Handmade cendol anyone? And yes, you can tell the difference!
SELANGOR, Sept 7 — My previous Secret Eats piece on traditional South Indian appam drew the attention of a reader named Ferhad Iberhim, who wrote in asking for details and in exchange, he told me about his favourite cendol stall.
His directions were simple enough and I made my way to the food truck parked opposite a mosque, underneath tarpaulin sheets tied between two tall trees.
I love this aspect of our local food scene: Casual eateries that serve simple, comforting meals amidst an al fresco environment surrounded by lush greens. Call me sentimental but in my books, food that’s served under the shade of leafy trees always tastes better.
A bunting tied to one of the trees displays the truck’s menu: Cendol, ais batu campur, rojak, mee rebus and mee kari. Such food trucks are common across Malaysia and most of the offerings are pretty standard fare.
But Ferhad had told me that this proprietor makes his own cendol by hand, which is a rarity and that was what I was keen to check out.
I started with a bowl of cendol and a plate of rojak mamak or pasembur, as recommended by Ferhad. I had arrived on a rainy afternoon so there was no crowd and it was just a matter of minutes before my order was laid out on the long table covered with a plastic tablecloth.
I dug into the cendol first and was glad to note that they didn’t give me a mountain of shaved ice as some stalls do but a good amount that’s balanced by coconut milk. You have the option of adding red beans (they use kidney beans) or glutinous rice.
The cendol itself, jade green and worm-like, were fairly thick and of uneven forms as I expected to see, due to their handmade nature. They imparted a subtle pandan fragrance and flavour, which told of their authenticity, and were slippery soft yet firm to the bite.
The gula Melaka, another important component that can make or break a cendol, was another plus point — aromatic and not overly sweet.
Altogether, it was a refreshing and highly satisfying bowl of dessert that paired really well with the rojak. Slivers of finely-julienned jicama and cucumber sat in a pool of chunky peanut sauce with bite-sized pieces of fritters, a hard-boiled egg and blanched bean sprouts.
I would have loved more vegetables in the mix, but it’s a small shortcoming that was easily made up for by the rest of the dish. The sauce had a spicy kick to it that gave just enough heat without overpowering the rest of it.
The fritters were another delight, full of flavour and most importantly, tasted fresh and not greasy.
It prompted me to try more of their food so I ordered the ais batu campur (ABC) and mee rebus. The ABC, while striking to look at with its vibrant pink jelly pearls and green jelly, was too sweet for my liking.
The latter, on the other hand, was an appetising plate of yellow noodles in a thick, creamy sauce that’s cooked from fresh prawns, sweet potatoes, curry leaves and a blend of spices including cumin, star anise, fennel and cloves.
Most mee rebus tends to lean towards either the sweet or the spiced side but this was a good balance of both. The sauce had a good depth of well-rounded flavours that unfolded in the mouth.
There’s a richness and freshness to the dishes, and when I spoke to owner Mohamad Hanefah bin Abdul Latif, his food mantras say it all: “I cook as I would want to eat” and “always cook with love.”
Hanefah, whom friends and customers fondly call Pak Su — Su being short for bongsu, which means the youngest in the family and he is — went on to tell me the importance of sustainability in this business. “You must do things properly, no chin chai!” That means not skimping on any ingredients or proven methods, even if it takes longer or delivers a lower yield.
The green of the cendol, for example, must come from natural pandan essence and not food colouring or flavouring. “I once had this customer, an elderly gentleman, who came to try my food and told me that the flavours are what he remembers from similar dishes he ate years ago,” said Pak Su. “He asked me to never change them.”
Pak Su also has personal reasons for staying faithful to the recipes, which he learnt from his late father who used to run a cendol stall near the old railway station in their hometown of Batu Gajah, Perak.
After SPM, Pak Su spent a year and a half helping his father manage the stall and learning about the intricacies of cendol-making. It’s a long time to spend on picking up one skill, I remarked. Pak Su was quick to point out that there are many details to it and everything takes time.
