March 20, 2006

Fish Balls To Go Nuts Over


Blink and you'll miss it.

Kuak Nyuk Loong, a dimly lit shotgun shack practically stapled to the wall of an aging building, doesn't advertise its presence. One gets the feeling, what with the sign prominently displayed inside the shop (and thus barely visible from the street) and the camouflaging forest of potted trees and bushes placed at the perimeter, that this operation isn't looking for fresh customers.

It doesn't need them, as we learn on a recent Sunday afternoon. This part of Kuala Lumpur, a pocket of surviving colonial shophouses at the edge of a forest of office towers, is eerily deserted on weekend days, yet there's a steady stream of cars jockeying for position outside KNL's entrance. At 2 o'clock this somewhat stuffy venue is still heaving with customers, and the staff are taking and filling eat-in and takeaway orders at warp speed.


The reason? Have a gander up top. Kuak Nyuk Loong is fish ball HQ.

In general I'm not a huge fish ball fan. Oh, I can appreciate the artistry involved in crafting a pleasing piscene orb that doesn't bounce like a Super Ball or smoosh like a marshmallow. I don't have anything against fish balls. I just don't crave them.

Until now. KNL's balls are a revelation. Note the texture, the shallow dimpling and stippling that tells us that these globes are made by hand rather than machine, from food instead of food products. Firm and springy yet - somehow - at the same time soft and almost fluffy, these tasties boast a fishy aroma that screams "fresh!!" They arrive in a light but not at all weak chickeny broth, ten to a bowl. And they grace every table in the joint.


The limited menu here is a bit of a hodgepodge. Most patrons, when they're not bobbing for fish balls, are slurping from plates of 'dry' (rather than soup) noodles in garlicky, greasy (lardy, perchance?) soy sauce. Kuey teow (semi wide, flat rice noodles) are popular but we're told they're sold out (as we leave we observe a huge pile of kuey teow in the glass case - what's up with that?) and settle for a mix of yellow mee and meehoon. Capped with a generous mound of browned shallots, the dish is a shoveller - especially when charged up with a hit of the house's hot and limey (if alarmingly neon-hued) chili sauce.


Cool, soy saucy chicken - cooked just barely past the red point, silky and tender - is arranged on a bed of cucumbers and topped with fried shallots, coriander sprigs, and green onions. It's delightful, but not especially distinguishable from that served by other Hainan-style chicken specialists, so next time I'll skip it in favor of a double, perhaps a triple, order of this:


yong tauhu, firm tofu stuffed with a pellet of tasty fish paste and deep-fried. These thick-skinned, chewy soybean squares are inexplicably absent of grease. Served in a warm soy-based sauce, they're juicy little numbers - not soggy, but soaked through. En guarde, for every bite is accompanied by a potentially shirt-staining spurt.

Come for the balls, stay for the tofu. And then another order of balls. Not the easiest eatery in KL to find, but well worth the effort.

Kuak Nyuk Loong, Jalan Raja Abdullah at the corner of Jalan Yap Ah Shak, 1 block from Jalan Dang Wangi. Morning till around 3. Closed Mondays.

March 16, 2006

When It Comes to Duck, Beijing Has Nothing on Chaozhou


"Genuine Chaozhou Stewed Duck." Or so claims a sign in this spit and shined, squeaky clean little shop in Sri Muda/Shah Alam.


Now, I'll admit right up front that what I know about the cuisine of Guangdong province's Chaozhou (aka Teowchow, aka Chiuchow) you could fit in a shot glass, so I'm in no position to judge authenticity. But delectable, yummy, luscious - all these I know, and know well. Any and all of these adjectives accurately describe the fare at Ayer Itam.


First up, the restaurant's namesake: duck rubbed with spices and stewed until it's falling apart tender, beautiful boneless mini slabs served in a pool of warm, lightly soy-seasoned broth complemented by a palate refresher of spritely, bitter Chinese celery leaves and toasty fried garlic. This hillock of meat is meant to be eaten with rice, but quite frankly I opted to leave the white stuff aside and devote my attention to the quack.


On the side, a Sinicized version of (American) southern-style long-stewed mustard greens. These meltingly soft stems and leaves with the odd piece of pork are seasoned hot and sour (more the latter than the former) and go down easy. I could eat a bowl of these velvety stems and leaves just about everyday.

Meicai (if my tin ear caught the proprietess' pronunciation correctly) is a variation on the greens theme: more mustard, but in this case the vegetable is slow-cooked in broth, soy, and a spice combo that hints at anise and cinammon. Meatless and evincing a bit more toothsomeness than its hot and sour relative, this dish o' greens is nonetheless equally delectable.

Ayer Itam has been open just over half a year. Owners Ann and her husband hail from Penang (also known -to Malaysians anyway - as 'street snarf central'), where her grandfather opened the original Ayer Itam Duck Rice Restaurant years ago. The menu extends beyond duck rice to include other, primarily pork and tofu-centric, Chaozhou favorites. If there's any justice in this world we'll be heading back soon to sample every last one of them.

Note: I really would eat those hot and sour mustard greens everyday. If anyone can point me in the direction of a recipe or a place closer to KL where I can dish 'em up or da pao I'd be most appreciative.

Ayer Itam Duck Rice Restaurant, No. 8 Jalan Sepadu B 25/B, Seksyen 25, Shah Alam. Tel. 016-358-2711.

March 13, 2006

In KL, Never a Need to Go Hungry


Well after two o'clock on a recent Saturday we were growing desperate. In Kuala Lumpur, arrive anywhere in search of lunch after 2:30 and you're pushing your luck; favorite dishes are usually sold out and vendors are starting to pack it in for the day. We'd already made a couple of passes up and down Jalan Klang Lama, a wide and frustratingly clogged divided road somewhere in KL (like most residents I couldn't tell you where I am in relation to the city center at any given moment; KL's confusingly intertwined, curvy roadways render directional navigation all but impossible) and were no closer to locating a recommended eatery than we had been when we'd started 30 minutes prior.

In a bid to escape the traffic Dave made a random left turn up a hill. The surroundings looked vaguely familiar. Another turn, right this time, took us past a couple of mobile roast duck vendors and spit us out in OUG, a gem of a mostly Chinese neighborhood that's home to a lively, sprawling  wet market and seemingly more coffeeshops and restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the city.

Despite the late hour (2:40, now) clusters of prospective eaters roamed streets still thick with double-parked cars. We breathed a sigh of relief. We would not go hungry this day.


Seafood porridge tempted; one glimpse at the contents of this vendor's styrofoam cooler and we knew we'd found lunch. A 'normal' eater might opt for porridge with several prawns, or a few squid, or a whole pomfret. We chose all three.

Freshness is the name of the game here, where seafood (or, if you wish, frog) is prepped a la minute. For our order vendor Hian started by dipping thick, long-cooked Hong Kong-style porridge (aka congee) from one of the hulking stainless steel vessels lined up on her stovetop into a traditional clay pot. She added a generous glug of of hua tiao jiu (Chinese rice wine) and then left the pot to cook over a low flame while she shelled shrimp, cleaned and sliced squid, and hacked the pomfret - head, fins, bones and all - into chunks.

Next, she blanched the fish et al by placing it in a small pan and drowning it in boiling broth drawn from another of the metal pots. After quickly draining off the liquid she added partially cooked seafood to porridge.


After a quick stir or two,


she cranked up the flame and allowed the concoction to boil for a minute, then removed it from the heat.

Ginger matchsticks, coriander leaves, and chopped scallion greens were added at the table.


Chopped fresh red and green chilies, soy sauce, and white pepper were also on hand to dress up individual servings.


Thick and creamy, sweetly fortified with rice wine, flavored with the seepage from fish bones and prawn heads, this must be one of the best bowls of seafood porridge in KL. Hian's quick blanch assures that every morsel of piscene goodness is cooked just right - curled squid pieces are tender, fish is moist but not mushy, and prawns are toothsome. A nice touch here is the two-layered hit of ginger, from thick coins slow-cooked with the rice and delicate shreds added at the last minute. This porridge's flavors were so exquisitely balanced that I downed my first two bowls sans additional seasonings, only bringing in soy, chilies, and white pepper when we hit the bottom of the by now seafood-less pot.

Crisis averted. Yet more proof that in KL, goodness lurks around every corner, just waiting to dazzle when you least expect it.

Hian's Seafood Porridge, Restoran Hoong Pin, Overseas Union Garden (OUG). Early morning till 3pm.

March 09, 2006

Cantonese Noodles - The Search for Perfection Continues


I fell in love with this dish at a funky little coffee shop in Kuala Terengganu. I pursued my passion at a joint in Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown.


Recently the search for the definitive Cantonese noodle took us to Subang Jaya. Not a stranger to us, these noodles had served as appetizer to the glorious clay pot chicken dished up at a neighboring stall. But on that day claypot chicken anticipation, followed by a blissful state of satedness, rendered us incapable of evaluating the noodles on their own merits. We returned to Restoran New Apollos to render fair judgment.


Verdict: sublime.

How do I love these Cantonese noodles? Let me count the ways. One: skillfully executed eggy gravy featuring swirls of still runny yolk (bird flu be damned!). Two: a primo protein mix of large, tender slabs of chicken, fresh squid, and plenty of laudibly 'crunchy' whole shrimp. Three: plenty of crisp-tender, pleasantly bitter Chinese greens to balance the dish's overall richness. Four: rice noodles with substance - wide, thick, and chewy - that more closely resemble Hong Kong-style chow fun than Malaysian-style kuey teow. Bonus point: said nectareous noodles, first stir-fried solo in dark soy, retain their slightly caramelized wok-y char even after they're drowned in gravy.


Cantonese noodles aren't the only trick up this vendor's sleeve. We splurged - at 20 ringgit - on a plate of big prawn noodles.


While the gravy - gingery, thick with egg, and rich with roe - was a stunner and the prawns generously sized, this dish just didn't have the 'wow' factor of the Cantonese noodles.

Unless someone out there's got a convincing Cantonese noodle story to sway me, I'm calling off the search.

Cantonese noodles, at 5 RM (also: big prawn noodles, beef noodles, and Singapore noodles) at Restoran New Apollos. 2 Jalan USJ 4/6B, Subang Jaya. Till 4pm.

March 03, 2006

Yearnin' For a Burnin'

Been here,


chowed this.


And it was de-lish.

We've returned to Restoran Yu Ai, but not for the fantabulous seafood curry noodles. Today we're craving a hit of heat, so it's the tomyam seafood noodles we're after.

If all you know of tomyam is based on encounters with Thai tomyam gung (spicy-sour soup with shrimp), please set aside your preconceptions. The only thing the two have in common is 'hot' and 'sour'.

Malaysian tomyam is Thai tomyam on steroids. Whereas the latter is clear and delicate, the former is brick red and gutsy. Thai tomyam is spiced up with slices of fresh chili; Malaysian tomyam is built on a foundation of ground chili paste. While the Thai version makes a light and piquant accent to an assembly of other dishes, Malaysian tomyam is a hearty meal in itself.

Yu Ai's second floor offers air-conditioned comfort, but we're dining out back, al fresco. In addition to plenty of umbrella and tree-shaded tables, here you'll also find the extended kitchen.


These pots hold backup supplies of tomyam, curry, fried tofu in chili broth (for the curry - opening second photo), and qing tang (clear soup). There's also a heavy, blackened wok big enough to take a bath in; it's put to use early in the morning, when some lucky staff member fries up a mess of pungent sambal.

At 2pm on a Saturday the restaurant - indoors and out - is packed. We wait a good half hour for our order. We're starving, and contemplate waylaying the waiter as he carries steaming bowls of goodness to other tables.

All's forgiven when our order arrives.


It's everything we're looking for a in a tomyam noodle. The flavorful, complex broth is perfectly phet-priow, 'spicy-sour' in Thai. After a few bites our tongues are burning, our lips tingling. The broth is so limey we're nearly puckering. Moist red spots appear on our cheeks, and under our eyes. We're wishing for a breeze; comfortable in the shade just a few minutes ago, now we're sweltering.

We're ecstatic. This tomyam noodle is the spiciest Malaysian dish we've ever had.


Generous amounts of seafood (head-on shrimp, squid, mussels, surimi) are icing on an already sensational cake. Dave likes his fresh mee noodles, but I think my dried yee mee have done a better job of absorbing the delectable soup.

A packet of tissues and about 29 ringgit (about U$8) later, we're outta there. Expensive, you say? Well, until I'm directed to a cheaper, tastier, and hotter tom yam noodle in KL, I'll be lighting my fire at Yu Ai.

Yu Ai Restaurant, 42 Jalan Segambut Utara. 8am-4pm.

March 01, 2006

Kaya Convert


I was slow to discover the charms of kaya. But now that I have there's no turning back.

Who can blame me for initially turning my nose up at this 'jam' of coconut milk, eggs, and white sugar? My first taste of the concoction was from a can plucked off a dusty shelf in an Asian market in California. Inside, I found not a trace of coconut flavor - just sweet, thick, exceptionally sticky blech. It took fourteen years for me to learn that 'real' kaya has as much in common with the canned stuff as a Maggi chicken cube dissolved in water does with long-simmered homemade chicken broth.

Kaya means 'wealthy' or 'rich' in Malaysian, and those words accurately sum up its attractions. Lushly coconuty, extravagantly eggy, and deeply caramely, kaya tastes something like a moist macaroon, a well-executed flan, and mom's butterscotch pudding all rolled into one.

Its natural partner is bread, and the pair is a standard Malaysian and Singaporean kopitiam menu item. (Nothing puts a kopi-stoked caffeine high into overdrive like an order of kaya toast.)

Some prefer their dough sliced from a loaf, while for others only a bun will do. I can't play favorites. Less than a week after swooning over butter and kaya-slathered sweet, puffy, soft-as-a-baby's-bottom xiao mianbao (little buns) in Kuala Terengganu (above) I was swearing eternal allegiance to the larger, wheatier, and altogether more substantial puffs on offer at Kuantan's Kememan coffee shop (below).


Then with one bite of Village Park's kaya toast all thoughts of buns were wiped from my mind. This restaurant's Singaporean owner decrees that plain white loaf be sliced super thin, evenly toasted on both sides, and then sliced again. The "raw" sides are stuck back together with the barest slick of butter and kaya mortar. The result is an ethereally light but saporific kaya toast that, after the initial crunch, practically melts in the mouth.


Beyond the loaf-versus-bun debate, there are a three requirements for a memorable kaya toast. Bread or bun should be white - not sourdough, not whole-grain nuts 'n stuff, not chewy artisanal provincial French doorstop bread. I'm not a white bread fan in general, but it's really the best kaya base.

If the dough product is to be toasted (kaya is also eaten with steamed bread) it should be over charcoal (or at least not in a toaster - use your oven's broiler instead; all the better if the oven is powered by gas). And the medium of lubrication should be butter, not margarine (Kememan comes out a loser on this point). Kaya and butter may be served on the side, but if an order arrives pre-spread the layers should be thin, ant there should be re-enforcements on the plate.

Readers who have been living a kaya-less existence (if you've tried it but don't like it - huh? - this won't apply to you) and can't purchase the good stuff (ie. not canned, not jarred, not mass-produced) should consider making their own. I can think of a few uses, other than as a bread spread, for this delicacy: as filling for a vanilla or chocolate sponge roll, as a topping for ice cream (a bit beyond the pale, perhaps), used instead of frosting on a rich chocolate cake (or in addition to frosting, between cake layers).


This recipe looks quite good (it's from the author's grandmother). It's not clear as to the amount of coconut milk to be used, so I'll clarify. Based on a survey of five different recipes, 600 ml of coconut milk, 10 eggs (the bigger the yolk the better), and 400-500 grams of sugar (depending on how sweet you want your kaya) seem to be the standard quantities.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • canned coconut milk will, unfortunately, produce an inferior product. But making your own isn't that hard (or time consuming, if you use dessicated coconut). From freshly grated coconut: place 2 cups coconut into a blender and add 1 1/2 cups very hot water. Blend for a few seconds. Line a sieve with cheesecloth and place over a bowl. Pour the coconut mixture into the sieve, gather up the corners of the cloth, and squeeze the liquid out of the coconut. From unsweetened, dessicated coconut milk: bring 2 1/2 cups water and 2 cups coconut to a simmer in a pan. Pour into a blender and proceed as for fresh coconut. Both methods should produce about 350 ml/12 ounces of thick coconut milk.
  • if you use a double boiler constant stirring throughout the entire process is unnecessary, unless you desire an absolutely smooth kaya (for those, like me, who like a bit of texture, small lumps are not a problem). Some recipes require the kaya to be cooked over a double boiler for as long as 4 or 5 hours. Have a look at the photo above, see how your product compares in terms of consistency, and continue to cook if necessary.
  • the recipe can be halved.

Refer to my Malaysian coffee post for addresses of the kaya toast spots mentioned above.

February 28, 2006

Ode to a Kopi Nation

Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love.     Turkish proverb


Who knew Malaysia has a coffee industry? I didn't, not before planting myself here in Kuala Lumpur last year.

Where had I been all those years? A dedicated (or, if you like, addicted) first-thing-in-the-morning consumer for - yes - decades, I've sipped Sumatran, sampled Kenyan, poo-poohed Blue Mountain (did I miss something there? I wasn't wowed), fallen for Balinese, and come to prefer Papau New Guinean. Though I'm not one to hang out in coffee houses I've done my fair share of high-end bean browsing, but never ran into Malaysian.

No surprise, when you consider that for the last ten or so years coffee production here in Malaysia has held steady at only about 160,000 bags, or 10,000 tons, yearly. To put that in perspective: Malaysia produces just .01% of the world's coffee and lags far, far behind Asia's big three producers (India, Vietnam, and Indonesia).


The majority of Malaysia's cultivated land is planted in rubber trees and oil palms (Malaysia is a major player in the world rubber and palm oil markets). Coffee plants cover only 25,000 hectares or so (primarily in Kedah, Kelantan, Selangor, Terengganu, and Pahang states). What little coffee is grown in Malaysia is consumed here, and because there's no export dollars to be gained from the industry there's been no official emphasis on improving the crop's quality.

About 95% of Malaysia's coffee beans come from liberica plants, a little-known variety that's also grown in west Africa and accounts for less than 2% of the world's coffee (most coffee comes from arabica and robusta beans). A liberica tree can grow as tall as 18 meters; its leaves are large and leathery, it produces big fruits and seeds, and it's extremely hardy. Professional tasters describe the bean's flavor characteristics as "undesirable" - thin, harsh, acidic. All of which means that you're unlikely to find a Malaysian bean or blend on offer at your local specialty coffee dealer anytime soon.

It also means that there's a lot of dreck drunk here in Malaysia. But careful cultivation and skilled roasting can make even liberica beans shine. Some Malaysian roasters add sugar during the process, which lends a hint of caramel to the cup. Ipoh's famous 'white' coffee is roasted in butter (or, less desirably, margarine), which makes for one smooooooooth caffeine hit. Though mediocrity abounds, if one heads to the right places - old-style Chinese kopitiam (coffee shops) that boast a regular clientele, single vendors who attract queues, and more contemporary shops, geared to a younger Malaysian crowd, that focus on local brews - it's possible to strike black gold.


Coffee has probably been consumed in Malaysia since the 15th century, having migrated with Middle Eastern traders to the Sultanate of Malacca's ports not long after it appeared in Mecca and Medina, although it wasn't grown here until the British began cultivating it in the Cameron Highlands in the latter half of the 1800s. Malaysia's favored brew method, using a 'sock' or 'butterfly net' filter suspended in a pot of hot water (see above), might have been introduced by Chinese immigrants from the island of Hainan or by Indian Muslim immigrants in the 1800s.


This method of filtering results in a fragrant, strong (with its high caffeine content liberica is known in the industry as the 'no-doze coffee'), thickish cup of coffee. Though some folks take it black ('kopi o'), it's more often mellowed with a generous dose of sweetened condensed milk ('kopi') or with a mixture of sweetened condensed and evaporated milks ('kopi special', at least at some shops). Milk barely alters the color of this rich brew, which stands up well to ice.


Relative proximity to a tasty, restorative cup of local coffee is one of the joys of living - and traveling - in Malaysia. As a slow fooder I'm pained by the proliferation of international coffee chains that would obliterate local coffee traditions and standardize our choice of brews the world over. When I'm Italy I'll have a macchiato; in Istanbul I want my coffee black and thick enough to stand a spoon in. Here in Malaysia you'll no sooner find me in a Starbuck's than a McDonald's. Make it a kopi special please, preferably drunk in an aged, unfashionable kopitiam that places me in a local context and lets me know where I am - that's Kuala Lumpur, not Kansas City.


Where to find a good cup of coffee (readers, if you'd like to share your favorite spot for local coffee I'll update this list with your suggestions):

Kuala Lumpur - Yut Kee, Jalan Dang Wangi; Village Park, 5 Jalan SS 21/37, Damansara Utama.

Kuantan - Kemaman Coffee, corner of Jalans Baasah and Tun Ismail; Stalls behind the Kuantan wet market.

Kuala Terengganu - Ah Hung, 136 Jalan Bandar.

February 23, 2006

Cluck-Cluck in a Claypot


These smokin' pots hold one of China's greatest contributions to mankind: claypot rice. Cooked in a heavy, thick-walled vessel over a charcoal fire, the simplest of ingredients - rice, chicken, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), and salted fish - are transformed into something sublime.

At this stall in Subang Jaya a lone woman tends sixteen or so claypots set on braziers of varying heat, arranged in three rows. She starts each order on the bottom, slicking a pot with a bit of oil before adding water and rice, bringing it to the boil, and then covering it. After the water's been absorbed (instinct tells her when, but the untrained eye would know it from small craters on the rice's surface) she moves the pot up a row or two to a cooler brazier, and adds chicken, fish, and sausage. When the chicken is nearly done she anoints the dish with sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice wine, leaves it on the heat a while longer, and finally finishes it off with a flurry of chopped scallion greens.


Sweet, chewy lap cheong, thinly sliced edges curled and lightly charred from the heat, and savory bone-in chicken contrast with nubs of sharply salty dried fish. The rice on which they lay, its surface stained black with soy, is aromatic and fluffy, except for the thin layer that's adhered to the bottom and sides of the claypot. This blackened crust (I've been told it's not a desirable quality in a good claypot rice, but I love dislodging and munching on the flavorful crispy rice) is the conduit via which with the contents of the pot are imbued with a subtle smokiness.


The ultimate one-pot meal.

Claypot chicken rice stall, Restoran New Apollos. 2 Jalan USJ4/6B, Subang Jaya. 11:30am-3pm and 5-10pm.

February 07, 2006

Meals on Wheels: Mesmerized by Mutton


It's hard to get too worked up about soup. If I'm looking for a streetside meal on the go (or a meal to go) I'm thinking noodles, popiah, perhaps a sugary kuih or too. But plain old soup? Frankly the thought of a bowl of hot and steamy liquid with the odd chunk or three in it just doesn't rock my boat.

Or at least it didn't until we stopped in at this Bangsar soup cart after a gluttonous morning in Kampar. It wasn't planned. I was across the street at our favorite fruit shop and Dave was engaged in Malaysians' third favorite pasttime (after eating and shopping): double parking. While I palpated papaya, picked through pineapple, and eyeballed jackfruit Dave, feeling the need to stretch his legs, stepped out of the car -- and right into a fragrant cloud of soup steam. At that point our fate was sealed.


