Oct 18, 2021 • 6M

Couchfish Day 272: Eating Kuantan

You are what you eat

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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The next stop down the peninsular is Kuantan, a straightforward bus ride south. Like Kuala Terengganu, it is a riverside state capital with its roots in fishing and trade. For those coming across from Kuala Lumpur, or from Taman Negara, it is their first stop on the east coast.

If you’ve a bit of a thing for old trading house shopfronts, Kuantan has a few, less than KT and less again than Kota Bharu. Instead, it has plenty of concrete egg cartons and an attractive mosque. The real attraction though is the food—and it covers many bases in this regard.

Hi Kuantan. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There is a hostel, the aptly named Kuantan Backpackers, but I go for the Classic, a mid-sized old hotel by the river. I hope, with an upper floor I’ll have a view, but the poorly-designed room steals that from me. Still, it will do for a night and bag dropped, I head out to start eating.

I’d be stretching the truth to call Kuantan’s riverside district a Chinatown, but it is about as close as the town gets. It must be frustrating to own an old trading house style place and see the heritage around you replaced with glass and brass, but you wouldn’t know that chatting to some of the residents.

Coke anyone? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’m cooling my heels at Tjantek Art Bistro, a funky little cafe cum restaurant just a short walk from my hotel. An entire wall houses a huge glass-doored pantry stuffed to the gills with, well, stuff. One section starts with robots and coffee equipment through to random cans of Illy. Further down there is an entire section for a Coca Cola bottle collection. I ask the owner where they come from and she tells me from all over the world. Friends and guests when overseas grab interesting ones and either hand them over or mail them back.

I see a similar array a few doors down, at Kuantan Pickers, a place holding onto the past so hard its knuckles are white. There’s an antique cash register, a rotary phone, and old photos. Also, another glass-fronted pantry filled with, more stuff. While I have just a coffee at Tjantek, at Kuantan Pickers the staffer insists I try their toast and coffee. She stands by my table, watching intently as I bite and sip. It’s good, I say, and she smiles and gestures for me to keep eating and drinking, as she stands there. Watching.

At Kuantan Pickers. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

This isn’t my first time in Kuantan, and as I know I have more meals planned, I go walking. On the river promenade, I peer over the water to the mangroves, where, in huge lettering, a sign reads “Kuantan”. I don’t know if Malaysians have trouble remembering where they are, but these signs are common. They’re also common in Indonesia—please stop it.

I loop back into town and make my way towards the mosque, passing by the yet to be opened Kuantan Tower. A boondoggle to deliver views as big as its budget, it is due to open in a week or so. Wandering, I make my way towards the mosque. Enormous and gleaming white with blue edges, it is a hard one to miss—and a beauty. Further on I find a little coffee shop, but I’m just filling time.

Sleep time soon. At Kong Lam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Popular in both Singapore and Malaysia, Bak Kut Teh is, simply speaking, pork ribs in a herbed soup. Despite the name, there’s no tea in it, but a glass comes alongside. In the case of Kong Lam, where I’m eating it, also a large Tiger Beer. The serving is just right, as is the side dish of fried dough that comes alongside, and I take my time savouring the meal. The ribs are meaty and fatty and they’ve lolled in the spices and garlic for hours before they’ve crossed my lips. The dough is handy for soaking up the residue at the bottom of the bowl.

I need to lay down.

Some time later, actually, quite some time later, I wake. It is time to eat again. This time I’m heading a little out of town, to a seafood strip across the river. It is a cab ride away and the driver talks non-stop as he drives. He misses the “old days” when backpackers were everywhere. He doesn’t hold back as he blames the government (corrupt) and Islamists (idiots). He tells me far more than he should about a Kiwi girlfriend he once had. He tells me I’m going to the wrong seafood place (there are loads of them) and drops me at one he says is his favourite. The fish is freshest here, he tells me, then adds, with a grimace, “no beer though”.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Ana Ikan Bakar Petai is a large open-air place and is already teeming with people despite the early hour. The menu is on a massive board and the staff hold back, no one really wanting to deal with me, the sole white face in the place. Eventually, one steps forward and asks me what I want.

I shrug, I’m not sure, I say. I start pointing and asking after prices. He reaches out, stays my arm, and suggests a combination of dishes. I don’t catch all he says, and while I’ll still rolling it over in my head he shows me a scrap of paper with a number on it. I nod, he nods and points me to a table to go wait.

By the river. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Ten minutes later I’ve got fish with stink beans in banana leaf, some squid, rice and one of those token plates of tortured vegetables. There may be no beer, but it is good.

Very good.


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