But getting to this address is non-negotiable, because it’s the only place for miles around that serves patin tempoyak.
There is foreign food that you can’t get in the States, and then there’s foreign food you really can’t get in the States. Patin tempoyak is the latter. It’s Malaysian silver catfish somehow prepared with (rubbed in, soaked in a broth made largely from, etc) fermented durian.
For a typical American reaction to this prospect, I quote a friend’s comment on my Facebook post featuring this dish: “Why/how anyone would DARE to ferment a durian and then turn it into paste is utterly beyond me.”
For MY reaction to this prospect, see, well, the predicament I find myself in: fruitlessly circling a Muarian roundabout, surrounded on all sides by other restaurants (good ones! Novel ones!) and panicking because the fermented durian restaurant will be closing in a hour, along with my window to try it. This dish hails from Temerloh, and Muar is as closely as I’m likely to get to Temerloh in my lifetime.
Finally, I duck into a hotel (not my hotel) and ask for help in calling a taxi. The Chinese hotel owner looks doubtfully at the restaurant’s name, smacking his lips over the syllables, and says ‘Must be new.’ He also says he has never tried the dish, and from the way he says it, I know that he does not wish to try the dish. His kindness in helping a stranger find a taxi to a fermented durian restaurant he is obviously pretty sure she won’t like, however, does not go unnoticed.
Out in the ‘suburbs’ of Muar, on the green jungly edge of the nation-spanning Route 5, is a restaurant that looks like it could just as easily be a auto service/parts store. Not just because of the garage doors that haul up and down, which are featured on nearly every urban business in Malaysia, but because of the double-car sized dining area. Grills line the back, and vats, filled with orangish oily liquid. Surprisingly, the place doesn’t smell like much. I was expecting the air-thickening scent of my memories of the durian-heavy sidewalk market in Jayapura, Indonesia. I have never thought, like many, that durian smells like armpits or sweaty socks or onions. I think it smells like an unusually cheesy jackfruit. But a very aromatic cheesy jackfruit, one that can eclipse most other scents, even motorcycle exhaust or the smoke of a hundred satay stands.
My nose isn’t the only thing that’s surprised; so are the chefs and waiters, who later post on Facebook that we are the first Americans to ever come to their restaurant, adding pictures of us posing, sweating, and smiling with our banana-leaf-wrapped, durian-paste rubbed fish, and our big bowl of spicy durian-soaked fish soup.
For those two dishes, plus a line-up of starfruit and calamansi juices that we ask to keep coming as we sweat the previous ones right out, it costs something like US$7. For both of us. I’d pay severalfold that to be able to eat these dishes again less than 9000 miles from my home. (I’d be thrilled if I could even get starfruit or calamansi juice alone in my home, which is a reasonably warm, extremely ethnically diverse major city that imports all sorts of tropical fruit, so why not these?)
Flaunting all known culinary laws, fermented durian tastes LESS pungent than non-fermented durian. In the paste on the banana leaf-grilled fish, it tastes like the fermentation process simply concentrated the fruity note of the durian, turning it almost pineapply, if this pineapple had also been pickled in the manner of those pickles you find in South Indian thali. In the case of the soup, the spice is so instant and searing it’s hard to tell what’s going on until your tongue calms down a little. Then, the durian’s oniony notes come out and blend seamlessly with the rest of the herbs and vegetables floating in there. The fish itself - and when else is the fish’s quality an afterthought? - is pure white, naturally sweet, and covered in iridescent, soft, and fatty skin. The main accompanying vegetable is something right at the intersection of carrot, radish, and potato.
The chefs are amused that we’re loving this, some of our friends are shocked that we’re loving this, and it’s overall treated as a weird, adventurous experience by everyone involved, but zest for adventure aside, quest for novelty aside - this is legitimately one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.
There are no taxis out in the untamed wilderness of State Route 5, still, and a relative of the chef’s who looks to be about 13 drives us back to the city. As goes a normal day in Malaysia.