Ho Cheong San (right) and brother Ho Hon with their father's portrait
Note: This article appeared in the October issue of Time Out Kuala Lumpur. We don't know if it's because of the subject matter or because of the brothers Hon themselves (you'd be hard-pressed to find two nicer, more generous guys), but this was one of the most enjoyable projects we've ever worked on.
'Every Monday morning. I sit down and do it every Monday. You just can't get away from it!' says Ho Cheong San.
Perched on a low stool at the rear of his dimly lit Pandan Jaya workshop, he tears pieces from a blob of gluten and lays them in rows on a metal tray. A few feet away, a helper monitors the temperature of cooking oil in a deep wok. Ho started the day making dough from flour and water, and then hand-washed it many times over until it had released its starch to become an elastic, glutinous mass. Once they hit the oil the gluten pieces will puff up to several times their original size to make minkan, or crispy puffed gluten balls.
Ho sells vegetarian dim sum from a cart attached to the side of his motorcycle - more than seven varieties, all made from scratch, here in his workshop. Today's Monday, minkan day. Tomorrow he'll layer several thicknesses of fucuk (soy milk skin) and tie them tightly together to imitate the texture of chicken breast. The next day, 'pig's ears' (disks of gluten adorned with a swirl of black fungus), then 'clams' (oriechette-shaped gluten nubs), then 'goose' skin (crisped sheets of floppy fucuk). Seven mornings a week you'll find Ho here, keeping a culinary tradition alive.
I met Ho several months ago at the entrace to Imbi Market, where he was hustling to fill a backlog of takeaway orders placed by a mix of elderly regulars and health-conscious younger folk. Some patrons opt for a 'combo' (clams and chicken and pig blubber and intestine all piled on top of each other) while others stick to one or two favorites (for me, it'd be goose skin and pig's ears); few refuse the side of sweet chili sauce, though not everyone welcomes a pour of English mustard. I was struck by Ho's jokey, easygoing manner and utter openness to my nosy questions about his product.
'No secret lah! Anyone can make it!' he laughed, when I asked if I could visit his workshop, promising not to reveal any trade secrets in the write-up that might follow.
Even more impressive was the serious deliciousness of his non-meat meat, a category of food I'd written off long ago as not-worth-the-calories. Ho's protestations to the contrary, I doubt that just anyone can make vegetarian dim sum like this.
'This is the oldest vegetarian stall in Malaysia,' he told me, with more than a hint of pride.
And he may well be right. Ho inherited not just the business but the physical stall itself from his older brother Ho Cheng Hon, who inherited it from their father Ho Hon. The custom-made, charcoal fire-warmed aluminum container that holds Ho's dim sum today is the same one that contained his father's dim sum fifty years ago.
Ho Senior learned the art of vegetarian dim sum from his mother, an orphan from China's Guangdong province who was raised in a Buddhist temple. As an adult she migrated to Hong Kong, where she earned a meager living sell her meat-free tidbits. Business wasn't fantastic, so her son set off to conduct market research abroad. In KL he saw potential, so he returned to Hong Kong to fetch his mother and brother. Shortly after the three disembarked a ferry in 1935 twenty-four year-old Ho was walking KL's streets barefoot, peddling his vegetarian dim sum from a basket suspended from a shoulder pole.
Back at the younger Ho's workshop, he combines Coleman's English mustard powder with water and wok-toasted ground rice (for viscosity) to make his mustard sauce, and I ask him if, as a boy, he knew he would enter the family business. Ho snickers.
'No way! But it's like this: no matter where you go, all over the world and around and around, you end up back here, doing this. It's fate.'
His daughter isn't yet two years old, and there's no way of knowing if he'll have somebody to pass the business on to. 'But if she wants it, why not?' he says. 'Might as well keep up the tradition. Keep the family name alive.'
This morning I'd come to Ho's place via the workshop of his elder brother, who took up the family trade as his father's helper. Bu that time the senior Ho was travelling from KL wet market to wet market by motorcycle instead of by foot, serving his dim sum on proper plates for on-site consumption. His son trailed behind washing dishes and chopsticks; he took over when Ho Senior retired in 1970. Twenty years later Ho Cheng Hon had had enough of motorcycle sales.
'It's taxing work, and it's dangerous too,' says the youngest Ho. 'So I took the bike from my elder brother. Now I sell from the stall and he caters for Buddhist temples and other events.'
