else at the table – as this is a divine dish of crunchy fried flavour on the outside and succulent saline scrumptiousness on the inside.
We are at a low-key local place called Ai Tee Seafood Restaurant, but almost every dish seems to sing.
Our cockles – skilfully steamed to keep the meat spingy rather than overcooked to a hardened rubbery mess – go very well with a piquant sauce. And the crab meehoon manages to add a delectable crustacean zest into the dry-style fried noodles.
From inhaling belacan earlier in the day, we get to gobble some of it, stir-fried along with a vegetable that’s now a tad too politically-sensitive to name. The northern Peninsular Malaysia version of this dish is lighter, has less chilli and is somewhat sweeter than what’s normally done around KL.
As Fascinating North is a package trip, we don’t know the actual price tag of this dinner. But suffice to say that if we pay KL prices for the three (included) sumptuous meals and add in the plethora of places and experiences on this weekend, it all looks like a bargain. The only slight letdown at dinner is the seaweed soup with fish balls which are more like flour balls. But the rest of the team of dishes perform well, being generous both in portion and taste.
The stir-fried lala and deep-fried sotong hit all the right notes and the Teochew steamed snapper is fresh, springy and swimming in its rich, slightly sourish broth of tomatoes and pickled vegetables.
The fried assam prawns are bursting with tamarind gusto. Again, I find that I prefer the northern version which is more dry, tangy and subtle, compared with the much wetter (and a tad overwhelming?) version of assam prawns found in KL.
Even the fried cabbage seems like a good deal as it comes with really substantial, well… almost nuggets of small dried shrimps (har mai or heh bee)…
All in all, it’s a fascinating weekend, packed with surprising sights of rural Malaysia as we discover, or rather rediscover, things that we think are familiar. There’s so much to share that I shall have to describe the other delights of Kuala Gula in another instalment of Glutton on the Go.
For now, all I can say is that I feel elated to discover one of the hidden gems of this country.
Andrew Sia likes to expend energy while exploring new places so that he can create stomach room for more delectable dishes. Write to him at email@example.com