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‘Underground’ Coconut Grilled Chicken in Kota Bharu, Malaysia

[Edited June 18, 2013yesterday I had sad, sad news about the chefs of the grilled chicken in Kota Bharu. One of the owners of Restoran Kampung Kulim, the guy with a moustache that you see chopping the chicken in the pictures below, has died. Apparently, he collapsed whilst working in the kitchen and passed away quickly and painlessly. He died doing what he loved and was good at, and surrounded by family, but the news has saddened me nevertheless. My sympathies to the family. He’ll be fondly remembered by all those who had the chance to taste his amazing food!] 

Have you ever heard of “underground chicken”? No, it’s not the next London food trend – although it may, in fact, be a good name for a hipster eatery. Today I am bringing you far, far away from posh urban “concept” restaurants, celebrity chefs and diners with cameras bigger than their stomach.

I tasted “underground” coconut grilled chicken at a place called Restoran Kampung Kulim in Malaysia, which has been making it for a few decades; it is probably the best single thing I have eaten in my life so far and a moving example of craftsmanship in food; eating there with my partner’s Malaysian family was not just a unique travel experience but a memory that will stay with me forever.

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You will find (or maybe not) Restoran Kampung Kulim in Wakaf Bharu, in the district of Tumpat, in the outskirts of Kota Bharu – a city in the Northern Malaysia state of Kelantan.

It is a place that completely defies description in the usual terms, or at least mine. Is it a restaurant? Well hardly. Is it a food stall? Not really, as they have tables. So I’ll tell it how it is: it is a big wooden shed, just next (or should I say ON) a railway track which you have to cross to get at the door. They have wooden tables outside and a single big room with ventilation inside- very useful in the torrid Malaysian monsoon season and if you are prone to terrible mosquito bites, like me. Restoran Kampung Kulim is not pretty in any possible sense of the word -if you are looking for that type of picturesque decay which looks so exotic in pictures, forget it, it’s clean-ish and modern and it looks a bit like the equivalent of a UK chip shop.

The attraction of Restoran Kampung Kulim is at the back; a huge kitchen, efficiently run by a four-generations family team, stretches outdoors where two elderly men are constantly busy at work around open fires. The place is famous – according to my hosts, even legendary – for its coconut underground grilled chicken and tables are teeming with families, solo eaters and even people waiting for takeaway food.

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After asking for permission to take pictures (they say yes, but look at me as if I were crazy), I head straight to the courtyard, led by the tantalising smell of grilled meat, our tastebuds already into overdrive…

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The old guys have been doing this for the past 25 years, maybe more. The people who brought me here are over 50 and remember this place since their childhood. Quite clearly, the process here has been perfected to a tee, with every detail and every move shaped by endless repetition, small improvements and resourcefulness. The birds – which you can see roaming free in the dirt surrounding the grounds – are marinated in spices (no luck in asking exactly what) and coconut milk, then roasted vertically on an open fire made by coconut husk.

One of the men oversees the fire. He props the headless chicken over the roaring flames on a metal stick and covers it with a tin. There are no clocks in sight but he just seems to know when it’s cooked.  The cover is lifted and the bird is placed on a cutting board, where the second guy takes over and swiftly chops it up and places the bits on pandan leaves, ready to be served to the tables or to wrap up the takeaway version.

No words or pictures could describe the taste resulting of this type of cooking. At risk of sounding ridiculous, as it’s really just roast chicken, it’s otherworldly.

The chicken skin is perfectly caramelised, but the flesh is moist and tender and has a wonderful bite – surely you know the difference when a bird feeds naturally and walks around rather than being on a cage. The coconut is really just in the nose, which has the subtlest hint of sweetness, but there is no visible trace of the marinade. I could happily eat this every day for all my life.

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The two master cooks are taking a short break. They sit on the wooden bench, open a can of Guinness (yes, Guinness!) and drink slowly, in silence – the only sound I can hear is the crackling of the fires and some mysterious noises from the joungle-like vegetation all around. It really feels like a place out of time and space, with the two elderly men looking ancient and ageless at the same time.

I’m woken up from my reverie by the owner, who reminds us of the serious business –table is ready and 20 people wait, we are here for a big banquet, I am going to meet “the family” over some food and drinks. I already know, it’s going to be a success. Now I do understand why some people do fly from KL and other parts of Malaysia just to come here!

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A few final notes on “underground” grilled chicken in Kota Bharu 

  • Coconut –smoked “underground chicken” used to be cooked- as the name says- in holes in the ground filled with fire and then covered, but the tin is a clever substitute for it. The heat inside is intense enough to char the skin and melt away the fat (although these birds are scrawny and small for Western standards), but the shield allows the chicken to cook slowly and remain tender.

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  • My local friends tell me that Restoran Kampung Kulim is also called “Victoria Station” – a humorous reference to the “Underground chicken” and the fact that it’s directly on the railway tracks.  I hope this helps you find it, if you ever find yourself in Kelantan when visiting Malaysia.
  • The only other mention I found about Restoran Kampung Kulim and the grilled in Kota Bharu is on the wonderful, wonderful blog Eating Asia that has always been one of my inspirations- and I am very happy to double up on it.  Definitely check out their amazing pictures of the two old master cooks. [Immodestly, I have to say even that my humble pic was featured on Stylist Magazine website. Must be something in the air there!]

What is your best travel food memory? Share it with me in the comments, I’d love to hear about it… 

 

Thanks to Team Budu for helping me getting the name of the restaurant right!

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6 Comments

  1. Wonderful post, you make me long to be there!

    • Thanks! It is a special place indeed…the city itself is not that pretty but being a non touristy place has its advantages

  2. Nice photos and post :). Actually this “big wooden shed” had no name for a long time so the locals referred to it as Victoria Station also for its close proximity to the railway track. I’m glad that you love the chicken!

    • Thanks Team Budu! will edit the post now :)

  3. Gosh, I love that place and I’m so happy to see it get more exposure! Those guys are AMAZING! Lovely photos and thanks so much for the kind words.
    Robyn @ EatingAsia

    • Thanks to you Robyn for the comment. I am so sad that the old chef has passed away :(
      Keep making us dream with your Asia tales…

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