The Search for the Perfect Murtabak

Chicken Murtabak with a hot mug of sweet Teh Tarik

Chicken Murtabak with a hot mug of sweet Teh Tarik

I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢m sitting in our room in Penang, Malaysia and not far from here, in some small restaurant lost to memory, is found that holy grail of Malaysian cooking: The Perfect Murtabak. When I traveled through here 16 years ago I stumbled on this local dish, a griddle-fried bread filled with goodies and topped with a mild, sweet curry sauce. I took a stroll from my guesthouse that long-ago morning and came across a man slapping dough on a greased stone, actually sort of flipping it, very skillfully against the surface to stretch it out into a thin disk about two feet around. Then onto the hot griddle it goes to toast before it gets filled with egg and onion and folded into a neat square. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìWhat is this?, I asked. ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThis is Murtabak?¢‚Ǩ¬ù, he replied.

The murtabak chef flips the dough to stretch it out

The murtabak chef flips the dough to stretch it out

The smell was wonderful, my curiosity prevailed on me, and soon I had the pleasure of diving into one of the most delightful breakfasts of my life. The bread was toasty, with a crisp but chewy texture, the egg and onion chimed in, and the perfect compliment was the spicy tang of the curry sauce; not your overblown Northern Indian potent type of curry but a more delicate and exotic flavor that I didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t even identify then as curry. My life changed that morning 16 years ago, and it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s brought me to my current state; finding myself trying to recapture that moment in my Search for the Perfect Murtabak.

A tender moment in a crowded Singapore foodcourt

A tender moment in a crowded Singapore foodcourt

At that time I thought it wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t be difficult. Living in Chicago, I knew the chances were very good I could find murtabak in some restaurant, maybe up on Devon Avenue where the Indian and Pakastani cuisines thrive. I was to be disappointed though. It turns out that murtabak is an uniquely Malaysian dish, the Indian and Chinese cultures that influenced this country in so many other ways don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t feature it. Chicago, as far as I could tell, offered no one the ability to partake in the delights of murtabak. I spent 16 years telling of the joy I found that morning in Penang, at that little restaurant lost to memory, tucking into forkfulls of murtabak dressed in sweet red-brown curry.

Malacca historic district with fort remnant and sultan's palace

Malacca historic district with fort remnant and sultan’s palace

And now it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s threatening to ruin my marriage. As I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve traveled from city to city up the long length of the Malaysian Peninsula, trying to regain the thrill of that single encounter with murtabak, I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ve discovered to my horror that my wife doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t particularly like it. We ordered it in Singapore, at one of the large food courts in Chinatown. Chicken murtabak this time (the sardine variety is supposedly very tasty but I took a pass), which arrived not folded into a neat square but oblong, and sliced. I was back in the company of my beloved murtabak at last and though this version was a bit more bready and somewhat lacking in the filling of goodies, the sauce was much as I remembered it. Stefanie gave it a try upon my incessant ravings and urgings but she was left unimpressed. I was crushed, of course, but found consolation by discussing the shortcomings of this particular version. Too ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbready?¢‚Ǩ¬ù.

Schoolgirls waiting at the bus station in Tanah Rata

Schoolgirls waiting at the bus station in Tanah Rata

We traveled next to Malacca, the old port city of the spice trade days, just up the coast from Singapore. The remnant of the old fort is still there, as is the ruined church on the hill where St. Francis Xavier was once buried. In the same historical district is a beautifully recreated sultan?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s palace, all in a dark wood, looking just like the day the slaves finished building the original (it burned to the ground 150 years ago). Later that evening we went down the streets of the old city along the Jonkers Walk and into one of the many antique stores found there. We saw elaborately carved ?¢‚Ǩ?ìbridal beds?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢, like small open-side rooms actually, massively detailed, all shipped to the States for around $3500, if you please. Stefanie was heartbroken to leave behind a lovely celadon ginger jar painted with Chinese script.

The mountain view from the guesthouse porch, Tanah Rata

The mountain view from the guesthouse porch, Tanah Rata

Malacca was wonderful but I ate no murtabak there, and soon we were on our way up to the Cameron Highlands to a small town called Tanah Rata. We needed to change buses in Kuala Lumpur where the bus station includes a warren of bus ticket windows for countless numbers of private little bus companies. They all cry out in jangled chorus to snag the customer before the other guys does. We just kept asking ?¢‚Ǩ?ìCameron Highlands??¢‚Ǩ¬ù and walked in the indicated direction past rows of windows until we found our guy, tucked away near the end of the second aisle. Fetching our tickets, we found the bus that would take us up the road north to the Highlands. After a couple of hours on the main highway we exited onto a winding mountain road that led into the jungle-covered hills of central Malaysia.

Rolling hills of a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Rolling hills of a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

The days were cooler in Tanah Rata and we found the perfect little guesthouse up on a small hill south of town. One night, after a day spent walking through a brilliant green tea plantation, I set out to find a murtabak that would match my memory. I knew it was a crapshoot, picking the right place. Much murtabak to be found around Tanah Rata?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but where is THE murtabak, the one from my dreams? We finally settled on a small street-side restaurant. I ordered?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ well, you know what. Stefanie ordered?¢‚Ǩ¬¶Roti, another type of pan-fried bread. Now the story of my search takes an unexpected turn. For, you see, my murtabak was good. But the more I munched on my chicken murtabak, and the more we compared it to samples of Stefanie?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s cheese roti, the more I began to agree with her; the roti was BETTER! Damn that roti! So delicious! So tantalizingly close to my beloved memory of my first murtabak. Maybe the chicken filling was confusing things!!

Tomorrow, in Penang, I will attempt to find the Perfect Murtabak. This time it will be simple and straightforward. No chicken murtabak, not even sardine murtabak (which I can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t quite get up for)?¢‚Ǩ¬¶ but egg murtabak, in Penang. Malaysia. This time for keeps.

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