This soup stall (which may or may not actually be on wheels, but it is mobile so I'm gonna say it qualifies) is probably known to most any Kuala Lumpur-ite who's shopped in Bangsar, because for over thirty years it's been the source of an intensely aromatic sup kambing (mutton soup) and a less olfactorily seductive sup ayam (chicken soup). The vendor inherited the stall, and countless loyal customers, from his father (who on this day, he proudly told us, was in Mecca for the haj).


Following the lead of the customer ahead of us - who walked away with ten orders of the stuff - we chose the mutton brew to go. Soup, packaged separately from solids, is dished up into plastic bags from a big stainless steel cauldron that's been on the boil, we were told, for at least five hours. Mutton meat and bones stay behind in the pot, continuing to leach flavor into the coriander seed- hued broth.


Customers have their choice of cooked meat: assorted innards, ribs, or tongue. The latter, though photogenic enough, did not tempt. We went for the squat, meaty ribs instead.


If ever anything justified a sheep's slaughter this soup, eaten at home the next day (Kampar and its delicacies stuck with us long after the dinner hour), is it. Thick enough to silkily coat the back of a soup spoon, the broth is so rich one might be tempted to infer the presence of a wee bit of coconut milk. But further tasting and serious contemplation leads me to the conclusion that the soup's unctuousness is wholly attributable to meat and fat essences and an intriguing blend of spices that call to mind Indonesia, India, and the Middle East all at the same time. Turmeric is a definate presence, as are coriander seeds, cardamom pods, and black pepper. At first taste the soup is intensely spicy, but it's a strange sort of chili heat that quickly migrates from the tip to the back of the tongue and then - poof! -dissipates altogether.  Rib meat that slides easily off the bone, nearly tender enough for a toothless baby, is icing on the cake.

A little slice of mutton heaven, at just 10 ringgit (less than 3 dollars) a bag, including meat - enough to stuff one glutton or satisfy two "normal" eaters.

Soup kambing/sup ayam stall, Persiaran Ara Kiri (or sometimes around the corner), Lucky Garden, Bangsar. Evenings from about 4ish.

January 20, 2006

It's All Gravy


Is this what La Choy had in mind? And if so, how did they get it so wrong?

C'mon - there must be someone else out there with an intimate knowledge of La Choy Chow Mein (beef, chicken, or shrimp), that 1960s and 70s grocery store shelf staple: a two-can (taped together, one on top of the other) quick meal of protein and vegetables suspended in beige-tinted mucus, served over a pile of powdery deep-fried dough worms. It was never prepared in my mother's kitchen (bless you, mom) but in the U.S. I've come head to head with it at the tables of childhood friends, college roommates, and ... grandma (bless you anyway, grandma).

Of course there's nothing inherently wrong with chow mein (simply "fried noodles"), but La Choy meals left me with mental scars that dictated an aversion to the dish. That is until I sampled a particularly palatable pork version in Kuala Terenganu's Chinatown. Since then it's catapulted to near tippy-top of my Favorite Malaysian Noodles list.

How wonderful to know, then, that a sublime beef chow mein can be had close at hand, in Bukit Bintang, at a street-level (literally: tables sit several steps down from the sidewalk, which puts the head, once one is seated, at just about exhaust-pipe level) stall that specializes in fried beef noodles, wet (with gravy) and dry (stir-fried a la char kuaytiaow).


Before jumping headlong into a recitation of the glories of this no-name place's wet beef noodles, I must acknowledge the merits of the dry version: toothsome noodle, chewy bits of scrambled egg, caramelized but still pleasantly crunchy slices of red onion, lots of crispy bean sprouts and round cabbage chunks, generously sized slices of unbelievably tender beef, and plenty of char from the wok.


Altogether fantastic. But would I order it again? Well, no, not if the gravy version is available. But if gravy doesn't float your boat then the dry noodle is a must-have.


Wet noodles feature the same tender beef, but that's where the similarity ends. Here we find a plate-sized pancake of thickish noodles deep-fried to a golden brown, cradling a mound of beef stir-fried with gai lan leaves, fragrant with chopped ginger. Beef and veggy have been cooked in a broth-scented gravy thickened with egg white and the merest dab of corn starch.

When the lot is tipped from wok onto the plate gravy runs over noodles and pools underneath, laying the groundwork for a textural triumph: a guaranteed combination of crunchy, tender, kinda soft, and not-quite-toothsome noodles in every bite. As one works one's way through the dish noodles become more uniformly soft, but never completely so.


Beyond its textural contrasts, the other standout of this dish is the flavorful, fresh egg white, whisps of which are wrapped around every single noodle. When the noodles are almost gone what's left is a rich puddle of what could be the makings of the world's finest, most eggy (and least cornstarch-y) egg drop soup. In the end, as in the beginning, it's all about the gravy.

No Name stall. Kitty korner to the char kuayteow and popiah shop at the end of Jalan Alor, just across from the Radius Hotel. Closed Sunday. This place is also said to do a fine sang hai mee (sheng hai mian - fried noodles topped with a gravy that includes huge freshwater prawns).

January 19, 2006

Medicinal Pig


Hot and sour soup. Mapo tofu. La jiao. Dandan noodles. Yuxiang pork shreds. Chinese cooks can scorch the tongue and set the lips atingle so well that it's easy (for a chili addict like myself, anyway) to overlook what they consistently do even better: comfort food. Since moving to Malaysia I've become convinced that when it comes to edible hugs, no one does it better than the Chinese. And for the ultimate in Chinese comfort food, I nominate bak kut teh.

Unappetizingly translated as "meat bone tea", bak kut teh is a Hokkien (from China's southeast Fujian province) soup/stew of pork, spices like black pepper and star anise and cinammon, and Chinese medicinal herbs such as tong sum and kei chee (wolfberries). Now, I've long been of the mind that there's food, and there's medicine, and never the twain should meet. Eating - and feeding others, for that matter - should be about pleasure; injecting a medical purpose into a meal just seems wrong. Bak kut teh boosters make some pretty incredible assertions about this meal-in-a-claypot: it's alleged to cure stomach flu, prevent rheumatism and cancer, boost the immune system, strengthen bones and kidneys, and generally rid the body of toxins, among other things. I'm not sure I buy into the medical legend, but there's no denying the dish is delicious.


I first encountered bak kut teh on Christmas Day in, of all places, Kuantan. On this last evening of our Malaysian east coast eatathon Dave and I were recovering from a grueling 5-hour drive from Kota Baru, most of it in a monsoonal downpour. Neither of us could summon the energy to set off in search of the seafood for which Kuantan is famous, and so we ended up wandering the city's shuttered downtown in search appetizing sustenance. The sign at this simple storefront, with its unmistakable claypot illustration, beckoned.


The owner of this shop wouldn't tell us which herbs and spices she includes in her bak kut teh, and my indelicate palate could be certain only of the presence of white pepper, cinammon, and clove. Five hours of simmering produces a complex, rich broth and pork meat that falls off the bone in tender shreds. In addition to bone-in pork, our claypot included reconstituted dried tofu, fried tofu cubes, and four or five chewy dried shiitake mushrooms, and was crowned with a clump of raw enoki that softened in the broth's steam. Lightly spiced but not bland, simple but not boring, this bak kut teh was as addictive as a bowl of thick-cut, kettle-cooked potato chips; when Dave and I finished not a single drop darkened the bottom of the clay pot. (Delectable also was the shop's velvety soft hot and sour mustard greens, cooked overnight and available only on Sundays and Wednesdays).

Having entered the restaurant exhausted, we left - despite our full bellies - revived, uncertain whether to credit the restorative powers of Chinese herbs or the rush of culinary discovery.

In Malaysia (the dish is common in Singapore as well) the origin of bak kut teh can be traced to Klang, a town about 30 km southwest of KL. Capital of Selangor state until 1880 (when it lost the title to KL) and once center of one of Malaysia's most important tin-mining regions, Klang, starting in the 1800s, attracted huge numbers of employment-seeking southern Chinese immigrants, including natives of Fujian. No Malaysian can pinpoint Klang's bak kut teh ground zero, but few dispute that this bustling town is the place to go to sample the best.

As new devotees, we were eager to dine on bak kut teh at the source. So Sunday, we took to the Federal Highway and, detailed map in hand (thanks HMG!), made our way to Telok Pulai Bak Kut Teh.


Bak kut teh is traditionally a breakfast and - judging from the number of extended families dining at this restaurant - Sunday brunch dish. We ordered a pot for two, one "veggie", and rice, and snagged a plastic container of fried shallots that was making its way around the restaurant to sprinkle over the latter. A plate of youtiao (fried dough sticks; Chinese crullers), cut into 2-inch chunks, arrived with saucers of diced fresh chili and soy sauce.


The veggie - baby bok choy, on this plate - is simply blanched, drizzled with oyster sauce, and sprinkled with fried garlic. Well-prepared, delightfully crunchy, but in the end a mere accompaniment to the main event.


Unlike our Kuantan version, this bak kut teh included three different cuts of pork (thick-cut rib layered with a pleasing amount of fat; lean, boneless loin; and tender pieces of what I'm guessing to be shoulder or rump) and was adorned with several leaves of head lettuce. Mushrooms were few and far between and, in what I would call the restaurant's only misstep, are unmistakeably canned. Fluffy squares of deep-fried tofu and a few large sheets of dried tofu (11 to 3 o'clock in the photo) are likeably chewy and soak up the porky broth.

It is the broth that, without a doubt, is the highlight of TPBKT's version of bak kut teh. Lushly seasoned, unabashedly fatty, thick with miniscule bits of pork, and as dark as coffee, it would make a fine meal even on its own, without adornments. And it's simply glorious sopped up with cruller sponges.


Each clay pot of bak kut teh is assembled to order. As we found out when we ventured back to TPBKT's prep area after lunch, diners can have their bak kut teh assembled not only with specified cuts of meat, but can add on innards as well.


After a pot is packed with pork, mushrooms, and tofu skin it's filled to the brim with broth and set on the fire (opening photo) an brought to a boil. Added to the pot just before it's pulled from the flame, lettuce arrives at the table still crunchy.

I can't yet attest to the veracity of the medical claims made about bak kut teh, but its pull is akin to that of a drug. I couldn't stop thinking about the dish after my maiden meal in Kuantan, and found myself (someone who prefers chili spice and is not especially fond of hot soups in tropical weather) with a fierce craving for another bowl less than twenty-four hours after our lunch in Klang. Simply put, meat bone tea is a dish that - like the the very best comfort foods - satisfies in every possible way.

Kedai Kopi Jalan Besar, B74 Jalan Besar, Kuantan.

Telok Pulai Bak Kut Teh, Klang. Directions: take the Federal Highway to Klang, continue over the river, and pass an Indian temple on your right. Turn right at the first light after the temple (you will now be in a construction zone). Turn left at the first intersection, pass a field on your right, follow the road to a T-section and turn right. At the second traffic light turn right (you will have passed an Economart on your left). Continue straight and take the overpass (not the small road to its left). Note a row of shophouses on your right just as the overpass bottoms out; turn right at the first light to enter. The bak kut teh shop in this post is the one (there are two in the same row) furthest from the traffic light, towards the overpass.

January 12, 2006

Would That I Had More Neighbors Like This


For almost five months we've been mourning the closure of a neighborhood bookstore and cafe that served a lip-tinglingly spicy laksa Kedah (the operators also read horoscopes, but that's another story).  As soon as the doors closed for the last time a sign went up in the window, encouraging customers to patronize the restaurant that would take its place in 4 weeks. A month later, no indications of life -- week after week the storefront remained darkened behind papered-over windows. There's great food all over KL, but we missed having deliciousness so close at hand, just down the hill.


Happy New Year to us! Just after 2005 receded from view the little shopfront re-opened as Pinang Masak, a cafe serving food crafted from "traditional kampung recipes". Lacking a Malaysian kampung background - and still with less than six months of KL eating under my belt - I'm not in a position to judge the veracity of that claim. But our first meal at Pinang Masak last weekend was promising enough to assure our return.

PM's owners have got an orange kind of thing going on here - bright orange awning, orange and white sign, sponged orange walls on the inside. Makes me think of a creamsicle. A few tables outside on the fan-cooled porch, and about 8 more inside. For tube addicts there's a flatscreen that's visible from just about any table (indoors or out); luckily the sound is rarely on. For food addicts there's a glass case just inside the door filled with delectable kuih and a nasi (rice) and sides serving station with a fairly extensive selection of dishes opposite to the TV.


On this visit we stuck to one-dish meals: laksa Penang and lontong Singapore. As we sat at our outside table, sipping mango juice (keeping with the orange theme) and peeling our complimentary rambutan (nice touch) an obviously satiated foursome trundled out the door and, after determining that we were not reporters (the tripod, the notebook) but just generic nuts who take pictures of and notes about everything we eat, wished us a good lunch.

Dave's laksa Penang was a joy to behold, and to taste.


All the elements were there: a couple of prawns, lip-puckering gravy (truth to be told I could have gone with a bit more sour), a good hit of chili heat, thick and toothsome fresh rice noodles. Despite the insufficient sourness this version struck a high note, for me, with the abundance of shredded fish floating about the sauce. The dish arrived with every component draped in a sort of fish-thread coat, making for a satisfyingly rich mouth feel.


I'd like to go into more description but this was Dave's dish, and neither of us were much into sharing this time around.

My lontong was a pleasant surprise. I'd been expecting rice rolls something like lemang, with a thick, meaty curry on the side for dipping. What I got was a bowl of very thin and not too coconut-y curry "soup" crowded with stubs of green bean, strands of mee xin bean thread noodles, half a hard-boiled egg, chunks of what might have been jicama, and soybeans three ways (firm tofu, dried and reconstituted tofu, and tempeh). All crowned with shredded coconut dry-fried with palm sugar, dried chilies and, if I'm not mistaken, chopped peanuts.


Intact semi-circles of pressed rice (the lontong) his underneath it all, soaking up the soupy goodness.


A dish notable in several ways. First, I'd never heard of it before. Maybe it's a creation of PM's cook's imagination - lontong Singapore. Maybe a it's a true Singaporean dish. Maybe a reader can enlighten: is lontong often served in this fashion, as the base for a thin curry?

Second, the coconut-palm sugar topping was hot - and thus, quite fragrant - when the bowl arrived at the table. This is a laudable bit of attention to detail, frying the condiment garnish to order rather than scooping it up from a prepared pile at the workstation. Third, the tempeh was not fried, the first time I've ever encountered it so. It may have been blanced before it was added to the curry, but without a crunchy coating its slightly fermented, soy bean-iness came through deliciously.

Finally, it's served with a scrumptious sambal that's fiery, fishy and slightly sweet, smoothed with tomato (roasted, perhaps?) and chunky with strands of onion and nubs of garlic. One taste and the whole saucer found its way to my bowl of curry pronto.


Gluttons that we are, we couldn't pass up the offerings in the kuih case, and so finished the meal with a couple of dadar and a glutinous rice/pandan/coconut cream treat.


The dadar's palm sugar-coconut filling was marvellously moist but the pancake wrappers, while fresh, weren't quite springy (or pocked with air holes) enough for me. I've no complaints about dadar's companion.

Pinang Masak has a fairly extensive menu. Other noodles dishes include mee kari, laksa Johor, and mee rebus. The restaurant whips up fresh roti jala at high tea, as well as offering bubur (sweet rice or grain-based porridge), pulut kuning (yellow rice) with rendang or sambal, and satay. ABC and tapai pulut (fermented glutinous rice - a taste I have yet to acquire but hey, I'm willing to give it another try) are on the dessert menu.

Preparing this morning to write up my PM post, I realized that I couldn't possibly draw judgment on the place having tasted only noodles, lontong, and sweets. So in the interest of science - for you, reader - a few hours ago I picked up a bit of rice and samplings of a couple of dishes, to go. PM's rice, unfortunately (for my tastebuds - fortunately for my waistline) is not lemak (cooked with coconut milk or water) but plain white rice. Stink beans dry-fried with sambal and lots of chewy, salty ikan bilis (dried anchovies) is a winner, as are the savory clams stir-fried with sliced onion, chili, a bit more ikan bilis, and a green vegetable that just might have been what I know from Thailand as garlicky cha-om. Both spicy, but not so much as to leave my tongue burning. And both well satisfying.

So far, so good. Further investigation to follow.

Pinang Masak, Langkat Tunku in the complex apartment near Jalan Duta. Tel. 03-6201-1964. Open 7am-7pm, closed Sundays and public holidays.

January 10, 2006

Banana Leaf Fish Fry


We have no quarrel with competitors who charge less. After all, they know what their food is worth.

So declares a sign posted by the cash register at PJ (Petaling Jaya) Indian banana leaf hotspot Raju. Dave and I ended up here on the recommendation of - once again - this KL food blogger. Though we planned to eat large (as usual), we came to sample ikan bulus, a small fish rumored to go so crispy in the deep-fryer that it can be eaten bones and all.


On this day the display case fronting Raju's indoor seating area, and flanked on one side by an outdoor cooker topped by 3 blackened pots of bubbling oil, offered - in addition to ikan bulus (middle row, furthest left) - pomfret, mackerel, red mullet, thick slabs of something resembling sea bass, fish maw, crab, squid ... and chicken. All had been wallowing for a period in a thick, orange-red paste (in the white tub) of chili, turmeric, tamarind, and other unknown ingredients. Ordering the ikan bulus was a given; squid was an add-on.

Large squares of banana leaf materialized in front of us almost almost immediately after we sat ourselves at one of the Raju's communal outdoor tables, and were soon covered with a heap of vittles, starting with steamed white rice. A choice of fragrant gravies (fish, chicken, or dhal),


a mound of silky sauteed spinach,


a spoonful of cooling cucumber and pineapple salad, a dab of tender turmeric-spiced gourd, and a couple of pappadum followed in quick succession. When our fish arrived a couple of moments later, it seemed only fitting that it be given pride of place atop each of our bounteous banana leaf feasts.


Our ikan bulus turned out to be too large to down bones and all - but that's a commentary on the size of these particular specimens rather than on Raju's fry job, which was exemplary. Many of the smaller bones, shattering at the nudge of a fork, were indeed edible, and the skin was deliciously spicy with a hint of sour and, notably, grease-free. Ikan bulus itself has exceptionally tasty and sweet snowy-white flesh; we both finished our portions wishing for more.

Notable also are Raju's fish gravy (pungently piscene with a nice curry edge),


dhal (packed with black mustard seeds, cumin-y, mild, and comforting), and a lip-searing sour and bitter mango pickle that must be hunted down because it isn't automatically offered with other banana leaf toppers.


Haven't had enough heat? Don't forget these beauties that turn up (if you ask for them) at just about every Indian food house in town:


Dried red chilies with a massive dose of fire power, deep fried and heavily salted. A little pressure with the convex side of a spoon reduces them to an almost powdery mass, perfect for sprinkling on bland rice and perking up neutral vegetables; their extreme salinity is oddly addictive.

I couldn't close without praising the squid which, though not quite as expertly fried as that at Muhibbah (a bit of grease clung to these pieces) - and that may be a function of the marinade, which could be an oil-absorber - nonetheless begged to be eaten, one piece right after another.


Raju Restaurant, Jalan Chantek 5/13 (off Jalan Gasing), Petaling Jaya.

January 09, 2006

When Simple is Scrumptious


Woo Lan is a Brickfields institution. On previous (and, unfortunately, camera-less) visits to this 40-plus-year-old Chinese-Malaysian eatery we've devoured carp head-and-shoulders smothered in a delightfully hot and pungent ginger sauce, sweet-sticky pork ribs slow-stewed in Guiness, and ultra-fresh prawns cooked to perfection in a clay pot.

On a recent overcast Sunday we stopped in for a simple lunch of Woo Lan's specialty noodle dish, mee sua, and a plate of greens. At the tail-end of the afternoon service the place was nearly empty and we were greeted with little more than a grunt from the proprietress (who, understandably, was probably more interested in sitting down to her own lunch than in serving ours).


Greens arrived first - kangkong (aka morning glory and water spinach) lightly stir-fried with thick slices of garlic. Leaves tender, stems still a bit crispy, well-seasoned, and oily but not too oily. Good greens.


And then the mee sua, a study in simplicity. Thin rice noodles tossed in oil (or, in light of the flavorous punch this dish packed, was it lard? I suspect so.) and heaped on a platter, topped with crunchy stir-fried napa cabbage, slices of chewy deep-fried gluten, tender pork shreds, a couple of eggs sunny-side down (yolks broken), and extra-crispy pieces of deep-fried seaweed. No sauce, no gravy, nothing but oil-or-lard to bind the ingredients into a delectable whole.

Noodles. Egg. Pig. Gluten. Cabbage. Seaweed. Animal fat. Mix on the plate or in your mouth.


Woo Lan Restaurant. 19 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur. Noon-3pm and 6-10pm. Tel. 03-2274-8368.

December 29, 2005

Getting My Fern Fix


So far, my search for fiddleheads in and around greater KL has turned up nada. It appears I may have to fly to Sarawak to feed my craving. In the meantime, I'm making do with pucuk paku, the tender ferns that are available in almost every wet market -- and quite a few grocery stores -- in town. They're not roast-able, as fiddleheads are, but they've got the same sort of pleasing asparagus-crossed-with-artichoke-with-some-grass-thrown-in kind of flavor.

At home I've been tossing them in a fry pan with a bit of garlic and oil. But about a month ago, over lunch with another KL food blogger and a couple other friends at Little Penang Cafe's new KLCC outlet, I sampled a lemak ("fatty" -- usually from coconut milk) and zippy pucuk paku salad that rocked my world. "If you like this, you must try the version at Muhibbah," said food blogger advised. I needed no prodding. The following Saturday Dave (also a pucuk paku fan) and I hot-tailed it over to Muhibbah for a light lunch.

Muhibbah Seafood occupies a cavernous storefront in TTDI, conveniently close to Applied Imaging, where we have our slides developed. Its thirty or so tables, most of them big ten-seaters with lazy susans in the middle, are cooled by copious ceiling fans. This is the sort of place to come for a casual stuff-with-rice kind of meal. The menu lists lots of prawn, squid, and la-la (clams) dishes and a selection of vegetable and dofu preparations. I'm told that barbecued fish is on offer at night.

Let me get right to the point: Muhibbah's kerabu paku pakis (fern "salad", not on the menu - consult the board on the wall) is sublime.


We're talking expertly blanched fern - tender stems and curled tips - that displays not the slightest bit of sliminess (speaking from experience, it can happen, if the pucuk paku is cooked too long) and a satisfying touch of crunch. We're talking carefully sliced bird chilies and shallots, thin shavings of fresh lemongrass. We're talking a snappy dressing of lime juice, palm sugar, perhaps a wee bit of fish sauce or belacan, and a whisper of coconut milk, just enough to add body without overwhelming the vegetable in lemak-y heaviness. There's a bit of Thai influence here, it seems to me, but nevermind. No matter the origin, this salad is glorious.

Oh yeah -- we also (as advised) sampled Muhibbah's deep-fried sotong (squid).


You know, I generally try to avoid things deep-fried. There's something about foods immersed in hot oil that's just so .... well, oily. And deep-fried squid, calamari, whatever you call it, is so rarely done right. Well, someone in Muhibbah's kitchen really knows how to work this dish. To start with, the pieces are small enough to ensure that the squid is cooked to a state of exquisite tenderness in the brief time it takes to crisp the coating. The latter is light and crunchy (oh, how I detest overly breaded deep-fried coatings). Tentacles are the best bites, worth fighting over, blissfully browned and crunchy. These tasties go down easy as popcorn, one right after the other. An accompanying dipping sauce of fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, and chilies is nice but not necessary.

