Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cheers to Kopi Musang

The shop front

KOPI Musang is probably Muar’s best kept secret among coffee lovers and if you love gourmet coffee, you will understand why.

And no, it is not another brand. You would have heard of Kopi Musang by another name — kopi luwak or palm civet coffee as it is better known. It is said to be the most sought after gourmet coffee in the world.

The coffee gets its name from the musang (or luwak), an Asian palm civet. The animal eats the coffee cherries and passes out the beans the next day.

The defecated beans are collected, thoroughly washed, dried in the sun and roasted. During the journey in the civet’s intestines, it is believed that the digestive juices of the animal improves the taste of the coffee, making it less bitter.

In Muar, just across the express bus station by the river, check out the Sai Kee coffeeshop. You can’t miss the huge “elephant coffee bean” signboard. For those who know their kopi, Sai Kee is the maker of the famous Kopi 434, Muar’s pride.

Hooked at first sip

I had the opportunity to try kopi musang in Muar recently and met its operator Kiar Juan Pooh, who is in his mid-50s. Kiar, who is managing director of Kopi 434 (the number being the original phone number of the shop when it was established in 1953), said he discovered kopi musang in the mid-80s.

“I was approached by a coffee planter who wanted to sell his farm to me. I wasn’t interested at first but the price was irresistible, so I agreed to take over,” he explained. “Because the original owner could not take care of his farm, the coffee cherries were left to ripen on the trees.

This is how it looks like, brewed.

The beans that have been washed and entirely cleaned

“One day, one of my workers brought me a bag of beans he had collected. I asked him what they were and he said that they were beans eaten and passed out by the musang.

“He said the beans must be the best because as the civet picks only the best coffee cherries. He had collected the beans, which were in clusters, and had even washed them for me. He said if I was brave enough, I could try roasting the beans and see if they made good coffee.”

Kiar kept the beans in his factory for sometime before curiosity got the better of him and he roasted the beans and tried making coffee with them.

“I was not sure if it was safe to make coffee from beans that were defecated by the musang,” he said. “One day, with a few friends, we decided to try it.”

After the first sip, he and his friends were hooked. The discovery was kept a secret and shared only with close friends and as a surprise for coffee lovers he came to know or met.

Limited supply

Today, although he serves kopi musang at his shop, Kiar said, he has a little more than 20 kilos of the beans left. One Japanese coffee lover who came to know of his possession offered him several hundred US dollars a kilo to buy the beans but he turned the offer down.

“My kopi musang beans are for locals,” he said. “If I were to sell it to the Japanese, local coffee lovers will not be able to taste what kopi musang is.”
Here's a cup - from the conoisseur himself

Kiar added that although the best beans are collected from the wild, they are becoming quite rare with the dwindling population of civet cats. In neighbouring countries where civet coffee is hugely popular, coffee beans are also fed to civets kept in captivity and the beans collected after the animals defecated.

Kiar has set a daily limit to only serve 200g of kopi musang. He added that he would be suspicious should someone turn up at his shop daily to drink kopi musang, adding that he might have to reconsider serving it.

Dirt cheap

Although I am not a coffee lover, I tried a cup of kopi musang. It tasted less bitter and smoother.

Kiar warned me that some of his customers who drank kopi musang for the first time, had told him that it made their bodies feel hot. I did not sense a similar feeling, perhaps I had been so used to drinking coffee that the caffeine made no impact. However, I did notice that the fragrance of the beans and the coffee’s aftertaste lingered for over two hours after I drank it.

Later when I told colleagues who were coffee connoisseurs about kopi musang, they said I must write about it. They tell me that to have drunk kopi musang at RM15 a cup is a steal — elsewhere around the world, drinking civet cat coffee would have set me poorer by at least a few hundred ringgit! And that would have left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.

