2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

The Illicit Pleasure of Secret Indulgences

The Illicit Pleasure of Secret Indulgences

Crullers in Petaling Jaya

Monsoons lashed the suburbs the September I went home to Malaysia, tropical thunderstorms that shook the trees daily. Violent, but without malice; just elemental downpours that soaked you thoroughly and left you with mud and gravel under your toenails. The mornings were dry but the afternoons were not. I was waiting to leave for Japan; with few friends left in the city I’d grown up in, I took to spending the afternoons in a café on the ground floor of a block of faded yellow apartments called Happy Mansion, trying to figure out why I mostly hated being home but also needed to hold on to this place. More often than not, I stared at my laptop and listened to the battering rains, the howling winds.

My father came to pick me up one of those evenings after the rains abated, and drove us to the Section 17 evening market a minute away. Before he had been diagnosed with a blocked artery, he would stop by a particular stall almost every day after work for yau zhar kwai—literally, oil-fried devils in Cantonese—and coffee. Mum hadn’t known, or maybe she’d just kept quiet. He’d invited me to share his illicit snacks on other occasions, but I had demurred until that day. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

It occurred to me, as we walked to the stall near the corner coffee shop, that in all my years of living five minutes away I’d never bothered to come here of my own volition. At 5pm the evening food market was still half-asleep, getting ready for the night of eating ahead. Older, pot-bellied uncles dotted the seating area, idly gossiping, or staring dourly at their drinks. At a stall nearby, a silver-haired uncle deftly flipped golden crullers bubbling away in a wok of oil. Dad ignored the array of deep-fried jianbing stuffed with flavored pastes, choosing a plain yau zhar kwai for a mere RM0.80 per stick.

We made our way to the coffee shop a few feet away: Restaurant Say Huat, which sounds more like the punchline to a bad joke. With a practiced brusqueness, he called for a cup of Nescafe. He took out a packet of tissue from his pocket, dabbed at the cruller in an effort to remove some of the grease. The coffee arrived, and he scooped out some of the condensed milk layer from the bottom of the cup. Diabetes had killed his mother. He tore the cruller lengthways, handing one half to me, still warm. 

“Must dip longer, then only nice.” He watched me dip my half clumsily into the cup. “More. Like that.” 

One bite, and I understood what kept him coming back all those years. It was chewy, with a slight saltiness augmented by the faintly sweet, cheap-bitter coffee-soaked dough. “Yau zhar kwai must go with coffee one. Or soy bean milk. Or hong dao. Red bean also very nice.”

He paused.

“Don’t tell mum.” 

Naturally I told mum later, who sighed in mock-exasperation. I thought about yau zhar kwai for days, months afterwards. A year later my parents visited me in Kyoto. I’d heard that the land in the centre of the square in Section 17 had been marked for development – yet another high-rise condominium – and the market vendors had been forced to move their stalls to a different street. I asked them where they’d gone to. 

“They’re in front of Caring now,” mum replied. 


“The pharmacy… all the stalls have been moved there.”

I turned to Dad. “What about the the yau zhar kwai stall?” 

“Oh. No more already. Now I just eat at the mall.” 

“Kii ah!” Mum scolded him in Hakka. “Always tiu sit.” This one! Always secretly eating. 

Up Next

18 Things to Know Before You Go to Penang, Malaysia

Featured City Guides