Feeling the need for one more dish, we settled on stir-fried kucai flowers just because we had no idea what they were.


They turned out to be Chinese chives. Another masterful preparation, this time consisting of pungent, garlicky chives stir-fried with carrots, a few small shrimp, tender ginger slivers, garlic, and oyster sauce. This dish suffered only from the fact that it followed the blockbuster combo of kerabu paku pakis and squid; it really was delicious enough to merit ordering again.

The only downside of this meal is that I learned after the fact that we'd ordered a small plate of the pucuk paku, when medium and large sizes are available as well. I'm envisioning a dinner at Muhibbah in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future: ikan bakar (grilled fish), more squid, and a big, BIG fern salad.

Muhibbah Seafood, 50-54 Lorong Rahim Kajai 14, Taman Tun Dr. Ismail. Tel. 03-7727-3153 (within 5 minutes of the TTDI exit off the Penchala Link).

December 13, 2005

A Big Feed Under the Big Tree


I can't claim to have discovered this place. In fact, I will never, on this blog, claim to have discovered any of the Malaysian mobile carts, hawker stalls, coffee shops, or restaurants that I might write about. That would be foolishness, because in Malaysia, if it's good, you can be darned sure it's already been sniffed out, scoped out, and tried out by hundreds if not thousands of Malaysians who are ever on the troll for an as-yet unexperienced gastronomic reason to live.

A few Saturdays ago Dave and I joined a couple of friends -- one of whom introduced Asian Wall Street Journal writer John Krich to this restaurant, which he included in his list of top KL chow picks in a 2003 "Eats" column -- and a friend of a friend for lunch at what Krich named "Place Under the Big Tree". What we have here is a dilapidated traditional Malay wooden house stuck in the middle of a neighborhood of auto body shops. The front yard -- which, yes, is pleasantly shaded by a really big tree -- serves as dimly-lit, tin-roofed kitchen at one end and plastic drop-cloth tented dining room at the other. Beyond the reach of plastic canopy sit a number of umbrella-topped tables.


I simply love food shops like this; they're one of the best things about Asia. Completely unpretentious, cursed by perhaps less-than-genteel surroundings (a busy street, a major highway, a dank alley, a front yard within easy hearing distance of metal saws and gas-powered generators) but somehow graced with an atmosphere of utter relaxation. With spots like this it's all about the food, and when the food is good and you're surrounded by people visibly enjoying the grub you can't help but kick back, dig in, and have a good time.

And so it was with Big Tree. Hakka is the cuisine served here. Sometimes mistakenly referred to as an ethnic minority in China, Hakka are a subgroup of the dominant Han majority who migrated from the country's north to primarily Jiangxi, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces a couple of thousand years ago. The name "Hakka" is derived from the pronunciation in Hakka dialect of the Mandarin characters "ke" and "jia". Meaning "guest" and "family", the characters describe the status of the migrant communities in their newly-adopted homes. From southern and eastern China, Hakkas moved to other Asian countries; in Malaysia, they settled primarily in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) and the states of Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Perak, and Selangor.

Hakka cuisine is characterized by its saltiness (from the use of soy and preserved vegetables), fattiness (associated with its many pork dishes), and rich aromas (from the use of spices like star anise and five-spice and pungent ingredients like black beans and fermented bean curd). Also by its yumminess, judging from our lunch at Big Tree.

Fish head is a favorite here, and with 5 people we could justify two -- one steamed and strewn with minced ginger and garlic (geung jing)


and another with yellow bean sauce (cheong jing).


These are not just the heads, but the moist and meaty "shoulders" too, so to speak, of freshwater grass carp. The flavor of this fish is mild and slightly sweet -- no fresh water muddiness here -- and its texture is soft but not mushy. Both were delicious, but between the two I veer on the side of the bean paste preparation. Krich describes the sauce as "gloppy" but I'd compare it to a thick, lumpy gravy. Lots of salt from the preserved beans and black beans add even more, but it's all balanced by a hint of sweetness and a slight chili kick. The ginger-garlic preparation is thinner, a bit more sweet, and boasts a caramel-ish flavor (from the browned garlic, I think). Though I preferred the former, no one had to twist my arm to dip into my fair share of the latter.

We balanced our heart-smart fish heads with a good dose of Hakka fattiness, in the form of a dish of braised and steamed pork belly with yam slices (khau yoke)


and yet more pork belly with wood ear fungus (char yoke).


Is there anything that doesn't taste good with a big old dose of fatty pork? Nevermind the sugar, I reckon that this is what can make just about any medicine go down. I am head over heels with Big Tree's khau yoke and the five-spice powder, rice wine, and oyster sauce-induced sweet-savoriness that thoroughly infuses all three layers of pig skin, fat, and meat. The yam, cooked just to tender and not beyond to mushiness, is thoroughly sauced-soaked as well and adds another hint of sweetness to the dish.

Big Tree's char yoke is also five-spiced, but with a somehow stronger hint of anise -- and clove, perhaps? --than its yammy cousin khau. Wide strips of wood ear, in contrast to the rubberband-like nubs that adorn less carefully prepared Chinese food, are both texturally pleasing (chewy and crunchy) and flavorsome while this dish's pork, more stew-meat in texture than that in the khau yoke (but still plenty fatty), is fork-tender.

No Chinese meal is complete without a plate of greens (it also helps to assuage the gnawing guilt often associated with massive consumption of multiple super-fatty meats). Our choice was sweet potato leaves stir-fried with belacan (stinky but luscious Malaysian shrimp paste), garlic, and chilies.


This green veggie, with leaves that wilt as easily as spinach while the stems retain a nice crisp-tender bite (absent any sliminess), may be the ultimate stir-fry green.

Five dishes for five people. Just about right (though if this had been dinner instead of lunch I think we could have taken on another fish head). After paying our bill (all of 60 ringit -- about U$17, including drinks), mopping our mouths, wiping our hands, and stifling a belch or two, we made our way back to the car, a trail of destruction in our wake.


Place Under the Big Tree, opposite 6 Jalan Tiga, Sungai Besi. 11am-4pm, closed Sundays.

December 08, 2005

Kuih What?


If you've a sweet tooth, KL can be heaven or hell, depending on whether you're in indulgence mode or steering clear of all seven of the deadly sins. Temptation - in the form of an endless array of multi-hued, variously shaped and textured sugary kuih (lit. "cake") - lurk on every corner, peddled from mobile carts, sold by generously-girthed, smiling mom-like ladies seated behind folding tables outside grocery store entrances, hawked at permanent stalls in coffee shops, or served in air-conditioned comfort at shops in any one of KL's numerous shopping malls.

Resistance is futile -- unless you can't stand coconut, despise palm sugar, or (heaven forbid!) are revolted by both. (Most Malaysian sweets contain one or the other, in some form or another, and quite often, copious amounts of both.)

For the ten years or so prior to moving to KL, I was a once-a-month-or-so sweets consumer. All too aware of the dangers posed by a half-finished cake or a tin of cookies sitting on the kitchen counter, I don't often bake at home (the pound of Valhrona bittersweet chocolate I purchased two months ago to make a flourless chocolate-black pepper cake is still sitting in fridge). And I rarely order dessert at a restaurant (vacations being the exception), preferring to devote my calories to delectable savories and good wine.

But living in KL has posed a challenge. Malay sweets, with their coconut-y richness and haunting palm sugar complexity, have thrown a monkey wrench in my attempts to "stay clean".

The weekend before last was a bit of a disaster. First, on Saturday, there was the kuih seller outside Restoran Fook Yun. The little lovely pictured up top consists of two thick layers of rice flour, coconut milk and sweet corn (yellow) sandwiching a thin layer flavored with coconut milk and pandan leaves. I love, love, love sweet corn - but not in a dessert, so I approached this kuih with a bit of caution. In this instance though, it worked, the corny sucrose seeming very at home with the coconut.


Then there was the kuih ketayap (or kuih dadar) sold at the Aroma Nyonya Kueh stall at Chun Heong coffee shop in Bangsar's Lucky Garden.


This is, without a doubt, my very favorite kuih. Soft, spongy pandan-flavored pancakes enclose a filling of grated coconut and palm sugar. There's nothing quite like a kuih dadar hot off the griddle, when the pancake is still warm enough to soften the palm sugar. But a well-made dadar will stand the test of hours, its wrapper remaining supple and yielding long after the treat has cooled.


Then we stepped into the abyss, deciding on the spur of the moment to check out the offerings at this kuih cart that parks outside Nam Chuan coffee shop every Sunday afternoon. The cart was mobbed and our wait was substantial and tortuous, as I watched the supply of kuih dwindle. Happily, there was plenty left when our turn rolled around.

This vendor sells kueh lapis (chewy, multi-colored layers of rice flour and coconut),


kuih kosui (rice flour dough flavored with coconut or pandan and coconut, steamed in cups  -- the khui is scooped plastic, cut into quarters, and topped with fresh grated coconut),


and kuih apam (not-too-sweet spongy brown cakes lightly flavored with palm sugar --I imagined them as part of a delicious trifle, sliced and layered with strawberries and vanilla ice cream).


And much more. Behold our haul:


Clockwise from upper left (readers, thanks for providing correct names!): kuih apam, kuih kosui, kueh lapis, kuih seri muka (a cake of glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk, topped with a pandan layer), onde onde (Dave's fave - steamed pandan flavored glutinous rice flour balls with a semi-liquid filling of palm sugar, rolled in grated coconut), a "sandwich" of pulut tai tai (coconut and glutinous rice flour cakes that traditionally get their blue hue from a dye obtained from dried bunga telang, or butterfly pea flowers) with a kaya (rich coconut and egg "jam") filling, a coconuty kueh with a wrinkly "burnt" topping of palm sugar, and kueh talam (a layer of rice and green pea flour flavored with pandan topped with a layer of rice flour and coconut cream).

This was not a typical weekend, but I think it's pretty obvious that I am no longer master of my sweet tooth. I may require detox.

December 06, 2005

Suggestion Box: Kolo Mee


A couple of Saturdays ago I opened my email inbox to find a message from an EatingAsia reader, advising me of a "Chinese kopitiam selling delicious Sarawak's famous kolo mee" near the Malaysia Institute of Baking (MIB) in Petaling Jaya (PJ) new town. Three hours later I was wandering the area with Dave, scribbled note in hand, pestering young and old alike for directions to a nonexistent coffee shop. My source had gotten the name of the kopitiam wrong, but no matter. We found it soon enough and, though he may have incorrectly named the venue, our reader was absolutely spot-on as regards the deliciousness of said kolo mee.


Restoran Fook Yun wraps around one corner of the intersection of two pedestrian-only lanes. The ladies selling kolo mee from a stall topped with a yellow and red sign touting "handmade noodles" have been in business for only a little over a year. For the uninitiated, kolo mee is a simple dish of noodles topped with barbecued pork, a few stems of one Chinese green or another, and a sprinkling of spring onions, served with a bowl of meat soup.


Fook Yun's kolo mee ladies ratchet the dish up a notch, adding scrumptiously seasoned pork mince, scrambled egg pieces, and lots of fried shallots to the mix. Toppings are so generous that they literally blanket the noodles. Bobbing in the broth served alongside are two tender, meaty orbs studded with tasty bits of green onion and red capsicum. All well and good and delectable, but for me the real gastronomic excitement of this dish is in what lies beneath.


The vendors tell me that they rise extra early everyday to whip up a fresh batch of these semi-wide egg noodles, and I believe them. I'm a bit of a noodlehead, especially when it comes to thicker, more substantial versions like these. Silky and supple, with a pure eggy flavor, and cooked agreeably al dente -- these scrumptious strands of pasta could easily stand up to some of the best fresh pasta I've sampled in Italy. So much so, in fact, that I briefly pondered purchasing a kilo to take home and sauce up with a nice chicken liver-y ragu Bolognese for dinner that evening (I may yet pursue this fantasy).

'Nuff said. These nectareous noodles had me humming a happy tune the rest of the afternoon. Thanks mucho, TH!


Oh I'm sorry -- did you think we were finished? After just one bowl of kolo mee between the two of us our stomachs were still growling; this Ipoh chee cheong fun a few steps away whispered our names. Chee cheong fun often make an appearance at dim sum; they're big, wide rice noodles rolled around a variety of fillings (minced pork, or shrimp, or scallops, or...) into a sort of log, and doused with a sweetish soy sauce. Ipoh-ites do theirs a bit differently, chopping an unfilled noodle log into chunks and liberally lashing them with chili sauce, sweet-salty "brown" sauce, and sprinkles of sesame seeds and fried shallots. As the sign says, fish balls are an optional add-on.


Are these chee cheong fun really handmade? I couldn't tell you, but I can say that their texture was simply sublime. Thinner and lighter than the usual dim sum variety, they were so soft as to be almost pillowy. Just another noodle-related reason for a repeat nosh at Restoran Fook Yun.


On the way back to the car we stopped in at MIB's ground-floor bakery. Chocolate fudge layer cake: flavorsome frosting, disappointingly dry cake. More than redeemed by the springy orange muesli bread (no added sugar) which, though a bit skimpy in nuts, is blessed with the glorious fragrance and flavor of orange peel. Yummy toasted and eaten with honey.

Sarawak kolo mee and Ipoh chee cheong fun at Restoran Fook Yun, PJ new town. No address, but -- stand with your back to the MIB (11 Jalan 52/8, Merdeka Square). Fook Yun is just a minute's walk forward and to the left.

Update: Friend, EatingAsia reader, and vigilent copywriter SW has set me straight as regards what Ipoh chee cheong fun is, and is not. Question is, what gives with the "Ipoh" on the sign of this not-Ipoh chee cheong fun vendor?

Ipoh-style chee cheong fun is usually served with minced pork and mushrooms. The chee cheong fun in the pic is the standard chee cheong fun - some stalls just sell it in plain flat sheets, others in rolls and some offer you a choice of both. The sauces drizzled over are "teem cheong" (Cantonese - sweet sauce) and chilli sauce. There's also a dash of oil, sesame seeds and sometimes soya sauce. Some stalls also offer you the option of "karlay chup" (Cantonese pronunciation of curry gravy). There are also variations of "teem cheong" - it ranges from a reddish almost maroon coloured sauce to various shades of brown.

December 02, 2005

How One Lunch Becomes Two


There are seven days in every week, two meals in every day (breakfast and lunch are usually one, for me). I don't eat out every meal, I don't even eat out most meals. I love to eat, but I also love to cook, which dictates a fair amount of lunching and dinner-ing at home. So even in an omnivorously busy week I've got, at the most, six meals to play with.

This is the problem: in KL, when it comes to food, choice overwhelms opportunity. It's very, very frustrating.

Sometimes I just have to double up.


A typical Sunday afternoon: we've just had a good workout and are on the prowl for sustenance. We head over to backpacker land behind Jalan Bukit Bintang. We know that Tengkat Tong Shin has a lot to offer in the scarf department, and the sign above this vendor's stall advertising Ipoh sar hor fun reels us in.

"Hor fun" is Cantonese for rice noodles ("kway teow" in Hokkien/Fujianese). The rice noodles in Ipoh, capital of Malaysia's Perak state, are said to be smoother, softer, and generally tastier than those made elsewhere. Ipoh-ites attribute their kuay teow's special deliciousness to the high alkali content of the local water, which originates in the mountains around the city.


Dave and I aren't certain we'll be able to appreciate the no-doubt subtle differences between Ipoh and KL kuay teow, but sar hor fun is new to us (we crave adventure), so we order a couple of bowls.


Noodles aside, this dish illustrates the old adage that, sometimes, simple is best. It's nothing but shredded chicken breast meat, a couple of halved prawns, a few wilted stalks of gai lan (Chinese broccoli), and rice noodles, all floating with some scallion pieces in a shrimp-chicken broth slicked with the teeniest bit of bright red chili oil. But what broth (so rich!), what prawns (no mush! and they tase of the sea!), what chicken breast (so moist and tender!), what greens (still toothsome!), and -- what noodles! They are indeed the softest-without-being-mushy kuay teow we've ever eaten. Of course, they slide down without effort.

A fine find, we depart Ching Hai satisfied that the day has been well spent. Except that those bowls of noodles were small, and we're still feeling a little bit peckish. We get the bright idea to wander up the street in search of a small final nibble. About halfway, we come across a very busy coffee shop. One vendor is busier than most -- great! -- problem is, he's dishing out fish ball noodles, which in my book qualifies as more of a meal than the finale to a meal.


Especially when one orders one's own bowl (one with thick yellow mee, one with thin rice vermicelli, both dry), instead of sharing.


The noodles arrive at table showered with chopped scallion, perched atop a handful of blanched sprouts. Both are doused with a lightly bitter, not-at-all sweet, salty black sauce that's easily tamed with a splash or two of fish ball broth.


And speaking of fish balls (there's a couple of fish "sausage" slices floating in there as well) -- soft and springy at the same time, if that's possible. There's a bit of resistance to tooth pressure, but once I'm "in" they're very yielding. And plenty fishy.

Well. It was way too much food for one lunch. But when you've only got six opportunities a week.......

Ipoh Sar Hor Fun at Ching Hai coffee shop, Tengkat Tong Shin at the corner of Jalan Tong Shin, opposite Corona Inn). Early morning till 3 or 4-ish pm. Fish ball noodles at coffee shop just up TTS, on the same side of the street as Ching Hai.

December 01, 2005

Dim Sum Low


Kedai Kopi Mee Bon looks pretty much like any other kedai kopi (coffee shop) in KL: a plain open storefront with a fair amount of seating inside and a number of sidewalk tables. Huge bamboo steamers -- well worn from use and stacked high -- and a couple of multi-tiered, glass-sided warming cases out front are the visual signals that the place specializes in dim sum.

Not Xin-style dim sum. Mee Bon's dim sum is to Xin's dim sum as a hamburger is to filet mignon, tapioca pudding to creme brulee. Mee Bon serves the kind of dim sum your mom would serve, if she made dim sum. Mee Bon's dim sum is comfort-food dim sum.


On an early Sunday afternoon nearly every table is occupied by families and couples enjoying a leisurely lunch. Within seconds of our zeroing in on two empty chairs, this friendly lady rushes over with a tray of delights from the glass case.


Point and choose, it couldn't be easier, but we are spoilt for choice. We've got balls of pork and fish, veggie rolls (eggplant, red capsicum) filled with fish paste, things wrapped in dough and things wrapped in bean curd skin, crab claws and steamed rice and .... after much hemming and hawing, yes-ing and no-ing, we choose a few starters.

Who would guess that this semi-deflated, unprepossessing lump of a bao (steamed dumpling)


would be so delightfully, mouthwateringly filled with big, juicy chunks of pork and chicken in a not-too-sweet char siew sauce? There's not too much sauce -- this bao is more about the meat -- and to top it off, the dough is pillowy soft.


The thing is actually quite large, large enough to make us wonder if it wouldn't have been better to tackle it at the end of the meal after our appetites were already sated, instead of at the beginning when we still had so many little bites to work our way through. On a normal day, one of these monsters would do me for lunch.

But, in the interest of the blog and our own gluttony, we soldier on, diving into glutinous rice with soy sauce and chicken. This bird-and-grain combo reminds me of zongzi, the triangular, lotus leaf-wrapped parcels filled with glutinous rice and everything from nuts to Chinese sausage , that appear on the streets of Shanghai and Bangkok (and KL?) in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.


The rice is slightly sweet from the soy and thoroughly permeated with meat juices and fat. We don't have a problem with fat. Fat is flavor. I find this dish to be irresistable ... it's what Dave calls a "real shoveller".

And of course there's more.


Starting in the upper left corner, clockwise: deep-fried firm tofu stuffed with fish paste and topped with fried shallots; fish paste, peas, and carrot bits wrapped in dough; pounded pork wrapped in fragrant, ocean-y seaweed and topped with shredded carrot; tender pork ribs in a tomato-based sweet and sour sauce; and red capsicum stuffed with fish paste. All are tasty and disappear almost instantly, but the pork-seaweed combo stands out for it unusual combination of strong flavors that work wonderfully together. The ribs evince a notable piggy-ness that stands up to the sweet and sour (usually one of my most detested Chinese food flavor combinations) -- something like a fine American-style BBQ rib, without the smoke.

Another notable nosh -- chicken wings with a light, sweet and salty glaze (plum sauce?), wrapped in paper and steamed. Finger-licking (yes, we did) sticky and wickedly tasty.


We continue to order and eat; photos of the entire meal could fill three posts. I dare say the staff is astounded. And there's so much we don't have room left to sample -- another variation on the steamed rice theme,


tender fish balls on their own,


and pork balls in "gravy".


Not to mention congee and bao filled with sweet bean paste. By my tally we share 11 items, including the big bao and the bowl o' fatty rice. And our bill totals something in the range of U$ 7-8, including drinks. A bargain by any measure.


So, dim sum high or low? Well, it really depends if you're looking to eat mom food on the street in shorts and flip-flops, or more finely crafted in air-conditioned comfort while sporting somewhat sharper duds. There's a time for each, and they're both delightful, in their way. I've certainly got another Sunday brunch at Xin in my future, but I'll no doubt return to Mee Bon to devour my favourites and investigate all the treats I missed out on the first time.

Kedai Kopi Mee Bon, 491 Jalan Ipoh (across from Public Bank). 6am-2am.

November 30, 2005

Dim Sum High


I cadged the idea for this post, and tomorrow's (Dim Sum - Low), from a shelter magazine I subscribe to. An occasional feature is "High and Low", and it consists of photos of two seemingly identically-decorated rooms, side-by-side. The catch is that one's been furnished to the tune of, oh, I don't know, U$ 25,000 or so, while the other's been done up "on the cheap" for maybe a little less than $5,000. Same-same, right? No way -- close inspection reveals that you can always tell the difference between expensive and cheap chic.

What I've found here in KL is that when it comes to dim sum, the line between expensive and cheap is not so clearly drawn, at least not when it comes to the customer's satisfaction. Oh sure, the trappings are as different as night and day -- a grand hotel dining room versus a plastic table on the street. And the ogle factor of higher end dim sum is exponentially greater than that of the streetside version; restaurant dim sum is usually just so pretty. But in the end, I found, whether you prefer high or low depends as much on the mood in you're in and the experience you're looking for as the appearance and taste of the food. Sometimes, rustic is better than refined.

We'll start with high, though that may be a bit of a misnomer for the Concorde Hotel's Xin. The Concorde is not a 5 or 6-star hotel and the decor of Xin speaks to that effect; the restaurant has neither the silk-brocaded serenity and leafy view of the Shangri-la's Chinese restaurant, nor the aggresively kinda-old-Shanghai/kinda-classic-Beijing-Mandarin opulence of Chynna, at the Hilton. Xin is more your generic upper-level Chinese restaurant: lots of big round tables, white table cloths and napkins, staff dressed in nod-to-old-China black and white uniforms (frog buttons on the shirts), and too-bright lighting that is not particularly flattering to either diners or photos. But -- a random survey of about 50 locals (OK, not exactly random; all are acquainted with Dave and/or I in one way or another) reveals that the best dim sum in KL is to be had here, so this is where we are. It's fairly swanky, it's not on the street, so in my book it qualifies as "high".


I really have no beef with Xin; almost all the dim sum is really lovely. The place draws steady crowds for a reason.

