Getting off the second consecutive flight (SIN > KUL > TGG) at Terengganu (we had a stopover in Singapore to eat for 1.5 days 🙂 you can otherwise fly direct SYD > KUL), our journey to Tanjong Jara Resort was not yet over. Hisham, our chatty chauffeur prepares us for the 1.5 hour drive from Kuala Terengganu to Dungun and happily points out key monuments and acquaints us with translations of Malay street food stall signs along the way. We spot a giant squid statue and he exclaims that it’s Mencandat Sotong (squid jigging) season so squid is very cheap at the moment. “But I eat everything, as long as there is chilli, without it, you know, it’s like there’s something missing”, he says. I salivate at the thought of sambal squid and then fall in and out of sleep, admiring the gleaming coastline and intricate architecture where I can.
So this is what has lured me to Malaysia’s East Coast – pure unadulterated relaxation on our own day beds and hammocks at Tanjong Jara Resort:
In need of a rejuvenating short holiday, Tanjong Jara Resort seemed like the perfect remote destination, offering the best of both worlds – the luxuries of a resort (including an award-winning spa!), infused with authentic tastes of the region’s cuisine and culture. I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur several times now so I was intrigued to see a different side of Malaysia. Not to mention that Pulau Tenggol, one of Asia’s best reefs for snorkelling and diving was just a short cruise away.
Up nice and early, we meet Chef Ann, the ‘menu master’ from Di Atas Sungei Restaurant for our scheduled Chef’s Morning Market Tour.
I love visiting the produce markets wherever I am, it bares the traditions of the local way of life. All Tanjong Jara Resort guests have the opportunity of joining Chef Ann on the market visit (RM 55 per person, minimum 2 attendees) every morning except for Friday, her day off (note: the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday here).
Chef Ann drives us herself in an air-conditioned mini-bus; she’s a vivacious character and her interaction with the stall holders makes us feel a part of the village. Having done a full 360°, Chef Ann grew up nearby Dungun and has worked in kitchens around Malaysia with YTL Hotels (owners of Tanjong Jara Resort) before returning here to take the position of menu master. Now back in her hometown, she has a fascinating role as the restaurant actually has no menu. Guests rely on the menu masters’ expertise in local cuisine to formulate the style of cooking and choice of protein. The element of surprise and her animated eagerness to delight diners makes the dining experience particularly joyful.
At the carpark, we spot small bottles of milk on top of styrofoam boxes labelled with ‘susu kambing asli‘ – it’s local goat milk says Chef Ann, before directing us to a parked van. Operating like secret business, the van is loaded with large plastic bags containing bundles of thin long tubes of Keropok Lekor, a local delicacy of fish sausages, usually to be deep-fried. “Make sure you ask to try this at the restaurant when we get back to Tanjong Jara!” suggests Chef Ann.
A common sight around the streets of Dungun are Sate Ikan, fish satay skewers, sold from the back of a motorbike. We were so busy taking in the smells and admiring the nifty set-up of the charcoal grill that we didn’t notice Chef Ann’s sister-in-law was queuing beside us! Bumping into familiar faces here is a frequent occurrence for Chef Ann and adds to the charm of visiting the market with a local.
Being a fishing village, the locals devour fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Around the wet market, fish of all shapes and sizes make it to the table; there’s tuna, mackerel, gouramy, anchovy, catfish, snapper, stingray and even sharks. And our driver was right, there was lots of squid!
Like many wet markets in South East Asia, there’s no ice used here. Fishermen simply unload their catch and it’s usually sold out within hours.
Chef Ann points out a popular chicken stall, where whole corn-fed chicken are partially cooked – crisp and charred on the outside – and sold as is, bleeding onto the same table as uncooked whole fish – and a shark. “The local villagers love it” says Chef Ann. In the modern world, we learn that par-cooked chicken is an incubator for food-borne pathogens such as salmonella but here in this small village on the east coast of Malaysia, it’s a delicacy that goes into curries and stews.
