Why you should care
We don’t know what’s in it, but it’s delicious.
Pancakes. The mere mention brings back memories of childhood Sunday mornings of whipped cream and chocolate chip faces. Well, after tasting the sinfully delicious apam balik (turnover pancake) in Malaysia, I’ll never accept the oh-so-ordinary American-style pancake again. IHOP, take notice.
When I discovered apam balik at the Cenang beach night market in Langkawi — the Hawaii of Malaysia — it was the delicious smell that drew me to it. The “pancake man” first pours out the secret mixture, then uses the same plastic cup to swirl it to the edges of the pan, creating a thin layer of batter. Margarine, sugar, peanuts and canned sweet corn are layered on top. The resulting crispy shell is folded over like a taco and placed in a holder. Eaten hot off the griddle (but be sure to let it cool off a little), you can have one for a mere ringgit (around 23 cents).
Try to eat just one — I dare you.
What does it taste like? The creamy and crunchy insides are harmony in the mouth. The sugar and corn give it just enough of a sweet kick combined with the saltiness of the peanuts. The thin, crispy crust holds all of the goodness together, with just a bit of margarine and melted sugar seeping through. I had to fight the urge to lick each finger afterward.
It’s “diabetes in the making,” jokes Addy, a 10-plus-year resident of Langkawi and an apam balik fan. Perhaps a questionable choice, then, for a heritage food in a country where 17.5 percent of the population has the disease, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Health. But not to worry: June Gant, a Malaysian-born registered dietitian, calls it “a perfect go-to for breakfast.” After reviewing a printed recipe, she says that the average calories (300), protein (7 grams), carbs and fat will “keep your body satiated for a few hours”; just stick to one per meal. But try to eat just one — I dare you.
What is in the pancake man’s secret batter? We many never know. Efforts to reach the elusive cook were fraught with challenges. First it was Ramadan and the night market disappeared. As Addy explains, it’s normally a teatime dessert, and since fasting does not end until sundown (around 7:45 p.m.), it’s not on the Ramadan menu. My continued search included walking and driving the streets at night to see if his stand had relocated, as well as speaking with friends and friends of friends, even delivery persons, to see if anyone knew him. Everyone did. Oh, yeah, he makes the best pancakes on the island. First row on the left, after the chicken skewers. But no one knew his name or how to find him. A pancake man in Kuala Lumpur agreed to speak with me, then ghosted. Another in Langkawi told my translator that he did not have a work permit and therefore, no interview, but confirmed in English that there is corn inside. Sigh.
Perhaps the secret behind the pancake man’s mouthwatering treat is best left a mystery. Addy at least offered a cheeky piece of advice to achieve apam balik mastery: “Don’t burn it.”