On the hunt for delicious local eats, this writer heads to Bentong, in the Malaysian state of Pahang, where she discovers a rich culinary heritage and a shared passion for comfort food that transcends cultures.
Photography: Chew Win Win
The mid-morning sun feels like it’s burning through my skin, but I’m so mesmerized by the deft manoeuvres of the roti canai (flaky flatbread) man in front of me, I’m reluctant to give up my front-row spot.
With the graceful motions of an expert roti canai maker, Baharudin, the said roti canai man, works a palm-sized ball of dough into a thin pliable sheet by slapping it on the counter and flipping it several times. With quick flick of his wrists, he sends its spinning into the air, twirling and whirling the sheet of dough until it has quadrupled in diameter. The dough is then folded and set on a greased griddle to cook.
“Here, try one,” he says, sliding the freshly cooked roti canai onto a plate, while graciously refusing payment. Just as I am about to savour a piece of the still steaming flatbread, I am interrupted by the booming voice of an elderly Chinese gentleman who eyes my plate and then hollers good-naturedly to Baharudin, “Eh, hello brother! I’ve come here every day to buy your roti canai for 35 years, and still you’ve never given me a single one for free!”
Baharudin responds with a laugh, and the pair trade friendly banter. The senior gentleman is, after all, more of a friend than customer and has been patronising the stall at Bentong Market since it was set up by Baharudin’s father in 1982. At the time, Baharudin and his brother, Mohd Nasir, who now run the stall together, were young boys still learning the tricks of the trade.
In a town where everyone, literally, knows everyone else – this easy going camaraderie is hardly surprising. It’s easy to understand their closeness; this is, after all, a small town built on the backs of migrants who, through their deep respect for each other and mutual love of food, have made Bentong their home.
Road to Riches
Nearly 135 years ago, Malaya (as Malaysia was known pre-independence) was considered the King of Tin, producing more than 30 per cent of the world’s output. During the tin mining heydays, mines were established across the peninsular, and Bentong, just 60km north of Kuala Lumpur, was no exception.
When Sir JP Rodger, the British colonial administrator of Pahang was posted to the state in the late 1800s, he discovered that migrant workers had already started small-scale mining activities in Bentong. Understanding the gravity of what he had stumbled upon, he struck a deal with tin-mining towkay (business owner) Wong Loke Yew, who hailed from China’s Guangdong province and went on to become one of Malaya’s richest men.
With over 1,600 hectares of land to mine, Loke Yew’s next task was to recruit manpower from his homeland. This ushered in a new wave of Chinese migrants, most of whom landed on Malayan shores with nothing but a burning desire to make a better life for themselves.
The majority of these new settlers to Bentong comprised of people from the Guangxi region. By the 1930s, the world’s thirst for tin began to wane, but Bentong continued to prosper with the new demand for rubber. To cope with demand, more workers were brought in from China and India.
Today, Bentong neither relies on tin nor rubber. Framed by the Titiwangsa Range, Bentong’s natural splendour is what reels in crowds of nature-lovers and adventure-seekers. Most people bypass Bentong town en route to the beautiful Camang waterfalls or the lush Lentang Forest Reserve. But to really experience Bentong, you only need to walk its streets lined with pre-WWII shophouses – and sink your teeth into its authentic, old-school culinary offerings.
Here’s a selection of eateries that will satiate your culinary cravings and quench your thirst for Bentong’s history.
It is barely 9.00am on a weekday, but Yuen Kee Kopitiam is packed to the brim. This corner coffee shop is the hub for a Bentong favourite: wonton mee (noodles with dumplings). Here, two well-known wonton mee stalls, Hooi Ji (by day) and Meng Kee (at night), take turns serving up this dish that consists of hand-made springy noodles, topped with succulent barbecued pork slices, chopped scallions, and served with shrimp- and pork-filled dumplings. There are two versions of this dish — dry and soupy. The dry version is served with deep-fried wontons, and the other is basically dumpling noodle soup.