A must-eat is the stir-fried carrot cake. It's made to order at the front of the restaurant, and it's quite delicious. For those unfamiliar with this dish (which I was till I sampled it in KL), it's radish (or turnip? jicama? input please) cakes cut into cubes and stir-fried with eggs, bean sprouts, and green onion, among other things. Every order I've ever eaten at Xin has been perfect: lots of char on the "carrot" cake and eggs, bean sprouts retaining a bit of crunch, not too soggy from too much soy. It's greasy, but that's really unavoidable when one is stir-frying a naturally oil-absorbing foodstuff like carrot cake. It must be eaten as soon as it arrives at the table, while it's still piping hot; sitting does not flatter this dish.


Xin, in my opinion, excels at steamed dim sum, especially those involving seafood. Chee cheong fun (rice dough rolls, usually filled and served doused in soy) with scallops is heavenly, and the shrimp enclosed in rice flour dumplings are perfectly cooked to a wee bit "al dente" -- no mushy shellfish here. The item pictured above, pork dumplings topped with shrimp, featured a well-steamed but chewy wrapper and plenty of porky goodness that nonetheless managed not to overwhelm the seafood flavor.


Another Xin triumph here: taro puffs. I avoid deep-fried dim sum as a rule; why choose heavy greasiness when you can have steamed, light loveliness? But I make an exception to my rule every single visit for these mashed taro orbs, studded with little nubs of pork, encased in an amazingly dry, crunchy, almost fluffy fried coating. How do they do it? This is comfort food a la mashed potatoes. They're even better if you can snag a just-fried, still-steaming trio.


We couldn't get a decent photo of Xin's wonderful congee with century egg and fish; blame it on the near impossibility of shooting white food in a white bowl under poor lighting. But I'll settle for this shot of pork, rice, and salt-preserved fish, steamed in bamboo. It's scooped from the bamboo onto a plate to order. Some of the rice remains untouched by pork goo, providing a little bit of firmness to contrast with the grains softened by pork fat. The pork, which is actually a bit pinkish, is falling-apart tender and speaks deeply of the pig.; salted fish adds, er, saltiness. It's always a struggle to limit myself to just one spoonful of this dish.


In many cases, dim sum desserts are a disappointment, but Xin's got a nice little selection of something sweet to end the meal. These nut, date, wolfberry and whatnot "jelly" squares were new to me. They're densely packed with chewy and crunchy bits but the cool jelly-with-a-whiff of spice (cardamom?) makes them light and refreshing.


Mochi -- it's Japanese. But it turns up all over the place here in KL. These mochi rolls are filled with pleasingly bitter green tea paste, very sweet red bean paste, and absolutely scrumptious coconut custard. The mochi wrapper is a bit lighter and less elastic than Japanese mochi. When you bite into one of these dainties the wrapper gives way without resistance to the soft filling within. (I would kill for a recipe for that coconut custard.)

It's not only Xin's decor that makes the "high" designation a bit of a misnomer. We've never spent more than U$12-14 per person on a dim sum brunch there. And believe me -- we don't go light. I'm talking a dim sum brunch that negates the necessity of dinner.

I suppose we should be checking out the other "high" options for dim sum in town. But it's hard to tear myself away from Xin.

Xin at the Concord Hotel, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Golden Triangle. Reservations recommended (but none taken on Sunday).

November 28, 2005

Roti (Re)discovery


Dave and I first stumbled across this storefront in KL's "Little India" a little over two years ago, at the tailend of our first gluttonous visit to the city.  With a few hours left before our flight back to Saigon, we'd already eaten two breakfasts -- nasi lemak (coconut rice with various dishes) and a plateful of Indian milk sweets -- and weren't in the market for a third. But when we stopped in front of this shop, mesmerized by the rounds of dough being flipped in the air and then slammed flat on the stainless steel countertop, we received such a warm welcome that we let ourselves be led inside. After plates of flaky roti accompanied by spicy curry and cups of chai (burp), we rolled back to our hotel, caught a cab, and just made our flight, not at all happy to be leaving what we were pretty sure was Asia's prime chow city.

A couple of Saturdays ago we decided take a trip down memory lane and track the shop down. After a few minutes of despair -- the neighborhood is falling, bit by bit, to bulldozers and redevelopment -- we thankfully found our little roti heaven intact. Same roti master (a hulking, but friendly, Jabba the Hut-like character with forearms as thick as small tree trunks), same shop -- with the addition of a lady frying up mee goreng (fried noodles) and nasi goreng (fried rice) in a huge wok at the front -- same warm welcome. 

We started with a couple of plain roti, and were underwhelmed. Although nearly grease-free, they weren't hot and crisp, as we'd remembered (accompanying thin curry, however, was delicious).


Then it occurred to us -- duh! -- that roti is usually a breakfast food; we were eating that morning's leftovers.  By ordering stuffed versions we could get Jabba moving (he was sitting behind the counter, peeling onions with great concentration) and watch the show, and enjoy our roti fresh off the griddle. Our choice: one banana and one sardine.

The latter arrived first. With the first bite all memories of the cold, deflated roti that had preceded it vanished.


Now, I suspect this roti might not be up everyone's alley. I happen to be a fan of sardines in any form, including those that come out of a can. Admittedly, they tend to be on the "fragrant" side, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  Here we have flaky yet supple (and yes, a bit greasy, but in a positive sense) pastry wrapped around toothsome pieces of fragrant canned fish meat.  Note the heavy char on the pastry, lending some crispness and smoky depth of flavor (but not a burned taste). Accompanied by the same thin, lightly spicy curry as our plain version, this roti made us very happy indeed, and took just a few bites to finish.

After which we turned our attention to Jabba, already busy whipping up our "dessert" roti. After slicing a banana, he dips his hand into a container of oil and greases his work area.


He flattens the roti dough (which has already been portioned and formed into separate balls) into a disc,


and then further flattens and enlarges it by repeatedly raising it and then pounding it on the prep counter.


The result is a paper-thin yet surprisingly elastic dough -- the secret to a flaky yet chewy roti.


Banana roti (a.k.a. banana "pancakes") are ubiquitous in Thai night markets -- especially so in resort areas -- but I've always been repelled by their excessive oiliness (from lots of margarine) and sweetness (from sweetened condensed milk).  This banana roti, by contrast, was sweetened by nothing more than the caramelization of the fruit's natural sugars, making it sweet but not cloyingly so. Like the other roti we sampled it, too, was accompanied by a saucer of thin curry. By now, probably because of our sheer staying power, we rated highly enough with Jabba and his colleagues to deserve chunks of potato and carrotsin our curry.

In addition fried rice and noodles and the roti we sampled, this shop also offers egg (telor), onion (bawang), and margerine (majerin) roti.

No-name roti shop, one street over from Jalan Masjid India, about a half a block down from Jalan Melayu. Sandwiched between Mohammed Yousuff Frames and Danitex Trading Co. (Walking distance to LRT Jalan Masjid Jamek station.) Open 5am-8pm. Closed Sunday.

November 17, 2005

Lovin' Potful


I thoroughly believe that an essential ingredient of good food -- any good food -- is love.  Love of eating, love of ingredients, love of the act of cooking itself, the cook's love of the dish he or she is creating, or for whomever he or she is preparing it for ... indifference simply does not translate well in the kitchen. 

If my theory holds true, then what we have above is one big pot o' love.  It's beef, cooked long and low with a secret mix of seasonings (I suspect star anise is included), and it figures prominently in the simple noodles turned out at a mere sliver of a shop on Jalan Tun Tau Cheng Lock.


Shin Kee claims to be a "Beef Noodles Specialist" (just barely visible on the right side of the sign).  To me, when it comes to food, specialization implies not only a limited menu but also a markedly high level of skill developed over time, with practice.  After tasting the product I believe this lady has earned the right to claim the "specialist" title.


Shin Kee's menu is short and sweet: fresh beef noodles (xian niurou mian), beef ball noodles (niurou wan mian), and beef mix noodles (niu zarou mian).  A small bowl for 4 ringit, a big bowl for 5.  We avoided the latter (I hadn't yet had my innard epiphany) and ordered the first, with yellow mee noodles (guaytiaow and mi xin rice noodles are other possibilities).

The prep is simple: noodles are boiled and tipped into bowl,


sliced beef likewise gets a bubbling water bath before being laid atop noodles,


and meat balls are added before the entirety is anointed with broth, a spoonful from that beefy pot o' love, sliced scallion, and a bit of chili sauce.


The broth is dense with miniscule meat shreds and the balls evince a good texture -- bouncy but not so rubbery as to be teeth-repellant.  And they really, really taste like beef.  The sliced beef, reminiscent of what you might get in a bowl of Vietnamese pho bo tai, is not overcooked, though I think that next time I'd ask for it served a smidge redder.  The goo from the pot and the chili paste are what really make this a bowl of rich and spicy, greasy meaty goodness.  After sucking up solids and slurping a fair amount of broth we're left with a chocolate-brown liquid at the bottom of the bowl.


While slurping and sucking we noticed that the folks at the neighboring table -- at most of the neighboring tables, in fact -- were taking their noodles dry, with nary a ball nor a slice but plenty of nubbins from the pot o'.  This obviously required investigation, so I waddled my way back to the prep station at the front of the shop and asked for -- with sign language -- a bowl of guaytiaow noodles dry, topped with nothing but love from the pot.


It was worth stuffing down lunch number two to discover this mound of of lusciousness that I will return to Shin Kee again -- and again and again -- for.  Two fingers of broth at the bottom of the noodle bowl, along with an additional bowl of it on the side, facilitate a thorough mix of ingredients: pot stuff, chili paste, and soft, chewy rice noodles that seem to absorb the very essence of the meat mince.  While Shin Kee's beef slices and balls are tasty, the mix in the pot is really the masterpiece in this gallery, so why not put it up front and center?

Shin Kee Beef Noodles Specialist, on Jalan Tun Tau Cheng Lock, about a half block from the entrance to Petaling Street and across from the Rubber Trade Association of Selangor building (look for the red sign). Open 10:30am to  3:30pm.

November 15, 2005

Innard Beauty


Confession time: I'm not into innards. 

Yes, it's true -- I've lived in Asia for a while now, and that includes a few years in China and Hong Kong (before it was China), where innards indisputably rule.  Oh, I do love a good pate -- goose or chicken liver, smooth and silky or chunky "country" style all suit me fine.  And I don't mind gizzards (finely chopped enough to be unidentifiable, please) gracing my gravy boat.  But until now I've been squeamish about organ meat, unable to stomach stomach, gut shy of intestines and tripe.

But last Saturday, in this open-air eatery in a funky little town on the outskirts of KL, I breached the barrier, I conquerered my fear.


Dave and I hooked up one-ish with fellow hearty eaters SW and SL.  SW had been extolling the virtues of the specialty of this house, la tang (lit. "spicy soup" -- sup pedas in Malay), for months (SL even brought along a soup pot to hold a hefty takeaway for the relatives).  The dish's name gives nary a clue to its contents: pork and chicken, mushrooms if you like, white pepper, and lots of guts.  I knew this going in, but I felt compelled to give guts one more chance.  One whiff from the tiny kitchen and I was at ease, feeling entirely up to the challenge ahead.  Why?  I don't know.  I guess I just had a gut feeling about the place.

Innards aren't the only thing on this Hakka restaurant's menu.  In addition to la tang for 3, we ordered drunken prawns (actually not on the menu, but always available by request), choi sum stir-fried with oyster sauce, and chicken cooked with dark soy and fateu (otherwise known as Shaoxing wine).  All except the vegetable arrived bubbling away in the heavy, one-handled clay pots they'd been cooked in.


The slightly sweet and very sticky chicken was an easy hit.  Tender bone-in chunks were thickly coated in a goo tasting pleasantly, but only lightly, of wine.  They were especially delightful eaten with the many thick slices of ginger that lurked on the bottom of the pot, thoroughly impregnated with sauce and cooked long enough to become limp.  Chopped Chinese celery added a welcome hit of bitterness.


"Drunken" is a concise description for anything that's been boiling in a bath of pure alcohol, as these prawns were.


The medium-sized, meaty specimens were expertly boiled, not a hint of dryness.  Shaoxing and lots and lots of ginger matchsticks, perhaps a dash of white pepper -- I'm willing to bet that this dish's broth consisted of nothing else.  A bit too sweet and flat-out boozy for slurping, perhaps, but it provided a fine soak for the shellfish.


As a bona fide lover of all things green, I give this plate of choi sum an enthusiastic thumbs-up.  Leaves separated from stalks, both stir-fried with oyster sauce (not too much, just enough to lend the perfect amount of salinity) and garlic until just yielding to the bite, sprinkled with caramelly fried shallots -- a vegetable as lovely to taste as it looked on the plate.

As scrumptious as the other dishes were, I must say that the unabashed star of this meal was the soup.


In addition to stomach and intestines, this brew contained chunks of free-range chicken, pork, sliced liver, bits of preserved cabbage, thickly sliced ginger, dense clumps of shimeji mushrooms (the white blob above), and enough white pepper to leave a sandy residue at the bottom of the clay pot. 


In truth, neither the taste of intestines nor of stomach figured prominently in the soup; liver was nearly undetectable.  But all three added a wonderful textural mix that, if excluded, would have resulted in a different -- and inferior -- experience.  White pepper was the deliciously dominant flavor note of this la tang.  Truly innards to warm your innards -- the rich broth of this soup tingled all the way down.

As we were smacking our lips and wiping our mouths, SW produced a box of glistening egg tarts. 


Rich, smooth, and eggy (characteristics that are, sadly, not to be taken for granted in an egg tart) custard encased in srumptiously flaky pastry.  After four dishes we definately didn't need these.  But we made room.

All in all one of the finest lunches I've had in weeks.  I've yet to eat my way through KL's other innard offerings, but I would wager that the la tang at this place is (are you ready?) -- a gut above the rest.

La Tang in Seri Kembangan (Follow the expressway to Seramban, get off at Seri Kembangan exit. Continue following signs to SK, and once you're in the town keep to the right.  At the small red and yellow McDonald's golden arches sign in the median -- which also advertises an "equine water park" -- turn right.  The first left will lead to the la tang shop at the end of the road). 9am-3pm and 6-9pm.  Closed Monday.

Egg tarts from Tong Kee Bros. Confectionary, 16 Jalan Brunai Utara, Pudu (KL) or 8 Lorong Brunai 3, Pudu.

November 10, 2005

Noodles to Get Knackered On


On a quiet street in downtown KL, a block or so behind the consumerist hubbub on Jalan Bukit Bintang, two sisters are dishing up a ferociuosly alcoholic treat.  If chicken soup is a cure for the common cold, then think of these chicken soup noodles as a cure for sobriety.

Drunken chicken mee (noodles).  I have fond memories from Shanghai of wine-soaked chicken, a common and delicious appetizer in eastern China.  Even so I have to admit that it was primarily curiosity that lured me to this stall.  Drunken chicken mee sisters Yong have been dishing up their specialty for over 30 years, and even on a late Saturday afternoon with the street -- lined with mostly evening-only food vendors -- nearly deserted, they were doing an encouragingly steady business.


On the day of our visit only one sister was manning the stove.  Each bowl is made to order, so we endured a bit of a knuckle-gnawing wait for our two.  The Malaysian national noodle accompaniment of chopped chilies in soy preceded their arrival.


The sister on duty started out by dipping a couple of ladles of rich chicken stock from a humungous pot into a smaller, single-serving saucepan.  Once the broth returned to a boil, she added black pepper, ginger (a few thick slices and about half a handful of matchsticks), and shredded cloud ear mushrooms to the pan.  And then the booze -- in the case of this particular dish, huangjiu (lit. "yellow wine").  Not a dash, not a splash, but one full ladle's worth, for a bowl of noodles that includes at most 4 ladles of liquid in total.  At the last minute she droppd in cooked, on-the-bone chicken pieces and left the pan on the fire just long enough to warm them through, before pouring the concoction over parboiled yellow mee noodles and garnishing the bowl with a flurry of chopped Chinese celery leaves and stalk.


This is one big ol' bowl of bird and booze, punched up with a strong, spicy dose of ginger.  The rich, chicken-y broth (note the wee chicken fat globules afloat on the surface) and the almost astringently alcoholic huangjiu do a duel in the bowl, with neither coming out the uncontested winner. 


When I sat back and brought a spoonful of broth to my mouth, chicken and ginger dominated.  But when I leaned in close to slurp up a chopstickful of noodles, the rising steam delivered a dizzying hit of liquor fumes.  It's clear that sister had purposefully not let the lethal brew boil long enough to burn off all the alcohol; besides that, each piece of tender chicken was soaked through with the stuff.  This chicken soup dish is a tonic in more ways than one.

Enough yackity-yack, you say.  It's unique, it's interesting, it could even be considered a conversation piece.  But is sisters' drunken chicken noodles delicious?

Well, you know what they say about a picture.


Sisters Drunken Chicken Noodles, in the coffeeshop at 31 Jalan Alor (behind Jalan Bukit Bintang, about 1 block from Jalan Pudu). Open about 8am till late afternoon. Closed Monday.  1 bowl of drunken chicken mee is 7 RM.

October 27, 2005

Captivating Corner


As we were finishing up our bowls of mee bandung and laksa utara at Selaseh Cafe, the Malay gent seated next to us urged us to check out the laksa Johor being dished up at a little spot downstairs.  "Come on," he said, pushing back his chair, "I'll show you so you know to go to the right place."  (Is it any wonder I love Malaysia?). 


We finally made it back to Ampang Park a couple of Saturdays ago, to follow up on the recommendation and check out the laksa -- and other goodies -- at Deena's Corner.  After placing our order for 2 bowls of laksa Johor, we perused the seasonal items on offer for the Ramazan period.  We chose a tub of bubur lambuk (Indonesian savory rice porridge) -- in one of the lighter colored tubs above -- to start the meal.

I'm not including a photo of the bubur because try as one might it is very difficult to make a predominantly white food look interesting or appetizing.  I'm a real fan of savory rice porridge (sweet, less so) in any and all its national variations, but even I have to admit that it often resembles, well, vomit.  Appearance aside, Deena's bubur lambuk (fish) was perfection: not too soupy, thickened by the starch of rice grains cooked to near mush, beautifully seasoned with nutmeg, caramelized shallots, and an unidentified green leaf.  Very comforting, and just the thing to rev up our appetites in anticipation of the laksa.

Johor, Malaysia's southernmost state sitting right atop Singapore, may be home to some ill-behaved royals, but its laksa -- judging by Deena's version --  is divine.


Johor laksa's gravy -- like those of laksas assam, utara, and Kedah -- is fish-based (mackerel, in this case) but unique to the others, this laksa's includes a bit of coconut milk (just a bit -- this is no rich, creamy, seafood curry mee) and has a taste that veers to sweet, rather than sour.  The rice laksa noodles used here are thin, and there's plenty of veg in there: bean sprouts, sliced red onion and scallion, cucumber matchsticks, and little nubs of sliced cooked longbean.  This bowl of noodles is a spicy one, but I think it gets most of its heat from the generous blob of kalamansi-belacan (shrimp paste) sambal plopped on top.  The gravy itself, while spicy, is not overwhelmingly so.


I enjoyed this bowl of noodles immensely, especially all that veg crunch and the touch of coconut milk in the gravy that tempers the heat of the sambal without making the dish too heavy.  Deena's also offers laksa assam (Penang), a couple of rice dishes (nasi lemak and nasi goreng), and mee goreng (stir-fried noodles) that looked delicious (they are sitting in the wok below, covered by a banana leaf).


Until the end of Ramazan, Deena's is also selling a hard-to-find traditional sweet called jongkong.  Deena's mom (who we thought at first was Deena) urged us to try one, telling us that jongkong is a "real kampung (village) sweet." 

The opening picture in this post shows rows of jongkong, wrapped in their banana leaves, ready to sell.  Inside, a knob of green (colored with pandanus leaves), semi-soft rice flour custard swims in a pool of coconut milk swirled with melted gula melaka (palm sugar).  The banana leaf packets are cooked by steaming.


It would be difficult to exaggerate the deliciousness of this treat.  When we sampled them, the jongkong had not been long out of the steamer, and so were still warm.  The custard was smooth and substantial -- a bit cakey -- but completely yielding to the spoon.  Coconut milk and rich, complex palm sugar are an inspired duo on their own; but combined with the warm custard they entered a whole new realm of yum.

I'll go back for Deena's laksa, and will try her mee goreng as well.  But it saddens me to think I have to wait another year for another shot at her (yes, there really is a Deena -- Asdina, to be precise) jongkong.

Deena's Corner, KG-3 Ground Floor, Ampang Park Shopping Center (right next to the stairs).  Tel. 012-309-7572

October 26, 2005

Dum Dreams


"This is the real Hyderabad biryani, the real thing.  No one else in KL does it, not like this, steamed, the way it should be done," the gentleman below told me.  It wasn't a sales pitch.  I don't know my biryani from a hole in the ground (he didn't know that, of course) -- and anyway, we'd already eaten a plate of his product.


Last Sunday found Dave and I at the small Deepvali fair behind KL's Sentral train station.  We'd dropped by to pick up some more Almond Joy-like chocolate and coconut barfi at Jesal Sweethouse but decided to stay for lunch and sample the dishes and snacks on offer as well.  Quite a few tasty treats are being dished up here, but the belle of this ball by far is the Hyderabad biryani. 

Biryani is fragrant rice served with meat or fish or vegetables that are cooked separately; Hyderabad biryani combines the two in the same pot.  Hyderabad biryani is an example of dum, the Indian method of pot-roasting food.  Protein or vegetables are cut into large pieces and sauteed with spices in a large, heavy pan with lots of fat, usually ghee (that must be why it tastes so good!).  Parboiled rice is spooned over protein or veggies and left, once the pot is covered (traditionally, lid was sealed to pot with a strip of dough), to steam in the aromatic vapors that rise from the other ingredients as they are cooked slowly over a low heat.


The result is quite spectacular. I couldn't put it any better than Julie Sahni does in her Classic Indian Cooking (1980):  The dum process makes ..."the meat melt-in-your-mouth-tender."  During the slow, low cooking process "...meat, chicken, rice, and so on begin to relax in the vapor-filled pot.  The juices in the meat and chicken begin to settle, thus making them plump and moist.  The starch in the rice forms a permanent bond that enables the grains to expand without breaking or cracking."

Our Sentral biryani vendor offers chicken, mutton, and veggie Hyderabad biryani.  We ordered the chicken, and were presented with a plate of rice of beautiful golden hues, several large pieces of bone-in breast, a generous dribble of green chile curry, and a bit of zesty red onion and coriander raita.


The photo, unfortunately, cannot do justice to the chicken (at 3 o'clock), but I would not be exaggerating if I said this might well be the most moist, tender piece of white-meat bird I've ever eaten in my life.  The rice, glistening with fat, each grain distint, tasted of a riot of spices (cardamom, cinammon, cloves, black mustard seeds, and most likely some that I wasn't able to identify) combined with pure chicken essence.  Raita cut through the richness with a sharp sour note, and the green chile curry was chile-flavorful, but not spicy enough to burn. 

After observing our swoons (and probably overhearing our audible moans) as we ate his biryani, the vendor sent over to our table a few pieces of his "special" yogurt chicken, gratis.


Another astonishingly moist and tender white-meat chicken tour-de-force.  For this dish, the chicken is sauteed and cooked almost through before being coated in a yogurt, chili, and spice mixture.  The yogurt adheres, but stays "wet" and retains a bit of its tang, enough to counter the heavy dose of chili.  Served topped with crispy, caramel-y fried red onions, this chicken is right up there with the biryani on my list of memorable bites.