Chatting to the fishmongers, we learn that fish prices vary from time to time as a reflection of the size of their catch, which correlates to moon phases and tidal movement.
We then reach the fresh produce section and before I know it, Chef Ann teases us with dangling petai beans hanging from her ears. (I’ve mentioned to her that I despise the taste of stinky petai beans – possibly the one and only vegetable I don’t eat!)
The produce is beautifully laid out at every stall and there’s a humble sense of pride in what they specialise in. We spy winged beans, bitter gourd, edible ferns, water spinach, okra, galangal, and many herbs and spices that are the cornerstone of South-East Asian cooking.
Some of the more interesting sightings include the cashew apple (above). Cashews are actually seeds, not nuts, and while the fruit is edible, it is very perishable and apparently doesn’t taste that great.
Torch ginger, known as bunga kantan in Malay, is the bud of the ginger flower and is commonly used in salads and sauces, particularly in Nonya (Chinese-Malay) cuisine.
Fragrant tropical fruits such as rambutans, green mangoes, lychees and durian are also in abundance.
Peering past the fruit stalls, there’s an aisle of plastic chairs and makeshift restaurants, and an irresistible aroma of deep-fried goodness. Fish ball skewers, crab sticks, ikan celup tepung (whole battered fish), goreng pisang (banana fritters), and the famous keropok goreng (fish sausage) are spooned out of the fryer and served immediately to waiting customers.
There are buckets of drinks in unimaginable colours, ready to be poured into plastic bags for customers on-the-go. The clear liquid with white strips is air kelap (coconut water), there’s also air tebu (sugarcane juice), and air bandung, one of Malaysia’s most popular drinks made of evaporated milk or condensed milk and rose cordial syrup.
Keropok (fish crackers) are undeniably one of Terengganu’s best exports, being a fishing village. Types of keropok include wolf herring (ikan parang), sardines (ikan tamban), round scad (ikan selayang), threadfin bream (ikan kerisi), ox-eyed scad (ikan lolong bara), goatfish (ikan biji nangka), and lizard fish (ikan conor). When fried in hot oil, the starch (normally tapioca flour) in the keropok cause the crackers to expand and crispen, making them a very addictive snack!
I’m also delighted to see kuih kapit, crisp wafer biscuits, adoringly known as love letter biscuits.
Nasi Dagang (tuna curry with rice) is another local Terengganu delicacy, which I end up having for breakfast every day during my stay at Tanjong Jara Resort (stay tuned for my next post – you’re going to want to see the buffet they offer for breakfast!). At the market, fish curry is similarly enjoyed by the masses with ketupat daun palas (glutinous rice wrapped in leaves of the fan palm).
Chef Ann orders some sweets and snacks for a dinner party she’s hosting at home on the weekend, before sharing with us her most favourite apam balik stall. The piping hot freshness and the perfect crispness on the outside of these turnover pancakes are beyond sumptuous. The list of flavour combinations is long with their special being a pretty epic mix of egg, nuts, corn, kaya coconut jam and chocolate!
As we’re devouring our apam balik, a young family we’ve seen around the resort stop for a quick chat with Chef Ann. They’ve been visiting Tanjong Jara Resort for over 7 years straight; their newborn, now a cheeky young girl, jokes with Chef Ann in an unreserved playful manner that really symbolises the warmth of the resort. The best part for me though, is being able to go from eating at this local market to relaxing on the luxurious beachside day bed within minutes.
Chef’s Morning Market Tour is available from Tanjong Jara Resort daily (except Friday) at RM55 (approx AU$19) per person. Departure from the lobby at 9:30am with a minimum of 2 persons.
Pesar Basar Dungun
Jalan Bijangga, 23000 Dungun, Terengganu, Malaysia
Photography by Jennifer Lam; taken on Canon 5d Mark III. Camera equipment from Discount Digital Photographics
I Ate My Way Through experienced the market tour and stayed as guests of Tanjong Jara Resort