When I arrive at his spic-and-span workshop just opposite Pandan Jaya's wet market elder brother Ho greets me with a firm handshake and a grin (in fact it's a rare moment when the brothers aren't smiling), then pulls a framed black-and-white photograph from a shelf over the family altar. A serious young man stares out at me; barefoot, dressed in white shorts and t-shirt with a black sash tied around his waist, he squats next to a basket filled with dim sum.
'This is our father,' the Ho brothers say simultaneously. Ho Senior died last January at age 98.
We're standing amidst barrels of golden golf ball-sized minkan, one of elder brother Ho's best-selling products. He opens the door to a large air-conditioned walk-in closet - bags and bags of the fried balls are stacked halfway up the walls. 'Once you make the minkan they have to stay cool so the oil doesn't go bad,' the younger Ho explains. 'But you can keep them for months and months.'
The elder Ho has a big catering job tomorrow, for a Chinese temple near Jalan Peel. There's much to do, but a sense of calm pervades the workshop. He returns his father's photograph to its place on the family altar and returns to his restaurant-grade three-burner cooker, where he turns kilos of shredded jicama, carrots, and mushrooms in a mammoth wok.
'You must cook them till they're dry,' he tells me, 'for the best popiah.' At a big table in the center of the workshop three helpers, one of them the brother Ho's sister, assemble the popiah by arranging the cooked vegetable mixture on paper-thin fucuk skins and rolling them tight.
'All this we learned from our father,' says the younger Ho. 'During school holidays we always stay back to help.'
The next morning I arrive at the elder Ho's workshop just as he and his wife are winding up preparations for the temple feast. Although they both started at 3am they're fresh and bursting with energy.
'This is my wife,' Ho says, indicating the wiry, wellie-shod woman taking stock of the trays, tubs, and bowls filled with food that spill from tables and stools onto the floor. Spreading his arms wide to take in the workshop he adds, 'And this is my life!'
The vegetarian popiah that I saw being rolled yesterday have been fried and their skins are burnished a deep mahogany. In addition to popiah there's mushroom stew with minkan; bean curd 'duck'; sweet and sour minkan with red and green capsicum, pineapple, and tomato; 'pig intestines' with preserved mustard and vegetables; a gluten-free, all-veggy stir-fry; and a savory peanut soup with lotus root and Chinese dates. Everything smells so good it's all I can do to keep from pinching a taste or two. It takes about fifteen minutes to load everything into Ho's Hi-Ace, and then we're on our way.
Ho's client temple sits hidden behind a field of sugar cane, on a dirt track off Lorong Peel. When we arrive clouds of smoke are rising from a row of giant joss sticks and a small army of temple volunteers, mostly ladies-of-a-certain-age, are bustling between dozens of tables set with pink cloths and bowls and chopsticks. This morning a ceremony will be held to celebrate Kwan Yin, the temple's god. This year's celebration is a particularly significant one, because it's probably the temple's last. The land on which it sits has been acquired for development. Temple elders expect to receive a demolition order soon and, even though the temple is more than 40 years old, the chances of it being granted a license to reopen elsewhere are slim.
The ladies greet Ho enthusiastically. 'He's been catering for us for at least twenty years,' says Madame Ng, a gregarious pint-sized woman who clearly runs the show. Several ladies fill small bowls with Ho's specialties and lay them on the altar, while others drift past the buffet table, cadging a popiah here, a piece of duck there.
As soon as he's finished unloading his wares Ho jumps in his van and takes off; back at the workshop another round of catering awaits. I stay on to watch the ceremony and join the feast after. Tables seating ten people go for a donation of 70 ringgit each which, given the amount of food it buys, seems like he bargain of the century. What's more, Ho's dishes are tasty enough to make even a hard-core carnivore such as myself swoon. The 'duck', scented with dried orange peel, has a meaty mouth-feel, popiah skins are crusty and caramelized, and chewy 'pig intestines' boast a whiff of five-spice. This isn't just vegetarian food that makes up for its lack of meat, but a scrumptious meal on its own merits.
I think back to what the younger brother Ho told me yesterday:
'My brother and I don't make a lot of money, but we make enough to be comfortable. And actually, there's nowhere as much satisfaction as with this sort of thing. We make everything, beginning to end. And the customers are happy. That's the greatest thing - when the customers are satisfied.'
Hon Kee Vegetarian Food:
Ho Cheong San, Imbi Market Saturday and Sunday mornings, Pudu on Tuesdays. Call for other locations, 016-616-6629.
Ho Cheng Hon, caterer: 03-9283-0616.