Much as we wanted to, there was just no way to make room to sample either the mutton or the vegetable biryani.  If I'm unable to make it back to Sentral to do so before the Deepvali fair finishes on November 1, there is some consolation: the vendor and his wife, working the fair for the third year in a row, assure me that they will be back in 2006.

Even if (in my opinion) the Hyderabad biryani is the hands-down winner here, there are still a couple of other items at the fair worth trying.  Aneka Rrasa (The Caterer) -- that's a quote from the stall's sign -- offers lemon rice and a variety of dishes to go with it.


We ordered carrot poriyal, sweet and sour brinjal (eggplant), cabbage perattal, and fried chicken.


The lemon rice, studded with mustard seeds and fried dhal and topped with fried fresh curry leaves, surprised me with it's very distinct -- lemonyness.  I've never encountered this dish on an Indian menu before and I have no idea of the origin; lemon is not something that usually comes to mind when I think "Indian food".  The slightly smoky eggplant, left in pleasingly large chunks and not overly sweet; soft cabbage seasoned heavily with turmeric and crunchy with fried cashews; and fragrant shredded carrot were all delightful.  The chicken's dry coating of chili and other spices had a slight tang (tamarind?). 

At the stall next to The Caterer's, thosai and chapati were being made to order.  Our thosa, right off the griddle, was something like an airy, puffy, crispy, super-thin pancake with a delicious filling of potato, sweet corn, and onion masala.  On the side, a spicy fresh "sauce" of coriander, garlic, and green chilies.


If I had to do it over again?  Mutton and chicken Hyderabad biryani, a couple of veggie dishes from Aneka Rrasa to accompany, and maybe -- maybe -- a thosa or chapati for dessert .... if I was in particularly gluttonous mode. 

Deepvali Fair, behind Sentral Station (in the arcade on the pathway to the monorail). To November 1.

October 24, 2005

Home-Style Noodles


Perhaps you've noticed: food looms large in my life.  And like all good food-obsessed folks, my conversations over meals shared with others are often dominated by talk of the next meal to come.  Sometimes I even get a couple of meals ahead of myself.

This was the case almost two months ago when Dave and I, having placed our orders for fish head noodles, were waiting outside Ampang Food House for a table.  In the middle of wondering what exactly our tastebuds would be nose-to-nose with (so to speak) in a few minutes, I noticed the cafe next door and the specials posted on its blackboard.  Mee bandung, laksa utara, sup tulang -- none of the dishes were familiar, but I was pretty sure they would be, within 24 hours.

We returned to Ampang Park the next day (hey, I never said this blog was in chronological order) and made a beeline for Cafe Selaseh.  It was doing a good business -- not as rip-roaring, packed-out as Ampang Food House (we waited just 2 minutes for a couple of seats), but steady enough to be encouraging.  Also encouraging, for a joint that serves Malay (as opposed to Chinese Malay) food, was the fact that the cafe's clientele was primarily Malay.

We ordered noodles -- mee bandung and laksa utara -- first, figuring that if we had the teeniest bit of room left when we were finished we could probably slide down some soup.  Laksa utara means, literally, "northern" laksa -- thick round rice noodles in a thin, fishy, coconut-free broth that can range in color from brown to brownish-purple. 


We'd encountered a laksa along these lines several times before, at a sweet little cafe in our neighborhood that closed only 6 weeks after we arrived in KL. <sob>  That place served laksa Kedah, Kedah being one of the northwestern Malaysian states bordering Thailand (Perlis is the other).  The Thai influence in laksa Kedah (and utara) is strong: tamarind sours a thick, pungent broth made with flaked eel or fish.  Cafe Selasah's laksa utara soup is thinner than that in the laksa Kedah served at our now-defunct local spot, and lacks the plentiful flakes of fish that gave the latter a good deal of body.  The taste is similar, though: pleasingly strong on piscene aroma-- yes, stinky even -- sour enough not to cry out for the bowl's kalamansi lime half, with a wee hint of chili.


In addition to kalamansi, the laksa is garnished with half a hard-boiled egg, cucumber and pineapple matchsticks, and chopped cilantro and mint.  A zippy bowlful ... but I'm afraid I still pine for the laksa Kedah down the street.

I pined for absolutely nothing (except a second bowl), however, after tucking into this serving of mee bandung.


Judging from the name, mee bandung is Indonesian in origin.  Bandung, capital of west Java, is Indonesia's third-largest city; the majority of its population are Sundanese who have historically had their own culture and, presumably, cuisine.  The question that I can't answer, never having travelled in West Java, is if mee bandung displays any of the characteristics of Sundanese food.

But back to the matter at hand.  Mee bandung has just about everything I'm looking for in a noodle dish: thick, chewy noodles (yellow mee) and a complex, spicy gravy (too thick to be called a broth) made from dried shrimp and chilies, garlic, shallots, tomato, and ground peanuts (which give it a lovely grainy mouthfeel) that's as wonderful to look at, in all its brick-red glory, as it is to eat. 


Prawns, squid pieces, and a just-runny-enough poached egg hiding beneath the noodles provide protein; chopped Chinese celery adds crunch, color, and a bit of bitterness to counter the natural sweetness of the gravy's tomato and peanuts.  Selaseh's version is on the fiery side; my mouth was still tingling several minutes after finishing the bowl.  And it's rich; much as I wanted to (and I really wanted to), I just couldn't contemplate a second bowl.

We never made it to the sup tulang (lit. "bone" soup -- but it's beef soup), but we have it on good word that it's worth a try.  After describing 10-year-old Selaseh's offerings as "real homestyle Malay food" the Malaysian gentleman seated next to us to us urged us to give the soup a try on our next visit.  He paid it perhaps the highest possible compliment: "It reminds me of my mother's."

In addition to the mee and laksa (and guaytiaow -- see the blackboard) Selaseh cafe offers nasi lemak daily.  It too -- along with the sup tulang -- appeared to be very popular.

284 Ampang Park (2nd Floor).  Take the LRT to Ampang Park, exit to your right, and head straight through Ampang Park shopping center to the stairs at back.  Climb a flight, turn to your left. Selaseh Cafe is down the row a bit.

October 19, 2005

Dongbei Delights


Belching (discreetly) our way down Changkat Thambi Dollah towards Jalan Pudu after a satisfyingly fiery lunch at Sze Chwan Village Restaurant, we happened upon the nondescript, completely bereft -of-activity Restoran Dong Bei.  The place was so sorry looking we would probably have passed right by without a glance, had I not spied a piece of orange posterboard taped haphazardly up front.  And there, right in front of us, were the magic characters we'd been searching for weeks earlier, before we gave up and dove into fish porridge up the street at Ah Koong Eating House: dao shao mian (knife cut noodles)!  And not just dao shao mian, but liang mian (cold noodles) and mala mian (noodles with chili and Sichuan peppercorns) and shui jiao (boiled dumplings)! 

Right then and there -- after debating the matter briefly and then finally admitting to ourselves that there was no way we could shove a second lunch down our throats, no matter how much we wanted to -- Dave and I vowed to return one day to sad little Dong Bei for lunch.  And so we did, less than 24 hours later.  And have returned again.  And are eagerly anticipate our next visit.

Dongbei is generally understood to refer to the northeastern Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning (sometimes Shandong province is thrown into the mix as well); the region is bordered by Russia, Korea, Mongolia, and (obviously) to the south, China.  The population of Dongbei is rather homogeneous.  It wasn't much settled before the 1700s, when Han Chinese arrived from the south; from the late 19th century until the end of WWII the region was occupied first by  Russia, and then by Japan (which named it "Manchuoko").  Descendents of both nationalities still live in Dongbei today, whiled refugees trickle over the region's border with North Korea. 

For Chinese from Dongbei -- in contrast to those from other parts of the country -- regional identity takes priority over provincial.  That identity includes recognition of a cuisine which transcends provincial boundaries, and is influenced by the nations which border the region.  Dongbei food makes frequent use of vinegar (Korean influence?) and features raw vegetables.  Pickles are not uncommon, especially cabbage (Korea again ... and Russia?).  Lamb is ubiquitous (Mongolia, perhaps) and chilies are used liberally.  Wasabi, mixed with vinegar and sesame oil, is used in Shandong (the "sometimes" Dongbei province) to dress salads.  Wheat, rather than rice, is the mainstay starch, so noodles, dumplings, and breads are a big part of the Dongbei diet.

Restoran Dong Bei has received our only repeat visit in the 2+ months we've lived in KL -- not necessarily because it is objectively "better" than any of the other spots I've yammered on about on this blog.  Because it is different.  Dongbei flavors make a radical and pleasant change of pace, now and again, from seafood curry mee or Ipoh chicken rice. 

In two visits we've managed to scarf a number of dishes, all expertly prepared by the female head of the Heilongjiang household that owns the place.  But before you go, know this about Dong Bei: it will probably be empty.  I don't know why, and I don't know how Dongbei has survived the 5 years that it has with such dismal lunch traffic.  Maybe it does all its business at dinnertime.  At any rate, one mustn't be put off by a lack of customers.

On our initial foray we went snack-heavy, figuring -- as we had at Sze Chwan Village -- that the best way to guage the place's sincerity was via its simpler foods: dao shao mian, shui jiao (a mixture of meat dumplings and veggie dumplings), liang mian, Dongbei dala pi (lit. Dongbei style big pulled skins -- in actuality, translucent noodles made of mung bean starch), and a coriander salad.


Dumplings were, in a word, excellent.  Skins a bit thinner than those at Sze Chwan village, but not too much so.  Expertly pleated, boiled to perfection (not mush), and stuffed with lots of garlicky greens (veggie variety, left below) and juicy ground pork mixed with wee nubs of spritely Chinese celery (meat variety, right).


On each table a proper, if not Sichuan-fragrant, la jiao you (chili oil/paste) and strong black vinegar are there for the mixing.

We ordered our knife cut  noodles "dry".


This, I believe, was a mistake.  Not that the noodles weren't tasty; thick and wheaty, topped with a blob of chili bean paste and a good pile of shredded cucumber, these were everything I'd hope for in a daoshao mian, especially when mixed with a bit of vinegar.


But dao shao mian belong in a soup (and in fact that's the only way I'd had them, until our visit to Dongbei).  They just do.  These are fat, hearty, hefty noodles that need to be floating around with greens and porky pieces in a rich broth.  They beg to be eaten hot, not at room temperature.  And they will be, by golly, as soon as we can get back to Dong Bei.

Dongbei's liangmian were a complete surprise.  Here, before us, was a tasty bit of Korea in a bowl.


Round, ultra-chewy potato starch noodles, cucumber shreds, thin slices of pressed beef, a generous helping of kimchee, a dab of red chili paste, all sprinkled with sesame seeds -- something like naeng myun (Korean cold noodles), with ice-cold rice vinegar substituting for broth.  Can't say I've ever had vinegar "soup" before, and I recognize that it doesn't sound appealing.  But this crunchy, chewy, beefy, spicy noodle in vinegar soup is just about the perfect aswer to KL's wet heat.

Another surprise of the meal was this simple salad of cilantro and Chinese celery leaves, red and green pepper strips, and scallion matchsticks, dressed with only salt and a whisper of sesame oil. 


I don't think I've ever eaten a better salad, even in northern California.  Leaves perky and crunchy, not a wilted one in the bunch; and just the barest smidge of sesame oil left on the plate when we finished.  A delightful palate cleanser. 

The chef delivered our Dongbei dala pi with a flourish; undressed noodles draped over shreds of cucumber and large chunks of raw garlic, with sauce on the side.


Once she had poured over the mixture of sesame paste, la jiao, and vinegar,  and mixed the lot up, we discovered the dala pi included chewy matchsticks of stir-fried pork as well.


This dish is a winner in every possible way.  Texturally speaking you've got slippery, crunchy, and chewy, and though the sour of the vinegar dominates, fire from the la jiao and sweet from the sesame paste and the pork don't hide in the background.  Not to mention the whallop of raw garlic.  These mung bean noodles (but don't describe them as "noodles" in front of Dongbei's owner -- she'll get quite irate) are one of my favorite new foods.

After this first meal we were eager to get back to Dongbei to try a few proper dishes.  On visit number two we couldn't resist another plate of shui jiao (all veggie, this time), and then followed that up with the intriguingly named jiachang liangcai ("home-style" cold vegetables).  Expecting something along the line of a pickle, we soon found ourselves oohing and ahhing over this tempting mound of shredded cabbage, carrots, and cucumber; bean sprouts; and coriander leaves, all entwined with the potato starch noodles that had figured largely in our liangmian.


Yet another variation on the salad theme, as delightful and refreshing as the dala pi and the coriander salad.  Except for the sprouts, which were lightly blanched, all vegetables were raw; the whole was dressed with black vinegar, a hint of la jiao, and a slick of sesame oil. 

Yuxiang rousi ("fish-flavor" pork shreds) was the first hot dish to arrive.  If I had not even tasted this dish I would still nod approval after having a gander at this photo.  Why?  The slick of red oil just visible in the plate.  Not goo or some kind of sauce -- just an exqusisite naturally occuring amalgamation of cooking oil and pork fat and vegetable juices and the essence of those big can't-miss-'em pieces of dried chili.


This dish, to me, says "China"; it's the way I remember food there being way back when, when oil was expensive and valued and not to be wasted.  Oil is a great carrier of flavors -- in excess inappropriate to, say, the finest and lightest Cantonese dishes, but wholly correct when the flavors in a dish are big and bold and assertive.  As they were in this dish, with its hit of vinegar and its extreme chili heat.  The pork was tender and moist, and the unevenly cut carrots retained plenty of crunch (and flavor).  Dried chilies had caught enough of the "breath of the wok" to have picked up a distinct -- and delicious -- charred taste.  I couldnt' resist eating them on their own, or paired only with the dish's thick slices of garlic.  As for that glistening pool of spicy grease, I was tempted to ask for a spoon so as to facilitate unimpeded delivery to my mouth.  A spectacular version of a common Chinese dish that, unfortunately, is served in many horrific variations around the world.

Xiangla xiaopai ("fragrant" and spicy small spareribs) was equally delightful.


The "fragrance" of the dish was courtesy of Sichuan peppercorns -- but just a few, just enough to perfume the meat and nowhere near enough to numb the mouth.  Ribs had been cut through the bone and deep-fried, then tossed with big garlic slices, crunchy coriander stems (a "clean" foil to the rich pork), and more dried chilies.  This dish had no sauce to speak of, and it wasn't missed at all.

Finally, the most basic dish that can be requested of a restaurant: stir-fried greens.  Readers of this blog will know that I take my greens seriously, and yet I must admit that I have yet to really and truly master this simplest of dishes (the shame!).  My stir-fried greens always end up too cooked, or too raw; too watery, or so dry that they stick to the wok.  Perhaps I should take lessons at the knee of the woman in charge of Dong Bei's kitchen, because she has really got the method down pat.


Observe: plenty of garlic, leaves well-cooked while stems -- devoid of tell-tale limpness -- still exhibit a bit of life, and a pool of neither clear nor thick and goopy juices.  A fine plate of qingchao youcai (fried mustard) if ever there was one. 

I would imagine that -- if you've made it to the end of this long post -- it is apparent that we hold Restoran Dong Bei in very high esteem.  We will be back (there are so many dishes yet to try, and we haven't even cracked to the lamb section of the menu yet).  If you're a fan of northeastern Chinese cuisine, watch this space.  Better yet, go eat at this place.

Dongbei Restoran, Jalan Changkat Thambi Dollah just a block up from Jalan Pudu. Tel 03-2148-7694. There is a very brief and incomplete picture menu; the complete menu is in Chinese.  House specials are posted on a sign just inside the entrance, and the daughter, if she is waitressing, speaks a bit of English.


October 18, 2005

Punjabi Sugar Fix


KL's train system, while impressively extensive, has a few glitches.  Major glitch: all the lines are owned and operated by separate companies.  Apparently companies in question did not coordinate when planning stations.  As a result, there are woefully few spots in the system where one can transfer from one line to the other (say, from monorail to LRT); even at transfer points, one may have to exit a train station and walk a bit to get to the other.  A minor quibble, really, given the quality of the grub here (you can see where I place my priorities).  And given that it was on the long, hot, open-to-tropical-downpours haul from monorail to LRT at the Sentral transfer point that I discovered Jesal Sweethouse, I'm even more inclined to be forgiving.

Jesal has a website and a proper store in Ampang, so I suspect it's been around a while and has a slew of steady customers.  Their operation right at the entrance of the covered arcade leading from the monorail at Sentral to KL Sentral Station is more makeshift, just a banner and a couple of tables loaded with Punjabi sweets, fronting a slapdash-ish open prep area.  It does a steady business, not all of which, I suspect, can be attributed to its commuter-friendly location.

Craving sugar after a spicy lunch on Sunday, we went in search of Jesal and were devastated by the presence of another shop in its spot in the arcade.  Not to worry ; as we soon discovered, Jesal has merely moved temporarily to a larger spot in the sprawling Deepvali (Indian festival of lights) bazaar behind the arcade.  And, happily, for the period leading up to Deepvali its offerings at the Sentral spot are greatly expanded.


This lady is running the show, no doubt about it.


Tasting is very much encouraged, even expected.  "Try this, darling, it's very good," she says, handing me a piece of cashew sweet topped with silver leaf.  "One hundred percent cashews, nothing else save for a bit of sugar."  It is very good, and I say so.  She's unsurprised and proceeds to fill a container for me.


"Now this."  Very nice, these lentil balls, spiced with a bit of cardamom -- but I'm in the mood for something richer.  Lentils are so wholesome; if I'm going to be bad I want to be really bad.


Ah, now this I haven't seen before at an Indian sweets shop: chocolate and coconut "bars".  As a kid I loved Almond Joy and Mounds bars; in my book a coco-choco combo is beaten only (and barely) by a coco-palm sugar combo.  These are wonderful -- not a fudge bomb,  nor a death by chocolate ... just lots and lots of shredded coconut, moistly bound by unassertive but true chocolate flavor.  The kind of wan (but good) chocolate flavor that means there'll be no need to stop at 1, or 5, or 8.  Load 'em up, please, and while you're at it how about a few of those other chocolate things, the ones with the nuts instead of coconut.  And throw in a few of those milky nut sweets (Jesal offers a second version, topped with pistachios) for a healthy balance.


On the ride home, I wondered what the heck we were going to do with three tubs of Indian sweets.  But they didn't last 24 hours. 

And I haven't even begun to explore Jesal's savory offerings.

[I'd welcome any and all help identifying the sweets in this post's pictures.]

Jesal Sweethouse, at the Sentral Station arcade Deepvali bazaar until November 1.  After a two-week hiatus, find Jesal in its old spot at the entrance to the arcade, or visit the store at No. 45-2 Ground Floor, Leboh Ampang. Pssst ... Jesal takes special orders for kulfi <swoon>, paneer, khoya, and rasmalai.  Tel. 03-2031-6773.

October 17, 2005

All Fired Up


Some time ago I came across an article claiming that the best seafood curry noodle in KL is to be found at a place called Restoran Yu Ai (Chinese for "friendly affection" or "fraternal love").  I've long forgotten the source of this assertion, and, as a relative newcomer to this land of hardheld opinions on what's good and what sucks, I've no basis on which to judge its verity.  Nonetheless, thanks to a quick scribble in my "eat here now" notebook Dave and I found ourselves at this unpreposessing shop around 2pm on a recent weekend day.


Our first glance inside was not encouraging -- only one table was occupied, a certain sign to hightail it on out of there if ever there was one.  One step inside, however, and it became clear why diners were scarce.  Despite the heroic efforts of those ceiling-mounted industrial fans, the place was hot as Death Valley on a summer's day.  We were waved upstairs, to a long, narrow room of flourescent-lit, air-conditioned cacaphony.  Every single table was filled with clearly satisfied customers slurping, smacking, demurely belching behind hankies, and tossing all manner of seafood refuse onto their tabletops (there is also seating out back, under a couple of trees).  In a matter of moments a table turned and was wiped clean, and we were seated and placing our orders for two seafood curry mee and grass jelly herbal drinks.

Five minutes passed, then ten minutes ... when it appeared we'd have a bit more of a wait we ventured back downstairs to the inferno to have a look at our curry noodles in the making.


It's quite an operation, really.  Prep and cooking take place around an inverted "L".  The display case at the front of the shop, at the bottom of the "L", holds a selection of rice and wheat noodles: kuay tiaow, loh see fun ("rat tail" noodles) mai fun (thin rice noodles), yellow mee, and a thicker round wheat noodle that's dried in flattish cakes.  Next to the display case, at the joint of the "L", a cauldron split in half holds broth and boiling water to soften the noodles.  Moving away from the joint of the "L" and up (or down) its long side, three large pots hold Yu Ai's no-doubt-secret recipe noodle soup bases.


Up top and, unfortunately, hardly visible, is qingtang -- literally "clear soup".  Though anything but clear (it's actually tannish), this soup base is Yu Ai's non-spicy offering.  The wicked looking brick red broth on the lower left is tomyam.  Not to be confused with Thai tomyam soup, which is clear and sour and may be spiced with whole chilies, this Malaysian-style tomyam is thick with chili paste and fiery.  In the pot to the right is the base for the dish that drew us to Yu Ai, a bright red chili-coconut curry studded with cubes of deep-fried tofu.


The real action takes place next to the pots of soup base, at the grease coated, gas-fired eight burner stove.


It's here that a couple of noodle jockeys prepare seafood curry, tomyam, and qingtang noodles, one order to a pot. 


When the orders are coming fast and furious, these guys display a range of almost balletic movements, first dipping broth into pots, then adding base, monitoring the boil and moving pots onto and off of and back onto burners, and finally sloshing finished curry or qingtang or tomyam over bowl after bowl of noodles (dried noodles are added directly to the broth as it cooks, as above).  Dancing around and behind and in front of each other with lightning speed, they -- miraculously -- never collide.


Yu Ai's noodle jockey support cast includes the man in yellow to the right of the stove (a few pics up, above), who portions out seafood and adds it to the individual pots at just the right moment; and a lad behind the front display case who prepares bowls of parboiled noodles, adding a dollop of chili paste to some -- for customers who have requested theirs "extra spicy".

Once plated (or, more accurately, "bowl"ed) and garnished, noodles are ready to be ferried outside and upstairs to loud crowds of hungry customers.


Our filled-to-the-brim bowls of curry with yellow mee noodles boasted a good variety of seafood: thick sticks of brown squid, juicy mussels, lots of tiny clam shells loath to let go of their meat (at Yu Ai, one cannot be afraid of getting one's hands dirty), and 4 or 5 head and tail-on prawns.  Along with the seafood, nubs of white meat chicken, those chunks of fried tofu, and a dense garnish of chopped Chinese celery added up to rather a large pile of food. 


Yu Ai's tawny curry is deep and complex, with layers of warm spices like cinammon and cloves and ground coriander, a hint of sweetness from the coconut milk, and a hit of chili that sneaks up from the back of your tongue after about the fifth spoonful.  Tofu chunks act as little sponges, soaking up fragrant curry.

Along with lots of kleenex, each table stocks a stainless steel container of chili bean paste and a plastic tub of a gutsy, garlicky, fresh-chili-and-kalamansi-juice sauce. 