Hooi Ji is manned by Mr Lee, who took over the reins of this 45-year-old establishment from his father. With lightning speed, and much clanking of bowls and cutlery (which add to the kopitiam atmosphere), he barely breaks a sweat as he whips up bowl after delicious bowl of wonton mee. In fact, just like Baharudin, he even has time to chit-chat with customers! Hooi Ji’s customers have the option of having stewed chicken feet with their noodles, which adds another layer of texture to the dish.
Hooi Ji’s wonton mee is so popular that the stall typically sells out by 11.00am. The silent spell that follows lasts only a few hours, before the brothers who run Meng Kee set up their stall catering to the dinner crowd at 7.00pm. It seems as if Bentong folk can’t get enough of their wonton mee fill, as right across Yuen Kee Kopitiam lies another coffee shop – Choy Kee – where patrons queue for wonton mee served with kerang (cockle) curry.
The stallholders don’t mind the friendly competition, as each dole out wonton noodles with distinctively different twists. I also learn that the proprietors of all three wonton mee stalls are related! In Bentong, good food is about the joy of celebrating recipes passed down from one generation to the next. One thing these three share in common is that they all make the springy noodles from scratch the traditional way, which includes bouncing on a bamboo pole to flatten the noodle dough – a technique also employed by a handful of noodle-makers in Hong Kong and Macao.
In Bentong, one family has made its name in the ice-cream business, crafting cool treats since the 1950s. Uncle Heng, who is also fondly known as Ice Cream Uncle, has been pedalling his trusty bicycle daily around Bentong, from his home in a village along Perting River to the town centre.
The silver-haired octogenarian still does his rounds to the schools in Bentong. “What brings him most joy are the smiles on the faces of the children as they savour the iced treats,” says Heng’s daughter-in-law, who helps him with the business. “Sometimes he will even give it to them for free,” she adds with a giggle.
Heng’s father started his ice-block business (and eventually ventured into making ice-cream) in Bentong in the 1950s – and his children, including Heng’s brothers, were apples that didn’t fall far from the tree. Kow Po, the very first shop you will come across before you enter Bentong town, is an ice-creamery now run by the extremely enterprising Jeff Tan, Uncle Heng’s nephew.
Photos of politicians and celebrities – local and international – indulging in Kow Po’s ice creams line the walls of the shop, which opened its doors 46 years ago. Kow Po’s signature ice-cream flavours range from fragrant pandan to creamy durian. However, it is their ABC Special or Air Batu Campur (mixed ice in Malay) that has won the hearts of many. The decadent dessert also known as ice kacang consists of a mountain of shaved ice topped with evaporated milk, attap chee (the translucent fruit of the nipa palm), cendol (strands of rice flour jelly dyed green), sweet corn and red beans.
Another cool corner in town is T.A.K Ice Cream – a shop where locals indulge in house-made ice-cream produced from locally sourced ingredients. The shop features retro tiled walls, which were part of the original décor when the shop first opened its doors in 1976. With only three flavours: yam, coconut and pandan, patrons can try all three, which is a bonus as the creamy texture and natural flavours of the ice-cream will have you wanting more than just one scoop! T.A.K stands for Tan Ah Kaw, the original proprietor of the shop who also happens to be yet another brother of Uncle Heng’s. The shop is now run by his son who inherited the business.
Keeping family tradition going is also a must for Mohd Shariff, who owns Restaurant & Café Tawakal, a long-established mamak (Indian-Muslim) eatery in the heart of Bentong town that specialises in murtabak (flatbread stuffed with meat). “Do you know that murtabak are actually quite large – almost as big as regular-sized pizza?” he says, as he serves me his famous murtabak. Fresh off the griddle, the squarish flatbread is by far the most enticing I have ever seen, with generous amounts of minced mutton sandwiched between thin, slightly seared layers of roti. The murtabak recipe was passed down to Mohd Shariff by his father, and a blend of 14 spices is used to marinate the meat for the filling. “It’s a secret recipe,” he says with a grin, as his daughter, Nursyuhaidah who is learning the ropes from her father, nods.