How to get there

The shop is located at 121 Jalan Maharani, opposite the Bentayan Express Bus Station (or Pagoh Bus Station), along the river promenade. You can’t miss the huge signboard but if you still cannot find the outlet, call 06-951 3046 for directions. You can park your car at the huge car park near the bus station.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fear the living, not the dead

A HARDCORE "number worshipper" asked if I could direct him to the Bukit Ampang Forest Reserve after he read about the herd of wild boars said to be able to give winning numbers to punters.
He was unable to locate the forest reserve's location on his GPS reader.

The chap said he would be grateful if I could find out exactly where the location is from my colleague who wrote the story.

He wanted to bring the wild boars, named Bobo, Ah Pai and Ah Choi, some food and, hopefully, obtain a lucky number for the next Toto draw.

If he strikes the jackpot, which is now over RM43 million, he says, he will consider taking the wild boars home and feed them for the rest of their lives.

I said I would try to get the directions to the city punters' best-kept secret but warned that people like him could spell the end of the wild boars. This is because their population could grow too big from the pampering from superstitious city folk.

After all, an expert has warned that culling might be necessary if there were too many of them. I suggested to the "number worshipper" that if he was so desperate, he could visit the zoo instead.

I do not know if the wild boars there also inspire visitors to see lucky numbers like their Bukit Ampang cousins, but I am sure the zoo authorities will appreciate the additional ticket sales at the gates.

I know they can do with more funds to run the place better.

I am not going to laugh at those who rubbed the bodies of the wild boars or fed them at Bukit Ampang in exchange for lucky numbers. They could be laughing all the way to the bank if the boars brought them luck as did Paul the Octopus to the supporters of Spain in this year's World Cup.

Superstition is not a laughing matter.

Some decades ago, there was a story about a new shopping complex that was looking for tenants and someone applied to sell antique furniture there.

Without finding out exactly what the merchandise was, a contract was signed and the terms of compensation inked.

When the complex opened, the floor supervisor was shocked to discover that the "antique furniture" sold by the new tenant turned out to be Chinese coffins.

According to the story, which later became urban legend, the complex could not wait to get rid of the coffins but not before paying a hefty compensation to the operator for breach of contract.

It was no laughing matter, of course. The complex probably would have lost more in goodwill and clientele if it had allowed the coffin shop to continue.

If you have been reading this newspaper, you will now appreciate the protests by some Kepong residents against having a coffin shop in their neighbourhood.

The residents were not amused when the authorities approved the operator's "furniture" business licence. Understandably, the residents are afraid of the bad vibes the shop would bring.

Whether or not their fears are unfounded, who knows?

But ask those who are working in mortuaries or funeral parlours and they will probably tell you that there is nothing sinister about coffins or dead bodies.

They will probably laugh at you for fearing the dead when it is the living that you should be worried about

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fruit for thought: how much longer can we afford ours?

MY friend lamented how pricey local fruits had become during breakfast last week. He recounted how papayas had grown so expensive at the market he went to that he had to forgo his favourite fruit for a rock melon.
The papaya was selling at RM5 each. So was the rock melon of the same size, but he chose the better-looking rock melon in case the blemish-skinned papaya turned out to be a lemon.

Every week, when shopping for fruits at the market, my wife and I face the same predicament. Since cutting down on meat two years ago, we had channelled the savings into fruits instead.

Papaya was among our favourite local fruits but its price had been fluctuating so much of late that we wondered if supply was truly short or if it was a scam by the fruit vendors.

Three years ago, I recall, the price of the common local papaya was only RM1 a kg. It went up to RM1.50, and hovered around the RM2.50 mark. When supply was low, the price hit RM3.50 a kg.

The highest I had ever paid for a local papaya — that was probably carbide-ripened judging from the spots I saw on its skin — was RM3.80 a kg. The fruit vendor told me that the papaya farms in Perak were affected by a root rot epidemic.

Mature fruiting trees were wiped out and even the harvested fruits rotted on the way to the stalls.

During that time, even the imported Hawaiian solo was snapped up like hot cakes. A regular at the market joked that at the rate the papaya prices were rising, it would be cheaper to look for commercial laxatives to deal with her constipation.