I've noticed on more than one occasion that when it comes to noodle soup/gravies, Malaysians tend to portion out chili sauce etc. to the tiny saucers provided, and then pluck individual ingredients from their bowl to dip.  My more crude habit -- developed, I suppose, in China and ingrained in Thailand -- is to dump sauce into bowl and stir.  I found Yu Ai's tart kalamansi-based sauce to be a nice foil to the curry's sweetness.


Still, no matter how you dip it, dunk it, or dump it, this shop's noodle jockeys turn out a supremely fine bowl of seafood curry noodle.  A return visit -- to sample Yu Ai's tom yam -- is, I think, a must.

Restoran Yu Ai, 42J Jalan Segambut Utara. Open 8am to 5pm.

October 13, 2005

La Jiao Love


Malaysian food, while delicious, isn't really very spicy.  It's spice-full but it rarely induces the sort of BIG BURN that screams, "Bring on the fire engines!!"  So since we moved to KL I've been experiencing the occasional fierce hankering for a mouth sear will brings tears to my eyes, sweat to my brow, a snuffle to my schnoz, and a smile to my face.  More often than not these kind of cravings lead me to seek out Sichuan food.

It was in Sichuan that I cut my culinary teeth, so to speak.  Dave and I happened to be teaching English in Chengdu just as Deng Xiaoping was kicking off his experiment with with "market socialism".  Free fruit and vegetable markets -- as opposed to the state-owned stores stocked with rotting heads of cabbage and limp carrots -- where farmers could sell their produce directly to the public, were a new thing.  As China's fruit and vegetable bowl, Sichuan was an incredibly lucky place for us to land.  The tables at the few markets in Chengdu groaned with an abundance of absolutely gorgeous produce all year long.  While folks in Beijing suffered through winter with little but green cabbage to satisfy vegetable needs, we had big red beefeater-type tomatoes, vividly hued scarlet carrots, green beans the length of small eels, blood oranges that bled pink, and all manner of greens; when spring came there were fresh peas and sweet corn.

But wealth, even basic comforts, were still more the exception than the rule in those early years of reform.  Cars were thin on the ground; there were exactly two taxis in Chengdu, both owned by the Jinjiang hotel.  Households with TVs were the most popular in the neighborhood; any family that owned a bicycle for each member was considered comfortable, and those with a washing machine were positively well-off.  Ration tickets were still needed to buy rice and wheat products.

And food was very simple.  The only real restaurant in town was at the hotel; otherwise 3 or 4-table, literally hole-in-the-walls were where one went for rice and dishes, and there weren't enough of those places to count on both hands.  We had a favorite shop by the university, run by two guys with a single wok.  Their specialties were dou hua (soft tofu simmered in chili "broth"), pork with cucumber, pork with tomato, pork with eggplant, pork with ... well, you get the picture.  But what pork-with-X it was!  I was, essentially, eating California cuisine before I had an inkling of what California cuisine was -- the absolute freshest, peak-of-the-season produce prepared to maximize its flavor.  Add to that Chengdu's xiaochi ("little eats).  The towns little alleys and sidestreets hid lots of anonymous storefronts peddling "peasant food" -- snacks like shuijiao (boiled dumplings filled with a bit of pork and lots of garlic chives), dao shao mian (thick, knife-cut noodles served in a spicy broth with pork and pea greens); hongyou chaoshou (thin-wrappered, boiled pork dumplings bathed in soy, chili oil, sesame oil, and sugar); griddled flat breads; and big, fat baozi (steamed dumplings) oozing pork grease from their topknots.

It seemed that we were constantly eating and, to top it off, losing weight at the same time.  Attribute it to the metabolism of twenty-somethings, or to the constant shivering in unheated classrooms and apartments and time spent in the saddles of our bicycles, but it was exhilerating.  A few baozi for breakfast, another couple at mid-morning, two big bowls of noodles or jiaozi -- ordered by the jin (about 1/2 a kilo) -- for lunch, 3 dishes for dinner with 2 or 3 jin of rice to accompany, and plenty of beer.  (I'll never see those days again, that's for sure.)

For a girl raised on typically unspicy midwestern fare I took to Sichuan food with a surprising gusto, and lajiao you (ground roasted chilies "cooked" in oil) and huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) became my new best friends.  How I pined for that Sichuan ma-la (the flavor of huajiao and lajiao) burn when I returned to the US!  It's still the first flavor that comes to mind when I think "hot and spicy".   

Which leads me to Sze Chuan Village Restaurant, a stone's throw up Changkat Thambi Dollah Street from the fine fish porridge offered at Ah Koong Eating House.  We'd noticed SV's sign the day we landed at Ah Koong, and a friend claimed the food was "hot hot!"  "If there's a decent Sichuan restaurant in this town," I thought, "then KL could claim to have it all."


My first visit to a Sichuan restaurant is usually devoted to testing the simple basics: dumplings, dan dan noodles, a cold dish, a standard entree.  If the la jiao you is the real thing; if the dumplings are plump and thick-skinned and boiled not fried; if there's no holding back on the ma and la in an entree that should feature plenty of both --- then I'll be happy to return.

Our lunch at Sze Chuan Village started ominously.  Paging through the menu, we stopped at the "noodles" section and found ... seafood dandan noodles!  Seafood?!  We hadn't noticed the fine print on the sign out front that decried Sze Chuan Village's specialty as "seafood hotpot".  Arrrgh -- let's just say Sichuan province is not known for its seafood.  "Can the chef make dandan noodles with pork?" we inquired.  We were told he could.  Ah, boiled dumplings were on the menu.  An order of those, please.  Mala liangban huanggua -- a cold dish of cucumber, garlic and sesame oil done Sichuan-style with chilies and Sichuan peppercorn.  For the entree?  Lazi jiding -- chicken stir-fried with copious amounts of dried chili peppers.

Cucumber salad arrived first, and it was pleasing.  Rough-cut cucumber slices, enough garlic to guarantee us a good bit of personal space on the train after lunch, enough chili and Sichuan peppercorn to bite but not burn, or overwhelm the cucumber.  And a nice little flourish of chopped coriander.


Then our moods took a slide with the arrival of the dandan mian.


What we had before us was a perfectly fine bowl of pork noodle soup -- rich broth, plenty of greens, chopped scallion, thinly sliced pork (with a bizarrely gelatinous texture, actually ... too much tenderizer?) -- but nothing even remotely resembling a dandan mian.  What a disappointment.  It did not bode well for the remaining dishes.

Seeking to salvage the situation, we asked for lajiao.  And were presented with chopped bird chilies in soy sauce, which I guess could be considered Malaysia's national lajiao but is never seen in Sichuan.  We persisted, asking for "the red stuff", and struck gold.


Now, here was the real thing.  Lots of roasted chili chunks in oil.  Chunks of not just any chilies, but -- I suspected -- Sichuan chilies.  The taste of Sichuan chili oil is distinctive, distinctively wonderful.  And just like sugar, a spoonful of this goo can make the medicine, or anything at all, go down easily --even not-dandan noodles.


Working our way through our saucer of lajiao you, and asking for another, we felt that things were looking up.  Dumplings, though a wee bit overcooked, did not disappoint.


It's a matter of taste, really -- I know many folks do not like a thick wrapper on this type of dumpling.  But I do.  Harking back to those early days in Chengdu (again), it's what defined -- along with the predominance of garlic chives over pork in the filling -- the boiled dumplings served in big round tin trays that we ate by the jin, with nothing but la jiao to dip them in (raw garlic cloves were provided, as a chaser).  The skin should be sturdy, it should have a definate chew.  A shuijiao is not a wonton, and it should not have a thin, silky skin like one.  If it does, it's just not a shuijiao, period.  These passed muster.  Served with good, strong black vinegar (not the red stuff you often get in Hong Kong) flavored with plenty of ginger shreds (not visible in this photo, unfortunately) that, when mixed with big oily spoonfuls of lajiao -- "Another saucer, please!" -- makes the perfect bath for a green-y, garlick-y, plump little dumpling.


By now -- having finished our doctored noodles (but leaving aside most of that weird pork), the cucumber salad, and all but a couple dumplings -- we were bordering on bloated.  Then the lazi jiding arrived and we knew we had to soldier on, if for no other reason than that the blog demanded it.


This scored about 8-9 out of a possible ten.  All the elements were there -- plenty of dried chilies stir-fried to a smoky crisp, chunks of not-overcooked scallion, heaps of exceptionally fragrant Sichuan peppercorns that, during the stir-fry process, had fused with chopped garlic to create tasty little lip-numbing clumps.  My only complaint here is that the bone-in chicken chunks were deep-fried before being added to the dish, creating a barrier between bird flesh and spices.  I'd never before had the dish prepared this way and I much prefer it without the chicken immersed in a bubbling oil bath.

All in all not a perfect meal, but the basic elements are there and we will return to mine a bit more of the menu. 

After lunch we wandered to the back of the restaurant where the chef was wrapping jiaozi.  Wei Zhimin is a Chongqing native who spent a bit of time cooking in Chengdu before arriving in KL two years ago.  He confirmed that the restaurant's lajiaoyou, chili peppers, and huajiao are brought in from Sichuan, explaining  "You can't find the fengwei (special local flavor) products in KL, and Malaysian chili peppers aren't right for Sichuan food."  Wei's enthusiastic about Sichuan food --"the best in China", he claims -- and I think he's a guy one could work with.  I'd even wager that he's got a true-taste dandan mian in him yet.  If nothing else I'm hoping to convince him to sell me some of his fengwei huajiao and lajiao stash.

Sze Chuan Village Restaurant, No 144&146 Changkat Thambi Dollah (off Jalan Pudu, behind Berjaya Times Square). Tel 03-21442623

Street of Temptation (Part 2: Dinner)

We left the Bangsar Ramadan bazaar dripping sweat and toting a load of prepared food (well, I was toting a load of prepared food -- Dave has his photo equipment to look after).  That said, the load would have been much larger if we hadn't only a couple of hours before polished off large bowls of exquisite seafood curry noodles.  But that's for another post.

Back at home we got things rolling with a couple of pulut pangang udang (sticky rice roll filled with dried shrimp, wrapped in a banana leaf, and grilled) and otak-otak (right).  The latter I described in my last post as little fish sausage-y nubbins -- perfectly delicious with an evening cocktail.  The pulut panggang .... well, all I can say is that while it was tasty enough, my heart still belongs to the zippier, more assertively flavored version I fell in love with in Kuala Selangor.


Piece de resistance of our evening feed was the ikan terubuk bakar (grilled tilapia, Sarawak-style).


A delicious specimen that, even at room temperature and a couple of hours off the barbecue, evinced deep smoky flavor skin through to flesh, complemented by an aromatic (and greasy) turmeric rub; this fish just might be another reason to catch the next flight to Kuching.  A dipping sauce so fiery and belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste) fishy it nearly blew my head off accompanied.  The downside: this is one bony fish.  I'm not talking large, distinct bones that you can locate and remove from the fish before it reaches your mouth, or even medium, thinner bones that will find their way to the front of your tongue for easy ejection.  I'm talking lots and lots and lots of skinny, tiny bones that elude all attempts at capture.  Despite its wonderful flavor I'm not sure that I would have this fish to dinner again.

To go with the fish, a green mango salad quite similar in taste to the classic Thai somtam (green papaya salad).  The vendor we bought this salad from had nearly sold out of this one item; recognizing that as a good sign, we nabbed the last plastic bagful.


This homely dish consists of unripe and slightly ripe (read: sour and crunchy and sweet/sour and a bit soft) mangos cut into thick and uneven matchsticks, plenty of red onion and chile, kalamansi juice and a big hit of belacan.  Right up there on the heat scale to match the hottest somtam I've ever sampled in Thailand, it offered no respite from the dipping sauce accompanying the ikan bakar.  But it was delicious, and we polished off the bowl with little effort.

Wing beans with coconut were a cooling counterpoint to the mango salad.


I dont' know the name of this dish in Malaysian, but in Balinese it's known as urab -- vegetables (usually cooked, though these wing beans weren't) mixed with grated fresh coconut, palm sugar, and spices such as turmeric and galangal.  This item proved to be deliciously crunchy and surprisingly -- for a primarily vegetable dish -- rich, something akin to drinking half a glass of coconut milk straight up.  I'm ashamed to admit we couldn't finish it, despite its high yum factor.

Urab of various kind were were gracing the tables of almost every Bangsar bazaar vendor selling rice and dishes.  The one below is made with cooked water spinach instead of wing beans.


To finish our feast of Ramadan bazaar carry-out delights, a plate of sweet and savory treats.


Clockwise from top left, a rice cake rolled in fish floss, kole kole (a coconut-based sweet with nuts), cheras cara berlauk (cuminy cooked jicama-filleed puffy flour roll), and a pao (steamed dumpling) filled with grated coconut and palm sugar.  The latter was my favorite -- soft, supple dough and a rich, sweet filling of my two favorite dessert ingredients.

All in all, quite a good score.  The Bangsar Ramadan bazaar is behind Bangsar Village Shopping Center, and some items are on sale as early as 3:30pm.

October 12, 2005

Street of Temptation


No, I'm not talking about a red light district.  I'm talking about the Ramadan Bazaar in Bangsar.

I'm a bit behind the times with this post, seeing that Ramadan started last week.  Especially in comparison to a digital camera-toting fellow KL blogger; this woman with a mission has already hit 5 or 6 Ramadan hotspots in KL to snap (and load up on? it's not clear if she's scarfing any of it or not) the luscious treats that are on offer this time of year.  What can I say -- we're low-tech, and developing, sorting, and scanning slides takes time.  Worth the wait?  Judge for yourself.


On Sunday we headed over to Bangsar for our usual afternoon stock-up-on-basics-for-the-week foray, and were surprised to find stalls selling buka puasa (breaking the fast) goodies as early as 3:30pm.  After a casual glance up the street we discarded any thought of walking the air-conditioned aisles of a sterile grocery store in favor of cruising the stalls on the hot pavement.  Our modus operandi: wander the street once, twice, three times if necessary (stalls lined both sides), decide what looked best, and take it home for dinner.  But first, some refreshment, in the form of iced chrysanthemum tea (top picture, middle container) and what I believe the vendor called a cheras a few kuih cara berlauk (above), little cakes with a savory filling of curried jicama.  Delightful.

Plenty of murtabak (griddle-fried dough stuffed -- usually -- with chicken, beef, lamb, or sardines) on offer, but our attention was drawn to this stall by the vendor's remarkable resemblance to the lad behind him toting tacos (tacos?).


Before it's cooked up, murtabak filling is surprisingly runny, so much so that it's poured from a pitcher onto the waiting dough.  The griddlehand must then quickly -- and deftly -- fold up the dough to enclose the almost-leaking filling in a square pastry.


A good murtabak will be greasy (it's inevitable) but crispy with a browned exterior and not so much filling that one can't taste the dough.  These beef lovelies, right off the griddle, were lightly crisped and fragrant with cumin and other spices.


We were tempted by many stalls selling barbecued fish and squid, some of which had bathed their product in sambal and wrapped it in banana leaves before tossing them on the griddle or barby.


But we passed over these seafood options in favor of a stall run by 3 guys eager to ham it up for the camera -- oh, and they were offering a unique and enticing piscene product.


Their sign introduced their ikan terubuk bakar (grilled tilapia fish) as a Sarawak specialty and indeed, there were no other vendors at the bazaar offering anything even remotely similar.


Before finding their home over the coals, the fish are doused with a marinade or rub that I'm guessing includes turmeric, then secured to a piece of split bamboo that is threaded in through their gills and out through their mouths.


The beautiful golden color of the fish, with plenty of char, and the fragrant smoke rising from this grill dictated that one of these babies find it's way into our shopping bag.  Entree taken care of.

Further up the street we found three girls selling popiah (soft spring rolls usually filled with grated and steamed jicama, among other things).  These looked especially good, with freshly made, substantial wrappers that wouldn't be likely to tear or leak.


To the question, "You like it spicy?" we nodded affirmative, and our popiah were slathered with a sweet and sticky, chili-laden sauce, then sprinkled with fried shallots, before being wrappd up to take away.


By our third and final pass up the street the queue at this stall had lengthened considerably, and I overheard one waiting customer tell another that these popiah had been mentioned in a Ramadan bazaar update in one of the local papers.  The popiah were indeed lovely, not mushy or too wet -- even after we had carted them home and let them sit for a while -- and the skins had a pleasingly assertive wheaty taste.

One treat we didn't partake of at this bazaar was the delectable looking fried noodles offered at a stall near to and across the street from the mosque.  We passed it a few times, eyeing the griddle (and snapping a few photos), but ultimately decided that we had already bought more than we could eat at home that night.  Here the noodles are getting started with sizzle of garlic and chilies and maybe some dried shrimp ...?


After the noodles had been frying for a bit, the vendor stirred in a pile of cubed tofu.


By the time of our final look-see he had finished up this batch of wide rice noodles, as well as another of thin wheat noodles.  Both were extremely tempting and I'm betting we'll be back next weekend to give them a try.


Barbecued chicken is a common sight at Ramadan bazaars; this stall was doing a brisk business.  Check out the pile of birds ready-to-sell behind this grillmaster.



Fish was on the menu that night so we passed on the chicken, but I've a mind to pick some up for dinner later this week.  Couldn't ignore this vendor selling rotisserie chicken, however, especially when we watched him cleaver up someone else's order and noted the abundant juices leaking onto the chopping block.


Half of one of these birds, tucked into the fridge after we got home, made me a couple of tasty lunches this week.  Lots of bird, lots of smoke, not much else -- done to perfection on the outside and remarkably juicy within.  Another stall I hope to revisit before Ramadan's done.

We couldn't head back to the car without stopping for a couple of otak-otak (fish paste wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled).


These nubbins were nothing like the fluffy fish "mousse"-style otak-otak we enjoyed a month or so ago at the Nyonya restaurant Padi Prada, but more of a toothsome fish "sausage", 2-bite sized chunks of spicy, chewy, fish paste.  Nonetheless, delightful in their own right.

We drove home -- and, that night, dined on some very tasty treats -- feeling depressed as all get out.  After all, Ramadan lasts only 30 days; we get to sample these foods, swoon over the flavors, but then are forced to wait another year for the opportunity to do so again.  How cruel is that?

October 07, 2005

Lunch on a Leaf


As Dave and I were slurping pork mee on our first morning in KL, we couldn't help but notice that at least half of our neighbors were supping off banana leaves.  A couple of laudatory local reviews taped to this stall's window -- and a thumbs-up from a friend who likes her banana leaf -- led us to revisit New Lay Sin coffeeshop for lunch.


There's something about this nothing-special little coffeeshop that says "KL" -- or what I know of KL so far.  The noise: the rumble of traffic, the scrape of plastic chair legs on tiled floor, the whack of cleaver on chopping block, the clack of chopsticks, spoons, and forks on plastic plates and bowls, the whir of overhead ceiling and wall fans, the din of conversation -- all of it bouncing off New Lay Sin's concrete walls -- add up to a pleasant cacaphony that says "people are happily chowing down".  The scene -- Indian families scarfing pork noodles and Hainan chicken rice, Malay and Chinese couples downing rice and dishes off their banana leaves, elderly guys sipping tea and youger ones slouched in the back over a bottle of beer -- is unique to most other large Asian cities (Singapore excepted). 


At stalls and shops like this one at New Lay Sin rice, curries, and side dishes are "plated" on a large piece of banana leaf.  A pile of rice stakes its claim roughly a few inches south of center, while chutney, "salads"/raita, and cooked veggies are arranged in a row above.  Curries arrive separately, a variety of gravies serve to moisten one's rice, and the whole is crowned with a crispy pappadum or two.  Banana leaf rice is meant to be a literally hands-on affair but -- in KL, at least -- fork and spoon can be had for the asking.


Simple enough.  We placed our order ("Two, please."), and the vendor followed us to our table with our plates ... er, leaves.  Within a few seconds plain white rice and three veggie dishes (potato "salad" strong on turmeric, curry leaf-dominated cabbage and lentils, and cooling cucumber and tomato raita) sat before us.


A delicious fish gravy -- really more of a thin soup -- soured with tamarind and chockablock with fresh curry leaves, onions, and black mustard seeds was ladeled from a stainless steel pail over our rice.  Dave ordered chicken curry while I went for the fried fish ... and a few minutes later we broke down and ordered a small plate of the mutton curry as well.


I have to say that the surprise star of this show was the fish.  It arrived on my leaf looking, frankly, like a big, dried-out hunk of crud, but turned out to be a fantastically moist piece of firm, white, flavorful fish with a nearly greaseless, extravagantly spiced (I detected chile powder, fennel and coriander seeds, turmeric, and...?) crust.  Moist chicken-on-the-bone curry was delightfully dominated by chili, yet not overwhelmingly spicy, and the mutton was wonderfully tender.  Perfumed with whole cardamom pods and cloves and pieces of cinammon bark, it also packed a sneaky little chili whallop.

This block of Jalan Tun Sambanthan, a tiny little slice of India, is worth a ramble (especially after a lunch like that one).  Here on this very short stretch you'll find Indian eateries, CD shops blaring Bollywood theme hits, stores selling Indian ingredients and kitchenware and assorted household goods, and tables and glass cases displaying all manner of Indian sweets and fried snacks.   


Banana leaf rice stall at New Lay Sin coffeeshop, 250 Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Brickfields.  By public transport, take the monorail to the Sentral stop.  Upon exiting the station, turn left and continue up the street about 4-5 blocks.  The coffeeshop is on your left.

Faith, Fasting, Feasting


This week marked the beginning of Ramadan, a month when Muslims the world over observe one of the five pillars of Islam by refraining from eating and drinking between sunrise and sundown.

For many readers of this blog, the question "What is like to live in a majority Muslim country?" will seem silly.  But it's a question that, as an American, I have encountered, and no doubt will again, on my next trip back to the States.  My answer would be -- and it's important to acknowledge that I live in a predominantly moderate Muslim state -- "It's like living anywhere else in Asia, but with different sights and sounds and tastes."  In Bangkok my aural environment was dominated by the harsh thup-thup of the tuk-tuks and motorcycles that raced up and down our otherwise quiet lane.  In Saigon our TV could be drowned out -- and our floor literally shaken -- by the thunder of thousands and thousands of motorbikes, especially at the morning and evening rush hours.  Here, I wake up (early!) to the first call to prayer from a nearby mosque; I also walk the dog to it, make dinner to it, and eat lunch to it, if I'm home at midday.  I'm not a follower of Islam, but to me the call to prayer is beautifully melodic, with its musical swoops and dips.  I find it soothing and, at least for the forseeable future, it means "home" to me.

During Ramadan, one way that religion finds its cultural expression in Malaysia is in special (ie. not often seen during the year's other months) sweet and savory foods.  From late afternoon, Muslims flock to makeshift markets around the city to buy handmade goodies with which to break their fast.  If you thought this was leading up to a plethora of Ramadan-focused food porn, I'm sorry -- we haven't managed to get out to any of these markets yet.  But we plan to make as wide a sweep as possible over the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on these early, well-illustrated reports on Ramadan foods in KL (here and here) and Penang.

October 06, 2005

Char'd to Perfection


Stir-fried rice noodles -- these days they're so common worldwide that we've all (I would wager most of us, anyway) ingested them at one point or another, some place or another.  Frankly, what's the big deal?

What we have above is a plate of char kway teow, a treat that, along with laksa and nasi lemak, might well be considered Malaysia's national dish.  A tasty -- but inevitably greasy -- pile of noodles, the residue of which probably lingers in your stomach a wee bit too long after you've pushed back from the table, right?

