As a Perak-born girl, the predilection for tempoyak seems to be ingrained. I never really touched it as a child but somehow one day finding myself on a mat in a friend’s house in Sitiawan I was honing in to the sourish edgy gravy with the keenness of a heat seeking missile. And yes, patin is the perfect fish for this, soft flesh yielding hidden depths of flavour within the gulai. Corny, but to me gulai tempoyak tastes like coming home.
However, outside the realm of homecooks, gulai tempoyak is not necessarily well executed in eating shops. Until one day, I was driving to Grik for a hike in Belum and discovered Restaurant Tasik Raban, literally a restaurant in the middle of nowhere perched at the banks of a lake (that would be Lake Raban). Here they make gulai tempoyak like grandma used to make. All you need folks, is hot white rice slightly on the lembik (soft and squishy) side, lashings of gravy and a side of tongue tingling sambal belacan. And then to complete this, a light afternoon rain drumming across the lake during the meal.
Imagine my delight when they opened an Ipoh branch some time ago near the stadium. Pak Teh, the same guy who started the original shop, transported the same formula here- a specialisation in freshwater fishes and ancestral recipes. Forget about asking for the recipes here, it’s all strictly family only and even then you need talent to make it taste the same. Other than tempoyak, they have a huge ikan bakar counter, again with an emphasis on freshwater fishes like catfish, terubuk and temoleh (a rare fish but my dad will drop everything he’s doing and pop over here when they have it a supply). Apparently this is a nostalgic fish for those who grew up near Sungai Perak before the Japanese Occupation. Tasik Raban also do sea fishes like stingray and mackerel very, very well.
"Here they make gulai tempoyak like grandma used to make"
Ikan Bakar here has a scrumptious marinade massaged deeply then charred, crinkling the edges of the fins and skin while the insides remain succulent. They are then piled tightly in cages and rotated on the coals. Ever so often the griller will take a marinade stick made of densely tied pandan leaves, dip it in turmeric and sponge on another layer of spices. Come early if you want to have first dibs on your favourite fish. If not, there are plenty of other things to eat.
On any given day there will be more than 80 dishes on offer at Tasik Raban! Seriously even if you visit this restaurant every day for a month you still won’t double up on dishes. Among kampung-style favourites here are the Masak Lemak Labu- pumpkin stewed so lovingly in turmeric and santan, it sighs with happiness when you scoop it out. Also there is Gulai Nangka and Siput Sedut. Gulai Nangka is cooked in coconut milk until it near disintegrates. This results in a subtle broth with the powerhouse taste of nangka.
Siput Sedut, always spoke desirably by fellow Foodsters is a delicacy nowadays and it takes great skill to partake of it. You need patience to perfect the ‘ultimate suck’, that brings out the mollusk brimming with the sweet taste of the sea. And don’t get me started on the ulams and sambal belacan- there are at least six different kinds of sambal belacan from cincalok, tempoyak, budu, au natural, kicap, kelapa and so forth for you to choose from. My die-hard favourite is the sambal kuinin. Kuinin is like the ultimate mate for sambal belacan, hot-sweet, pungent-tangy.
You can also order dishes here ala carte. Some of the specialties here are like Ikan Bakar Pak Teh which is deep fried ikan kerai with onions and red peppers. This comes together with a homemade belacan dip. Ikan tengas goreng, another favourite is a meaty fish sautéed in a secret savoury sauce. Apparently Pak Teh goes back to Lenggong every evening for fresh fish from the lakes and rivers of Perak.
When asked for a contact number it turns out to be Pak Teh's handphone and when inquired of the address, the waitress had to root in a drawer to get the exact location. I love it. It shows that people flock here through sheer word of mouth alone.