Papaya is not the only local fruit that is costly these days. Guavas, cheap and plentiful in the old days, I noticed, have become a rare commodity, too. The giant guava costs between RM2.50 and RM3.50 a kg while its seedless cousin is sold for as much as RM6 a kg.

Last week, I bought a kg of guavas for RM7 from a vendor who claimed that his fruits were from Bukit Tinggi in Pahang. True or not, the fruits were crunchier and had fewer skin blemishes.

I was tempted to buy a kg of honey rose apples (jambu air) as well but was stopped by the RM9.50 per kg price tag — and there were only a dozen fruits to a bag.

At the Pasar Ramadan near Setapak Jaya just before Raya, a kelapa pandan (fragrant young coconut) vendor chided me for asking if I could get five for RM10. He said he could not go any lower than RM2.50 a coconut.

When I asked him if the plantations in Bagan Datoh were not producing enough for the local market, he laughed and said his fruits were not from there but from south Thailand. I wonder how much young coconuts from local plantations cost these days.

At the rate the prices of local fruit prices are climbing, it is not difficult to imagine what families, especially the big families, would be serving on their dinner tables a few years down the road.

Would you purchase a kg of papaya or guavas or go for a bag of green apples if they all cost the same but the latter had more fruits to go around?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Paying the exorbitant price of progress...

RIVERS, streams and even drains in and around the city used to teem with guppies, a hardy aquarium fish that is now virtually impossible to find in our waterways.

The females of the species were usually larger than the males and could grow up to 6cm in length. But, what the males lacked in size, they made up for with long colourful tails and fins.

They can produce hundreds of offspring in a matter of months in the wild.

The live-bearing fish is named after British naturalist Robert John Lechmere Guppy who discovered it in Trinidad in 1866.

Even when Kuala Lumpur's waterways were polluted by domestic waste in the 1980s and early 1990s, some guppies still thrived.

The females eventually got smaller and the males lost much of their colour.

Instead of taking their rightful place in aquariums, most of them ended up as food for larger aquarium fish, including the oscar, arowana and toman.

Guppies were also found in ponds and disused tin mining pools. At one such lake in Jalan Genting Kelang, 1km south of the Wardieburn Camp, there were plenty of guppies and terubuk fish.

During certain months, the terubuk would gather along the shoreline to feed on damsel and dragonfly nymphs and pupae.

The spectacle, which lasted a day or two, went unnoticed for some years. But, it attracted people living nearby and lured the toman out of the depths of the lake. The feeding frenzy of the toman would start at first light. It was like experiencing a National Geographic documentary in real life.

Those who had nets cast them into the feeding frenzy and caught both predator and prey, and other aquatic life.

One morning, there was a commotion at the lake. Terubuk fry and other small fish had turned up dead by the hundreds. Someone had used tuba root poison to stun and catch the bigger fish but the smaller ones were killed. That was the last time I saw terubuk spawn in the lake. Today, the lake has been reduced to a patch of water.

Seeing a man cast his net into a tributary of the Gombak river that flows by Sentul recently brought back such fond memories. Wading in thigh-deep waters, he was bare chested with only a pair of faded jeans secured to his skinny waist with a raffia string. He had cast his net into the river several times but without success.

Finally, there was a smile on his face when he hauled up his catch. I saw a couple of black tilapia, two fingers width in size, and some "Bandaraya" fish struggling to get free.

I congratulated the man on his catch.

"There are few fish these days," he said with a grin.

"I used to catch more fish years ago. The water must be dirty. There are more fish after rain, though," he added, as he put the tilapia into a plastic bag. He then threw the "Bandaraya" fish back into the river.

I asked him what he was planning to do with his catch and whether he kept predatory fish. The man looked surprised and replied: "I take them home and cook them. Maybe I'll give some to the neighbours."

I wanted to tell him that the fish could be contaminated but didn't because I didn't want to be rude. What if that was all he had to eat?