No, not this plate; not this noodle.  It takes a certain bit of artistry to fry up a serving of supple noodles lightly kissed with, but not drowned in, grease.  This is the big deal:  this is a plate of stir-fried noodles that is, for lack of a better word -- fluffy.  Can stir-fried rice noodles be "fluffy"?  Should they be?  This man banks his business on it, and it's quite a steady business indeed, so I guess the answer to that rhetorical question would be: Yes, "fluffy" is a most sought-after characteristic of char kway teow, at least in this little corner of the world.


Wang works out of a small coffee shop (only 3 food stalls) facing a parking lot, behind a row of stores (including an Austrian restaurant ... ??? I don't know, maybe it's just me, but in Malaysia's wet heat Austrian fare somehow just does not strike a chord) about 15-20 minutes from downtown KL.  Friends introduced me to his kway teow shortly after I arrived in Malaysia, at lunchtime on a weekday.  The coffee shop was packed out and at least one customer at every table (and quite often the entire table) was waiting for a plate of Wang's workmanship.  The backlog was about 40 minutes.  When Dave and I revisited on a recent Saturday the shop was noticeably quieter -- but the wait for char kway teow was still a good half hour. 

Luckily the coffee shop's wonton mee (wonton and thin egg noodles in soup)vendor is not nearly as busy, so we were able to occupy ourselves with a perfectly tasty bowl of shuijiao (boiled pork dumplings in soup).  Eight dumplings of thin dough encasing well-seasoned pork, not overcooked, in a rich broth with plenty of greens.  Very tasty, but really not the main event at this coffee shop.


Back to the topic at hand.  What's the secret to a fluffy char gway teow?  Observing Wang at work gives a few hints.  Number one: wok master must truly enjoy his work.


Here, Wang starts a plate of noodles by stir-frying an egg and then removing it from the pan.

Number two: ingredients -- in this photo, bean sprouts -- must be added to the red-hot wok from theatrical heights.  Some may land well outside the cooking vessel.  That's OK.  (Note the plate of stir-fried egg awaiting its reintroduction to the wok, at left.)


Number three:  once rice noodles are added to the mix, ingredients must be kept moving at warp speed, nonstop.  From this point on until they are plated, Wang pushes, stirs, flips, turns, cuts, and churns the delicate noodles, while at the same time gently pressing them to the wok to achieve the lightest bit of smokiness.


To finish, he reintroduces the cooked egg and adds a fresh one, creating layers of egg flavor and texture: overdone and just done, firm and tender.  A shake of white pepper finishes the dish.


The result -- a plate of brilliantly fried rice noodles tangled with big, unevenly chopped chunks of garlic, bean sprouts, scallions, eggs, prawns cooked so they retain a bit of "crisp"ness, and cockles tender and tasting of saltwater.  A spoonful of chili sauce added during the cooking process, together with the end flourish of white pepper, add a low-level hit of heat. 


As for the noodles, they're airy not leaden; light not heavy; barely veiled rather than soaked in grease.  In a word, fluffy. Our plates, once cleaned (1 minute 30 seconds tops), show dabs -- not slicks -- of oil.  This, more than anything, tells me that Wang is a master of his art.

Char guaytiaow and shuijiao at Restoran Seng Lee, behind row of shops at 6-1 Jalan Batai (including Klimt's Austrian restaurant and Hock Lee minimarket), Damansara Heights.  Mornings to mid-afternoon.

September 30, 2005

Gaeng Ki Lek: On the Trail of a Curry from Northern Thailand to Suburban KL

(In two parts)


About a year and a half ago Dave and I went road tripping in northern Thailand, and stopped for a night in quiet little Phrae.  It's an architectural treasure trove, the best place in the country to see old-style Thai buildings -- houses and temples -- made entirely of teak.



Beyond these wooden beauties, Phrae doesn't have much to offer the traveller.  Nonetheless, as is the case with most all Thai towns "upcountry" (any place not Bangkok -- whether north, south, east or west), Phrae's residents are laid-back and friendly, and its lodgings cheap, clean, and comfortable enough.  And like the rest of Thailand, in Phrae delicious food can be found on every corner, and at several spots in between as well.




The day after we arrived in Phrae we woke early to beat the heat that, by late morning during Thailand's hot-dry season, rises from the pavement in undulating waves that sear the nostrils (and to catch the best light for taking photos).  We toured a fairly well-preserved teak mansion in the center of the "old house district" and took another turn through the backstreets we'd walked the evening before, revisiting (and re-photographing) our favorite teak structures.  We made a pass through Phrae's small wet market, surprisingly quiet for a Sunday morning, Nan_market_shrooms


bought a big bunch of luscious lychees (another reason -- mangoes are the first -- to bear the heat and travel in Thailand in April and May) off the back of a truck parked on the main drag,


and suddenly realized we were famished.

Just up the street, a glass display case of curries beckoned.  Rich, mild green curries with tiny eggplant or bittermelon, fiery coconut milk-free "jungle" curries with fish or pork ... and a beige pork curry packed with olive-colored leaves: gaeng ki lek (ki lek leaf curry).  We'd run into gaeng ki lek only once before, at a touristy restaurant off of Bangkok's Silom Road that serves insipid, uninspired versions of Thai favorites (phad thai, green papaya salad, green curry with chicken) and exquisite renditions of lesser-known dishes (black peppercorn-fried pigeon and gaeng ki lek).  Ki lek leaves are unbelievably bitter, almost medicinally so; but in a spicy curry made slightly sweet with coconut milk their extreme bitterness becomes strangely alluring.

These leaves were a mystery to me.  I'd never encountered them in a market in Bangkok, and I'd never seen them uncooked.  So I couldn't determine their plant origin (and no one I asked knew).  Finding an English translation for the plant "ki lek" was stymied by the fact that the leaves and/or plant are named colloquially in Thai ("ki lek" literally translated is "iron shit"). 

Fast forward to last week, when Wan (our maid, fount of knowledge of Thai food esoterica, tutor in proper Thai behavior, and loving nanny to too many pets for going on four years) returned home from an evening walk with a grin on her round face, a twinkle in her brown eyes, and an armful of tree branches.

(to be continued...)

September 29, 2005

Catch of the Day


A few Sundays ago, after a vigorous workout aimed specifically at carving out a big space in our bellies for lunch, we followed a tip about dao shao mian (lit. "knife-cut noodles" -- thick, irregularly shaped soup noodles sliced with a cleaver off of a big hunk of dough into boiling water) downtown, to Changkat Thambi Dollah Street.  A few passes through the area, on both sides of the street, turned up no knife-cut noodles but did succeed in amplifying our appetites.  "I'm about to eat my fist," said Dave (translation: he was really very hungry); it seemed fortuitous indeed that at that very moment we were within spitting distance of Ah Koong Eating House.  We had no idea what Ah Koong served, but most of the outside tables were occupied -- and we felt it safe to assume that any place called an "eating house" might be able to assuage a ferocious hunger.

It turned out that Ah Koong specializes in things fishy -- fish porridge, fish balls with noodles, fish cakes, and fish paste-stuffed veggies and tofu (a.k.a. yung taufu). 


The growls emitting from our stomachs told us to "Go ahead, try it all!" and we did our best to oblige, ordering a big bowl of fish porridge to share, a fish cake, and, from the yung tauhu display below, red chilies and okra (bottom middle and left), eggplant (upper left), and firm tofu chunks.


Porridge -- it sounds unappetizing, doesn't it?  So 1800s British boys' orphanage (though I suppose that would have been wheat, rather than rice, porridge).  But truly, Asian rice porridge -- in all its national variations -- is a wonderful, soul-satisfying dish, the simplest of elements (rice, water or broth, and a few other ingredients) elevated to heavenly heights. 


Customers ordering fish porridge have a choice of three types of fish.  Unfortunately between the staff's Fujianese and my mangled Mandarin we weren't able to decipher what types of fish they were, so we simply ordered the middling one (10 ringit a bowl, to the others' 8 and 12 ringit price tags).  No matter.  Ah Koong's fish porridge did not disappoint.  Really more of a Shanghai-style fan tang (loose rice soup) than a Cantonese-style jook (thick and creamy rice porridge), this generously-sized bowl -- well more than enough for two -- held plenty of big, tender chunks of boneless fish (grouper, I think), seaweed, and lettuce, in an aggressively gingery fish broth seasoned with fried shallots, coriander sprigs, and lots of shredded ginger. 

As fond as I was of the porridge, I had mixed feelings about Ah Koong's fish cake.


This is a cake of well-pounded -- and thus quite springy -- fish paste, formed into a patty, deep-fried, and served with a tomato-based sweet-hot chili sauce.  Very tasty, if not especially distinctive, and very light on the grease, but ... really the sort of thing that one would gnaw on absentmindedly, rather than savor with full concentration.  After a couple of pleasant bites I ignored it in favor of the porridge and the luscious yung tauhu soup.


Big chunks of fresh-tasting bean curd and our chosen fish paste-stuffed veggies in an extremely garlicky, rich soup broth (did I detect Maggi seasoning? probably -- it's almost ubiquitous on this side of the globe), perked up with the usual (and always welcome) Malaysian garnish suspects of deep-fried shallots and garlic and sliced scallion.  Okra and chilies were tender but not at all overcooked and eggplant was meltingly soft; the fish paste stuffing (possibly the same paste that formed my spurned patty) a perfect protein foil to the veggies.  A delicious sour-spicy dipping sauce accompanied, but was hardly necessary.

In short, mission not accomplished (not that weekend anyway -- we did find the dao shao mian and I shall report on it in good time), but a memorably delicious fishy feast well enjoyed.  Not bad for a Sunday lunch.

Ah Koong Eating House, Jalan Changkat Thambi Dollah, behind Berjaya Times Square Mall.

September 28, 2005

Hit the Rojak II

About a month before moving to KL, we were in town for a few days to look for a place to live.  What a nightmare!  Ever viewed 20 potential homes in about 7 hours, all of them discouragingly lacking?  As the brain begins to fog and the eyes begin to goggle in the skull, details run together and each place, in memory, becomes indistinguishable from the other.  At one point, about midday, as we were speeding through entirely unfamiliar surroundings from one appointment to the next, our real estate agent waggled a thumb at a truck parked roadside.  "I reckon here's where you'll get the best Indian rojak in KL," he pronounced.  I immediately perked up -- and then deflated, as what might have been a welcome diversion from our mission faded in the rearview window.

Then a couple of weekends ago, fortune came our way:  entirely by accident, we came upon the very truck, parked in its spot next to a monstrous apartment/condo construction site on a busy side road in Bangsar.  There was no question that we'd have to stop and give the rojak a try.


Indian rojak is an entirely different animal from Penang rojak.  Different ingredients, different sauces.  In Indian rojak sauce you won't find petis -- the pungent black prawn paste pictured in my previous post -- but you will find toasted peanuts, chilies, gula melaka (palm sugar), tamarind, and sometimes mashed sweet potato.  And while the ingredients in Penang rojak sauce are mixed on the spot, Indian rojak sauce is cooked, and served lukewarm.  Like Penang rojak, Indian rojak's salad includes jicama, cucumber, and deep-fried tofu, but also bean sprouts, assorted deep-fried fritters, a hard-boiled egg and, if you wish, boiled sotong (squid) bathed in chili sauce.


Above, veggies ready to mix are laid out on bottom, while fritters -- prawn, coconut, and plain flour -- occupy the shelf up top.


Another view of veggies, with deep-fried tofu triangles tucked behind.  The tub holds chili squid and the tied bags rojak sauce, ready for takeaway.

My Indian rojak experience is limited enough that I can't speak to the "best in KL" assertion made about this version, but I can say that this fellow's pride in his product is justified.


Across the counter his partner uses an old-fashioned hand-cranked contraption to shave ice for chendol, a sweet dessert/drink of coconut milk, palm sugar, and short worm-like cooked "noodles" of pea flour flavored with pandan leaves (called "chendol" -- the dessert is named for this ingredient).  The chendol served out of this truck may also, if you request it, include corn, kidney beans, and a bit of coffee (in the green plastic tub). 


Chendol and Indian rojak seem a match made (or mandated) in heaven; most Indian rojak trucks offer the icy treat as well.

After the mixing and the shaving, the pouring and the plating, this is what we ended up with: a picturesque plate of Indian rojak, smothered in a smooth, coconut-y dressing punctuated by a zippy chili backbeat,


and a refreshing bowl of beans 'n corn 'n "worms".  I have to admit that I was not initially enamored of the sweet bean and corn concept, but it's quite grown on me since we moved to southeast Asia.


No doubt about it, ground peanuts and coconut milk makes for an extremely rich salad dressing, so much so that we could easily have gotten by with one order between the two of us.  Nonetheless, this vendor has managed to tone down the goo's inherent sweetness a smidge, and that bit of chili cuts right through.  It's not too thick (I've had versions bordering on gloppy), although there is alot of it, so it's best to adhere to discipline and leave a little peanuty pool on one's plate at the end.  Prawn fritters are generously studded with crustaceans, the flour fritters have a pleasantly soft and spongy-doughy chew (perfect for sopping up sauce), and the deep-fried tofu is light and springy.  All combine with the cool fresh vegetables, smooth hard-boiled egg, and not unpleasantly toothsome squid in an inspired medley.


Indian rojak and chendol truck, next to the construction site on Jalan Penaga close to the Jalan Ara intersection, Bangsar.  Late mornings to late afternoons.

September 27, 2005

Hit the Rojak


I first became acquainted with rojak -- a fruit and vegetable "salad" served up in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia -- last year on a trip to Penang that involved very little other than eating.  What I love about Penang rojak is its inherent element of surprise:  fruit and veggies are thickly cloaked in a shiny, sticky black sauce and topped with peanuts, leading the uninitiated to anticipate something along the lines of a dessert.  All expectations are blown out of the water with the first bite, however, with the aggressive punch of belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste).  Once the shock subsides, allowing taste buds to take over, rojak's disparate elements -- salty, sweet, sour, and powerfully fishy -- hang together in an unforgettable whole.  Much as with Vietnam's bun mam and Issan's Isaan's somtam ponlamai, the ingredients taken together really shouldn't make sense at all, yet they  deliciously do.

We spotted this Penang rojak vendor outside Nam Chuan coffee shop in Bangsar, and decided to make his version of one of my funky favorites appetizer to our main course of pan mee.


Penang rojak vendors use a variety of ingredients; I recall rose apple and guava in our Penang visit version.  This guy's list includes pineapple, green mango, papaya, cucumber, yam bean (jicama), deep-fried tofu, and cracker of an indeterminate nature.  He starts off by spooning black sauce (a mixture of belacan, sugar, and kalamansi juice -- I think) into his mixing bowl. 


He then adds fruit, vegetables, and scissor-cut tofu in one step.


The rojak is quickly mixed and ready in less than a minute -- topped with peanuts and cracker (it's also possible to have your cracker mixed in with the other ingredients).  Long toothpicks serve as utensils.


A fine version indeed, one that I'd certainly partake of again if I were idling hungrily in the vicinity of Nam Chuan, waiting for an order from one of the hawker stalls to arrive.  Yet -- is it me? is my memory exaggerating the fishy aftertaste of that first rojak experience in Penang? -- this Bangsar rojak lacks a certain pungency.  When I raised toothpick to mouth there was a distinct lack of belacan aroma, to the extent that if I hadn't know this was a fishy treat I wouldn't have known till it was in my mouth.  When it comes to Penang rojak I need more .... stink.  The search will continue.

This vendor parks days, right at the corner of Nam Chuan coffee shop, Lucky Garden, Lorong Ara Kiri, Bangsar.


September 26, 2005

Streetside Sweets: Putu Piring

I've developed quite a sweet tooth since moving to KL.  It's hard not to, when it seems that at any time of the day or night one is never far from a vendor pushing -- and, sometimes, making on the spot -- one or another tempting morsel that is as easy on the taste buds as it is lovely to look at.  And when most everything sweet on the street can be purchased by the piece, or a few pieces, for a song ... well, there's no use even trying to resist when "just a taste" is well within the realm of possibilities.

Two of my very favorite southeast Asian dessert ingredients -- sweet, smoky, almost undetectably bitter palm sugar and coconut in any of its forms (fresh grated, milk, cream) -- play a key role in quite a few Malaysian sweets.  Yet another strike against abstinence.


Last Sunday, after a big lunch (aren't they all?) followed by a quick stop at the grocery store, Dave and I came across two young ladies peddling freshly made putu piring: steamed rice flour cakes filled with -- yes! -- palm sugar and topped with -- you know it-- freshly grated coconut.  They were doing business in a spot on a Bangsar sidewalk usually occupied by a gent whom we've come to know as "the Bangsar bubur cha cha man".  Our attention was drawn by the play of late afternoon light off the conical lids of their stainless steel steamer.


In truth were were not at all hungry, but these ladies were doing a steady business and, as I've learned over the years in Asia, any product proffered by a vendor receiving a constant flow of customers demands investigation.

To make the putu piring, coarsely ground rice flour is patted into a round, flattish mold, and then topped with a rounded teaspoon or so of grated palm sugar. 



In the picture above, putu piring yet to receive their palm sugar filling can be seen to the right of the umbrella pole.

More rice flour is added -- enough to thinly cover the palm sugar -- and then firmly patted down.  The molds are then turned upside down over thin pieces of cotton cloth lining the steamer, and a lid placed on top of each cake.  After just a few minutes, the putu piring are steamed through.


Once the lid is off, a square of banana leaf placed on top of these delicate little cakes facilitates their removal from steamer bed to takeaway container  -- which, in this case, is a piece of thin plastic laid on top of a sheet of newspaper.  Grated coconut is heaped on top before the packet is sealed.


Verdict?  Perhaps my dream sweet -- lots and lots of coconut and palm sugar flavor with no interference from other ingredients.  Rice flour makes for a cake almost fluffy, and not at all sweet, a neutrality that allows the other two ingredients to take center stage.  Overall, sweet enough to satisfy but light enough to allow multiple servings -- a wonderful (and dangerous) combination.

Delight in these putu piring on Sunday afternoons only, right outside TMC grocery store (red and yellow sign), Jalan Ara, Bangsar. 

September 22, 2005

Fern Fixation

I love living in KL, really I do, but .... where are all the darn fiddleheads??!!

Perhaps I should explain.   A few months ago, shortly after I learned that a relocation to KL was in our future, I came upon this thread on pucuk paku (fiddlehead ferns) in Malaysia on foodcentric site egullet.  "Eureka!" I thought to myself.  "Yet another reason to anticipate with growling stomach the upcoming move."

Dave and I had just returned from a stay in a small village in north-central Bali, where one morning we and our guide Nyoman scoured the forest around Lake Tamblingan for fiddleheads and wild mushrooms.  Though we came up emtpy on the fungi front, we (OK -- Nyoman, primarily) scored fairly fantastically in the fern department, and that evening we dined on pakis urab, a cool dish of fern tips in a spicy coconut dressing. 


That meal reminded me how much I adore the slightly asparagus-y, woodsy flavor of the tightly coiled, several-inch diameter fiddleheads available with the rains in northern California and parts of the American north and northeast.  With a few morels and a sturdy green like escarole they make for a lovely warm salad.  I devoured that egullet thread and rubbed my hands together with glee, visions of mounds and mounds of cheap (those babies go for approaching twenty dollars a pound in the States) green fiddlehead coils heaped upon my kitchen counter -- awaiting their inclusion in a warm salad with oyster mushrooms, or in a Balinese urab with coconut and turmeric, ginger and garlic and nutmeg, or maybe roasted with salmon and garlic in the oven -- dancing in my head.


Well, I have to say it's been a bit of a bust.

What I've found so far in KL are pucuk paku alright, but a slighter, more delicate variety than the thick-stemmed Balinese fiddleheads pictured above, no thick coiled tips in sight.  Don't get me wrong. They're delicious in their own right, leaves stripped from stem and tender tips snapped off, all to be lightly sauteed with a bit of olive oil and garlic or briefly stewed with coconut milk and spices. 

But where are the BIG FAT COILS?

It's not that I haven't looked: I've been to KL markets, scoured Carrefour (you never know -- there are some interesting and -- to an American -- exotic items in those aisles), asked and inquired, even put Dave to work interrogating his colleagues.  The other day a Malay taxi driver told me he was certain the big fat coils are around, somewhere (where?! he couldn't -- or wouldn't -- say).  Yesterday evening Dave and I hit the twice-weekly market in Kota Kemuning, where the resident population is heavily Malay (fiddleheads make more of an appearance in Malay, than Chinese-Malay, dishes).  Not a single coil, not even a slender fern stem.  I felt the slow, sinking feeling of defeat.

But I will press on.  Perhaps to Temerloh, a town a couple hours' drive from KL, and its legendary Sunday market where villagers come to sell foraged produce.  Closer to home, maybe to a small night (late night -- it doesn't get going till 1am) market in Chow Kit known for its kampung (village) veggies.  Those big fat coils are beckoning.

September 20, 2005

Peranakan Pleasures

While I'm sticking pretty close to home, Dave's been exploring the gustatory offerings in and around Kota Kemuning, a youngish planned town about 30 minutes from KL.  With a bevvy of chowish colleagues eager to introduce him to their favorites, he needn't worry about going hungry at lunchtime.  One evening he returned home raving about the fare at a small Nyonya restaurant.  And repeated the raves later in the week after another visit.  Tired of hearing high praise of what I wasn't eating, I corralled him into a Sunday afternoon visit.

Kota Kemuning is reminiscent of American planned communities -- wide, quiet streets; green, open space; color-coordinated, cookie-cutter apartment buildings, condo developments, and stand-alone houses; and a walkable commercial area with a sort of "village" feel where residents can eat, buy groceries, and satisfy various other daily needs.  (We've been told it's also the location of a fine wet market on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- a visit is in the works.)  It may be devoid of anything of touristic interest, but for a leisurely weekend lunch KK makes a nice break from big-city, sometimes gritty KL.


The restaurant previously occupying Padi Prada's space offered Thai fusion.  Sharon and her co-owner sister kept the name and the decor: sleekly Thai contemporary, from brushed concrete floor to dark wood tables and chairs and the celadon green-gray  walls.  Outside tables catch a bit of breeze.

Nyonya dishes are the culinary expression of Peranakan (Straits Chinese) culture, which can be traced to the 15th century, when traveling merchants from southern China arrived in Melaka (in southwestern Malaysia) and married Malay women.  Peranakan communities were also established in eastern Malaysia and, in the 1700s, in Singapore and Penang.  The term "Nyonya" refers to the women in these communities; men were known as "Babas".  (See this excellent blog to learn more about all aspects of Nyonya culture.)

Penang's proximity to Thailand (many of the Chinese merchants settling in Penang in the 17th century arrived via Phuket) is evidenced in its style of Nyonya cuisine, distinct from that of Melaka.  While Melakan (southern) Nyonya food shows traces of Portugese and Indian influence, Penang's northern Nyonya dishes make liberal use of chilies and souring agents like lime juice and tamarind pulp.  Other common ingredients are pungent roots like galangal, lemongrass, turmeric (the leaf is used as well) and aromatic leaves like pandan, wild pepper/betel, and laksa leaf/Vietnamese mint.  Sambals (pounded chili pastes) and acars (pickles) are cornerstones of both southern and northern styles.