Locals tell me I can never go hungry in Bentong, and to prove it, they lead me to a stand-alone shop in Kampung Baru, a five-minute drive from the town centre. It’s past 10.00pm but as soon as we approach the shop, the smoky and sweet aroma of caramelised meat greets us. This is the famous Satay Warisan Pak Chu, started in the 1980s by the late Pak Harum and his Chinese wife, Siti.
Their satay (skewered grilled meat) is well-loved by Bentong folk, who queue for the tender, juicy satay served with peanut sauce. As we devour the succulent satay, Siti reminisces about growing up in Bentong. “Despite their different cultural backgrounds, the communities here are close-knit. It doesn’t matter if you’re Malay, Chinese or Indian. We’re all from Bentong and that binds us together,” she says. Her genuine warmth and hospitality make me feel as if I am in someone’s home, and not a food stall. And the truth is, that is how I felt everywhere I went in Bentong – as if I were at home. Bentong’s glory days of tin and rubber may well be over, but it’s pretty clear that the town’s wealth is now defined by its culinary heritage and the people who call it home.
Bentong’s Treats & Treasures
Explore this small town to experience its rich heritage and essential eats.
1. Restaurant & Café Tawakal – Tawakal is known for their murtabak and teh tarik (frothy ‘pulled’ milk tea). Here, the beverage is made using tea leaves from Sri Lanka and India – a formula that has not changed since the café first opened in 1982.
2. Weng Fatt Bakery – Weng Fatt Bakery bakes 150 to 200 loaves of bread a day, and is the only bakery in Bentong where traditional Hainanese-style bread is hand-made.
3. Ah Song’s Stall — Located along Jalan Chui Yin, this stall is extremely popular, with crowds lining up for freshly prepared yong tau fu and a variety of noodles.
4. Nasi Lemak Stall – Run by second generation nasi lemak tastemakers, the stall is set up outside the historic SJKC Khai Mun Pagi school at noon and sells out by 2.00pm.
5. Choy Kee Kopitiam – Bentong has myriad locally brewed drinks; si nai ping is one of them – a mix of coffee, tea and evaporated milk. It’s also known as ‘Aunty’s Drink’ here because elderly women would gather at Choy Kee, and order this drink.
6. Yuen Kee Kopitiam – This corner shop houses two wonton mee heavyweights – Hooi Ji runs in the day and Meng Kee operates at night. Both serve the same dish, but with different twists.
7. T.A.K Ice Cream – Hailing from a family of ice-cream makers, the Tan family runs T.A.K, one of three ice-cream parlours in Bentong that serve home-made ice-cream and tantalising ice kacang.
8. Bentong Market – The market is the heartbeat of Bentong town where all kinds of produce – from poultry, fish and vegetables to the much-in-demand Bentong ginger – can be found.
9. Bentong Gallery – This fully restored pre-war house, previously belonging to Chinese towkay Wong Loke Yew, is now a gallery showcasing Bentong’s fascinating history. Visitors can also buy Bentong souvenirs and snacks like ginger tea and ginger candy here.
10. Kwong Fook Temple – Said to be older than Bentong town itself, the 132-year-old place of worship was a sanctuary for early settlers and is now one of Bentong’s most prominent landmarks.
Kopitiam – a combination of kopi, the Malay word for ‘coffee’; and tiam, the term for ‘shop’ in Hakka/Hokkien – are traditional coffee shops (found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia), which were established by Hainanese migrants. At least half a dozen kopitiam dot Bentong town, and each offers a traditional breakfast of half-boiled eggs, toast with home-made kaya (coconut jam) and butter, and a strong cup of freshly brewed local coffee. Like many other kopitiam in the country, this is where close-knit communities congregate for ‘coffee-shop talk’ – to catch up, exchange opinions and engage in deep discussions about politics, religion, history, life and everything in between. It is more common to see elderly folks at these establishments, but in Bentong, a few young people are keen on keeping this culture going, with a creative twist. Using brewing techniques handed down from their forefathers, they are crafting new drinks: some Bentong must-haves include Thong Kee’s famous 1+1 (20 per cent coffee, 80 per cent tea), and Choy Kee’s si nai ping (coffee, tea and evaporated milk).
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