After one meal of Gurun Sua, Alan Teh Leam Seng tracks the shiitake mushrooms to its source at the peak of Gunung Jerai
IT doesn’t take long for my food to arrive. The elderly woman smiles at me as she carefully places the dishes on my table at the almost packed Restoran Federal in Kedah’s desert town, Gurun.
The claypot fish curry and lemon chicken look fairly familiar but I am not sure what the third is. I had ordered a mushroom dish that’s a highly recommended house speciality, but the plate in front of me looks more like a squid dish.
I give it a closer inspection before turning to ask the woman if this is it. But by then, she is back at her usual station at the front of the shop.
So I take a small bite. Surprise! The dish looks like squid but my tastebud registers “chicken”. Definitely not mushroom. But it tastes really good.
Convinced that I have been served the wrong order, I pick up the plate and walk over to where she’s sitting.
“I think you have given me the wrong dish,” I whisper in Hokkien, not wanting to cause her any embarrassment in front of the other customers.
She gives me a puzzled look that says it is not possible that she’s wrong. I try to explain further but she points at my plate and says: “Yes, I did send you the mushroom dish.”
By now, we have attracted the attention of the other customers. Three men seated at a nearby table look over at us. They point at my plate and say “Ho liao” and “Gurun Sua” repeatedly.
Gurun Sua or desert mountain — a direct translation of the Malay-Hokkien words — is the best mushroom from nearby Gunung Jerai. The name indicates the proximity of the mountain to the desert town.
And the men are right. The mushrooms are simply heavenly. I enjoy each and every piece. They are crunchy at first bite and then start to melt in my mouth, offering a myriad of tastes.
I am sure the cook deep fried the mushrooms after coating them with his own secret concoction of spices. No wonder the dish is highly recommended.
After a satisfying meal, I approach the cook who is also the restaurant owner. Feeling most at home in the kitchen, Sunny Hoe says he learnt to cook while helping his father at this very same shop when he was just a boy. Then he began creating new dishes to whet customers’ appetites.
Today, he is his own boss and his mother, the woman who served me earlier, helps him out and makes sure he maintains the strict standards set by Hoe’s father.
Hoe says his restaurant is the only one in town serving shiitake mushroom grown on Gunung Jerai.
Before leaving, I ask Hoe if it is possible for me to visit the mushroom farm. Imagine my joy when he replies that the farm is open to the public daily.
He tells me to go to the Regency Jerai Hill Resort office at the foot of the mountain where I can hire a jeep to take me to the peak.
UP TO THE PEAK
The drive from town to Gunung Jerai foothills is less than 15 minutes. I park my car at the hill resort as I’ll be going up with the resort shuttle.
The drive up to the peak takes less than an hour. Sitting in the front allows me to have a bird’s eye view of the surroundings. Half way up the mountain, the driver turns off the air conditioner and lowers the window to let in the cool mountain air.
GOING TO THE ROOTS
The shiitake mushroom farm office is in an old bungalow that once served as army quarters during the colonial period. There I meet Dr Shirley Ooi and her father, Chooi Liang, who show me around the farm. I am impressed with the effort they put in daily to make their venture a success.
Shirley says her father has invested a lot of time and effort in the farm as he believes in the goodness of shiitake mushroom. The Oois practise eco-friendly culture techniques and do not use chemicals, especially ammonia, as fertiliser.
Established in 1985, the farm capitalises on natural spring water and the pollution-free air to grow the mushroom, which are said to be rich in minerals and vitamins.
Today, Agro Bio-Future is one of the main suppliers of shiitake mushrooms in the country and also exports to Singapore.
On my way back, I drop in at the Regency Jerai Hill Resort coffee-house, aptly named Puncak Kedah.
As I enjoy my drink, I notice a group of diners enjoying a steamboat meal which features shiitake mushrooms. I am sure these come from the farm next door!
46 Main Road, Gurun, Kedah
Tel: 012-5959 596 or
Regency Jerai Hill Resort
Jalan Kaki Bukit, Lebuhraya Gurun, Gurun, Kedah
Tel: 04-4667 777. Fax: 04-4667 778
Agro Bio-Future Sdn Bhd
JKR 285, Gunung Jerai, Gurun, Kedah
Tel: 012-239 373 or 019-3374 642