After enjoying a few sips of Padi Prada's avocado-green "special" juice -- squeezed from the refreshingly tart ambarella fruit -- and despairing that the two of us would be able to make only the smallest dent in Padi Prada's menu, we asked Sharon to recommend a few representative Penang Nyonya dishes.  First up was jiu hoo char, a mixture of cooked, shredded vegetables (jicama, carrot, cabbage, black mushrooms) and stir-fried dried cuttlefish. 


The soft, mildly seasoned mixture is eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf with a bit (or a blob, if you're a chili fan) of Sharon's exceptionally aromatic (and burning) sambal belacan -- making for a pleasing combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures.


We followed with lor bak, chopped lean pork combined with onion, garlic, and five-spice powder, wrapped in bean curd skin, deep-fried to a browned crisp, and served with a sweet dipping sauce.


These nuggets were exceptional, simply heads and shoulders above versions I sampled on a trip to Penang a couple of years ago -- the filling porky and aromatically spicy, the thin, crinkly bean curd skin shatteringly crisp.

Otak-otak, a steamed white fish "custard", arrived next.  Mixed with eggs, coconut milk, turmeric, galangal, and lemongrass, the fish is cradled in betel leaf before being wrapped in banana leaf and gently steamed. 


Otak-otak is similar to Thai haw mawk -- a thicker, richer fish custard heavy on coconut cream and chilies and steamed in a banana leaf cup -- and Cambodian amok, which is similar to the Thai presentation but less custardy and more like a chunky fish stew.  As is evident, this version is firm enough to hold its shape once it's unwrapped.  Coconut milk is a presence, but not an overpowering one; this fragrant fishy morsel was surprisingly light and the betel leaves add an intriguing vegetal flavor.

The next dish was a surprise: a tomato-based, sweet-sour, coconut-milk free chicken "curry" (curry merah) that, strangely enough, took me back to my childhood and my mother's special oven "BBQ" sauce for chicken.  Like mom's sauce, this curry includes chilies, lots of chopped onions, and -- confirmed by Sharon -- a good dose of white vinegar, and upon presentation a bit of reddish oil floats on the surface.  Unlike mom's, it does not include a bottle of Heinz chili sauce and a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil.  Still, I'm intrigued tby he similarities between the two dishes; just might pull out mom's recipe, use it as a guide, and have a crack at recreating Sharon's curry merah.


Spooning up the last bits of curry gravy, we were full enough to be glad at having stopped at four dishes.  We could, after all, return anytime to work our way through the rest of the menu.  But we were also impressed enough with Sharon's skill behind the stove -- and, yes, just plain glutton enough -- to order one *just* *one* *more*.

For the (revised) finale we chose tau eu bak, succulent slices of "3-story" pork belly and halved hard-boiled eggs "red-cooked" in dark soy sauce with cloves, cinnamon, and star anise.


Perhaps not the best choice if one wishes to end an already overindulgent meal on a "light" note -- those whitish squares on the left of the plate are nothing but pure pork fat -- but an absolute triumph nonetheless.  Slow-- and, it seemed, lovingly -- cooked, this dish of succulent pork and eggs imbued with rich, sweet spice flavors proved too much to resist. 

Padi Prada's is home style fare, the kind that visitors to Penang rarely come across.  Sharon traces her Fujianese ancestry on Penang back four generations, and relies on her granny's recipes.  Key ingredients, like spice mixes, betel leaf, kuay teow, and bean curd skin, are flown in from Penang; Sharon attributes the remarkable crispiness of her lor bak to the latter, which is thinner and less salty than the bean curd skin available around KL.

I'm both sad and relieved -- how many too-much-food meals can a person handle in the course of one week? -- that Padi Prada is not my neighborhood joint.  But the menu is fairly extensive, and I hear that lor bak calling .... a return visit is not too far in the future.

Padi Prada, 4 Jalan Anggerik Vanilla Y/31Y, Kota Kemuning, Shah Alam. Tel 03-5121-0167. 8am - 2:30pm (Penang breakfasts served until 12:30) and 5:30-9:30pm. Closed on Mondays. 

September 19, 2005

Not Chef Boyardee's Meatballs

Meatball Noodles.  For just about anyone who passed their formative years in 1970s American midwestern suburbia, the words conjure up visions of limp pasta and bizarrely squishy nubs of indeterminate origin (are they really meat?) in a sweet, dayglo orange-red sauce.  (Lest my mother read this post, I must note that this canned product with the chef on the label was rarely allowed at our table, and only after much whining and begging in the supermarket aisle on my part.)

The meatball and noodle product -- more precisely, meatball noodle soup -- on offer at Chun Heong Coffee Shop in Bangsar couldn't be further from that pseudo-food of my misguided (culinarily, at least) pre-teen years.  According to Sandy at the kueh stall across the aisle, this vendor has been in business for more than twenty years; judging by the unlined face of the guy currently slinging noodles and meatballs, he's taken over for an older relative.

As usual, I order my noodles dry, with soup on the side.  As my order is prepared, these chilies await their anointing with soy to make a zippy dipping sauce.


Meanwhile my guay teow (wide rice noodles) are softened in boiling water (one half of the pot below is devoted to bobbing meatballs while the other is used to prep noodles) before being tossed into a bowl,


and then sauced with two types of "black sauce" (dark soy and, perhaps, kecap manis?), a bit of oil, and a good-sized spoonful of stir-fried chopped pork.



The result is two thirds of a pork triumvirate: satisfyingly slippery noodles topped with green and white scallion slices, nubbins of chewy, crispy pork (do I detect a hint of star anise in the pork? Sandy says no and the noodle guy's not saying) and a couple of thick slices of succulent, mildly spiced Chinese sausage. 



The triumvirate's other third -- the pork meat balls for which this vendor is justly famous -- arrive alongside, floating in a cloudy broth featuring more scallion bits.


Before being formed into balls, the pork is pounded to produce a smooth, somewhat elastic paste.  Some makers of meat and fish balls add ingredients to heighten the elasticity of their product and help the balls hold their shape under the duress of a swim in boiling liquid.  I'm not enough of a connoisseur at this point to say whether or not our Bangsar vendor does the same, but I will say that these are some of the nicest Asian-style meatballs I've encountered.  Springy and somewhat resistant to the bite but not at all rubbery, they evince the flavor of pig and nothing else, and the weak broth lets them take center stage in all their porky glory.  Forget the dipping sauce -- these went straight from bowl to mouth with nary an adornment.

Find this Meat Ball Soup vendor at Chun Heong Coffee Shop, Lucky Garden on Lorong Ara Kiri, Bangsar.  Early morning to mid-afternoon.

September 17, 2005

Hainan Chicken, by Way of Ipoh, in PJ


Hainan chicken rice -- sliced, sometimes boned, steamed or roasted chicken served with rice flavored with chicken broth -- can be found, in various incarnations, in most Asian countries China southward.  It's a simple dish that, done well, reaches heavenly heights.

One Saturday afternoon we set out to PJ (Petaling Jaya, a KL suburb) to sample Hainan chicken rice Ipoh-style.  Ipoh, capital of Malaysia's Perak state and just a 2-hour drive from KL, shares status with Penang as a food-lover's paradise; besides its own version of chicken rice the city is famous for white coffee (the beans are roasted in butter), dim sum, Ipoh kway teow (rice noodles topped with gravy, mushrooms, and shredded chicken), and salt-roasted chicken, among other treats.

New Restaurant Ipoh Chicken Rice (NRICR) lies conveniently just off the PJ highway, around the corner from PJ's Thai Temple (where Thais congregate on Sunday to indulge in Thai snacks dished up from mobile stalls -- but that's another post).  It's nestled in a typically non-descript strip mall-ish row of shops, and at 2 o'clock in the afternoon it's doing a brisk business.  This waiter was so busy filling orders he didn't even have time to smile for the camera (or perhaps he wondered what was with the dotty foreigners snapping pics of an everyday Malaysian dish).


On offer are all sorts of goodies -- chicken meatballs, la-la (clams), noodles, several kinds of rice porridge ... but having come for the signature dish, we stick to the basics: 2 orders of steamed kampung (village -- ie. free-range) chicken, an order of bean sprouts, and two plates of chicken rice.  Bowls of broth and saucers of chili sauce are included.


What makes Ipoh chicken rice so "Ipoh"?  Near as I can tell it's the bean sprouts -- lightly doused in a warmish "broth" that includes soy, and finished off with a light squeeze of sesame oil.


The sprouts are a bit blanched but not limp, crispy but not snappish enough to shower your shirt with soy goo en route to your mouth.  Topped with shreds of scallion, Chinese celery, and a smidge of fresh chili, they're utterly delicious.


It's not only the bean sprouts that arrive in a pool of soy-broth goo; the chicken gets a shower as well.  After an order of chicken has been boned, chopped and laid on a bed of thickly sliced cucmber by NRICR's cleaver master, it's passed to a guy deftly weilding nothing more than a ladle, with which he splashes broth-soy-oil over the entire plate while tilting it to drain the excess.  He repeats this motion a few times, all within a matter of seconds, bathing but not drowning the chicken.  It's delivered to our table after receiving a dollop of ginger-garlic sludge on top.


The real test of this dish is the rice served alongside the chicken.  It should be rich with chicken flavor and glistening with chicken fat -- but not so laden with moisture that it's sticky.  Many versions fail this crucial test, but NRICR's rice passes with flying colors.  Note that the grains of rice are shiny, the slightest bit yellowed from broth and fat, but not clumped together, each nearly distinct from the next.  A little plate of greasy goodness.


We finish every last bit of rice, telling ourselves that the intake of chicken fat is balanced by our "healthy" choice of steamed white meat chicken.

In addition to steamed chicken, NRICR offers a crackly brown-skinned roasted "fortune" chicken, and as an alternative to chicken rice, diners can choose to accompany their bird with plain or chicken porridge or soft rice noodles. 

New Restaurant Ipoh Chicken Rice, Jalan 10/1 at Jalan 10/5, Petaling Jaya, right off the PJ highway at the University Hospital/Kleenex exit. Open early till 9-ish.

September 16, 2005

"Waiter, there's a fish head in my noodle soup!"

Asians -- and most Asian food-loving folks -- are not squeamish when it comes to fish heads, to the point that a fish arriving at table headless is suspect.  And everyone knows that some of the best meat on the poor dead thing is in the head: in the cheeks and around the eyes. 

Fish head (usually from a carp -- which, by the way has an enormous head that can easily feed a small group, with other dishes) is especially popular in Malaysia and Singapore, and my encounters with it to date -- in a curry and smothered in a gooey, tinglingly hot ginger sauce (more to come on ginger sauce fish head later) -- have been very pleasing.  So when SW told me about a place in KL serving a fish head noodle soup enriched with milk I knew I had to give it a try.

[Warning: anyone logging onto EatingAsia for the food porn will be very disappointed by the poor quality of these photos, which can be attributed to me wielding a digital camera in poor light.]


Ampang Food House is tucked at the back of the sort of aged, dingy KL shopping plaza that --given the number of shiny new shopping malls popping up all over downtown and the suburbs -- one could be forgiven for bypassing.  As I'm learning, however, these older plazas often hide treasures: the kind of restaurants and food houses that might be empty (or closed) on the weekends, when locals are pursuing their second-most-loved pasttime in KL's glitzier shrines to consumerism, but that are packed out on weekdays, when office workers hit the streets in search of a tasty noontime meal.

After 15 minutes wandering stupidly about Ampang Plaza, followed by a frantic phone call to SW to double-check the place's coordinates, we finally arrived at our destination a little after 1pm.  This is well into the Malaysian lunch hour, and every seat was taken, with a line out the door.  But Ampang Food House has an efficient way of dealing with a crowd of hungry customers -- while diners are supping inside a staff member is busily taking orders outside.  By the time a seat has been vacated your order is nearly ready, no time wasted idling foodless at the table.




Though we were tempted by many other items on the massive menu taped to AFH's window -- a quick survey of other tables revealed "chilly sauce chicken rice" to be especially popular -- we stuck with the plan and ordered "fish head meehon".  I didn't quite know what to expect, but what we ended up with was a bowl brimming over with deep-fried chunks of fish head, beehoon (thin rice noodles), pieces of tomato, soft tofu, and tender napa cabbage, all in a subtle fish (and pork?) broth flavored with spring onion, thick slices of ginger, and deep-fried shallots, and mellowed with milk.  A saucer of fresh chili slices was served on the side.


(Oy, I really must apologize for that picture!)  This dish falls firmly in the category of "comfort food" -- the sort of noodle soup I would crave if I were down with a cold, recovering from an too-spicy meal the night before, or shivering after sitting through a movie in an overly air-conditioned cinema.  It's anything but bland-- tomatoes evince a bit of sharpness, ginger and shallot notes are clear and strong, cabbage and greaseless fried fish pieces add a bit of chew.  I love chilies and added all the slices in my saucer to the broth, but then wished I hadn't -- a flavor combo this delicately balanced deserves to be respected.  The beehoon did an excellent job of soaking up the milky broth ... and what was left I gladly finished off -- being too polite to lift the bowl to my lips in public -- with a spoon.

Ampang Food House, 2nd Floor Ampang Plaza, across the street from the Nikko Hotel. Public transport: take the LRT and get off at the Ampang stop.  Exit the station to your right, which will put your right in front of Ampang Plaza.  Head straight through to the stairs at the back to reach the 2nd floor.

September 12, 2005

Reason Enough to Catch the Next Flight to Kuching

Can it really take 6 hours to get a post up on your blog?  Yes it can, when your brand-new scanner poops out, your laptop starts acting up, and your DSL connection goes dead.  Today I'm making do with the few slides I was able to get onto disk before one technology trip-up followed another. 

Sarawak is one of two Malaysian states on the island formerly known as Borneo (the other is Sabah).  Though I've not yet been, for me the word "Sarawak" brings to mind dense rainforest, swiftly moving rivers, and commonly shared long-houses.  That changed a couple of weeks ago, when I sampled this little bowl of goodness.


Laksa is arguably Malaysia's national dish.  I haven't yet sampled all its variations, but I imagine that when I have Sarawak laksa will rate right up top.  Broth ingredients include coconut milk, candlenut, chile, garlic, tamarind, and -- I'm guessing here -- ground coriander.  The rich, oily blend is ladeled over beehoon (thin rice noodles) and topped with prawns, shredded chicken, sliced omelet, bean sprouts, and chopped Chinese celery.  In general I prefer a heftier, chewier noodle, but in this case the narrow noodles seem right with the heavy broth.  Roasted chili sambal (ask for a big saucer) and kalamansi, for squeezing, are served on the side (along with a glass of iced lemon tea, if you wish).


Note the wee blobs of chili oil floating on the surface of the broth, and the bits of ground spice clinging to the sides of the bowl. 


This version is served up by a Kuching native at her stall in Bangsar.  The sweet-faced vendor with a ready smile tells us that it's a family recipe, and that many of her ingredients are flown in from Sarawak.


In Kuching this is breakfast, and right about now I can't think of a better way to start the day.

Sarawak Laksa stall at Nam Chuan coffee shop, 2-4 Lorong Ara Kiri, Lucky Garden, Bangsar. Open early morning till 3-ish. Closed every first and third Wednesday of the month.

September 10, 2005


For any cook living in Asia, a visit to a wet market is something like a liter of caffiene delivered straight into a vein.  Well, it is for me, anyway.  So much activity -- the vivid colors, the aromas both sweet and nasty, the frenetic activity, the promise of many meals to come.  So many vegetables, herbs, and other ingredients -- many of which are unfamiliar, and thus intriguing -- excite the mind and get the appetite going.

I've only just scratched the surface of wet markets in KL, and there are many -- expect lots of market posts in the future.  One curious ingredient I've come across repeatedly is smoked garlic.


On a Merdeka Day (Malaysia's national day) outing to Petaling Jaya's (PJ) OUG market with a group of fellow egulleters, I asked Teepee for some tips on cooking with smoked garlic. 


She advised stir-frying it with some chopped char siu siu yok (roasted pork), kecap manis, and chili for a quick dinner.  Just then we came across this char siu siu yok vendor and I ordered up about 15 ringit's worth of what Thais call "3-story pork" (one "story" each of meat, fat, and crispy skin).


Smoked garlic is milder than raw, so I used about 15 cloves for a 2-person serving  of the dish.  The kecap manis added a spicy sweetness.  With some rice the dish made a fine, quick meal for a weeknight.

Before being smoked, the garlic is dried, so it retains raw garlic's firmness.  Apparently it's nothing new to western cooks -- a quick google search turned up smoked garlic purveyors in both the UK and the US.  The other day a Malaysian lady told me that she pounds smoked garlic with chili to make sambal, and I'll surely give that a try.  But I could also see it slow-roasted with olive oil in the oven, or chopped roughly and playing a starring role in a simple pasta sauce of roasted tomatoes and basil. 

September 07, 2005

KL Board Noodles, Two Ways

"Board noodles" is the literal translation of pan mee (ban mian in Mandarin), and I can only guess that the name derives from the fact that the dough for the thick wheat noodles that comprise the main ingredient of this dish is rolled out -- flat as a board.


This vendor has been working his noodle dough (note hand-cranked pastsa roller and lumps of unrolled dough on his work table) at a coffee shop in Bangsar for more than ten years.  Noodles, if not rolled and cut to order, are likely no more than an hour old by the time they find their way to your bowl of pan mee (I'm told that one can request noodles to be torn by hand into pieces, rather than cut into strips).

My hungry fascination with the sight of freshly rolled noodles led to a lapse in attention to the task at hand; I forgot to specify "konlo" for my order -- thus the steamy bowl of soup noodles pictured below.


Wilted gai lan leaves, scallions, clearish porky broth, and generously sized chunks of meat -- just your average soup noodle, the type that can be had just about anywhere in China, right?  Not exactly -- what sets this version apart is the hearty chew of the noodles, and what make it deliciously Malaysian are the sizeable sprinkle of crunchy ikan balis (dried and fried anchovies) and the bright green sour-hot dipping sauce that includes ground green chilies, coriander, and kalamansi juice.


Though no longer a pan mee virgin, I'm too much of a novice to assert that this bowl of deliciousness is the best of this type (read further to understand what I mean here) in town.  But I'm looking forward to some rigorous scientific research on the subject.

A few days later, over a lunch of just-OK dim sum at a hotel restaurant that does not merit mention on this blog, I expressed, to my food-obsessed Malaysian dining companions (let it be known: as far as I can tell up to this point, all Malaysians are food-obsessed), my delight at discovering the fresh-noodle pan mee vendor in Bangsar.  "Oh, then you have to try the "special" pan mee at this one shop," SG advised, adding that it is so addictive a relative has developed an at-least-once-a-week habit.  E whipped out his hand phone like a gunslinger in a low-budget Western and immediately produced name, address, and phone number of the purveyor.


Restoran Kin Kin is sited on a seedy Chow Kit back street.  The secret to it's special pan mee is revealed in the Chinese characters on the sign, which tell that the offering here is Fujian-style la jiao pan mee, or pan mee with chili-oil sauce.  Kin Kin's popularity is attested to by the fact that despite the dearth of parking in the area, every single seat at its 18 or 20 tables was occupied, and customers were queued for empty spots, when we arrived a bit after lunch hour at 1:45p. 

We placed our orders -- konlo, this time, with egg -- and grabbed one of two outside tables to wait ... and wait .... and wait.  Mom, dad, and sons moved with careful deliberateness behind the counter to fill the tens or twenties of orders that preceded ours.  A couple of friendly aunty types circulated among tables, taking drink orders (teh si bing -- iced tea with unsweetened condensed milk, for us).  And still we waited....


But what a sight to behold when our orders arrived!  A mound of thick round noodles topped with ikan bilis, chopped scallion, a wee bit of table sugar, pork sliced and chopped, and tiny cubes of cracklin', all crowned by a snow-white poached egg.  After adding heaped spoonfuls of the la jiao that makes its way from table to table in a plastic tub, we dug in.  Kin Kin's pan mee delivers on its promise -- ultra chewy noodles and a la jiao light on oil and heavy on slow-roasted chili flavor that elicits a sharp tingle, rather than the sort of tongue-searing burn that might overpower the dish's other tasty ingredients.

The soup that comes on the side with konlo orders is a mix of noodle water+pork broth+egg poaching water; stray bits of egg white and a good amount of (what I am guessing are) tapioca leaves float about the surface.  The leaves make an excellent addition to the noodle.


After we finished eating, mom came out from behind the counter and sauntered over to our table. "Good, yes?" she asked, and appeared pleased -- but not the least bit surprised -- when we enthusiastically nodded yes. 

Find the pasta-rolling pan mee vendor in Bangsar, inside the coffee shop just doors from Nam Chuan Coffeeshop, 2-4 Lorong Ara Kiri, Lucky Garden.

Restoran Kin Kin is at 40 Ground Floor, Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman 1, off Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, Chow Kit. Weekdays 7:30am-9pm, weekends 7:30am-4:30pm. Closed last Sunday of the month.

September 05, 2005

Breakfast Pig

On our first morning in KL, we awoke with a rumble in our stomachs that could not be satisfied by coffee and fruit from the hotel breakfast buffet.  Luckily, I had been advised before departing Saigon that salvation, in the form of a porky noodle treat, could be found just a 15-minute walk from the lobby.


This pork mee (pork noodle) vendor occupies the front right corner of a Brickields coffee shop.  A number of noodle types are on offer, both rice (kuayteow, loh see fun, bee hoon) and wheat (mee and mee sua).  Noodles can be had in soup or konlo (dry-mixed), and egg is optional.

No matter the noodle dish, I usually lean towards konlo, because with soup on the side the flavor of noodles, mix-ins, and condiments can take center stage.  More pragmatically, in a tropical climate like Malaysia's the last thing I need is to hang my head over a bowl of steaming broth.  Having just left Saigon, where bird flu is never far from one's mind when eating or buying chicken and eggs, the novelty of consuming a barely cooked egg with nary a worry appealed.  Thus my order: mee (semi-thick yellow, rounded wheat noodles) konlo, with an egg.

We grabbed a table near the stall and sat back to watch the action.  Our wait for sustenance lasted a good ten minutes in spite of the fact that stall owner Mr. Tay moved quickly to assemble the orders that poured steadily in.


Our first taste confirmed that these noodles are well worth the wait.  Piled atop a gently poached egg and swathed in dark soy and oil-fried garlic, they were accompanied by a tiny saucer of fresh chilies in soy sauce and a small bowl of soup -- a rich, meaty concoction of pork (chopped, chewy nubbins and tender slices), greens, sliced scallion, bits of fried shallot, and white pepper.


While some diners delicately plucked pieces of pork from soup and dabbed them in chili/soy, I took the more direct route, transferring pork and greens to noodles and dumping the contents of the saucer on top, before digging in.


A brisk stir with my chopsticks broke the egg and the perfectly al dente noodles were bathed in yolk.  Slightly bitter greens played off the sweet dark soy.  I would have preferred a few more chilies, and could have had them for the asking -- but hunger won the day and my bowl was empty in a matter of seconds, barely more than a minute.  Pork broth, pleasantly lukewarm by now, served as a fitting follow-up to this fine bowl of breakfast noodles.

Mind-blowing?  Not exactly.  Utterly, deliciously satisfying?  You bet.  A return trip to this spot is most definately on our agenda.

Find the stall at New Lay Sin coffee shop, 250 Jalan Tun Sambanthan. (By monorail: get off at Sentral.  Upon exiting the station turn left and continue Tun Sambanthan 2 or 3 blocks.  The coffee shop is on your left.) Early morning to mid-afternoon.