Pitcher Plant Glutinous Rice, Bee Larvae Porridge, Cattle Brain Curry and Clay foods. They may not sound appetizing but in the good old days, a taste of these old Malaysian delights is sought after.

While these foods have perished over time, others still preserve its authenticity. From charcoal-fried koay teow to clay pot chicken rice, the flame war between charcoal purists and gas hotheads continues. Which tastes better? And do they taste as good as the original?

Good Old Cooking

Call me old school when it comes to food. Grandma’s cooking is still the best. Charcoal- fried, wood-baked, clay pot-stewed. Why bother much about smoke when the wood makes it good or the charcoal whips up the flavour?

Take for instance, a bakery shop like Hiap Joo Bakery in Johor Bahru that has been around since 1919. Customers flock there for a hearty taste of the wood-baked Coconut Bun and Banana Cake. Heat from wood is warm and dry that bakes the perfect bread, crispy golden brown with a soft interior. Bread and pizza baked in a wood oven always give the best quality of artisan bread that you can’t get from a conventional oven.

Apart from wood, cooking with clay can be just as good. Clay-baked fish uses freshwater fish wrapped in clay found in wells and paddy fields to cook. It will only be served when the clay cracks.

Believe it or not, the clay is alkaline in nature and helps to neutralize the pH balance of acidic foods. If you are lucky, you may find clay-baked Baked Fish in Kampung Ujung Batu in Bintong, Perlis.

Chicken rice and tandoori chicken cooked in clay pot is equally hot. The food inside the pot loses little to no moisture because the pot walls prevent the loss of heat.

Now if you want a truly authentic charcoal clay pot experience, head over to Kedai Kopi Pudu Satu Enam Lapan in Pudu Road, KL. It is one of the few stalls that still exists today where clay pot chicken rice is cooked with charcoal. The cooking is still done by the boss himself, retaining its popularity even after 35 years.

Flaming Hot

Charcoal turns the heat on meat. It is hotter than standard gas grills ranging from 5000F to 7000F. Searing meat on charcoal makes the meat crisp on the outside while keeping them juicy on the inside.

For some local street foods like satay and char koay teow, the use of charcoal helps enhance the smell and taste of the food. If you want a good char koay teow, I recommend Siam Road Char Koay Teow in Penang. The old uncle dubbed as “Penang’s Char Koay Teow King” operates in a pushcart that attracts a line of customers daily.

Now get your grandma’s wok, mortar and pestle and claypot up and running again for a more intense flavour in your dishes.

Words & Photos by Francis Yip

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