"Today fish head bigger," said the boy as he slapped down the aluminum tray that contained a steaming fish head. He was aware of this discrepancy because on the previous night, I'd eaten this very dish at this very restaurant.
When doing research for Lonely Planet guides, I don't generally get the chance to eat at the same place twice -- there are simply too many places to investigate. And steamed fish head is an unlikely candidate to draw anyone, even me, back to a restaurant on two consecutive nights. But the dish was easily one of the most delicious things I ate on my most recent trip to Malaysia.
I encountered the steamed fish head in Alor Setar, the capital and main city of tiny Kedah state, in northwestern Malaysia. It's a sleepy, predominately ethnic Malay place, and in contrast to just about everywhere I'd been previously in Malaysia, it didn't really appear to have many restaurants or food stalls. So in an effort to find something interesting, I did some Googling, which led me to this blog post, and ultimately, the fish head at Muda.
Muda has no sign, is distinctly aesthetically challenged, and is run by elderly Chinese Malaysians who couldn't be described as friendly nor proficient in English. It also doesn't open until 8pm, but on the two nights I ate there customers would arrive as early as 7:45, place their orders and wait impatiently as the dining room gradually filled with oily smoke. Most of the cooking is done by one old man, so this can mean a long wait: on both visits I arrived at 8pm and ended up spending the next hour playing with my iPhone and nursing bottles of Malaysian Guinness until I was served.
But it's worth it.
Fish head may not seem like an especially meaty item, but the dish as served at Muda is really one of the meatiest, most umami-packed dishes I've ever encountered. The fish head itself is actually more like a fish half and contains quite a bit of tender seabass flesh, both in the head and the body. This meatiness is accentuated by a broth that includes soy sauce, tomatoes and mushrooms, while being countered by the tartness of salted plum, chunks of pickled vegetables and slivers of young ginger. With all this going on, the final garnish of thinly-sliced leeks and deep-fried crispy garlic seems like some sort of last-ditch effort to include every ingredient in the kitchen.
The restaurant's other specialty is fried noodles, specifically or mee, which allegedly means 'black noodles' in Hokkien:
The round wheat noodles are fried in dark soy sauce along with greens, a type of fish cake and pork, and come served with a side of sliced pickled chili. It's not as salty as you'd imagine (the pickled chilies really help cut through the soy sauce and lard), and instead is predominately smokey, meaty and rich.
Be the fish head big or small, I'm glad I went back to Muda twice, as it took the first visit for me to realise that steamed fish head served in a grotty restaurant with grumpy service where little English is spoken is obviously not the ideal Lonely Planet recommendation. And it took a second visit to realise that I don't care -- it's too good not to go in the book.
Muda Coffee Shop 111 Jalan Pekan China, Alor Setar, Malaysia 8pm-1am Sat-Thur
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