The cendol is made by mixing rice flour, water and pandan essence and then pushing it through a special sieve. Pak Su and his brother Mohamad Abdul Majid, who runs the truck with him, make the cendol themselves at home once every three to four days or whenever it runs out, using about five kilos of flour each time.
The syrup that’s served with the cendol is a mixture of brown and white sugar scented with pandan leaves, an alternative they had to resort to as pure gula Melaka has become scarce. The sugar mix needs to be cooked for up to five hours to achieve the desired consistency and taste.
Even though Pak Su has been making and selling cendol from his truck for 14 years now, he does not consider himself an expert and definitely not as good as his late father. “I’m still perfecting my skills as I go along,” he says modestly, adding that being humble is actually an important ingredient in making cendol.
“Whenever someone praises my food, I would just nod and smile. If I as much as boast, something is bound to go wrong the next time I make cendol!”
For the noodle dishes, Pak Su turned to his sisters for tutelage and as with the cendol, he continuously aims to perfect the recipes. “I still make mistakes,” he admitted, citing the time when he didn’t realise that the cumin he had always relied on had dropped in quality. That affected the flavour of the sauces and he received complaints from customers as well as his sisters.
“They would scold me if something is not up to standard, and tell me not to sell it to my customers!” Pak Su also makes it a point to never serve leftovers; anything that’s unsold at the end of each business day is thrown or given away. When you eat at his stall, you can be assured that everything is freshly made that very morning.
Pak Su’s dedication to serving honest, good food and attention to details spills over to the way he runs his stall. I had observed as his brother Abdul Majid prepared the rojak. The ingredients were kept in a simple larder with open shelves that’s ubiquitous at food stalls but this one had a soft purple curtain covering it as a hygiene measure.
He would lift the curtain to take out the ingredients as needed and as soon as an order was done, the curtain went back down. I looked around the truck and the seating area, and was pleased to note that everything was clean and neat, which is something we don’t see often enough at local food stalls. “Of course cleanliness is important,” Pak Su confirmed. “Who would want to eat at a stall that’s not clean? Not me!”
The brothers are assisted by one staff who has been with them for more than 10 years now and the three share an easy camaraderie. For the first-time visitor, it may be hard to tell who’s the boss and who’s the worker!
Pak Su’s two teenage children help out during their school holidays and get paid proper wages. “Last year, my elder son managed to save up a good amount from working for me and with that money, he paid for one sacrificial goat during Hari Raya,” the proud father revealed.
Besides selling at their regular spot, Pak Su also does catering for private functions and corporate events, and is savvy enough to ensure that their uniform of polo T-shirts are embroidered with the stall’s name and contact details on the back.
Pak Su’s business acumen and exposure come from his previous jobs; he has worked at a fine dining restaurant of a five-star hotel in Singapore and for four years, he was a steward on a private yacht. Those were what he calls his “golden years” as he had the opportunity to travel to more than 15 countries for free while earning a living.
It was also during that time that he met his good friend Param Jothy Krishnan, now the captain of a private yacht, who encouraged him to establish this business and lent him the money for his start-up. Param never once asked him to pay back the money but it was always Pak Su’s aim to do so. Last year, he finally managed to save enough to repay his friend and supporter.
It would seem that everything is going Pak Su’s way, so is there anything else he would like to see through? “I’d encourage my children to travel,” he said. “Everyone needs to see the world.” And if you’re a cendol fan, you need to travel to his neighbourhood and try his handmade dessert and spicy noodle dishes.
If you’re interested in dining here, how about an exchange for this Secret Eats’ location? You can email me your own secret eat or a place you like to frequent for good food at email@example.com and I’ll reveal to you this secret eat.
Vivian Chong is a freelance writer-editor, and founder of travel & lifestyle website http://thisbunnyhops.com/